“Reformation as Renewal:” Recatholicizing the Reformers by Manipulating their Message?

Note: This is the online version of an essay from the Hanover Review 3.1 on the Reformation as Renewal Symposium. Print copies are available here and full digital copies of the issue are available here. Full details about the symposium can be found here. More information about the Hanover Review is found here.

Is Matthew Barrett’s Reformation as Renewal about the Reformation or is it the author’s dispute with narrow-minded fundamentalists, who ignore theological education and historical knowledge while quoting the Reformers’ “sola scriptura”?1“As for authority, the Reformers were not advocates of the contemporary fundamentalist mantra ‘No creed but the Bible’”, Matthew Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023), 25. This debate is necessary, indeed. As a Reformation historian who is indebted to the sources, I cannot avoid being quite critical in my assessment.

When does a particular interpretive perspective on historical sources turn into a manipulation of those sources and a deception of readers? Perhaps when a thesis is constantly reiterated but never truly substantiated with sources? Or when isolated sentences or thoughts are extracted from the source texts, while the clear intentions of the authors are concealed or pushed into the background?

I have the task of saying something about Chapter 12 of the book: Barrett’s portrayal of the Swiss reformers Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger. Barrett titles it “Renewal of a Catholic Heritage.”2Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 553. He references various texts by the two reformers, but at the same time, he doesn’t really let Zwingli and Bullinger express themselves on their own terms. Instead, he omits and distorts their central statements, replacing their terms with his own. It would be an extremely tedious endeavor to discuss Barrett’s many misleading and false claims individually. Instead, I will focus on the train of thought in the texts of Zwingli and Bullinger that Barrett refers to and let the reformers themselves speak. This will shed some light on Barrett’s claims.

Barrett expresses his thesis at different places in his book and in a variety of formulations. Four statements shall be quoted at the beginning, to serve as a background against which the messages of Zwingli and Bullinger will be read:

The Reformers insisted that they were not abandoning the church catholic but renewing the church from within, based on a retrieval of its own patristic and medieval heritage over against late medieval innovations.3Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 654.

Bucer and other Reformers believed in the catholicity of the church, even in eras when abuses prevailed. They distinguished between the apostolic continuation of the church through its sacred texts (Scripture and creeds) and sacraments and the modern corruption of the church through papal abuses.4Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 576.

The sole authority of Holy Scripture is upheld as canon, or standard, of revealed truth in such a way that Scripture is not contrasted with Tradition. Scripture, it is argued, can be understood only within the Church and has been understood within the Church bythe great doctors specificallycommitted to the task of interpretation of Scripture and especially endowed with the gift of understanding this unique source of truth. The history of obedient interpretation is the Tradition of the Church.5Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 325f.

… the inspired teachings of Holy Scripture were handed down, so that the church catholic (universal) grew from adolescence to maturity. Guided by the Spirit’s illumination and providence, tradition became the carrier of Scripture‘s rule of faith—regula fidei. By means of faithful perpetuation, tradition continually resurrected the teachings of Scripture so church fathers so devoted to its pages could provide the church with an orthodox interpretation free from the misjudgments of heresy. As a result, tradition served the church by developing a theology that kept the church faithful to its Savior.6Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 326.

How do Zwingli and Bullinger fit into these claims?

1.  “Retrieval and Reforming the Contemplative Life”? Barrett’s Distortions of Zwingli’s Message

Barrett starts his presentation of Zwingli’s theological thought with a discussion of Zwingli’s treatise The Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, which is available in a volume containing selected texts of Zwingli and Bullinger in an English translation.7Zwingli and Bullinger, edited by G. W. Bromiley, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006, 49–95. Occasionally, Barrett accurately represents Zwingli’s viewpoint, such as when he writes:

We should hold the Word of God in the highest possible esteem—meaning by the Word of God only that which comes from the Spirit of God—and we should give to it a trust which we cannot give to any other word.8Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 562.

At the same time, Barrett places the means that Zwingli, as a theologian of the sixteenth century, uses for his argumentation—Augustine’s doctrine of vestigia trinitatis—at the center and turns them into Zwingli’s message: Zwingli is concerned with a “catholic understanding of God.”9Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 558. This completely obscures the intended message of the text: Zwingli wants to demonstrate that human beings were created to hear the Word of God, and his proof consists exclusively of a long chain of biblical quotations. Zwingli’s reference to Augustine is critical and not simply affirmative.10E.g., Zwingli, On the Clarity, 61-65. The scope of Zwingli’s argument involves something that Augustine does not state, human beings are destined to listen to God’s Word:

So then we have come to the point where, from the fact that we are the image of God, we may see that there is nothing which can give greater joy or assurance or comfort to the soul than the Word of its creator and maker.11Zwingli, On the Clarity, 68.

Barrett pushes this central idea of Zwingli into the background and reduces Zwingli’s intention to criticize the (late medieval) elevation of the papacy and the “late medieval and papal mentalities.”12Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 561-64. In contrast to them, Barrett asserts that Zwingli relied on “the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.”13Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 561. Barrett leaves readers uncertain about what this means. However, Zwingli himself does not: when he points to God’s Spirit, which makes God’s Word comprehensible, he intends to convey: “God’s Word can be understood by a man without any human direction.”14Zwingli, On the Clarity, 78.

It also remains unclear (throughout the whole volume) what one should imagine by “late medieval and papal mentalities.” This is not accidental, it is an essential part of the strategy of this book. In any case, Barrett claims that Zwingli’s intention as a Reformer was to “retrieve and reform the contemplative life.” He elevates this thesis to the heading.15“Retrieving and reforming the contemplative life”, Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 561. As evidence, he quotes a few words from a sentence by Zwingli: “These orders claimed the contemplative life, but it was the Reformers who [led] the contemplative life.”16Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 562.

