It is my belief that modern Christianity cannot comprehend its spiritual heritage apart from the Swiss Reformation in particular. I grant that the German Reformation played somewhat of a role, but the Lutheranism that was handed over to contemporary Protestants was frequently too closely associated with many of the tenets of Roman Catholicism.
For instance, both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism teach a doctrine of infused grace when one is baptized or receives the Lord’s Supper. Regarding the Lord’s Supper particularly, a hair-fine difference exists between the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran view of consubstantiation.
Further, it is not uncommon to see crucifixes in some Lutheran churches with Christ depicted as still on the cross or images of Christ in Lutheran churches. The notion of liturgy is different between the Reformed and Lutherans, and there is a stark difference generally between the Reformed formulation of the “Two Kingdoms” and that of Luther and the Lutherans. All that to say that our heritage is substantially more firmly ensconced in Switzerland. That is not to say that we are not indebted to the labors of Olevianus and Ursinus, especially in their efforts surrounding the Heidelberg Catechism in the Palatinate of Germany, or the Huguenot in France, or of Cranmer and the other English Reformers, or of Knox in Scotland. We could also give honorable mention to Italy producing Peter Martyr Vermigli and Hungary’s almost immediate acceptance of the Second Helvetic Confession. All of those Reformers and lands influenced by the Reformation made significant contributions to Christianity and Western civilization. My particular aim, however, is to concentrate our attention on the invaluable heritage passed on to us from the Swiss Reformation. It has come to my attention that precious few Protestants are even remotely aware of the names of many of these Reformers, let alone being apprised of what they taught about the essence of Christianity.
In my previous article I mentioned the name of Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). If we were to take the time to read his early contributions to the efforts of ecclesiastical reform in Switzerland, we would be, I think, pleasantly surprised. We do not want to squander that special gift that God has given to contemporary Protestantism, although it can be reasonably argued that we have traded that doctrinal and ethical contribution for a mess of porridge that is more “feeling” oriented.
Zwingli, however, is not the topic of this article. Rather, it is the contributions made by Heinrich Bullinger. In my previous article, I provided a brief biography of Bullinger. That article can be located in the Nov.-Dec. 2022, Vol. 78, No. 06 of the Reformed Herald.
The One and Eternal Covenant of God
Mention the word “covenant” in many Protestant circles today and you will receive quizzical looks. What? Covenant? What is that? The short answer is that it is an indispensable interpretive tool for the entire Bible.
Shortly after arriving in Zürich and becoming the pastor in the Grössmunster congregation, Bullinger penned one of the finest expositions of the biblical doctrine of the covenant ever written. If you have not read that work, it is available in English. Charles McCoy and Wayne Baker have co-edited a book that bears the title Fountainhead of Federalism. Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition. The work is divided into two parts. Part One consists of five chapters, the first (Heinrich Bullinger and the Origins of the Federal Tradition) being, in my estimation, the most important in that section of the book. Part Two contains the actual article by Bullinger written in 1534 (“A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God”).
I should explain that when Bullinger wanted to converse about the unity of Scripture he would say words to this effect: Christ and the Apostles did not preach or teach anything that the Prophets before them had not preached or taught. The prophets did not preach of teach anything that Moses before them had not preached or taught. Bullinger’s words are merely a paraphrase of what the scriptures teach in the last chapter of Luke’s gospel. In Luke 24:27, we read the culmination of a conversation that Jesus had with the two who were on their way to the village of Emmaus. They had no immediate idea that they were talking with Jesus, but he patiently explained what the Old Testament had so clearly declared about what would happen to Messiah. The capstone of that conversation is found in verse 27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. That is, Jesus explained that the totality of the Bible is about him.
Later, when he was with his disciples, we read in that same chapter of Luke these words from the risen Savior: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” In other words, the entirety of the Old Testament is about Jesus. In clear, plain, simple, and understandable language, Bullinger patiently delineates the centrality and indispensable character of God’s covenant relationship with his people. He tells us what the Hebrew word for covenant (berith) means and why it is important. He outlines God’s covenant with the descendants of Abraham. He carefully delineates who constitutes the “seed” of Abraham and how the Old Testament saints were truly a spiritual people who received spiritual promises from God in the covenant. The duties or obligations of those in covenant relationship with God are declared, manifesting that while the covenant is rife with glorious promises it also has requirements/obligations for God’s people.
