Concerning the True Care of Souls: A Book Review

Martin Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls is a mixed bag of papist leftovers and fresh Protestant theology. It helps to understand the times in which Bucer ministered to appreciate the good parts. Bucer (1491-1551) left the Dominican Order after meeting Martin Luther in 1518. “For more than 25 years Martin was Bucer was the undisputed leader of the Protestant Reformation in the city of Strasbourg,” reads the dust jacket introduction.

Reading his “little book” (as he called it), I could tell he had a true and genuine care for the individual soul while also maintaining an ardent zeal for the church – which is where my problem with the book lies. Bucer was still very much in the state-church frame of mind, so his efforts for church reformation necessarily involved the magistrate. That kind of thinking makes a Baptist’s blood run cold.

I’ll avoid nitpicking and simplify my disagreements with the book along two lines: the state church and penance. Bucer assumes the former and advocates for the latter. I reject both.

Bucer says penance “is not a satisfaction for past sins, but a medicine against present and future sins, because it is intended to purge and purify the remaining lusts and sinful desires and thus to protect against future transgressions.” (p 131) That sounds almost like “mortifying the flesh” or “killing our remaining sin” – which is good – but Bucer blurs the lines between punishment and mortification too much for me. He considers the Hebrews’ 40 years a kind of penance. It seems to me to be more like a punishment. They did not enter because of unbelief. Perhaps I’m too obtuse to understand Bucer’s approach. Perhaps “penance” is a word with too much baggage.

Bucer’s state church position is woven throughout the book, so I’ll spare my readers the intricacies and instead will leave you with a few of my favorite excerpts from Bucer’s “little book.” He does write as a pastor to pastors, so there are many helpful gems in the talus.

“It is not the Lord’s will to reveal to us the secrets of election; rather he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature.” (p 77)

Regarding the Spanish abuse of the New World’s indigenous people in the pursuit of gold, Bucer wrote: “for through all this trade and conquest just a few get hold of the world’s goods and possessions and then use it to impose all sorts of mischief and power on the rest, many of whom can scarcely earn a dry crust by their hard and bitter labours. And then they call this the increase of Christendom. The Lord grant our princes and rulers the understanding and will to increase and improve Christendom in the right way.” (p 88)

“Such diligence, anxiety, and distress is to characterize the work of restoring those who have gone astray that it may be likened to a painful childbirth.” (p 91) Amen. Discipling believers is long and painful work.

“There is no ministry more subject to ingratitude and rebellion than that of the care of souls.” (p 191)

“Such people are so kind as to object to and judge the sermons and all the church activities of their ministers, just as if they had been appointed to do so and the only reason for hearing sermons was so that they might in the most unfriendly way discuss, distort and rund won what had been said in them, or anything else which had been done in the church…all they do is to judge and criticize anything which is said which applies to them, or which in some way they consider not to fit in with their carnal impudence (and not Christian freedom). And when they praise something in a sermon, it is generally because it applies to other people, whom they like to hear criticized; and they take from such sermons nothing beyond and excuse to run down those they do not like, and not so that they might be built up.” (p 196)

Bucer’s book is not an easy read, but neither is it entirely unprofitable. And aside from my reservations about the two issues previously mentioned, I found his book encouraging and historically interesting.

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