Previous article in this series: January 1, 2015, p. 158.
The Second Helvetic Confession was written in 1562 by Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), whose life we considered in our previous article. It was intended by Bullinger to be buried with him as a testimony to the faith for which he had lived and which he had defended to his dying day. But despite his intentions, before he died Bullinger’s confession came to light and was widely disseminated. This was due to a request from the pious Elector of the Palatinate, Frederick III, that Bullinger prepare a clear and complete exposition of the Reformed faith that he might use as a defense of himself against charges of heresy before the Imperial Diet of Augsburg. The Elector was so pleased with Bullinger’s confession that he requested and received permission to publish the new confession.
What became known as the Second Helvetic Confession was first published simultaneously in Frederick’s capital, the city of Heidelberg, and Bullinger’s hometown of Zurich, in 1566 (March), in both German and Latin. That same year it was translated by Theodore Beza into French and published in Geneva. Thereafter, it was translated into English, Dutch, Italian, Romansh, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, and Arabic.
In short order the Second Helvetic Confession was officially recognized by Reformed Churches throughout Europe and beyond. It was the first international Reformed confession. Besides its adoption by Reformed churches throughout the cantons of Switzerland (I remind readers that “Helvetica” is Latin for “Switzerland”), the Second Helvetic Confession became the official confession of Reformed Churches in Scotland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, North America, South America, and elsewhere. Today it remains the confession of Reformed and Presbyterian churches throughout the world.
Contents and Style
Commenting on the “Character and Value” of the Second Helvetic Confession, Philip Schaff writes:
Upon the whole, the Second Helvetic Confession, as to theological merit, occupies the first rank among the Reformed Confessions, while in practical usefulness it is surpassed by the Heidelberg and Westminster Shorter Catechisms, and in logical clearness and precision by the Westminster Confession, which is a product of a later age, and of the combined learning and wisdom of English and Scotch Calvinism.1
And Alexander Stewart says in evaluating the Second Helvetic Confession that
[i]t was based upon the First Helvetic Confession, in which Bullinger also had a share, but contains many improvements [that is, enlargements], besides being much more comprehensive. It has been described as ‘Scriptural and catholic, wise and judicious, full and elaborate, yet simple and clear, uncompromising towards the errors of Rome, and moderate in its dissent from the Lutheran dogmas.’ It is, of course, more of the nature of a theological treatise than a popular Creed.2
The Second Helvetic Confession is not a brief statement of the main articles of the Reformed or Christian faith. Rather, it is the fruit of the mature theological reflection of one of the leading second generation Reformers. It is a restatement of much of what was contained in the First Helvetic Confession, but with considerable expansion and development—“with great improvements in matter and form,” according to Schaff.3 It is a substantial work of thirty chapters, each chapter containing generally from four or five paragraphs to as many as twenty-five paragraphs. In length it is nearly twice as long as the Westminster Confession of Faith and nearly three times as long as the Heidelberg Catechism.
The Second Helvetic Confession covers all the main doctrines of the Reformed faith. The confession begins with two chapters that are devoted to the doctrine of Holy Scripture. These two chapters are followed by three chapters devoted to the truth concerning God—theology. These three chapters are followed by five chapters that cover anthropology broadly, including providence, creation, the fall, and free will. Chapter 10 is devoted to predestination. Chapters 11-13 cover the person and work of Christ, including both the law and the gospel. Chapters 14-16 cover the doctrine of salvation: repentance and conversion, justification, faith and good works. The next thirteen chapters cover the truths of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church): the catholic and holy church, the office of the ministry, the sacraments, ecclesiastical gatherings, public worship, holy days, catechizing, burial and funerals, celibacy and marriage. The last chapter, chapter 30, is devoted to the magistracy: the duty of the magistrate and the duty of the citizens toward the magistrate.
Throughout the Second Helvetic Confession, the truth is confessed by use of the first person plural pronoun: “We.” “We acknowledge”; “We believe”; “We believe and confess”; or “We teach.” The use of the first person plural pronoun is significant. To begin with, the confession is personal, as the use of the personal pronoun indicates. It is the personal confession of faith that is put in the mouth and heart of every Reformed believer. It is not an objective, cold, dogmatic statement of the truths of Scripture, but the warm, living conviction of faith that comes to expression in the Second Helvetic Confession. It is the first person pronoun that is made use of, but specifically the first person plural. That, too, is significant. Although the believer makes confession of his or her faith personally, he or she does not do so in isolation from all others. On the contrary, by our confession we bind ourselves to others who make the same confession of faith. Those others, as the Second Helvetic Confession itself makes plain, are the members of the church of Christ in every age—all those who have gone before who made in their day the same confession that we make in our day. Besides connecting us to the church of all ages, our confession binds us to Reformed believers in our own day who live in other lands, who are members of other Reformed churches and church federations, and who join us in making this same confession of faith.
