Heinrich Bullinger: Christian Confessor (Part II)

Heinrich Bullinger in the Second Helvetic Confession gave the world an excellent summary of the Reformed faith. Since this confession is relatively unknown today, it may be useful to quote some distinctive statements from the confession and notice some similarities and differences in its formulations, with the work of other Reformed theologians.



In Chapter 1 the confession declares the full sufficiency of the Bible: “And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God ….” It also highlights—in its most quoted statement—the importance of preaching: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful….”

In Chapter 2 the confession makes a brief summary of the Reformed approach to studying the Bible: “But we hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agrees with the rule of faith and love, and contributes much to the glory of God and man’s salvation.”

In Chapter 4 the confession stresses the spiritual character of Reformed worship: “Since God as Spirit is in essence invisible and immense, he cannot really be expressed in any art or image…Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers or painters.” Not infrequently the confession supports its positions with quotations from the church fathers, like this one: “Therefore we approved the judgment of Lactantius, an ancient writer, who says: ‘Undoubtedly no religion exists where there is an image.’”

In Chapter 5 the confession states what will later be called the regulative principle of worship (showing that this principle is not an English Puritan or Scottish invention, but every bit as much a part of the continental tradition—see also Heidelberg Catechism Question 96, and Belgic Confession Article 7): “But we teach that God is to be adored and worshipped as he himself has taught us to worship, namely, ‘in spirit and in truth’ Gohn 4:23f.), not with any superstition, but with sincerity, according to his Word; lest at any time he should say to us: ‘Who has required these things from your hands?’ (Isaiah 1:12; Jeremiah 6:20).”

In Chapter 9 the discussion of free will is distinctive, but fully Reformed: “Therefore, in regard to evil or sin, man is not forced by God or by the devil but does evil by his own free will, and in this respect he has a most free will…Wherefore, man not yet regenerate has no free will for good, no strength to perform what is good.” Also the confession uses language similar to that later used in the Canons of Dort, III–IV, 11, about new qualities in the will of the regenerate: “In regeneration the understanding is illumined by the Holy Spirit in order that it may understand both the mysteries and the will of God. And the will itself is not only changed by the Spirit, but it is also equipped with faculties so that it wills and is able to do the good of its own accord.”

In Chapter 10 the confession makes clear statements about predestination to life that seem also to imply a doctrine of reprobation, even if it is not clearly or fully stated: “From eternity God has freely, and of his mere grace, without any respect to men, predestinated or elected the saints whom he wills to save in Christ…And although God knows who are his, and here and there mention is made of the small number of elect, yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be reprobate.” The pastoral character of the confession and especially of its approach to election is marked: “We therefore find fault with those who outside of Christ ask whether they are elected. And what has God decreed concerning them before all eternity? For the preaching of the Gospel is to be heard, and it is to be believed; and it is to be held as beyond doubt that if you believe and are in Christ, you are elected.” The confession also has strong language about the role of the sacraments as comfort in the face of any questions about election: “This finally we pray, with the whole Church of God, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ (Matthew 6:9), both because by baptism we are ingrafted into the body of Christ, and we are often fed in his Church with his flesh and blood unto life eternal.”

Occasionally there are surprises in the confession. In Chapter 11, for example, we find this statement about Mary: “Jesus was most chastely conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the ever virgin Mary….” We also find what seems to be a rejection of premillennialism and postmillennialism: “We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth.”

In Chapter 12 the confession teaches the traditional medieval and Reformed approach to the law: “For the sake of clarity we distinguish the moral law which is contained in the Decalogue or two Tables and expounded in the books of Moses, the ceremonial law which determines the ceremonies and worship of God, and the judicial law which is concerned with political and domestic matters.” It also shows beautifully how Christ fulfills the law for our salvation: “Therefore, Christ is the perfecting of the law and our fulfillment of it (Romans 10:4), who, in order to take away the curse of the law, was made a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Thus he imparts to us through faith his fulfillment of the law, and his righteousness and obedience are imputed to us.” The positive purpose of the law is expressed for the Christian life: “We know that in the law is delivered to us the patterns of virtues and vices.”

