Understanding Bucer’s Economics of Neighborly Love

We are designed for relationships. And economic ones too. Martin Bucer’s 1523 Instruction in Christian Love is a remarkably practical summary of basic Christian belief, one that can inform and encourage conversations about what these relationships can and should look like. 

Just as a city listens to and respects the commands of an emperor, so the church listens to the commands of Christ, as delivered in the Word, the Scriptures. When the church does this, it is enabled to live in a radically new way: “And so according to the Scripture I exhort every one of you not to live for himself, but for his neighbor,” Bucer writes on Christian love. In Instruction, Bucer casts a vision for what we can call theopolitical economy. He claims to “show how to attain this ideal, for it can be realized in this world and life.” We are created with this privilege and responsibility of serving others, he writes: “All other creatures exist, indeed, not for themselves. With all they are, possess, and can do, they serve God in doing good to all other creatures according to their nature and order.” 

Bucer worked tirelessly to help people see the connections between their theology and their daily lives. Although written in the 16th century, his holistic view of ministry and his emphasis on the practical implications of theopolitical economy can continue to inspire us. In Bucer’s vision, with the redemption of creation also comes a redemption of God’s original economic design. His idealism should motivate us to keep pursuing this ideal in our own lives, and insofar as it depends on us. In this short volume, he explains why. And how.

A High Calling for Us All

All of nature obeys the Word of God. This Word of God gave humanity the authority — and the ability — to rule creation, to steward it for the common good. This is the beginning of Bucer’s theopolitical economy.

God’s pronouncement at the creation narrative that all was “very good” means that “all things are directed one toward the other.” It also means that “man rules over all things for their good and usefulness. Consequently, all things in their respective order are altogether very good.” There is mutuality and interdependence in the created order. Furthermore, there is an order that mankind must respect. 

God’s original creation lays down the rails for humanity’s subsequent rule. However, the Fall introduced sin and corruption into this perfect economy. Bucer explains:

Thus the whole creation, which should have been used only to the praise and glory of its Creator and for the preservation and profit of men, has been disgraced, profaned, and depraved by our diabolical misuse and self-seeking. As far as they can, the godless use creation for the destruction of themselves and others, thus insulting and disgracing God. Hence creation laments and lives in anxiety with all the godly, whom the godless, who fill the world, now mistreat and equally abuse.


With sin came abuse — of God’s creatures and God’s creation. However, through the work of Christ,  we look forward to the redemption of the entire creation (Romans 8): “The whole creation shall again contribute to man’s good and blessedness; man will then rule over nature, using it to the glory of God; and God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). 

For Bucer, the gospel most definitely affects this world — not just a future ethereal heaven. Both sin and redemption affect all of creation. In more economic terms, he describes redemption as this: 

He [God] requires us to desire to further the profit and salvation of all. Hence, before all creatures, man must so direct his being that in all his doings he seeks not his own, but only the welfare of his neighbors and brethren for the honor of God. Thereby man will also use well and rightly all other creatures and blessedly rule them for their own welfare and proper honor.


Following Christ means that we “take all that love which poisoned nature had him place on himself, and put it all on his neighbor.” And referring to 1 Corinthians 13:5 Bucer says, “love, which is the fulfillment of the Law, seeks not itself but always the profit and welfare of others — be they friends or enemies.” True Christian love seeks the common good of all: “Yet one must make no difference between men — whoever and however they are — but have the same love and desire to procure for each the good to which he is responsive.” 

Bucer presents the telos of human existence, a telos that leads to a high view of both church and political leadership: 

From this it follows that the best, the most perfect and blessed condition on earth is that in which a man can most usefully and profitably serve his neighbor. 


Loving our neighbor, in other words, fulfills the Law of God. The minister is one who is willing to sacrifice his entire life and his material possessions for the sake of his flock. And ministers who do not “employ all their diligence to promote the common good and spiritual betterment,” Bucer says, “are a hindrance to the common good.” Civil rulers also have a high calling. As with ministry, the role of magistrate, for example, is fundamentally other-focused: “This public office requires men who also completely deny themselves and seek nothing for themselves.”