However, Barrett’s supposed evidence from the sources is based on a misreading. The sentence from Zwingli that Barrett quotes, “it is we who are the true sons of Mary Magdalene and who lead the contemplative life,” is not a statement by Zwingli about himself as a reformer but rather what, according to Zwingli, his papal opponents claim about themselves, the “foolish and arrogant boasting” of the orders of monks.17Zwingli, On the Clarity, 84; the original text is clearer: Z I, 372, 31-34. Bromiley’s translation is not entirely accurate here, and his punctuation is wrong. In the original language and in the Latin translation, the statement is clear. But even the English translation conveys Zwingli’s message: “Listen to the certainty of the word of God”!18Zwingli, On the Clarity, 84. Barrett’s claim that Zwingli only fought against abuses of the “papacy” and advocated for “reforming the contemplative life” is a distortion of Zwingli’s text.19See Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 576.

1.1  Zwingli’s Message as a Reformer

Allowing Zwingli to speak for himself, his chief concern becomes clear: the fundamental distinction between God’s Word and human words. God’s Word, the Word of the Creator that became incarnate in Jesus Christ, is the only reliable word, and thus Christians should place their trust in this Word alone, and in no other. From the fundamental distinction between God’s Word and human words, Zwingli derives the categorical distinction between the Holy Scripture and all its human and fallible interpreters. For Holy Scripture is (according to 2 Timothy 3:16) “theopneuston, that is, inspired or uttered by God:”20Zwingli, On the clarity, 93.

… the will of God is this, that he alone should be the teacher […] For it is not for us to sit in judgement on Scripture and divine truth, but to let God do his work in and through it, for it is something which we can learn only of God. Of course, we have to give an account of our understanding of Scripture, but not in such a way that it is forced or wrestled according to our own will, but rather so that we are taught by Scripture.21Zwingli, On the clarity, 92f.

This core idea is also found in the First Zurich Disputation of January 1523. In this First Zurich Disputation, Zwingli had to publicly present and defend his reformation doctrine for the first time. He did this with 67 articles. Barrett only briefly mentions these theses, which are the most important statements for understanding Zwingli’s theology and constitute the very first reformed confession. He does not quote the first fundamental thesis. It reads: “Everyone who says that the Gospel is nothing without the sanction of the Church, errs and blasphemes God.”22Zwingli, Expositon of the sixt-seven Articles, 7 (Z II, 21,2f.).

There is no mention here of “heritage,” “tradition,” or “catholic.” On the contrary, according to Zwingli, the Word of God has the power to assert itself and does not need church tradition for this. Anyone who claims otherwise, like his Roman opponents—with whom Barrett seems to align

—blasphemes God, because he claims that God needs human help, the help of church tradition, to make Himself understood. However, the Bible testifies that God does not need such help, for God is God and not a captive of humans, not even of the Church.

Zwingli is not concerned with alternative interpretations of tradition or preserving a “sacred doctrine” against “papal abuses.” He is concerned with the living God who speaks to humans, as biblical texts testify, and who begins speaking to people again today through these biblical texts. The contrast between God’s Word and all human words and ideas is as radical as the contrast between Creator and creature. There is no transition or mediation. In Barrett’s book, the Reformation seems more to be part of a soliloquy of the church as a human tradition of Christian thinkers. However, for Zwingli, the Reformation is about this God and ensuring that He is given His due, not about any traditions.

So, Zwingli’s first thesis directly alludes to Augustine’s famous statement, which Roman theologians repeatedly claimed for themselves: Augustine had stated that he would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Church did not “move” (commovere) him.23“Evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae Ecclesiae commoveret auctoritas”, Augustinus, Contra epistulam fundamenti, 5. The Roman theologians changed Augustine’s “move” into “confirm.”24“Ita igitur patet Ecclesiam antiquiorem scriptura, neque scripturam autenticam esse nisi Ecclesiae authoriate, unde Augustinus contra Epistola fundamenti: Evangelio non crederem nisi authoritas Ecclesiae me commoveret”, Eck, Enchiridion, 8r.

Barrett asserts: “Scripture, it is argued, can be understood only within the Church,”25Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 325. and: “Zwingli’s gospel is grounded in a classical view of God, one indebted to the Scriptures as interpreted by the church catholic.”26Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 570. With these claims, he attributes to Zwingli the exact opinion that Zwingli’s fiercest Roman opponent, Johannes Eck, held and that Zwingli vehemently fought against.

In contrast to Barrett, the participants in the First Disputation understood Zwingli quite well, both his followers and his Roman opponents. They did not discuss reforms of spiritual life or the shortcomings of the late medieval papal church but solely the question of whether God’s Word can only be understood within the tradition of the Roman Church or not.

In the discussion, Zwingli combines insights into the history of councils with the biblical realization that every human is a liar (Romans 3:4):

I see that even popes and councils have sometimes fallen into serious error, especially Anastasius and Liberius in the Arian heresy […] Once we have discovered that—for omnis homo mendax, all men are liars, deceiving and being deceived—we see that ultimately only God himself can teach us the truth…27Zwingli, On the Clarity, 87.

What councils decree and what Church fathers say are always human decisions that must be measured against God’s Word, against what Christ and the biblical witnesses say.28See Z I, 536,11-538,5. The only Church that has the promise of the Holy Spirit and does not err is the one “that holds fast to the Word and will of God alone and abides by it.”29“Dieselbig kilch regiert nit nach dem fleisch gewaltig uff erdrich, herrscht ouch nitt uss irem eignen muotwillen, sondern hangt unnd blybt allein an dem wort unnd willen Gottes”. Z I, 538, 2-4. And according to Zwingli, this Word of God is found solely in the Holy Scripture because only it contains the writings of the witnesses chosen by God for His Word.

