Concerning the True Care of Souls, by Martin Bucer. Published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Hardcover, 258 pages.
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Martin Bucer is one of those lesser known Reformers who is only undeservedly overlooked in the contemporary Reformed world. Yet, from his center of labor in Strasbourg, Germany, he profoundly influenced the direction of the Reformation. And one has only to weigh his heavy influence on John Calvin who lived for a time in Strasbourg and imported its ideals to Geneva. Further, at the invitation of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, he moved to England in 1548, where he spent the last few years of his life as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. In England, he advised the powers that be in how Reformation ought to be advanced on the island kingdom. And according to one scholar, he planted the seeds of a pastoral model that was later to emerge in Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor.
Thanks to Peter Beale and the folks at the Banner of Truth, we now have Bucer’s great contribution to Pastoral Theology, Concerning the True Care of Souls. This book is a must-read for all men in and aspiring to the ministry. Permit me to highlight several features I found helpful and challenging.
First, and not surprisingly given the source, Bucer put a very high premium on the Visible Church and its ordinances. The pastoral ministry is a major component of that grand institution which Jesus founded on the rock. The Word, the sacraments, and discipline are the staples of the true Christian life, and consequently the pastoral ministry is the sine qua non of the rise and progress of our spirituality. Bucer writes,
God sent an angel to Cornelius to declare his grace to him, but he still had to be properly taught and given new birth through St Peter [Acts 10]. Christ himself converted Paul from heaven, but he still had to be taught more fully through Ananias and washed and purified from his sins through baptism [Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16]. So the Lord simply wants to maintain this order whereby he performs the work of conversion, redemption and the whole of salvation in us through his ministers….
This is why all pious Christians should use the texts we have set out to guard themselves against the wholly pernicious error which despises the church’s ministry of word and sacrament as a superficial and unnecessary thing, and would have everything given and received from Christ in heaven without using the means which the Lord himself desires to employ (p. 23).
And later he picks up the same thread:
And because we are all too fond of ourselves, we are not able to recognize or judge our own deeds properly. Therefore, if we do not have a good and high opinion of those whom the Lord has placed over us, and who are to instruct, exhort, admonish and correct us on his behalf, and do not immediately receive their words and teaching with all fear and trembling as the Lord’s own words and teaching, then we will get nowhere and will not progress in the pursuit of godliness, as is our current and daily practice (p. 203).
We as men of God must ever remind ourselves and our people of these great realities, in a day when so many are pro-Jesus but anti-‘institutional religion.’ Extra ecclesiam nulla salus! (Ordinarily, that is.)
Second, Martin Bucer makes several points worth noting about ministerial prerequisites. Not just anyone can serve in this office. A holy office is for holy men. This theme recurs over and over, and we should have this drummed into our ears. The following quote reveals how deeply concerned he was about this principle. In referring to the moral qualities required of elders in 1 Timothy 3, he writes,
By saying this we do not mean that these qualities are not called for in all Christians, and these failings should not be abhorred by all; but it should be known that these qualities should characterize and be seen in ministers more than in others, and there should be absolutely no hint of these failings in them. For the rest, we have to put up with there still in part being these failings in the church, although it is a sad thing and something to be fought against. For it is often to be found that some have too much pleasure in wine and other things of the flesh; some still have too much affection for money and gain; some are too prone to anger and quarrelling – but you cannot on this account drive these people out of the church, because these failings of their cause themselves sorrow, they accept discipline and desire to reform their ways; but because they are in such a weak state and the ministry of teaching and building up the church requires the greatest strength and perfection in all good things, such people should not be appointed to the office of bishop or elder, although they may freely remain as ordinary Christians. In just the same way you cannot place just anyone in the council and government of a town, although he would be quite acceptable among the ordinary citizens (pp. 53-54).
Incidentally, I think this also serves as a preventative against an overbearing and discipline-happy ministry. If we make a distinction between those lesser faults which are to be tolerated in the faithful but not in the leaders, we go a long way keeping the church a welcoming hospital and not an elitist club for those who have “already attained.”
Bucer also introduces prerequisites that we may not typically think of, but are necessary for the efficiency of the ministry and the good of the people. For example, he firmly argued that only those men who had spent time gaining the confidence of the flock should be considered for office. Precisely because “people are weak and discipline and punishment are unpleasant, it is necessary that these ministers should as much as possible be trusted and respected by the believers among whom they are to serve the Lord” (p. 41). “They must have the greatest respect and confidence of the whole congregation, be most thoroughly known for their godly activity . . .” (p. 55). It is necessary “to have the consensus of the whole church, because ministers are not only to be blameless in the eyes of the Lord’s people, but also well trust and loved by them” (p. 63). Bucer cites Augustine’s appointment of his successor, Eradius, to exhibit this wisdom. “Now this Eradius was so well known to the people that St Augustine had no doubt that the people wanted him to be bishop just as much as Augustine himself did in announcing this before the people” (p. 65). Interestingly, Bucer goes so far as to assert that one should never ascend to a higher office without having proved himself in a lower (p. 62). The thrust is pretty obvious, it seems to me. Win the hearts, not by politics, but by sustained and consistent godliness, and the people should gladly submit to you (p. 197).
Next, it is noteworthy that Bucer majors on discipline. Yet far from treating it as draconian, discipline is rather a pastoral business, an affair of nothing less that pure Christian love. If pastors are truly ‘carers of souls,’ then they will not withhold medicine when medicine is due (p. 98ff).
Consequently, Bucer bemoans how the Church by neglecting discipline forfeits that authority which the Lord has given it for the edification – and reclamation – of men. For Bucer, its neglect is a kind of self-emasculation. One wonders whether the modern Church’s loss in social status is largely due to its laxity in discipline. Children don’t respect a father who is weak and effeminate.
Fourth – and somewhat to my surprise – Bucer holds out quite a holistic view of the church and its ministry. Though much of what he writes is for those in the pastoral office, yet he is quick to point out that the brotherhood has a duty to care for souls as well. “Wounded sheep are to be given treatment by all Christians, but particularly by the carers of souls” (p. 98). This is also demonstrated, I think, in what we mentioned earlier about leaders first winning the confidence of God’s people.
I won’t say much here about Bucer’s arguments for the role of the state in supporting the church – except to say, three cheers for Bucer! And I find his discussion of Reformed ‘penance’ compelling, though I must admit it is somewhat mystifying. I thought I had understood the Protestant attack on penance in the Romanist sacramental system, but there must have been some nuances in the Reformed camp, given Bucer’s position. Someone please enlighten me.
The last thing I would want to say in commending this book is the conspicuous place of the Holy Spirit throughout. The Third Person of the Godhead was obviously front and center in Bucer’s mind, leaving one to speculate on another aspect of influence on his protégé, John Calvin. I stopped counting after 16 direct references to the Spirit’s activity in the pastoral ministry. But should this come as any surprise? It was by the Spirit of Jesus that the apostles were empowered and vested with the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Jn. 20:21-23). It was the Holy Ghost who made us overseers for our appointed flocks (Acts 20:28). And it is the Spirit and the Bride that say, ‘Come’ (Rev. 22:17)!
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