Heinrich Bullinger and the Second Helvetic Confession


Beginning with this issue of the Standard Bearer, the undersigned has agreed to write a series of articles explaining the Second Helvetic Confession. These articles will regularly appear in the rubric “Believing and Confessing.” This first article and the one that is to follow will serve as a general introduction to this new series. In this article we will focus on the author of the Second Helvetic Confession, Heinrich Bullinger. In the next article we will take an overview of the confession that he penned.

Very likely most readers of the Standard Bearer are not familiar with this Reformed confession, even though at one time it was the most popular and widely subscribed to Reformation creed. It was the first Reformation creed to be endorsed internationally. Besides its acceptance by Reformed churches throughout Switzerland, the Second Helvetic Confession (“Helvetica” is Latin for “Switzerland”) was at one time the official confession of Reformed churches throughout Europe and beyond: Scotland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, North America, and elsewhere.

This confession is referred to as the Second Helvetic Confession, in distinction from the First Helvetic Confession. 1 The First Helvetic Confession, also referred to as the Confessio Helvetica Prior, was published in 1536—thirty years before the Second Helvetic Confession, or Confessio Helvetica Posterior, which was published in 1566.2 The writing of the First Helvetic Confession was commissioned by delegates of the Swiss Reformed churches meeting in Basel. The delegates chose Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), Simon Grynaeus (1493-1541), Oswald Myconius (1488-1552), Leo Jud (1482-1542), and Kaspar Megander (1495-1545) to compose a new confession specifically of the Swiss Reformed Churches. In addition, Martin Bucer (1491- 1551) and Wolfgang Capito (1478-1541) served as advisors to the committee. The First Helvetic Confession contains twenty-eight articles, most consisting of one brief paragraph. Its subtitle is: “Summary and General Confession of Faith of the Churches throughout Switzerland.” A concise statement of faith, the First Helvetic Confession was intended to bring Reformed and Lutheran Protestants together in the hope of uniting the two main camps within Protestantism.

The Second Helvetic Confession was exclusively the work of Heinrich Bullinger. It was not commissioned by any particular church or group of churches. Originally Bullinger intended it to be included with his last will and testament as an abiding testimony to his faith. However, unforeseen circumstances led Bullinger to share the confession of faith that he had composed. Those who first examined it immediately saw its value as a Reformed con fession, among whom was Frederick III, the pious prince behind the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and Elector of the Palatinate. What was intended to be a private confession of faith, therefore, turned out to be one of the most widely adopted confessions of the Reformation era. Rather than to go into Bullinger’s grave with his remains, the Second Helvetic Confession was disseminated by Reformed believers around the world.

Heinrich Bullinger’s Early Life

Bullinger was a second generation Reformer. He was the fifth son born to Heinrich Bullinger senior and his wife Anna ( née Wiederkehr). Heinrich senior was a parish priest in the church at Bremgarten, a city in central Switzerland, when Heinrich junior was born in 1504. The bishop of Constance had oversight of Bremgarten and unofficially—for an annual fee—tolerated the marriages of clergy under his jurisdiction, something fairly common throughout Switzerland. Heinrich senior and Anna, therefore, lived together as husband and wife. From every report, the Bullingers’ home was a godly home, a home characterized by the fear of the Lord. It was his father’s desire that his namesake should follow in his footsteps as a Roman Catholic priest. Already at the age of fifteen the junior Heinrich was sent to study at the University of Cologne in Germany. Cologne was about a hundred miles north of Worms on the Rhine River, the Worms at which Luther would take his final stand on the Word of God before the Diet of Worms in 1521. Now the year was 1519 and Luther’s protests in Wittenburg against the sale of indulgences and other abuses in the Roman Catholic Church were reported throughout Germany, including Cologne. It was in his student days that Bullinger first read Luther, as well as the early church fathers, whom he found to be in agreement with Luther. In 1520 Bullinger earned his B.A. degree. After earning his master’s degree in 1522, Bullinger returned to his native Switzerland and eventually became a junior colleague of Zwingli and Oecolampadius, even accompanying Zwingli to a number of theological conferences. In 1529 Bullinger was called to be minister in the church at Bremgarten where he had grown up. He actually succeeded his father as pastor and was instrumental in bringing the cause of the Reformation to Bremgarten. Even his aged father was converted to the Reformed faith.

After Zwingli’s death in the fateful Battle of Kappel in October of 1531, Bullinger was chosen to be his mentor’s successor as the chief pastor of Zurich. Just when it seemed that the cause of the Reformation in Switzerland had been dealt a deathblow, God raised up a capable successor to Zwingli. For more than forty years Bullinger labored tirelessly on behalf of the Reformation in Zurich and in Switzerland, as well as on behalf of the cause of the Reformed churches worldwide. Arthur Cochrane points out that Bullinger

was called to be head of the Zurich Church even before Calvin was converted to the evangelical cause. Through his middle years he ranked easily with his friend Calvin as a leader of the maturing Reformation, not only by the eminence of his position in the strong Zurich Church, but through his voluminous Biblical, theological, historical, and ecclesiastical writings. Subsequently he outlived Calvin by eleven years and was looked to as senior leader of the Reformed Churches by such third-generation figures as Beza, Olevianus, and Ursinus. The Second Helvetic Confession is evidence of the degree to which Bullinger embodied the Reformation in his own life and thought.3

