A Bucerian Erastianism? An “after-moment” appraisal

One cannot help but be stirred in reading Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi.  He takes all the beauty of Plato’s Republic, strips it of its communism and communal marriage (which are probably the same thing) and reworks it around a rich Christian legal heritage.  One notes, however, that he give the magistrate a fairly large role in guiding religion to reform the society.  Is this Erastianism?  Maybe not, for Bucer is not saying (as far as I could read) that the magistrate should appoint ministers and determine doctrine.  He does, I think, give the magistrate free rein to reform the diaconate.  That might not be a bad idea, though.  Contrary to Baptist and congregationalist thought, deacons are not ruling elders in the church.  Further, on Bucer’s gloss, the role of the diaconate overlaps within the civil sphere, in which case it does become the magistrate’s prerogative.  Bucer doesn’t explicitly make that argument, but it does appear to be the general outline of his thought.

It helps to remember that Bucer wrote this treatise for King Edward VI, an early hero of Protestantism.   Following Wyclif’s “civil dominion” tract, Bucer’s proposal can be seen, if not as an Erastian state, then at least as a “churchly state.”  Admittedly, it’s hard not to be caught up in his narrative.  Even in his communistic and unbelieving moments, few can deny the power of Plato’s Republic.  Bucer takes all those beautiful elements and transforms them.  He gives us the vision of a truly Christian society, in which mercy and justice truly meet.

It’s not surprising, then, that some of the guys at the Calvinist International are hinting towards an irenic Erastianism.  Framed around Bucer, Hooker, and Edward VI, it’s a fairly compelling narrative.    Still, our duties as Christians are often applied to the situations in which we now live.  These situations, of course, are formed by those which came before–water under the bridge, if you will.  Some of that water includes the butchering of Scottish Presbyterians who would not yield to an Erastian state.   This is the fly in the ointment to any modern Erastian proposal.   Secondly, it’s not entirely clear that Bucer is even suggesting this.

(This post is part of a larger review of De Regno Christi, hopefully forthcoming)

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5 comments on “A Bucerian Erastianism? An “after-moment” appraisal

  1. Benjamin P. Glaser says:

    Agree on the trajectory of the Calvinist International. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if those guys joined Cranmer sometime soon. (not that there is anything wrong with that).

    Good review. I remember the first time I read Plato’s “Republic” in college, it was the closest I have come to an “emotional” reaction in reading a non-theological book. It was breathtaking.

  2. Daniel Kok says:

    “Bucer is not saying (as far as I could read) that the magistrate should appoint ministers and determine doctrine.”

    I have not read De Regno Christi, but Bucer makes some helpful distinctions in “Concerning the True Care of Souls”

    “we conclude that, since those who are chief and great are appointed by the Lord to be chief shepherds of his lambs upon earth (because he wishes all souls to be subject to him), they are responsible to direct and employ all their power and ability as much as possible in order that the Lord’s lambs which are still lost and wandering might be sought with all diligence and truly brought to him. These rulers are as God and Christ in the sight of and for all other people, and therefore they must also set forth and carry out in the sight of and for all others the work of God and Christ in continually seeking and saving that which is lost.
    *This does not mean that they themselves are to preach, or minister the word and sacraments and apply church discipline, because this is a special ministry and office in the church,* as we have explained above; but since the rulers have the highest authority over all people and therefore more than anyone else are to see to it that everyone lives in a way which is right and proper and carries out his duties properly, this means that all rulers are more than anyone else responsible for seeing to it that there is no one living among them who is not faithfully sought and encouraged to come to Christ. For quite simply, no one can have happiness or salvation unless he is one of Christ’s sheep and in his sheep pen. Here alone is to be found the shelter and pasture of eternal life.
    But rulers will see to this correctly when they follow the example of the ancient godly princes and rulers who ruled in a godly way over the people of Israel and the ancient pious Christians, in providing for the church’s ministry and care of souls in such a way that the churches are not injured and harmed by wolves and hirelings, but have their faithful and industrious ministers who exercise the pastoral ministry and care of souls faithfully and correctly. Next, they will see to the education and discipline of all the young people and encourage the teaching and fostering of godliness. Thirdly, they will not allow anyone to despise this ministry of salvation to old and young by either hindering others or turning away from it themselves, whether through false teaching or other folly or arrogance.”

    I take this to mean that Christian rulers have a duty before God to lead their people to true religion, but this particularly means leading them to competent teachers (clergy). By referring (in the third paragraph) to OT history, Bucer is arguing that the godly ruler must ensure that true religion is taught without requiring that he is responsible for directly appointing ministers and elders.

    If you want the whole document (every portion in the book where he addresses the ruler’s responsibility in matters of religion) let me know and I will e-mail it to you.

  3. Andrew says:

    I don’t agree with everything said over at the CI but as you say they are offering up a compelling narrative. But whether or not they (some or all) are proposing an irenic Erastianism their interpretation of the two kingdoms doesn’t seem to necessitate that as such. Well, at least the Erastian part. The irenicism does seem to follow.

    If it could be shown that Erastianism establishes freedom in the civil kingdom (there’s a fascinating discussion about this in Nelson’s Hebrew Republic) then it might well follow, but as yet I don’t see it.

  4. Friend for Life says:

    I haven’t read Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi. Where can I find a copy? Thanks. 🙂

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