The king, the emperor, and the theologians

Heinrich Bullinger


The tragic death of Zwingli at the Battle of Kappel (1531) left Zurich and the Protestant cantons of Switzerland dazed and thoroughly demoralized. None of the ministers in Zurich had the gifts to rally the people in the face of what seemed an unredeemable disaster. Zurich turned to a 27-year-old refugee. 

Priests were not allowed to marry in the Middle Ages, but they commonly entered into “arrangements” providing the benefits and stability of marriage. Zurich’s new young pastor, Heinrich Bullinger, was the son of such a priest (in 1529, after his father became Protestant, Bullinger’s parents married legally). In 1519, the year of Zwingli’s conversion to the Protestant cause, Bullinger went to the University of Cologne to study the humanities; his limited reading in medieval theology sharpened his appetite for the church fathers. He broke with Catholicism in 1522 through reading Luther and Melanchthon; and, no longer able to become a monk, he asked to teach the Bible and classics at the Cistercian monastery at Kappel as a layman. The abbot knew a gifted teacher when he found one and agreed to Bullinger’s terms. The cloister got more than it bargained for; the young humanist scholar persuaded the monks to embrace the evangelical faith. In 1527 the monastery was dissolved and transformed into a Protestant parish; Bullinger stayed on for two more years as the pastor.

Bullinger first met Zwingli in 1523; despite the difference in their ages, the two men became good friends. In 1528 he married a former nun, Anna Adlischweiler (against the wishes of her mother) and in 1529 left Kappel and succeeded his father as the Protestant pastor at Bremgarten. 

Catholic troops defeated Protestants at Kappel, killing Zwingli and forcing Bullinger to flee at night from Bremgarten to Zurich. On December 9, 1531, he stepped for the first time into the pulpit Zwingli had occupied with such distinction. Before he finished his first sermon, people realized that they had called a worthy successor. He preached six to eight times a week until 1542, when his load was reduced. Fifty of his sermons were printed and widely circulated as a presentation of all the central doctrines of the Christian faith. 

Bullinger was so successful that Swiss Catholics never reaped all the fruits to which their victory over Zwingli at Kappel had entitled them. In his 44 years as pastor, the Zurich church experienced a rapid growth unparalleled in its earlier history. In 1549 Bullinger and Calvin were able to unite Zwinglian and Calvinist factions of the Reformed movement on the question of the Lord’s Supper. In 1566 Bullinger issued the Second Helvetic Confession, which found acceptance far beyond the boundaries of Switzerland. 

Bullinger was the friend and adviser of many of the important figures in church and state throughout Europe; his death crowned a long career marked not so much by brilliant innovation as by prudent consolidation. Without Zwingli there would have been no Reformation in Zurich; without Bullinger it would not have lasted.

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CHARLES V (1500–1558)

When Charles was elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire at the age of 19, he became the most powerful man in Europe and saw himself as the political leader of Christendom. His domains included Burgundy, the Netherlands, Naples, and Spain and Spanish America, and he laid claim to northern Italy as well. His task of defending Europe against the Turks was made more difficult not only by constant fighting with the French but also by the emergence of what he saw as dangerous heretics within his dominions: Lutherans.

After Luther’s excommunication by the pope, he appealed to Charles as head of the government: “For three years I have sought peace in vain. I have now but one recourse. I appeal to Caesar.” Charles called Luther to appear before the Diet of Worms in 1521, an already scheduled council of the German rulers. After days of examining Luther, Charles called in the electors and other princes to read them his decision: “A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for a thousand years must be wrong. I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther: my kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, my blood, and my soul.” The Edict of Worms, signed by Charles weeks later, banned Luther from the empire.

For many years other political difficulties preoccupied the emperor, allowing him to pursue only an irregular policy toward the Lutherans that wavered between concession and repression. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1555, Protestant rulers finally forced him to accept the principle that the princes of the empire were to determine the religion of their lands. By the following year, the burdens of government had grown too great, and Charles abdicated his throne to retire to a monastery, depressed and failing in health. When he died two years later, his last word was “Jesus.”


It was Farel who persuaded a young, timid, and unwilling John Calvin to serve the cause of the Reformation in Geneva. Farel detained Calvin, who later wrote, “not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by a dreadful curse, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me.” 

The fiery redhead Farel was involved in the reform movement in France led by Lefévre D’Etaples (see “Another accidental revolutionary,” pp. 8–15). When persecution forced him to flee in 1523, he became a leader of a band of evangelists, preaching mainly in French-speaking Switzerland. He was also at the center of efforts that brought the cities of Bern and Geneva into the Protestant fold. 

Farel was probably Calvin’s closest and dearest friend through the years, and they endured much together. They were both expelled from Geneva in 1538, and the persuasions of Farel prompted Calvin to return in 1541. Farel had gone to Neuchâtel in the meantime, where he continued to work in close harmony with Calvin in Geneva. 

A rift occurred between the two friends in 1558, when 69-year-old Farel married 30-year-old widow and refugee Marie Turol (after first installing the destitute Marie and her son in his parsonage while they looked for a house of their own). Calvin refused to attend the wedding and even tried to get the Neuchâtel Consistory to find grounds for an annulment. But their relationship survived. It was to Farel that Calvin wrote one of his last letters and, in a touching gesture, asked Farel to “remember our friendship.” Though aged and infirm, Farel felt it his duty to attend his dear friend on his deathbed in 1564. The following year, Farel followed Calvin in death.

FRANCIS I (1515–1547)

Francis I, the king of France during Calvin’s early career as a reformer, was a champion of the Renaissance in France and a great patron of arts and poetry. Among other things, he hired Leonardo da Vinci to work on his royal château at Chambord and, for good measure, purchased da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, which remains in France to this day. During most of his reign, he was entangled in several wars with major rival Charles V. In fact because Francis and Charles were fighting, Calvin was unable to take the direct route to Strasbourg he intended in 1536 and was forced to take his momentous detour to Geneva.

Initially Francis was reasonably tolerant of the French reformers, due primarily to the influence of his sister Marguerite d’Angouleme. He even maintained cordial relations with pioneer of French reform Lefévre D’Etaples. But all that changed in October 1534 when the king become incensed by the protest of French Protestants known as the “Affair of the Placards.” 

In the early morning hours of October 18, 1534, Protestants distributed leaflets throughout Paris denouncing the Roman Mass. One was even placed on the king’s bedroom door. Francis dramatized his anger by accompanying a solemn religious procession to the Cathedral of Notre Dame to symbolically purify Paris from the abomination. His anger did not stop with mere ceremonies; hundreds of Protestants were imprisoned, and 35 were burned at the stake, including several close friends of Calvin. Calvin wrote the Institutes, first published in 1536, with these French martyrs in mind. As he wrote to Francis in the prefatory letter, he desired to “vindicate … my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord.” 


Andreas Osiander was a gifted but difficult man who had a rare talent for making enemies out of potential friends. He first caught the public eye in the 1520s by becoming embroiled in controversy in Nuremberg over Communion in both kinds. Together with the prior of the Augustinian cloister and several other clergymen who supported the Protestant Reformation, he began to encourage the people of Nuremberg to agitate for the right to receive the cup as well as the bread in Communion (against previous Catholic practice). 

When the bishop rejected their request, the people persisted in their demand. Finally in 1523, with Osiander’s vehement denunciation of the Roman Antichrist still ringing in their ears, more than 3,000 people received the cup. Osiander himself offered Communion in both kinds to Queen Isabella of Denmark, the sister of Emperor Charles V.

In 1525, following the example of other reformers, Osiander married. It was a public declaration of his rejection of Catholic teaching concerning clerical celibacy. His new family obligations, however, did not slow down the pace of his reform. Together with Lazarus Spengler, he introduced liturgical and doctrinal reforms that strengthened the position of the Lutheran Church.

Though Osiander was not greatly beloved, he was effective. He attended the Marburg Colloquy (1529) as a Lutheran, opposing the understanding of the Eucharist defended by Zwingli and Oecolampadius. But the following year, he criticized Melanchthon’s conciliatory posture at the Diet of Augsburg. If Osiander had been in charge of negotiations instead of Melanchthon, he said, he would have rallied the Protestant princes to declare war on the emperor. 