And that too—it is a confession of faith: “We believe,” (5.5; 6.1; 11.10; 12.3; 14.3; 20.6); “We believe and teach,” (3.1; 3.2; 11.1; 11.3; 11.12; 11.16); “We believe and confess,” (1.1); or “We acknowledge,” (11.5; 13.2; 17.11; 18.9). Each of these expressions makes clear that this is the confession that we make of our faith, that which by the grace of God we believe. Since faith has content, since faith believes, the Second Helvetic Confession makes clear the content of true faith. Faith is not ignorance, “blind faith” in the church, that is, what the church says and teaches. But faith knows; faith knows the content of sacred Scripture. And faith confesses—publicly confesses—what it believes. To a greater or lesser degree, every believer ought to be able to articulate his faith.
Since faith is not only knowledge in the head, but conviction of the heart, faith expresses itself as conviction of the truths that it confesses. Faith is assured of that which it confesses. Faith is so convinced of these truths that for the sake of them the believer is willing to endure reproach, rejection, and persecution, as believers in Bullinger’s day experienced on a wide scale in nearly every land in which the Reformed faith was found.
And we teach this faith. Numerous paragraphs begin with the words, “We teach,” (5.1; 9.6; 12.1; 16.4; 16.7; 16.10; 16.11; 16.12; 17.17; 20.7; 29.3). We know these truths and are convinced of them for ourselves not only, but we also teach them to others. Those others whom we teach include especially those outside of the Reformed faith to whom we make our public confession of faith. Those others whom we teach also include those who are new to the faith and who are just learning the fundamentals of the Reformed faith. And those others whom we teach include our own sons and daughters, our children and young people. Ever since its first publication, the Second Helvetic Confession has served as a very useful tool for the instruction of the youth of the church.
Polemical and Antithetical
It belongs to the Second Helvetic Confession that it is polemical in nature—polemical and antithetical. The Second Helvetic Confession, like other of the Reformed confessions, is distinctive. It draws the lines sharply and clearly. Boundaries are set. The Second Helvetic Confession not only sets forth the truth positively, but it also condemns error, false doctrines, and wicked practices. Errorists and heretics are mentioned by name. Those of a former day: Arius and the Arians, Eutyches (“we thoroughly execrate the madness of Eutyches”), the Nestorians, the Monothelites and Monophysites, Valentius, and Marcion. The errorists and heretics of the days in which the Second Helvetic Confession was written are identified: the Roman Catholic Church, the pope and the Papists, the Anabaptists, Schwenkfeldt and the Schwenkfeldians. Condemned are those who make God the author of sin, those who ask curious questions that cannot be answered out of the Word of God, and those who are contemptuous of the magistrate (“rebels, enemies of the state, seditious villains”). Numerous chapters contain paragraphs entitled “Heresies” (1.6; 3.4; 9.11), “The Sects” (7.5; 8.6; 11.3, 8, 10, 15, and 19; 13.7; 14.12; 19.15; 24.11), or “Errors” (14.11).
Some subjects that are treated in the Second Helvetic Confession are unique to this confession, in distinction from other of our Reformed confessions. Among those subjects are: “The Preaching of the Word of God Is the Word of God” (1.4); “Councils” (2.4); “Relics of the Saints” (5.6); “Curious Questions,” as the concluding paragraph of Chapter 8 on man’s fall into sin (8.8); “Papal Indulgences” (14.13); “James Compared with Paul,” the concluding paragraph of Chapter 15, “Of the True Justification of the Faithful” (15.7); “We Teach True, Not False and Philosophical Virtues” (16.11); “Even Evil Ministers Are To Be Heard” (18.23); “Synods” (18.24); “The Worker Is Worthy of His Reward” (18.25); “Decent Meeting Places” (22.5); “Modesty and Humility to be Employed in Meetings” (22.6); “The True Ornamentation of Sanctuaries” (22.7); “Singing” (23.5); “Canonical Hours” (23.6); “Fasting,” “Public and Private Fasting,” “Characteristics of Fasting,” and “Lent” (24.6- 9); “Of Catechizing and of Comforting and Visiting the Sick” (Chapter 25); “Of the Burial of the Faithful, and of the Care to Be Shown [to the Dead]” (Chapter 26); “Of Rites, Ceremonies and Things Indifferent” (Chapter 27); “Of the Possessions of the Church” (Chapter 28); “Of Celibacy, Marriage and the Management of Domestic Affairs” (Chapter 29)’ and “War” (30.4).
Reading through the Second Helvetic Confession one cannot but be struck with the breadth and depth of the Reformed faith. The Reformed faith embraces every fundamental doctrine of the Word of God. The Reformed faith has implications for every aspect of the life of the Reformed believer: his life in the church; his life in society, in the marketplace, and on the job; his life in his marriage and family. In every aspect of his life, the Reformed believer strives to live in obedience to God’s Word and to the glory of God. And in all of life he is unashamed of who he is and whose he is. What this means in detail and concretely, the Second Helvetic Confession makes plain. In future articles, we will examine together the individual chapters and paragraphs of this gem among the Reformed confessions.
1 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 1:395.
2 Alexander Stewart, Creeds and Churches: Studies in Symbolics (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1916), 154.
3 Creeds of Christendom, 394.