[K:JNWTS 20/1 (May 2005) 53-63]

Martin Bucer: A Review1

N. Scott Amos

Time was when the name of Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was invariably linked with phrases like "the forgotten Reformer" or "the neglected Reformer", and when he was taken notice of, Bucer more often than not was mentioned in one of two contexts—the influence he is thought to have exerted on John Calvin during the latter's sojourn in Strasbourg between 1538 and 1541, or the role he played in the English Reformation between 1549 and 1551 (particularly with reference to the revision of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer). Increasingly, those days are past, but it is nonetheless remarkable that prior to the appearance of the book under review one has to go back to Hastings Eells's work of 19312 to find a full biography of the Alsatian Reformer in any language. If for no other reason, Greschat's biography, first published in German in 1990 and now made available in an English translation, is a notable achievement. Indeed, while there has been a burgeoning of scholarship on Bucer since the middle of the last century, most of it continues to be in either German or French, so the appearance of Greschat's work in English is doubly welcome.

It would be vain to argue that Bucer stood in the first rank of Reformers, alongside of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli—or even on a par with Melanchthon, the Lutheran Reformer who is temperamentally the closest to Bucer. He was not the originator of a major theological tradition as were the first three mentioned, nor was he the shaper of a tradition or the author of an enduring expression of one, as was Melanchthon (specifically, the Augsburg Confession). Nevertheless, Bucer is deserving of much more attention than has been paid to him by historians fixated on the leading Reformers, in part because Bucer turns up in so many contexts in the tumultuous decades of the first fifty years of the Reformation. Perhaps more than any other Reformer apart from Calvin, Bucer was a European Reformer, one whose influence extended beyond his native Alsace or even the Holy Roman Empire, the locus of most of his activity. Greschat's biography admirably sets forth Bucer's importance in these terms, and in his study we see how the many streams that made up the broader Reformation of the sixteenth century came to influence and then flow forth from one who had a wider influence than is ordinarily accorded to him.


Although Greschat does not formally structure his study in this fashion, we can see from his narrative that Bucer's career divided into three chronologically unequal phases. In chapters 1 through 3 (covering the years down to ca. 1529), the groundwork for his career is laid, and in this we can observe the manner in which numerous streams flowed into the thought of Bucer—Alsatian humanism (which includes the biblical humanism of Erasmus of Rotterdam), late medieval scholasticism (particularly that found in the Dominican context in which Thomas Aquinas was dominant), and the thought of Martin Luther. One of the strengths of Greschat's study is the manner in which he clearly sets forth the eclectic nature of Bucer's intellectual development, and the tensions this embodied. Impelled by the influence of the last named, Bucer openly embraced the cause of the emergent Reformation, and by 1523 arrived in Strasbourg as a religious refugee. Although he was excommunicate as a renegade priest (and a married one, at that), within a few years Bucer became one of the leaders of Reform in Strasbourg, along with Wolfgang Capito and Matthäus Zell. Greschat describes the complexity of the unfolding Reformation in Strasbourg, and the role Bucer played as organizer, preacher, and biblical expositor. Part of this complexity was owing to the politics of an Imperial city, and part of it was due to the religious cross-currents that flowed within the city. We see in this study the manner in which Bucer and the other Reformers struggled not only with the Catholic bishop (who was not resident in the city), but also with the constant influx of Anabaptists and Spiritualists in all their variety. Although Bucer's life was still largely focused on his adoptive city of Strasbourg through the 1520s, Greschat's narrative shows us that the seeds of his later role as a European Reformer were sown in these years. This is partly through the medium of publication (notably his biblical commentaries, which began to appear in print from 1527), and particularly through his involvement in the disputes concerning the Lord's Supper. Indeed, one of the most controversial aspects of Bucer's reputation would be centered in this latter issue. Bucer began as a Lutheran in his understanding of the matter, but came to strongly support the stance of Ulrich Zwingli (to whom he was close for much of the 1520s), only to move back in the direction of Luther (after 1529).

