Heinrich Bullinger’s covenant view

Development of Bullinger’s view

The doctrine of the covenant has occupied a large place in the development of the Reformed faith since the days of the Reformation. Much of the impetus for this development is to be credited to the Swiss Reformers, particularly to Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575). More than anyone before him, he gave a large place to the doctrine of the covenant. Bullinger was the first Reformed theologian to write an entire treatise on the covenant of grace. His De Testamento Seu Foedere Dei Unico Et Aeterno Brevis Expositio (A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God) was published in Zurich in 1534.1 It is the first full treatment of the doctrine of the covenant of grace ever published. Not only did Bullinger treat covenant as one of the important doctrines of Scripture, but he was among the first to view all of theology from the perspective of the covenant. He saw the doctrine of the covenant as the overarching doctrine of Scripture and spoke of the covenant as “the target at which all Scripture aims.” He said that the truth of the covenant includes “the entire sum of piety.”

Early on, the press of circumstances forced consider­ation of the covenant upon the Swiss Reformers. It was especially the threat posed by the Anabaptists that became the occasion for their development of the doctrine of the covenant. For Bullinger this was also the case. Much of what Bullinger had to say regarding the truth of God’s covenant belonged to his polemics against the Anabaptists. This was true of especially two aspects of his covenant theology: the truth of the one, everlasting covenant of grace and the truth of the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant. The Anabaptists denied both of these precious truths, which are taught clearly in the Holy Scriptures.

Bullinger vehemently defended the truth of the one, everlasting covenant of grace, including believers of both the Old and New Testaments. The title of his work on the covenant is The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. God’s covenant is one and eternal: “There is therefore one covenant and one church of all the saints before and after Christ, one way to heaven, and one unchanging religion of all the saints.” At the same time—and this follows from the truth that the covenant is eternal—its substance does not consist merely in earthly privileges, but in the spiritual blessings of sal­vation. The promises of the covenant, said Bullinger, “are not only material but also spiritual.”

Bullinger also defended the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant. The children of believers are “indeed heirs even though they, in their early years, do not know that they are either children or heirs of their parents” in the covenant of grace. The children of believers “are the seed of Abraham and they are in the covenant.” Since the children of believers are included in God’s covenant of grace, they ought also, Bullinger ar­gued, to receive the sign and seal of their inclusion in the covenant, which is the sacrament of holy baptism. The children of the faithful belong to the seed of Abraham and, as the seed of Abraham, ought to receive the sign of the covenant. That sign in the Old Testament was cir­cumcision, whereas in the New Testament it is baptism.

Unilateral or bilateral covenant?

As the doctrine of the covenant developed, one of the key issues that divided theologians was the issue of the nature of the covenant itself. Some theologians came to defend a bilateral view of the covenant, rather than a unilateral view. The covenant came to be regarded as a pact or agreement, which depended on mutual fulfillment of certain conditions. The covenant came to be regarded as a conditional covenant, rather than an unconditional covenant. Along with that view, theologians differed on those with whom God establishes the covenant of grace. Those who taught a unilateral, unconditional covenant defended the truth that God established His covenant with the elect children of believers. Those who taught a bilateral, conditional covenant taught that God establishes His covenant with all the physical children of believers, that is, with all the children who receive the sacrament of the covenant, baptism.

As the view of a bilateral, conditional covenant de­veloped, some of its supporters reached back and ap­pealed to Heinrich Bullinger. They alleged that he was the father of the bilateral, conditional covenant view. Some went so far as to contend that Bullinger, and his predecessor Ulrich Zwingli, deliberately developed their conditional covenant view over against the rigidly uni­lateral covenant view of John Calvin and his successor Theodore Beza. The latter, they alleged, improperly ap­plied their strict predestinarian views to the doctrine of the covenant, whereas the former—Zwingli and Bullinger—did not do so.2

It is true that Bullinger did speak of “conditions” of the covenant. In his A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God, he said:

Now we come to the conditions of the covenant. Those who are connected by covenants are joined together by certain regulations, so that each of the parties might know its duty, namely, what responsibilities the primary party might have toward the other, and what in return the primary party might expect from the other.

But is Bullinger’s use of this language sufficient to charge him with holding to a conditional covenant view in the way in which men today understand the conditional covenant? In the early stages of the development of the doctrine of the covenant did Bullinger teach that the covenant is established by God with every one of the natural children of believers, but that actual partic­ipation in the covenant is limited to those only who ful­fill certain conditions, most notably the “condition” of faith? Did Bullinger teach a conditional covenant in the same way in which Klaas Schilder, William Heyns, and the men of the Federal Vision teach a conditional cove­nant? Did he teach a conditional covenant in the same way in which those who left the Protestant Reformed Churches in the 1950s taught a conditional covenant?

Unilateral covenant of grace

I am convinced that Bullinger did not teach such a conditional covenant. I am convinced that Bullinger taught fundamentally the same view as John Calvin, and that along with Calvin his doctrine of the covenant was informed by his view of predestination. I am convinced that Bullinger taught a unilateral and unconditional covenant of grace. Taking into account that the doctrine of the covenant was in the early stages of its development, Calvin and Bullinger were in fundamental agreement as to membership in the covenant of grace.

