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Henry Bullinger (1504-1575)

Shepherd of the Churches

George M. Ella | Added: Dec 28, 2005 | Category: Biography


Bullinger’s importance for the English Reformation

It has long been my conviction that not half of the story of the Reformation has yet been told. Happily, great men and women of God who were true pioneers and upholders of reform are now being rediscovered causing a radical alteration in our knowledge and even convictions concerning how the true faith was revived after centuries of papal superstition. I have previously striven in these pages to rehabilitate forgotten English Reformers and introduced the great reforming work of Continentals such as Martin Bucer. Perhaps no Reformer, however, has been neglected in modern times as much as Swiss-born Henry Bullinger, once called, not inappropriately, ‘the common shepherd of all Christian churches’. Today, few seem to know that Bullinger produced far more sound Christian writings than Luther, Calvin and Zwingli combined. In the 16th century there were over fifty European printers turning out hundreds of editions of Bullinger’s reforming works in at least five languages. Within a hundred years, at least 400 editions of Bullinger’s works had been printed in Switzerland alone and some 230 editions in other countries, including England. A comparison of Calvin’s Institutes completed in 1559 and Bullinger’s 1549-51 Decades, both covering the same theological ground, reveals that Calvin’s work was printed twice in England within the first hundred years of its appearance whereas Bullinger’s Latin Decades1 was reprinted seventy-seven times, and the vernacular translation called the House Book (1558), ran into no less than one hundred and thirty seven editions. Indeed, the English Puritans and Presbyterians demonstrably leaned far more on Bullinger than Calvin who was first discovered as the hero of these movements in the nineteenth century. The pseudo-Calvinism of the Ultra Puritans and Precisians which developed in England and Scotland in the 16th century was not Continental Calvinism as Calvin himself, besides Beza, Martyr, Bullinger, Foxe, Whitgift, Jewel and Grindal, pointed out. Bullinger also pioneered the full acceptance of the New Testament Canon, a step Luther, Calvin and Zwingli never took, and was the first major Reformer to write on Revelation, publishing a hundred sermons on the book which were widely read in England.

In 1586 the Reformed Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, drew up instructions for those called to the ministry which he entitled Orders for the better increase of learning in the inferior Ministers. Junior clergymen and those wishing to be licensed as public preachers who did not have a theological education were told to procure a Bible, a copy of Bullinger’s Decades and a blank-paged exercise book. The Archbishop told the candidates that they must read a chapter of the Bible every day, making notes of what they had learnt in their exercise book. Each week, they should read through one of Bullinger’s books and make appropriate notes on what they had learnt and then, once a quarter, meet with their tutor to discuss their reading and notes and receive his further instructions.

The English Preface to the Decades laid the blame for the need to use a foreign manual of instruction at the feet of the British bishops who had been less than diligent in educating candidates for the ministry themselves, or had prescribed the works of Calvin, Gualter, Musculus, Peter Martyr and Marlorat which were too complicated for the theological novice. No British authors were mentioned!2 Bullinger, the writer explains, has neither Calvin’s obscurity, nor Musculus’ scholastical subtlety but is able to pack much sound, perspicuous doctrine into comparatively little space and make it interesting to read and easy to remember. As Whitgift was having great difficulty with the Precisians or Ultra-Puritans at this time who denounced catechisms and instructive reading other than the Bible, the writer says that such are like physicians who forbid their patients the very diet that does them good. Besides, he adds, we have not yet the clergy to undertake a comprehensive teaching ministry for students. The very idea of Whitgift’s attempt to instruct such men was to provide sound preachers and teachers for the future.

Singing for his supper

Heinrich Bullinger’s birthplace was the tiny Swiss town of Bremgarten on 18 July, 1504, the youngest of seven children born to Heinrich Bullinger and Anna Wiederkehr in their common law marriage. This alliance is worthy of particular note as Heinrich Sen. was a former organist and deacon who had been appointed parish pastor. Church historians have suggested that Heinrich Sen. must have regularly bribed the church authorities to allow him to live in wedlock as a priest but this is mere speculation. Switzerland was ruled democratically in a way otherwise unknown in Europe and it was not the church authorities who appointed ministers, nor the Corporation but the local parishioners who chose Bullinger Sen. as their pastor.

