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The Yoke of Christ: Martin Bucer and Christian Discipline.

The Yoke of Christ: Martin Bucer and Christian Discipline. By AMY NELSON BURNETT. Pp. xii+244. (Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, 26.) Kirksville, MO: The Sixteenth Century Journal, 1994. ISBN 0 940474 28 x. $35.

THE last twenty five years have witnessed a flourishing of Bucer research, with a rich variety of theological and historical studies. This has been greatly assisted by the growing number of volumes in the critical edition of Bucer's works, though many are still available only in their original editions. An area of particular interest has been Bucer's understanding of the church, and Amy Nelson Burnett's book is a valuable contribution to this.

Bucer's first work That No One Should Live for Himself but for Others, and How We May Attain This is characteristic of him in its emphasis on our love for others and our responsibility for them. It expresses his strong sense of the Christian life as a corporate life, in which faith is active in love. For Bucer discipline is necessary for the Christian life, both in our being built up and in our building each other up. Discipline is indeed a mark of the church alongside Luther's stress on word and sacrament. In this book, based on her dissertation, Dr Burnett examines the place of discipline in Bucer's theology and practice.

In a brief introduction (pp. 1-8) she sets the issue of discipline in the context of Bucer's life and in some measure of his theology. She notes several studies which have examined discipline and excommunication in Bucer, especially Gottfried Hammann's Entre la Secte et la Cite with its twofold understanding of the church in Bucer as the whole city and as the community of the elect. This is the starting point for her discussion.

Chapter 1, 'Penance, Discipline, and the Reformation' (PP. 9-25), sketches the history and varied understanding of penance from the fourth century. It describes the penitential and disciplinary system of the late medieval church and the diverse criticisms made of it by humanists and reformers in the early years of the Reformation. There is also a brief account of the understanding which Luther, Zwingli, and Oecolampadius had of confession and absolution, so as to show how Bucer reacted both to the range of teaching and practice among the reformers and to the sacrament of penance and the use of excommunication in the medieval church. Some elements which Bucer rejected in the early years, such as the Lutheran use of confession and absolution before communion, he later adopted.

'The Theological Foundations: Penance, Church Discipline, and the Power of the Keys, 1523-1530' (pp. 55-86) outlines Bucer's position, especially in the commentaries and the Tetrapolitan Confession. Although the title extends to 1530, the chapter includes writings up to 1533. She sees Bucer's ideas evolving 'through the phases of anti-Catholic polemic, evangelical exegesis, and growing irenicism' (p. 27). The power of the keys, originally interpreted in terms of the preaching of the word in the power of the Spirit, is interpreted later in terms of discipline.

In this chapter Burnett argues for a shift in 'the language in which he expressed his positions' and later a modifying of the positions reflecting 'his growing concern for the bond between visible and invisible, the internal working of the Spirit and the external signs of that working' (p. 54). She sees change in the Psalms commentary of 1529 where Bucer is more concerned to stress areas of agreement with Catholics and Lutherans. This represents a more eirenic position than that evident earlier. In Bucer's views through the 1520s, she shows some of the sources of his thought (for example, Erasmus on p. 43) and some of the points where he differs from his fellow reformers, as well as his selective use of the Fathers and the schoolmen, especially Aquinas, to support his position (for example, in the use of laymen or confession as counsel). The discussion is related to its context--whether the debate with Catholics and Anabaptists, with their different understandings of the church, the attitude of the magistrates, or the state of the church which was not yet ready for public excommunication as practised in the early church (p. 37). Bucer saw 'the private practice of mutual admonition and shunning as a means of eventually reforming the entire church' (p. 38).

Chapter 3, 'The Effect of Experience: Church Discipline and Church Order, 1531-1534' (pp. 55-86), marks the movement from writings about discipline to practical proposals for replacing the medieval system of penance, instruction, and discipline. There is a growing sense of the teaching and practice of the early church alongside Scripture, while the views of Oecolampadius also influenced him. His views develop especially in response to challenges presented by Anabaptists and their separatist tendencies. Religious instruction and admonition remain the most essential elements, with confirmation and elders playing their part; excommunication is exceptional. Bucer recognized the role of the magistrate, but his attempts to balance the role of the minister and the magistrate was in part thwarted by the council, which was determined not to let the pastors act independently of it.

