Concerning the True Care of Souls

Martin Bucer was a contemporary of Martin Luther and a leader of the Reformation. The True Care of Souls was first published in 1538 but not translated into English until this edition by Peter Beal. The original work was not well received in its time because Bucer strongly challenged the Roman Catholic Church, godless rulers, and even many ministers within Lutheran circles for their neglect of spiritual and physical needs of souls under their care. Readers of this volume today who desire insight on soul-care from an original Reformer will on the one hand gain historical perspective of the emerging 16th century Protestant church, but on the other will find much of the discussion inappropriate for the modern church. For example, Bucer writes in the context of the state church and sees civil rulers as ministers of soul-care for those under their charge. For Bucer there was no separation of church and state, even in spiritual matters (pp. 81-90, 99, 106-109, 139-141). Secondly, the Pope and the Catholic church were very much in the backdrop of Bucer’s concerns (p. 14). Thirdly, Bucer equates Israel with the church (p. 10) and, while many in the Reformed and Lutheran churches do the same today, to do so often leads to interpreting Scripture out-of-context (e.g. Jeremiah 23:5-6, 10). Fourth, as a Lutheran, Bucer never fully separated himself from baptismal regeneration (p. 89). Fifth, Bucer’s views on penance being necessary for communion in the church, penance performed on behalf of others, and the church’s ability to forgive sin, are not biblical (see pp. 105, 111-120, 133-138, 124-129, 139).

All of these will distract from the value of the book, but the essence of the volume still makes it a valuable read. The purpose statement is clearly expressed by Bucer: “We want to demonstrate to all the pious children of God, who from their hearts pray for the future of the kingdom of Christ according to the measure of the church, so that they may thoroughly understand what the church of Christ is, what rule and order it must have, who its true ministers are and how they are to exercise true salvation for Christ’s lambs; so that we may at last be the true and rightly ordered church of God and the body of Christ, which we have to be or else be eternally cast out from Christ the Lord and his kingdom” (p. xxxiii).

The heart of Concerning the True Care of Souls is identifying and expounding upon the five main tasks of soul-care, which are drawn from Ezekiel 34:16:

  • Leading the lost to Christ.
  • Restoring believers who have been drawn away from the church by the flesh or false doctrine.
  • Assisting the true reformation of those who have remained in the church but who nevertheless, are living in sin.
  • Reestablishing in true Christian strength and health of those who are somewhat feeble and sick in the Christian life.
  • Protecting and encouraging those who are spiritually healthy (p. 70).

Bucer dedicates a chapter each to these five tasks, with the theme of discipline being “the most distinctive thread running through it” (p. xxi). The author believes churches of all size need many shepherds to provide soul-care, but in every church there will be a prominent leader (i.e. pastor) (pp. 36, 37, 58).

Much of Concerning the True Care of Souls is antiquated and useful primarily to comprehend the historical context of life in the early Protestant church. But the emphasis on soul-care as the principle duty of the shepherds of the church is vital today. In a culture in which the church has become a business, an entertainment center, a social network in which little is expected or required of believers, Bucer’s reminder that the church is about caring for souls is refreshing and badly needed.

by Martin Bucer (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009) 218 pp + xxxvii, hard $24.00

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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