Pedagogue of the Groaning Creation:

The Law in Martin BucerÂ’s 1536 Romans Commentary

Edwin Woodruff Tait

Huntington University



Martin Bucer’s 1536 commentary on Romans, published the same year as the first edition of John Calvin’s Institutes, is the Strasbourg Reformer’s most extended and systematic theological work. It marks the end of a decade of exegetical productivity, including commentaries on the Gospels, the Psalms, and Romans. These massive works go beyond exegesis of the text to provide detailed theological discussion of a host of important “loci.” The Romans commentary is the most thorough and mature example of this method, prompting Calvin’s criticism that it was far too long and difficult for the average pastor. Calvin himself chose to separate the discussion of theological loci from the continuous exposition of Scripture, engaging in the latter in his commentaries and the former in his Institutes. Calvin’s criticism is perhaps justified by the fact that he is widely read and translated today, while Bucer is not. Clearly the combination of systematic theological reflection with Biblical exposition proved indeed to be too confusing for most people.

There are other reasons for the relative neglect of Bucer for most of the past five hundred  years. Not only are his commentaries chaotic in structure, but his style is difficult, sometimes impenetrable (again, in contrast to Calvin, who wrote with an elegance and lucidity that made him one of the foremost prose stylists of the century whether in Latin or in French). Furthermore, his career was spent in the service of a cause that ultimately proved elusive—the construction of a common front of reformist Christians, including Lutherans, Reformed, and even  Catholics (detached from their allegiance to the papacy), to promote the reign of Christ on earth. The future lay with those, like Calvin, who were willing to construct a sharply defined identity against other Christians rather than attempting to pitch as broad a tent as possible.

In the past twenty years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Bucer, and while his fame is a long way from overtaking Calvin’s, his work is no longer regarded as a mere rung on the evolutionary ladder leading to the 1559 Institutes. Some of the qualities that contributed to his neglect now look like virtues. His persistent search for consensus commands the admiration of an ecumenical age. His attempt to reduce doctrinal disagreements to matters of semantic definition, once regarded as contemptible verbal juggling, now appears to evince a sophisticated awareness of the complexity of theological “language games.” To judge from much contemporary theological writing, even his impenetrable prose may be an asset.

The Romans commentary was published in the year of Bucer’s greatest success in the field of religious diplomacy—the signing of the Wittenberg Concord, which marked Bucer’s reconciliation with the Lutherans and his acceptance of a somewhat vaguely worded doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. At the time, the Concord appeared to be merely a step to greater things—the inclusion of the Swiss in the pan-Protestant front, for one thing, and the formation of reformist national churches (perhaps on the model of Anglicanism) in Germany and France, for another. Neither of these prospects ever materialized. In the long run, all Bucer had done was move Strasbourg into the Lutheran camp and thus ensure that eventually his own legacy would be rejected in the confessionalized atmosphere of the late sixteenth century.

Bucer’s other major New Testament commentary, on the Gospels, was first published in 1527-28, and revised in 1530 and 1536. These revisions reflect Bucer’s theological development during nine crucial years, but even the final edition remains a work of “early” Bucer with significant later patches. The Romans commentary, on the other hand, was written from scratch in 1536 and reflects Bucer’s mature thought. Most students of Bucer’s theology have concluded that his thought did not develop significantly after 1536. (I am suspicious of this claim, but my own work on Bucer has focused on the years leading up to 1536, so I am in no position to challenge it decisively.) It can certainly be said that Bucer’s work between 1536 and his exile from Strasbourg in 1549 was primarily of an occasional and pragmatic nature—the scale and pace of his increasingly futile efforts to reform European Christianity left him little time for theological reflection. His closing years in England produced lectures on Ephesians and his most famous work, De Regno Christi, but they form a coda to his career. Thus, the Romans commentary represents the pinnacle not only of Bucer’s influence and diplomatic activity but arguably of his thought as well.

The structure of the commentary reflects Bucer’s systematizing and harmonizing agenda. Bucer treats the text on several levels. Each section receives an expositio—a discussion of the author’s intention, together with the opinions of the Fathers. This is followed by various kinds of theological discussion—a continuous interpretatio, a conciliatio of apparent difficulties in the text, and/or one or more lengthy quaestiones discussing in detail an issue arising from the text. The quaestiones are the theological heart of the Romans commentary, and are the richest and fullest source we have for Bucer’s mature thought.

This paper will focus on Bucer’s understanding of the Law in the Romans commentary, particularly in his exegesis of Romans 3. Because of the vast scale of the commentary, some such limitation is necessary in order to provide a clear and concise analysis. I will place Bucer’s interpretation in the light of his earlier opinions as expressed primarily in his 1527 commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (the subject of my recent dissertation, “A Method for the Christian Life: Martin Bucer and the Sermon on the Mount”).[1] While the earlier work often took bold and radical positions, rejecting traditional understandings and sharply criticizing contemporaries, the Romans commentary makes a deliberate and painstaking attempt to harmonize Bucer’s own views with his patristic predecessors and his Lutheran contemporaries.  

