Architect of Reformation

An Introduction to Heinrich Bullinger, 1504-1575

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Bruce Gordon, Emidio Campi
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf and Stock
    , March
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Architect of Reformation is a reprint of a 2004 collection of essays on Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), Ulrich Zwingli’s successor as pastor and reformer in Zurich. The reappearance of the volume is welcome since it contains significant essays by fine Reformation scholars. This book was the first broad introduction to Bullinger’s life and theology in English. Bullinger’s contributions have often been overlooked in the pantheon of Reformation figures. Therefore, this recognition of the reformer is important and the essays are still fresh treatments of the Zurich reformer.

The twelve contributions are divided into two parts with six essays each: Bullinger’s “Theology, Spirituality and Ecclesiology” is part 1; and “Humanism, Politics and Family” is part 2. An especially noteworthy introduction to Bullinger as “Architect of Reformation” is provided by editor Bruce Gordon. Though he had an international reputation and wrote voluminously, Bullinger was, writes Gordon, “a rather self-effacing figure” who “left few vestiges” of his inner life (17). But Bullinger “devoted his life to the service of God and saw himself above all as a preacher of God’s Word” (21).

Several of the essays are of special interest. Edward Dowey’s, “Heinrich Bullinger as Theologian: Thematic, Comprehensive, and Schematic” begins the volume and is Dowey’s perspective on Bullinger. He critiques several scholarly perspectives on Bullinger as a theologian, most notably those who see Bullinger as a systematic theologian and those who emphasize Bullinger as a “covenant” or “Federal” theologian by making the covenant concept the key to Bullinger’s thought. Instead, Dowey proposed seeing the range of Bullinger’s works as “thematic”—in carrying through “biblical historical themes and as life-long motifs of Bullinger’s thought” (44); as “comprehensive” in works “that treat all or nearly all theological topics within a single work” (46). Notable here is Bullinger’s major sermon collection, the Decades (The Parker Society, Cambridge: University Press, 1849-1852), which Dowey preferred and about which he concluded that “the Bullinger of the Decades is Bullinger himself, more truly than in any other major writing” (62). Dowey concludes with his own “Schema” of the main motifs of Bullinger’s thought (63-65). Dowey’s essay has been influential in other scholarly proposals for understanding Bullinger’s overall theological method.

Peter Opitz writes on “Bullinger’s Decades: Instruction in Faith and Conduct.” The Decades (800 folios), though having received “scant scholarly attention,” was written in Latin but soon translated into German, French, Dutch, and English (101). The book was considered “an essential possession for Reformed households,” referred to in its German and Dutch translations as a “house book” (Hausbuch), “to be read in homes by families for instruction in piety and Christian conduct” (101).   

Bullinger wrote for the Reformation church across Europe and approached theological topics from differing perspectives in various works. The sermons in the Decades were oriented toward the catechetical tradition of the early church and were “designed to provide the Zurich clergy with the means to create such catechetical sermons in accordance with the ancient faith” (108). Bullinger shaped his sermons relying on the tools of humanism while “his theology and thought were considerably shaped by the humanist teaching on textual criticism, the use of languages, the precedence of language over conceptual exactness and rigorous logic, as well as the use of history and the examples of classical historians” (111).

Bullinger focused on the Reformed view of the Word of God, expressed in Scripture, which he believed taught that “God gives and the human person receives passively in faith” (114). For Bullinger, says Opitz, “this movement—the sola gratia—was the basis of all Christian faith and living. Humanity is so entirely passive in the face of God’s grace, that Bullinger stated that the divine grace brings humans to life (vivification) and that each person is reborn in God’s grace (regeneratio)” (114). Humans can be liberated from sin and through God’s grace, “he/she becomes a liberative, responsive, and freely acting person . . . free to do God’s will” (114).

“Bullinger’s Vernacular Writings: Spirituality and the Christian Life” is presented by Bruce Gordon who begins by noting the phrase “This is my beloved son in whom I am reconciled. Listen to him!” (Matt 17:5) appears on the title page of all Bullinger’s printed works (117). For Bullinger, says Gordon, “Christian spirituality was about the reality of the relationship between God’s beloved Son and the lost children of creation” (117). This was foundational for all Bullinger’s theology.

Bullinger’s central metaphor for the Christian life was “trial” (Bewahrung). It is the love of God which “redeems, transforms, and fills those who receive his grace. Faith and love are hardly separated, for it is love that is the first fruit of faith; it is love that creates the possibility of relationships” (121). God’s love redeems and transforms the trials of life through the loving grace God gives people of faith.

Those who are converted in this world are, as Gordon notes:  “only those who have been predestined by God to eternal life, who are few in number, and who are made holy by the ‘free election and mercy of God.’ Conversion, therefore, is the actualization of a possibility created by God” (125-126). Those converted receive the fullness of Christ and a fullness of unity with Christ “in which that person is utterly focused on God, who provides for everything” (126). God gives the gift of prayer which, wrote Bullinger, is “nothing other than a heartfelt or inner (einbrustig) dialogue of the heart with God whereby the faithful seek something from God . . . and give praise and thanks” (128). “Prayer is about the divine and human wills,” writes Gordon. “It is the means by which men and women acknowledge and meditate upon God’s goodness and mercy. . . . Prayer is the language of a friendship that is signified in the world through the sacraments and works of love” (129). Theologically, “Bullinger’s spirituality rests in an emotive grasp of the friendship offered by God by which humanity, in all its weakness, is made noble” (134).

Further topics in this book are pieces on Bullinger on the trinity, worship, church authority, political thought, historiography, marriage, and the covenant. Essays on each of these topics are well-written and fully documented. Altogether, the coverage of Bullinger’s thought in this book is comprehensive. These excellent essays make this volume an outstanding contribution to Bullinger studies which is gratefully received by scholars and those interested in his work. This book is a fitting tribute to Bullinger as a premier theologian and church reformer whose work deserves to be better known today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald K. McKim is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce Gordon is Rrofessor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School,


Emidio Campi is a Swiss historian dpecializing in Protestant Reformation.


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