Bullinger and the Second Helvetic Confession

Written by John M. Cromarty
From Our Banner: June 1976
Available at http://www.pcea.org.au/writings/church-history/bullinger-and-the-second-helvetic-confession/


It is recorded that during the great spiritual upheavals of the 16th Century a Roman Catholic asked a Lutheran, 'Where was your Church before Luther?' It was an endeavour to stigmatise the Lutheran's religion as a recent innovation and a human invention. An answer was given in the form of another question, 'Where was your face this morning before you washed?' Under the hand of God the church was being revived and reformed. Man-made traditions could not stand the scrutiny of the Scriptures, and 'the Sword of the Spirit' wielded by its supreme Author was accomplishing that which God had determined. The 'face' of the Church was being cleansed 'with the washing of water by the Word' (Eph. 5:26) and the King and Head of the Church was equipping men with the gifts and graces so needful for the work that was to be accomplished.

Luther took the initial step. It was decisive. A man's right standing before a holy God could not be attained by human merit. Paul spoke so clearly of a 'righteousness of God' (Romans 1:17), imputed to the sinner and received by faith alone. This struck at the very roots of Papal deception - salvation by works, by the purchase of indulgences, merit earned through pilgrimages and penances. Yes indeed, the stained face was being washed, the ingrained dirt of centuries was being removed, revealing afresh the pristine purity of the early church. Yet while Luther's step was decisive, it was but the beginning. While his controversy with Rome touched the very vitals of revealed religion as it relates to personal salvation and while his reforms in other areas stunned an apostate church and a decadent age, yet much land remained to be recovered. And so in moving from Germany to Switzerland, from the Augsburg Confession to the Second Helvetic Confession, from Luther to Bullinger, we draw nearer to our own position as it is set forth in the Westminster Confession.

The reforming work of the Spirit of God touched most European countries and the small nation of Switzerland was no exception. Helvetia (the Latin name for Switzerland) was the home of two great men whose persons and works should ever be remembered. Much is known of the older man, Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531), but much less of Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), Zwingli's pupil, friend and successor. Zwingli represented the first stage of the Reformed church in Switzerland. He commenced what Bullinger, Calvin and others were to complete and died at the zenith of his life, a patriot and martyr. Zwingli wrote four major dogmatic works which are closely related to the history of the Reformation in Germany-Switzerland and these clearly exhibit the Reformed faith in the early stages of its development, These works are:- The Sixty seven Articles of Zurich (1523), The Ten Theses of Berne (1528), the Confession of Faith to the German Emperor Charles (1530), and the Exposition of the Christian Faith to King Francis I of France (1531).

Following the death of Zwingli, Bullinger was chosen to be his successor as chief pastor of Zurich, and as the Second Helvetic Confession was Bullinger's own work we will now turn our focus on this lesser known reformer and his own particular contribution to the reforming movement which was to issue in a credal statement of approximately twenty five thousand words.


He was born in central Switzerland in July 1504. His father, also named Heinrich, was a parish priest, who like many priests of those days, in violation of the laws of celibacy lived in regular wedlock. Young Heinrich was one of five sons born from this 'arrangement' which, although not officially sanctioned, had all the stability of marriage. We note with interest that in 1529 through the influence of his son, Heinrich senior became a Protestant and immediately legitimised this 'union' by entering into marriage.

In understanding Bullinger's work we should note that he clearly belongs to the second generation of Continental Reformers. He was twenty one years younger than Luther, twenty years Zwingli's junior and only twenty seven years of age when he commenced his life's task at Zurich in 1531. Bullinger possessed the qualifications needed for such a position of critical responsibility in Zurich. His preaching was lucid and enriching. His published sermons carried the Reformation teaching far beyond Zurich and one of his associates spoke of him as 'a divine, enriched by unmeasured gifts of God.' He led an exemplary life and his consistent testimony made him a bulwark of the Reformed Church amidst the great changes that were taking place. It was largely due to the faithfulness of Bullinger, who was determined to fight by the Word rather than the sword, that Zwingli's work at Zurich was preserved and restored.

Bullinger was in Zurich for forty four years (1531-1575) and this period takes in the whole thirty years of Calvin's active Protestant life (1534-1564). Throughout these years he ranked easily with Calvin as a leader of the maturing Reformation, not only by eminence of his position in the strong Zurich Church, but through his voluminous biblical, theological, historical and ecclesiastical writings. He outlived Calvin by eleven years and was looked upon as a senior leader of the Reformed Churches by such third generation men as Beza and Ursinus (co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism).

While Bullinger was essentially a man of peace it is nonetheless evident that he was involved in much controversy - with the Lutherans over the Lord's Supper, with Calvin over the decrees of God, and with the Anabaptists over just about everything! This latter group tended to denigrate the Old Testament, and rejected infant baptism and the membership of children of believers in the visible church. Bullinger, however, pointed out that both Jews and Gentiles share in the same covenant though differing in outward administration. Both Jew and Gentile are children of Abraham by faith. Like Zwingli before him, Bullinger asserted that children were not excluded from the Old Covenant and therefore ought not to be excluded from the New. Baptism in the New Covenant corresponds to circumcision in the Old.

