By: Raymond Powell
In the German town of Landstuhl, by the city hall and within walking distance of the U.S. military hospital, is a small square dedicated to the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer Martin Bucer. This memorial may seem surprising. The region is staunchly Catholic, and Bucer served as parish priest for little more than a year there. However, the juxtaposition of a monument to a Reformer now largely forgotten in a place where the results of his ministry have been swept away by the Counterreformation is somehow appropriate. Martin Bucer is one of the forgotten Reformers, perhaps the most important early Protestant most people have never heard of.
Within a year of the launch of the Reformation, Bucer had met with Luther and left the Dominican order for Protestantism. Although Bucer eventually moved in the direction of Ulrich Zwingli’s Reformed theology, he remained a lifelong moderating figure between Protestant movements, striving particularly to reconcile Lutherans and Reformers. Geographically, Bucer ministered in Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and Cologne. He attended church conferences at Hagenau, Worms, and Ratisborn. Ultimately he was exiled to the England of Edward VI, where he became a respected advisor to Archbishop Cranmer and the Regius professor of divinity at Cambridge.
Bucer’s later work bore no more fruit than his short ministry in Landstuhl. The breach between Lutherans and Reformers grew wider. Political changes drove Bucer from city to city. Bucer died in peace and highly honored. However, soon after his death England’s new Catholic monarch had his body disinterred and burned as a heretic.
Although Bucer did not leave behind any denomination honoring him as a founder, Bucer may be one of the Reformation’s great successes. Anyone in the tradition of the Anglican Prayer Book is part of Bucer’s legacy. Members of all Reformed churches share, in some small way, in Bucer’s heritage. Reformers and Lutherans never reconciled in the sixteenth century, but modern cooperation among different Christian denominations certainly reflects something of Bucer’s irenic vision. Bucer was not the most important Reformed theologian, the most influential Anglican thinker, or the most significant Lutheran contributor. However, he was unique in playing such an important role in multiple sixteenth century Reformation traditions.
Five hundred years after the start of the Reformation, worldwide Christianity is doing very well. On the other hand, the Christianity we mainline Protestants are most familiar with is in sharp decline. Our denominations face shrinking numbers, shrinking influence, and an uncertain future. Perhaps Martin Bucer is the ideal Reformation model for our time.
First, it is possible to have a positive influence beyond our own sphere. Our denominations are not growing, but as we consider the visible church of Jesus Christ, and see the explosive growth and faithful witness of our brothers and sisters in parts of Africa, Asia, or South America, we can recognize that our churches contributed to the success of the Kingdom. These churches share some of our spiritual DNA through the work of generations of missionaries who proclaimed the Gospel or supported local denominations, and through the prayers and financial gifts of generations of American Christians. Bucer’s legacy is carried on not in his church, but in Christ’s Church. So should ours be also.
Second, our call is to serve Christ, not a particular Christian label. The Kingdom is bigger than any congregation or denomination. And serving Christ’s church instead of only our church is always the right thing to do. Working to reconcile competing factions was a thankless task for Bucer, yet he had a clear vision of what Christ wanted for the church. We ought to strive for a similar vision.
Third, an irenic spirit is of real value in our time. We often forget the extreme hostility between sixteenth-century Reformers and Lutherans. Reformation leaders would sometimes accept military defeat and Catholic conquest rather than cooperate with other Protestants. In our world, there are the Christian groups that we like, and the Christian groups we dislike. Do we really think God makes the same divisions we do? In the midst of anger, hostility, and mistrust, Bucer strove to create cooperation and harmony. So should we.
Fourth, the growth of God’s Kingdom is not linear. But it advances in some places, while retreating in others. Bucer labored in different fields only to witness small gains washed away. Yet these defeats did not mean God’s cause was defeated. When a mission failed, Bucer began work somewhere else. We often look only at our situation. God has bigger plans, and a broader vision. Our call is not to manage the Kingdom, but to serve faithfully.
Finally, important ministry may be overlooked. Few remember Martin Bucer, but he did make a difference. The contributions of associate pastors, youth ministers, and yes, Christian educators, are also easily overlooked. That doesn’t mean such work is unimportant.
In modern Landstuhl, the majority of practicing Christians are Catholics. Yet, in a roundabout way, Bucer’s legacy is visible beyond his name on a plaque in the square. Just off of Butzerplatz is a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. In Landstuhl there is an Evangelische congregation (the modern union of German Lutheran and Reformed Churches forming a single [state] Protestant Church) where Christians worship together, but also serve the community in a variety of ways. Nearby, on an American military base, believers worship every Sunday using the Episcopal Prayer Book. Three very different groups of Christians, three very different paths to return Bucer’s legacy to Landstuhl. All three testify in a small way to the faith and the ministry of an all-but-forgotten Reformer five hundred years ago. We don’t know how God will use the work of our congregations, but God does. In trusting God with the results we cannot foresee or anticipate, we might well be following the example of Martin Bucer.
Raymond Powell lives in Germany with his family. He was previously a faculty member at LCC International University in Klaipeda, and Lithuania, and now teaches at the European School Frankfurt.