This article first appeared in the November 1, 2019 issue of the Standard Bearer, a special issue on the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland.
Heinrich Bullinger: "Common Shepherd of All Christian Churches"
Dazed and vulnerable after the disaster at Kappel, the fledgling Protestant church in Zurich turned to a young refugee pastor for leadership. King Jesus’ rebuke of His servants had been severe. Twenty-five pastors were dead. Among them, Zwingli, whose body was drawn, quartered, and burnt; a grim warning to any who dared replace him. Associates were in hiding. And nearby Bremgarten had just surrendered to advancing Catholic forces. Terms: Expel their pastor. The pastor, Heinrich Bullinger, flees to Zurich. His wife Anna, forbidden to leave, arrives days later. With love stronger than death, she overpowers the guard, lets herself out the city gate, and trudges the twenty miles to Zurich in the dark carrying their two young children. The King, who had taken so much away, had also graciously well provided for His church.
Heinrich Bullinger was born in Bremgarten on July 18, 1504. He was youngest of seven children born to Anna Wiederkehr, daughter of the town miller, and Heinrich Bullinger senior, an organist and deacon who was chosen parish pastor in 1495, shortly before marriage. Since papal law forbad clerical marriage, Anna’s father took him to court; but the tribunal allowed him to retain his office and the marital union. Still, Anna’s two brothers threatened to kill Heinrich senior, and the threat remained until 1506 when the brothers became casualties of war.
Heinrich junior’s education began early. At four, well before the normal age of seven, he entered the town’s Latin school where he learned to use the language as if it were his native tongue. At eleven, he left for the School of the Brethren of the Common Life in faraway Emmerich along the German-Dutch border. In his diary he records the rigorous discipline, the renaissance humanism he learned, and the house-to-house singing for his supper, not from parental neglect, but because his father wanted to teach him pity and generosity for the poor. In February 1519, only sixteen months after Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, fourteen-year- old Bullinger returned home to find his father under the ban, fined, and sued in Zurich by an indulgence peddler named Samson, whom he had barred from Bremgarten. At his trial, Zwingli, who began preaching that January, came to his defense. The court lifted the ban, cancelled the fine, and sent Samson packing over the Alps with word that he should be glad to keep his horses and wagon laden with coin. In September, Bullinger entered the university whose faculty Luther dubbed “the asses of Cologne” for officially condemning his writings. They burnt Luther’s books November 15, 1520, three days before Bullinger received his Bachelor of Arts. He was sixteen.
Bullinger claims that at the time he was still ignorant of Lutheran and papal doctrine. This changed quickly. While still in Cologne studying for his Master of Arts in order to become a Carthusian monk, Bullinger also began studying the Bible, church fathers, Luther, and with special delight, Melanchthon’s Loci Communes. Sometime late 1521 to early 1522, still only seventeen, he renounced monkery and the mass. In April 1522, after receiving his degree, he returned home. He then became director of the Cistercian monastery in Kappel on condition he be excused from taking vows and attending mass. Immediately, he began lecturing on the New Testament for the twelve resident monks and anyone else interested. Within a month, the images were removed, murals whitewashed, and the mass abolished. In his six years there, Bullinger lectured through twenty-one New Testament books, published lectures on six of them, and wrote essays on marriage and the virtuous woman. In time, most of the monks learned trades, left the monastery and married, including Abbot Joner who had hired Bullinger.
October 17, 1527, twenty-three-year-old Bullinger proposed to Anna Adlischwyler, a former nun still living at a defunct convent in Zurich. In his proposal he wrote: “The greatest, surest treasure that you will find in me is fear of God, piety, fidelity and love, which with joy I will show you.” Anna, whose father was dead, accepted; her mother objected and tried to annul the engagement. She failed, but the court ordered the couple to remain apart until the mother consented. She never did, but died in July 1529. A month later, Heinrich and Anna married.
Anna was a remarkable woman. She mothered thirteen children, eleven her own, two adopted. On her husband’s meager salary, she provided for her large family, cared for the sick and poor in Zurich, and gave hospitality to a constant stream of guests from all over Europe. Her care for English refugees received the thanks of Queen Elizabeth. In Zurich, she was known by everyone simply as “mother.” The Black Death would take Anna, two daughters, and the family maid Britta. Anna died on September 4, 1564, nine days after contracting the plague while caring for Heinrich, who also had gotten it. Heinrich was so sick, he could not attend her funeral. He would survive and live eleven more years, but with acute kidney trouble.
Ironically, Heinrich junior replaced his father as pastor when his father converted. In February 1529, ten years after turning away Samson, sixty-year-old Heinrich senior told his congregation that for the past twenty-three years he had not taught the truth of Scripture. The town council promptly deposed him. The citizens concurred, but also voted to abolish the mass and request Zurich for a new pastor. In the meantime, they invited junior to preach. The day following his sermon they burned the church’s images. On June 1, they ordained him pastor. He served Bremgarten until November 20, 1531, when he was expelled in the aftermath of Kappel.