Bullinger then embarks on an extended treatment of why he is convinced that the doctrine of the covenant is “The Subject of All Scripture.” It is the “target” at which all Scripture aims. The idea of the unity of the covenant also is examined and explained. It goes without saying that Bullinger spends a great deal of time on the Old Testament sacrament of the covenant, namely circumcision, which is worth the price of the book itself. There is far-reaching misunderstanding about the nature of the New Testament sign and seal of the covenant: baptism, especially infant baptism. Do Reformed people believe that infant baptism saves the infant? What happens if a person is baptized as an infant and later in life rejects the Christian faith? Did their baptism not “take”? All of these questions are answered by Bullinger in his treatise on the covenant. I found his explanation of the centrality of Genesis 17 in his treatise to be especially helpful. Simply, plainly, and quite understandably, Bullinger painstakingly walks the reader through the most salient points of God’s establishment of the Old Testament sign and seal of the covenant: circumcision. Above and beyond that particular section of his treatise, Bullinger’s work is rife with Scripture, which is what makes it so compelling.
There is much confusion today surrounding the nature of Old Testament sacraments, especially with a view to their spiritual nature. That is, were the Old Testament sacraments merely physical or were they as spiritual as, say, the New Testament sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Bullinger supplies two key texts in the debate, namely Deuteronomy 10:16 and Jeremiah 4:4, both of which pointed the Old Testament saints to the necessity of circumcising the foreskins of their hearts. The result of such commands in the Old Testament was to demonstrate that “the entire covenant was contained in the sacrament of the covenant; in the same manner, the entire essence of the renewed covenant is contained in our sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist.” Bullinger reminds his readers that the group to which he refers as “the ancients” spoke of the sacraments as the visible signs of invisibly grace.
Is there, then, any difference between the Old Testament and New Testament saints? Yes and No. The negative response refers to being in the Church of God. Believers are in God’s Church. The Reformers taught that the Church did not begin with the advent of the Lord Jesus, but rather that Adam and Eve were the first members of God’s Church. Furthermore, God gave circumcision and Passover to the Old Testament Church, but to the New Testament Church those covenantal rites have been altered and are now Baptism and the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper. Positively, New Testament saints live looking back at the accomplished work of God’s Messiah, while the Old Testament saints lived in anticipation of his advent.
While reading and digesting the biblical/theological truth contained in Bullinger’s 1534 treatise on the covenant is necessary for Protestants, there are other equally important works that have been translated into English and are well worth the Christian’s time to read. I will mention three for your edification. First, is Bullinger’s magisterial Decades. This work consists of five books, each containing ten “sermons.” These seem to be sermons based on the way Bullinger begins and ends them, but they are not what the modern Christian might describe as a typical sermon. They are filled with expositions of the fundamental truths of Christianity, including an excellent exposition of the Ten Commandments. Currently, Reformation Heritage Books has a two-volume set that is reasonably priced.
Second, I suggest what is known as the Consensus Tigurinus or Consensus of Zürich. This was co-authored by Calvin and Bullinger in an attempt to unify the Reformed community about the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. After a long correspondence and a lot of back-and-forth, Calvin arrived in Zürich and met personally with Bullinger. Following a two-hour discussion, they came to an agreement —or, consensus—about the nature of the Supper. They agreed in 1549 and the consensus was finally published in 1551. Did the document answer all the questions concerning the Lord’s Supper? No, but it is a fine explanation of its nature.
It is imperative to understand the articles presented in this document because there has been so little discussion surrounding the Lord’s Supper in our time, which means that fewer and fewer are aware of what transpires when we celebrate the sacrament. Using your computer browser, you can search for Consensus Tigurinus (or, Consensus of Zürich) and download it in pdf format. It should be mandatory reading for every serious Protestant Christian.
Finally, I suggest Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession. This is his mature theology at its best. It is concise, yet robust. It distills the essence of Reformed truth in thirty short chapters. It makes for excellent Lord’s Day’s reading. Each Sunday, the individual or family could read and discuss one or two chapters of this 1566 work. It is a theological feast and almost immediately following its publication it was widely read and used throughout Europe, including Great Britain.
It is my prayer that given the sad state of Christianity in our time that many will return to a daily reading of the scriptures and prayer. In addition, I pray that many will discover the treasure trove of biblical truth that God has handed down to us via Heinrich Bullinger.
Dr. Ron Gleason, Ph.D.