Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 5

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin’s Friendship with Martin Bucer

Bucer was born into a German-speaking family of craftsmen in Alsace, and at 15 he entered a Dominican monastery. The Dominicans sent him to Heidelberg to pursue a doctorate, and there he came under the influence of Erasmus. Then, in April of 1518, he had an experience that made a profound impact on him. He was allowed to sit in on Luther’s famous Heidelberg Disputation, where for the first time he encountered Luther’s theology of the cross. The experience blew his Dominican doors off.

And after a personal meeting with the great man, Bucer became convinced that Luther’s teaching on grace was true. So in 1521, he left the Dominicans and promptly married a former nun, Elisabeth Silbereisen. After a few moves, the couple settled in Strasbourg, and when the town decided to embrace the Reformation, they chose Bucer and Wolfgang Capito to lead them.

In keeping with the anecdotal style of this lecture, it seems appropriate to mention the name of Bucer’s second wife, Wibrandis Rosenblatt. Have any of you heard of her? Her story’s pretty remarkable. When her first husband died, she married Johannes Oecolampadius, the great reformer of Basel. And when he died in 1531, she married Wolfgang Capito, whom I just mentioned was Bucer’s partner in the reform of Strasbourg. In 1541, an epidemic hit Strasbourg and claimed the lives of both her husband, Capito, and Elisabeth Silbereisen, Bucer’s wife. And so in their mutual grief, she and Bucer consoled one another by getting married. Which meant that after all was said and done, Wibrandis was wife to three of the most influential men in the Protestant Reformation: Oecolampadius, Capito, and Bucer – and in fact was mother to all of their children. Remarkable.

At any rate, back to Bucer. Throughout his life, he attempted to be a mediating figure, especially between the Reformed and Lutherans in their disputes about the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, Calvin thought Bucer was too conciliatory and diplomatic, and he criticized him for minimizing significant theological issues for the sake of unity. And in light of Calvin’s friendship with Farel, you won’t be surprised to learn that Calvin didn’t hesitate to voice these criticisms to Bucer.

He wrote a somewhat hot-headed letter to Bucer expressing his concerns in 1538. The year is important because 1538 is also the year that Bucer enthusiastically invited Calvin to join him in Strasbourg. And when you realize that Bucer extended this invitation just a few months after Calvin had reprimanded him, perhaps even somewhat unfairly, you can’t help but be impressed with his humility. And it was that sort of deep virtue that quickly captured Calvin’s heart.

Throughout his life, Calvin only referred to two people as his “fathers” in the Christian faith – Martin Luther and Martin Bucer. Which is interesting because the forms of their respective influences on him were quite different. Luther and Calvin never met one another face to face, nor did they exchange letters, so Luther impacted Calvin primarily through his writings. Calvin actually did write one letter to Luther, but Luther never received it because Phillip Melanchton – who promised to deliver it – never did, which is a shame. On the other hand, Bucer and Calvin were next-door neighbors for three years in Strasbourg and they spent time with one another daily.

If you think about the circumstances in which Calvin arrived in Strasbourg, it’s not hard to see why his heart was receptive to someone like Bucer. Because Calvin came to Strasbourg embarrassed about being exiled from Geneva, and uncertain about where God was leading him. In fact, his expulsion from Geneva had left him with very real doubts about his call to pastoral ministry. And as he was licking his wounds and trying to sort out his life, he found himself increasingly distrustful of his own feelings, which led him to long for wise counsel – or, as he put it, for “safe and prudent guides.” And that’s exactly what Bucer became for him.

More than anyone else, Bucer helped Calvin regain his focus and get back in the pastoral saddle. There’s even a humorous parallel between Bucer’s methods of persuasion and those of Farel before him. Just after leaving Geneva, when Calvin was in Basel trying to figure out his next step, he decided to revert to his original plan of becoming an independent scholar. But Bucer thought that was a bad plan, and instead decided that Calvin should join him in Strasbourg as pastor of a congregation of French refugees.

But when he floated the idea, Calvin declined his offer. And so being a clever man Bucer employed the tactic that had worked so well for Farel. He told Calvin that if, like Jonah, he refused to man his post in Strasbourg, God was going to curse his disobedience. And it worked! Calvin changed his mind and agreed to Bucer’s plan.

But that encounter isn’t indicative of Bucer’s normal way of relating to Calvin. Bucer knew how the fiasco in Geneva had chastened Calvin, and he also knew that Calvin had become acutely aware of his weaknesses as a pastor and public figure. And Bucer’s genius was to see that what Calvin needed was encouragement and, above all, a renewed vision for ministry. Which led him to take Calvin under his wing and become his mentor, especially his mentor in ministry.

It was from Bucer that Calvin learned to order the church according to the fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon. Bucer was the one who helped Calvin perceive the vital importance of church discipline, which Calvin eventually came to describe as “the sinews of the body of Christ.” And Bucer’s exegetical work and preaching also made a deep impression on Calvin. In a letter to Heinrich Bullinger, Calvin wrote this about Bucer’s skill as a biblical interpreter:
“There is no reason why you ought to be suspicious of Bucer. He is endowed with a singularly acute and remarkably clear judgment. In fact, there is no one who is more religiously desirous to keep within the simplicity of the Word of God, and less given to hunt after niceties of interpretation that are quite foreign to it.”
Bucer’s influence even extended into the very center of Calvin’s personal life, since he was the one who convinced Calvin that he ought to get married, something Calvin was initially hesitant to do. And so through everything Bucer was able to do for Calvin what all good fathers and mothers are able to do for their children: he understood Calvin better than Calvin understood himself, and because of that, he was able to counsel Calvin with great wisdom.

When Geneva eventually realized its mistake and invited Calvin to return, Calvin’s initial response was unmistakable: “I would rather submit to a hundred other deaths,” he wrote, “than to that cross on which one must perish daily a thousand times.” To Calvin, Geneva was “a great abyss” in which he expected to be “completely swallowed up.” The prospect of returning to Geneva terrified him, and at one point in his deliberations, he claimed that he would only return if he could bring Bucer with him. That didn’t end up happening. But I think it speaks volumes to how close Calvin and Bucer had become during what turned out to be three of the happiest years of Calvin’s life.

By 1541, their relationship had developed to the point where Calvin understood himself as subject to Bucer’s spiritual and paternal authority. In October of that year, just six weeks after returning to Geneva, he wrote this to Bucer:
“Until I confess to you that I can bear no more, do not doubt that I am performing faithfully what I promised you I would. And if in any way I do not live up to your expectation, you know that I am under your power, and subject to your authority. Admonish, chastise, and exercise over me all the powers of a father over his son.”
In the end, Bucer’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit, his Christocentric piety, his edifying exegesis and preaching, his affirmation of the doctrine of election, and his genius for church discipline and order, were all things Calvin whole-heartedly resonated with and which eventually became hallmarks of the Genevan Reformation. Willem van’t Spijker, one of the leading scholars of Calvin’s relationship with Bucer, summarizes their influence on one another like this:
“Calvinism owes its most characteristic features to Bucer. But Bucer owes it to Calvin that his most essential ideas received their further elaboration, which he had never been able to provide himself.”
And that, of course, is what good friends do for one another; they spur one another on and compensate for each other’s weaknesses, which enables them to be more than twice as strong together as they would be alone.

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