Pioneer of Reformed worship: celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Bucer

I have particularly copied Bucer, that man of holy memory, outstanding doctor in the church of God.

—John Calvin

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of one of the Reformation's greatest liturgists—Martin Bucer, a pioneer in the formation of Protestant worship patterns. Scholars today trace Bucer's impact upon John Calvin, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer as they shaped corporate worship traditions for much of the Reformation. Congregations may want to acknowledge the formative role of Martin Bucer during Reformation Day services this year.

Bucer, born in Alsace in 1491 of humble circumstances, was trained to be a Dominican priest. He encountered Martin Luther's teachings and may have become a Protestant as early as 1518. Martin Bucer was one of the first priests to leave his order (1521), to marry (1522), and to be exiled by excommunication (1523). In 1523, he arrived in Strasbourg, the city that remained his home until Emperor Charles V forced him to flee to England in 1549.

At Strasbourg, Bucer worked with other reformers to establish church government principles and liturgies for the Protestants in that city. He ventured into the surrounding areas of Alsace and Hesse, organizing congregations and helping to bring unity to those of differing theological and ethnic perspectives. Bucer also published several commentaries on the New Testament.

Bucer and Calvin

One of the many notable aspects of the Reformation was its varied leadership. No single individual organized or led the movement alone. Even at Strasbourg, Bucer did not work in isolation, but was assisted by reformers such as Matthew Zell, Wolfgang Capito, and Caspar Hedio. Bucer was also aided by a young Frenchman from Geneva named John Calvin.

Bucer and Calvin, who may have corresponded as early as 1532, worked closely together in Strasbourg from 1538-1541, during Calvin's exile there. Bucer, eighteen years Calvin's senior, showed a personal pastoral concern for the young exile, helping him to find a wife, learn more from the ancient church fathers, and pastor a congregation. Bucer also encouraged Calvin to return to Geneva, where he believed God intended to use the young reformer.

Bucer's influence upon Calvin's principles and practices of corporate worship and congregational life should not be underestimated. One scholar asserts simply, "Calvin seems to have had a high opinion of the worship then established in Strasbourg, for he adopted it almost word for word." Another has written, "The type of church which we call Calvinistic or Reformed is really a gift of Martin Bucer to the world, through the work of his strong and brilliant executive Calvin." Calvin himself stated, "As for the Sunday Prayers [liturgy], I took the form of Strasbourg and borrowed the greater part of it." On his deathbed the Genevan reformer again referred to the key role played by Bucer in his life and ministry.

Specifically, we can trace Bucer's influence on Calvin's liturgical practices in his prominent use of singing the Psalms; in his formulation of a worship service book that included liturgy, hymns, prayers, and Scripture; in his expository sermonic style; in the contours of the baptismal rite; and in the order of worship for the Sunday service. Bucer believed that corporate worship should glorify God, should be based upon Scripture, and should edify believers. The Strasbourg reformer also taught that the sacraments are not private ceremonies, but are rather a vital part of the Sunday public worship services. Calvin followed these principles and practices closely, believing them to be both prudent and Scriptural.

Bucer and the Continuing Reformation

Calvin made only minimal changes in the order of worship he found in use in Strasbourg in 1538. He translated the liturgy into French in 1540 and revised it in 1542. Calvin's 1542 Geneva book became highly influential in the English liturgy arranged by John Knox in 1556 at Geneva. This English worship pattern was taken up by Protestants in Scotland upon John Knox's return.

Another English-speaking Reformer, Thomas Cranmer (see RW 18, p. 42), gave Bucer protection when Bucer was forced to leave Strasbourg in 1549. Anglican scholars note the evident impact of Bucer upon the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and the 1550 Ordination Service that were so influential in subsequent worship patterns in the Church of England.

As congregations prepare for Reformation Sunday 1991, it would be appropriate to acknowledge the pioneer of many Protestant liturgical traditions by giving attention to the life and ministry of Martin Bucer. Your congregation may want to consider one or more of the following:

■ Incorporate one of Bucer's many published prayers into a worship service (found in Liturgies of the Western Churches, by Bard Thompson).
■ Organize the entire worship service in accord with Bucer's Strasbourg liturgy.
■ In your bulletin, include a brief biographical sketch of Bucer's life and ministry.
■ Offer a special prayer of thanksgiving to God for Bucer's work.
■ Sing a Strasbourg psalter selection.
(PH 71, 226; PsH 68,103,130,143; RL 97,109,140)

The 500th Birthday of this important Reformer should not pass unnoticed by those who have benefitted so much from his legacy.

All hymn suggestions are taken from the most recent editions of the following hymnals: The Presbyterian Hymnal (PH), Psalter Hymnal (PsH), and Rejoice in the Lord (RL).

 

Excerpt

Prayer of Martin Bucer: 1538

Confession

Almighty, eternal God and Father, we confess and acknowledge unto thee that we were conceived in unrighteousness and are full of sin and transgression in all our life. We do not fully believe thy Word nor follow thy holy commandments. Remember thy goodness, we beseech thee, and for thy Name's sake be gracious unto us, and forgive us our iniquity which, alas, is great.

For Illumination

Almighty, gracious Father, for as much as our whole salvation depends upon our true understanding of thy holy Word, grant to all of us that our hearts, being freed from worldly affairs, may hear and apprehend thy holy Word with all diligence and faith, that we may rightly understand thy gracious will, cherish it, and live by it with all earnestness, to thy praise and honor, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Martin Bucer's Strasbourg Liturgy of 1539

The Liturgy of the Word

[from the communion table]

"In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"

Call to Confession

Prayer of Confession [see box]

Word of Comfort [1 Timothy 15 or other passage]

Absolution

Psalm or hymn, and sometimes the Gloria in excelsis

[singing ivas unaccompanied, led by the Precentor]

Prayer for Illumination [see box]

Metrical Psalm or Ten Commandments

[from the pulpit]

The Liturgy of the Table

[celebrated zveekly in the Cathedral, monthly elsewhere]

[from the communion table]

Collection of Alms

The Apostles' Creed [sung]

Intercession and Consecration Prayer [ending with the Lord's Prayer]

Institution and Fraction

Communion [while psalm is sung]

Post-communion Prayer

Aaronic Benediction

Scripture [on Sunday mornings the Gospels were read through chapter by chapter; other books were read for the many other weekly services]

Sermon [Near the end, the minister explains the action of the Lord's Supper and exhorts the people as to the proper observance. If the Lord's Supper is not to follow, but children are to be baptized, the mystery of Baptism is explained and the people are exhorted as to the sacred use of this sacrament.]