To begin with, Bullinger insisted that the “ineffable mercy and divine grace of the eternal God are proven” in the fact that God establishes His covenant, which is “not in any way because of the merits of humans but rather out of the sheer goodness which is God’s nature.” He reckons that mere mortals cannot comprehend the greatness of God and the majesty of His power in that He “joined himself in covenant with miserable mortals corrupted by sin.” He goes on to say that “[t]his in­disputably is the origin of our religion and its primary point: we are saved solely through the goodness and mercy of God.”

In characteristically unilateral language, Bullinger also referred to God’s covenant in the Second Helvetic Confes­sion (1566). In Chapter 20, “Of Holy Baptism,” he writes:

For to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance, of the sons of God…God who is rich in mercy, does freely purge us from our sins by the blood of his Son, and in him does adopt us to be his sons, and by a holy covenant does join us to himself, and does enrich us with divers gifts, that we might live a new life.

That Bullinger taught a unilateral covenant view is also seen from the fact that he insisted on a thorough­going double-predestinarian view. Those who depict Bullinger as advocating a bilateral covenant attempt to distort Bullinger’s view of double predestination. Some go so far as to contend that Bullinger denied a double decree of predestination. They attempt to demonstrate that Bullinger denied reprobation and wanted nothing to do with Calvin’s teaching on reprobation[1]

This is at best a mistaken view and, at worst, a de­liberate distortion of the facts. To pit Bullinger against Calvin in this regard is inexcusable. They were, in fact, in fundamental agreement.

It is one thing to say that Bullinger’s view of predes­tination was a more moderate view than that of Calvin. But it is quite another thing to maintain that there was an essential difference between Calvin and Bullinger re­garding the doctrine of predestination. It is one thing to say that Bullinger expressed concern over certain state­ments made by Calvin respecting reprobation. But it is quite another thing to contend that Bullinger repudiated reprobation. It is one thing to say that Bullinger was concerned in his teaching of predestination not to make God the author of sin. But it is quite another thing to hold that in order to avoid making God the author of sin, Bullinger rejected the doctrine of reprobation.4

In his published sermons known as The Decades, Bullinger defended the truth of double predestination, including both election and reprobation. In one place he wrote that “the predestination of God is the eternal decree of God, whereby he hath ordained either to save or destroy men; a most certain end of life and death being appointed unto them.” In another place he said that “God by his eternal and unchangeable counsel hath fore-appointed who are to be saved, and who are to be condemned.” In a lengthier passage he went on to say:

Therefore, if you ask me whether you have been elected to life or predestined to death, that is, whether you are of the number of those who be damned or to be saved, I respond simply from the evangelical and apostolic Scripture: if you have fellowship with Christ, you have been predestined to life and you are of the number of the elect; but if you are estranged from Christ, however strong you might appear to be in virtues, you have been predestined to death or foreknown, as they say, to condemnation.

In another place Bullinger is equally as strong in af­firming double predestination.

Predestination, preordination or predetermination is that arrangement of God by which He appointed all things to a definite goal, but especially man as the lord of all things, and this by His holy and just plan, judgment or decree. Now also the election of God is from eternity, by which He indeed elected some to life and others to death. There is no reason for election and predestination except the good and just will of God saving the elect without cause but damning and rejecting the reprobate with cause.

The truth of predestination determined, in Bullinger’s view, membership in the covenant. Those who were in­cluded in the covenant were the true and spiritual chil­dren of Abraham, not all the children of the flesh. He said in one place that God’s covenant of grace “always has been one and will remain one.as it is in [God’s] eternal predestination.” Those whom God has eternal­ly predestinated belong to God’s covenant. They and they alone are those with whom God has established His everlasting covenant.

We are indebted to a great extent to Bullinger, and to the Swiss Reformers generally, for our doctrine of the covenant. They did not develop the doctrine of the covenant in its entirety. They did not pass on to us a full-blown covenant view, with all the particulars and distinctive developments that have taken place since their day. But what they passed down to us is the doc­trine of the covenant in its fundamental aspects. They passed on the acorn out of which the splendid oak of the unilateral, unconditional covenant of grace has grown, under the unction and leading of the Spirit. The trea­sure that is ours to enjoy came from the investment that they made in developing the glorious truth of the cove­nant. They planted; what they planted was since their time watered; and what is ours we must develop and defend for the generations that are to come.


1  All the quotations in this article are taken from the translation of A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Cov­enant of God, by Heinrich Bullinger and translated by Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, included as “Part Two” of their book, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991).

2  Those who wish to consider this matter in greater depth are referred to my article in the April 1997 issue of the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, entitled “Bullinger’s Covenant Conception: Bilateral or Unilateral?” pp. 41–63 (http://www.prca.org/prtj/apr1997.pdf).

3  The interested reader is referred to The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought, by David A. Weir, and Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition, by Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker.

4  This is exactly what McCoy and Baker do in their book, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition.