In 2011, Reformation Media and Press published For the Cause of the Son of God, a revised form of my doctoral dissertation. This book discussed at length the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession. My main foils were voices within the Christian Reformed Church of North America who had argued that the Belgic Confession was not only irrelevant for mission, but even a liability to a missionary church. Among the CRC scholars with whom I interacted was Harry R. Boer.
Early in his own revised doctoral dissertation Pentecost and Missions, Boer argued that Reformers like Calvin and Luther believed that the Great Commission (in Matthew 28:18-20 and parallels) was meant only for the apostles. Then Boer gets to Martin Bucer and he has to admit that Bucer was different. He had a missionary concern. Yet, Boer detected an inconsistency in Bucer’s missionary outlook, one which allegedly lined him up with Calvin, Luther and others Reformers on the limited nature of the Great Commission. Boer quoted from Bucer’s 1538 book Von der waren Seelsorge:
What Christians in general and the civil authorities neglect to do with respect to seeking the lost lambs, this the elders of the Church shall undertake to make good in every possible way. And though they do not have an apostolic call and command to go to strange nations, yet they shall not in their several churches…permit anyone who is not associated with the congregation of Christ to be lost in error.
The italics were added by Boer and I assume that the translation was his own (he does not indicate otherwise). From this Boer concludes that “even Bucer did not free himself from the Reformation conception that the Great Commission was limited to the apostles” (Pentecost and Missions, 20).
When I came across this quote and conclusion in my doctoral research, I was perplexed. Certainly a later book by Bucer (De Regno Christi) sang a different tune. However, I was faced with two problems: 1) I did not have ready access to the German original of Von der waren Seelsorge (no Post-Reformation Digital Library yet) and 2) Bucer’s book had not yet been translated into English. I had no way of verifying Boer’s conclusion, but yet I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this was in the literature and offer a possible explanation. I decided to be charitable to Boer and posited that the difference between Von der waren Seelsorge and De Regno Christi might be chalked up to Bucer changing his mind over time, the former book preceding the latter by about 12 years. Alternatively, I wrote, perhaps the difference is attributable to the fact that Bucer was writing about elders in Boer’s quote, whereas in De Regno Christi, he was writing about minister-evangelists.
I have recently had the opportunity to revisit this question and I think I have put it to rest. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be speaking at two conferences in Brazil about the Reformation and evangelism. I decided to dig a little deeper into Martin Bucer. Now I have the opportunity to do that with the help of Peter Beale’s English translation of Bucer’s earlier book, Concerning the True Care of Souls. More than ever, I’m convinced that Boer got Bucer wrong.
Chapter 3 deals with the management of the church. Specifically, it is about “how our Lord Jesus carries out his pastoral office and the work of our salvation through his ordained ministers.” As he does in each chapter, Bucer begins with some relevant Scripture passages. The very first one in this chapter is Matthew 28:18-20! After a number of other passages, Bucer offers some explanation. He says again that it is through his ordained ministers that Christ does his work on earth. He says, “Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins…” (page 21). This, he writes, is shown by the first text mentioned. The Great Commission is applied to the ministers of the church.
The most intriguing chapter is the seventh, “How the Lost Sheep Are To Be Sought.” Again, one finds a number of Scripture texts at the beginning and among them is Mark’s version of the Great Commission in Mark 16:15. Writes Bucer, “There are three things to learn from these texts. The first is that those who exercise Christ’s ministry in the church are to seek to bring all people to the knowledge of Christ” (page 76). In the first paragraph sub-heading, Bucer writes, “All people are to acknowledge Christ as their Lord, therefore his kingdom must be proclaimed and offered to all nations” (page 76). In that paragraph he acknowledged that not all are elect. But we have no access to “the secrets of his election.” So “he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature” (page 77). He is paraphrasing Mark 16:15, the Great Commission, and says that it applies to “us.”
Bucer also has some advice for rulers in this chapter. When rulers take their spiritual responsibilities towards their subjects seriously, “then our dear God will also surely entrust them with rightly seeking out and bringing to Christ those who by birth and breeding are estranged from Christ, such as Jews, Turks, and other heathen” (page 86). Unfortunately, notes Bucer, many rulers have done a disservice to the gospel by invading and robbing foreign countries. God judges this behaviour by returning the same upon the heads of oppressors: “Thus the Jews have sucked dry the poor Christians to a remarkable extent by means of their usury, and the Turks day by day strip us of land and people with violence, making quite alarming advances” (page 87).
Now we come to the quote that Boer supplied in Pentecost and Missions. This is Peter Beale’s translation:
Now, the elders of the church are always to see to the supply of those things which we have concluded in this article to be lacking in the seeking out of lost lambs by ordinary Christians and rulers. And if they do not have the apostolic call and command to go to foreign people, they must still see that in the churches where the Holy Spirit has appointed them as bishops and overseers no-one anywhere who does not belong to the fellowship of Christ is left to wander, but seek in every case to do what God always entrusts to them, in order to bring such people to the full communion of Christ. (pages 88-89)
This translation is different from that of Boer in one key word. In the second sentence, Boer had “And though they…” Beale has “And if they…” The German original says, “Und wo sie…” I’m not a German expert, but from what I can tell, Beale’s translation is more accurate. If that’s the case, then Bucer is making a concession to those who might argue that the Great Commission does not apply to church elders. By the way, he is explicitly referring to elders — in German, Bucer uses the word “eltisten,” an older form of the modern German “ältesten.”
To me it is clear that Boer was mistaken about Bucer. Not only in his later book De Regno Christi, but also in his earlier book Von der waren Seelsorge, Bucer viewed the Great Commission having continuing application in the church of Christ. Bucer never changed his mind; rather Boer misunderstood him. How and why did Boer get this wrong? I could only speculate. What I know for sure is that my own published doctoral work contains errors too (though nothing that negates my overall thesis). In some instances, I too misunderstood someone or something, in others I had incomplete information. All of us are merely human and not only prone to sin, but also to mistakes in our research and reasoning. This is why advancing scholarship in a field has to be a joint venture. As we study together and check our work, we can detect the mistakes, correct them, and move forward.