On 12 May, 1509, young Henry, to use his English name, was enrolled as a pupil at the Corporation’s Latin school, two years earlier than was usual, because of his obvious intelligence and command of his mother tongue. The greater part of his education up to his twelfth year was to read and write Latin compositions and be trained in liturgical singing. The children were not allowed to communicate in any language other than Latin during school hours. The only religious education Henry received was through the singing lessons.

Henry was sent to further his education in November, 1516 to far away Emmerich on the German-Dutch border. The only reason for his parents’ decision appears to be that a much older brother already resided there. Henry’s quite affluent father told his twelve-year old son that his accommodation and clothing would be provided by his parents but for food and other necessities of life he would have to go begging from door to door. This was so he might learn to understand the position of those who live perpetually in poverty. As Henry had a good voice, like Tommy Tucker in the Nursery Rhyme, he literally ‘sang for his supper’ for the next three years.

At Emmerich, the papal religion was seen as the major educational impulse and soon Henry decided that he would become a Carthusian monk. Humanism had made some inroads in the school, but, at the time, this did not seem to have influenced Henry. When only fifteen, Bullinger matriculated at Cologne university. There, he was faced more and more with the teaching of Erasmus and those who placed the Scriptures over Aristotelian logic and ethics. Cologne was the largest city in Germany and the centre of Rome’s power. Here, the papist slaves of superstition kept the supposed bones of the Three Wise Men in a large golden casket behind the High Altar. This alone made the citizens of Cologne feel that their city was the most heavenly on earth. One could not move more than a few yards in the city without viewing a church, chapel or monastery and without seeing priests go hurrying by in their full regalia. The German mystics under Master Eckart and Johannes Tauler had also settled in large numbers in Cologne and also Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. Here, too, Scotsman John Duns Scotus had breathed his last and was buried. Thus there were mystical features in Cologne’s religion and a permanent strife went on between Aquinians who claimed that religion was a matter of logic and Scotians who made religion a product of the will.

Finding the truth as it is in Jesus

On Henry’s arrival at Cologne, he found an increasing number who were teaching that religion is neither a matter of man’s logic nor man’s will but of God’s will revealed in Scripture. Nevertheless, Cologne became the first and only German university to publicly damn Luther’s writings, which caused an uproar. Erasmus of Rotterdam, now at Cologne, used his influence to curb the university’s anti-Reformed reaction. When Hieronymus Alexander, the pope’s inquisitor was sent to Germany in October, 1520 with his bag of bulls, his first stop was at Cologne, otherwise called ‘Germany’s Rome’. He had expected to be received as a conquering hero but few took notice of him. Instead, he saw that anti-papal posters hung all over the city. Now, the university, city authorities and the clergy refused to support the burning of Luther’s works. Erasmus, however, soon gave in to Rome’s pressure and Cologne followed him blindly. Luther’s works were burned on 15 November, the day on which 16 year-old Bullinger received his Bachelor of Arts degree.

Bullinger now decided to study Luther’s position. He had had no theological training and knew nothing of Rome’s dogmas. Studying literally day and night, although it was not in his MA curriculum, Bullinger read as much as he could find on Roman Catholic theology. He discovered that the Roman Catholic writers claimed their authority came from the Church Fathers and so he made a careful study of the sermons and expository works of the earliest Christian saints. He found that they appealed to Scripture, so Bullinger bought his first New Testament. He discovered that not only did the Church Fathers teach in full opposition to Rome’s 16th century novelties but that the Scriptures presented the faith and fellowship of Christians in a radically more spiritual and far less legal and ‘churchy’ manner than Rome. Soon, he was reading that justification is by God-given faith alone and that salvation is by God’s good grace and not man’s dubious ‘good works’. All ideas of becoming a monk vanished and Bullinger experienced faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His works alone. Bullinger, now 17 years of age, gained his MA and returned home to Bremgarten after an absence of six years.

