Martin Bucer, a significant reformer from Strasbourg (d. 1551), greatly influenced the Church of England, along with the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. Until recently, his book on pastoral ministry has not been available in English. Peter Beale has done us a great favour translating Concerning the True Care of Souls from the original German. Concerning the True Care gives tremendous insight into the Reformation church life, both Bucer’s understanding of and criticism of the priesthood at this time and his understanding of biblical ministry. Concerning the True Care is remarkably timely for our own age, when charges of impropriety or the lack of serious interest in church “discipline” (see below) among pastors seem ubiquitous. I will summarise the argument of Concerning the True Care and then offer some notes on the translation and editorial work.
Bucer’s primary concern in Concerning the True Care is the need for pastoral discipline. Bucer is concerned that the priesthood was no longer giving the personal soul care and shepherding needed by Christ’s sheep. Pastoral “discipline” describes the concept of personal, pastoral care. For Bucer, the Gospel minister had significant responsibilities towards their flock, and the flock had the corresponding rights to expect from their ministers. He summarises his intent in this way,
“to demonstrate to the all the pious children of God, who from their hearts pray for the future of the kingdom of Christ, according to the measure of our faith, our own duty in this so deplorable scattering of the church, so that they may thoroughly understand what the church of Christ is, what rule and order it must have, who its true ministers are and how they are to exercise their ministry in the care of souls and the pastoral office for the true salvation of Christ’s lams; so that we may at last be a true and rightly ordered church of God and the body of Christ, which we have to be or else be eternally cast out form Christ the Lord and his kingdom” (xxxiii)
Concerning the True Care is divided into twelve body chapters, the thirteenth providing a summary. Chapters 1-5 give a broad ecclesiology within which the specific role of pastoral discipline will be exercised. After sketching the nature of the church in Chapter one, Bucer then describes the rule of Christ over his church, which is primarily a polemic against the Catholic church of his time. Chapter 3 then describes how Jesus manages his church. Christ’s rule is exercised through ministers of the word: “All power and the whole work in this matter belong to Christ our dear Lord; but ministers are his instruments, through whom he effects and fulfils this work of his in his elect” (23). Chapter 4 describes the sorts of ministers Christ uses to exercise his rule (elders, deacons, etc.), and Chapter 5 the qualifications for an elder and how they are to be installed. The high bar set for the minister is a challenge, but an important one to hear: because ministers are the means by which Jesus exercises his rule, it is of the utmost importance that they are fit for this role. He sets the bar high because of the corruption confronting him, “there must really be nothing on earth of greater importance laid upon us than the question of how we are to deal with this corruption of the church speedily and effectively” (54). As a summary, he writes, “The purpose and aim in all this is that people should choose those who are truly skilled and also zealous for the work of the Lord, and those who can be trusted and who have the confidence of the church” (59).
Chapters 6-12 then address Bucer’s central concern, true soul care or pastoral discipline. Chapter 6 describes “the principal work and activity of carers of souls and ministers” (i.e. elders/overseers).1 Tasked with providing “for Christ’s lambs everything the Lord has promised to them in his office of Shepherd” (69, Bucer’s gloss), the minister has five tasks for “the pastoral office and true care of souls” (70). These five tasks correspond to a taxonomy of four types of sheep, derived from Ezek 34:16 (German, Vulgate, LXX): there are the lost sheep, who need to be sought; the stray sheep, who need to be restored; the hurt and wounded sheep, who are to be bound up and healed; the weak sheep to be strengthened; and the healthy and strong sheep to be guarded and fed. The lost sheep are those who “God has elected to his kingdom but do not yet recognise Christ our Lord and are entire strangers to his church” (70); the stray sheep are “those who have been with the flock of Christ and involved in the Christian life, but have gone away from it” (71). The hurt and wounded are those caught up in sin.
In Chapters 7 – 11, Bucer then examines each type of sheep and goes through the appropriate means to address their situation. Bucer’s treatment of each type of sheep is pastorally rich and wise yet general enough to be useful in our age. The reader will benefit greatly from Bucer’s wisdom. There are two aspects of his treatment that deserve further consideration, which we will give below.