Zwingli does not yet possess a detailed “Doctrine of Holy Scripture.” It will only be formulated in the second generation of Reformers. Moreover, Zwingli does not have a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. The Bible is not a book of laws that fell from the sky but the authentic book of God’s witnesses, telling a story, the story of salvation, with Christ at its center. “Sola scriptura” and “solus Christus” are inseparable for Zwingli, like a vessel and its content. But only the Bible is this vessel. It would have been better if Barrett had embraced Zwingli’s thought and written about Zwingli’s Bible hermeneutics in his fight against biblical fundamentalists.30Barrett speaks of “filters” (Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 574). This is exactly the opposite of the intention of reformed Catechisms were intended to be “spectales” or “keys”, taken from the Scriptures (as “Loci”) in order to help read them independently. To print and distribute Bibles for individual reading was a danger in the eyes of the “catholic” Church. For the Reformers, this was a duty. Informative is the preface to the reader (“Vorred”) of the Zurich Bible: https:// www.e-rara.ch/zuz/content/titleinfo/1929192. The distinction between the Bible and tradition remained fundamental for the Swiss Reformation and was crucial for what they call “Reformation.” For the two Zurich disputations of 1523, the Council issued the rule: Only arguments taken from the Holy Scripture may be presented. Accordingly, the Council determined that after the disputation, all pastors may only preach what can be justified with the Holy Scripture.31See Z I, 467,15-468,2; Z I, 471,1-7.

1.2  Selected Misleading Claims

In accordance with his thesis, Barrett is, of course, interested in emphasizing the relationships between Zwingli and the Zurich Reformation with “tradition,” “the Middle Ages,” “Augustine,” and so on, as strongly as possible. However, his grounds for doing so are not always convincing. I will only mention a few selected examples.

According to Barrett, the Zurich Reformation was “an admixture of innovation and conservation.”32Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 565. Barrett is certainly correct here. However, this statement can be applied to any innovation in human history. Everything that happens in history, has an element of “innovation” (otherwise, nothing would happen), and of “conservation” (otherwise, the event could not be recognized as an event).

And it goes without saying, that the Reformers of the first generation were born in the “late middle ages,” educated in the “late middle ages” and not only surrounded, but deeply influenced by the culture of their time. The examples for this are infinite, including the convictions that truth lies in the past, that tradition is the most reliable basis for an orderly life and society, and, contrary to the post-enlightenment era, that “new” is connected with negative feelings. “Future” was mostly associated with the end of the world. This was the climate of the sixteenth century. And it is clear, every change is based on a former condition, and in every change, some former conditions remain, and sometimes on purpose. So, it is not incorrect to formulate:

The Reformation in Zurich as across Europe was built on the medieval foundations of church order, retaining the ideal that each community was focused on the parochial church and served by a cleric.33Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 565.

How could it be otherwise? However, what normally interests historians is what has happened (the change), not what has not happened. And it is important to distinguish between the cultural and intellectual background of someone’s ideas and his intention. The Reformers did not feel any need to change the “medieval” church districts. And they did not tear down all the Roman church buildings and build new ones. Instead, they repurposed the old ones and filled them with a different understanding of the relationship between God and men, and this was a revolution. Maybe in the eyes of an architect, there is a lot of “medieval heritage.” Nonetheless, the role and status of the “clerics” changed significantly with the Reformation. The Reformed pastor was now elected by the congregation (or its elected representatives), not appointed by a Roman bishop. The congregation also had the authority to dismiss the pastor. Each village now had its own pastor, whereas the Roman priests were often absent. The pastor had to justify his teachings and life conduct before the congregation and at synods. His role in “mediating” between God and people had changed significantly. The reformed church order differed substantially from Roman canon law. And he had to be educated in all necessary skills to interpret the Bible.

Regarding education and philosophy, Barrett correctly asserts that Zwingli approved “classical education.”34Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 570. However, when he states, “Zwingli’s passionate point is not a rant on philosophical education— which he helped establish in Zurich,” he hides the fact that the philological and classical training in Zurich was very different from “the discipline of medieval philosophy itself.”35Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 563. The goal was always to replace fruitless speculations with a better understanding of the Bible and whole-hearted Christian living.

Barrett claims that there was a “medieval influence” on Zwingli’s view of the magistracy. He justifies this claim solely by pointing out that Zwingli took the Old Testament as a model, which is part of the Bible, not of the Middle Ages!36See Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 565.

Barrett ventures near the edge of conscious misrepresentation with other claims. An example: regarding the Reformed Zurich Eucharistic liturgy, Barrett writes, “Zwingli and Jud’s approach to the Mass reveals the meaning of reform: a purification of abuses but a retrieval of those components both apostolic and catholic.”37Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 568. Why not: “biblical”? As often as possible throughout his book, Barrett avoids the terms “Bible” or “Word of God,” even though these terms are encountered on every page of the Reformers’ writings. Instead, he replaces them with “apostolic” and “catholic.” However, the sources remain the same: Zwingli and Jud did not point to an “apostolic continuation of the church through its sacred texts…and sacraments” in their doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. They based it on the Word of God they found in the Bible, specifically the New Testament texts on the Lord’s Supper. In the preface to the Eucharistic liturgy, Zwingli says:

Since it has been clear for some time that in the celebration of Christ’s supper much abuse has occurred contrary to the Word of God, it is necessary that everything that does not correspond to God’s Word be abolished.38Z IV, 15,6-9. Translation Peter Opitz

Barrett claims, in a headline, that the Reformation in Bern was an “Augustinian Reform.” The reason is: “With an Augustinian spirit, thesis 3 credits salvation entirely to Christ and removes the individual’s merit as the basis for right standing with God.”39Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 586.

For this claim, Barrett refers to Bruce Gordon,40Gordon, Swiss Reformation, 107. who in turn refers to a “summary” of an article by Irena Backus. In this article, Backus summarizes the course of the debate held at the Bern Disputation. Article 3 was about whether God demands “meritorious” works from humans. The defender of the Roman Church (Buchstab) claimed that God did, and he cited Matthew 7:21. Martin Bucer responded that even the “good works” that God requires of Christians are not “meritorious” but are worked by God Himself. He cited Augustine in support.41Augustinus, De gratia et libero arbitrio, 891. Finally, the Reformer Haller cited Ephesians 2:4-10. This concluded the discussion on this point.42Backus, “The Berne Disputation 6-26 January 1528”, 88-90.

