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The Most Interesting Chapter in Reformed Confessional Literature?

February 26, 2013

It is sometimes said that fact is stranger than fiction.  Many times this is indeed the case, not least of all in the study of historical theology.  We take too much for granted and miss the various perspectives of our forefathers in the faith (which could prove helpful) if we make our heros of the past into twenty-first century Evangelicals (or Reformed Evangelicals, if you prefer) who agree with us on everything, with the possible exceptions of baptism and church government. 

Heinrich Bullinger and the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith of 1566 provide an interesting case in point.  Thomas Cranmer expressed his confidence in the Zurich Reformer by saying that “nothing of Bullinger’s required to be read and examined previously.”  With the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic was the most widely adopted Continental Reformed Confession.  Chapter Eleven of the Second Helvetic treats “Of Jesus Christ, Being True God and Man, and the Only Saviour of the World.”  In that chapter, the confession affirms that Jesus “was most purely conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of Mary, who was always a virgin, even as the history of the Gospel does declare.”  This chapter also condemns the idea “that before the day of judgment there shall be a golden age in the earth, and that the godly shall possess the kingdoms of the world, their wicked enemies being trodden under foot” (i.e., a literal millenium).  The chapter concludes with these words: 

“And, to speak many things in a few words, with a sincere heart we believe, and with liberty of speech we freely profess, whatsoever things are defined out of the Holy Scriptures, and comprehended in the creeds, and in the decrees of those four first and most excellent councils—held at Nicæa, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon—together with blessed Athanasius’s creed and all other creeds like to these, touching the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ; and we condemn all things contrary to the same.  And thus we retain the Christian, sound, and Catholic faith, whole and inviolable, knowing that nothing is contained in the aforesaid creeds which is not agreeable to the Word of God, and makes wholly for the sincere declaration of the faith.”

My guess is that most Evangelicals, Reformed or not, will find something in the statements above with which they disagree, be it about Mary, the millenium, or the ancient councils and creeds.  And that’s all right.  It teaches us the virtue of Christian charity.  It helps us to learn the truth spoken by Martin Bucer, that it is not given for all to see the same thing at the same time.  If we can learn to be charitable with our forefathers in the faith who were flesh and blood like us, maybe we can learn to be charitable with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are still alive and breathing air.  May God grant that we would “accept him who faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1).

– The text of the Second Helvetic was taken from 


2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2013 2:21 am

    Neil, thanks for posting this interesting passage. I’m curious as to when Protestants decided to drop the fifth and sixth ecumenical councils and only talk about the first four, as does Bullinger here. Any ideas?

  2. Neil Jackson permalink
    February 27, 2013 7:52 am

    Matt, that’s a great question. I’m not really sure what the answer is. I can say, though, that later Protestants (nineteenth century) were willing to affirm them. My memory is that in vol. 4 of his History of the Christian Church, Schaff seems to imply acceptance of the sixth in that he is more than happy to point out that one of the popes held to monotheletism. Also, Hodge affirms the first six in his letter to Pius IX on behalf of the General Assembly. With respect to the Reformers, however, I really don’t know what their explicit thoughts were on the fifth and sixth councils.

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