Bullinger was truly Catholic in his outlook and was in friendly correspondence with Calvin, Bucer, Melancthon, Beza, Cranmer, Hooper, Lady Jane Grey and many of the leading Protestant divines of England. While Bishop Hooper was in prison prior to his martyrdom he wrote to Bullinger as 'his revered father and guide' and said that Bullinger was the best friend he had ever found and commended to him his wife and two children. (Hooper had been forced by the turbulence of Tudor politics to spend a brief exile in Zurich with Bullinger). We believe that Bullinger had more influence with the English Reformers and upon the Reformation in England, than either Melancthon or Calvin. Cunningham states that 'the actual theological views adopted by Cranmer and embodied in the Thirty Nine articles, more nearly resembled in point of fact, the opinions of Bullinger than those of any other eminent man of the period.' (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p.190).

As mentioned previously, Bullinger was a prolific author. He is credited with 150 titles, including some unpublished manuscripts. He was one of the authors of the First Helvetic Confession of 1536 (afterwards superseded by the Second Helvetic Confession) and his 'Decades' (completed in 1557) which are a series of 50 sermons presenting a simplified summary of Reformed theology and ethics, were found to be of such value that they were made compulsory reading for the less educated clergy of the Elizabethan Church of England.

If we were to sum up the work of Bullinger in one word, we might use the word 'consolidation'. He was not an innovator in the way that Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were, yet he was no less an important figure. God had raised up the right man for the situation. So while Zwingli was the man to set the Reformation in Switzerland in motion, Heinrich Bullinger was by the grace of God the man to continue it. Bullinger's great work, the Second Helvetic Confession to which we now turn is evidence of the degree to which he embodied the Reformation in his own life and thought.


The whole text of the Confession is to be found in Schaff's 'Creeds of Christendom' Volume III, Appendix I, in Cochrane's 'Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century', and in Leith's 'Creed's of the Churches'.

Bullinger initially composed this Confession in 1561 for his own use 'as an abiding testimony of the faith in which he had lived and in which he wished to die'. But events led to its publication and ultimate adoption as the Swiss national Confession. Besides the Swiss Cantons in whose name it was first issued in 1566, the Reformed Churches of France (1571), Hungary (1567), Poland (1571) and Scotland (1566) gave it their sanction. In Holland and England it was also well received. Cochrane informs us that it remains the official statement in most of the Reformed Churches of Eastern Europe and in the Hungarian Reformed Church in America.

The document substantially follows the same order of topics as the First Helvetic Confession but is a decided improvement on that Confession in both form and matter. Schaff's comment is worthy of note: 'It is Scriptural and catholic, wise and judicious, full and elaborate, yet simple and clear, uncompromising towards the errors of Rome, and moderate in its dissent from Lutheran dogmas ('Creeds of Christendom',Vol. I, p.394).

The Confession is too extended for a detailed analysis and so we make some general observations and only point to certain particular aspects of interest. However the brief outline following will give some indication of the scope of the subject matter covered.

Chapters 1 and 2: The Scriptures and their interpretation.

Chapters 3 to 11: The Doctrine of God; Idols, Images and Saints; The One Mediator; Providence; Creation; The Fall; Free Will and Man's Ability; Predestination and Election; Jesus Christ, True God and Man.

Chapters 12 to 16: The Law of God; The Gospel; Repentance and Conversion; Justification; Faith and Good Works.

Chapters 17 to 30: The Church and its only Head; The Ministry; The Sacraments; Ecclesiastical Assemblies; Prayers and Singing; Feasts and Fasts; Catechising and Visiting the Sick; Burial, Purgatory and Apparition of Spirits; Rites and Ceremonies; Celibacy, Marriage and Domestic Affairs; The Civil Magistrate.

The Confession sees the doctrine of Christ as pivotal. The Chapter is a splendid statement of a little over 2,000 words with abundant use of Scripture to support the doctrine set forth. In this section there is not only the positive truth stated concerning the person of Christ but we are reminded of the blasphemous views of Arius, Ebion, Marcion and Nestorius. These men of past centuries who denied the eternal deity of Christ (Arius), who maintained that Christ was not begotten by the power of the Holy Spirit (Ebion), who denied 'that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh' (Marcion) and who taught that the idea of two natures in the one person dissolves the unity of the person (Nestorius) have their heresies refuted by the clear pronouncements of Scripture.

Bullinger also addresses himself to the current heresies of Michael Servetus the Spaniard, and his followers, and says 'Satan through them has as it were drawn (their blasphemies) out of Hell and most boldly and impiously spread (them) abroad throughout the world against the Son of God'. It is good to see the framer of the Confession facing up to current deviations. In the case of Servetus we note that it was not only Calvin who publicly opposed him and consented to his death, for which he (Calvin) received and continues to receive rancorous abuse, but both Melancthon representing the Lutherans, and Bullinger the Zwinglians, gave their full, formal and public approbation to the proceedings which took place in Geneva.

In reference to Chapter Eleven of the Second Helvetic Confession, Berkhof states that it is 'the most complete official deliverance on the Reformed position with respect to the doctrine of Christ' (The History of Christian Doctrines, p 116). It is therefore a chapter well worthy of our attention and a careful study of it will not go unrewarded.