The fact that in disputes between Roman and Reformed theologians, the Church Fathers were always cited is self-explanatory based on what has been said thus far. Of course, the Reformers liked to cite Augustine (the often-quoted church father by the Roman theologians!) to affirm their doctrine of grace and to demonstrate that the most important church father was on their side (which was true—in part)! However, the source and basis of the Reformed doctrine of grace is not Augustine but the Bible. This is not only the assertion of all the Reformers but is also evident when reading the debate at the Bern Disputation. The third Bern article does not quote from Augustine but, of course, the Bible (1 Corinthians 1:30). It says:

Christ is our only wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and payment for the sins of the whole world. Hence it is a denial of Christ when we acknowledge another merit for salvation and satisfaction for sin.43Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 586.

Can the entire Bern Reformation be called “Augustinian,” simply because Reformers, during the debate, occasionally also referred to Augustine as a witness for their doctrines, for which they constantly and permanently point to biblical texts? What Barrett’s argumentation shows is, that he has no real arguments.

1.3 A Voice from Research

What I have explained here about Zwingli is not a specific interpretation of Zwingli but corresponds to the scholarly consensus. Anyone who reads Zwingli can come to no other conclusion. For instance, W. Peter Stephens succinctly summarizes in a few sentences, with clear citations, what there is to say about it:

The appeal to scripture was made initially against catholic opponents, with their appeal to the councils, fathers, doctors or popes […] The fathers and doctors of the church were less immediately dangerous than councils and popes, for councils and popes were a present reality or possibility. Nevertheless an appeal to them allowed men to determine the issue rather than God. Of course the fathers sometimes disagreed among themselves, which left open the question of as to which one was right, but that was not the fundamental question, for Zwingli could regard them all as wrong on the matter of baptism [“Concerning baptism-please forgive me-I cannot avoid the conclusion, that all teachers have erred since the time of the Apostles”, Z IV, 216,14-16]. What was fundamental was that the word of man is always subject to the word of God, so that ‘the fathers must yield to the word of God and not the word of God to the fathers’ [Z III, 50,5-9], for the scripture is master, teacher, and guide, not the fathers [see Z I, 307,1-4]. In this context, he attacks the statement of Augustine, ‘I should not believe the gospel unless the church had approved the gospel’, arguing otherwise ‘he would never have believed if he had heard that the gospel was preached before it had been written down. For no man had then stamped it with approval, much less any general council’ [Z I, 293,24-28].44Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli, Unfortunately, the translation that Stephens quotes, is not correct (from: Ulrich Zwingli. Early Writings, ed. by Samuel Macauley Jackson, Eugene, Oregon: 1999, 250). The Latin original says: “Relinquitur ergo vel Augustinum fortius quam consultius id dicti pronunciasse, aut nunquam crediturum fuisse, si antequam scriptum esset evangelium, ipsum preaedicari audivisset; nam nullus hominum tum adprobarat nedum totum aloquod concilium.” In English: “It remains, therefore, that Augustine uttered those words with more force than discretion, or else he would never have believed, if he had heard the gospel preached before it had been written down [of course: contrary to the disciples and the first generation of Christians, Opitz]. For no man had then stamped it with approval, much less any general council”, Z I, 293,25-28.

2.  “A Profound Belief in the Historical Continuity of the Church”?45Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 604; he quotes Gordon, Swiss Reformation, 183. Barrett’s Misinterpretation of Bullinger’s Doctrine of the “catholic Church”

For his thesis that the Reformers did not want to abandon the “catholic Church” or the catholic “tradition” but aimed for a renewal of the Church “from within,” Barrett cites Heinrich Bullinger as an important witness. He portrays him under the title “Reformed Catholicity.”46Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 598-604. As expected, he fails to offer a quote from Bullinger that would support this claim. Instead, Barrett again cites Bruce Gordon:

In the words of Bruce Gordon, Bullinger possessed a ‘passionate belief in the catholicity of the Reformed church.’ And by ‘this he meant that the Reformed churches of the sixteenth century stood in direct theological continuity with the apostolic church and the Fathers of the early church.’ […] Bullinger had a profound belief in the historical continuity of the church; he was by no means an opponent of tradition.47Gordon, Swiss Reformation, 183.

Gordon also does not substantiate his claim with a quote from Bullinger.48This indicates a general problem with Barrett’s book, the central claims of which are often based on books written for a general readership rather than on the relevant research literature. What can be tolerated in “popular” books as a rhetorical exaggeration to clarify a certain point, turns out to be wrong when read literally and taken as a basis for a However, in European academic culture, a study that wants to be taken seriously must rely on source texts, read in the original languages. However, he does refer in a footnote to an essay by Scott Hendrix. This essay does not deal with Bullinger but with other Reformers, including Martin Bucer. It is titled “Deparentifying the Fathers.” Hendrix explains:

To deparentify a person is to refuse any longer to attribute inappropriate authority to that person and to assume more responsibility for oneself.49Hendrix, “Deparentyfiing the Fathers,” See Gordon, Swiss Reformation, 190.

According to Hendrix, this is how Bucer, Melanchthon, and Zwingli dealt with the church fathers:

It appears, therefore, that Bucer could deparentify the fathers as well as the next reformer [Melanchthon]. He used their writings as precedents and valued their support, but he also acknowledged their humanity, their limitations, and their errors.50Hendrix, “Deparentyfiing the Fathers,” 67.

In a culture where the church fathers were the ultimate authority, Bucer and his fellow Reformers relativized their authority and critiqued them in the light of Holy Scripture. The fathers’ opinions belong to the “catholic” tradition only to the extent that they aligned with the teachings of Christ. The result of Hendrix’s investigation is quite the opposite of, as Gordon suggests, a “passionate belief” in a “direct theological continuity … with the Fathers of the early Church.” In other words, the only supporting evidence that Barrett, through Gordon, provides for his thesis directly contradicts his thesis.

