For at least a decade, some of us have been chanting like Christopher Walken in the infamous Saturday Night Live skit, “More cowbell! More cowbell!” Except we have been begging for “More Bucer! More Bucer!” Particularly, the reading audience needed access to his 1524 Grund und Ursach, one of the more important early treatises in Protestant liturgical reform. Such work continues in its importance, since every Christian should be concerned about pleasing God in weekly worship. At long last, that work is now translated and available.
Although Martin Bucer (1491–1551) left behind few sermons, he was nonetheless a towering force of liturgical reform and ecumenical endeavors (although largely unsuccessful). Building on the shoulders of Wolfgang Capito, Huldrych Zwingli, and Johannes Oecolampadius, Bucer turned Strasbourg into a refuge for the inchoate Reformed faith for fifteen years. His seminal reforms in worship are worthy of close attention in the modern age.
In 1971 (as his doctoral dissertation), Ottomar F. Cypris translated, introduced, and commented on Bucer’s classicus locus. This excellent work was available only from a dissertation databank until late 2016 when Brian Nicholson tracked down the Cypris heirs and received their permission to publish Cypris’s dissertation, which is now available from Good Samaritan Books for the price of a nice lunch.
In late 1524, Bucer’s Grund und Ursach was one of the earliest works calling for liturgical reform. He began by critiquing the innovations of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and providing a thorough examination of the errors of Romanist sacramentology, including a discussion of baptism, holy days, images, and proper prayers and songs. Mindful that the entire service needed to have more Scripture and less superstition, Bucer criticized the Mass as being little more than “mummery” (120) or “a damnable heresy” (121).
For all Bucer’s reforms, Cypris notes that it was the “supreme importance” (20) of the word of God that led to alterations in the worship service. By this word, “all innovations are justified and all abuses condemned” (20). “The Word of God,” Bucer writes, “should be the sole guide of all teaching and preaching; and everyone who proffers to prove that his preaching and teaching are from the Word of God should be heard” (80). In one particularly salient section, he advises, “The Holy Scriptures are as clear as day, so that it is not difficult to realize when the so-called spiritual crowd teach and do anything contrary to the Scriptures” (81). Freedom to proclaim the word of God was to be honored in the true church, and the engine for liturgical change would be “diligent and extensive preaching of the Holy Gospel” (120). The centrality of the word led to reevaluations of the place of vestments, the Mass itself, the role of the clergy, the use of hymns, and the relative priority of the Lord’s Supper over Scripture. If the received liturgy’s elements are viewed as a zero-sum game, then it should not surprise us that the diminution of one aspect (the Mass) leads to the elevation of another aspect (the exposition of Scripture). In Privilege the Text (Moody Press, 2013), Abraham Kuruvilla refers to this as, well, “privileging” the text.
While Grund itself does not explicitly call for lectio continua preaching, Bard Thompson and others make it clear that this was the later practice. By 1525 and in the Strasbourg Liturgy thereafter, Bucer called for a reversion to what he saw as apostolic preaching, employing lectio continua. In the process of returning to word-centered worship, some heard the Bible in their native German for the first time (20).
One especially helpful insight that we can draw from Bucer and his fellow reformers is that the form of the service cannot but affect the content of preaching—a key that should be recovered in our contemporary churches. Bucer realized that the shape of the liturgy shapes the style of exposition, and that as long as the Mass and its related lectionary governed the worship service, there was little room for in-depth sequential exposition. However, as soon as the obstacle of the Mass was removed, the place for exposition grew. While evangelicals may not be tempted to prioritize the Mass, it is common knowledge that the many other entertaining aspects of worship may squeeze out preaching if it is not privileged. Homiletics and liturgics are thus inextricably related. The Protestant Reformers sought to prioritize the preaching of the word; hopefully, as the Reformation continues into another five hundred years of always reforming to the word of God, it will filter down to ordinary worship services. Bucer’s work should prove an invaluable aid toward that end.
David W. Hall serves as the pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, Georgia.