Bullinger as a Respected Reformed Leader

Bullinger was a model Reformed minister and theologian. He was a faithful preacher who expounded the Scriptures numerous times each week—six or seven times a week for the first ten years or so of his ministry in Zurich. It is estimated that Bullinger preached between seven thousand and seventy-five hundred sermons in the pulpit of the Grossmünster, the former cathedral in Zurich. He was also a prolific author, writing over one hundred and fifty books in the course of his ministerial career. He wrote Latin commentaries on many books of the Old Testament and on every book of the New Testament except Revelation. His Decades (completed in 1557) consisted of fifty sermons (five books of ten sermons each) that provided an overview of all the main doctrines of the Reformed faith. So highly valued were these sermons that Queen Elizabeth made them compulsory reading by all the clergy of the Church of England.

Bullinger was a theologian, an accomplished theolo gian. But he was not only a theologian, he was a covenant theologian. He is credited with the first theological work devoted entirely to an exposition of the doctrine of the covenant: De testamento seu foedere Dei unico et aeterno, that is, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. Bullinger was a gifted educator and was committed to the cause of Christian education. He organized a system of Christian schools for the education of the children and young people of Zurich. He saw to it that committed Reformed believers were hired as the teachers in the schools of Zurich. He served as rector of and professor in the Carolinum, the local theological school in which men were trained for the gospel ministry. In addition, he was a devoted pastor, tending to the needs of the members of his large congregation, ministering to them even when the plague swept through Zurich in 1564 and again in 1565. He put himself at great personal risk of contracting the fatal disease as he brought words of comfort to the sick and dying.

Bullinger was also “given to hospitality” (I Tim. 3:2), welcoming religious refugees from throughout Europe to Zurich. He even opened up his own home to those who had been displaced by persecution. Many persecuted believers fled “bloody” Mary Tudor’s reign of terror and sought refuge in Bullinger’s safe haven in Zurich. Bullinger was deeply involved in ecumenical pursuits, laboring tirelessly for the unification of the Reformed churches, the Reformed and the Lutherans, and even the Reformed churches and the Roman Catholic Church. And he carried on extensive correspondence with fellow church leaders throughout Europe, as well as with political dignitaries around the world. Bullinger regularly corresponded with Calvin, Bucer, Melanchthon, à Lasco, Beza, Cranmer, and Hooper. Schaff informs us that

Bishop Hooper wrote from prison shortly before his martyrdom [at the hands of “Bloody” Mary], May and December, 1554, to Bullinger, as ‘his revered father and guide,’ and the best friend he had ever found, and commended to him his wife and two children.4

A theologian of considerable ability, Bullinger helped to formulate the First Helvetic Confession in 1536. He played a key role in producing the Consensus Tigurinus in 1549. The Consensus Tigurinus represented the joint effort of Calvin and Bullinger to resolve Protestant differences over the Lord’s Supper and come to agreement on the critical issues connected to the sacrament, particularly the issue of the presence of Christ in the sacrament. At the invitation of Bullinger and the Zurich city council, Calvin and William Farel journeyed to Zurich. Calvin and Bullinger were able to reach an agreement that united the Reformed churches of Geneva and Zurich not only, but the Swiss Reformed churches generally.

Bullinger was a devoted family man. Desirous of a godly wife, Bullinger traveled to a former Dominican convent at Oetenbach in 1529. He had received reports that the nuns there had converted to the Reformation. One of the former nuns was Anna Adischweiler. It was she whom Bullinger asked to become his wife. She accepted his proposal and they were happily married for some thirty-five years. The marriage was fruitful, God blessing their union with eleven children. Six of the eleven were sons, all of whom became Reformed ministers.

Bullinger’s last years were filled with hardship and suffering. Tragically he suffered the deaths of his beloved wife, Anna, and three of his daughters, who were victims of the outbreaks of the plague in Zurich in 1564 and 1565. Bullinger himself became gravely ill during the second outbreak of the plague. Though he survived, his health was broken. Eventually he died on September 17, 1575, after more than forty years of tireless service to the Reformed church in Zurich.

Bullinger left behind a rich legacy of the truths of sovereign grace and God’s gracious covenant with the elect. Much of that legacy is contained in his confession of faith, the Second Helvetic Confession. The Second Helvetic Confession is the expression of Bullinger’s mature theological development. It provides a fairly extensive exposition of all the main doctrines of the Reformed faith and includes the refutation of the main errors that oppose the faith. It is a confession of enduring value, as profitable to the church today as when it was first published in the churches of the Reformation.

1 The First Helvetic Confession (1536) can be found in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 1, 1523-1552, compiled with introductions by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 342-352.

2 The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) can be found in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 2, 1552-1566, complied with introductions by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 809-881. It can also be found in Philip Schaff ’s Creeds of Christendom, Volume 3, The Evangelical Protestant Creeds (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, repr. 1983), 233-306 (original Latin); 831-909 (English translation).

3 Arthur C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 220-1. 4 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, With a History and Critical Notes, Volume 1, The History of the Creeds (1931; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983), footnote #1, 391.