Oct 22, 2018

Covenant Theologian: Heinrich Bullinger

8 Min Read

Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) is regarded as the most influential second-generation Reformer. As the heir to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland, he consolidated and continued the Swiss Reformation that his predecessor had started. Philip Schaff writes that Bullinger was

a man of firm faith, courage, moderation, patience, and endurance . . . [who was] providentially equipped” to preserve and advance the truth in a difficult time in history. During his forty-four years as the chief minister in Zurich, Bullinger’s literary output exceeded that of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Zwingli combined. He was of monumental importance in the spread of Reformed teaching throughout the Reformation. So far-reaching was Bullinger’s influence throughout continental Europe and England that Theodore Beza called him “the common shepherd of all Christian churches.”

Bullinger was born on July 18, 1504, in the tiny Swiss town of Bremgarten, ten miles west of Zurich. His father, also named Heinrich, was the local parish priest, who lived in a common law marriage with Anna Wiederkehr. This practice was officially forbidden by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but Bullinger’s father had received permission to enter into such a relationship by agreeing to pay his bishop a yearly tribute. The younger Heinrich was the fifth child born of this illegitimate wedlock. The marriage between Bullinger’s parents was eventually formalized in 1529, when the elder Bullinger joined the Reformed movement.

Young Heinrich’s father groomed him for the priesthood from a very early age. At age twelve, he was sent to the monastic school at Emmerich, known as the School of the Brethren of the Common Life. This school was a citadel of the via antique, the “old way” of learning that was stressed by the theologians of the High Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and John Duns Scotus (ca. 1265–1308). There, Bullinger received an advanced education in humanistic principles, especially Latin. At the same time, he came under the influence of the devotio moderna, the “modern devotion,” a medieval emphasis on the Eucharist and the deep spiritual life. Augustine and Bernard were among the earlier leaders of this pietistic movement, and it had been revived by Thomas á Kempis in his book The Imitation of Christ. Bullinger was attracted to this movement’s stress on meditation and the search for a personal spiritual experience with God. Also at this time, Bullinger began displaying a remarkable aptitude for scholarship.

The University of Cologne

Three years later, in 1519, Bullinger proceeded to the University of Cologne, where he began studying traditional Scholastic theology. Cologne was the largest city in Germany, and Roman Catholicism was deeply entrenched there—papal superstitions ran high in the city and German mystics gathered there in large numbers. Aquinas and Scotus had taught there earlier, and their Scholastic influence remained firmly embedded in Cologne. But Bullinger was convinced of the humanist approach. In his studies, he pursued the writings of the Church Fathers, especially Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine. Their insistence on the priority of Scripture moved him to study the Bible for himself. Such a pursuit, he later admitted, was unknown to most of his fellow students.

While at Cologne, Bullinger was exposed to the teaching of the leading humanist of the day, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (ca. 1466–1536). Erasmus had elevated the Scriptures over Aristotelian logic and sought to reform the church through humanistic scholarship and the moral teachings of Christ. But it was Luther’s works that most challenged Bullinger’s thinking. Luther’s books were being burned in Cologne, which only piqued Bullinger’s interest in their content. Soon his mind was captured by Luther’s ideas. He also studied Philip Melanchthon’s Loci communes (1521), the first systematic treatment of Lutheran theology. In it, Melanchthon treated the Reformed hallmark doctrines of the bondage of the will and justification by faith alone. This work further impacted Bullinger. Seeds of reform were being sown in his mind. At age seventeen, he embraced the pivotal truth that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. Amid this personal transformation, Bullinger gained his master’s degree.

In 1522, Bullinger returned home to Bremgarten a new man. He continued his persistent study of Scripture along with his reading of the Church Fathers, Luther, and Melanchthon. The next year, he became the head teacher of the school at the Cistercian convent at Kappel. From 1523 to 1529, he instructed the monks from the New Testament and introduced Reformed teaching. Under his influence, Protestant worship replaced the Mass. Further, many monks became Reformed ministers.

Bullinger took a five-month leave of absence in 1527 and made a trip to Zurich. This journey proved to be life changing for him. He attended lectures by Zwingli and met the Swiss Reformer, starting a relationship that would have a profound effect on him and the future of the Swiss Reformation. He was appointed to accompany Zwingli to the Disputation in Berne, which opened on January 7, 1528. On this occasion, the Ten Theses of Berne was presented and subscribed. Through all this, Bullinger was given a privileged inside look at Reformation workings. Subsequently, Bullinger made an annual journey to Zurich to discuss theology with Zwingli. Through this close association, Zwingli became aware of Bullinger’s abilities in the Scriptures. Though neither knew it at the time, Bullinger was being prepared to become Zwingli’s successor.

Pastoring at Hausen and Bremgarten

Later in 1528, Bullinger became the part-time pastor of the village church at Hausen, near Kappel. He preached his first sermon on June 21, beginning an appointment that would allow him to develop his pulpit gifts. The following year, Heinrich Sr. publicly declared his commitment to Reformed teaching and started to reform his parish at Bremgarten. However, the elder Bullinger was forced to resign his position because of the resistance of his parishioners. In an unusual turn of events, the younger Bullinger succeeded his father as pastor of the church. He continued the biblical reform his father had begun and became known as the Reformer of Bremgarten.