The heart of Bucer's career (from 1529 to 1545) is also the most substantial portion of Greschat's biography, and is covered in chapters 4 through 6. If there is an overarching theme to these years, it is the search for unity. Probably more than anything else, Bucer is known as a voice for rapprochement in the Reformation, and a rapprochement that had two aspects. While we should not lose sight of the fact, as Greschat makes clear in these chapters, that another aspect of Bucer's career in these years is that of an organizer of Reformation not only in Strasbourg, but also elsewhere (Ulm in 1531, Augsburg between 1534-1537, Hesse from 1538 to 1539, and Cologne in 1543), Bucer's most significant efforts were focused on composing the differences between the Lutherans and the Zurichers over the matter of the Lord's Supper (the first aspect mentioned above), and then his work in the various colloquies between Protestant and Catholic intended to secure a religious peace within the German Empire. In respect of the first effort, the subject of chapter 5, Bucer was only partially successful, for in the process he earned the lasting enmity of his erstwhile allies, the Swiss, owing to Bucer's movement back towards a more Lutheran stance (though it is not fair, as some aver, that Bucer returned to a Lutheran stance full stop). Nevertheless, Bucer was able to reconcile the Lutherans and many of the southwest German cities, an achievement that made possible the creation of the Schmalkaldic League, a defensive association of Protestant cities and states to preserve the Reformation from the threats of the German Emperor, Charles V.

The second aspect of Bucer's efforts at rapprochement, and which dominated his life from the mid-1530s to the mid-1540s was aimed at securing a religious peace within the German Empire, and here he was no less controversial and in the end, to his chagrin, less successful. In chapter 6 Greschat shows us how, his later relative obscurity in the historiography of the Reformation notwithstanding, Bucer rose to the status of an ecclesiastical statesman in these years, and had a European reputation. He represented the Protestant side in colloquies at Leipzig (1539), Hagenau (1540), Worms (1540), and Regensburg (1541). Although he had the backing of a number of Reformers (he worked in cooperation with Philip Melanchthon, among others, and John Calvin accompanied him to Regensburg), and of leaders of the Schmalkaldic League (notably Jacob Sturm of Strasbourg and Philip of Hesse), Bucer was suspected by others of verbal gymnastics or worse in his efforts to reach common ground with the Catholic theologians he faced in these colloquies. It is in this context that Greschat points up what he perceives to be one of the central features of Bucer as a theologian—the emphasis on dialogue, or the dialogic character of his theology (more on this presently). Although the collocutors came close to success (of a sort) at Regensburg, agreeing on the doctrine of justification, the effort was in vain and collapsed when no similar agreement could be achieved on the matter of the Eucharist. Yet Bucer forged on in the cause of religious peace, and the final stage of his role as both an ecclesiastical organizer and seeker of religious concord within the German Empire was the ill-fated effort at Cologne in 1542-3, which came tantalizingly close to success only to fail owing to external political factors.

For all Bucer's activity on the wider European stage, Greschat also draws attention to his continued work at Strasbourg, and his persistence in the face of mounting resistance to a fuller Reformation (especially seen in chapter 7). It was in these years that Bucer's increasingly pronounced emphasis on the role of discipline in the Christian life became evident; indeed, for him it became one of the identifying marks of the true Church. Foiled in his attempts to institute his ideas regarding discipline in the city as a whole, Bucer looked to the establishment of christlichen Gemeinschaften ("Christian fellowships") as the way forward. These gathered congregations within the Strasbourg Church were intended to serve as examples of what could be achieved, and thus become the nucleus for a later, wider institution of discipline within Strasbourg. Instead, they served only to raise even further tensions in the city between Bucer and the magistrates. These tensions, combined with the defeat of the Schmalkaldic League by the Emperor in 1547 and the subsequent imposition of the Interim Agreement which Bucer strenuously opposed, led to his expulsion from Strasbourg in April 1549 and the end of his career on the Continent.

