Martin Bucer and the Reform of Worship

If Martin Bucer (1477-1548) is not an unsung hero of the Reformation, he is certainly an undersung hero. This particularly is the case when it comes to public worship. Bucer's fingerprints are all over Calvin's Form of Church Prayers (1542) as well as the Book of Common Prayer (1552, 1559, 1662). Calvin acknowledges that most of his Form was borrowed from Bucer, while Bucer's 50-page response to King Edward VI's first Book of Common Prayer (1549), entitled Censura, led to major alterations in a solidly if incompletely Reformed direction.

Particularly noteworthy is Bucer's publication in 1524 of Grund und Ursach, recently reprinted as Ground and Reason, the first major defense of Protestant liturgical reforms. Hughes Old calls Grund und Ursach "one of the most significant documents in the history of Reformed worship." It represents Bucer's attempt on behalf of the Protestant ministers of Strasbourg to explain the ground (Grund) and reason or justification (Ursach) for the reforms taking place in their city. Services were being conducted in German, images had been removed, shrines and relics destroyed, and other substantial alterations in the medieval mass made. On the one hand, traditionalists were outraged and moderate humanists had become alienated from the movement for reform, while on the other hand Carlstadt and the Anabaptists didn't believe the reform had gone far enough. Bucer moves systematically, issue by issue defending the changes in worship in Strasbourg. It is perhaps surprising, but more than that, encouraging to see the continuity in thinking from Bucer to, say, Hughes Old, in identifying the fundamental principles of Reformed worship. The Reformed consensus from Bucer to Calvin to Westminster to today is striking, as he addresses the Lord's Supper, baptism, holy days, images, church song, and preaching.

Lord's Supper

Bucer makes one basic point which has manifold repercussions: the Lord's Supper is not a sacrifice, but a supper. He terms it "a most pernicious and most abominable error" to believe that in the Lord's Supper the body and blood of Christ are sacrificed. He demonstrates both that the communion elements are "common food" (not the substance of Christ's flesh) and that Christ's death was "once for all" and complete. Because it is a Supper, he maintains, it should be called what the Bible calls it, the Lord's Supper. What were formerly called altars should be called tables. All that implies sacrifice should be removed from the service: the elevation of the bread and cup, priestly vestments ("the magnificent armor of the Mass lovers"), and all gestures, postures, and language not found in Scripture, including the superstition-saturated sign-of-the-cross. These so-called "innovations" of Protestantism, removing the extra-biblical features, are rather "restorations," Bucer claims, "of what is right, old, and eternal." Fully 70% of Grund und Ursach is taken up with the reform of the Lord's Supper.


Bucer urges the reform of baptism by abolishing extra-biblical elements used in baptism - chrism, oil, salt, bread, candles, and consecrated water. These and other practices have "no scriptural justification," he insists, and serve "no good purpose." Rather, baptisms should be conducted "without ostentation."

Holy days

Because of religious superstitions in connection with holy days and "carnal pursuits" surrounding them, Bucer argues for the abolition of all holy days that cannot be justified from Scripture. Why "establish useless celebrations," he asks, that are "without a single Word of God?"

Images and holy places

Bucer praises the removal of idols and images from the churches on the basis of the 1st and 2nd Commandments. He urges, "The lay people should be taught with the Word of God and not with dumb blocks, stones, and paintings." Bucer also attacks the veneration of saints and relics and pilgrimages to allegedly holy places. For such practices, "there is no Word of God," there are no holy places (God's help is not more available in one place than another), and "there is none who is more inclined to be merciful and to help us than our God and Father."

Singing, prayer, preaching

The custom had become to sing songs and offer prayers not based on Scripture and to sing or say them in Latin. Bucer argues for songs and prayers "based on Holy Scripture" and in the language of the people "so that all may be encouraged and edified" (1 Cor 14:1-40; Col 3:16). "No services are to be held for the assembled congregation without sermons," Bucer insists. This is perhaps the weakest part of his presentation. However, in the liturgy itself the sermon was the central feature, along with lectio continua readings of Scripture.

Guiding principles

What were Bucer's guiding principles? Even in our brief review, they are plain enough.

First, Christian worship must be "according to Scripture." Bucer appeals repeatedly to Scripture as the basis for reform. That which cannot be supported by Scripture must be eliminated or altered. That which is required by Scripture must be incorporated into the liturgy. This principle may be found on virtually every page of Grund und Ursach. In addition, Christian worship must be filled with Scripture and in the language of the people. The prayers, songs, and sermons must be full of scriptural content. "Everything is based on the Scriptures," he insists.

Second, Christian worship must be spiritual and simple. Worship should be concerned primarily with inner spiritual realities. It is not primarily a matter of ceremonies, procedures, rituals, and forms. Rather, it is grounded in faith and motivated by love.


Bucer's Grund und Ursach provides a clear example of how the Reformation's reform of worship was theologically driven. Once the sufficiency and finality of Christ's atonement was understood (solus Christus), and once the means by which the benefits of that atonement were received was understood (sola fide, sola gratia), the worship of the church had to be reformed. The former required the removal of everything that explicitly or implicitly suggested sacrifice in favor of the simple observance of the Lord's Supper, at a table, administered by a minister, dressed in a simple gown. The latter required the removal of relics, images and idols (since faith comes by hearing the word of God, not gazing upon religious artifacts), and replacing them with reading, preaching, and singing of God's word. Bucer's reasoning is as compelling today as it was nearly 500 years ago, and it stands as a reminder to Reformed Protestants of why we do what we do in our public worship services.