The Chapter dealing with 'the Holy Supper of the Lord' displays a noticeable progression from the view held by Zwingli (no doubt Calvin's influence is seen here), and Bullinger states that for the faithful coming to the Lord's Table there is a corporeal eating, a spiritual eating and a sacramental eating of the bread and wine: 'The body of Christ is in the heavens, at the right hand of His Father, and therefore our hearts are to be lifted up on high and not to be fixed on the bread, neither is the Lord to be worshipped in the bread. Yet the Lord is not absent from His Church when she celebrates the Lord's Supper .... Whereupon it follows that we have an unbloody and mystical supper, even as all antiquity called it'.

We briefly note some of the very practical subjects that are covered in some of the Confession's concluding chapters. There is instruction given on: modesty and humility in ecclesiastical meetings; fasting and the choice of food; instructing young people and the visitation of the sick; the proper use of the Church's possessions; single people, marriages, the rearing of children and domestic affairs; the civil magistrate, the duty of subjects, and waging war in the name of God.

There is in the Confession an emphasis on the actual historical concerns of the Church. For example, what is to be the place of preaching? What is the true function of the ministry? May one be assured of his election? These were relevant questions demanding clear answers. Preaching and the true function of the ministry had suffered sorely at the hands of Rome and a person was proudly presumptuous if he maintained a steadfast assurance of salvation. The answers to these and other pressing questions are found in the Confession and we may note for instance that the question concerning preaching is dealt with in Chapter 1. And what better chapter to interweave a statement on outward proclamation and inward illumination than this section which is headed 'Of the Holy Scriptures being the True Word of God'. For Paul says 'Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God' (Romans 10:17). Similarly it is in the chapter on Predestination and Election that we find our answer to the problem of Assurance. Bullinger draws attention to those who adopt an attitude of fatalism and who say that a person's salvation may only be known by God. He sets forth their arguments this way. 'If I am predestinated and elected by God, nothing can hinder me from salvation, which is already certainly appointed for me, no matter what I do. But if I am in the number of the reprobate, no faith or repentance will help me, since the decree of God cannot be changed. Therefore all doctrines and admonitions are useless'. In answer to this, Bullinger says in part, 'We therefore condemn those who seek otherwise than in Christ whether they be chosen from all eternity, and what God has decreed of them before all beginning. For men must hear the Gospel preached and believe it'. He proceeds to show that if Christ is the object of our faith and hope we may undoubtedly hold that we are elected.

Now, it is in dealing with such practical issues as these, which in the life of the church flow from the doctrines set forth, that the Second Helvetic Confession derives a certain character and warmth which sets it apart from some of the other documents of the Reformation and post Reformation period. The incorporation of many Scripture quotes in the body of the text adds much weight to the arguments set forth.

It is refreshing indeed to read again the great doctrines of the faith so lucidly enunciated in this lesser known yet widely received credal statement. We would be the richer if we studied it in detail. For while we recognise that God has used many men in the past to systematise the truth (Calvin, Knox and others), using many varied modes of expression, and while many of us would hold that it would be difficult to frame better statements than those which we have in the Westminster Confession, yet we should be willing to study and accept the statements of the Second Helvetic Confession if they equally cover the truth in question. And let us bear in mind that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1566 put its imprimatur on the Second Helvetic Confession, thus showing the wonderful measure of harmony that existed among the churches of the Reformation, and this of course was due to the working of a principle common to them all. They had one Rule of Faith and they had one and the same attitude towards it. Principal Macleod in speaking of the General Assembly's acceptance of the Second Helvetic Confession and in showing the unity that was to be found among the Reformed Churches in various lands at this time says, 'It was little wonder then, that when they were content to take and keep their place at the footstool of their Lord as He speaks by His Spirit in His Word they should see eye to eye and be willing to make joint confession to the truth of the gospel which they had learned in His school' (Scottish Theology, p.101).

Dr. Charles Hodge's words of commendation are a fitting conclusion: 'The Second Helvetic Confession is on some accounts to be regarded as the most authoritative symbol of the Reformed Church, as it was more generally received than any other'. (Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p.634).


  1. Hello,
    Thank you for your very well written review of, Bullinger and the Helvetic Confession- I appreciate it much at this time. I am doing a presentation for our Biblical Foundation Study Round Table Discussion on Anna Bullinger. Do you have any information on her, her marriage or her work? I was especially interested in Henry's 14 page marriage proposal or his other writings in marriage but it seems none of them are translated into English:(
    Please let me know!
    Thank you so much,
    Cheyanne Gastelum, AZ

  2. Hello, Cheyanne. I thank you for your interest in this article. I did not write this actually. I only posted this from another website. I would also be interested to learn more about Anna Bullinger. I'm so sorry that I can't point you to any material or resources in English about her or Henry's fourteen-page marriage proposal. That would be an interesting read if it's available in English. I understand that many of Bullinger's work remain untranslated to English. I wish someone would take the challenge to do that. Thank you anyway for taking the time to read this article and to comment. Blessings on your presentation!


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