Several of Bucer’s most central themes converge in his treatment of Paul’s denial of justifying power to the “works of the law” in Romans 3. On the one hand, Bucer takes this opportunity to insert a lengthy quaestio discussing the nature of ceremonies and their role in the Old and New Testaments. The sacramental theology unfolded in this quaestio provides the basis for Bucer’s exposition of the “works of the law.” Siding with the patristic (and later Catholic) tradition, Bucer identifies the “works of the law” specifically with the ceremonies of the Old Testament. Breaking with his evangelical contemporaries, he portrays a Paul whose polemic is directed not primarily against the human propensity to impress God with moral effort (though Bucer certainly regards this as foolish and culpable), but against a false trust in outward ceremonies. Bucer sees all salvation history as the story of the people of God, trained by signs and symbols to trust in the God whose covenant was signified and mediated by those ceremonies.

The most obvious external influence shaping the commentary is the signing of the Wittenberg Concord, which obviously influenced Bucer to emphasize points of agreement with the Lutherans and de-emphasize points of disagreement. The primary such point of disagreement was the Eucharist, which ever since Marburg in 1529 had been recognized as the one truly church-dividing issue between Lutherans and Reformed. Nonetheless, significant differences in soteriology existed as well, and of course these differences are particularly important in the context of a Romans commentary.

The soteriological differences between Bucer and the Wittenberg Reformers have in my opinion been exaggerated by many 20th-century scholars influenced by the “Luther Renaissance” (primarily Lutherans, but also Reformed scholars who saw Calvin as the paradigm for true Reformed theology). Much 20th-century Bucer scholarship claimed that Bucer rejected outright Luther’s dichotomy between Law and Gospel, replacing Luther’s profound existential insights into the human condition with a spiritualistic moralism influenced by Erasmus. August Lang’s 1900 monograph on Bucer’s Gospel commentary popularized this approach, and it continued through the 1960s in the work of scholars such as Ernst-Wilhelm Kohls, who saw all the Reformers except Luther as essentially followers of Erasmus.[2] Karl Koch’s Studium Pietatis, a thorough and thoughtful monograph on Bucer’s ethical thought, is perhaps the fullest and most significant statement of this critique.[3] Koch and other critics of Bucer, however, begin with the assumption that a strictly defined version of Wittenberg theology is the litmus test for “real” Protestant theology, and that any divergence from this is the result of misunderstanding or corruption. For those of us who do not come to the material from a Lutheran (or even Reformed) confessional perspective, this approach is less than helpful. In my dissertation, I argue that while there are significant differences between Bucer and the Wittenberg theologians, these were not seen at the time as decisive or church-dividing. Furthermore, some of Bucer’s ideas that allegedly divide him from Luther can actually be found in Luther’s writings. The evangelical movement of the early sixteenth century was home to a range of soteriological paradigms, united by a common commitment to justification through the free grace of God received by faith alone.

Nonetheless, the 1536 commentary certainly shows Bucer approaching the Lutheran position more closely on a number of soteriological points. Bucer does this not simply by redefining or altering his earlier positions, but even more decisively by constructing a broad consensus that includes the Fathers, the Lutherans, the Reformed, and to some extent medieval and contemporary Catholic theologians as well. For Bucer, all those who were “endowed with the Spirit” (Spiritu praediti) should be treated with confidence and respect, even if they come to divergent conclusions. Their views could be expected to harmonize on essentials, and when they said something that appeared to be wrong it was worthwhile looking a little deeper.

Bucer’s discussion of justification by faith in the preface to the Romans commentary is an excellent example of this harmonizing approach. The Fathers (including Augustine and Chrysostom but not Ambrose) generally understood “to be justified” as “to be made [intrinsically] righteous.”[4] This, Bucer suggests, is based on the actual usage of Paul in passages such as Romans 3:26, which says that God’s righteousness is demonstrated by his ability to justify those who believe. Paul’s reference to the “demonstration” of God’s righteousness shows that he must be thinking of the actual behavior of believers. Therefore, Bucer argues, in this context “justify” means to make (rather than simply declare) righteous. [5]

At the same time, Bucer agrees wholeheartedly with Melanchthon’s rejection of the (Catholic) idea that faith is simply the “beginning” or basic principle of righteousness, with the transformed life of the Christian as the actual basis for her standing before God.[6] No fruit of the Spirit in the Christian’s life can be the basis for justification in any sense, precisely because all the Christian’s good works are free gifts from God. They follow rather than preceding divine acceptance of the believer. (For Bucer, this acceptance guarantees final justification, because he does not believe that anyone except the elect ever has true faith or receives the gift of the Spirit.)

