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Heinrich Bullinger
Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger (18 July 1504 – 17 September 1575) was a Swiss reformer, the successor of Huldrych Zwingli as head of the Zürich church and pastor at Grossmünster. A much less controversial figure than John Calvin or Martin Luther, his importance has long been underestimated; recent research shows that he was one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.[1]

Early life

Heinrich Bullinger was born to Heinrich Bullinger senior, dean of the capitular church, and Anna Wiederkehr, at Bremgarten, Aargau. The bishop of Constance, who had clerical oversight over Aargau, had unofficially sanctioned clerical concubinage, having waived all penalties against the offense in exchange for an annual fee. As such, Heinrich and Anna were able to live as virtual husband and wife, and young Heinrich was the fifth son born to the couple.

At 12 years of age, Bullinger was sent to the distant but celebrated gymnasium of Emmerich in the Duchy of Cleves.


In 1519, at the age of 15, his parents, intending him to follow his father into the clergy, sent him to the University of Cologne, just as Luther's protests against the sale of indulgences was becoming widely known. In 1520–21 Bullinger felt that he needed to decide the issues for himself and, having been exposed to Luther's works, began his own reading of Peter Lombard's Sentences and the Decretum of Gratian. This led him to recognize that both relied on the authority of the Church Fathers, which in turn led him to read them, including Chrysostom's and Jerome's commentaries and Melanchthon's 'Loci communes'. From this reading Bullinger came to conclusion that Lutheran teaching was more faithful to the Church Fathers and the Bible than medieval authors. In 1522, now a convinced "Martinian" (follower of Martin Luther), Bullinger ceased receiving the Eucharist, also giving up his previous intention of entering the Carthusian order and earned his Master of art degree.

Kappel ministry begins (1523–1528)

In 1523, he accepted a post as head of the cloister school at Kappel, though only after negotiating special conditions that meant he didn't need to take monastic vows or attend mass. At the school, Bullinger initiated a systematic program of Bible reading and exegesis for the monks there. He heard Zwingli and Jud preach several times during Reformation in Zürich. During this period, under the influence of the Waldensians, Bullinger moved to a more symbolic understanding of the Eucharist. He contacted Zwingli with his thoughts in September 1524. In 1527, he spent five months in Zürich studying ancient languages and regularly attending the Prophezei that Zwingli had set up there. While there, he impressed the Zürich authorities and they sent him with their delegation to the Bern Disputation - there he met Bucer, Blaurer, and Haller for the first time. In 1528, at the urging of the Zürich Synod, he left the Kappel cloister to become a regular parish minister.

Bremgarten Ministry (1529–1531)

In 1529 Bullinger's father announced that he had been preaching false doctrines for years and now renounced them in favour of Protestant doctrines. As a result, his congregation at Bremgarten decided to remove him as their priest. Several candidates were invited to preach sermons as potential replacements, including the young Bullinger. His sermon was so powerful that it led to an immediate burst of iconoclasm in the church, and the congregation spontaneously stripped the images from their church and burned them.

In the same year, he married Anna Adlischweiler, a former nun. His marriage was happy and regarded as a shining example. His house was continually filled with fugitives, colleagues and people searching for advice or help. Bullinger was a caring father of his eleven children who liked to play with them and wrote verses to them for Christmas. All of his sons became Protestant ministers themselves.

After the defeat at Battle of Kappel (11 October 1531), where Zwingli fell, the Aargau region (including Bremgarten) was forced to return to Catholicism. Bullinger and two other ministers were expelled from the town, to the protest of the inhabitants. Having gained a reputation as a leading Protestant preacher, Bullinger quickly received offers to take up the position of pastor from Zürich, Basel, Bern, and Appenzell. During his negotiations with the civic leaders of Zürich, Bullinger refused to accept their terms - they had offered him the position with the condition that he should not criticise government policy (they still blamed Zwingli for the disastrous defeat at Kappel). Bullinger insisted on his right to expound the Bible, even if it contradicted the position of the civic authorities. In a compromise, they agreed that Bullinger had the right to criticize the government privately in writing. Bullinger took up the post of minister of Zürich; he soon gained oversight over the other Zürich ministers, a position which would later be known as the Zürich Antistes.