How would his father, a Roman priest, take the news of his conversion? How would the church authorities in his canton accept him as the teacher he now wished to be? Bullinger realised that as a witness for Christ, he could not hide his faith. He resolved to tell one and all of his new life in Christ. Bullinger was warmly received by his family without a word of reproach. His father even allowed Bullinger to study Biblical, Reformed theology at home and at his leisure for some eight months. Then the abbot of Kappel, Wolfgang Joner, invited Bullinger to take over the abbey school. The eighteen-year-old visited Joner, gave him his testimony and told him that he could not possibly take the monk’s oath, put on a monk’s clothing or attend mass and he must be free to maintain his own testimony of faith. The abbot accepted all his conditions and made him superintendent of the school on the spot! Bullinger then drew up a new curriculum and the tiny school grew and flourished. For the next six years, the young Reformer expounded through 21 of the 27 New Testament books at the monastery. He found that the monks could hardly understand a word of Latin and thus preached regularly in Swiss-German. He also invited the secular workers, servants and the entire town population to hear his preaching.

The reformation in Kappel and Bremgarten

Changes made at Kappel were enormous and swift. By 1524 the images had been removed from the abbey church. The mass was abolished in 1525 and by 1526 the entire order of monks were meeting at the Lord’s Table in the Reformed manner. On the day of the first Reformed communion meal, all the monks, including the abbot, discarded their robes and renounced their monkish oaths. Though some monks left to become Christian craftsmen and farmers, many stayed on to be further educated by Bullinger. From 1526 on, what had been a Roman Catholic monastery now became a seminary for Reformed pastors. Parallel with these reforms at Kappel, Huldrich Zwingli was pressing ahead at Zürich in a similar way, though he was meeting more opposition, possibly because he lacked the tact and communication abilities that were so very much Bullinger’s. Zwingli was also provoking the Fünf Orte (a union of five Roman Catholic townships) to war and had allied with Bern to cut off their supplies of food. The papists had not yet begun to persecute the Reformed people as it was left to the public vote which community should become Reformed or not. When the RC powers eventually decided to put down the Reformation by force, it was not the cities of Bern and Zürich that they aimed to destroy first but the work of true Reformation at Kappel.

From around 1523, Bullinger rode over to Zürich at least once a year to meet with Zwingli and Leo Jud. Most church historians look on Bullinger as a 20 years younger disciple of Zwingli’s though all that is true of this statement is Bullinger’s age and the fact that he did learn much from Zwingli but the learning was mutual. Bullinger was training and sending out Reformed preachers some two years before Zwingli. Indeed, when in 1524, Bullinger wished to publish openly his views on the Lord’s Supper, Zwingli begged him not to. Actually, there were personal motives at play here as Zwingli saw himself as the leader of the Swiss Reformation and he thus demanded that Bullinger should wait with reforms until he, Zwingli, was ready to announce them.

The quite important distinctions between the theologies of Zwingli and Bullinger would need a long essay to explain. The main points are that the Zürich Reformer was a Supralapsarian in his views of election, teaching that God elected some men to salvation and some to reprobation irrespective of the Fall. Bullinger, like Baptist John Gill, taught that God ordains some of sinful mankind to eternal life and some He passes by; that is, He allows their reprobation. Zwingli was never truly Reformed on the doctrine of imputation whereas Bullinger taught both the imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to all the elect. Zwingli could not accept the book of Revelation as the Word of God but Bullinger not only accepted it but often preached from it. Zwingli held to a rigid church discipline and order as a mark of the true church, a popish feature that is still far more common amongst Reformed and Dissenting believers than is admitted. The other marks for him were the preached Word and the sacraments. Bullinger held to the preaching and acceptance of the Word and the two ordinances but saw church order and discipline as being flexible according to the situation in which the church finds herself. Zwingli hesitated to support Bullinger in openly practising Reformed communion as he was still developing his own view of the Lord’s Supper along mere commemorative lines. Bullinger taught that the Lord’s real presence was to be experienced in the Supper as, wherever two or three are gathered in His Name, He is there in their midst. However, Bullinger rejected transubstantiation, consubstantiation and any view that implied Christ’s corporeal presence in the elements. Bullinger, like Bucer, was a man of peace and thus Zwingli often asked Bullinger to mediate in the difficult situations he had placed himself. Bullinger showed his lighter and, in the opinion of this writer, more experimentally Christian, hand in their joint dealings with Rome, the Anabaptists and the Lutherans.

