Sunday, October 31, 2004

Martin Bucer part I: Reputation

This is the first of three posts on Martin Bucer and his attempts to mediate the Abendmahlstreit. The second will deal with Bucer's interpretations of Church discipline and ecumenicalism, the third with the Conference of Marburg.

Martin Bucer (1491-1551) was probably one of the four most important theologians of the early Reformation. He brought the Reformation to Alsace, establishing Strasbourg as a center of Protestant agitation. He was an early ally of Luther, translating his works from Latin to make them more accessible.

Despite his importance, Bucer's theology has left little imprint on Protestantism (what Americans would call Lutheranism) in Continental Europe. His greatest contribution was diplomatic, mediating between various political powers in order to keep some wholeness, both political and religious, within Protestantism. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Strasbourg was at the center of a contentious political conflict in which the Holy Roman Empire tried to establish firm control over the free German cities. The Reformation was an element that united the cities against the empire, but the cities also diverged in their theologies.. Mayor Jacob Sturm and the municipal magistrates were forced to negotiate with the increasingly schismatic cities while bringing them together. Sturm wanted create a league of German cities to resist Vienna, perhaps establishing a confederation of communities in the style of Switzerland that would be more or less independent from imperial rule. Bucer was an important tool for Sturm. Using his diplomatic skills, Bucer smoothed out the theological differences between the Reformation theologies, finding compromise positions. Sturm gained more leeway in negotiations with other political powers. Furthermore, Bucer helped Sturm to convince German princes to act against the peasants who were turning the Reformation into a socio-political revolt. However, Bucer was just a tool. Sturm and the magistrates ignored his plans to create a "City of God" in which urban life nurtured religious discipline.

Ultimately, Bucer's reputation rests on his failures. He tried to prevent different reformers from diverging too far in their theology and accepting plurodoxy in Christianity. He tried to keep together the Germans under Luther and the Swiss under Zwingli. In particular, Bucer tried to mediate between different interpretations of the Communion that had emerged. The so-called Abendmahlstreit (controversy over the Communion), which continues to hold sway over denominational differences in Germany, dealt with the question of what nourishment the believer and the non-believer receive when they eat the Communion Host. Bucer brought together the major reformers at Marburg in 1929 in order to find a compromise on this question between the two camps. No compromise was found: Bucer succeeded only in ruining his own reputation and theological autonomy. His quest for unity was never appreciated.

Continue reading part II here.