Sunday, March 27, 2011

Peter Stephens on Bullinger and the Sacraments

In Peter Stephens’ article on Zwingli and Bullinger on the sacraments (see previous post) I am pleased to note that Stephens has acknowledged the independence of Bullinger’s thought vis-Ă -vis that of Zwingli. He writes:

“Although Bullinger’s theology was similar to Zwingli’s, he became a reformer independently of Zwingli. (Indeed the influences on him included the works of Luther and Melanchthon.) He also came to his understanding of the sacraments independently of Zwingli. Even though he and Zwingli had a broadly symbolic view of the sacraments, their thinking on them was shaped in part by different people and different texts.”

Stephens points out that in the period of the First Helvetic Confession:

“Often in the 1530’s Bullinger states that he has difficulty with words such as instrument and exhibit. To him the word instrument seems to make the sacraments effective regardless of the faith of the recipient and the word exhibit seems to ascribe power to the minister or the sacrament rather than to God. It is significant that in the First Helvetic Confession it is not the sacraments which exhibit but God, while the word instrument is not used.”

With respect to the First Helvetic Confession Stephens points out that three of the twenty seven articles explicitly refer to the sacraments and concludes:

“What is most striking about them is their essentially positive language about the sacraments and their affirmation of what God does in them. God is the subject of the sacraments. They are signs of divine grace. The articles speak differently from Zwingli of what the Lord does in the sacraments. Thus In the Lord’s Supper These article are in keeping with the article on Ministers. It states that ministers are co-workers through whom But it adds, and this is later applied to the sacraments, and not to something created; and he

Stephens goes on to point out: “It is important to note that the confession speaks about what God does and not what the sacraments do.”

Stephens’ conclusion concerning the First Helvetic Confession is: “The Confession, however, unlike much in Zwingli is an affirmation of what the sacraments are rather than a repudiation of what they are not, and it states in various ways what God offers and imparts in them. Luther’s positive, though critical, response to the Latin text is, therefore, not surprising.”

Stephens makes the following analysis of the response of Bullinger and the Zurich ministers to Luther’s Brief Confession:

“It has a Zwinglian character with the centrality of remembrance and a strong emphasis on faith. Yet there are divergences from Zwingli. Thus, although remembering appears to be our remembering, yet the summary states that the church of the Lord holds his suffering and our redemption in fresh remembrance. Again, although it is their faith in Christ which feeds believers and makes them participants in God’s grace and forgiveness and communion with Christ, yet in communion an unbeliever may become a believer and then share in Christ.”

With respect to the events leading up to the Consensus Tigurinus Stephens notes:

“The central issues can be focused in the use of certain words: exhibit, instrument, through, and at the same time. Bullinger disputed the statement that Calvin did not bind grace to the sacraments by reference to Calvin’s assertions that what is figured in the sacraments is exhibited to the elect and that those receiving baptism at the same time receive forgiveness of sins. To Bullinger Calvin does not differ from the papists who teach that the sacraments confer grace on all those who receive them. Bullinger objected to the use of through as seeming to attribute something to inanimate signs and proposed 'God acts and works in the hearts of the faithful while (dum) the sacraments are received> instead of Bullinger also challenged Calvin’s statement that 'the sacraments are instruments of the grace of God.' It seemed to attribute something to the sacraments, unless instrument means sign. It is God who confers grace and the gift of salvation. It is he who exhibits these things (not, as Calvin says, the sacraments), and he does so through the Holy Spirit and faith, faith being the gift of God through which we receive his gifts. Bulligner can accept Calvin’s statement that the sign is not empty, it that means not useless, but not if it means that the sign contains what it represents.”