Anna Adischwyler

Many of the Kappel monks, including the abbot, now married and these men assured Bullinger that a wife would be a great support to his ministry. In 1527, Joner gave Bullinger leave of absence from the school to find a bride. During this search, Bullinger visited the former Dominican nunnery at Oetenbach where the nuns had accepted the Reformed faith and disbanded. Two ladies had remained to carry on a Christian witness. One of these was Anna Adischwyler, the daughter of the Lord Mayor’s cook, who was a year younger than Bullinger. The Reformer recognised Anna as his future wife and wrote to her, asking her to be his bride, though he scarcely knew her. Bullinger’s letter was as Scriptural and business-like as could be. He outlined all the advantages and disadvantages of the single life and then did the same regarding the married life. He confessed that he only received board and lodgings at the school and did not have a penny to his name. He admitted that he would have some little fortune to inherit at his father’s death, but this would probably be in a very distant future. Anna replied within a few days and her answer was ‘Yes’. Bullinger returned to Oetenbach and proposed personally and was again accepted. They planned to be married, as the custom was, within two weeks of their engagement.

The two weeks were to become two years. Anna’s mother wanted her daughter to be her companion at home and only marry after her own death. She had thus agreed to the engagement which legally bound Anna to Henry but then refused to allow her daughter to marry him. In this way, selfish Mrs Adischwyler bound her daughter to herself and made it impossible for Anna to marry. Anna continued to press her mother to allow her to marry but her mother said she would only relent if Anna found a rich man. Anna said that it would be Bullinger or nobody. Mrs Adischwyler then said that it would have to be nobody. As public opinion was outraged at her selfish act and put pressure on her, the lady looked for legal backing. Anna and Bullinger had become engaged without a witness and a new law passed in Zürich had ruled that no engagement was to take place without a witness. So now, Mrs Adischwyler argued that her daughter had never been legally engaged. Happily, witnesses were called who had been privy to the written correspondence of the couple regarding their engagement. The court decided in the couple’s favour. Still Mrs Adischwyler refused to unbind her daughter. Even the personal intervention of Zwingli was no help. Sadly for her own preparation for eternity but happily for her daughter, Mrs Adischwyler died two years later and the couple were married on 17 August, 1529.

Father and Son together in the faith

In February of the same year Henry Bullinger Sen., now sixty years of age, announced to his congregation that he had accepted the Reformed faith. On 31 December, he officially married his beloved wife of almost forty years according to the new Reformed rites.

As soon as Bullinger Sen. announced his conversion, he received the backing of most of his people but the city authorities, now fearful of Roman Catholic threats to the security of the town, had him ousted. He found a new church but his old congregation strove democratically to be given Reformed status and, by the summer of that year, were successful. The Bremgarten parish now called Gervasius Schuler to their pastorate but his Reformed manner was too slow for many of the parish. They therefore called Bullinger Jun. unanimously to the joint pastorate. Joner urged Bullinger to accept the offer. He came and preached his first sermon at his home church in May, 1529 before an enormous congregation. His subject was worshipping God in spirit and in truth. There was a tremendous spiritual reaction amongst the church-goers, and, after the service the images and altar were removed from the church building and the united congregation dedicated themselves to God and the new faith.

Besides Schuler’s dedicated ministry, the Bremgarten congregation heard Bullinger preach every Sunday afternoon and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. He held a well-visited Bible Study every day at 3.00 pm. In the rather less than three years that Bullinger remained in Bremgarten, he preached through the entire New Testament during what was called the Spring Time of the Bremgarten Reformation. During this time Bullinger also translated thirty Psalms from the Hebrew into Latin and Swiss-German and wrote commentaries on both New Testament and Old Testament books. He also wrote a history of the Reformation in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Bullinger Sen. was doing pioneer work in the Roman Catholic communities so that soon Muri (1529) and Hermetschwil (1530) adopted the Reformed faith by the votes of the parish members.

The Reformation receives a setback

On 15 May, 1531, the Fünf Orte, goaded by the embargoes on food enforced on them and Zwingli’s boasting of military might more than their democratic loss of large communities, decided to use violence themselves. Bremgarten protested at the un-Christian methods of Bern and Zürich but the Roman Catholics placed the blame for this merciless persecution on the true upholders of the Reformed faith at Bremgarten and not on the inane politics of the two cities. Bern and Zürich quickly formed a large army, promising to defend Bremgarten. Faithful Christians told Zwingli that it was senseless to defend God’s Word with chariots and horsemen. Bern and Zwingli took no heed and Bern placed Sebastian von Diesbach at the head of their forces. Rome laughed aloud. The pope had duped Zwingli and his military allies. Von Diesbach was an avowed opponent of the Reformation! When the Roman Catholic army reached Bremgarten, von Diesbach withdrew his ‘Reformed’ troops and left Zwingli with his smaller army of Zürich men to perish. The new masters in Bremgarten exiled the two Bullingers and the town was forced back under Rome’s yoke.