2.1  Bullinger’s Sermon “On the Holy Catholic Church”

However, Barrett does refer to a text by Bullinger: Bullinger’s 41st sermon from his Decades. This sermon is printed in English translation in Bromiley’s textbook.51Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger. Right at the beginning, Barrett explains:

This text captures the heartbeat of sixteenth-century reform, which located its identity within the church catholic and claimed its protest was a renewal of sacred doctrine rather than a departure.52Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 604.

Why the 41st sermon from Bullinger’s Decades53Bullinger, The Decades. (out of 50 sermons) should contain the “heartbeat” of the entire Reformation is not explained. As with his treatment of Zwingli, Barrett initially references some fundamental ideas from Bullinger’s sermon accurately. But again, he does not draw the consequences that should naturally follow from the Reformer’s thoughts. A discussion of how Barrett presents Bullinger would be a very laborious task and would involve frequent discussion of single sentences. Therefore, it seems best to outline the fundamental ideas of Bullinger’s sermon first and to have a look at Barrett’s claims from there. In addition, for Bullinger’s view of the “Catholic Church,” the subsequent 42nd sermon cannot be ignored.

Bullinger often mentions in the title of his sermons the topics he will address there. The title of Sermon 41 is: Of the Holy catholic Church; what it is, how far it extends, by what marks it is known, from where it springs, how it is maintained and preserved, whether it may err. Also of the power and studies of the Church.54Bullinger, The Decades, 704.

It is not possible to fully explore the richness of this sermon in all its aspects at this point. Instead, we will focus on the central point that is relevant to us: In this sermon, Bullinger fundamentally distinguishes between a “visible” and an “invisible” church. The “visible” church is what we see and experience in history: the human organization with its offices, teachers, teachings, rituals (such as the sacraments), and laws, and with the concrete people who are in this church. The “invisible” church, on the other hand, comprises all those whom God has chosen and who participate in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The predicates “holy” and “catholic” refer only to this “invisible” church, to the truly believing, people made “holy” by God alone, whom God has chosen for His one “catholic” church. Human eyes cannot recognize them. The “visible” church as a historical, human tradition is always a “corpus permixtum”, consisting of good and evil, true believers and hypocrites. There is knowledge of God’s truth within it, but also error and obscuring of God’s truth. It consists of people who, despite their outward piety, are by no means “holy.” Therefore, Bullinger’s answer to the question of whether the church can err is: “[t]he church of the good and faithful here on earth errs and does not err.”55Bullinger, The Decades, 721.

Further down, he explains:

The church is, therefore, said to err when a part of it errs, having lost God’s word. And it does not err wholly and altogether, inasmuch as certain remnants (through the grace of God) are preserved, by whom the truth may again flourish.56Bullinger, The Decades, 723.

At this point, Bullinger’s understanding of church history comes into view, along with a sentence that Barrett quotes from Bullinger’s sermon for his own purposes:

The catholic church of God (as we began to say a little earlier) abides with us continually from age to age, from the beginning; and it is at this time dispersed throughout the whole world, both visibly and invisibly. The Lord’s people and God’s house will continue on earth to the world’s end. For there was never yet any world, nor shall there be any age, in which God has not sanctified or will not sanctify some for himself, in whom he will dwell.57Bullinger, The Decades, 707.

With this statement, Bullinger does not say what Barrett claims—that staying in a historical tradition and continuity is important to him—but rather: in the visible, historical church, there are always good and evil, true believers and hypocrites, and thus always the knowledge of divine truth and error, the acknowledgment of God’s word, and the obscuring of God’s word. When Christians confess “I believe in the holy, catholic Church,” they do not believe that the historical church and tradition have faithfully preserved and passed on divine truth, and therefore are the only legitimate interpreters of the Bible.58Unsurprisingly, Barrett does not say, which authors of the 217 volumes of Migne Patrologia Latina he considers “the great doctors specifically committed to the task of interpretation of Scripture and especially endowed with the gift of understanding this unique source of truth”, forming the “history of obedient interpretation”, nor does he mention any criterion.” See Patrologia cursus completus … omnium SS. patrum, doctorum scriptorumque ecclesiasticorum sive Latinorum, sive Graecorum. Nachdr. Parisiis: Migne usw, 1969. Instead, they believe that despite all error, obscuration, and evil in the church, God has always preserved some people from error and falsehood by giving them the Holy Spirit. At times, they were only a small remnant, branded as heretics, and persecuted by the “official” church:

Almighty God — in such calamities of the church, in which the governors fall away from the word and the true worship of God, and embrace and introduce new laws and new ordinances into the church, the true outward marks of the church being for a time either darkened or fallen out of use—notwithstanding these, God reserves for himself a church on the earth. This church He also furnishes and repairs with true teachers whom he sends into it, even though they are not acknowledged as true ministers and teachers of God’s church by those who would seem to be the true and ordinary governors of the church; rather, they are condemned as seditious disturbers of the church, and execrable heretics.59Bullinger, The Decades, 741.

Bullinger’s justification consists solely of Bible verses in which God or Christ swears fidelity to His church (Ps 89:36f; Mt 28:20; John 14:16).

Of course, the immediate question arises: how can one distinguish the true church from the church of hypocrites and error? While the “invisible” church, comprised of those who truly believe, remains hidden from human eyes, Bullinger identifies “external marks” from which it can at least be inferred that in the impenetrable mixture of faith and hypocrisy, truth, error, and falsehood, there is also a “true” church. The first and ultimately the only criterion that Bullinger tirelessly recalls from the first page of his Decades to the end is: Listening to Christ’s word: “Whoever is of the truth, will hear my voice.” ( John 18:37).60

Therefore, Bullinger’s Decades begin with three sermons on the Word of God and its correct interpretation. The first sentences of the Decades state:

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. Neither can they be drawn, taught, or, last of all, soundly confirmed from elsewhere, than from the word of God, whether by those who are wise men indeed, or by the faithful and those who are called by God to the ministry of the churches. Therefore, whoever is ignorant of what the word of God is, and the meaning of the word of God, seems like one who is blind, deaf, and without wit, in the temple of the Lord, in the school of Christ, and lastly, in the reading of the very sacred scriptures. But though some are not at all zealous, and hardly drawn to hearing sermons in the church, that springs out of no other fountain than this: it is because they neither understand rightly, nor weigh diligently enough, the virtue and true force of the word of God.60Bullinger, The Decades, 712.

