Review – Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer

On the Edition

This Banner of Truth Trust edition includes a brief translator’s note, a short historical introduction by David Wright, the translation (about 200 pages) by Peter Beale, a brief appendix by Robert Stupperich on Bucer’s appeal to Chrysostom on clerical marriage, and another brief appendix containing what appears to be a Reformation-era address to be read upon the installation of Strasbourg’s church guardians.

On the whole, the edition is nicely composed. The cloth binding is strong without the pages being too stiff. It is quite easy on the eyes both inside and out. The font is slightly large and the publisher is quite generous in terms of space: between lines, between headings and paragraphs, offsetting block quotes, etc. The translation includes the page numbers both to the modern critical edition (its base text) and to the original 1538 printing. These are a bit intrusive visually but useful for scholars.

Wright’s introduction does a good job contextualizing the work amidst political pressures and competing agendas in Strasbourg. Because of its brevity (13 pages) it is light on analysis of the text; only the general concept of discipline is addressed at length. Given that this is the first English translation of a text from a lesser-known author, much more could be desired. I found the translation quite readable. What awkwardness exists is likely creditable to Bucer, not Beale.

The edition contains two serious flaws. Citations and allusions to ancient authors are not located and give in footnotes. This is such a basic component of a scholarly edition that it almost renders this edition unsuitable for use. Bucer rarely gives sufficient locating information, so the reader is truly left in the dark. Second, there is no index of any kind. At the very least, this edition should contain a register of proper names and a table of cited Scripture. Mistakes like this keep Banner of Truth Trust from being recognized as an academic publisher.

On the Work

Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls is his most comprehensive treatise on the church and one of the more comprehensive treatments to come out of the Reformation. His reforming ideas are important in their own right as well as for their influence on others, such as Calvin. His failure to implement his program fully in no way lessens his vision. The work was published in 1538, about in the middle of his quarter-century stay in Strasbourg. At the time, the city’s doctrinal loyalties, political structure, and foreign policy were all in flux. Thus, this treatise carefully negotiates the theoretical and the practical, what church government must be according to Scripture and what it can be in the circumstances of Strasbourg.

The treatise comprises 12 chapters, which may be broken into a few parts. First, the nature of the church and church government. Second, the definition, ordination, and function of ministers. Third, based on Ezekiel 34:16, the specific duties of ministers toward five different kinds of sheep: lost, stray, hurt, weak, and strong. Fourth, an exhortation to sheep to obey their ministers. Finally, there is a summary of the chapters.

What follows is a miscellany of topics that stood out to me.

Chapter Format / Use of Scripture: Each chapter has the same basic format: a collection of Scripture passages, a statement of theses derived from the passages, and an exposition. This format serves both Protestant and humanist purposes. Foregrounding Scripture and only Scripture makes a clear statement of the sufficiency and authority of the Bible, as opposed to the Catholics who add other authorities and the sectarians who (allegedly) disregard biblical authority in favor of personal inspiration. Deriving and expounding theses from biblical passages may be influenced by new forms of Lutheran doctrinal preaching (need to check that). It is strongly reminiscent of the humanist practice of loci communi (common places). Many humanists maintained a commonplace book, a topically-arranged collection of passages derived from their reading. The idea was to permit the humanist to write on any given theme by referencing, imitating, and expounding upon the common place. This locus method applied to the biblical text often resulted in seemingly compelling arguments, since the author framed the entire discussion around a set of carefully chosen texts.

If the purpose of Bucer’s format was to give the impression that Scripture was speaking for itself on his behalf, that impression needs to be qualified a few ways. First, as mentioned, he was ultimately responsible for the selection. Second, the Scripture passages rarely stand alone. Many of them are prefaced by one or more introductory sentences, occasionally longer than the texts they introduce, which draw conclusions beforehand or direct the reader to a particular feature Bucer wished to emphasize. So, the reader does not even encounter the Scripture outside of a pre-existing ideological frame. In one egregious example, Bucer smuggles in important assumptions in a paragraph preceding the Scripture references. Speaking of the kinds of ministers in the Church, he notes that miracle working ceased with the apostles and that the gift of apostleship, defined as the authority to carry the gospel to other lands, is rare today. No argument is made for either assertion. Furthermore, in some chapters Bucer’s exposition is tighter than in others. The more theoretical the chapter, the easier to stick to straightforward exegesis. The more concrete chapters stray far from any clear relationship to the details of his texts. Here can be seen the pressure of making the Bible, a series of occasional texts from various contexts, into a timeless, systematic guide to Church practice. Along the same lines, Bucer draws freely from Old Testament texts without any explanation of how or if they are to be modified for the Church’s use.