Within two days of arriving in Zurich with his father and brother John, Bullinger was asked to preach. Catholics, emboldened by Kappel, sharpened their daggers; the council, scarred by Kappel, was leery. And with good reason: Bullinger and Zwingli were closer than brothers; and even when Bullinger first preached, he thundered such a sermon that some thought Zwingli had risen from the dead. But Bullinger was not Zwingli, and had broken with him on the matter of taking up the physical sword. So when Zwingli visited shortly before Kappel, Bullinger walked with him to the next city, said a tearful farewell, and they never met again. On December 31, 1531, Bullinger was appointed Zwingli’s replacement in the Great Minster of Zurich, where he served honorably and faithfully until his death at age 71 on September 17, 1575.
Like Calvin, the primary concern of Bullinger was to feed his own flock. To that end he reformed the schools; authored curricula, catechisms, and standards; supervised the formation of new schools, a college and seminary; and oversaw the training of hundreds of new teachers and pastors. His first six years he preached six to seven times per week. In his lifetime, he preached through every book of the Bible once; all the prophets, gospels, and Pauline epistles two to three times; and Hebrews four times. He excelled at making the complex plain. Pellikan, professor of languages in Zurich, said he had one of the greatest minds of his age, yet was the simplest of preachers. Calvin wrote that he rightly received much praise because he combined simplicity with learning. And when a visiting high-born man once complained of his common speech, Bullinger responded that he preached to the pews full of shabby caps and shawls.
Bullinger had an ecumenical spirit that showed early and often. In 1528, he attended the Bern Disputation against Catholicism. In 1531, he was to attend the Marburg Colloquy with Luther, until his council said no. In 1536, he co-authored the First Helvetic Confession in an attempt to unify with Lutherans. After Calvin’s return to Geneva (1541) and Luther’s invective against the “false and seductive preachers” of Zurich that “take the poor people to hell with them,” Bullinger focused his attention on unifying the Swiss. In 1549, he wrote with Calvin the Consensus Tigurinus—a unifying agreement that affirmed the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper and restricted its grace to the elect.
Bullinger was a prolific and widely read author. He wrote over 12,000 letters (more than Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin combined) to people from students to kings throughout Europe. He wrote major theological treatises: On the Lord’s Supper (1528); On Images (1529); Warning to the Faithful of the Shameless Disturbance, Offensive Confusion, and False Teachings of the Anabaptists (1531); The One, Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534); The Authority of the Holy Scriptures (1538); On Christian Marriage (1540); The True Perfection of Christians (1551); The End of the World’s Present Epoch and Future Judgment of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1557); and A Manual on How the Persecuted Should Respond (1559). Bullinger wrote history books on the monastery at Kappel (1526), the city of Zurich (1531), the origin of error (1539), the Anabaptists (1560), and a massive history of the Swiss Federation and Reformed churches from 1306-1533 (1567). Bullinger wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament. He published 618 sermons, including 170 on Jeremiah (1561); 66 on Daniel (1565); 190 on Isaiah (1567), and 100 on Revelation (1557)—which went through 20 editions and was translated into German, English, and Dutch.
But none of his published sermons were as popular as The Decades (1551)—50 sermons that systematically treated all of Reformed theology. Written in Latin for scholars, it was quickly translated and became an international best-seller among the laity. The Latin edition was reprinted 77 times. In Germany and Holland, the vernacular version was simply known as “The House-book,” and went through 137 editions. In England it became a standard textbook. a’Lasco said The Decades pleased him much. Peter Martyr said preachers who read it could instruct people abundantly and profitably. Calvin called it a gift of the Spirit.
Nothing Bullinger wrote unified the Reformed churches more than his Second Helvetic Confession. Written as a last testament of faith when he contracted the plague, it would become, according to Schaff, the most authoritative of all the continental Reformed symbols, with the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism. It would be translated into every major European language and Arabic. Friedrich III, who commissioned the Heidelberg Catechism, had it translated into German. Beza translated it into French. Besides wide distribution in the Palatinate, Holland, and England, the Second Helvetic Confession was also officially adopted by the Reformed churches of Neufchatel (1568), Scotland (1566), Hungary (1567), France (1571), and Poland (1578).
Bullinger made two notable and related contributions to Reformed theology. The first is his doctrine of the covenant, which he developed while writing against the dispensationalism of the Anabaptists. The second were several keys developments on marriage: there is one institution of marriage even as there is one covenant of grace; marriage is analogous to or a picture of the one eternal covenant of grace; since marriage was instituted before the Fall, marital life itself is good and honorable (against the notion that marriage is mainly to avoid fornication and to procreate, which mitigates an inherent sinfulness of intercourse); lastly, although Adam was created first as head, God instituted marriage for the mutual blessedness of both married persons equally.
Bullinger is relatively obscure today, in part because only six of his major writings are translated into English. But one measure of his significance is the high regard he had among peers. When Ursinus was driven from Breslau in 1560, he went to study in Zurich, not Geneva. Olevianus wrote this to Bullinger: “Any sound wisdom in reformed thought, we owe it in large part to you.”1 And none other than Beza called Bullinger “the common shepherd of all Christian churches.” High praise, considering that Beza knew Calvin’s influence had already eclipsed that of Bullinger. And neither should any obscurity of Bullinger today change that assessment.
1 Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism (John Knox Press; Louisville, KY), 37.