A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Ryan M. McGraw
The printing press resulted in an explosion of both good and bad material, making sound doctrine and heresy alike more affordable and easily accessible. This is realistic, since, in God’s providence, the good and the bad often spread their roots together. If this was true in the sixteenth century, then modern technology and the internet have only magnified the widespread proliferation of information. One fruit of modern technology is that we have easy access to classic works of theology like Bullinger’s Decades, with a fresh historical introduction (doubles produced on a computer much like this review). While Heinrich Bullinger is lesser known than John Calvin (1509-1564) today, this was not the case in their lifetimes and for generations to come.
Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) converted to the Reformed faith before Calvin, and he outlived him. Together with Calvin’s Institutes and a few other select texts, Bullinger’s Decades presented the system of Reformed theology on a popular level that endured ages to come in terms of its influence on both ministers and churches. In this sixth printing of the Decades (as of 2021), Reformation Heritage Books continues to serve as a means of securing a place at the table in contemporary theology. Bullinger’s work is worth the investment of money in acquiring it, and time in reading it, for a number of reasons.
First, Bullinger’s work consists of sermons. More precisely, the material follows five “decades” of sermons, consisting of ten each and fifty total. While Reformed theologians in the late sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century reappropriated scholastic methodology and form in order to propagate Reformed theology to a new generation of ministers in Universities, men like Bullinger and Calvin sought to fill a void. This void consisted in writing theology aimed at the minds and hearts of average believers, and not merely for preachers, monks, or doctors of theology.
The sermonic form of the Decades says something about Bullinger’s target audience, though the “sermons” are longer than readers might be accustomed to. Making his theology accessible then as well as now, the tone of Bullinger’s work closer to that of Calvin’s Institutes than to later works like Turretin’s Elenctic Theology. The church needs both kinds of theology, and this reviewer loves both, but readers can simply enjoy reading Bullinger, regardless of their level of knowledge and maturity.
Second, Bullinger’s work is easy to digest. Though his structure and flow of thought may not be immediately familiar to modern readers, he retained many features flowing from the catechetical teaching method of the church from its earliest days. The editors in this fresh edition include a useful summary of the contents of Bullinger’s work on pages civ-cxx, with a succinct outline at the beginning of this section. While it would have been more useful to include content headings with each sermon in Bullinger’s original outline (instead of “sermon 1,” “sermon 2,” etc.), this outline helps readers learn what to expect from such a large-scale work. Standard early church catechetical procedures stand out, following an exposition of the Apostle’s creed (Decade 1.7-9), the Decalogue (Decades 2-3, 1-10, and 1-4), and the Lord’s Prayer (Decade 5.5-10).
Broadly speaking, the five “decades” follow the order of knowing God by means of Scripture and being justified by faith, the law of God and the nature of sin, the grace of God in Christ by the Spirit (as a particular species of divine providence), and the church and the means of grace (through which we come to know Christ). Primary features of early church and medieval catechesis remain, mediated through a clear style and sense of coherence, in a devotional form. Readers familiar with Calvin’s Institutes will likely thank the Lord that they found another book in the same genre, marked by comparable theology, yet with its own distinct approach.
Third, Bullinger’s ideas shaped the course of Reformed thought at key points. This primarily encompasses his views of the Lord’s Supper, church government, and covenant theology. Bullinger was Zwingli’s successor in the Zurich Reformation. With respect to these three areas, Bullinger clearly drew from Ulrich Zwingli’s (1484-1531) teaching, yet surpassing his mentor at each juncture in light of ongoing theological debate and reflection.
Zwingli stressed the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of Christ and an oath of allegiance to Christ, without denying communion with the Lord in the Spirit through the sacrament. Bullinger agreed with Calvin (and worked with him towards a consensus) by highlighting communion with Christ in both natures through faith as central to the Lord’s Supper. If Zwingli stressed our confession of faith first, and then communion with Christ’s divine nature by the Spirit vaguely, Bullinger emphasized that God presents the whole Christ in the Supper, in his Godhead and humanity, to save his people wholly from their sins. Bullinger is as responsible as Calvin was for the codification of this idea in Reformed theology, which passed down seamlessly into statements of Christ’s presence in the Supper, such as Westminster Larger Catechism 170. This makes Bullinger’s theology of the Supper simultaneously foundational theologically and satisfying spiritually.
Bullinger likewise drew from Zwingli’s views on church government, especially in relation to how the prophetic and priestly offices carried over into the function of New Testament officers. Both men initially couched the New Testament ministry in priestly terms, shifting later to prefer prophetic terms. While inspired prophecy ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture, the prophetic function continued in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Bullinger pushed the continuity of the Old and New Testaments further, however, by locating the ordinary ministry of the word (and diaconal ministry) in the Levities (and not merely the priests). The result was that this ordinary ministry of the word and of service continued in the New Testament offices of elders and deacons. Whether or not readers are sold on this construction of Old and New Testament church officers, this model continued to find purchase in later authors, such as the notable presbyterian and Westminster divine, George Gillespie (1613-1648).
Lastly, though the doctrine of the covenant does not loom as large in these two volumes as it did in other works by Bullinger, the unified way in which he read the Bible in terms of a single overarching covenant of grace, revolving around the person and work of Christ, is a vital undertext of his theology. The covenant was not only a means unifying the biblical message; it was one of the primary ways in which Reformed authors ensured with increasing skill that pride of place in their systems went to Christology. The covenant was how Zwingli made sense of related doctrines, like infant baptism, and which Bullinger, Calvin, and others pressed with growing clarity. In this respect, Bullinger represents a vital component of the development of a doctrine that became central to Reformed theology ever after.
Bullinger’s Decades are for all kinds of believers. These volumes are not only worthy reading, but most readers interested in Reformed theology today cannot afford to pass them by. Reminding us that Reformed theology is not, strictly speaking, “Calvinism,” Bullinger drives us to view Calvin as a great luminary shining alongside his friends. As Reformed theology was codified confessionally in the 1560’s onward, Bullinger both lived through and contributed to this vital historical development in producing the long-lasting Second Helvetic Confession. The Decades give us the rationale for such summaries and, most importantly, drive us to read our Bibles better in light of the teaching of Scripture as a whole, without neglecting ways in which the church always aimed at such goals. Read Bullinger prayerfully, and with the Spirit’s blessing, you will read him joyfully as you grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.
Ryan M. McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Buy the books
THE DECADES OF HENRY BULLINGER, by Henry Bullinger