Martin Bucer (1491-1551) on “Honest Games”: fun and games with piety


The conviction that God is Lord over all of life prompted Reformed Christians to active involvement in every area of the wider culture. Martin Bucer (1491-1551) in this regard gives his theological reflections upon what makes for wholesomeness in various sorts of games. The excerpts below from his work De Regno Christi in the chapter titled “Honest Games” would seem utterly puritanical and even unrealistic to the modern reader, but whatever your thoughts may be, do note the careful way in which Bucer sought the glory of God in every recreational activity:

“…since human nature has that weakness by which it cannot always concentrate on grave and serious matters but demands other rest besides sleep, there must also be provision made for certain relaxations from work and useful  studies and a certain recreation of the strength both of the spirit and of the body in play and games, especially when grave and serious obligations have been satisfied, and by all means in proper moderation and prudence, so that the kind of games is prescribed and presented for adults and youth in which there need not be feared any relaxation of morals  or delight in wicked idleness and from which there may also be gained a certain strengthening of health as well as some improvement in the cultivation of the mind. As a pagan philosopher wrote, ‘We have not been so fashioned by nature that we seem to have been made for sport and games but rather for hardship and for certain more serious and more important pursuits’ (Cicero, De officiis, I, 29).

These games must be derived from musical and gymnastic art. From music one will take poems and songs that present and proclaim nothing futile, nothing inappropriate to the Christian profession and nothing obscene and wicked, but rather to the praises of God and the Saviour derived from all his works and judgments as these are expressed in Holy Scripture; the praise of virtues and of men excelling in virtue; laws and precepts of a pious life, and well-known and helpful historical narratives.

To these may be added dances (but the dances of pious girls must be separate from the dances of young boys) which may be danced to pure and holy songs, with chaste and modest motion befitting those who profess piety…”

“Youth could also perform comedies and tragedies, and by such means a useful form of entertainment, honourable and contributing toward an increase in piety, may be staged for the people; but it will be necessary that devout and wise men experienced in the Kingdom of Christ compose these comedies and tragedies, in which there may be presented on the stage the plans, actions, and events of mankind, whether common and ordinary as it occurs in comedies or unique and eliciting admiration as it is characteristic of tragedies. All this will contribute toward a correction of morals and a pious orientation to life…”

“It must be observed, however, that when in both kinds of poetic material, comic and tragic, the activities and sins of men are described and actively presented to be seen with the eyes, its should be done in such a way that although the crimes of reprobate men are related, yet a certain terror of divine judgment and horror of sin should appear in these things, and a shameless daring and an exultant delight in crimes should not be expressed. It is better here to take something away from poetic fitness rather than from the concern for edifying the piety of the spectators, which demands that in every representation of sin there be felt the condemnation of one’s conscience and the horrible fear of God’s judgment.

But when pious and good actions are shown, they should express as clearly as possible a happy, secure, and confident sense of the divine mercy, but moderate and diffident as regards the self, and a joyful trust in God and his promises, with holy and spiritual pleasure in doing good. This is the way by which one can present most skilfully the saints’ character, way of life, and emotion for the establishment of all piety and virtue among the people.”

– Martin Bucer (1491-1551), De Regno Christi, Chapter LIV, “Honest Games”

There is so much here that contemporary Christians can learn from, as vastly as our recreational activities may differ from those of Bucer’s context in the 16th century. While what Bucer wrote, as I said at the beginning, would seem utterly puritanical and unrealistic to the average modern reader, it should lead us to self-examination about our recreational activities: Are the recreational activities we partake in of such a nature and done with such a disposition as to bring glory to God and edification to our brothers and sisters?

To summarize, I take four valuable lessons from these excerpts:

Firstly: God, having made us and by his omniscience knowing us infinitely, has blessed us with recreational activities and leisure to provide balance to our lives, and for our enjoyment. Therefore we ought to give thanks to God for all the fun, laughs, games, music, you name it, which God has blessed us with. These are not to be taken for granted and are to be acknowledged as gifts from his fatherly hand, with the due praise and thanks.

Secondly: In all these activities moderation is required. Recreation complements our obligations at work and our concentration on serious matters – it is not an alternative which replaces hard work and serious matters. In short – work hard and play hard.

Thirdly: We must refrain from wickedness and activities which are contrary to the revealed will of God. Considering many of the predominant forms of entertainment of our contemporary culture, which often rally against God’s holiness and glorify sin and carnality, this is a difficult endeavour for Christians today. Nevertheless, God has provided us with more than enough options of recreational activities to choose from which are wholesome, edifying, and can be done with due reverence and piety to the glory of His Name

Lastly: In connection with the previous point, all our recreational activities are to be done to the glory of God. He is the one who created us, who gave us life and energy to partake in such activities, and who in his grace and love provided us with the ability to laugh and sing and enjoy one another’s company. Thus all our recreational activity should have “Soli Deo Gloria” written all over it. May God work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit to create this ethos in us, to the glory of His Name.


One thought on “Martin Bucer (1491-1551) on “Honest Games”: fun and games with piety

  1. […] Martin Bucer (1491-1551) on “Honest Games”: fun and games with piety ( […]

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