Appeal to Historical Authorities: Bucer wishes to maintain continuity with historical Church practices wherever possible. Indeeed, he explicitly recognizes that regarding “outward things,” the New Testament speaks little. Nevertheless, appeals to earlier authorities are mostly confined to examples of right behavior. Augustine made sure his congregation approved his choice of successor. Ambrose demanded public penance of Theodosius. Constantine refused to adjudicate petty quarrels among bishops, thereby (Bucer thinks) properly distinguishing spheres of authority. Some of his references are extremely vague both in intention and citation; Jerome somewhere says something that corresponds to the point Bucer is making. Even with this modest use of the fathers, some of his examples are contestible or downright wrong, such as his contention that Chrysostom agrees with him on the interpretation of “husband of one wife” (see Appendix 1). All these citations are occasional. Bucer makes no attempt either to form a comprehensive consensus of the fathers or to repristinate any particular form of church government known to post-apostolic history.

One particularly interesting feature is Bucer’s frequent recourse both to imperial and canon law. All the references I remember seeing were positive. A great portion of Bucer’s historical narrative seems to be that both rulers and medieval bishops created many worthwhile rules for church government, but then went on to ignore them. The impression one gets is of a slow corruption of the church over time as church leaders lost sight of their pastoral mission. The papacy itself receives surprisingly little censure as Bucer lays a good share of the blame on the Franks, who invested bishops with land, and Emperor Henry IV, who caved to the pope during the Investiture Controversy. (I find it amusing that Bucer extols Theodosius at length for submiting to penance imposed by Ambrose but is disdainful of Henry for a similar act.)

Justification of Reform: A vexing question for all the magisterial reformers was on what authority they went about implementing their reforms. Caught between the top-down hierarchy of the Roman Church and the thoroughgoing populism of the Anabaptists, and largely dependent on the goodwill of city officials for their reforms, they walked a razor’s edge in justifying overturning the existing ecclesiastical authorities while assuring their temporal lords that reforms would bolster the political status quo. Bucer awkwardly avoids issues of apostolic succession when he exposits passages involving Paul’s appointed representatives, Timothy and Titus, ordaining elders. The role of Timothy and Titus is diminished to one they certainly did not carry historically, the functional representatives of the congregation at large enacting the congregation’s will. Similarly, Bucer charges both congregations and rulers with ensuring that Christ’s ministers rule congregations, going so far as to say it is a duty to remove deficient ministers. He quickly adds that this is the duty of congregations, not individuals, such as the sectarians. But this elides the crucial question of how the boundaries of any individual church should be defined. It conceals that the composition and location of congregations during the Reformation was a matter of de facto political control. Certainly there were Anabaptist congregations in many rural areas, theoretically capable of refusing ministers, but reformed urban centers did not allow them that measure of autonomy. The final chapter of the treatise calls for absolute submission to church leaders. Since the church was backed by coercive political power, it is difficult to see how could take any real action against deficient leaders. The Reformation coup was not to be repeated.

Interpretation of Penance: For Bucer, church discipline includes many activities: teaching, encouraging, rebuking, restoring, praying, etc. Nevertheless, most of his space is devoted to excommunication and penance. Here Bucer is at his most creative, combining scriptural, historical, traditional, and logical arguments in hopes of arriving at a workable solution. Non-negotiable for him was that the Church must be able to bar gross sinners from communion, must impose penance on them before allowing them to return, and must do both the excommunication and the restoration publicly in the congregation.

In the course of his exposition, he acknowledges the objection that in the primitive church, congregations were tight-knit groups of religious outsiders with no connection to the government. Unfortunately, instead of reflecting on the contextual differences between his church and the earliest congregations, he dismisses the differences as immaterial. Bucer fully affirms the right of the civil power to punish people for gross sin, but he argues that the Church also needs to punish, since only the Church can also restore. This would seem to make people doubly vulnerable, but Bucer does not explore the implications; his standing vis-à-vis the authorities in Strasbourg likely prevented him.

The uniqueness of the Church’s discipline lies in the fact that it is restorative. Protestant theology teaches that all sins are forgiven by Christ, so expiation is not the issue. Penance is necessary for readmission to the sacrament for two reasons. First, penance will help the sinner be truly repentant. Bucer seems to believe that a measure of suffering is necessary for a person to truly turn from evil deeds. Second, a period of penance prevents the congregation from being tricked. A sinner admitted to the sacrament pollutes the congregation. Thus, it is best to wait and make sure the repentance is genuine.