Chapter 13 defines the Gospel as all the Reformed should: “… the Gospel is properly called glad and joyous news…that God has now performed what he promised from the beginning of the world, and has sent, nay more, has given us his only Son and in him reconciliation with the Father, the remission of sins, all fullness and everlasting life.”

Chapter 15 summarizes the Reformation conviction on justification: “According to the apostle in his treatment of justification, to justify means to remit sins, to absolve from guilt and punishment, to receive into favor, and to pronounce a man just…For Christ took upon himself and bore the sins of the world, and satisfied divine justice. Therefore, solely on account of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection God is propitious with respect to our sins and does not impute them to us, but imputes Christ’s righteousness to us as our own…Properly speaking, therefore, God alone justifies us, and justifies only on account of Christ, not imputing sins to us but imputing his righteousness to us…But because we receive this justification, not through any works, but through faith in the mercy of God and in Christ, we therefore teach and believe with the apostle that sinful man is justified by faith alone in Christ, not by the law or any works.”

The confession makes clear the relationship of the teaching of Paul and of]ames: “James said that works justify, yet without contradicting the apostle (otherwise he would have to be rejected) but showing that Abraham proved his living and justifying faith by works.”

Chapter 16 defines faith: “Christian faith is not an opinion or human conviction, but a most firm trust and a clear and steadfast assent of the mind, and then a most certain apprehension of the truth of God presented in the Scriptures and in the Apostles’ Creed, and this also of God himself, the greatest good, and especially of God’s promise and of Christ who is the fulfillment of all promises.” This chapter also reiterates the regulative principle: “And indeed works and worship which we choose arbitrarily are not pleasing to God. These Paul calls ethleothreiskeias (Colossians 2:23 – ‘self-devised-worship’). Of such the Lord says in the Gospel: ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’ (Matthew 15:9).”1

In Chapter 17 the Roman Catholic doctrine of the church is rejected and the biblical teaching is affirmed: “[The Church] does not err as long as it rests upon the rock of Christ, and upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles. And it is no wonder if it errs, as often as it deserts him who alone is the truth.” The chapter discusses the unity of the church at length, for example: “Yet we cannot deny that God was in the apostolic Church and that it was a true Church, even though there were wranglings and dissensions in it.” The character and marks of the church are also examined: “… we teach that the true Church is that in which the signs or marks of the true Church are to be found, especially the lawful and sincere preaching of the Word of God….” Further, “And those who are such in the Church have one faith and one spirit; and therefore they worship but one God, and him alone they worship in spirit and in truth, loving him alone with all their hearts and with all their strength, praying unto him alone through Jesus Christ, the only Mediator and Intercessor; and they do not seek righteousness and life outside Christ and faith in him. Because they acknowledge Christ the only head and foundation of the Church, and, resting on him, daily renew themselves by repentance, and patiently bear the cross laid upon them. Moreover, joined together with all the members of Christ by an unfeigned love, they show that they are Christ’s disciples by persevering in the bond of peace and holy unity. At the same time they participate in the sacraments instituted by Christ, and delivered unto us by his apostles, using them in no other way than as they received them from the Lord.” The chapter returns to the theme of unity: “Unity consists not in outward rites and ceremonies, but rather in the truth and unity of the catholic faith. This catholic faith is not given to us by human laws, but by Holy Scriptures, of which the Apostles’ Creed is a compendium…So we teach that the true harmony of the Church consists in doctrines and in the true and harmonious preaching of the Gospel of Christ, and in rites that have been expressly delivered by the Lord.”

Chapter 18 presents the work of the ministry: “Therefore ministers are to be regarded, not as ministers by themselves alone, but as ministers of God, inasmuch as God effects the salvation of men through them… Therefore, let us believe that God teaches us by his word, outwardly through his ministers, and inwardly moves the hearts of his elect to faith by the Holy Spirit….” It also discusses church discipline: “And since discipline is an absolute necessity in the Church and excommunication was once used in the time of the early fathers, and there were ecclesiastical judgments among the people of God, wherein this discipline was exercised by wise and godly men, it also falls to ministers to regulate this discipline for edification, according to the circumstances of the time, public state, and necessity.”