This also applies to Bullinger’s doctrine of the Church in Sermon 41, and it applies to his use of the word “catholic”:

The invisible church is the elect bride of Christ, known only to God, who alone knows who are his. In other words, It is this Church especially which we confess when we say as we are instructed in the Apostles’ Creed: ‘I believe in the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints.’61Bullinger, The Decades, 18.

To participate in the “catholic” Church means to participate in God’s Holy Spirit, a property of the “invisible” Church, whose “visible” sign is listening to God’s word. And precisely because Bullinger is concerned with the “holy, catholic Church,” he must separate himself from the (visible) Roman Church. The title of the subsequent Sermon 42 reads as follows:

There is one catholic Church: Without the Church, there is no light of salvation. Against schismatics. Why we depart from the upstart Church of Rome […]62Bullinger, The Decades, 730. The Latin text is even stronger: “Quare discessum sit a nupera Romana ecclesia.” Bullinger, Sermonum Decades Quinque, 767,22.

In this sermon, Bullinger extensively explains why the Zurich Reformed Church separated from the Roman Church: The so-called Roman Church is not a Christian church at all (and, of course, it is also not the “catholic” Church):

For we freely confess, and with great joy, giving thanks to God who has delivered us, we publish abroad that we have departed from the Romish church, and that at this day, we also abhor that church. […] Finally, we do not acknowledge as the true church of Christ, that upstart church of Rome which acknowledges and worships the pope as Christ’s vicar on earth, and is obedient to his laws. Therefore, we cannot be schismatics who, leaving the church of Rome, have not departed from the true church of God. For the holy catholic church clings to her only shepherd Christ, believes his word, and lives holily. But you will find that all things are quite contrary in the church of Rome, so that it cannot come within the compass either of the outward and visible church, nor of the inward and invisible church of God. The godly bear with many things in the church […]. But in that upstart church of Rome, you will not find small and tolerable faults, either of doctrine or of life or of errors: for all these faults in her are heinous, desperate, and abominable. […] And touching the outward marks of the church, what shall I say? These men say that the canonical scripture has authority in the church of Rome, and that the same word is read both in their churches and in their schools, and that the sacraments have force and are effectual among them. But I can show the contrary. First of all, they will subject the interpretation of the holy and sacred scriptures to their see; and they give the right of judgment in all cases to their idol, the pope of Rome. […] Therefore, she also judges the scriptures and expounds them, and turns and winds them whichever way she inclines. I will not now recite how, by manifest words, the standard- bearers of that see write that the canonical scripture takes her authority from the church, abusing this sentence of the ancient father St. Augustine, “I would not have believed the gospel, if the authority of the holy church had not moved me,” etc. I will affirm this, which can only be manifest to all men, that the Romish church, or the rulers of that church, take away the natural sense and true meaning of the holy scriptures, and have set down a strange sense in its place […] The church of Rome has corrupted the sense and meaning of the holy scriptures, and thrust upon the simple people, opinions that are contrary to the scriptures: and therefore, the church of Rome is not the true church of Christ.63Bullinger, The Decades, 738-40.

The crucial point is as follows: the Roman “Church” no longer heeds God’s word in the Bible but distorts the teachings of the Bible according to its own liking. Bullinger lists elements of this “corrupted” Roman Church, including the papacy, the understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice, the priesthood (in place of the ministry of preaching), the veneration of saints, the doctrine of meritorious works, the doctrine of the presence of Christ’s body in the sacrament, and the distribution of the sacrament with only bread (without the cup, contrary to Christ’s explicit instructions in Mt 26:27). Bullinger’s conclusion goes far beyond a critique of “papal abuse”:

What authority therefore, or what place, would we say the word of God had in that see of Rome? Who does not see that these filthy beasts tread underfoot as a captive, the most holy word of God; that they establish and re-establish laws of God according to their own giant-like boldness? It is therefore as clear as anything may be clear, that the Romish church is destitute of the holy word of God.64Every sentence begins with: “The scripture teaches that …”, Bullinger, The Decades, 740.

In light of this, one only needs to read Bullinger’s sermon to see that his criticism of the Pope is directed not only at some “late medieval abuses” of this office, but against the papacy and its understanding as the vicar of Christ in general. Bullinger fundamentally criticizes how the Roman Church represents the relationship between God and humanity, encompassing the entirety of the life of the Roman Church with its understanding of its office, rituals, sacraments, laws, and doctrines. He labels the Roman Church as a “new” church and accuses it of having departed from the “old” church. What does Bullinger understand as the “old” church?

2.2  Bullinger’s View of Church History

Bullinger can undoubtedly be referred to as the historian among the Reformers. In numerous writings, he delved into the history of the Church. However, for him, this history did not begin in Roman times, but with the first humans, Adam and Eve, extending into the era of the fathers and the people of Israel up to Christ. The reason is simple: the history of the Christian Church and Christian faith begins where God speaks to people, and it continues as long as God communicates with people. It is a history of hearing and not wanting to hear the word of God, of obedience and disobedience.

Based on his thorough knowledge of church writings and source texts, Bullinger meticulously traces how, over time, the church’s doctrines and practices increasingly drifted away from its biblical source and adopted more and more pagan elements. According to Bullinger, human inventions progressively contaminated and obscured Christian doctrine, ultimately turning the Church of Christ into the Church of the Antichrist.65Bullinger’s view of the church history is the exact opposite of Barrett’s of the Reformers’ view of church history, quoted at the beginning: “[t]he inspired teachings of Holy Scripture were handed down, so that the church catholic (universal) grew from adolescence to maturity. Guided by the Spirit’s illumination and providence, tradition became the carrier of Scripture‘s rule of faith—regula fidei. By means of faithful perpetuation, tradition continually resurrected the teachings of Scripture so church fathers so devoted to its pages could provide the church with an orthodox interpretation free from the misjudgments of As a result, tradition served the church by developing a theology that kept the church faithful to its Savior […]” (Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 325). However, in Bullinger’s view, “papal abuses” in the “late medieval” period can be explained—in Barrett‘s view they can’t.

