Heinrich Bullinger (1504 – 1575)
Born: Bremgarten, Switzerland
Role: Monastery headmaster; pastor; theologian; Reformer; successor to Zwingli
Theological emphases: covenant theology; total depravity/original sin; predestination; justification by faith in Christ alone; symbolic baptism & Lord’s Supper
Protested against: unbiblical traditions; icons & relics of saints; ancient heresies & antinomianism; papacy; Catholic sacramentalism; purgatory
Bullinger became intrigued by the fuss over Luther while a university student in Cologne in the opening years of the Reformation. His theological studies of the early church fathers led to an embrace of Protestantism as a more biblically faithful alternative to the kind of medieval scholasticism that prevailed in the educational environments he had studied in.
But while it was Luther and then Melancthon that contributed to Bullinger’s evangelical awakening, it was Zwingli whom he became personally involved with. The two developed a close partnership throughout the 1520s, engaging in reform work and theological disputes together. When Zwingli was killed in battle in 1531, Bullinger quickly became his successor as the chief Reformer in Zurich (and by extension Swizterland). He was still a relatively young man and remained in this role for almost 45 years.
Similar to the way that Melancthon played a key role in systematising Luther’s theology, Bullinger’s importance to the Protestant Reformation lies in his efforts to produce clear statements of Reformed Christian theology that could be spread throughout Christendom as a precursor to Protestant beliefs being widely understood and embraced by people all over Europe. He was instrumental in drafting the First and Second Helvetic Confessions of Faith, which clearly put forward Reformed doctrines on the gospel, salvation and the church, while rejected Roman Catholic and heretical positions on these issues. The Second Helvetic Confession was an incredibly important document for Reformed Christians in this period and won wide acceptance amongst believers of this theological persuasion in many different countries.
Bullinger was also a prodigious preacher and writer, making his impact felt heavily not only in Zurich but in many other places. His works were highly influential in the development of Reformed Christianity within England and he is known to have corresponded with the key Protestant monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I – along with the English martyr-queen Jane. By the time he preached his final sermon at Pentecost in 1575, he is believed to have delivered more than 7000 pastoral messages in Zurich.
Bullinger did have disagreements with other Protestants during his ministry, including Calvin, Lutherans and Anabaptists – but he is widely regarded as a man who cared about Christian unity and sought after harmony and affection between sincere evangelical believers. He was called by Theodore Beza (featured next week) “the common shepherd of all Christian Churches” and showed great love for and solidarity with a wide range of other Christians.
While he remains relatively unknown to many today, Bullinger stands behind much of the thought and theology that Presbyterians, evangelical Anglicans and many other Reformed and Protestant Christians have come to take for granted. A giant in his lifetime, he deserves to be remembered in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation in which he played a key part.
ANS Lane, “Bullinger, Heinrich” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
“Heinrich Bullinger” wikipedia
“Heinrich Bullinger” in Schaff’s History of the Christian Church