It comes out about as accurate as Historical Theologians doing serious OT work. I say this because I recently asked whence folk (FVists among them) get the idea that Martin Bucer’s soteriology marked a substantial break from Martin Luther’s. I don’t think they would get that sense if they were actually reading Bucer but they might if they were reading some secondary lit. As I tell my students most secondary lit is dreck. There are a few reasons for this. First, much secondary lit is published for the wrong reasons, namely, professional advancement. Scholars should publish when they have something to contribute but the academy is not without its sins and one of them is that promotions are premised upon publications. People tend to do that for which they are rewarded. Thus scholars sometimes publish before they should. Second, some books just aren’t very good. I can think easily of 5-10 books that should never have been published, at least not in the form in which they appeared, but they appeared anyway. Why? In some cases it was because the writer was saying what people wanted to hear. Unfortunately, that happens more than we would like to think. Third, sometimes scholars get used to being addressed as “Doctor so and so” and they start to believe that they are omnicompetent. They forget that they started their careers only really knowing one little field and they begin to believe that they can do more than they really are able to do.
Before me is The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985). Apparently some folk are citing a chapter, on Martin Bucer, in this volume as evidence that Bucer’s soteriology different substantially from Luther’s (one finds a bit of this same line of thinking in Martin Greschat’s biography of Bucer too—I’ve argued with Greschat’s reading of the Reformation here. In the Bucer bio he simply assumes that Bucer taught the tertius usus legis and Luther did not). Well, check the end notes to the chapter. Most of the references are not to Bucer’s Opera Omnia but to a variety of secondary texts, several of which are quite dated. Some of the secondary literature to which the author appeals is simply controversial, e.g., H. E. Weber. Even where the author does cite primary sources he does so in the service of an interpretation of Bucer which is certainly not obvious or necessary.
This is to be expected when Bucer or any other figure appears as a talking head in a chapter that is only a rung of a ladder in a larger argument. Bucer is meant to pop up, say his lines, and move off stage to make room for the next talking head in the survey. A Reformation historian would not take such a linear (longitudinal) approach. His approach would be treat Bucer in his context and his research would be more inductive. He would read Bucer, in context, and ask “what are Bucer’s concerns?” “What is Bucer trying to say?” It is just a little less historical to come to a figure and ask, “what did Bucer say about x?” or “Did Bucer use the same expression as Luther?” I guess that, as an OT scholar, HGR would be more sensitive about questions in his own field but as a historian of theology he’s a little ham-fisted.
Were I researching Bucer I would not look to an OT scholar to teach me Reformation history and theology. Blockhead that I am, I would expect him to teach me Old Testament. What surprises me is that folk are apparently taking this account seriously as Reformation history and using it as a foundation for arguments about the nature of Bucer’s soteriology and his relations to the rest of the Reformed tradition.
Bucer was regarded by Calvin and the other Reformed leaders in the 16th and 17th centuries as an orthodox Protestant on justification. Bucer learned his doctrine of justification from Luther. He learned his doctrine of double justification from Luther who preached two sermons on that topic in 1518-19. In both cases the first ground of justification was said to be Christ’s righteousness imputed and the second justification was only what we would call vindication or sanctification as evidence of justification. That was Bucer’s doctrine of double justification. This notion that Bucer had some distinct doctrine of double justification is simply confused. You can read more on this here: “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107-34.
I am not saying that Bucer’s theology is identical to Luther’s, not at all. He identified with the Reformed reformation. He accepted the more highly developed role for the Spirit in Reformed theology. He accepted the notion that we justified in order that we might be sanctified (which at least some Lutherans accepted), he accepted the Reformed church polity and the Reformed Christology and view of the sacraments. These were regarded as organic developments not a repudiation of Luther. There’s no concrete evidence that I’ve seen, and here I’m thinking of Bucer’s massive (400,000 word) Romans commentary, that Bucer abandoned the basic sola fide conviction of the Reformers. Yes, the compromise at Regensburg was complicated, but explainable in light of the pressures and circumstances under which the compromise was reached (see the article linked above). Yes, Bucer was a Christian humanist, but so was Calvin and his Protestant credentials are undoubted. So was Melanchthon and so were a number of leading Protestants. Being a Christian humanist did not entail a corruption of the Protestant doctrine of justification. The Renaissance, as it was appropriated by the Reformers, was much more about pedagogy and academic methodology than it was a particular philosophy or theology.
As I see it there was a strong pan-Protestant consensus in the 16th century on justification and unless there is clear and compelling evidence to the contrary, we should continue to think that Bucer held the doctrine of justification as accepted and articulated by all the Protestants from Augsburg (Art 4) to Heidelberg Q. 60 to Westminster Confession ch. 11.