Meanwhile, Zwingli’s warring nature and Bern’s inhuman politics had weakened the Protestant cause no end. The Roman faction again became very strong. This moved Zürich’s faithful to ask Bullinger to become their shepherd. They did not want a man who would build a state on supposedly Christian law but one who would bring in a time of grace. Thus it is said that Zwingli rescued a people from Rome but it was Bullinger who made them into a church.

Initial problems at Zürich

Bullinger soon discovered that leading the Zürich churches was fraught with difficulties. Bern, realising what a strong leader of men Bullinger was, painted a bleak picture of Zürich in order to tempt Bullinger over to them. Indeed, many magistrates had become so used to the often heroic but equally often tactless stubbornness of Zwingli that they thought milder Bullinger was a second-best substitute. Furthermore, the Fünf Orte had been so stung by Zwingli’s less than Christian statesmanship when representing Zürich’s interests that they came close to re-declaring war on the city, thinking that Bullinger had taken up Zwingli’s mantle rather than put on his own. This mistrust came to a head in 1532 when the Corporation demanded that Bullinger draw up a Glaubensmandat (Mandate of Faith) in the name of the city, proclaiming that the Reformation had come to stay and condemning Rome in no uncertain terms. Bullinger questioned the magistrates policy but complied. Sadly, the authorities thought Bullinger’s resulting declaration was too mild and voted through a more militant version which the surrounding Roman Catholic districts viewed as not only a breach of the Kappeler Peace but also a provocation to war. The corporation’s act was also timed to coincide with Charles V’s Reichstag at Regensburg. Charles was striving to find some sort of mutual tolerance between Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed and the Glaubensmandat appeared to threaten the Emperor’s policy. Ennio Filonardi, the papal legate, promised the Swiss Roman Catholics help from Rome should war become inevitable. The Five Districts asked Zürich to withdraw the Mandate as it went beyond the Kappeler Peace which stated that each canton should democratically follow the religion of their choice but not interfere with other cantons. Bern, who had proved a dubious ally in the Kappeler Wars, urged Zürich to maintain their militant position. In May, 1533 Bullinger and his fellow pastors called a Synod to work out a solution. Bullinger was elected spokesman to tell the corporation that they could not prescribe for Roman Catholic ruled areas what they should believe but they should allow the Zürich pastors to preach the Word of God and allow the Spirit to work as He will. The Mandate had been too bold, too negative and most un-diplomatic. The corporation withdrew the Mandate and further war was averted.

Bern, however, remained militant and a threatened breach with Zürich occurred over a triviality. Bern had no printing press so they approached Zürich printer Froschauer, who served the English Reformers so well, requesting that he print a Bernese Protestant Declaration of faith for them, illustrating it with Bern’s symbol, a bear. The bear that Froschauer printed, however, had its claws withdrawn and looked quite amiable (or so the Bernese thought). Militant Bern took this as an affront to their pride and complained bitterly. Through contact with Berchtold Haller of Bern who was of a less fiery spirit than the city dignitaries, Bullinger prevented a major break between the two cities, though Bern never dealt with Froschauer again.

Another inherited problem for Bullinger was rescuing Zwingli’s good Christian testimony from his more dubious behaviour. The papists had made much of Zwingli’s militancy and spread the false rumour that the blood of 5,000 Zürich citizens who had died in the Kappeler Wars was on Zwingli’s hands. Bullinger made a detailed study of the fallen and published the 512 names of the true casualties. Sadly, Luther took the exaggerated papal protests against Zürich as the truth and a sign that Zwingli’s theology was as objectionable as his behaviour. He even claimed that Zwingli was an Enthusiast (Schwärmer) and had sinned against the Holy Ghost. Now Bullinger who had been against Zwingli’s militant policy and represented a more mature theology had both the papists and Lutherans against him. Bullinger soon found out that Zwingli’s critics knew little of Zwingli’s overall pioneering theological position and even less concerning the Kappeler Wars, so he wrote a systematic account of his predecessor’s faith and a history of the wars which helped to allay much criticism, though not Luther’s. The German Reformer advised Markgraf Duke Albrecht von Brandenburg to ban all those holding the Zürich faith from his realms. Thus one Protestant became the persecutor of other Protestants and Rome looked smugly on.

