Skip to main content

Martin Bucer: Mediator between Wittenberg and Zurich by Marc Patzwald (epd)

From Sélestat to Strasbourg (both in Alsace) via Heidelberg: Martin Bucer (1491-1551) aimed for a dialogue between the reformers. At the same time he often changed his positions – much to the displeasure of the participants. Martin Luther once said that he could not be trusted.

Bucer was born on the 11th of November in Sélestat in Alsace which then had about 4000 inhabitants. He probably attends the local Latin school and and entered the Dominican monastery. He makes his monks’ vows, studies philosophy, becomes a priest and studies theology in Heidelberg. There he makes the acquaintance of Martin Luther (1483-1546) in 1518 – a decisive event in his life. He leaves the convent, gives up his monk’s vows in 1521, lives in different places, marries a former nun and is excommunicated by the bishop of Speyer.

Diffusing the Reformation from Strasbourg

In 1523 he moves to Strasbourg, where he is employed as a priest by the city for almost 25 years. From there he promotes the Reformation and the unity of the Protestants, particularly during the Dispute over the Eucharist – in his opinion a completely pointless dispute. Because for him the fundamental common ground is more important than supposedly smaller disagreements.

On the one hand the Wittenbergers behind Luther, and on the other the Swiss around Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) – and Bucer in between. Luther’s supporters campaigned for a carnal presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, the Swiss for a spiritual presence. Bucer is convinced that body and blood of Christ are not physically present in the bread and wine.

He experiences again and again that this dispute is not trivial. At one occasion, the reformer from Strasbourg adds some annotations to Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper, which angers the reformer from Wittenberg. At another occasion the Swiss consider him to be too close to Luther's position. Martin Luther even says that Bucer cannot be trusted.

For instance in May 1536 during a conference in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, “the atmosphere was frosty”, explains church historian Greschat. “Luther immediately attacked the guests, explicitly also including Bucer”. In the meantime the subject-matter was the question whether ungodlies could, like the faithfuls, receive the Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Bucer’s previous compromise proposal – to distinguish between unworthy and godless – should offer a solution. “It had to be ensured, that the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper doesn't depend of the faith and the worthiness of man”, emphasizes Greschat. An agreement without the Swiss.

Inventor of the confirmation

But Bucer also vacillates. One time he is completely against the pope, at another time he can imagine that under certain circumstances he could continue to exist. In order to spread his theses, he writes dialogues between persons with different positions. Most of the time, those who represent his ideas have the best arguments and win.

Bucer is also considered to be the inventor of the confirmation, which he introduces in 1539 in Ziegenhain, a small town of Hesse. The popular Protestant family celebration arose as a compromise in the dispute over the infant baptism. The latter remained, but young people should, after an appropriate education confirm by themselves that they want to be members of the community.

After the religious discussions failed to produce a result and emperor Charles V. defeated the Protestants in the Schmalkaldic War, Bucer also lost his support in Strasbourg. He emigrates to England and teaches in Cambridge. There he promotes the reform of the church and the society. But the country, the food and the way of life are foreign to him. “I am in exile, in my age, far away from my home country, chased away by my beloved church, my school and my town”, he is said to have written in 1549 to John Calvin (1509-1564). Bucer dies in the night of the 1st of March 1551, probably of a serious tuberculosis, at the age of 59.