Martin Bucer’s Pastoral Theology: A Review

 In the early years following the Reformation – specifically 1538 – Martin Bucer (Butzer) wrote Von der Waren Seelsorge (Concerning the True Care of Souls).  Since the Roman Catholic church had harmed, hindered, and hurt many souls, and since Reformed pastors didn’t have extensive examples of and training in pastoral theology, a book like this was needed.  So Bucer penned a simple, straightforward, and scriptural book that explained how pastors and elders are to care for Christ’s sheep.  The longer title is this: “Concerning the True Care of Souls and Genuine Pastoral Ministry, and How the Latter is to Be Ordered and Carried Out in the Church of Christ.”

The chapters of the book include the nature of the church, Christ’s rule over the church, the ministry of word and sacrament, elders and pastors in the church, the work of caring for souls, how lost sheep are to be found and restored to the fold, how hurt and weak sheep are to be strengthened, and how healthy sheep are to be guarded and fed.  The main text that Bucer draws upon is Ezekiel 34:16: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak….”

The major strength of this book is that is it straightforward and easy to read.  The chapters and sections are marked out well, and Bucer utilized many Bible verses to explain what pastoral care is according to Scripture.  He also refered to the church fathers quite frequently, which shows he was writing in the line of historic, orthodox Christianity.  The main point of the book is that Christ is Lord and Savior of his church, and he has selected certain men to be under-shepherds to care for and love his people in his name through Word, Sacrament, and discipleship/discipline.  In this book you will find discussions of preaching, evangelism, gifts, repentance, the Lord’s Supper, faith, godliness, and so forth.

As a side, it is worth noting that Bucer wrote in the era of Christendom – he was a theocrat who believed the Christian emperor should help the church in many ways.  He only discussed this in a few pages here and there, so it certainly doesn’t detract from the book.

The translation is a good one; the language is not archaic and for the most part the NIV is used.  The book would be a good one for pastor and elder training since it is clear, biblical, and just 218 pages.  I also believe this should be on the recommended reading list for seminary students (sem students: read this before you take your first pastoral call!).  And since this is a relatively new English translation, I’m sure there are quite a few pastors and elders out there who haven’t read it – you too need to get it!   I really can’t explain in one blog post how good, edifying, and biblical this book is.  It is definitely my #1 recommendation for pastoral theology.  In a time where many pastors and elders follow many trends and fads of the day, this book is a good one to keep the elder and pastor on the biblical track of loving Christ and his people in a simple, biblical way.

I’ll end with a quote from Bucer (found on page 193) which is sort of a summary of the book.

“May the Lord Jesus, our chief Shepherd and Bishop, grant us such elders and carers of souls as will seek his lambs which are still lost, bring back those which have wandered, heal those which are wounded, strengthen those which are sickly, and guard and feed in the right way those which are healthy, in the way we have described.  Those who are sheep and not goats will allow themselves to be brought by such carers of souls and ministers of Christ through the word of the Lord into Christ’s church and into his sheep-fold, and to be kept in it, healed, strengthened, guarded, and fed, in all things obeying and gladly following him.  For anyone who is born of God hears his word, and Christ’s sheep hear his word and follow him.”

Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls trans. Peter Beale (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009).  You can find an online snippet of this book here.

shane lems

sunnyside, wa

4 thoughts on “Martin Bucer’s Pastoral Theology: A Review”

  1. Interesting. I’ve been wanting to read something by Bucer. He appears to be a fascinating if somewhat neglected figure. He mentored Calvin in Strasbourg (toning down some of Calvin’s youthful intemperance). He worked tirelessly for unity among the Protestant churches and even nearly succeeded in reaching something of a union with Rome (before the talks broke down because the current pope had political points to score… unfortunate because it seems that certain middle level Roman clergy working with him were sincerely interested in reformation).

    I have to admit I amazed at how short the book is. Bucer’s contemporaries (especially Luther and Calvin) used to complain that he tended to be a tad longwinded in his writings! :)

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    1. Nevada:

      This is my first exposure to Bucer, though after reading this I certainly want to read more in the future. His “Common Places” has been translated into English, but the copies are rare and expensive as far as I can tell. Also, Bucer sure doesn’t seem like a mediator between Rome and the Reformation in this book – not at all! In this book, he sounds like the other Reformers. In fact, at one point Bucer wonders out loud: “Who knows less about the gospel than Rome?”

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. And get the book!

      shane

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  2. Hi Shane,
    I didn’t mean to imply that Bucer wasn’t reformed. My point was more that he was known for his irenicism. However, I do recall reading that some of the other reformers weren’t happy with his work at the Regensburg Colloquy and complained that he conceded too much to Rome. Glancing through Brian Lugioyo’s book it appears that he argues that Bucer did not necessarily abandon the reformed concept of justification by faith.

    At any rate, I find Bucer fascinating. The 16th century was not a time of charity towards one’s opponents, and I find it intriguing that when introduced to Cardinal Contarini at the Colloquy Bucer is reported to have said: “Both sides have failed. Some of us have overemphasized unimportant points, and others have not adequately reformed obvious abuses. With God’s will we shall ultimately find the truth.” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, 223) I think this says something important about the man’s character. In the end, the Colloquy came to nought, but I find it laudable that Bucer was even willing to enter into discussions with his opponents.

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    1. Got it, Nevada, good clarifications. I only know fragments about Bucer and the Colloquy – maybe someday I’ll dig into these topics a bit more. My response was colored by the movements today that pit the reformers against the reformation (i.e. “Calvin wasn’t a calvinist!” or “Luther taught theosis!”) – that’s all, no hard feelings. I always appreciate your comments!

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