In 'The Power of the Keys, Christian Discipline, and "True Pastoral Care", 1535-1538' (pp. 87-121) Burnett examines the years 1535-38 in terms of three situations and writings related to them: the Wittenberg Concord with the Lutherans, Bucer's experience in Strasbourg, and his attempt to win back Anabaptists in Hesse. In the 1536 edition of the Gospels commentary, in response to the Wittenberg Concord, Bucer retracted some of his earlier criticisms of Luther's views of the sacraments and absolution, though the change is one of emphasis rather than of position. A new appreciation of absolution, a greater stress on the ministry, and a regard for the example of the early church influence his discussion of Matthew 16 and the power of the keys, now set in the context of church discipline. In his pastoral work in Strasbourg, faced with the non-attendance not least of children, Bucer aimed at obligatory religious instruction, especially for children, and the exercise of church discipline, especially the imposition of penance. The council, however, was slow to act and, at best, partial in its support of the various proposals made. In True Pastoral Care, published in 1538, he again expounds and defends the role of the minister in imposing penitential discipline, with excommunication for those unwilling to reform. There was a supplementary role for the magistrate here. In 1538 Bucer went to Hesse to win back imprisoned Anabaptists to advise at the Ziegenhain synod. He succeeded better with his proposals there than in Strasbourg. They include an important role for catechetical instruction and confirmation and a structure for the exercise of discipline, with elders assisting the ministers and also the exercise of the ban.

Chapters 5 and 6 deal with his dialogue with Catholics and the attempts at reformation in Catholic Cologne. Ultimately both the colloquies and the Cologne reformation ended in failure. 'Christian Discipline in Confrontation with Catholic Theology, 1539-1549' (pp. 122-42) shows Bucer's positive endeavours to draw up agreements both at the colloquies and in preparation for them, as well as his criticisms of the Louvain articles and the Leipzig Interim. Burnett refers to Bucer's 'three separate but related methods of argumentation in order to gloss over the fundamental conflict between evangelical and Catholic theology' (p. 141). Sometimes he avoided the controversial issues; at other times he used the Fathers and canon law to find an agreement which ignored medieval developments. When these methods failed, as they did ultimately, he sought to win people by a critique of medieval teaching and practice, by reference to the early church and to the church's decrees and canons.

'Christian Discipline and the Attempted Reformation of Cologne, 1542-1545' (pp. 143-62) describes 'a unique challenge' to Bucer in the 1540s. He responded to the invitation of Hermann von Wied, archbishop of Cologne, to preach and produce a church ordinance in his territory. Bucer presented an evangelical view of penance and confirmation, but did so as far as possible in a traditional framework, as the territories were Catholic. Bucer produced detailed proposals and substantial theological writing, in which he defended his views against Catholic polemicists, characteristically comparing them with the teaching and practice of the early church and challenging Gropper's use of the Fathers against him. He allowed that confirmation and absolution could be regarded as sacramental, with their use of the imposition of hands, but not as sacraments. Confirmation followed instruction and entailed the confirmand's submission to the disciplinary authority of the church. He supported the Fathers' praise of private confession and required confession before communion, though this did not involve a compulsory enumeration of sins but a confession of what burdened a person's conscience, with counsel and consolation sought from God's word. Discipline ranged from the refusal to grant absolution to complete exclusion from the church. Penance had to be performed before the sinner could be reconciled with the church, its severity being related to the gravity of the sin and the degree of repentance. With an obstinate sinner, exclusion and ostracism were taken to their extreme, but Bucer rejected major excommunication except in very rare cases.

Chapter 7, 'A Prophet without Honor? Bucer and Christian Discipline in Strasbourg, 1539-1546' (pp. 163-79), shows how in Strasbourg itself Bucer struggled to establish a pattern of Christian discipline, both against the indifference of the people and the refusal of the council to give real power to the ministers. The chief conflict between the council and the ministers was over the authority to summon parishioners for admonition and reproof. For Bucer this was necessary for pastoral care. For the council such authority belonged to the elders (Kirchenpfleger). The ministers succeeded in their endeavours in particular situations only where they took a strong stand or where they had the support of the elders. Bucer was concerned by the lack of discipline in Strasbourg for itself and for the hindrance it created in colloquies with Catholics. There continued to be developments. Whereas earlier Bucer had simply suggested confirmation for children, now he saw it as required by Scripture and practised in the early church. He emphasized both the confession of faith, testifying to the person's acceptance of the covenant made with him in baptism, and the public profession of obedience.