Bucer censures the current leaders of both church and society, but he also places blame on the populace: “Let us blame also our godless character for our having tyrants, wolves, bears, lions, babes, and fools instead of pious and God-minded leaders and civil authorities.” In practical terms, this maintains a two-fold emphasis in pursuing change in society. We should hold our rulers to high standards, but we should also pursue those standards in our own lives and in our own professions.

He presents an alternate standard of neighborly love, judging professions not by the income, but by service rendered to the common good. Like his contemporary Martin Luther, Bucer believed every job has dignity. But in his opinion, there were still professions that were “most Christian.” “Agriculture, cattle-raising, and the necessary occupations therewith connected,” for example, were to Bucer “the most profitable to the neighbors and cause them the least trouble.” In his theopolitical economy, any hierarchy of professions is based on the degree of service rendered to others. He states this clearly:

Every man should encourage his child to enter these professions because children should be encouraged to enter the best profession, and the best profession is the one which brings most profit to neighbors. 


It is unsurprising, then, that Bucer has harsh words for professions that seek profit for profit’s sake. It is an ancient Christian worry that he brings to light — the ethics of business. For Bucer, wealth by itself is not a good that is worth pursuing. Even if we might quibble with Bucer’s wholesale condemnation of business, we can resonate with his warnings about the dangers of wealth gained too quickly or too easily, as Jesus warned about the dangers of wealth for a reason (Matt 19:23-24).

How To Live (and Work) For Others

Since all things were created through Jesus Christ, only through him can all things be restored to their original purpose. Bucer’s cosmic view of redemption is solidly anchored in the messy details of life in community. Faith in Christ remakes humanity “according to the earliest world order, that is, useful to many and understanding all creatures. This restoration will reach each man according to his degree of receptivity and responsiveness.” Redemption restores right relationships between mankind and all creatures. We are “useful” to each other, and we have “understanding” of all creatures. Bucer is no gnostic. Salvation has real effects here and now, not just in the spiritual realm.

Bucer describes the effects of sin and redemption in terms of political economy: Sin has poisoned our nature and causes us to “love only ourselves and seek only our profit. Thereby we now ruin ourselves, hurt our neighbor, insult God, and disgrace our Creator.” Through the redemption accomplished by Christ, “God has brought all things back to their original character — living for the glory of God and usefulness to all creatures, but especially to men.” When this “restoration through Christ, this reconciliation and reorganization through Christ” reaches us, the effect is “the spirit of true love will certainly return to us — that spirit which is considerate in all things and seeks not its own but the welfare of the neighbor.”

True faith in God can rest securely in him and stop the relentless self-seeking that characterizes all of us apart from Christ. Resting securely in God’s love for us, and in his ultimate goodness, enables us to share that love with others. We when we are full of the goodness of God, that must necessarily spill out and overflow into the lives of others. Salvation has both vertical and horizontal dimensions:

Faith not only brings into us a complete trust in Christ but it also restores us to that right and divine order in which we had been created. Moreover, through faith we are offered and accept His Spirit which makes us certain that we are children of God. As a result we gladly do all kinds of deeds of love for our neighbor.


Serving others should always be motivated by gratitude for God’s grace. We do not serve out of guilt, but out of gratitude. Meditating on how Christ gave up glory and came to die for sinful humanity should motivate the believing to say, “All I have is through Thee out of the grace of the Father. I will keep nothing for myself but with joy will put all I possess at the service of my brethren.” In Christ, we are a “new creature who no longer can live selfishly, but must live for the advantage of his neighbor and to the glory of God.”

Expounding Ephesians 2:8-10, Bucer reminds his readers that good works must characterize the true Christian life. However, we do not “perform these acts for our own benefit but simply because God in advance has prepared us for them so that they shall be our way of life.” Doing good works restores us to our creational purpose:

The bird attends to flying, the fish to swimming, and man to speaking. Just as little as any creature or work of God can disregard that for which it has been created, unless an accident occurs, so little can a Christian and true believer live without doing good works, forgetting himself, benefiting all men, doing and giving to each according to his ability to receive and to respond.


Lastly, he ends where he begins, reminding his readers of the centrality of the Word of God in the work of redemption, and in pursuing a life of good works: “For only the Word of God makes us wholesome and blessed. The divine Word brings faith; faith brings love; love brings good deeds as its fruits — after which God gives us the eternal inheritance, a wholly divine and blessed life.”

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