This article first appeared in the August 1993 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.69, #19) and was written by Prof. Herman Hanko, professor of church history and NT studies in the PRC Seminary.
Heinrich Bullinger: Covenant Theologian
The truth of God's covenant is part of our precious Reformed heritage as Protestant Reformed Churches. We are not always aware of the fact that this truth goes back to the time of the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation this truth was unknown; it has its roots and origin in the Reformation in Switzerland, particularly in the work of Zwingli and Bullinger. It is to the latter that we call attention in this article.
Heinrich Bullinger was born on July 18, 1504, the youngest of five sons, to a parish priest in Bremgarten, Switzerland near Zurich. Bullinger's father, though a priest, was married - in keeping with the loose enforcement of vows of celibacy which Rome required of all its clerics. Although not much is known of Bullinger's parents, Bullinger's father, when a very old man, came to believe and confess the doctrines of the Reformation, probably under the influence of his gifted son.
Bullinger began his formal education in the school of The Brethren of the Common Life in Cleves. His father gave him no money, believing that poverty was necessary for his son to develop good habits in life. Bullinger, like Luther, was required to sing to earn money to support himself.
During these studies Bullinger wanted to enter a Carthusian monastery; but was dissuaded by his brother. Instead, in 1519 he went to Cologne, Germany where he earned a BA in 1520. At Cologne Bullinger studied the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, but soon became so disgusted with them that he turned to the church fathers, particularly Chrysostom and Augustine. The one point which impressed him in the writings of these church fathers was their copious use of Scripture. Spurred on by their apparent determination to ground all their doctrine in God's Word, Bullinger turned to a study of the Scriptures. It was this study of Scripture which enabled Bullinger to read the writings of Martin Luther with pleasure, as they were then being circulated throughout Germany.
After earning his master's degree in 1522, Bullinger returned to his beloved Switzerland. Although already influenced by Reformation thought, he accepted a call by Wolfgung Riipli, abbot of a monastery in Cappel, to teach in the cloister school. He taught the monks from the New Testament and from Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes.1
Sent to Zurich, where Zwingli preached, Bullinger spent five months listening to Zwingli, perfecting his Greek and beginning his studies in Hebrew. It was here that he became more thoroughly acquainted with Reformation distinctives. The result was that, when he returned to the cloister school in Cappel, he persuaded the abbot and all the monks to accept the teachings of the Reformation.
In 1529 Bullinger was called to be minister in the church at Bremgarten, where he succeeded his father as pastor. Here he preached until the battle of Cappel, when Zwingli was killed and the Reformation in Switzerland was brought to a temporary standstill. In these years at Bremgarten he developed his skills as a preacher and pastor, and served the congregation well. But when Zwingli was killed in 1531, Bullinger was forced to leave his congregation. His absence from the pulpit, however, was brief, for he was soon called to be Zwingli's successor in the prestigious congregation of Zurich. Here he remained till the end of his life. Here, in the early years of his ministry, he preached six or seven times a week; later, only on Friday and on the Lord's day.
The death of Zwingli seemed to be a deathblow to the Reformation in Switzerland, but God provided for the churches there a man who could keep a steady hand on the tiller.
Bullinger was a devoted pastor, not only as a powerful preacher, but also as a faithful shepherd who visited his sheep day and night, opened his house to all who needed help, exposed himself to dangers when he visited those who were struck down by the plague that several times visited Zurich, and brought comfort and strength to the dying.
Although he lived on a very meager salary, his charity was known throughout the country. He freely distributed money, food, clothing. He refused any gifts, but gave anything beyond his salary to hospitals and institutions of mercy. He nearly always had in his home strangers and exiles for whom he provided shelter and food.' He secured a pension for Zwingli's widow, took her under his roof, and assumed responsibility for the education of Zwingli's two children. His Christian love and charity brought him the respect and devotion of all his parishioners.
Bullinger was deeply committed to Christian education. He served as superintendent of the schools in Zurich. He was instrumental in the staffing of the Seminary with able theologians. He actively participated in the regulation of the schools according to the Word of God.
Bullinger was a devoted family man. In 1529 he married Ann Adlischweiter, a former nun from Zurich, and with her had several children. His biographers speak of the fact that his home was a happy place, in spite of the fact that almost always strangers were lodging with them. He romped with his children and grandchildren and was deeply conscious of his covenant calling to teach them the ways of the Lord. When his parents could no longer care for themselves, Bullinger and his wife cared for them in their own home.