'The "Christian Fellowships" in Strasbourg, 1546-1549' (pp. 180-207) shows Bucer's resourcefulness in trying to renew the church by creating a voluntary system of discipline and instruction. Burnett interprets christliche Gemeinschaft in terms of Christian fellowship rather than gatherings, which--unlike Bellardi--she sees as a later development. Bucer wanted a structure in each parish which would give the pastor the right to discipline those who voluntarily submitted to him and which provided for lay elders elected by them to assist him, when the official elders (Kirchenpfleger) did not, although they were to be involved. Bucer now regarded individual absolution and excommunication as the core of the power of the keys. Initially the only meetings were those of ministers and elders to accept members and admonish them. Members had to make a public profession of faith and their names were kept in a special register. Bucer frequently defended these practices from Scripture and by analogy with the city guilds. The council gave at least qualified approval, but with an insistence that the elders (Kirchenpfleger) take part in every stage of the disciplinary procedure. When complaints led the council to call a halt, Bucer defended the system, including lay gatherings, which had begun in Fagius' parish. He argued both in person and in writing from Scripture and the early church and from the council's past decisions, insisting on the proper role of the ministers in admonition and discipline. Once more, however, Bucer's endeavours were frustrated. Burnett also briefly compares and contrasts Bucer's system with Luther's 'third type of Christian worship' and Calvin's consistory.

Chapter 9, 'The Ministry of Discipline in England, 1549-1551', (pp. 208-16) relates how Bucer continued to teach and seek to legislate on matters of discipline. In 'the discipline of life and manners' all Christians 'should exercise a care for their neighbors', and not only the ministers, even though some matters, such as penance, are the ministers' responsibility. His concern was always pastoral, so that even in catechizing it was not enough for the person to know the right answers, as confession has to do with one's life and not just one's mouth.

There is a brief conclusion, in part chronological and in part thematic. It is useful in sharpening the focus, and yet there is still so much detail that the broad lines of Bucer's teaching and practice do not emerge clearly.

The strength of this study lies in the detail, both in the description of the context in the medieval church and in Strasbourg and elsewhere and in the examination of the documents and writings. As so many of Bucer's works are not available, it is helpful that substantial quotations are given in the footnotes, even where a translation is given in the text. The largely chronological study of the subject helps to do justice to the variety of writings and proposals and the varying contexts to which they were a response. It has, however, the drawback that the reader has difficulty in seeing the precise development in the various matters covered (such as confirmation, confession, absolution, penance, and excommunication) and in seeing them as a whole. A more thematic conclusion would have helped in this.

The interpretation of Bucer is open to question at points, in part because Bucer's thought is not set sufficiently within the wider context of his theology, for example in the relation of the Spirit to the Word and the doctrine of election. Thus change or development is alleged, for example on pages 46-54, where all the characteristic Buceran and Zwinglian qualifications are present. The shift in Bucer between the 1520 and the 1530s is essentially one of emphasis, as can be seen in his use of I Cor. 3: 7, where in the 1520s the stress is on God who gives the growth and in the 1530s on God's giving the growth to what we plant and water. Moreover the comparison with Zwingli is sometimes not satisfactory, for example, on page 50 where Bucer's writings in 1530 are compared with Zwingli's in 1525. In fact Zwingli says very similar things to Bucer in 1530-31. There are also some surprising omissions in what is generally a comprehensive treatment, such as Bucer's use of the gifts of the Spirit, in particular his use of dunameis in the Dialogi.

There is a helpful index, although its usefulness is diminished by its incompleteness. Thus Luther appears often in the text, but not in the index, and only some of the references to Zwingli and others appear in the index. The same applies to Bucer's works, where some are quoted in the text but not in the index. It would also have been helpful if the references to the Gospels and Psalms commentaries had been given for the various editions. For a book of this detail there are remarkably few misprints.

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Author:Stephens, W.P.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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