Authors who have told the story of the Reformation often neglect to give appropriate recognition to some of its most influential and significant figures, whom David Steinmetz dubbed, “Reformers in the wings.” These were often viewed by their contemporaries to be as significant as those figures whom history has deemed worthy of greater notice. Among these Reformers in the wings, none deserves to receive attention more than Heinrich Bullinger, successor to Zwingli as the Antistes or chief pastor of the Reformed church in Zürich, Switzerland. Though Bullinger labored after Zwingli and in the shadow of Calvin, his influence rivaled Calvin’s on the continent and on the British Isles.
In this article I would like to contribute in a small way to the commemoration of Bullinger’s life and work by looking at his 1537 treatise, Der Alt Gloub (“The Old Faith”). Though little known it expresses one of the most significant features of Reformation defense and reminds us today of a neglected theme.
Der Alt Gloub defends the antiquity of the Christian faith, emphasizing the substantial unity of teaching between the Old and New Testaments. Its full title represents its primary thesis: “The old faith, an evident probation out of the Holy Scripture, that the Christian Faith (which is the right, true, old and undoubted faith) has endured since the beginning of the world.” Bullinger’s aim was to demonstrate that the Christian faith was centered in the revelation of redemption in Christ and that salvation by grace alone through the work of Christ was the ancient faith. Therefore the Roman Catholic objection that the Reformers were innovators was turned on its head: Rome had abandoned the old faith by its innovations and inventions.
In the Introduction, Bullinger notes that many suppose that the Christian faith commenced with the birth of Jesus. Though Bullinger acknowledges that this was the time of the fulfillment of the promises, he insists that the old covenant people of God already knew “the same salvation in Christ Jesus” that Christians know (p. 1). The difference between the people of God then and now, is a difference, not in “religion or substance” but in the degree to which salvation in Christ was openly manifest (p. 2). Old Testament believers were, consequently, “Christians” whose faith was substantially identical to that of New Testament believers (p. 2).
Section One: “Of the goodness of God and the wickedness of man.” Scripture begins with the truth of God’s creation, particularly of man as his image-bearer. Though God depends on nothing beyond himself, he freely expressed his “own grace and mercy” to create and to reveal “his unsearchable goodness” (p. 3). Among all his creatures, man stands alone as an image-bearer of God. This means God furnished man with every good gift and perfection so that he might live before God in faith and obedience. God also invited man as his image-bearer to respond in obedience and thankfulness. For this reason, God stipulated that Adam might not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, promising him life on condition of obedience and threatening him with death on condition of disobedience (pp. 7-8). The “tree of life” was ordained to be a kind of “token and sacrament” of the blessedness of human life in obedience to God. However, despite God’s goodness and grace, man fell into sin and has come under judgment and condemnation.
Section Two: “The first and right foundation of the our holy Christian faith.” God could have abandoned man in his sin and left him in bondage to the devil. However, the good news is that God has chosen to save his people in Jesus Christ, and in a way that honors his truth and righteousness. This gospel is the great foundation of the Christian faith, which God has revealed from the beginning as the only remedy for human sin. A way has been found “whereby the righteousness and truth of God should be satisfied, and in which the mercy of God should especially be exercised and declare itself; that is to say, Christ Jesus, who is given us by the manifest grace of God, was offered for our sins, satisfied and recompensed the righteousness of God, and so delivered us out of the bonds of the devil” (p. 9). When God approached Adam and Eve after disobeying his commandment, he didn’t approach to destroy in righteousness, but to promise salvation from sin through his Son in Genesis 3:15. In this promise, God declared: “I will have mercy upon him, and receive him to grace again; but in order that my truth and righteousness may be satisfied, I will cause my Son to take the very nature of man upon him. Then I will that he take upon himself the curse and damnation, and die, and with his innocent death take away that death and curse, and so to let the generation of man out of death into life, out of the dominion of the devil into his own kingdom, out of darkness into light” (pp. 12-13).
Section Three: “Of the first faithful Christians, Adam and Eve.” Adam and Eve were the first Christian believers. In confirmation of faith in God’s promise, Adam named his wife “Eve,” who would be the “mother of all living” (p. 19). Adam lived from the promise that God would bring life from death, restoring a people for himself to blessedness and salvation. As he lived under the fatherly protection and favor of God, he looked for the coming of his Son to satisfy God’s truth and righteousness, destroy the power and kingdom of the devil, and gain for him entrance into the kingdom of God (p. 22). Although Adam and Eve did not enjoy the benefit of the “rites” and “ceremonies” of the church they knew Christ under the form of the “bodily offering,” as a “representation of the sacrifice of Christ” (p. 22).
Section Four: “That the holy Patriarchs also were Christians and saved by Christ.” The history of the Patriarchs is a history of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam. The Christian faith revealed to Adam was preserved through a faithful remnant in the line of Abel, Seth, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even when God’s wrath was poured out upon the whole world at the time of the Flood, God renewed the covenant first made with Adam by promising salvation to Noah and his family. By means of the Ark, which was a “figure of Christ” (p. 30), God saved believing Noah and his family. Since the idolatry and corrupted religious practices of the heathen arose after the period of the renewal of the covenant with Noah, we are taught that the Christian faith “is older than any other” (p. 33). Similarly, since God further revealed and renewed the covenant with Abraham long before the giving of the law through Moses, the Christian faith “is older than the Jewish faith” (p. 36). Though the Jews “boast themselves of the circumcision, and because they are called Jews and Israel,” yet we know that Abraham was justified or reckoned righteous before he was circumcised (p. 36). Indeed, “our Christian faith is 2048 years older than the circumcision, and 2449 years older than the law, the priesthood and ceremonies of the Jews” (p. 36). The history of the patriarchs proves that “from the beginning of the world until the death of Joseph, the right Christian faith endured 2300 years.