Bullinger arrived with his wife and two little children in Zürich, where he already on the Sunday after his arrival stood in Zwingli's pulpit in the Grossmünster and, according to a contemporary description, "thundered a sermon from the pulpit that many thought Zwingli was not dead but resurrected like the phoenix". In December of the same year, he was, at the age of 27, elected to be the successor of Zwingli as antistes of the Zürich church. He accepted the election only after the council had assured him explicitly that he was in his preaching "free, unbound and without restriction" even if it necessitated critique of the government. He kept his office up to his death in 1575.

Bullinger quickly established himself as a staunch defender of the ecclesiological system developed by Zwingli. In 1532, when Jud proposed making ecclesiastical discipline entirely separate from the secular power, Bullinger argues that the need for a separate set of church courts ended when the magistrate became Christian, and that in a place with a Christian magistrate, the institutions of the Old Testament were appropriate. However, Bullinger did not believe the church should be entirely subservient to the state. Also in 1532, he was instrumental in creating a joint committee of magistrates and ministers to oversee the church.

A strong writer and thinker, his spirit was essentially unifying and sympathetic, in an age when these qualities won little sympathy.

Bullinger's hospitality and charity was exemplary, and Zürich accepted many Protestant fugitives from northern Italy (Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was a descendant of such fugitives) and also from England after the passing of the Six Articles in 1539 by Henry VIII and again at the death of Edward VI. Anne Hooper became a correspondent when she was there. Bullinger was the godparent of her daughter, and her husband returned to England to be a bishop.[2]

When these returned to England after the death of Mary I of England, they took Bullinger's writings with them who found a broad distribution. From 1550 to 1560, there were in England 77 editions of Bullinger's Latin "Decades" and 137 editions of their vernacular translation "House Book", a treatise in pastoral theology (in comparison, Calvin's Institutes had two editions in England during the same time). Some historians count Bullinger together with Bucer as the most influential theologian of the Anglican reformation.

Though Bullinger did not leave Switzerland after becoming antistes of Zürich, he conducted an extended correspondence all over Europe and was so well informed that he edited a kind of newspaper about political developments.

His controversies on the Lord's Supper with Luther, and his correspondence with Lelio Sozzini, exhibit, in different connections, his admirable mixture of dignity and tenderness. With Calvin he concluded (1549) the Consensus Tigurinus on the Lord's Supper. He worked closely with Thomas Erastus to promote the Reformed orientation of the Reformation of the Electorate of the Palatinate in the 1560s.

Bullinger played a crucial role in the drafting of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. What eventually became the Second Helvetic Confession originated in a personal statement of his faith which Bullinger intended to be presented to the Zürich Rat upon his death. In 1566, when the Frederick III, the Pious, elector palatine introduced Reformed elements into the church in his region, Bullinger felt that this statement might be useful for the elector, so he had it circulated among the Protestant cities of Switzerland who signed to indicate their assent. Later, the Reformed churches of France, Scotland, and Hungary would do likewise.

He died at Zürich and was followed as antistes by Zwingli's son-in-law Rudolf Gwalther. His circle of collaborators in the Zürich church and Carolinum academy included Gwalther, Konrad Pellikan, Theodor Bibliander, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Wolf, Josias Simler, and Ludwig Lavater.

Among his descendants was the noted Biblical scholar E.W. Bullinger.

See Carl Pestalozzi, Leben (1858); Raget Christoffel, H. Bullinger (1875); Justus Heer, in Hauck's Realencyklopädie (1897).