Stephens further noted that Calvin replied as follows:

“Calvin drew on the New Testament in rejecting the opposition in Bullinger between God and the role of instruments, and also Bullinger’s apparent view that if God as then instruments cease. The Holy Spirit uses the sacrament as an instrument, but is the author of what is given. The effectiveness of the sacraments is related to God’s truthfulness, for God would appear to deceive in his promises, if believers did not receive what is offered in the sacraments. Calvin explained that simul was used in the sense of similiter (similalrly). He distinguished his position from that of the papists, as unlike them he held that not all but only the elect receive what the sacraments offer. The whole effect depends on election and the sign is useless unless God works in us through the Spirit. Calvin does not regard the sacraments as containing what they figure literally, but in the sense that the Lord performs inwardly by the power of his Spirit what is testified by the outward sign. Calvin notes Bullinger’s reference to the Eucharistic signs as commemorating the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ for us, but also his neglect of the daily offering of Christ for us, that we may be one with him. The body sacrificed for us is daily food for us. There is a repeated stress on communion with Christ.”

Stephens notes that article 12 of Consensus Tigurinus “speaks of the sacraments as instruments which God uses and by which he acts efficaciously. (The word is organum not, as in the Bern articles, instrumentum.) But lest this be misunderstood, the article at once states that the sacraments, like ministers, are nothing unless God makes them effective. God acts efficaciously through them, but certain qualifications are made about the sacraments, the minister, and the recipient.”

He further states that “The Zurich Agreement is neither Bullingerian nor Calvinian. Both would have expressed their views differently, but both could affirm what it affirmed, even if offering their own interpretations. It could be described as a Calvinian view expressed within the constraints imposed by Bullinger’s theology or Bullinger’s view stretched to embrace Calvin’s.”

Stephens continues to make the following perceptive observation:

“One may question whether Zwingli taught as Calvin taught, but it is still possible to argue that Zwingli could have signed the Zurich Agreement. At first sight this may cause surprise, as some positive affirmations about the sacraments go beyond what Zwingli wrote. However, key elements of his theology are present and the qualifications added to non-Zwinglian statements could well have satisfied him as they did Bullinger. Most importantly the Agreement denied that the sacraments confer grace, rejected the bodily presence and the bodily eating of Christ, and opposed trust in created things. It affirmed the centrality and necessity of faith, the sovereignty of the Spirit, the distinction between the sign and what it signifies, the eucharist as a testimony and a memorial, the presence of Christ’s body in heaven, the figurative interpretation of the words of institution, and the relevance of John 6:63.”

Stephens has a detailed comparison between The Second Helvetic Confession and Zwingli. The reader is encourage to read the article for himself/herself. The point that Stephens makes is that that is much in common between Zwingli and Bullinger though the nuanced differences in Bullinger are evident in The Second Helvetic Confession. Thus, Stephens concludes: The various differences between the Confession and Zwingli’s presentation of the sacraments are clear evidence that the Confession is not Zwinglian. It is, however, possible that Zwingli could have affirmed it, as it safeguarded the major concerns which he expressed. Despite their differences, Zwingli’s later works and the Confession have a family likeness.”

In his conclusion, Stephens writes:

“One of the clearest differences in sacramental theology between Zwingli and Bullinger is that in Bullinger it is God who is the subject of the sacraments.”

“There are other differences, most notable the role of election and that of the Holy Spirit. Election is used by Zwingli in defence of infant baptism, but not in his exposition of the sacraments nor in particular of their effectiveness. It is however, used in all these confessions.”

One of the most surprising differences between Bullinger and Zwingli is in the use of the word instrument (instrumentum). Bullinger criticizes the use of the word and avoids it, even in the Zurich Agreement, where he accepts the word organum. For him the word instrument implies that the sacraments have something of their own, apart from God. Zwingli, however, has no difficulty with the word instrument because of his insistence that God is the cause of all things.”

Stephens finally points out that Bullinger had a more positive view than Zwingli of the positive relation of the outward and inward in the sacraments: “his positive presentation of what the sacraments are and of what “God does in them, and the need, both theological and political, to seek unity with the other Swiss churches as well as with Luther.”

Stephens article is a mine of information and reflection. He is to be applauded for such an important contribution to an understanding of Swiss theology.

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