2. Martin Bucer and Strasbourg

Martin Bucer and Strasbourg belong to the “History of the Reformed Church” only in certain respects. For the so-called Upper German Reformation actually embodies an independent type besides the Lutheran and Reformed.

Martin Bucer
Boissard, Jean-Jacques; Bry, Theodor de: Bibliotheca chalcographica, hoc est Virtute et eruditione clarorum Virorum Imagines. Heidelberg: Clemens Ammon, 1669. Partes 1-5: 1669, S. 35

Martin Bucer (actually Butzer) was born on Nov. 11, 1491 in Schlettstadt (Alsace). 15 years old, he became a Dominican novice, studied theology in Heidelberg, left the monastery in1521 and became first a priest. Far-reaching for Bucer was his participation in Luther’s Heidelberg disputation in 1518. Since then, Bucer’s theology was shot through with the message of justification. In the years of 1521 to 1523, Bucer entered the company of Franz von Sickingen, a knight inclined to humanism, became a pastor in Landstuhl and Weissenburg, married the former nun Elisabeth Silbereisen and was excommunicated by the Bishop of Speyer in 1523 on account of the marriage and Reformation preaching. He moved to his hometown Strasbourg and was chosen to be a pastor there in 1524. He pushed ahead in unmistakable steps the Reformation that had already been introduced there (among those who worked there was Wolfgang Capito). In this way he developed his own theological character, which in the same measure both joined him to Luther and separated him from him. The basic trends of the doctrine of justification are especially present in Bucer: the human cannot redeem himself – he is a sinner through and through. However, (and here Bucer makes other emphases than Luther) this does not mean that the believing human being, who knows that God’s grace alone saves him, is permitted to sit back and do nothing. Rather, the Spirit of God qualifies believers for the service of neighbour – and leads them to various reforms in the church and society. Only a few years after the beginning of his activity, at the beginning of the thirties, Bucer was already considered the most important Reformer of the Southern German towns. He became the adviser of Philip of Hesse, one of the regional rulers to be numbered among the forerunners of the Reformation in Germany. Bucer was principally interested in the uniting of the various Protestant camps. He worked intensively (and ultimately without success) on an agreement in the understanding of the Lord’s Supper between the reformers of Wittenberg and of Zurich (to whom he stood somewhat nearer). Luther did not accept Bucer’s in-between position. And further, after Bucer’s death, Zurich rejected his efforts towards unification. Luther ultimately succeeded in moving Wittenberg and the Protestant Southern German territories (which were threatened by isolation) towards a (more formal) agreement in respect of the Lord’s Supper (Agreement of Wittenberg in 1536). The result was that the Southern territories in the majority turned towards Lutheranism.
Throughout his endeavours towards an inner Protestant consensus, Bucer was also engaged as a prominent figure in the so-called religious colloquies in Hagenau, Worms and Regensburg (1540/41), which had the goal of a unification of, or at least an agreement between, the Protestant and Catholic churches. These colloquies failed however. Meanwhile, Bucer continued his activity of reform in Strasbourg – and for some in Strasbourg he went too far. In 1548 Bucer had to leave Strasbourg and went to England, where he sought from Cambridge (where he did his doctorate of theology) to foster the Reformation in England. He never felt at home in England however, and died in 1551. His bones were burnt in 1557 in the context of the temporary re-Catholicisation under Queen Mary in the market square of Cambridge. Three years later, however, Bucer was ceremoniously rehabilitated by Queen Elizabeth I. Two years later, a co-worker of Bucer for many years, Conrad Hubert, wrote about Bucer, “… among the faithful servants of Christ … he was in no way the least.” Bucer’s untiring dedication to the achievement of an agreement between the various camps and his ceaseless activity had effects which lasted long after his death. Bucer’s theological significance was discovered anew in the 20th Century.