The final phase of Bucer's career was also the shortest—his exile in England, which lasted from April 1549 to his death on 28 February/1 March 1551, a phase which is the subject of chapter 8 in Greschat's biography. Bucer's relationship with England, and in particular with Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, had long antedated his arrival, beginning in 1531 and the canvassing of Continental Reformers by the English of opinion on the propriety of Henry VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Cranmer had been urging Bucer to come to England since 1547, and Bucer's changed circumstances led him to accept the invitation. Bucer came to England as the Continental Reformer with perhaps the widest experience in advising and implementing reform, and he no doubt expected to be put to use in that capacity. However, he found the advancement of the cause of Reform to be as difficult in England as it had been on the Continent, and he exercised probably his greatest personal influence in these years not in Cranmer's immediate circle, but as Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, where he composed what has often been regarded as his magnum opus, the treatise De Regno Christi (On the Kingdom of Christ). This work was written for the young King, Edward VI, but not published until 1557 and on the Continent. His lasting legacy to English Reform may well have been his part in the revision of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, on which he was consulted, and for which he produced the Censura, which proved to be the only substantial evidence on the process of revision that we have (and which may lead one to overestimate Bucer's importance for the 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer).


Greschat's biography is quite readable, and the translator is to be commended for his work in rendering the German original into clear English. As indicated above, Greschat does an admirable job of setting Bucer within the wider context of his time, demonstrating the extent (at times, amazing) to which Bucer was involved in the broad sweep of the Reformation. Although the book was originally published nearly fifteen years ago, it remains fresh in its depiction of Bucer, in part because Greschat has included a supplementary chapter in which he reviews much of the major work on Bucer produced in the years since the first appearance of his biography. At the same time, he also interacts with such work as has challenged or modified his own earlier assessments of Bucer.

Yet the work is not without points on which it can be criticized. The chapter on Bucer's development as a budding Reformer demonstrates the extent to which he was influenced by biblical humanism, and yet the tensions between biblical humanism and late medieval scholastic method tend to be glossed over. Here an interaction with the work of Charles Nauert, as well as Erika Rummel,3 could have added nuance to this discussion, with their attention to the sometimes fierce debate between biblical humanists and scholastics over the question of method in the handling of the Bible. This is especially regrettable in view of the fact that some of the most important of Bucer's published work consisted of commentaries on the Bible, and that all of his teaching while in Strasbourg and subsequently in England was focused on the exposition of the Bible—and in both instances, the method he followed was that of biblical humanism.4 While it cannot be denied that his training as a Dominican clearly had an impact upon his intellectual development, and informed to an extent the content of his thinking and some of his terminology, Bucer was self-consciously in the mold of biblical humanism in matters of method and aim in theology and exegesis.

By the same token, the emphasis on the "dialogic" character of Bucer's thought, particularly as it is seen by Greschat to be manifested in the 1530s and early 1540s, also tends to smooth over the stark tensions that obtained between Bucer and his Catholic collocutors. Greschat builds his case in part upon such factors as Bucer's favorable citation of Thomas Aquinas, and his recourse to demonstrating the extent of agreement between Catholic and Protestant, both of which have resonances with Greschat's earlier argument about Bucer's own educational background. There is no gainsaying that dialogue was a central element of Bucer's labors in these central decades of his career, not only in the context of Catholic/Protestant discussions, but in discussions between Lutherans and Reformed as well. Yet two points should be made in respect of this aspect of Bucer's career. First, it is too easy to lose sight of Bucer's absolute commitment to the Bible, and in particular to the preaching of the Word, in the midst of all this ecumenical dialogue with Catholic theologians. Bucer saw in the colloquies the chance to carry the advance of Protestantism into territories hitherto closed to Reform provided that the Evangelicals were prepared to make what he viewed as temporary concessions in the service of the long-term goal. He was aware of the pitfalls of drawing too close to the opposing side (not the least of which would be the hostility and suspicion of his own side), and that such a tactic might result in a stagnation of the Reformation. But, as he wrote to Philip of Hesse, he was confident that if room was made throughout the Empire for an open debate on the Reformation and for the free preaching of the Word, "the power of the Lord through His holy Word will certainly effect and do such things, for which we shall have to thank Him." It is unfortunate that while Greschat refers to this letter,5 he does not emphasize the full implications this has for our understanding of Bucer's motives in engaging in the colloquies, and in particular Bucer's confidence that the preaching of the Word would ultimately lead to the success of the Reformation in all areas of Europe as more and more people came to hear the Gospel and accept it. Furthermore, there is here perhaps a tendency to see Bucer as a modern ecumenist before his time. While it is certainly true that he could be quite conciliatory towards his Catholic opponents (as seen in the colloquies mentioned above), if one looks to the decade previous to the colloquies and to the years after their collapse, one can see that Bucer could be quite sharp and even harsh in his references to and condemnation of the "Old Church".