Bucer himself defines justification as remission of sins and eternal life.[7] He does not deny imputation, but he does not put a lot of stress on it.[8] The “first effect” of justification is the “communication of righteousness” (by which Bucer appears to mean actual, inherent righteousness) and all the rationes of justification are contained in this effect.[9] Therefore, he does not see any necessary conflict between the view that “justify” means to declare righteous legally and the view that it means to “make righteous.” Each is an appropriate formula in different circumstances.

With regards to the nature and function of the Law, Bucer’s harmonizing efforts faced two major obstacles. In order to construct the orthodox synthesis that was central to his reform program, Bucer needed to incorporate both the ancient Fathers and the modern Lutherans, giving his theology some claim to catholicity. The confidence of the 1520s that the long-obscured Gospel had been restored and those who didn’t see it the right way were blind had been replaced by a cautious, persistent determination to frame doctrinal disputes in such a way as to place the Reformed view on the side of consensus, both synchronically and diachronically. This entailed some significant shifts to Bucer’s theology of the law as it had appeared in his Gospel commentary nine years earlier. (I am not suggesting that Bucer’s theological shifts were dictated by purely pragmatic reasons, or that they were purely verbal. His thought genuinely developed during these years, but one of the principal causes of this rethinking was the need to construct an orthodox consensus over against both “Papists” and radicals.)

There is, of course, no one patristic doctrine of the law. In my dissertation, I argue that Chrysostom’s understanding of the relationship between Old and New Laws is significantly closer to Bucer’s than is Augustine’s position. Conversely, Augustine’s doctrine of free will and predestination was far more congenial to Bucer (or to the Reformers as a whole) than Chrysostom’s. And, of course (as Calvin’s debate with Albert Pighius clearly shows), even within Augustine’s writings it was easy to find support for widely diverging positions. Bucer thus had to reconcile the Fathers with each other as well as with contemporary Protestant teaching. The principal difficulties were the widespread patristic identification of the “Law” disparaged by Paul with the ceremonial commands of the Old Testament Law (Augustine being the principal exception here), and the equally widespread (in this case including Augustine) identification of the Old Law as substantially inferior to the New—external rather than internal, shadow rather than reality. The first of these ideas clashed with the broad Protestant belief that Paul was denying salvific value to any kind of law whatever, and the second clashed with Bucer’s conviction that the Old Law did not substantially differ from the New.

The second obstacle was the difference between Lutheran and “Reformed” understandings of the relationship between Law and Gospel. While I believe that this contrast has been exaggerated by much 20th-century scholarship, it is certainly true that Zwingli and Bucer were more concerned with the positive function of the Law in the life of the Christian than the Wittenberg Reformers, and less likely to identify the Law as primarily or exclusively a terrifying source of condemnation. In the Gospel commentary, Bucer argued that the word “Torah” meant primarily “teaching” (doctrina), and hence in its fullest sense embodied both command and promise—what Lutherans referred to as “Law” and “Gospel.” Bucer did not reject the theological point the Lutherans were making, but as a matter of philological accuracy he did not think that “law” should be used primarily to refer to the exclusively condemnatory aspects of divine doctrina.[10] In the 1536 Romans commentary, Bucer is more respectful of the Lutheran terminology, although he continues to emphasize the unity of Scripture as a single divinely revealed doctrina.

In the 1527 Gospel commentary, Bucer divides the law according to what he sees as its three purposes: faith, love, and fear of God; love of neighbor; and the proper use of the body and of material things.[11]  Or, in Bucer’s most concise formulation, “faith, love, and the mortification of the flesh.”[12] External ceremonies, according to Bucer, are not part of the definition of the Law properly so called, nor are any other “external things” that apply to the ungodly as well as to the elect.[13] Rather, he argues, all the outward commands of the law were added simply to clarify and support the true substance of the law, which is strictly internal.[14] Each group of “external” regulations supported one of the three principles of the law properly so called. Laws having to do with sacrifice and worship fostered faith toward God, the civil laws promoted love of neighbor, and purity laws encouraged the proper use of bodily things.[15] 

The old and new covenants, Bucer argued, are in fact one and the same, except that the new covenant no longer needs the outward regulations that were added to the essential teachings of the old covenant.[16] These essential teachings are the same in both covenants, because the three-fold purpose remains the same, though more clearly expressed in the new covenant.[17] Indeed, the coming of the new covenant, written on the heart, which would not need external regulations, was predicted in the Old Testament itself, especially Jeremiah 31.[18] Bucer interprets the distinction drawn between Old and New Covenants in Hebrews as applying not properly speaking to the two covenants themselves, but to the external trappings of the Old Covenant on the one hand and the inner, eternal teaching common to both covenants on the other.[19]

