Ordained Servant Online
Concerning the True Care of Souls
William J. Shishko
Concerning the True Care of Souls, by Martin Bucer (translated by Peter Beale). Edinburgh, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009, xxxviii + 218 pages, $24.00.
The Banner of Truth Trust is to be highly commended for its publication of the first English translation of Martin Bucer's Concerning the True Care of Souls, which was originally published in German in 1538. The value of this book cannot be overestimated. The Protestant Reformation's original handbook of pastoral theology, it is a major piece of the puzzle that shows the fascinating connection between Europe and Britain in the reformation of pastoral care.
Martin Bucer (1491–1551) served as pastor in Strasbourg from 1523 to 1549. During that time, and at the very time Concerning the True Care of Souls was originally published, John Calvin (who had been exiled after his first period of ministry in Geneva) came under the influence of Bucer in Strasbourg. By the time Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541 with a virtually open invitation to bring reformation to that city, Bucer's biblically developed views of the church, Christian ministry, church office, and pastoral care had greatly formed his thinking. Indeed, Bucer's ideas took better root in Geneva than they did in Strasbourg.
In 1549, after Bucer came into conflict with the political leaders of Strasbourg, he accepted an invitation to move to England, where he was appointed as Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. He served in that position until his death in 1551. During that brief but fruitful time he composed his famous De Regno Christi, and also influenced the revisions that would become the second (and far more Protestant) edition of The Book of Common Prayer. Richard Baxter appears to have been influenced by Bucer as well, and many of the suggestions developed in Concerning the True Care of Souls would take flesh in Baxter's now famous ministry in Kidderminster, and would be enunciated in his classic work The Reformed Pastor.
Concerning the True Care of Souls (which was originally entitled Concerning the true soul-care and the correct shepherd-service, how the same should be established and executed in the church of Christ) consists of twelve chapters and a summary. Its chapters include treatments of the nature of the church and the nature of Christ's rule in the church, how the Lord carries out his pastoral office and the work of salvation in his church through his ordained ministers, and the principle work and activity of those who care for souls. Bucer then offers his pastoral advice concerning how the lost sheep are to be sought, how straying sheep are to be restored, how hurting and wounded sheep are to be healed, how the weak sheep are to be strengthened, and how healthy and strong sheep are to be guarded and fed. One easily finds here the seed of what later flowered in Reformed pastoral theology and even in much biblical counseling that has been developed in the Reformed tradition.
Why should pastors and elders in particular give attention to this heretofore obscure and inaccessible volume?
First, there is the historical value of the book. Scholars in the field of church history are showing fresh interest in Bucer's powerful influence on so many aspects of the developing theology of the Protestant Reformation. Now pastors have access to the volume written by Bucer that had similar influence on the reformation of pastoral care in the developing church life of the same period.
Second, the book is rich in its theological insights. I have not read as helpful an explanation of the meaning of "binding and loosing" as I have read here; and the well developed concept of church office and authority applied throughout the book is a refreshing antidote to the ambivalence toward these subjects that marks most contemporary treatments.
Third, the book is practical. It is a true "practical theology." Keeping in mind that by "penance" Bucer is speaking of the fruits of repentance, the treatment of this subject alone makes the book most valuable for pastors and elders. Likewise are Bucer's biblical expositions of the nature of the authority and work of ministers, elders, and deacons.
Finally, the book is motivational. Bucer addressed the book "To all believers in our Lord Jesus Christ ... that they may rightly recognize and love his church and the fellowship of his people" (xxxi). His burden, particularly, is that those who care for souls have the heart of the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Pastors will come away from this book with a fresh zeal to have just such a heart.
One suggestion: Read the summary of chapters on pages 211–14 before beginning at chapter 1.
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Franklin Square, NY.
Ordained Servant, December 2009