In an article entitled “Covenant Theologian: Heinrich Bullinger”, Dr. Steve Lawson writes:
Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) is regarded as the most influential second-generation Reformer. As the heir to Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland, he consolidated and continued the Swiss Reformation that his predecessor had started. Philip Schaff writes that Bullinger was “a man of firm faith, courage, moderation, patience, and endurance … [who was] providentially equipped” to preserve and advance the truth in a difficult time in history (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation [1910; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 205). During his forty-four years as the chief minister in Zurich, Bullinger’s literary output exceeded that of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Zwingli combined. He was of monumental importance in the spread of Reformed teaching throughout the Reformation. So far-reaching was Bullinger’s influence throughout continental Europe and England that Theodore Beza called him “the common shepherd of all Christian churches” (Theodore Beza, cited in Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, 207).
Bullinger was born on July 18, 1504, in the tiny Swiss town of Bremgarten, ten miles west of Zurich. His father, also named Heinrich, was the local parish priest, who lived in a common law marriage with Anna Wiederkehr. This practice was officially forbidden by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but Bullinger’s father had received permission to enter into such a relationship by agreeing to pay his bishop a yearly tribute. The younger Heinrich was the fifth child born of this illegitimate wedlock. The marriage between Bullinger’s parents was eventually formalized in 1529, when the elder Bullinger joined the Reformed movement.
IT IS ESTIMATED THAT BULLINGER PREACHED IN ZURICH BETWEEN SEVEN THOUSAND AND SEVENTY-FIVE HUNDRED SERMONS
Young Heinrich’s father groomed him for the priesthood from a very early age. At age twelve, he was sent to the monastic school at Emmerich, known as the School of the Brethren of the Common Life. This school was a citadel of the via antique, the “old way” of learning that was stressed by the theologians of the High Middle Ages, such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and John Duns Scotus (ca. 1265–1308). There, Bullinger received an advanced education in humanistic principles, especially Latin. At the same time, he came under the influence of the devotio moderna, the “modern devotion,” a medieval emphasis on the Eucharist and the deep spiritual life. Augustine and Bernard were among the earlier leaders of this pietistic movement, and it had been revived by Thomas á Kempis in his book The Imitation of Christ. Bullinger was attracted to this movement’s stress on meditation and the search for a personal spiritual experience with God. Also at this time, Bullinger began displaying a remarkable aptitude for scholarship.
The University of Cologne
Three years later, in 1519, Bullinger proceeded to the University of Cologne, where he began studying traditional Scholastic theology. Cologne was the largest city in Germany, and Roman Catholicism was deeply entrenched there—papal superstitions ran high in the city and German mystics gathered there in large numbers. Aquinas and Scotus had taught there earlier, and their Scholastic influence remained firmly embedded in Cologne. But Bullinger was convinced of the humanist approach. In his studies, he pursued the writings of the Church Fathers, especially Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine. Their insistence on the priority of Scripture moved him to study the Bible for himself. Such a pursuit, he later admitted, was unknown to most of his fellow students.
While at Cologne, Bullinger was exposed to the teaching of the leading humanist of the day, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (ca. 1466–1536). Erasmus had elevated the Scriptures over Aristotelian logic and sought to reform the church through humanistic scholarship and the moral teachings of Christ. But it was Luther’s works that most challenged Bullinger’s thinking. Luther’s books were being burned in Cologne, which only piqued Bullinger’s interest in their content. Soon his mind was captured by Luther’s ideas. He also studied Philip Melanchthon’s Loci communes (1521), the first systematic treatment of Lutheran theology. In it, Melanchthon treated the Reformed hallmark doctrines of the bondage of the will and justification by faith alone. This work further impacted Bullinger. Seeds of reform were being sown in his mind. At age seventeen, he embraced the pivotal truth that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. Amid this personal transformation, Bullinger gained his master’s degree. Continue reading