January 25, 2017

The Ten Theses of Berne

Stephen Nichols
The Ten Theses of Berne


The city of Berne is in northern Germany, toward the west, not too far from the border with the Netherlands. In 1520, Berchtold Haller came to the church at St. Vincent in the city. Haller had been influenced by Philip Melanchthon and Huldrych Zwingli. Later, especially after 1521, Haller and Zwingli would correspond often and would consider themselves allies.

Haller was interested in Reformation ideas and was leaning toward the Reformation, but the city was not. In 1523, the city affirmed Roman Catholic doctrines. In fact, it explicitly forbade the preaching of Protestantism and of Luther's ideas. But one thing that the city allowed—and this is fascinating—was the preaching of biblical themes, and that's exactly what Haller set out to do from the pulpit at St. Vincent. And guess what happened? In 1525, the sermons started replacing the Mass at St. Vincent. Haller put an end to the ritual of the Mass, and by 1527, Reformed ideas basically had the run of the city.

On January 6, 1528, the city council called for a dispute, and the Ten Theses of Berne were presented. They were roundly affirmed. There were only a few dissenting ministers in the city at that time, but they quickly departed, and the city of Berne became staunchly and firmly a Reformation city. There was quite a ripple effect from the Ten Theses at Berne. The effect was felt at Basel, at Saalhausen, at Lausanne, at Geneva, and even in the Netherlands and as far away as England.

Let's take a look at some of these theses. The first one simply says, "The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger." You get there the sense of how short these theses are, and in fact, all ten of them are fairly short. You also get there the emphasis on the Word of God, and of course, it's obvious what the implication is of "the voice of a stranger" that has crowded in and was preaching a false gospel.

The second thesis states, "The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God's Word. Hence, all human traditions," which are called ecclesiastical commandments, "are binding upon us only insofar as they are based on and commanded by God's Word." There we have a clear articulation of the Reformation plank of sola Scriptura: that the Scriptures alone are the church's authority and that the church is not to rely on an extrabiblical source for its regulations, its commandments, and its guides.

We find in thesis number three that "Christ is our only wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and payment for the sins of the whole world. Hence, it is a denial of Christ when we acknowledge another merit for salvation and satisfaction of sin." And here we're touching upon other Reformation planks: sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus.

Thesis six says, "As Christ alone died for us, He is to be worshiped as the only Mediator and Advocate between God the Father and us believers; therefore, to propose the invoking of other mediators and advocates beyond this life is contrary to Scripture."

The Ten Theses of Berne thus provide a concise statement of the Reformation and the doctrines of sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus.