The Clarity and Certainty of Scripture among the Swiss Reformers Part III
The third of four posts written by Jim West highlighting the scriptural emphasis of the reformers
Part III- Heinrich Bullinger
Portrait of Heinrich Bullinger | Wikipedia
In the Decades, the ‘Third Sermon of the First Decade,’ Bullinger treats most fully his doctrine of the clarity and simplicity of Scripture. He writes ‘to the godly the scripture is nothing dark at all, and that the Lord’s will is altogether to have us understand it: then, that the scriptures ought always to be expounded.’ Moving beyond Zwingli’s early view that the Scripture was self authenticating and self clarifying, Bullinger sees the Bible as both clear and simple and as in need of exposition by authorized Pastors and teachers. This shift was necessitated by the appearance of persons who were twisting (from the point of view of Bullinger and his party) the meaning of the Bible in order to justify their behavior. Chief of these were the Anabaptists. Bullinger notes, further, that since ‘God’s will is to have his word understood of mankind, we may thereby gather especially, because that in speaking to his servants he used a most common kind of speech, wherewithal even the very idiots were acquainted.’ Such simplicity and clarity of language is part of God’s design in that it aims to aid his people in comprehending his will for their lives and beliefs.
Yet, as Bullinger goes on to say at some length
In the mean season, all the ministers of the church must beware, that they follow not herein their own affections any whit at all, or else corrupt the scriptures by their wrong interpretations; and so by that means set forth to the church their own inventions, and not the word of God. Some such like offence it seemeth that the teachers of the ancient people in old time did commit, because the Lord in Ezekiel 9 accuseth them, saying: “Seemeth it a small thing to you to have eaten up the good pasture, but that ye must also tread the residue of your pasture under your feet? and to drink the clearer water, but that ye must trouble the rest with your feet? Thus my sheep must be fain to eat the thing that is trodden down with your feet, and to drink that which ye with your feet have defiled.” A sore offence is this, which the Lord according to his justice punisheth most sharply. We therefore, the interpreters of God’s holy word, and faithful ministers of the church of Christ, must have a diligent regard to keep the scriptures sound and perfect, and to teach the people of Christ the word of God sincerely; made plain, I mean, and not corrupted or darkened by foolish and wrong expositions of our own invention.
For Bullinger, as for Zwingli and Oecolampadius earlier, Scripture can be understood by those who believe, and, in addition to the viewpoints of those towering figures, in Bullinger’s mind Scripture is deserving of Pastoral exposition in order to guard the faithful against the misdirections and inaccuracies of the Anabaptists and other fraudulent expositors.
Jim West is Lecturer in Biblical and Reformation Studies, Ming Hua Theological College / Charles Sturt University.