In 1527, then, the primary distinction for Bucer was between external and internal aspects of the one law, rather than between command and promise or between Old and New Testaments. The New Covenant differed from the Old primarily in the absence of external commands and regulations, which were a prominent feature of the Old. This leads Bucer to downplay radically the importance of outward acts of worship, insisting that such actions must be explicitly ordained in Scripture, and even then must be left “free” (which I believe means that they must not be regarded as necessary for salvation, although this is not the only way to interpret the term).[20] Bucer also insists that outward acts of worship serve the sole purpose of testifying the worshiper’s inner disposition to others, thus stirring up those others to the inner “feelings” (affectus) that alone constitute true worship. Similarly, the 1527 Bucer argued that the people of the New Covenant, in contrast to the people of the Old, formed an invisible body of the elect rather than a mixed company including the wicked. The outward/inward dichotomy was essential for Bucer’s early theology and for his understanding of the relationship between Old and New Covenants.

In the course of the controversy with the Lutherans over the Eucharist, Bucer came to a far more appreciative view of “outward” actions and of the visible Church. What may have begun as a purely pragmatic attempt to find common ground soon led to a genuine appreciation for the essential orthodoxy of the Lutherans. Bucer insisted to Zwingli that, contrary to what they had previously thought, the Lutherans agreed that the essential thing in the Sacrament was the inner feeding on Christ through faith. From this recognition of essential agreement, it was easy for Bucer to move to a position more closely approximating that of the Lutherans in its appreciation for outward means of grace.

Furthermore, during these same years (late 1520s, early 1530s), Bucer was moving not only toward the Lutherans but away from the spiritualistic radicals whose views bore a suspicious resemblance to many of the opinions expressed in 1527 (in spite of Bucer’s explicit opposition to those views). Radical theologians such as Hans Denck and Martin Cellarius shared Bucer’s early stress on the inner working of the Spirit in opposition to all outward means of grace, but they took this to extremes that Bucer found destructive of orthodox Christianity and of any hope for a Christian society. At the same time, other Anabaptist radicals criticized the Reformed church of Strasbourg for its lack of discipline. This two-pronged conflict led Bucer to re-examine the “spiritualist” opinions he had expressed in 1527.

In the Romans commentary and the 1536 version of the Gospel commentary, Bucer moves toward a more traditional understanding of the relationship between Old and New Covenants in which the Old Covenant has a more external quality owing to the “uncultivated” nature of the people with whom it was dealing. Whereas in 1527 he had argued that the New Covenant lacks external regulations and ceremonies (except for those explicitly instituted by Christ as “free” signs of the inner disposition of the worshippers), he now cites Augustine’s view that the New Covenant is characterized by fewer, simpler, and clearer ceremonies.[21]

The Romans commentary backs up this shift in understanding with a sophisticated discussion of the nature of signs, based heavily in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana. The signs of both Old and New Covenants, according to Bucer, are signs of a present rather than an absent reality. The reality signified by both is the covenantal relationship in which God promises to be the God of those who put their trust in him. Speaking of circumcision in particular, Bucer says, “For he calls it not only a sign, but the covenant itself. For the covenant of the Lord, as was said earlier, is in it—the covenant by which he presents himself to us as God, and we are his people. Therefore God offered by this sign the thing that he was promising, namely that he would be God to those who were circumcised, and then accepted them among his own, using for this, as he was accustomed, the ministry of his Church.”[22]

For Bucer, there is no meaningful distinction between the signs of the Old Covenant and those of the New, except that the latter are clearer, and of course that they look back whereas OT signs look forward. Nor does Bucer accept the medieval distinction between sacraments and sacramentals. Standard medieval theology had held that the sacraments of the Old Law and the sacramentals of the New conferred grace based on the disposition of the one receiving grace, while NT sacraments conferred grace ex opere operato. For Bucer, on the other hand, all covenantal signs operate at essentially the same level, transmitting to believers the heavenly realities they signify.

Bucer manages to conscript Augustine for this position over against the medieval theologians, although most of the medieval writers I have examined (Thomas Aquinas and Nicholas of Lyra, for instance) actually have a more positive evaluation of the Old Law than Augustine does. Bucer obviously disagrees with me here! He relies heavily on Augustine’s debate with Faustus the Manichee (which primarily concerned the value of the Old Testament, totally denied by Faustus), to portray Augustine as a champion of the essential unity between the Testaments. It is certainly true that Augustine regards the substance of the two Testaments as the same, and Bucer’s 1536 position is closer to Augustine than his earlier view. But as Augustine’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount shows clearly, Augustine identified the Old Testament with the “lesser righteousness” of external commands, whereas Bucer considered the internal righteousness of the New Covenant to be present also (though less clearly) in the Old.

