Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bullinger’s Common Places

Just over two years ago I came across an MA dissertation in the Central Library at Zurich. The dissertation is by David Grant Smith from the University of Virginia (1992) and entitled “The Influence of Heinrich Bullinger on Early English Covenant Theology”. As far as I can see, this work has not been published as a journal article. Nonetheless, the small section I photocopied contains a mine of information and insightful reflection on Bullinger.

The following is an extract from this dissertation where Smith makes some comments on the Common Places which is the English translation of Bullingers Summa:

“In the section entitled, ‘That God has bound man to him, unto salvation and perpetual worship’ we see this important summary, joining the covenant of God with justification by faith:

‘For religion seemeth not so much to have her name of reading as of binding. Are bound unto God, and joined in league through his free mercy (as has been said) by faith. Therefore the covenant of God and true religion are all one. And they are religious, which being (con)federates joined in league with God, do cleave unto his word and honor and serve him despising all other things.’

Here we see what appears to be faith-based and a works-based justification juxtaposed. Bullinger may have been aware of the potential to distort his doctrine legalistically, however; elsewhere in his listing of covenant conditions he adds (to my knowledge, for the first time in his writings) ‘and if it come to pass, that he do err and fall, that therefore he be not without hope of pardon, but that trusting unto God his bountifulness, he repent, and stand unto his mercy, and follow God.’ Although Bullinger uses the word ‘if’ (following the Biblical terminology of 1 John 2:1), the implication may well be that it is impossible for man to keep the covenant conditions perfectly. The law does show Christians what to do and not to do, but man cannot fulfill the law in his own strength. Those justified by faith are endued with the spirit, which impels them to live after the commandment of the law, ‘and that they do’. But this is not perfect obedience because ‘infirmity remains in the faithful throughout their lives.’ Their works are not acceptable of themselves, but because of their reconciliation by Christ, their works are ‘allowed by God’”.

David, if you are reading this out in blogosphere do please make contact. Your work deserves the recognition it justly deserves. I kick myself for not photocopying more of the dissertation when I was in Zurich that time.


  1. Thanks, Sujomo. Bullinger’s system sounds very similar to Calvin’s.

    In Calvin’s thinking, the fact that “we … receive a double grace” through union with Christ through faith (i.e., reconciliation and regeneration) means that the good works of believers are also imputed to them as righteousness (Inst. 3.11.1).

    Calvin actually believes in double imputation: "After [the] forgiveness of sins is set forth, the good works that now follow are appraised otherwise than on their own merit. For everything imperfect in them is covered by Christ’s perfection … Therefore, after the guilt of all transgressions that hinder man from bringing forth anything pleasing to God has been blotted out, and after the fault of imperfection, which habitually defiles even good works, is buried, the good works done by believers are accounted righteous, or, what is the same thing, are reckoned [i.e., imputed] as righteousness" (Inst. 3.17.8)

    In Calvin’s thinking, a person can only be accepted by God solely on the basis of the absolute righteousness of Christ; but because faith goes together with spiritual renewal and because the imperfect works of believers are sanctified by the righteousness of Christ, then works righteousness also applies to the believer. As Calvin puts it: “it follows from justification of faith that works otherwise impure, unclean, half done, unworthy of God’s sight, not to mention his love, are accounted [i.e., imputed as] righteousness” (Inst. 3.17.9).

    Calvin believes in a legitimate doctrine of justification by works that is subordinate to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This subordinate doctrine of justification by works means for Calvin that the blessing promised by God in the law to those who keep his law is really applied to believers.

    Do you know if Bullinger ever talked about double justification?

  2. Thank you, Steven, for your thought provoking comments. Lots to think about in your comments.

    I have still a long way to go in understanding Bullinger's thought more fully but I suspect what you wrote applies to Bullinger.

    There is a well known article by Mark Burrows - "'Christus intra nos Vivens' The Peculiar Genius of Bullinger's Doctrine of Sanctification", Zeitschrift fuer Kirchengeschichte", vol 98(no.1), pp48-69 who suggests that Bulligner saw a very close link between sanctification and justification. However, if memory serves me right, Burrows does not give a detailed list of references to Bullinger's writings that we could study carefully. I have also searched in vain for a follow up article by Prof. Burrows. I think the clue is to study The Decades carefully and compare that with the Summa (Common Places)).

    It is also not insignificant that in the Institutes Calvin wrote about sanctification before sanctification. Furthermore, 'religion' for both Bullinger and Calvin was more living out faith rather than 'doctrine'. Bullinger's main emphasis in his writings was living righteously (integer) because of covenant relationship to God which is all of grace. Bullinger's take on Matthew 17:5 at the top of the blog is a reminder that Bullinger urges his readings to obey (ie hear) the voice (ie word or new torah)of the prophet who fulfills Deuteronomy 18.

    Your comments spur me on to read more of Bullinger! Your comments also remind us that Bromiley was a little unkind to write that Bullinger's works were 'pedestrian' compared to those of Zwingli.

    Cheers, sujomo

  3. Thanks, sujomo. Please keep us posted if you come across any quotes from Bullinger that link righteousness with the covenant somehow. That would be very interesting to compare with Calvin's system. Plus it's an aspect of righteousness that isn't talked about much in Reformed circles today even though Reformers like Bullinger and Bucer considered it to be rather important.