Sacramental theology was a major issue in the sixteenth century. In Chapter 19 we can see the strong similarities between Bullinger and Calvin on the sacraments: “Sacraments are mystical symbols, or holy rites, or sacred actions, instituted by God himself, consisting of his Word, of signs and of things signified, whereby in the Church he keeps in mind and from time to time recalls the great benefits he has shown to men; whereby also he seals his promises, and outwardly represents, and, as it were offers unto our sight those things which inwardly he performs for us, and so strengthens and increases our faith through the working of God’s Spirit in our hearts.” And again the regulative principle: “Men cannot institute sacraments. For they pertain to the worship of God, and it is not for man to appoint and prescribe a worship of God, but to accept and preserve the one he has received from God.”

In Chapter 20 the confession addresses baptism: “Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God; that is to say, to be called a son of God; to be cleansed also from the filthiness of sins, and to be granted the manifold grace of God, in order to lead a new and innocent life.” This chapter also shows that for Bullinger the question of women in ecclesiastical office was a confession matter: “We teach that baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.”

In Chapter 21 Bullinger shows that he embraces the language of sacramental realism with respect to the Lord’s Supper: “At the same time by the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit they also inwardly receive the flesh and blood of the Lord, and are thereby nourished unto life eternal. For the flesh and blood of Christ is the true food and drink unto life eternal….”

In Chapter 23 we see that Bullinger is not rigorously upholding Zwingli’s practice of having no singing in the churches, but only seeking to have it tolerated: “Likewise moderation is to be exercised where singing is used in a meeting for worship…If there are churches which have a true and proper sermon but no singing, they ought not to be condemned.”

Chapter 24 shows a position on the Lord’s Day similar to that of Calvin and Ursinus (a position somewhat confused on the issue of holy days and church authority): “Hence we see that in the ancient churches there were not only certain set hours in a week appointed for meetings, but that also the Lord’s Day itself, ever since the apostles’ time, was set aside for them and for a holy rest, a practice now rightly preserved by our Churches for the sake of worship and love.. .In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath as a free observance.”

Chapter 25 shows again the pastoral sensitivity of the confession: “Since men are never exposed to more grievous temptations than when they are harassed by infirmities, are sick and are weakened by diseases of both soul and body, surely it is never more fitting for pastors of churches to watch more carefully for the welfare of their flocks than in such diseases and infirmities.”

The final chapter, Chapter 30, addresses the work of civil magistrates: “The chief duty of the magistrate is to secure and preserve peace and public tranquillity. Doubtless he will never do this more successfully than when he is truly God-fearing and religious; that is to say, when, according to the example of the most holy kings and princes of the people of the Lord, he promotes the preaching of the truth and sincere faith, roots out lies and all superstition, together with all impiety and idolatry, and defends the Church of God. We certainly teach that the care of religion belongs especially to the holy magistrate.” Near the end of the confession Bullinger wrote a statement that must have made him think of the death of Zwingli fighting for his homeland thirty years earlier: “And if the public safety of the country and justice require it, and the magistrate of necessity wages war, let them even lay down their life and pour out their blood for the public safety and that of the magistrate. And let them do this in the name of God willingly, bravely and cheerfully.”

Bullinger certainly served Christ and His church willingly, bravely and cheerfully. He was a pastor and theologian. He had a very extensive correspondence throughout Europe encouraging faithfulness with sound counsel. He was a remarkable confessor of the faith who deserves to be remembered even centuries after his death.


1 See for example J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition, Athens, Ohio (Ohio University Press), 1980.

2 Quotations from the Second Helvetic Confession are taken from Arthur C. Cochrane, ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century, Philadelphia (Westminster Press), 1966.

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, professor of Church History, is also president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, CA. He is a contributing editor of The Outlook Magazine.