Yearning for a wife, Bullinger traveled to the former Dominican convent at Oetenbach in 1529, having heard that the nuns had become Reformed. The nunnery had disbanded, but two women had stayed to establish a Protestant witness. One was Anna Adischwyler, a devoted believer. Bullinger asked her to become his wife and she accepted. Through the years, they had eleven children of their own and adopted others. Remarkably, all six of their sons became Protestant ministers.

For the next two years, Bullinger helped spread Reformed teaching through his pulpit and the beginning of his prolific writing ministry. At this time, he began his long series of commentaries on the books of the New Testament.

With the growing entrenchment of Protestant beliefs in Switzerland, Roman Catholic resistance soon arose. Five Catholic cantons (states), alarmed at the rise of Protestantism in Zurich, declared war on this Reformed stronghold in October 1531. No Protestant canton offered Zurich any support. On October 11, at the Battle of Kappel, the Protestants were ambushed and Zwingli, serving as a military chaplain, was killed. Zurich was forced to accept unfavorable terms of peace. Some regions of Switzerland, including Bremgarten, reverted to Catholicism.

Bullinger, a recognized Protestant leader, was threatened with the scaffold at Bremgarten. He fled to Zurich, where, three days later, he was prevailed upon to preach in Zwingli’s empty pulpit. So powerful was Bullinger’s preaching that the people exclaimed he must be the second coming of Zwingli. Oswald Myconius, a follower of Zwingli, said, “Like the phoenix, he [Zwingli] has risen from the ashes.” It was vitally important for the Swiss churches that Zwingli be replaced by a man of the same Reformed convictions and abounding energy in the Lord’s work. In Bullinger, they found such a man.

Chief Minister of Zurich

Six weeks later, on December 9, 1531, Bullinger, only twenty-seven years old, was unanimously elected by the Council of Zurich and the citizens to succeed Zwingli. After the council agreed to guarantee the clergy’s freedom to preach on all aspects of life in the city, Bullinger accepted the position. He became the antistes—the “chief minister”—of the city. In so doing, he assumed the leadership of the Reformed movement in German-speaking Switzerland. On December 23, he took the pulpit of the Grossmünster, a position he held for forty-four years until his death in 1575. In this role, Bullinger presided over the other churches of the cantonal synod as a sort of “Reformed bishop.” He was also responsible for the reform of the school system.

Bullinger was a tireless preacher. For the first ten years of his ministry in Zurich, he preached six or seven times a week. After 1542, he preached twice a week, on Sundays and Fridays, which allowed him to devote himself to a rigorous writing schedule. Bullinger followed Zwingli in the lectio continua method of preaching, moving verse by verse through whole books of Scripture. His expository sermons were biblical, simple, clear, and practical. In all, it is estimated that Bullinger preached in Zurich between seven thousand and seventy-five hundred sermons. These expositions became the basis for his commentaries, which covered much of the Bible.

Bullinger was also a big-hearted pastor. His house was open to widows, orphans, strangers, exiles, and persecuted brethren. He freely bestowed food, clothing, and money on those in need. Bullinger even secured a pension for Zwingli’s widow and educated Zwingli’s children with his own sons and daughters. He was a devoted pastor who produced one of the first Protestant books for comforting the sick and dying. Many of the persecuted believers of England escaped Mary Tudor’s reign of terror in Zurich, finding refuge in Bullinger’s open arms. Upon their return home, these refugees became leading English Puritans.

A man of considerable theological abilities, Bullinger helped co-author the First Helvetic Confession (1536) and played a key role in the Consensus Tigurinus (1549). The former was the first national Swiss confession; the latter was an attempt by Calvin and Bullinger to rectify Protestant disagreements over the Lord’s Supper. During the discussions over this document, Bullinger invited Calvin to Zurich for face-to-face talks. Calvin accepted the invitation. On May 20, 1549, he and William Farel journeyed to Zurich, where they met with Bullinger. Calvin and Bullinger reached an agreement regarding the sacraments that united the Reformed efforts in Geneva and Zurich. By these confessional documents, Bullinger helped galvanize Switzerland during the beginning of its Reformation period. He combated the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation in the Lord’s Supper and refuted Anabaptist teaching on baptism. However, he remained open-minded toward the various radical movements.

Throughout this time, Bullinger was consulted by English royalty, including Edward VI (1550) and Elizabeth I (1566). He viewed the leaders of the Church of England as fellow Reformed churchmen as they struggled against Rome. Portions of his book Decades were dedicated to Edward VI and Lady Jane Grey. On a broader scale, he maintained correspondence with Reformed leaders all over the Protestant world, including Philip of Hesse. His wise and balanced counsel gave much-needed direction to many in the Reformed movement.

In Bullinger’s closing years, he suffered the tragic deaths of his wife, Anna, and several of their daughters. Their lives were taken in outbreaks of the plague in 1564 and 1565. Bullinger himself became severely ill during the second outbreak. Though he survived the outbreak, his health remained poor, and he died on September 17, 1575, after four decades of tireless and effective ministry. He left behind a rich legacy in the truths of sovereign grace that helped give theological and ecclesiastical order to the Reformation.

This article is part of the Men of the Reformation collection.