Chapter 12 finishes the body of the book by addressing the obligations of the sheep to their ministers, namely, obedience. He argues that “obedience and respect on the part of the congregation towards those who are put over them to teach and discipline them are absolutely essential in the church” (202); indeed, “[Christ] will regard [the failure to listen] as nothing other than contempt for himself” (203). “Those who listen to them listen to him, and those who despise them despise him and the Father” (204). Because ministers bear such authority, they are held to such a high standard throughout the book.
From a contemporary, Western perspective (though certainly not a historical one), two aspects of Bucer’s argument in Concerning the True Care will prove provocative. On the one hand, Bucer grants a significant role for the civil magistrates in the spiritual discipline of the sheep. Rulers are “responsible to direct and employ all their power and ability as much as possible in order that the Lord’s lambs which are still lost and wandering might be sought with all diligence and truly brought to him” (80). They are not, of course, to minister the word, perform the sacraments, or apply church discipline themselves (80), but “rulers will see to this correctly when they follow [the ancient examples] in providing for the church’s ministry and care of souls in such a way that the churches are not injured and harmed by wolves and hirelings, but have their faithful and industrious ministers” (81). So they are to ensure that the church has faithful ministers, including deposing those who are unworthy (15), and they are to “see to the education and discipline of all the young people and encourage the teaching and fostering of godliness” (81). Finally, they will protect against false teaching and prevent their people from despising the ministry (81). The role Bucer grants to civil authorities is far different from most political theology today; it is worth letting his vision confront ours (though I would register significant disagreement on this point).
When it comes to the care of the wounded and hurt sheep, who Bucer identifies as those caught in serious sin, Bucer indicates that “penance” is the appropriate remedy. For Bucer, penance is discipline imposed by the elders upon the wounded sheep, whether or not they express repentance, in order to communicate to this and the rest of the sheep the seriousness of their sins. As his margin note on 129 reads, “Penance is a medicine for present and future sins, not past ones.” Penance does not justify, but it does reform and lead to holiness. He uses the example of Ambrose prohibiting Theodosius from the Lord’s supper to illustrate this discipline (136-137). This form of discipline is distinguished from what we would call “excommunication,” which is used for false sheep (183-189). I did not find Bucer’s biblical case for penance convincing; the biblical data cited is better interpreted in different ways (e.g. with reference to false sheep, unrepentant sin, or personal sorrow without an external cause such as ecclesiological discipline), and he relies heavily on tradition to fill in what isn’t clear from the Bible. However, though I disagree that penance is a command from the Lord, Bucer makes a convincing case that true sorrow for sin is necessary, not merely empty words. Furthermore, he argues compellingly that the pastor’s job is to guide the sheep into such true sorrow. However, he doesn’t make the case that ecclesiological discipline is a necessary or even the best way to do so; there may be cases where the penance he proposes is pastorally wise, but I would not want to make it a rule based on the argument Bucer makes.
Notes On the Translation
Beale’s translation is readable and seems to catch the spirit of the text (it reads as a Reformation-era book). David F. Wright’s historical introduction helpfully sets the context of Bucer’s ministry and the Reformation in Strasbourg. In Reformation-era manuscripts, authors would occasionally provide marginal summaries of main points or paragraphs in their writings; it appears that Bucer did so for Concerning the True Care. Beale has italicised these marginal notes and placed them in the main text preceding the pertinent paragraph. To the modern reader, this suggests they are headings, but this was not quite their function. However, the chapters were preceded by German translations of the key texts for that chapter. These were given their own marginal summaries that sketched the significance of these passages for the chapter. Beale has presented both the text and its gloss in italics at the beginning of each chapter.
Concerning the True Care of Souls is exceedingly rich in theological and practical wisdom for pastoral ministry. It is a clarion call in our age for ministers of the Gospels to be faithful shepherds of their sheep. They cannot outsource this role; it is theirs from God. I hope that many pastors today will pick up Beale’s translation and work through it carefully. You will be richly blessed, challenged, and edified in doing so.
- I am told that Strasbourg had a classical ecclesiology, but the text does not seem to differentiate between elders and bishops/overseers. The latter are certainly “elders,” but it seems to me that “elders” are also “overseers.” There was a “chief” elder however, a “primus inter pares”; though this elder is not uniquely an overseer. E.g. pg. 35-37.