For instance, in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, Bullinger argues that in the early centuries, the Church adhered to biblical texts and celebrated it in apostolic simplicity, focused on the meaning of the ceremony that Jesus had given. This period extended until approximately the fourth century (Bullinger mentions the Constantinian shift and Augustine).66Bullinger, De origine erroris, 5, fol. 205. However, the liturgy of worship changed over time, leading to the point where the Lord’s Supper was no longer celebrated in its original, biblical sense. Tables for the Lord’s Supper were replaced by stone altars, and the Lord’s Supper was linked to prayers for the deceased. It gradually transformed from a commemoration service of a Christian community into a priestly sacrifice, a Mass. Under Innocent III, the doctrine of transubstantiation was firmly established. But this was not a break, but simply another step in a development that had long been predetermined.

According to Bullinger, the continuous development toward a greater obscuration of the Gospel throughout church history proceeded in stages. Bullinger distinguishes church history into an “ancient” era, encompassing the first centuries up to Augustine; a “middle” era from Augustine to Gregory the Great (590-604); and a “most recent” era, covering the last nine hundred years [!]. During these nine hundred years, the Church (as a “visible”, historical organization and tradition) wrongly claimed the “credo ecclesiam catholicam” for itself. In Bullinger’s view, Gregory the Great was the last Roman bishop who, at least to some extent, properly fulfilled his office. He emphasized humility and saw his role primarily as a ministry of preaching.67Bullinger, Tigurinerchronik, 187. While the understanding of the Lord’s Supper and the legitimacy of the veneration of saints and images were still disputed in the early centuries, Bullinger claimed that, after Gregory, both became constitutive elements of the Roman Church.68Bullinger, De testamento, 48v-52r. From that point on, Bullinger believes the Roman Papal Church was led by the Antichrist. For Bullinger, the beginning of the 7th century was a crucial period in church history when God warned people through signs from heaven, which pointed to the end times described in Revelation 9:1-13.69Bullinger, Tigurinerchronik, 187. In his many works on Church history, after this period, Bullinger generally takes the side of secular rulers against the Pope and his bishops and followers. Thus, Bullinger was aware that the “Papacy” did not begin in the late Middle Ages but already in the very first centuries of Christianity.70The first self-designation of the Bishop of Rome as “Papa” dates back to the 4th century. It was Gregory I (580-604) who eventually established the term “Papa” for the Bishop of Rome as a law. The era of the “papacy,” which Barrett places in the Late Middle Ages (always vaguely and without clearly defining “papacy” or “Late Middle Ages”), began, at the latest, in the early 7th However, in essence, it began much earlier: the title “Pontifex Maximus” has been used by the Roman Pope since the tenure of Leo I (440–461). Bullinger was well informed about that.

Bullinger’s critical judgment also extends to theological doctrine, which he believes increasingly drifted away from biblical truth over time. Bullinger draws a line from Gratian and Peter Lombard to Alexander of Hales and Thomas Aquinas over several decades, a tradition that increasingly mixed theology with philosophy and subjected the Bible to human (intellectual) rules.71See Bullinger, The Decades, 972f. Bullinger opposes this false doctrinal development, which developed philosophical constructs from individual biblical terms or isolated sentences, with his hermeneutical principle, that Scripture must be interpreted with Scripture. He insists that one should not extract individual words or sentences from the Bible and use them in a completely different, philosophical context. To him, “Scripture alone” always means that every sentence in the Bible must be understood and interpreted in the overall context of the entire Bible and its message.

Bullinger can indeed emphasize that he wants to connect with the “old”

Roman Church and only rejects the “new” one. This is what Bruce Gordon correctly points at. However, his concept of the “old” church is limited in time to the first centuries up to Augustine, at most up to Gregory the Great. When he acknowledges this period, it does not mean that it serves as a source for his ecclesiology and that he aims for a “reform from within.” It simply means that the “old” church still strongly oriented itself towards the Bible, the document of the authentic “old” Church from Adam and Eve to Christ and the Apostles of the New Testament.

Barrett claims, with Bullinger as a key witness:

No less than Rome, the Reformers stood for a tradition and were adamant they stood within the catholic tradition. Their conflict with the papacy was not a choice between Scripture and tradition, but a conflict between their view of tradition and the papacy’s view of tradition.72Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 325.

Based on what has been presented, it is clear that Bullinger never insisted on standing “within the catholic tradition.” “Catholic” has nothing to do with remaining in a “tradition,” with a connection to the “past,” or with maintaining “historical continuity.” By definition, a tradition is a human transmission of teachings or practices over a continuous period. “Catholic” is a statement of faith, a consequence of confessing Christ as the head of the Church. It is one of the central flaws in Barrett’s argument that he uses “catholic” in the currently common sense as a label for a specific church tradition and not in the sense in which it was originally included in the creed from a theological perspective. Bullinger, and Zwingli before him, were more precise in their understanding.73This is in strange contrast to his own correct insight into Bullingers view: “Apostolicity—and with it, catholicity—was a matter of gospel fidelity.” (Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 602).

The first half of the last sentence (quoted above) is certainly incorrect: Bullinger ultimately always focused on the alternative of Scripture or tradition as a source of Christian truth, as he clearly states at the beginning of the Decades. This is also clear in Sermon 41.