Bullinger’s third problem was the dialogue with the Catabaptists not all of whom were forerunners of our present-day Baptists. Most were not even ‘Dippers’ at this time, i.e. they baptised by pouring. Zwingli, fearing that the Catabaptists were plotting to overthrow the Zürich administration by armed force, became their persecutor. He had pulled Bullinger into the violent controversies by asking him to take part in his debates with the Catabaptists and take down the minutes, some of which have been preserved. However, in spite of the many hundreds of letters extant between Bullinger and the Catabaptists on the subject of baptism there is still much to be done before the full scope of Bullinger’s understanding of the movement can be outlined. Heinold Fast, who has done tremendous work in this field,3 believes that nobody has influenced an understanding of the history of the Baptists more than Bullinger. However, he compares this influence to a flaming torch which could give more light, but also be used to kindle the flames of persecution. That Bullinger did not kindle such flames becomes apparent when comparing his leadership in Zürich until his death in 1575. During this period forty Catabaptists were executed for their faith in Bern in spite of Haller’s and Bullinger’s protests but none were executed in Zürich.42 Indeed, Bullinger surprised all by helping the Catabaptists legally to maintain their citizens’ rights against discrimination. A number of debtors had, for instance, decided they could borrow from Catabaptists and need not pay them back as they were heretics!

This does not mean that Bullinger was friendly to the Catabaptist cause. He maintained that their view of baptism was un-Biblical as it was purely centred around the, often very vague,5 testimony of faith of the one to be re-baptised. Baptism, Bullinger argued, was the pictorial gospel of Christ’s salvation offered to those of His covenant. It was a display of God’s love to sinners and a means of calling the weary and heavy-laden to Him. In other words, Christ’s call was the message of baptism and not the believer’s reply. Bullinger told the Catabaptists that they misused and misinterpreted the New Testament because they had lost sight of the unity of Scripture and the progression of revelation. They had rejected the Old Testament and thus severed the gospel branches from their roots in history and revelation. The Catabaptists replied that the baptism of the rich, worldly, unbelieving clergy was of no avail. Bullinger replied that dissent was not the correct way to discipline worldly clergy and that the idea that baptism was only valid if the baptiser had a special spiritual standing before God smacked of Rome. The Catabaptists argued that sinners were not to be baptised but saints. Bullinger replied that all saints were sinners and the Catabaptist view of baptism for the pure only was against Scripture and common sense. It re-introduced the old heresy of sins committed after baptism leaving the sinner without salvation or being a ground for a further baptism after a further repentance. Bullinger avoided this confusion by teaching that baptism was God’s gift to us and not our gift to God and that all saints were sinners whether baptised or not. The Catabaptists accused Bullinger of confusing state with church but Bullinger argued that it was in the interest of common order that a democratic system was preserved. He pointed out that the Catabaptists held radically different views amongst themselves concerning taxation, government and church discipline and order and if they were all given a free rein, chaos would ensue. It was part of the Christian’s testimony to be leaven in the world and not merely in a dissenting body of ever-splitting, temporary like-minded separatists.

Bullinger regarded the Catabaptists as most unstable citizens, and showed apparent harshness towards them by having them banned from ecclesiastical, military, administrative and legal posts. Actually, this was a move in the Catabaptists direction as they renounced such positions themselves. Bullinger diplomatically disciplined the Catabaptists in the eyes of the magistrates but, in reality, allowed the Catabaptists to follow their consciences. He also refused to forbid the Catabaptists freedom of worship and it was not unusual at this time to find groups of Catabaptists gathered for worship in even remote country districts which numbered from two to three hundred. Bullinger was nevertheless convinced that the Catabaptists wished to establish a society of chaos and superstition, diametrically opposed to the rule of Scripture and Apostolic practice.

