Below is an excerpt from Chapter 13 of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology , by Bruce Gordon. Dr. Gordon is Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School and is the author of Calvin and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Bullinger’s theme is clearly established in the opening words of the first sermon:
All the decrees of Christian faith, with every way how to live rightly, well and holily, and finally, all true and heavenly wisdom, have always been fetched out of the testimonies, or determinate judgments, of the Word of God by the faithful and those who are called by God to the ministry of the churches.Bullinger 1849–52: i.36
The Word of God is truth, Bullinger wrote, ‘but God is the only well-spring of truth: therefore God is the beginning and cause of the Word of God’ (i.38).
From the beginning of the world God taught the ‘holy fathers’, who then taught their children, ensuring that no age was without the Word. Bullinger offers a biblical history of God’s address to the ancient peoples, the foundation of the ‘tradition’. All that was taught by the holy fathers was put into writing by Moses, who ‘declared most largely the revelation of the Word of God made unto men, and whatsoever the Word of God contains and teaches: in which, as we have the manifold oracles of God himself, so we have the most illuminating testimonies, sentences, examples, and decrees of the most excellent, ancient, holy, wise, and greatest men of the world’ (Bullinger 1849–52: i.47).
Bullinger’s purpose in his long opening sermon was to treat the Word of God, what it is, to whom it was revealed, and its history. In the second sermon on the topic he
developed the theme of to whom it was revealed. The end of the revelation of God’s Word is that it may teach humanity ‘what manner God is towards men’ and how God ‘would have them be saved’. To that end ‘who Christ is, and by what means salvation comes’ Scripture teaches a ‘perfect doctrine’, Bullinger wrote following Paul (Bullinger 1849–52: i.60).
In a direct address to the pastors for whom the Decades were prepared, Bullinger argued that it is God’s will that his Word be understood. For ‘in speaking to his servants he used a most common kind of speech, wherewithal even the very uneducated were acquainted. Neither do we read that the prophets and apostles, the servants of God and interpreters of his high and everlasting wisdom, did use any strange kind of speech’ (i.71). There is some ‘darkness’ in the scriptures which arises from a variety of issues relating to ignorance of languages and literary forms, but these can be overcome by ‘study, diligence, faith, and the means of skillful interpreters’ (i.71).
The response of men and women to God’s Word is in faith, which Bullinger called a settled and undoubted persuasion in God and his Word (i.82). It is faith alone that allows people to see what God has revealed. Bullinger set down two principles to be accepted: first, belief that all good things come from God through Christ. Secondly, ‘that in the Word of God’,
there is set down all truth necessary to be believed; and that true faith believes all that is declared in the scriptures. For it tells us that God is; what manner he is; what God’s works are; what his judgments, his will, his commandments, his promises, and what his warnings are; finally, whatsoever is profitable or necessary to be believed; that God’s Word is wholly laid down for us, which is received by true faith, believing all things that are written in the law and the prophets, in the gospel and writings of the apostles.BULLINGER 1849–52: (i.36)
This teaching on the nature of the Word, Bullinger continued, was articulated in the articles of the apostles, which formed the ‘sum of faith’, and were the subject of sermons seven to nine. He divided his account into four parts, the first three treating the nature of the triune God and the fourth the fruits of faith. He described the articles as a ‘symbol’, a badge, a marker of the true faith, ‘because by the laying together of the apostles’ doctrine, they were made and written to be a rule and an abridgement of the faith preached by the apostles, and received of the Catholic or universal church’. It is not known, Bullinger, continued, who first wrote the articles.
In his treatment of love of God and neighbour Bullinger was emphatic about the proper order of loci. It is the love of God by which he loved humanity that is the foundation of all human love of him and other people. ‘The love of God works in us a will’, Bullinger wrote, ‘to frame ourselves wholly to the will and ordinances of him whom we do heartily love’ (i.182). It is such love that makes love of neighbour possible, which in true Bullinger fashion had a special emphasis on the poor and sick. He quoted Lactantius:
It is a chief part of humanity and a great good deed, to take in hand to heal and cherish the sick, that have nobody to help them. Finally, that last and greatest duty of piety is the burial of strangers and of the poor.(Bullinger 1849–52: i.191)
It is not enough, Bullinger concluded, to understand what love of neighbor entailed, although such knowledge was necessary: ‘but rather we must love him exceedingly, and above what I am able to say’ (i.191).