Second, for all that is positive about Bucer's efforts to reach concord, perhaps more weight could have been accorded to Bucer's critics in this narrative, and to their deep reservations about the enterprise in which he was engaged. From a modern, ecumenical perspective, there is much to be said in praise of what Bucer was about in these years, and thus a corresponding lack of sympathy for those who did not follow him in the paths he chose to walk. But we must reckon with the fact that the disputes were much more than differences over words, which all too often Bucer seemed to believe (especially in the case of the Lord's Supper controversy between Lutheran and Swiss). There were fundamental differences at stake which no formula, however carefully or ambiguously crafted, could paper over. Bucer was (and is) rightly criticized for the extent to which he was willing to devise the verbal equivalent of prestidigitation in his effort to reconcile the irreconcilable, and we do not do justice to Bucer's critics in the sixteenth century if we fail fully to acknowledge this, his pragmatic motives and long-term aims notwithstanding.

Concluding Remarks

In terms of presentation, the book is for the most part well done. Much more in the way of illustrations would have been welcome, though the (only) one given on p. 226 demonstrates why many scholars have avoided working on Bucer. His handwriting was notoriously bad (as this illustration makes all too evident), and has long proved to be a major obstacle to historians.6 The maps at the end are helpful; however, one of the German Empire as a whole, including Switzerland, would have been all the more useful. If the reviewer may be permitted to air a grievance about a trend increasingly seen in academic publishing, and which regrettably is manifested in Greschat's biography (through no fault of his own), the recourse to endnotes as opposed to footnotes is lamentable. It would have enhanced the value of this work to no small degree to have had the bibliographic information embedded in the body of the text rather than appended to the end. The reader is forever holding a finger in the back of the book as he or she reads the narrative, which is inconvenient, to say the least.

Greschat's biography will undoubtedly remain the standard reference for the life of Bucer for some time. He demonstrates a comprehensive grasp of the man and his era, particularly with respect to the broader social and political setting, and is thus the starting point for any further investigations of a Reformer who is deserving of closer examination.

Bibliographic Note—Suggestions for Further Reading

Backus, Irena. 'The Chronology of John 5-7: Martin Bucer's Commentary (1528-36) and the Exegetical Tradition.' In Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: Essays Presented to David C. Steinmetz in Honor of His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson, pp. 141-155. Eerdmans, 1996.

_____. 'Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer and the Church Fathers.' In The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West: From the Carolingians to the Maurists, 2 vols., ed. Irena Backus, pp. 627-660. Leiden, 1997.

Bucer, Martin. Common Places of Martin Bucer, ed. and trans. by D. F. Wright. Appleford, 1972.

_____. 'De Regno Christi.' In Melanchthon and Bucer, ed. Wilhelm Pauck, 155-394. Philadelphia, 1969.

Burnett, Amy Nelson. The Yoke of Christ: Martin Bucer and Christian Discipline. Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, 26, 1994.

Chrisman, Miriam Usher. Strasbourg and the Reform: A Study in the Process of Change. New Haven and London, 1967.

Hobbs, R. Gerald. 'How Firm a Foundation: Martin Bucer's Historical Exegesis of the Psalms.' Church History 53 (1984): 477-91.

Hopf, Constantin. Martin Bucer and the English Reformation. Oxford, 1948.

Koch, Karl. Studium Pietas: Martin Bucer als Ethiker. Neukirchen, 1962.

Köhn, Mechtild. Martin Bucers Entwurf einer Reformation des Erzstiftes Köln. Witten, 1966.

