Martin Bucer - The Reformation’s Referee, by Kaitlyn Centini: #Refo500atDET

Martin Bucer was the referee of the Protestant Reformation. He worked to solve conflicts between figures like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Philipp Melanchthon, and John Calvin. Bucer was born on November 11, 1491 in Schlettstadt, Alsace, and died in England on February 28, 1551. That means he not only lived through the dawn of the Reformation, but—unlike Luther—he also lived to see the Reformation’s darkest hour during the Interim(s), but not the decisive Peace of Augsburg in 1555.

[Public domain; {{PD-US}}],
via Wikimedia Commons
During the 59 years and more of his life, Bucer played a crucial role in Lutheran as well as Reformed Christian thought. He entered the Dominican order in Heidelberg, Germany in 1506, which is where he first encountered reforming ideas from Erasmus, Luther, and other thinkers. These influences lead Bucer to his own questions and criticisms of the Roman church, sparking development of his own ideas. Then Bucer’s ideas influenced both the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions as he tried to serve as a glue that might hold the two together when disputes arose. That is why he is often forgotten when people remember the Reformation: his achievement was not primarily his theological contribution, but his personal ministry of reconciliation.

Bucer spent his young adult life in the Dominican Order, even though he longed for a humanist education. Desirous Erasmus’s work especially fascinated him. When the young Martin Luther, another monk, nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of Wittenberg’s castle in 1517, Bucer was immediately taken with him. Bucer would preach Luther’s revolutionary ideas in his sermons, which eventually resulted in his excommunication on the grounds of teaching heresy. Later, Bucer grew to see Luther as too radical on certain issues, such as the Lord’s Supper, and would work to call extremes from both sides of the Reformation to find middle ground.

After his excommunication, Bucer headed to Strasbourg. It would be the starting point of his personal development as a reformer, since he was now isolated from the church he had been a part of for so long. After years of difficulties finding work and being accepted, Bucer made Strasbourg his long-term home. He represented the city at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, where he would work to find a compromise between Luther and Zwingli on the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. One could compare the divide and their opposing stances to the current political parties in the United States. Bucer is like an independent who is trying to convince Luther (the Republican) and Zwingli (the Democrat) to agree, even though we all know that is not possible in the current political climate. The result at Augsburg was similar to matters in current U.S. politics: the two sides could never reach an agreement on matters, so the Diet ended without either faction accepting the other, and no resolution found, despite Bucer’s attempts to serve as a referee.

Bucer influenced John Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin also fits into the analogy between reformers and modern day political parties, with Calvin playing the role of the socialists. Bucer (the independent) worked to convince Calvin that he should reconcile with the other two (Republican and Democrat / Luther and Zwingli). But Calvin thought Bucer’s attempts to referee at Augsburg did not go far enough. For Calvin, peace cannot be the only goal of serving as a referee. It is imperative to find an actual solution to the debate not merely for the sake of ending the debate, but to find an answer to the question at hand. Bucer spent years wrangling the radical, passionate nature of Calvin’s ideas and personality so that he would not simply make the rifts in the Reformation worse. In this, Bucer did not entirely succeed.

Bucer is arguably the most influential reformer of the sixteenth century because of his work as a referee, trying to find compromises among the different leading reformers of the period. Just like political independents, people find it easy to overlook and forget Bucer when they think about the Reformation. But he was the glue that tried to hold together the major players in the game. Everyone loves the superstar, but you can’t have a game without a referee.

[Ed. note: Kaitlyn Centini is an undergraduate student at Lindenwood University who triple-majors in Art History, History, and Religion.]

#Refo500atDET introduction & schedule available here.

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