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Bullinger was Zwingli’s successor. For 44 years he pastored Grossmunster in Zurich. Considering the important role he played, and the prodigious quantity of his writings, it is remarkable that Bullinger is one of the least known of the Reformers.
Born 18 July 1504, the fifth son of the priest, Henry Bullinger, Heinrich was sent to study at the prestigious Emmerich Seminary on the Rhine, at aged 12. At 15 years old, he enrolled at the University in Cologne, earning his Bachelor of Arts the next year. It was at this time that he was converted to the Reformed faith through studying the Latin and Greek fathers of the Church.
In 1523, Bullinger was called to teach at the Cistercian Monastery of Kappel, near Zurich. Here he taught on the Epistles of Paul and proposed to Anna Adlischweiler, a nun, who remained in a de-consecrated convent. Bullinger’s proposal in writing is still preserved: “Do you want to share with me sorrow and joy and, under my protection, live in love according to God’s Order?” Her “Yes” was uttered at Grossmunster, where Ulrich Zwingli was the pastor.
After the death of Reformer Ulrich Zwingli at the Battle of Kappel in 1531, Bullinger was chosen to become his successor as Pastor of Grossmunster. Appointed the First Minister (the equivalent of a Reformed Bishop) Bullinger and his family moved into the house of Zwingli, and he took responsibility for caring for the widow and two dependant children of the Reformer who had been killed in battle. Heinrich Bullinger’s marriage to Anna was long and loving and produced 11 children. All of their sons became Protestant ministers.
For the next 44 years, Bullinger presided over the destinies of the church in Zurich, consolidating the Reformation begun by Zwingli. Bullinger was a prolific writer and his widely published work included Decades of Sermons (50 sermons on Christian doctrine), The History of The Reformation, and The Diary. Because of his growing authority as a respected theologian, his concilatory spirit and his diplomatic gifts, he became the friend of Calvin and Beza, and the recognised head of the Reformed churches of Switzerland.
He maintained an important correspondence with political and religious leaders throughout the whole of Europe (more than 12,000 of his letters are preserved at the Zentral Bibliotek in Zurich. Through his sermons and publications, including Bible commentaries, he exercised a lasting influence on the Reformed movement worldwide. His Decades were many times republished and translated into French and English. Bullinger’s correspondents included Henry VIII and Edward VI of England. When, in 1570, Queen Elizabeth needed to prepare a response to the Papacy, she turned to Bullinger to draft her reply.
Bullinger’s contributions to systematizing the doctrine of Zwingli and organising the churches of Reformed Switzerland, were decisive. In 1537, he wrote The First Helvetic Confession, which was adopted by the churches of Zurich, Berne, Basle, Shaffhusen, Saint-Gall, Muhlhause and Bienna. In 1549, he, along with John Calvin, wrote The Zurich Agreement (Consensus Tigurinus) on the Lord’s Supper. In 1566, Bullinger’s Brief Exposition of The Faith became the basis for The Second Helvetic Confession, which remained for centuries the basis for the Reformed Churches of the Swiss Confederation. The Helvetic Confessions were widely known and respected amongst the Reformed communities of France, England, Scotland, Poland, Hungary and Bohemia. They also left an imprint on the Presbyterian Churches in the USA.
One historian commented about The Helvetic Confession “This Confession is the most natural and simplest of all…it says in the clearest way what it means.”
Zwingli wrote concerning Bullinger: “This young man is very learned… he compares everything, he reconciles everything.”
John Calvin praised Bullinger in these words: “After Melancthon came Bullinger, who has rightly earned great praise: because with doctrine he had an ease which made him most easy to read.”
Berthold Haller of Berne wrote: “God gave you the gift of explaining simply, of lifting the bushel and letting the light of the Holy Word shine.”
Conrad Pellician of Basle wrote: “A Bishop in his youth, pious, loyal, educated, true and devoted, an incomparable preacher, the words of whom act within as the pen of Christendom…a man of God.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1586, instructed ministers that they should read a chapter of the Bible each day and one of Bullinger’s sermons each week. The Foreword to the English translation of The Decades stated: “These sermons are comparable to a gold mine, the deeper you delve, the richer they are. They abstruseness of Calvin is here replaced with an extraordinary clarity of expression.”
The successor of Calvin, Theodore Beza, had been won to the Reformed faith at the age of 16, by a tract written by Bullinger. Beza wrote: “We are used to being strengthened by you” Beza referred to Bullinger as “our rudder” and as his” father” in the faith.
Bullinger was a devoted pastor whose home was constantly open to the hungry, the lost, the persecuted and the spiritual seeker. Although his salary was meager, he gave many gifts, giving of his own small income to hospitals and institutions of mercy. Bullinger’s preaching was powerful and his pen seldom rested. For 44 years, he maintained an average of preaching 7 times a week. His pastoral heart produced one of the first Protestant books on comforting the sick and the dying.
Bullinger built upon the solid foundations laid by Ulrich Zwingli and provided an ecclesiastical and theological order that was thoroughly Reformed.
“Therefore, My beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 15:58
Dr. Peter HammondThe Reformation Society
P.O. Box 74
7725 Cape Town