Decade Two opens with a treatment of the law, a subject Bullinger occupied himself with through to the beginning of the fourth Decade. Some laws are of God, others
of nature. The latter is the conscience, by which men and women know what they should and should not do. The conscience does not, however, know God, only general
principles of religion impressed upon humans, as well as qualities of goodness and virtue (ii.194). Bullinger treated at length the nature of virtue among the ancients,
We may gather, that even in the gentiles’ minds there was a certain knowledge of God, and some precepts whereby they knew what to desire, and what to eschew, which notwithstanding they did corrupt, and make somewhat misty with the evil affections and corrupt judgments of the flesh. For which cause God also, beside the law of nature did ordain other means to declare his will.(BULLINGER 1849–52: ii.205)
In distinction from the law of nature the law of God has been fully revealed and clearly teaches what humans are to do and not do, and how God will punish those who are not obedient. Bullinger treated the first two commandments in sermon 12. He wrote of God’s law being divided into moral, ceremonial, and judicial.
The moral law is that which teaches men right conduct and sets down the nature of virtue. It declares how great righteousness, godliness, obedience, and perfectness God looks for at the hands of us mortal men. The ceremonial laws are those that are given concerning the order of holy and ecclesiastical rights and ceremonies, and also touching the ministries and things assigned to ministry and other holy uses. Last of all, the judicial laws give rules concerning matters to be judged between men for the preservation of public peace, equity, and civil honesty.(BULLINGER 1849–52: ii.210)
Unlike the ceremonial laws, the moral laws were not abrogated by Christ. The Ten Commandments, Bullinger argued, are the ‘absolute and everlasting rule of true righteousness and all virtues set down for all places, men, and ages, frame themselves by’ (ii.211). The sum of the Ten Commandments is for men and women to show their love for God and one another, and that is what God requires at all times, and everywhere and of all people. The distinction between the moral and the judicial and ceremonial is its particular place in the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial and judicial were revealed to Moses by the angels, and then by Moses to the people. The moral law, however, was revealed by God himself on Mount Sinai. God spoke them ‘word for word’ (ii.212).
Bullinger’s extended treatment of the law in the second and third Decade is a discourse on the whole of religion. He addressed all the different forms of the law and their
place in Christian revelation. An example of this approach is found in his discussion of the fourth commandment concerning the Sabbath, which he interprets as belonging to the outward and inward service of the Lord. The Sabbath has various meanings, above all that humans should rest and cease from labor that is for their own purposes. It is a particular day set aside to allow God to work in the individual.
Together with the inner spiritual growth through rest, Bullinger understood the Sabbath to be instituted by God in order that men and women might have the proper
outward form of religion (Bullinger 1849–52: ii.255). Because the worshipping of God cannot be without a time, he wrote, ‘wherein we should abstain from outward or bodily works: but so yet that we should have leisure to attend to our spiritual business. For that cause is the outward rest commanded, that the spiritual work should not be hindered by the bodily business’ (ii.255). By outward form of religion, Bullinger referenced the public reading and expounding of scripture, public prayers, and petitions, the administration of the sacraments, and the ‘gathering of every man’s benevolence’.
The practical approach taken by the head of the Zurich church to the exposition of the laws is evident in his concluding words of sermon 14. Having declared that the first
table of the commandments sets down the true worship of God, Bullinger concluded ‘they are not the children of God who know his mind, but they who do it’ (Bullinger 1849–52: ii.267).
Having treated the laws, Bullinger wrote that one must turn to those matters that follow on the law: Christian liberty, good works, sin, and the punishment of sin (iii.300). The abrogation of the law, which he treats in sermon 28, is the foundation of Christian liberty. What is this liberty? Bullinger argued that it is the grievous bondage from which the Lord has delivered his elect. The Son of God came into the world, overcame Satan, and brought his own into the kingdom where he is Lord and King. Further, he has ‘adopted us to be the sons of God’ and took away the bitter curse of the law’ (iii.305). With the liberty of the Christian the hatred of the law remains no more, although the weakness of the flesh does. God bestows the free gift of the Holy Spirit in order that men and women should willingly submit to the will of the Lord. Finally,
The same our Lord and king has taken from the shoulders of his elect the burden of the law, the types and figures, with the costs belonging to the same. He has forbidden us, being at once set at liberty, to entangle ourselves again with any laws and traditions of men. Of all this taken together we offer this definition: to deliver is to make free and to set at liberty from bondage. He is free, or manumissed, that being delivered from bondage enjoys his liberty: therefore manumission, or liberty, is nothing other than the state of him that is made free.(BULLINGER 1849–52: iii.305)
The treatment of Christian liberty was taken up by Bullinger to offer an extended discourse on how such freedom can be abused. The Christian is not made free in Christ to offend another. The root of such offence is the confusion of the Spirit and the flesh. Those who take human traditions and actions and grant them spiritual significance bind the consciences of others by imposing upon them unacceptable duties and obligations. Following Pauline advice, Bullinger admonished that freedom must be tempered by love.