Krieger, Christian and Marc Lienhard, eds. Martin Bucer and Sixteenth Century Europe: Actes du Colloque de Strasbourg (28-31 Août 1991). 2 Vols. Leiden, 1993.

de Kroon, Marijn, and Friedhelm Krüger, eds. Bucer und Seine Zeit: Forschungsbeiträge und Bibliographie. Wiesbaden, 1976.

Krüger, Friedhelm. 'Bucer and Erasmus.' The Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1994): 11-23.

_____. Bucer und Erasmus: Eine Untersuchung zum Einfluss des Erasmus auf die Theologie Martin Bucers (bis zum Evangelien-Kommentar von 1530). Wiesbaden, 1970.

Leijssen, Lambert. 'Martin Bucer und Thomas von Aquin.' Ephemerides Theologicae Louvanienses 55 (1979): 266-96.

Reventlow, Henning Graf. The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, trans. John Bowden; intro. James Barr. Philadelphia, 1985, pp. 73-87.

Seebass, Gottfried. 'Bucer-Forschung seit dem Jubiläumsjahr 1991.' Theologisches Rundschau 62/3 (1997): 271-300.

_____. Bucer-Bibligraphie/Bibliographie Bucer, 1975-1998. Vorwort von Gottfried Seebass. Préface de Matthieu Arnold. Travaux de la Faculté de Théologie Protestante de Strasbourg 9. Strasbourg, 1999.

Selderhuis, H. J. Marriage and Divorce in the Thought of Martin Bucer, trans. John Vriend and Lyle D. Bierma. Kirksville, MO, 1999.

Stephens, W. P. The Holy Spirit in the Theology of Martin Bucer. Cambridge, 1970.

Strohl, Henri. Bucer, humaniste chrétien. Paris, 1939.

Stupperich, Robert. 'Bucer, Martin (1491-1551).' Theologische Realenzyklopädie 7: 258-270.

Thompson, Nicholas. Eucharistic Sacrifice and Patristic Tradition in the Theology of Martin Bucer, 1534-1546. Leiden, 2005.

Torrance, Thomas F. Kingdom and Church: A Study in the Theology of the Reformation. Fair Lawn, NJ, 1956.

Van't Spijker, Willem. The Ecclesiastical Offices in the Thought of Martin Bucer, trans. John Vriend (text) and Lyle D. Bierma (notes). Leiden, 1996.

Vogt, Herbert. 'Martin Bucer und die Kirche von England.' Dissertation, Münster, 1968.

Wendel, François. 'Introduction,' Martini Buceri Opera Latina XV: De Regno Christi, ed. F. Wendel, ix-liv. Paris, 1955.

Wright, David F. 'Bucer, Martin.' In Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald McKim, 157-164. Leicester, 1998.

_____, ed. Martin Bucer: Reforming church and community. Cambridge, 1994.

Center for Christian Study

Charlottesville, Virginia


1 Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times, translated by Stephen E. Buckwalter. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Xii, 334 pp. Paper. ISBN 0-664-22690-6. $34.95.

2 Hastings Eells, Martin Bucer (New Haven, 1931).

3 Erika Rummel, The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge, MA, 1994); Charles G. Nauert, Jr, Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (Cambridge, 1995); and Charles G. Nauert, Jr, 'Humanism as Method: Roots of the Conflict with the Scholastics,' Sixteenth Century Journal 29/2 (1998): 427-438. These works were published after the German edition of Greschat's work, but could have been included in the bibliography and in the footnotes of the English translation. Further, Nauert did publish an earlier essay that raised many of the same issues: "The Clash of Humanists and Scholastics: An Approach to Pre-Reformation Controversies," Sixteenth Century Journal 4/1 (1973): 1-18.

4 In this connection, while Greschat does give space to a consideration of Bucer as an exegete, more could and perhaps should have been said, given Bucer's importance in his own time as a commentator on the Bible. A good deal of work has been done of late on the Reformers and their use of and interpretation of the Bible (one thinks in particular of the work of David Steinmetz and his several students), and more attention to this aspect of Bucer's career would have been welcome.

5Quoted on p. 174.

6 His turgid verbosity of style in both Latin and German have also proved problematic for many.