After Zwingli's death, Bullinger became the theologian of the Swiss churches.2
The Swiss Reformation, outside Geneva, produced two remarkable and beautiful confessions: The First and the Second Helvetic Confessions. The First Helvetic Confession was the work of Bullinger, along with several other theologians: Megander, Grynaeus, Myconius, and Leo Judd. The Second Helvetic Confession was Bullinger's personal work, written as a personal confession of faith, and adopted by the Swiss Churches in 1566.3
When controversy rose in Switzerland over the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, Bullinger not only defended the Reformed view against Lutheranism, but also worked with John Calvin to bring uniformity among the Swiss. The result of their cooperative effort was the Consensus Trigurinus, an important Reformation document on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper.
Bullinger's influence extended throughout Europe, even though he never traveled beyond Switzerland. When exiles from England sought refuge in Zurich during the reign of Bloody Mary, Bullinger took them into his home and taught them more carefully the truths of Scripture. Through an astonishing correspondence Bullinger exerted influence on theologians everywhere. He corresponded with Swiss, German, and English theologians; he wrote to kings, princes, and queens. When he died, the English mourned his passing as a calamity, and repeatedly expressed their great debt to this preacher of Zurich.
In one controversy, however, he showed a weakness. When Calvin in Geneva was struggling with the heresies of Bolsec, the Consistory of Geneva sought the advice of the other Swiss theologians. Although in general these theologians agreed with Calvin in his doctrine of predestination (Bolsec denied sovereign predestination), with the exception of Farel, they cautioned Geneva to proceed with care and questioned Calvin's strong statements on God's predestination of sin and sovereign, unconditional reprobation. Bullinger was among them.4 When Calvin drew up his Consensus Genevensis5, Bullinger refused to sign it.
Of great value to us is a controversy which Bullinger carried on in his debates with the Anabaptists. Against them he wrote no fewer than six books. In his defense of the biblical position on the doctrine of infant baptism, Bullinger developed his ideas of God's covenant of grace. It is in these writings that we have the first development of this doctrine which has meant so much to the cause of the truth. All subsequent covenant theologians, in both Reformed and Presbyterian circles, owe a great debt to Heinrich Bullinger.
Bullinger's last days were filled with suffering. The great burden of the work undermined his health. In 1562 he wrote to a friend: "I almost sink under the load of business and care, and feel so tired that I would ask the Lord to give me rest if it were not against his will." In 1564 and 1565 he nearly died from the plague, which took from him his wife, three daughters, and a brother-in-law. In all his sufferings he bore his burdens with great patience and submission to the will of God. Though often lonely and heartsick, he continued his labors until death overtook him.
Bullinger died on September 17, 1575 after suffering intensely from calculus, a disease which was probably what we would now call kidney and bladder stones, for which there was no cure in the 16th century. His youngest daughter, Dorthea, cared for him in his last years. When near death, he assembled the pastors of Zurich about him and exhorted them to purity of life, unity among the brethren, and faithfulness in doctrine. He warned them against temptation, assured them of his love, thanked them for their kindness towards him, and closed with a prayer of thanksgiving.
After shaking hands with all of them, with tears (as Paul did with the elders at Ephesus), he died reciting Psalms 51, 16, and 42, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. His son-in-law preached the funeral sermon.
Bullinger was the man chosen by God to maintain the Swiss Reformation after the death of Zwingli. He was equipped by God with extraordinary spiritual gifts for this task. He was a man of patience, firm faith, courage, moderation, and endurance who "proved that the Reformation was a work of God" when, through Bullinger's work, it survived the catastrophe at Cappel.
To him we, who love the truth of God's covenant, owe a great debt under God.
1. Philip Melanchthon was Luther's co-reformer, and the book referred to was the first systematic theology of the Reformation.
2. This is, of course, other than Calvin, who labored in Geneva.
3. Our readers can profit from reading these confessions. They are not very easy to obtain. Schaff has them in his "Creeds of Christendom," but they are in Latin and German, The First Helvetic Confession can be found in "Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century," edited by Arthur C. Cochrane. The Second can be found in "Creeds of the Churches," edited by John H. Leith.
4. The interesting correspondence can be read in "The Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva in the Time of Calvin," edited by Philip Hughes.
5. Later published under the title, "A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God." This is included in "Calvin's Calvinism," published by the RFPA.