The misuse of freedom leads to the discussion of works. Bullinger naturally denied any role for works in the salvation of persons, but he devoted attention to the place of works in the sanctified life. The only good works are those that come from God, who through the Spirit works in the hearts of the regenerate. ‘And God by his Spirit and by faith in Christ’, Bullinger writes,
[r]enews all men, so that they, being once regenerate, do no longer their own, that is, the works of the flesh, but the works of the Spirit, of grace, and of God himself. For the works of them that are regenerate do grow up by the good Spirit of God that is within them; which Spirit, even as the sap gives strength to trees to bring forth fruit, doth in a like manner cause sundry virtues to bud and branch out of us men.(BULLINGER 1849–52: iii.322)
In the subsequent treatment of sin Bullinger faced the old question of the role of God in the fall of humanity. If God created Adam, the objection runs, and Adam committed sin, is God not the author of sin? Drawing on a large body of scriptural evidence Bullinger asserted that God is not the cause of evil, for it was the corruptible will and the temptations of the Devil ‘that inflames our depraved nature to sin’ (iii.373). Nevertheless, the questions continue and Bullinger sought to enumerate them. Why, he continued, would God create a person so frail that he would by his own judgment fall into sin? Only God, he replied, is good by necessity, not humanity. Adam was a man, and not a God. Yet he was not created for death, but for life and blessedness, for he was the image of God. In the garden he was perfect, lacking in nothing, although God knew that Adam would fall. Such foreknowledge, Bullinger is adamant, is not to be confused with necessity. That God knew did not cause the fall to happen (iii.377).
Sin, Bullinger observed, is an offence against God’s law, and the law is nothing other than the divine will. That will was first expressed in the law of nature, then by the two tables of stone, and finally by the preaching of the Holy Gospel. All three forms express God’s desire that humans be holy, innocent, and therefore saved. Bullinger then proceeds to a forensic analysis of the types of sins to be found among humans. In particular, through his treatment of Original Sin and the sin against the Holy Spirit he explores the character and consequences of human disobedience. Sermon 30, however, ends on a more pastoral note as Bullinger asked why God does not withdraw punishment even when a sin has been forgiven. ‘God has laid bodily death’, he wrote, ‘as a punishment upon the body of man; and after the forgiveness of sins has not taken it away, but left it in the body to be a means to the exercise of righteousness’ (Bullinger 1849–52: iii.431).
The first two sermons of the fourth Decade, on the Gospel and Repentance, continue the themes in Bullinger’s treatment of Christian liberty and sin. The Zurich church
leader, however, makes a certain transition by stating that the Gospel is the exposition of the law. Bullinger’s discussion of the Gospel in sermon 30 has a strong catechetical quality. His lengthy definition of the Gospel is an arresting statement of faith that expresses much of his teaching in the Decades. The Gospel, he wrote, is the heavenly preaching of grace to humanity wherein it is declared to a sinful world that God is pleased with his Son, Jesus Christ. His only-begotten son was promised to the ancient fathers and now revealed to men and women. God ‘in him hath given’
[a]ll things belonging to a blessed life and eternal salvation, as he that was for us men incarnate, dead and raised from the dead again, was taken up into heaven, and is made our only Lord and Savior, upon condition that we, acknowledging our sins, do soundly and surely believe in him.(Bullinger 1849–52: iv.4)
In sum, what Bullinger desired to say about the Gospel is how all humans are slaves to sin and will suffer eternal death, a fate unavoidable except through the free grace of God. This has been achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the only-begotten Son of God. Alone those who believe in him will be partakers in the resurrection. Whoever receives the Gospel through true preaching is justified. That means that they are cleansed of sin, sanctified, and ‘made heirs to eternal life’. Those who do not receive Christ will perish in their unbelief, for ‘the wrath of God abides upon them’ (iv.54). Bullinger linked repentance closely to the preaching of the Gospel, calling it an ‘unfeigned turning unto God’ (iv.57).
From The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Copyright © 2020 by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.