Section Five: “The law of God given by Moses, leads unto Christ, and makes mention of all his works.” In faithfulness to his covenant God brought his people through Moses out of Egypt by his power and grace. When God instituted the rite of the Passover, he gave Israel a figure of the redemption that is through the blessed seed of promise: “Therefore the Israelites were not spared because of the blood of beasts, but for the sake of the blood of the blessed seed that was promised to come. And thus the whole deliverance out of Egypt was a figure of the true redemption by which we are delivered from the power of the devil and from everlasting death through Jesus Christ, and brought into the land of promise, even to eternal joy and salvation” (p. 41). When Israel entered the land, God wrote his law upon two tablets of stone. Though given to Israel in written form, they contained “no new thing, nor ought that was not before in the world, but rather renewed the old, and the law that he hitherto had written in the hearts of holy men” (pp. 42-3). This law was added to the promise as a “schoolmaster” that teaches us to know our sin and unworthiness, as well as our need for a Mediator (p. 48) and as “a rule of our life, informing us what we ought to do, and what we ought to leave undone” (p. 49).
Sections Six–Seven: “All virtuous kings and the people of Israel, trusted unto Christ, and not to the Law.” God continued to provide for his people through Joshua, the Judges, and then through the kings of Israel and Judah. The gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ continued to be preserved through these servants. However, the greatest figure of this period was king David. An examination of his Spirit-inspired Psalms confirm that he was intimately acquainted with the person and works of Christ, his son after the flesh. The Psalms clearly testify to:
the deity of the eternal Son of God and the doctrine of the Trinity (p. 64);
the glorious and eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ (p. 65);
the preaching of the holy gospel to the heathen nations (pp. 65-6);
the ordination of Christ to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek (p. 67);
the victory of Christ over all his and his people’s enemies (p. 66);
and the passion and death of Christ that he endured for his people (pp. 68-9).
Section Eight: “All holy prophets do point unto Christ, and preach salvation only in him.” During the divided kingdom, God gave his people much success but also delivered them over into captivity when they persisted in their disobedience. Despite the decline and growing unfaithfulness of the people of God, his promises in Christ remained sure. One remarkable evidence was his provision of prophets sent to “rebuke wrong and idolatry, and to teach all righteousness and true worship of God” (p. 75). These many prophets all concur in their preaching of the way of salvation through Christ: “[T]hey all preached the sum of the doctrine and knowledge of the faith that we spoke about before, and wrote in one sum, which faith Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David had” (pp. 76-7). The preaching of these prophets anticipated everything that is taught us concerning the Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament and Apostles’ Creed:
his deity and humanity (p. 78);
the coming of John the Baptist as his messenger (p. 79);
his preaching of God’s grace and performance of many signs and wonders (pp. 79-80);
his kingdom and the subjection of all peoples to him (p. 80);
his passion and death (p. 82);
and his burial, resurrection, and ascension (p. 84).
Section Nine: “Of the time of the grace of Christ, and how that he himself testifies, that the salvation of all the world stands only in him.” The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament: “the Scriptures of the new Testament hang all together and refer themselves to the Scriptures of the old Testament, so that there can not be right understanding without the other, no more than the gloss [interpretation] with the text. The text is the law and the prophets, the exposition are the Evangelists and Apostles” (p. 91). In the fullness of time, 3974 years after the beginning of the world, Christ was born in Bethlehem according to the word of the prophets (p. 91). When the angels announced the good news of his birth, they reminded the shepherds of the word of promise to Abraham that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed (p. 92). In the course of his ministry, the original promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent was fulfilled. Unlike the first Adam, Christ overcame the devil (p. 95). Through his life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, all the Old Testament promises find their fulfillment. With the coming of Christ, the ceremonies and rites of the law have not so much been abrogated as perfected and completed (p. 94).
Section Ten: “That also the elect apostles preached this old faith, and declared, that all salvation is only in Christ.” Christ Jesus is the lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world, and the only one through whom sinners can be cleansed and saved. This gospel is the old faith that Christ wants to be preached throughout the whole world (p. 101). The apostles carried out his task by means of the preaching of the holy gospel and the administration of the two sacraments of the new covenant, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (pp. 102-104).
Conclusion. Since the time of the ministry of the apostles, the church of Jesus Christ has endured the presence of many false teachers and “unclean persons” who have corrupted and sometimes abandoned altogether the old, true faith (pp. 107-8). These unfaithful shepherds “labored more after riches, than to perform their office and charge” (p. 108). Rather than keeping the church in obedience to the simple gospel of Jesus Christ, they have introduced many new rites and ceremonies unknown to the church of old. The pope with his multitude of followers has in recent times sought “to suppress the old religion and to set up his own ordinances, which were unknown to our fathers of old time” (p. 110). However, despite the multitude of those who are captive to the inventions and innovations of the pope and his ministers, the true old religion will undoubtedly remain upon the earth until Christ comes again. If faithful believers and ministers have to suffer for the sake of this old religion at the hands of the pope and his servants, they should remember that this was the circumstance of God’s people, including the prophets and our Lord Jesus Christ himself, from the beginning (pp. 110-11).
This post is adapted from the full article, “Heinrich Bullinger’s Der Alt Gloub (“The Old Faith”): An Apology for the Reformation.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 15 (2004): 11-32. Available here.