One outcome of the Catabaptist debate was that Bullinger turned to foreign countries for help in resolving the problems and found allies in Strasburg, Geneva and London. He was particularly influenced on the question of baptism by Martin Bucer. Sadly, from Luther’s side, apart from a short respite, he received only adverse criticism as Luther now ranked the Swiss churches with the Catabaptists, seeing little, if any, difference.

Bullinger the Educationalist

After the Kappeler Wars, Zürich was left with immense debts and the public gave the church the blame arguing that it was her leaders who had driven them to war. The Church was the cause of the trouble, they maintained, so she should pay off the debts. As usual, Bullinger worked out a way towards pacifying all sides and used church grants to found schools and training institutions which would be a benefit to the entire canton and beyond. In conjunction with the city authorities, he trained and recruited hundreds of new teachers and authored curricula and examination regulations. Then Bullinger reduced the number of prebendaries, abolished pluralities and used canonry funds to pay the wages of teachers and pastors and provide grants for students, so relieving the city treasury. Students were also sent on grants to other cantons, the German, Dutch and Belgic states and to Britain where Richard Cox and later Edmund Grindal took care of them. Bullinger’s letters to his own sons who studied abroad have been preserved and are full of wise, Christian and pedagogic advice. Though Luther was less than respectful towards Bullinger, the latter sent at least one son to study under him and Melancthon. The relatively large number of children left without parents by the war and the plague was a strain on public funds so Bullinger encouraged his colleagues to adopt the orphans. Though he had a large family himself, he set an example by adopting at least two youngsters. One of these, Rudolf Gualter, eventually married Zwingli’s daughter and became Bullinger’s successor. Both Bullinger, Gualter and their fellow ministers also opened their homes to the English persecuted under Henry VIII and Mary the Bloody.

Bullinger had set up institutions for the training of evangelical, reformed pastors since the 1520's - long before reformers in other countries even attempted the same. England had to wait until the late 40s, German universities such as Heidelberg the late 50s and Calvin was first able to set up his Genevan Academy in 1560. Bullinger’s Decades (or Housebook), mentioned in Part I was designed to help theological students obtain a basic grasp of the Reformed faith and the duties and necessities of Christian witness. Through Hooper’s fellowship, Bullinger gained access to Edward VI’s ear and dedicated two volumes in the series to the English king. A volume was also dedicated to the Marquis of Dorset, Henry Grey, father of Jane Grey who was murdered and martyred by Mary. Lady Jane had corresponded with Bullinger since her childhood and had testified to her deep faith. Soon the Decades were translated into German, French, Dutch and English (perhaps also Italian) and had become the set books for Reformed theological students throughout Europe. Those familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism will note how close the work is to Bullinger’s Decades and how Bullinger’s very words are often used in it.

Preaching ‘outside of the temple’

Like the English Reformers, such as John Fox, Bullinger believed that the gospel could be preached profanus (outside the temple) in the form of drama, so, from his early twenties on, Bullinger, amidst his vast theological writing, composed several stage plays which reached national and international renown. Lucretia and Brutus is the most well-known and might shock even modern Christian minds. In order to impress on his audiences the Christian responsibility of every man great or small, rich or poor, Bullinger tells the story of Lucretia, a happily married woman who is raped by Sextus, the son of the tyrant king Tarquinius. Lucretia, in her shame, commits suicide before her gathered family. The people elect Lucretia’s husband Collatinus and Brutus as consuls, depose the tyrant and proclaim a republic. Tarquinius strives to regain control through bribing Brutus’ two sons. Throughout the play, one is reminded of Schiller’s William Tell, which most probably received its inspiration from Bullinger’s much earlier work. Tragically Brutus is forced by law to sentence his traitor sons to death. The moral is that countries can only be happy if they are ruled by the people for the people and only in such a social order can peace reign and the gospel be preached freely.