Bucer’s attempt to make Augustine harmonize with his own position is seen in his treatment of De Doctrina Christiana 3, in which Augustine argues that only some people in the Old Testament (patriarchs, prophets, etc.) perceived the spiritual meaning of the Law. The others (the vulgus) were held in “servitude” to the outward commands, so that they would at least worship the one God and would (as a people) be prepared for clearer revelation later.[23] Bucer quotes this passage and immediately adds: “Blessed Augustine therefore judges that so much was revealed to the people in the sacred ceremonies, that they served their God by observing them—the God who had promised those who lived for him in these observances that he would be their God and would give them eternal life, and in this way they received this usefulness from those ceremonies, that those signs which were imposed for a time to servants, kept in this way as under a pedagogue, would bind them over to the worship of the one God who made heaven and earth.”[24] Bucer’s skill as a harmonist is evident here. By focusing on Augustine’s point that the believers of the Old Testament at least recognized the one God, he slurs over the question of whether they perceived the spiritual meaning behind the outward observances, and whether such observances have any value in the absence of an understanding of their meaning. Since Bucer repeatedly defines the content of the covenant as God’s promise to be our God and make us God’s people, it is plausible that in his view Augustine’s admission that the vulgus knew the one God suffices to give real value to their “servitude.” And Bucer’s discussion of infant baptism a few pages later admits the value of sacramental participation even for those (elect infants in this case) who have no understanding of the meaning of the action (a view that would have been anathema to the Bucer of 1527).[25]

On the other hand, Bucer follows his citation of Augustine with the claim that “even the multitude” possessed a knowledge of Christ that was “not obscure,” and suggests that this Christocentric (or at least Messianocentric) teaching was orally passed down through the Sabbath instruction of the scribes (periti legis).[26] Only such a tradition, Bucer argues, can account for the confidence with which early Christians in the New Testament affirm that Moses and the prophets taught of Christ.[27] This directly contradicts Augustine’s position that only a few spiritual people understood the meaning of the signs and symbols of the Old Testament. Bucer is willing to use the language of “bondage” to describe the Old Testament, but the bondage he describes is far less severe and less universal than that portrayed by Augustine.

Bucer interprets the “works of the law” mentioned in Romans 3:20 as the ceremonies of the OT law.[28] In this he takes his stand with the bulk of the patristic tradition and with contemporary Catholics over against Augustine in the early Church and contemporary evangelicals such as Melanchthon.[29] But he does not interpret this as a restriction of Paul’s critique of the law—rather, Bucer argues that Paul is focusing on the ceremonial law because this was the part of the law in which his opponents were trusting.[30] Paul’s claims that the law cannot justify, that it brings death, that indeed it is the cause of condemnation, are deliberate paradoxes that appear to contradict the praise of the Law found throughout Scripture. Paul is stating things this way in order to refute those who were trying to make Gentiles observe the law for salvation.[31] The “works of the law” in question (the ceremonial mitzvoth) cannot justify because the whole law cannot justify.[32] Bucer’s explanation for why the law as a whole cannot justify is more or less the standard Protestant view, with the strong pneumatological twist characteristic of his own theology. No one can follow the commands of the law without the Spirit. Therefore, on its own the law simply convicts its hearers of their sinfulness and inability. This is true not only of those parts of the law which condemn sin directly, but even for the proclamation that God is “your savior and your highest good.” This promise comes together with the threat of damnation if you fail to love and obey him with all your heart. The “ceremonies” of the law, in which first-century Jews trusted, also fall under this category, because they are signs of the covenant promising God’s favor to those who keep the entire law.[33]

Bucer’s emphasis on the unity of the law, often seen as a point of distinction between himself and the Wittenberg theologians, thus serves to harmonize these two rival interpretations of the “works of the law.” The Lutherans are right in saying that the whole law condemns precisely because all Scripture is “law” in the sense of doctrina.[34] Interpreting “works of the law” as ceremonies does not weaken this teaching, because ceremonies are effectual signs of the entire covenant.

The distinction (key for Lutheran theology) between law and Gospel follows naturally on the proposition that the law cannot help but condemn. Bucer affirms this distinction in the 1536 Romans commentary, but in the context of the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is tied to the proclamation of the Gospel and not to the teaching of the law—hence, Bucer claims, a person can be justified by faith without ever having heard of the law.[35] Thus, paradoxically he gives less place to the law in this instance than do the Wittenberg theologians, for whom the law was the necessary precursor to the Gospel.

