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On the 500th Anniversary of the Birth of Heinrich Bullinger, Reformer

 

On the 500th Anniversary of the Birth of Heinrich Bullinger, Reformer

1504 – 1575

Unlike the first generation of Reformation “pioneers” (e.g., Martin Luther, born 1483 and Ulrich Zwingli, 1484) Bullinger was a consolidator. While adding his own perspective to Protestant theology it was his genius to be less an innovator than someone who could gather up and “package” the gospel riches that hungry people craved in Switzerland and elsewhere. Apart from him the theological “shape” of late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Century England is unimaginable. Without him the first waves of English Puritans wouldn’t have thrived.

His output is prodigious. Luther’s written work fills fifty-five large volumes. Calvin’s 2000-page Institutes of the Christian Religion (penned as a primer for first-year students of theology) represents only 6.8% of the Genevan’s output. Bullinger’s writings are greater than both Luther’s and Calvin’s together.

Born in Bremgarten, a town twenty kilometres west of Zurich , Bullinger was raised for the priesthood. His father, a priest sworn to celibacy, followed scores of other clergy in Switzerland in living common-law with the woman who bore him five sons. Heinrich sr. annually paid the area bishop whatever it took to have ecclesiastical officialdom look the other way.

Like the majority of Protestant thinkers, young Bullinger knew that a humanist education was important for anyone pursuing ordination; essential if one was to provide both theological and institutional leadership in the church. Departing from his father’s Catholicism, Bullinger moved to the University of Cologne ( Germany ) where he would be immersed in the work of Erasmus and Melanchthon. Erasmus was regarded as the paragon of the Renaissance. Melanchthon, the first systematic theologian of the Reformation and “packager” of the riches that the Lutherans had mined, was deemed the best Greek scholar in Europe upon the death of Erasmus.

Graduating with his B.A in 1520 and his M.A. in 1522, Bullinger was invited to teach at the Cistercian monastery in Kappel. In the mixed-up state-of-affairs that riddled so very much of Reformation-era Europe , the young instructor brought the monastery into the fold of the Reformed expression of the faith, even as the abbot encouraged and assisted him.

In 1523 the nineteen-year old met Zwingli, the brilliant inaugurator of Reform in Switzerland . Glad of the opportunity to be Zwingl’s theological apprentice, Bullinger left the monastery and plunged into his mentor’s intellectual orbit. The older man recognized Bullinger’s ability and invited him to accompany him to the major disputation at Berne in 1528. Tragically Zwingli would die defending his homeland at the Battle of Kappel in 1531. The eight-year apprenticeship would soon bear immense fruit.

Soon much unfolded quickly. In May 1529 Bullinger (still officially Roman Catholic, bizarrely) replaced his father as priest in Bremgarten. In June 1529 the town sided with the Reformation. Since the Protestant expression of the faith was now government-sanctioned, the clergy could marry instead of lurking in the clandestine relationships wherein they had sought connubial comfort and consolation. Bullinger lost no time: two months later he married Anna Adlischwyler – whereupon his father espoused Reformed doctrine and married the woman he had known for decades. In 1531 Bullinger moved to Zurich in order to succeed Zwingli as Cathedral preacher.

Bullinger’s “stamp” is evident principally in a major confession and a theology that underlies everything he wrote. The theology is marked by the notion of covenant, and after him Protestant thought, when faithful to the gospel, has always exemplified “Covenant Theology.” (See the work of Karl Barth.) God’s covenant is his promise to us that he will ever be our God. He has pledged himself irrevocably to us, and asks us to pledge ourselves to him: “I shall be your God and you shall be my people.” God unfailingly keeps the covenant he makes. We sinners, however, are inveterate covenant-breakers. In Jesus Christ, the Son Incarnate, there has appeared that one (the only one) who is the human, faithful covenant-partner with the Father. As Christians are bound to Jesus Christ in faith we are identified with our “elder brother” and therefore are recognized as covenant-keepers with him.

The major work bearing Bullinger’s handprint is the 1566 Second Helvetic Confession. ( Helvetia is Latin for “ Switzerland .) Knox’s Church of Scotland endorsed this document without qualification. It is Bullinger’s single greatest triumph. Over sixty pages long, it articulates comprehensively and comprehensibly that Word-fostered faith which attempted to shed the non-gospel accretions that past centuries had accumulated. While the Second Helvetic Confession is a model of theological succinctness and profundity, its best-known line is Bullinger’s Praedicatio verbum Dei verbum Dei est – the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God. In other words, when the gospel is preached by fumbling, stumbling humans, the risen, sovereign Jesus Christ adopts the event, owns it and vivifies it by the power of the Spirit so as to loom before hearers and acquaint them with himself as surely as he “leaned” on hearers during the days of his earthly ministry.

There was more to Bullinger. He corresponded with leaders throughout the Protestant world. Archives currently hold 15,000-plus letters to and from him, including 300 that Calvin alone addressed to him. Preaching at least six times per week, he distilled his sermons into an “essence,” several Decades (so named in that each Decade contained ten items) that fuelled Reformation lighthouses guiding those otherwise on theological shoals. The Latin Decades were immediately translated into Dutch, German, French and English. They helped immensely English clergy struggling to understand and expound the Reformed faith. Eventually they were reprinted seventy-seven times.

A pastor first (as were all the Reformers,) Bullinger’s House Book, a treatise on pastoral theology, was reprinted 137 times. The pastor and his wife extended hospitality to several leaders among the Marian exiles, those men and women whom “Bloody” Mary (1553-1558) had hounded out of England . Steeped now in Bullinger’s theology and ecclesiology, as soon as Elizabeth allowed them to return they infused the nascent Puritan movement and the Presbyterianism that emerged from it.

Bullinger ministered in Zurich for forty-four years (1531-1575,) a period that “bookends” the whole of Calvin’s theological existence. His contribution to the Reformation is immense.

Fellowship Magazine is right to recognize Bullinger and therein fulfil the Fifth Commandment. For it is no small matter to honour our parents – including the theological.

Victor Shepherd