The Second Helvetic Confession

Though the catalogue of Bullinger’s works runs into very many pages, perhaps the pastor-teacher-theologian is best known by his Second Helvetic Confession which was translated into almost all European languages and used as a standard of orthodoxy throughout East and West Europe and in regions of North America. The First Helvetic Confession of 1536 was a Swiss-Strasburg confession of which Bullinger was only one of many esteemed authors. The confession was initially merely drawn up as a basis for cooperation with the Lutherans - a plan which came to nought. The Second Helvetic Confession was solely the work of Bullinger and designed initially as Bullinger’s own statement of faith. Indeed, it was completed during the Black Death of 1564 and placed with Bullinger’s will as he, struck by the plague, prepared himself for his home-call. However, Bullinger recovered. Friedrich III, the Elector of the Palatine left the Lutheran Church and approached Bullinger as the leading Continental theologian to draw up a creed showing that the Reformed faith was the true, apostolic belief. Bullinger sent him his own declaration of faith. Friedrich found the confession ideal and had it translated into German, printed and distributed. It thus came to the notice of all the Swiss churches, the most prominent being Bern, Zürich and Geneva, and was adopted as a pan-Swiss confession. It was quickly translated into French by Beza and adopted by the French Swiss and Protestants of France. It probably reached Scotland in its French form where it was accepted as a standard creed by the Scottish Reformed churches in 1567. In 1571, the Hungarian Reformed Church adopted the confession, then the Poles and Czechs. Indeed, next to the Heidelberg Catechism which developed from it, Bullinger’s catechism became the most generally recognised in the Reformed Church.

On reading through the thirty-four A4 pages of Bullinger’s confession6 recently, I was immediately struck by its relevance to the theological problems of today. Here, one finds the faults of Arminianism dealt with alongside the errors of Hardshellism. Those who build their faith around Old Testament case-law, will find their bubbles burst in the confession but also those moderns who reject the Old Testament or tell us that Christ did not put Himself under the law for the sake of His elect. Modern half-baked New Covenant teaching, so different from the old, could be put into better shape by consulting Bullinger’s confession. On dealing recently with those who say that God does not use means to convert people, not even the preaching of the Gospel, but regenerates the soul directly through inward revelation, I was struck by the clear answer Bullinger gives to such people in his very first chapter entitled Of the Holy Scriptures Being the True Word of God. Of the anti-means people who seem nowadays to be allying with the Fullerites and Hardshells, Bullinger says:

Inward illumination does not eliminate external preaching. For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciple, ‘Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16:15). And so in Philippi, Paul preached outwardly to Lydia, a seller of purple goods; but the Lord inwardly opened the woman’s heart (Acts 16:14). And the same Paul, after a beautiful development of his thought, in Rom. 10:17 at length comes to the conclusion, ‘So faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God by the preaching of Christ.’

At the same time we recognise that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and example.

Over fifty years of earthly ministry ended

On recovering from the Black Death of 1564-65, Bullinger was left an old man with acute kidney trouble. His dear wife Anna caught the disease whilst looking after him and soon died. Then his daughters Margaretha, Elizabeth and Anna and several of their children died within a year. In the same year, one by one, Bullinger’s dearest friends and pillars of the Reformation followed one another back to their Maker. Blarer, Gessner, Froschauer, Bibliander, Farel and Calvin left Bullinger, supported by his adopted son Gualter, to live another decade. On 26 August, 1575, Bullinger realised that his pilgrimage was over and called all the ministers, professors and teachers in Zürich to his study for his last admonition, teaching and farewell. In a long, well-prepared speech, he exhorted his friends and brethren to keep the unity of the Spirit and remain faithful to their testimony, calling and ministry. He then sent a fitting admonition to the magistrates ending with the words: ‘The grace of the Father and the blessing of Jesus Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit be with you and gracefully preserve your city and state, your honour, persons and possessions under His divine care and keeping and shield you from all evil.’

Bullinger fell asleep peacefully in the Lord on 17 September and was buried at the side of his beloved Anna. Rudolf Gualter was almost immediately appointed to succeed him. The choice had been Bullinger’s own, and, as usual, his choice could not have been better. Seldom has there been such a great man who made so few mistakes.

  1. Called such as it was divided into five collections of ten books each.
  2. Whitgift had already made Puritan Nowell’s Catechism mandatory in spite of Thomas Cartwright’s protests
  3. See, for instance, his Heinrich Bullinger und die Täufer and published by the Mennonite Historical Society in the Palatine (Pfalz, 1959).
  4. The four Catabaptists executed at Zürich were sentenced under Zwingli.
  5. Often candidates were immediately baptised on their answering such question as ‘Do you wish to live righteously?’ or ‘Do you wish to receive all God’s blessings?’ in the affirmative.
  6. Bullinger’s confession may be downloaded from by those who have access to the internet.