Martin Bucer and the Reform of Worship

If Martin Bucer (1477-1548) is not an unsung hero of the Reformation, he is certainly an undersung hero. This particularly is the case when it comes to public worship. Bucer's fingerprints are all over Calvin's Form of Church Prayers (1542) as well as the Book of Common Prayer (1552, 1559, 1662). Calvin acknowledges that most of his Form was borrowed from Bucer, while Bucer's 50-page response to King Edward VI's first Book of Common Prayer (1549), entitled Censura, led to major alterations in a solidly if incompletely Reformed direction.

Particularly noteworthy is Bucer's publication in 1524 of Grund und Ursach, recently reprinted as Ground and Reason, the first major defense of Protestant liturgical reforms. Hughes Old calls Grund und Ursach "one of the most significant documents in the history of Reformed worship." It represents Bucer's attempt on behalf of the Protestant ministers of Strasbourg to explain the ground (Grund) and reason or justification (Ursach) for the reforms taking place in their city. Services were being conducted in German, images had been removed, shrines and relics destroyed, and other substantial alterations in the medieval mass made. On the one hand, traditionalists were outraged and moderate humanists had become alienated from the movement for reform, while on the other hand Carlstadt and the Anabaptists didn't believe the reform had gone far enough. Bucer moves systematically, issue by issue defending the changes in worship in Strasbourg. It is perhaps surprising, but more than that, encouraging to see the continuity in thinking from Bucer to, say, Hughes Old, in identifying the fundamental principles of Reformed worship. The Reformed consensus from Bucer to Calvin to Westminster to today is striking, as he addresses the Lord's Supper, baptism, holy days, images, church song, and preaching.

Lord's Supper
Bucer makes one basic point which has manifold repercussions: the Lord's Supper is not a sacrifice, but a supper. He terms it "a most pernicious and most abominable error" to believe that in the Lord's Supper the body and blood of Christ are sacrificed. He demonstrates both that the communion elements are "common food" (not the substance of Christ's flesh) and that Christ's death was "once for all" and complete. Because it is a Supper, he maintains, it should be called what the Bible calls it, the Lord's Supper. What were formerly called altars should be called tables. All that implies sacrifice should be removed from the service: the elevation of the bread and cup, priestly vestments ("the magnificent armor of the Mass lovers"), and all gestures, postures, and language not found in Scripture, including the superstition-saturated sign-of-the-cross. These so-called "innovations" of Protestantism, removing the extra-biblical features, are rather "restorations," Bucer claims, "of what is right, old, and eternal." Fully 70% of Grund und Ursach is taken up with the reform of the Lord's Supper.

Bucer urges the reform of baptism by abolishing extra-biblical elements used in baptism - chrism, oil, salt, bread, candles, and consecrated water. These and other practices have "no scriptural justification," he insists, and serve "no good purpose." Rather, baptisms should be conducted "without ostentation."

Holy days
Because of religious superstitions in connection with holy days and "carnal pursuits" surrounding them, Bucer argues for the abolition of all holy days that cannot be justified from Scripture. Why "establish useless celebrations," he asks, that are "without a single Word of God?"