Bucer’s understanding of the entire Scripture as law arguably provides a resolution to the ambiguity pervading many other Reformers’ treatment of the relationship between law and Gospel. Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin all vacillate to some degree between the traditional identification of the law with the Old Testament (and hence the Gospel with the New) and the insistence that both law and Gospel are found  in both Testaments. Both Melanchthon and Calvin occasionally use “Law” to refer to the Old Testament and “Gospel” to the new, though both of them admit that this causes some confusion. For Melanchthon, the Old Testament embraces both “Law” in the strict sense and the promises (many of them temporal) that were ultimately fulfilled in Christ. The New Testament on the other hand contains the fullness of the promise, without being dependent on our fulfillment of the law. At the same time, this “new testament” is not simply identical with the books of the New Testament, because Melanchthon (like Luther) defines the Sermon on the Mount as Law.

 For Calvin, both Law and Gospel exist in both testaments, but the Gospel is more clearly proclaimed in the New, and the Law exists in the New Testament as subordinate to the Gospel, leading people to repentance and providing a guide for the Christian life once the Gospel has been accepted. Luther tends to define Gospel as anything that proclaims Christ, wherever it is found, and Law as anything that contains commands, whether in the Old or the New Testaments. At the same time, Luther recognizes that the Gospel also contains the proclamation of the law in order to bring people to repentance (what he refers to as the “strange work of the Gospel”). And Luther is quite capable of identifying Law with Old Testament and Gospel with New.[36]

All three of these approaches have much to be said for them, of course, and BucerÂ’s more holistic view raises plenty of problems of its own. But in the light of modern Pauline scholarship, I suggest that BucerÂ’s understanding has many merits when compared with that of his more influential contemporaries (more influential at least in the sense that modern scholarship usually describes some form of their views as the Reformation position). Somewhat like E. P. Sanders, Bucer identifies the issue between Paul and his opponents as one of identity. Who are in fact GodÂ’s people? Those who practice the ceremonial laws and thus partake in GodÂ’s promises, or those who perceive the spiritual meaning behind the signs of the covenant, receiving in faith the saving reality that those signs represent?

Confessional Protestant scholarship has often criticized Bucer for his lack of the sharp soteriological focus found in Luther and other sixteenth-century Reformers. Bucer has been called a “moralist” who was interested in forming good people rather than in bringing comfort to the soul tormented by sin and longing for forgiveness. Coming from the staunchly moralistic tradition of John Wesley, I have little sympathy with these critiques. As I see it, Bucer understood the importance of soteriology, but he put it in a broader context—the work of God restoring creation through the “Torah,” the doctrina or teaching that enlightens the intellect and thus moves the will. (Bucer’s psychology was thoroughly intellectualist.) Justification by faith was vitally important so that human beings could put their fear of condemnation behind them and move on to what was really important—the implementation of the reign of Christ, the restoration of the created order in which all creatures gave themselves lovingly to each other in imitation of the endlessly self-giving Creator.[37] This was possible only through the gift of the Spirit, received by faith.

The Law of God revealed in Scripture was for Bucer the indispensable guide toward this new creation. In the Gospel commentary Bucer engages in a revealing interpretation of the “pedagogue” metaphor from Galatians. Even when the pedagogue no longer has the authority to punish, Bucer claims, he remains as a guide and friend, because the student has now learned to love the subject and desires the further instruction of the teacher. As we have seen, Augustine speaks of the people of the Old Testament being kept in servitude under the pedagogue as a temporary measure until the time came when God’s people as a whole could understand the true meaning of the law. (This use of the metaphor is surely closer to Paul’s intention in Galatians.) For Bucer, on the other hand, it was not the pedagogue that was temporary but the servitude (itself not very rigorous, to hear Bucer describe it) of outward signs not yet fully understood.

In spite of the significant differences between the Romans commentary and Bucer’s earlier work, the theme of restoration and transformation through the pedagogy of divine doctrina remains central. For all his concern to harmonize, for all his willingness to modify and moderate his formulations, Bucer remains remarkably faithful to the fundamental vision he had expressed in his earliest German works and in the 1527 Gospel commentary. Indeed, he can compromise on matters that might seem essential to some precisely because the truth he is concerned to preserve lies elsewhere. Whether the “works of the law” are ceremonies or moral precepts is not of ultimate importance, because both are impotent without the life-giving power of the Spirit. The Old Testament Law can be spoken of as “shadow” and “servitude” because it points toward a clearer and fuller revelation, but this revelation is identical with the substance of the Old Law itself. The only thing that matters, in the end, is to listen to the teaching of the Spirit and reject the smug self-righteousness propounded by the “false prophets” of every age.


Edwin Woodruff Tait

Huntington University

[1] Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2005.

