Bullinger has been misunderstood with respect to his understanding of the covenant. One reason for this is an inadequate grasp of his use of the terms foedus, testamentum and pactum. Another reason is the tendency to read into Bullinger’s works the concepts of federal theology which developed in the 17th century. Another reason is giving insufficient attention to reading Bullinger in context and looking at his works over the three major phases of his writings/ministry: phase 1 – the early 1520’s; phase 2 – the mid-1520’s to the mid-1530’s; phase 3 – 1539 onwards (see Peter Opitz in his “Bullinger’s Decades: Instructions in Faith and Conduct” in Architect of Reformation, pp102, 103.
Clearly, Bullinger was misunderstood at the Synod of Dort and his writings were quoted out of context. No less than an able scholar in Stephen Strehle has, in my opinion, misunderstood Bullinger. This can be illustrated from his article “Fides aut Foedus: Wittenberg and Zurich in conflict over the Gospel”, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. XXIII (no.1), 1992, pp 3-20.
In this article Strehle writes: “and yet, this solus Christus has another dimension in Bullinger, which will become so unlike the Reformers. In the hands of Bullinger Christ will become more the lawgiver, teacher, and example of the humanists than the redeemer of the Reformers. One need only glance at a bibliography of his works to observe this, his leitmotif. There the intransient, moralistic subtitle of his works can bee seen over and over: ‘Dad is min gliebter son, in dem ich versoenet bin. Disem sind gehorsam!’ (Matt. 17:5). And so solus Christus audiens becomes quite naturally the dominant theme of his theology. And it is this moralistic and humanistic Christ that will end up undermining, as it does so often throughout church history, his primary role as redeemer and the priority of the Gospel to the law.”
However, bearing in mind that many of the works of Bullinger were primarily pastorally focused, it is clear that, like the other reformers, Bullinger emphasized justification by faith alone in tandem with the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness. What Bullinger did emphasize was that this was the teaching of the Church Fathers who were faithful to Scripture as opposed to the teaching of the Medieval Church which had corrupted biblical truth. Bullinger sought to respond to the Medieval Church by often using the terms they were familiar with or terms they preferred. This was clearly so during the period of the Council of Trent. Bullinger did emphasize the right response of mankind to God’s gracious provision in Christ (the promised Messiah and seed of Adam and Eve) in terms of “right living” (integer) which paralleled the Old Testament emphasis on love and obedience. In is in this context that his reference to Matthew 17:5 is made. Space precludes pointing out that, for Bullinger, Matthew 17:5 refers to the new Torah that Christ taught (indeed embodied in Himself) to replace the Torah of the Old Testament (not the Torah of the time of Moses but that already written on the hearts of the fathers before Sinai and the need to respond to the idolatry in Egypt). For Bullinger, both the Torah of the Old Testament and the new Torah of Christ are written on the hearts of the elect.
Strehle makes observations and comments about Bullinger’s understanding of grace, free will, predestination, reprobation and election (which will not be summarized here). Earlier posts in the blog on the work of Cornelis Venema deal adequately with Strehle’s misunderstanding of Bullinger.
The following lengthy extract is representative of how Strehle views Bullinger:
“This synergism comes to a most definite expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant, in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through his synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate which is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his conditiones to fulfill, in order to receive the blessings offered. These conditiones are revealed throughout scripture, including most notably Abraham’s “Walk before me and be whole,’ as well as Moses’ ten commandments. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditiones, we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part, and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited.
This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his De Testamento sev Foedere Dei unico et æterno of 1534 this concept of covenant did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. Classical Reformed orthodoxy continued to speak of the covenant as a bilateral arrangement, employing terms such as dipleuron, confoederatio, mutua pactio, mutua obligatio, and conditio. Man was said to make God a debtor to himself through certain federal conditions and thus was able to exact of God his reward.”
Several comments need to be made here:
1. Strehle has given insufficient weighting to God’s accommodation in relating to mankind via the covenant. Archilla’s work emphasizes God’s accommodation.
2. Strehle is following Baker in arguing that Bullinger viewed God’s covenant with man as bilateral. This view is not accurate once a word study is done on Bullinger’s use of the terms foedus, testamentum and pactum. See earlier posts in this blog. For Bullinger the covenant had both duopleuric and monopleuric aspects.
3. Strehle has misunderstood Bullinger’s use of conditiones as well as Bullinger’s understanding of ‘law’ for the elect in the new covenant (in a footnote to this article Strehle asks: ‘However, we in turn must ask why then would Bullinger speak of the law as a conditio for receiving divine blessing?’). I hope to write on conditiones in Bullinger on another occasion. But the extract from Strehle above is clear that one context of the conditiones is the blessings of the covenant – not the actual covenant relationship itself which is clearly all of grace.
Strehle’s writings, in general, are very helpful and insightful. But, I believe, he has badly misunderstood Bullinger on the covenant. If such an able scholar misunderstands Bullinger it is not surprising that many others misunderstand Bullinger. Hence one of the reasons this blog was set up was to put Bullinger’s work up for review and reflection by all readers.