At Schmalkalden in 1537, he again went on record as a Lutheran dissenter, preaching a sermon critical of Luther. Because of his undeniable intelligence, he was sent as a Lutheran delegate to the 1540 colloquy at Worms, where he proceeded to make trouble with his allies. Calvin was offended by his conversation at the dinner table; his fellow Lutherans by his open criticism of Melanchthon. Though he had planned to take part in the Regensburg Colloquy, colleagues who had plainly had enough replaced him as a delegate and sent him indecorously back to Nuremberg.

With the publication of the Leipzig Interim in 1548, Osiander joined the ranks of reformers who felt bound by conscience to leave their homes rather than abide by the terms of the Interim. He went first to Breslau and then to Königsberg, where in 1549 Duke Albert of Prussia, his longtime admirer, made him a pastor and professor on the local university’s theological faculty.

 There, in the last years of his life, he sparked a controversy over the nature of justification, generating nearly universal hostility toward him. 

Osiander came down hard on Melanchthon’s understanding of justification as a forensic act. He maintained—rightly, as it happens—that Luther included the renewal of the human being in justification and understood it as a personal union with Christ. He was wrong, however, to conclude that Melanchthon’s view was unfaithful to Luther’s intention. Luther, even the mature Luther, understood justification as both union with Christ and pardon for the sake of Christ. 

Melanchthon and the Gnesio-Lutherans (see “From Luther to the Lutherans,” pp. 34–38), who up to this point had been locked in mortal combat with each other, regrouped and launched a combined attack against their common foe. Calvin passionately refuted Osiander in the Institutes. Even the Formula of Concord, the new official confession of the Lutheran Church (see p. 39), rejected his ideas.

The sound of battle stirred the old veteran to buckle on his armor and sharpen his sword. He loved nothing so much as a good fight, and he launched a counterattack with all the pugnacity and fervor he could muster. Unfortunately he did not live to see the resolution of the battle, dying suddenly on October 17, 1552, while the controversy was still at its height.


Servetus was born in Villanueva de Sigena in Aragon, Spain, perhaps in 1511. He was the secretary to Franciscan Juan de Quintana, who became Charles V’s confessor in 1530, but only a year later was traveling to Basel and Strasbourg where he met Oecolampadius, Capito, and Bucer. He published his first anti-Trinitarian work in 1531, but then began to study medicine and established a medical practice. He continued publishing works on both medicine and theology.

He and Calvin corresponded, and Calvin jeopardized his life in the 1530s by returning to a hostile Paris to persuade him to accept the Trinity. Years later Calvin wrote, “I was even willing to risk my life to win him to our Lord, if possible.” But after arranging this meeting with Calvin, Servetus did not appear. 

Calvin wrote to Servetus during their later theological exchange, “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.” But by 1546 he was writing to Farel, “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.” 

In 1553 Servetus was condemned to death in absentia throughout Catholic and Protestant Europe for his vehement denial of the Trinity. After escaping from a Roman Catholic prison in 1553, he decided to go to Geneva and boldly took a seat in the Cathedral of St. Pierre while Calvin was preaching. He was recognized immediately and, at Calvin’s request, arrested. Calvin served as an expert theological witness against Servetus at his trial, though he also visited Servetus in jail and sought to persuade him of his errors.

When the sentence of burning at the stake was passed upon Servetus, Calvin requested that the Genevan city government grant Servetus a more humane death by beheading. The judges remained adamant, and Calvin’s request was denied. Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva on October 27, 1553.  CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions. Read it in context here!

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Christian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.

By David C. Steinmetz, Paul Thigpen, and the editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #120 in 2016]

David C. Steinmetz (1936–2015) was Amos Regan Kearns Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. His entries on Bullinger and Osiander are adapted from his book Reformers in the Wings (Oxford, 2001), 64–69, 93–99, and used by permission. Paul Thigpen is editor of TAN Books. His entry on Charles V is adapted from CH 34. The entries on Farel, Francis I, and Servetus are adapted from CH 12.
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