[2] Cf. Ernst-Wilhelm Kohls, Luther Oder Erasmus, 2 vols., Theologische Zeitschrift Sonderband 3 (Basel: Friedrich Reinhardt, 1972); Die Schüle bei Martin Bucer in ihrem Verhältnis zu Kirche und Obrigkeit (Heidelberg: Quelle & Meyer, 1963); Die Theologie des Erasmus, 2 vols., Theologische Zeitschrift Sonderband 1 (Basel: Friedrich Reinhardt, 1966); and Die theologische Lebensaufgabe des Erasmus und die oberrheinischen Reformatoren: Zur Durchdringung von Humanismus und Reformation, Arbeiten zur Theologie 1.39 (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1969).

[3] Karl Koch, Studium Pietatis: Martin Bucer als Ethiker (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1962).


[4] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 12-13.

[5] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 12.

[6] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 13.

[7] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 182.

[8] Bucer does speak of believers being “accepted as righteous” (“& pro iustis acceptat,” 185). He notes that Melanchthon defines God’s righteousness (described in Rom. 3:21) as his acceptance of human beings (pro acceptatione accipit, and grants that this interpretation is valid inasmuch as it identified God’s righteousness with “incomparabilem illam Dei bonitatem in Christo exhibitam, qua & peccata condonat, & iustitiam imputat, & vitam aeternam largitur, eamque hic adspirando mentem nouam, ac pietatis stadium, auspicatur” (186).

[9] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 183: “”In sequentibus adfert quidem aliquot rationes huius, Iustificari electos dei per solam fidem in Christum. . . verum omnes eae rationes in iustificationis primo effectu, qui est communicatio iustitiae, hoc est, sortis diuinae, continentur.”

[10] Koch argues, based on BucerÂ’s use of the term neoterici to describe the Lutherans, that Bucer was attempting to portray their position as a scholastic quibble Certainly BucerÂ’s emphasis on correct philology does reflect humanist priorities, but I am not certain that neoterici in this context has any meaning beyond the purely chronological one, distinguishing BucerÂ’s contemporaries (such as Melanchthon) from medieval or ancient writers.

[11] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:149r. Bucer sums this definition up (151v) in a paraphrase of Titus 2:12: “That piously, justly, and continently we may live in this age.”

[12]Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:153r: “fidem, dilectionem, & carnis mortificationem.”

[13] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:149r: “Ceremonijs, alijsque externis, impijs quoque communibus, hic nullus locus.”

[14] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:149-50. See also Melanchthon, 1522 Loci, CR 21:95: “Atqui lex fidem, amorem & timorem postulat, Diliges deum ex toto corde. & non ait, simula sacrifitium, eleemosynam &c.”

[15] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:149r, 152r.

[16] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:177r. Elsewhere in the commentary this will lead to polemic against contemporary Catholicism, which has tried to bind the conscience by ritual legislation. Cf. 1:214v: “Christianos, quos Christus a praeceptionibus externis suo sanguine liberauit.” Bucer admits that in the New Testament, as in the Old, specific commands are given for specific purposes, which are to be regarded as “priuilegia” rather than laws properly so called. Bucer places in this category Jesus’ missionary instructions to the disciples in Matt. 10. 1527 Gospels 1:158r.

[17] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:150v. For the greater clarity of the new covenant see 1:151v: “verum & aeternum Dei foedus, quod idem cum omnibus electis, ab initio mundi habuit, licet post Christum sit, cum magis reuelatum, tum latius propagatum.”

[18] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:150; see also 151v-152r: “Quin in eadem lege & Prophetis suis, tempus statuit & praedixit: Venturum ut non esset illorum usus.”

[19] Thus, when speaking of Jesus’ adherence to the outward ceremonies of the Old Law, Bucer observes that it was “not yet” the “new and spiritual covenant”: “quod nouum & spiritale foedus nondum eßet, sanguine ipsius confirmatum, & eo, ut uulgaretur palam, perductum.” This language carefully implies that Jesus transformed the Old Covenent into something it previously was not, rather than bringing a new and better covenant. Bucer, 1527 Gospels, 2:9v.

[20] Bucer, 1527 Gospels 1:152v: “Qui cultus tantum illorum est, qui Dei spiritu praediti sint, ubi autem ille, ibi libertas omnium rerum externarum, 2 Cor. 3. Eoque siue adhibeant hoc spiritu praediti, in conuentibus suis, quibus conueniunt ad audientum uerbum Dei, Deumque benedicendum, aliquas ceremonias, atque illas ipsas à Domino institutas, libere id facient, nequaquam illis Deum culturi, sed cultum animi, per eas fratribus in profectum fidei & charitatis testaturi.” In the 1536 version, Bucer allows for practices not explicitly “instituted by the Lord,” and insists that those practices must be left “free.”

[21]Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 156.