Second Helvetic Confession

The Second Helvetic Confession (Latin: Confessio Helvetica posterior, or CHP) was mainly written by Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), pastor and the successor of Huldrych Zwingli in Zürich, Switzerland. The Second Helvetic Confession was written in 1561 as a private exercise. It came to the notice of the elector palatine Frederick III, who had it translated into German and published in 1566. It gained a favourable hold on the Swiss churches in Bern, Zürich Schaffhausen St. Gallen, Chur, Geneva and other cities. The Second Helvetic Confession was adopted by the Reformed Church not only throughout Switzerland but in Scotland (1566), Hungary (1567), France (1571), Poland (1578), and next to the Heidelberg Catechism is the most generally recognized Confession of the Reformed Church. Slight variations of this confession existed in the French Confession de Foy (1559), the Scottish Confessio Fidei (1560) the Belfian Ecclasiarum Belgicarum Confessio (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563).

Mary is mentioned several times in the Second Helvetic Confession, which expounds Bullinger's mariology. Chapter Three quotes the angel’s message to the Virgin Mary, " – the Holy Spirit will come over you " - as an indication of the existence of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. The Latin text described Mary as diva, indicating her rank as a person, who dedicated herself to God. In Chapter Nine, the Virgin birth of Jesus is said to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born without the participation of any man. The Second Helvetic Confession accepted the "Ever Virgin" notion from John Calvin, which spread throughout much of Europe with the approbation of this document in the above-mentioned countries.[3] Bullinger's 1539 polemical treatise against idolatry[4] expressed his belief that Mary's "sacrosanctum corpus" ("sacrosanct body") had been assumed into heaven by angels:

The French Confession de Foy, the Scottish Confessio Fidei, the Belgian Ecclasiarum Belgicarum Confessio and the Heidelberg Catechism, all include references to the Virgin Birth, mentioning specifically, that Jesus was born without the participation of a man.[3] Invocations to Mary were not tolerated, however, in light of Calvin’s position that any prayer to saints in front of an altar is prohibited.


Bullinger's works comprise 127 titles. Already during his lifetime they were translated in several languages and counted among the best known theological works in Europe.

His main work were the Decades", a treatise in pastoral theology, in the vernacular called "House Book".

The (second) Helvetic Confession (1566) adopted in Switzerland, Hungary, Bohemia and elsewhere, was originally believed to be only his work. However, this has been recently challenged, in that Peter Martyr Vermigli played a decisive role in this document as well. The volumes of the Zürich Letters, published by the Parker Society, testify to his influence on the English reformation in later stages.

Many of his sermons were translated into English (reprinted, 4 vols., 1849). His works, mainly expository and polemical, have not been collected.

  • Second decade, eighth sermon, The Magistrate [25]
  • Second decade, ninth sermon, "Of War; Whether it be Lawful for a Magistrate to Make War. What the Scripture Teacheth Touching War. Whether a Christian Man May Bear the Office of a Magistrate. And of the Duty of Subjects." (Emphasis added.) [26]
  • Fourth decade, fourth sermon, Predestination [27]
  • An Answer Given To A Certain Scotsman, In Reply To Some Questions Concerning The Kingdom Of Scotland And England [28]
  • Microfiche collection of his original works [29]
  • Werke [30] - Institut für schweizerische Reformationsgeschichte, Universität Zürich

Besides theological works, Bullinger also wrote some historical works of value. The main of it, the "Tiguriner Chronik" is a history of Zürich from Roman times to the Reformation, others are a history of the Reformation and a history of the Swiss confederation. Bullinger also wrote in detail on Biblical chronology, working within the framework that was universal in the Christian theological tradition until the second half of the 17th century, namely that the Bible affords a faithful and normative reference for all ancient history.[7]

There exist about 12,000 letters from and to Bullinger, the most extended correspondence preserved from Reformation times. He mainly wrote in Latin with some quotes in Hebrew and Greek, with about 10 percent in Early New High German.

Bullinger was a personal friend and advisor of many leading personalities of the reformation era. He corresponded with Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, and Baptist theologians, with Henry VIII of England, Edward VI of England, Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I of England, Christian II of Denmark, Philipp I of Hesse and Frederick III, Elector Palatine.

  • Geographical overview of Bullingers correspondence [31]
  • Database of Bullinger's Letters [32]
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