The second half of Barrett’s sentence is, of course, correct: The dispute was also about the right understanding of “tradition,” but it was grounded in the conflict about the source of Christian truth. While the Roman theologians understood the (Roman) Church, with its history, offices, cults, laws, and doctrinal traditions, as the normative bearer of divine truth (being in possession of God’s Spirit; this connected them to some “radicals”!), and elevated its tradition to the standard of Christianity (they always called it “ministerial,” of course), the Reformers viewed (all human) tradition critically in the light of the Bible. This does not mean that all theological wisdom of the past was simply rejected outright, but rather that it was critically examined to determine whether it corresponded to the testimony of the biblical Christ.

Bullinger’s doctrine of the Church in the Decades, seriously read, makes clear that Barrett’s assertion does not apply to Bullinger. While Barrett refers the predicate “catholic” to the visible church and its tradition, claiming, the Reformers were “renewing the church from within, based on a retrieval of its own patristic and medieval heritage over against late medieval innovations,”74Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, Bullinger uses the Greek word as a confession of God’s uninterrupted faithfulness to his unfaithful people, regardless of all the ambiguities of church history. And Bullinger makes clear on every page of his writings: a “renewal” of the church means listening to the divine word, which is not part of a church tradition, and shaping all aspects of the “visible” Church accordingly, as much as reality allows (here, Bullinger could be quite pragmatic).

2.3  The “Contrast Between the Roman and Evangelical Doctrine”

Bullinger not only wrote extensive texts but could also be concise when necessary. In a short treatise, he set forth the contrast between the evangelical doctrine he represented and the Roman doctrine in a table.75Heinrich Bullinger, Gägensatz und kurtzer Begriff der evangelischen und bäpstischen Leer, Zürich, 1568; Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Signatur: 7.354,3, [Persistenter Link: http://dx.doi. org/10.3931/e-rara-2237]. I quote the first sentences in my own translation:

First, the Roman theologians claim that:

Although the holy biblical scripture is the Word of God, it would not have sufficient authority and credibility on its own if the Church had not endowed it with authority and credibility.

Bullinger’s response:

Since the holy biblical scripture is the Word of God, it possesses inherent authority and credibility and does not need to be made credible by humans.

This is the same assertion as Zwingli’s first thesis, and Bullinger also alludes to the words of Augustine, which Roman theologians often cite. While Zwingli differentiates between God’s Word and human words in his thesis, assuming, of course, that God’s Word can only be found in the Bible, Bullinger explicitly identifies God’s Word with the Bible here.

Second, the Roman theologians assert that:

The holy biblical scripture should not be interpreted according to one’s own judgment but should be interpreted in the manner in which the Church has understood it thus far and as the holy fathers, who have been recognized by the Church, have interpreted it.

This is precisely Barrett’s thesis: in Bullinger’s view, Barrett is a representative of the Roman Papal Church, which obscures and distorts biblical truth and thereby God’s Word itself.

Bullinger’s response:

The Holy Scriptures are not to be interpreted at one’s own discretion, but on its own terms according to faith and love for God and neighbor.

Contrary to Barrett and the Roman theologians, there is no need for a church tradition and church fathers to understand the Bible correctly. The rule for the proper understanding of the Word of God and thus the Bible can only be derived from the Word of God itself, the Bible. When Bullinger speaks of “faith and love,” he naturally recalls Christ Himself, who determined the double commandment of love as the sum and criterion of the law. “Faith” also recalls the Apostles’ Creed as an appropriate summary of Christian beliefs. However, this does not mean that the Apostles’ Creed received canonical status and was equated with the Bible, but only that it accurately summarizes in few sentences the biblical message for didactical use.

Third, the Roman theologians claimed that:

One should and must be content with the interpretation of the fathers and the Roman Church and voluntarily submit to them.

Bullinger’s response:

To the extent that the holy fathers agree with this, we acknowledge their writings and the opinion of the Church of Christ and hold them in honor.

2.4 A Voice from Research

David Wright, in his study on Heinrich Bullinger and the Early Church Fathers, concludes:

There is certainly no escaping the acute divide in Bullinger’s thought on this subject between divine and human, between the Bible and all human productions – writings of the Fathers, creeds, councils, commentaries on Scripture […] While they may be human texts which take their bearings from Scripture, they do not thereby cease to be merely human. […] All Christian reliance on the Fathers is excluded, except as recognizing their derivative authority […] Since the Fathers have an honored place in the Christian church, the fact that their ‘human testimonies agree with the testimonies of God and that the truth of antiquity is on our side’ was worth knowing and citing. But the Fathers and their formulations cannot determine or even confirm the interpretation of Scripture. Rather their fidelity to Scripture makes them human teachers to be taken seriously. At the very least this deprives the Fathers of any scope for constructive theology or for development of doctrine.76Wright, “Bullinger and the Early Church Fathers,” 377.

3.  Conclusion

The major difference between the Reformers and their medieval predecessors was the Reformers’ allegiance to Scripture as the only binding authority and authoritative source of Christian truth, and their medieval predecessors’ allegiance to tradition’s authority alongside of Scripture’s authority (and finally as its judge). Barrett considers this as “far too simplistic to be credible.”77Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 325. However, the sources are clear. At the same time, this is not the end of intellectual theological work, but the starting point of a “reformed” hermeneutics, in which the philosophical and theological “tradition” plays a role (even Augustine!), as well as the intellectual culture of the present, and a God who still speaks.78See e.g. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge, Grand Rapids: 2009.


  • Peter Opitz

    Peter Opitz (Dr. theol., habil.) is Professor Emeritus at the University of Zurich. Peter’s expertise centers on the Reformation, the theology of Ulrich Zwingli, and the leading personages of that era and their theologies. His publications include Ulrich Zwingli: Prophet, Ketzer, Pionier des Protestantismus (Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2015), Leben und Werk Johannes Calvins (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009), and Heinrich Bullinger als Theologe. Eine Studie zu den Dekaden (Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2004). He has also edited several volumes, including The Myth of the Reformation (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013) and 500 Jahre Reformation. Rückblicke und Ausblicke aus interdisziplinäre Perspektive (De Gruyter, 2018).

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