[22] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 150F: “Nam vocat eum non solum signum, sed ipsum quoque foedus. Iam foedus Domini, vt dictum, in eo est, quod praestat se nobis Deum, nos sumus illi populus. Ergo exhibuit hoc signo Deus id quod pollicebatur, se nimirum circuncisis fore Deum, iamque eos inter suos accepit, vsus ad id, vt solet ministerio Ecclesiae suae.”

[23] Augustine further recognizes (see for instance On Baptism 15.24) the possibility of “carnal” believers in the community of the New Covenant. He does not regard these people as necessarily lost—if they die before becoming “spiritual” they will be saved by the sacrament of baptism (as outright hypocrites will not).

[24] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 157: “Tantum ergo in sacris ceremonijs vulgo reuelatum fuisse D. Augustin. arbitratur, quod illarum obseruatione Deo suo seruirent, qui promiserat se ipsis in hisce obseruationibus sibi viuentibus, futurum Deum, & aeternam vitam largiturum, & hoc pacto eam ex illis ceremonijs vtilitatem percepisse, quod eos illa signa, quae temporaliter imposita errant seruientibus, hoc pacto quasi sub paedagogo custoditos, ad vnius Dei cultum, qui fecit coelum & terram, religarent.”

[25] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 161: “Infantes enim nihil huius intelligunt, aut sentiunt, vere tamen Deus illos ministerio Ecclesiae suae, dum ipsi per sacramenta initiantur, in fidem suam suscipit, spirituque suo donat, qui ad eorum salutem in eis, & circa eos omnia, pro eo modo, quem ipse ex infinita sua & bonitate & sapientia statuit, attemperat & perficit.”

[26] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 157-58: “Atqui dum considero quid Prophetae de significatione ceremoniarum populo obiecerunt, & perpendo quam non fuerit obscura Christi future cognition, etiam vulgo, cuius profecto permulta sunt in Euangelicis historijs indicia, omnino existimo per sabbata a peritis legis populum, quid singulae etiam ceremoniae sibi vellent, saltem in genere, diligenter fuisse institutum. De eo quod ad Christum omnia relata sunt, perparum quidem expressum est in literis prophetarum, at non permulta huius rei tradita fuisse per manus, & in hoc gente, ceu primum mysterium, religiose fuisse abscondita: id vero neminem dicturum arbitror, qui obseruarit quantam Christi cognitionem fuisse in populo veteri, Euangelicae & Apostolicae literae clare admodum indicant.”

[27] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 158.

[28] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 179, 183. Bucer describes Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” as an “aninomasia” or a “synechdoche,” because the “ceremonies of the law” are standing in for the commands of the law in general (183). Bucer also recognizes that Paul does not speak of “law” with complete consistency, sometimes referring to ceremonies and at other times to the entire law (23).

[29] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 184. This is an unusual interpretation for a sixteenth-century Protestant, and it indicates that Bucer was

[30]Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 184. Bucer interprets Romans through the lens of Galatians (which he regarded as written after Romans—see p. 2), arguing that the latter epistle shows that Paul’s opponents were specifically relying on the ceremonies of the Torah, not “works of the law” in a more general sense.

[31] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 180.

[32] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 185.

[33] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 181: “Sicut vbique enim Deum tibi praedicat vnum seruatorem tuum & summum bonum: ita requirit sub aeternae damnationis comminatione, vt illum tanquam Deum tuum ex toto corde, tota anima, totis viribus colas: hoc quoque sacris ceremonijs nominatim profiteris.”

[34] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 210: “Omnis doctrina Dei lex est: vocat enim ad recta, & reuocat a prauis: vbique ergo peccatum ostendit.”

[35] Bucer, Enarratio in Romanos, 185: “Ad praedicationem siquidem Euangelij, etiam vbi nihil de lege auditum erat, cum ea fide recipiebatur, aderat spiritus domini, diuini fauoris arrhabo.” Bucer’s identification of the “works of the law” primarily with the ceremonial mitzvoth supports this view, since, as he points out, “Gentes ceremonias Mose ignorant. . . Igitur fide sine operibus legis contingit hominibus iustificatio” (212).

[36] See for instance the 1522 preface to the New Testament: “Sondern festiglich zu halten, das glich wie das allte testament ist eyn buch, darynnen Gottis gesetz und gepot, da neben die geshichte beyde dere die selben gehallten und nicht gehallten haben, geschrieben sint, Also ist das newe testament, eyn buch, darynnen das Euangelion und Gottis verhaissung, danebe auch geschichte beyde, dere die dran glewben und nit glewben, geschrieben sind, Also das man gewiss sey, das nur eyn Euangelion sey, gleych wie nur eyn buch des newen testaments, und nur eyn glawb, vnd nur eyn Gott, der do verheysset.”


[37] This vision of creation is found most clearly in Bucer’s earliest published work, the 1523 sermon “That No One Should Live for Himself but for Others” (Deutsche Schriften 1:45ff).