Martin Bucer: Carer of Souls (Part 1)

When ministerial candidates are examined for licensure and ordination in the Nashville Presbytery, it is a given that they will need to produce a robust articulation of the life and theology of the Martin of the Reformation (that often ostentatious Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. 1483-1546). We would like for them to give an overview of his life, relate the impact of Medieval thought on his own spiritual formation and theological program, explain why his Heidelberg Disputation (1518) is so substantively important, even compared to his 95 Theses (1517), discuss a handful of his salient writings, and, of course, be able to explain his theologia crucis juxtaposed to his theologia gloriae.

However, if an ordinand really wants to go the extra mile, he could acknowledge that there were other Martins.  For instance, there is the Alter Martinus, or “Other/Second Martin” of the Reformation period, Martin Chemnitz (1522-86), who so ably systematized and developed Lutheran theology.  Taught by Luther and Melanchthon, and ordained by Johannes Bugenhagen, this other Martin was of pure Lutheran stock.  It is hard to overestimate the importance of Chemitz for the sustaining and flowering of Post-Reformation Lutheran theology.

John Calvin (1509-64) was not without a Martin of his own.  Though not, perhaps, as well known and esteemed in Reformed circles, as Chemnitz is among Lutherans, this Martin played a crucial role in Calvin’s articulation of the doctrine of predestination.  His first book, Das ym selbs niemant sonder anderen leben soll, und wie der mensch dahyn kommen mög (“That no one should live for himself, but rather for his neighbor, and how men are able to come to this” – imagine a publisher’s marketing rollout for a title, like that!) is an early example of how the Reformers viewed the cosmic scope of Christ’s redemptive work and restoration of the created order and its implications for how we are to live for the good of others in Christian love.  Bucer’s influence and organizational churchmanship across European Reformational streams is remarkable, when you consider his vast network of luminaries, such as Zwingli, Melanchthon, Cranmer, Vermigli, and the like.

So much can and should be said about Bucer. But, for now, I want to commend to the readers his wonderful little pastoral theology manual, Von der waren Seelsorge (Concerning the True Care of Souls). And, I love that word, Seelsorger – “carer of souls.” We need pastoral manuals--books of pastoral theology and practice--that help us put the T (i.e. Theology) into the PT (i.e. Pastoral Theology).This has long been a part of the Christian tradition, as theologians, following the lead of Paul to Timothy and Titus, crafted epistles and manuals on pastoral practice. There is Gregory Nazianzen’s (c. 329-389/90) Second Oration, wherein (2.16) we find pastoral care described as “the art of arts” and the pastor as “physician of souls. This pastoral treatise and its idea of the pastor as “physician of souls,” proved influential on John Chrysostom’s (c. 347-407) On the Priesthood and Gregory the Great’s (540-604) The Pastoral Rule. We dare not fail to mention Richard Baxter’s (1615-91) The Reformed Pastor, Samuel Miller's (1769-1850) "Letter's on Clerical Manners" Charles Bridges' (1794-1869) The Christian Ministry, or Thomas Murphy’s (1823-1900) Pastoral Theology. In its own way, John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals stands in this train. This list could certainly go on; and without doubt, I have missed a favorite pastoral manual of yours in this all-too-brief survey.

Consistent with his theology of Christian love expressed all the way back in Das ym selbs, Bucer crafts his manual on curing souls around the notion of the sheep caring for one another, under the guidance of shepherds. Then, in beautiful form, he lays out the five main tasks to which carers of souls should give themselves. The first two are as follows:

First: to lead to Christ our Lord and into his communion those who are still estranged from him, whether through carnal excess or false worship

In other words, pastors are to seek and find all the lost. He is careful to identify the lost sheep as the elect, who are yet strangers to the Church. It is as if Bucer calls upon ministers to be the manifestation of Jesus’ voice bringing in his “other sheep” (Jn 10:16), diligently seeking his lambs, “as long as people are still people…” And, to show how earnest Bucer is about getting Christ’s lost lambs into the sheepfold, “so that they commit themselves entirely to Christ’s care and pasture,” he reminds us of the things available to promote the salvation of the sheep, “…doctrine, exhortation, warning, correction, discipline, comfort, both in general and in particular, through the word and the holy sacraments, holy assemblies, common prayer, thanksgiving, and caring for the poor.”  I think it goes without saying that the flock needs to see their shepherds reaching out for lost sheep, who would be their brother and sister lambs.

Secondly: to restore those who had once been brought to Christ and into his church but have been drawn away again through the affairs of the flesh or false doctrine.

Simply stated, we are to bring back those that are scattered. These are the “straying and outcasts from the flock of Christ, who nonetheless are truly Christ’s and retain Christ in their hearts.” Just as Jesus (Lk 15:4-6) leaves the ninety and nine to bring back the one wandering lamb upon his shoulders, so we, says Bucer, must “become and do everything for these stray sheep, and bear, avoid or suffer everything from them and for their sakes, until we have placed them back again in the true and complete communion of the church, to be pastured and sheltered by Christ in the church.” Just as Paul was the pains of childbirth until Christ be formed in the Galatian Christians (Gal 4:19-20), so we must let ourselves feel “earnestness, enthusiasm, anxiety, distress and labour” necessary to bring them back.  While this is especially needed of the pastor, Bucer says that all Christians bear this responsibility for the straying sheep.  I think it is especially instructive that Bucer notes the scattering effect of false doctrine and false teachers. This is what wolves do. Whenever I think of this second task of pastoral care, I can’t help but be reminded of Bucer’s friend, Calvin, commenting on Titus 1:9, “The pastor ought to have two voices: one for gathering the sheep; and another for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means of doing both; for he who is deeply skilled in it will be able both to govern those are teachable, and to refute the enemies of the truth.” The flesh, the fallout of the fall, also lures our sheep away and sends them straying. All of this is why Paul warned Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.  Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1Ti 4:16).  Can we do this?  Oh, yes!  By grace.  As Charles Spurgeon confidently said in his Lectures to My Students, quoting the holy Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”

In these first two points, Bucer is just getting started, and so are we. There are three more primary tasks of Soul Care. Let’s finish up in my next post. For now, perhaps, these two are enough to say grace over.  Perhaps, we who are Seelsorgers, could ask for the grace of μέριμνα (merimna) – Paul’s anxiety for the churches, which care burned in his bosom more hotly than the pain of innumerable sufferings he endured for the sake of the gospel (2Co 11:21-29). Are we willing to burn, to feel merimna for our people, the elect sheep, yet to realize they are lost, and the straying sheep, who just need to come back home?