Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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What All Christians Should Know

Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) is widely known as the author of the Second Helvetic Confession (1566). But his series of fifty sermons entitled Decades (1549–1551) was as well-known and has been often compared to Calvin’s Institutes as an early, comprehensive, and similarly influential statement of Reformed theology. Timothy Slemmons offers to us here for the first time in English Bullinger’s famous and influential summary of his Decades.[1] Dr. Slemmons has also translated the works of other Reformers, notably the Basel Reformer Johannes Oecolampadius: Sermons on the First Epistle of John (A Handbook for the Christian Life) (2017) and Sown on Rock: The Sermon on the Vernacular and the Correspondence with Hedio (2022).

Article 1: The holy biblical writings of the Old and New Testaments.

All Christians should trust the Holy Bible, the Old as well as the New Testament, without any objection. It is the true Word of God, inspired by him. It has authority, that is, standing and trustworthiness in itself and, therefore, has no need to be declared as credible by the church, by humans. They should all know that the Bible has been written truthfully and unadulterated by the holy prophets and apostles and presented to the world, and that it expresses comprehensively and teaches clearly all that is needed for a proper attitude before God.

All people should read the Bible or have it read to them. Everything that relates to the life of faith is to be tested and judged by it, as to whether it is right or wrong. Whatever does not agree with it or even runs counter to it is to be rejected, whether it is now called “tradition” or “teaching of the fathers” or otherwise, whether it is introduced or recognized now by many or by few, learned or unlearned, and even if it has continued for a long time in general unanimity. For God’s Word justifiably precedes all things because he is the truth and the almighty God.

Article 2. God and his glorious works. Of legitimate, proper service according to God.

All Christians should know that the Holy Bible mentioned above is, first of all, about God and his faithfulness and glory, but it is also about the duty and obligation of people, as well as about their salvation. It teaches us to believe this about God: He is one according to his essence, but threefold in Persons; he is Spirit, infinite and incomprehensible, almighty, wise, eternal, true, sincere, and gracious, that is, merciful; yes, he is a fountain of everything good. He created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and he still preserves all this with his providence and administration; he reigns for our well-being and benefit.

Concerning humanity, it teaches: God created man good, well done, and honorable, with a body and a soul, and he is set as protector over all creatures. When he then fell away, by his own guilt and by the instigation of the devil, he was nevertheless raised up again by God and lovingly accepted. God has announced to the human race, which is bound to him for its own salvation and for continual service: Christ is needed for participation in eternal life. One is to honor, worship, invoke, and serve God alone, the Creator and Lord of all things, and indeed, not with physical but spiritual service (since God is, after all, of spiritual nature), as well as with faith, love, hope, and similar virtues. The ancient fathers have done all this as loyal servants of God, and they have been God’s friends and allies.

Article 3. Sin, and the intervention after sin.

All Christians should know: Sin is neither created by God nor commanded by him; it displeases him and is therefore forbidden. It has emerged in humanity by the instigation of the devil; the first time out of distrust and disobedience, and then it has come upon all people. For the hereditary sin is passed on from Adam to all people; from this hereditary sin arise sins of commission that are contrary to God’s commandment, and from there comes the wrath of God, the discipline against sin, dread, distress, shame, misery, every form of desolation and sorrow, and finally death and eternal condemnation.

Article 4. The law of God.

All Christians should know: God announced his will to his people Israel in the wilderness on Mount Sinai, what to do and what not to do. He has said all that was completely necessary, and indeed partly with his own mouth, partly through the mediation of Moses. We call this statement the law, in which God set his will once for all time, and thus has specified what his servants should do and not do at all times. This law of God, which is also called the law of Moses, has three parts. It is, above all, given by God for this reason: to inform humankind of sin, together with the condemnation; yes, to lead him entirely to the knowledge of himself and to cast out from him all self-confidence. So then the law is given to us for this: to be a rule, a guideline for our life, by which we learn what pleases or displeases God. Further, it is given for the sake of transgressors, in order to discipline or reprimand them, and therefore in order to plant and maintain peace and tranquility among the people.

Article 5. The grace of God, which he has shown the world through Christ. The reinstatement.

All Christians should consider particularly well the following word of John from the holy Gospel: “The law was given by Moses; grace and truth has come through Christ Jesus” [John 1:17]. Therefore, they should know that through the law of Moses man is not pleasing to God, but through the grace of God in Christ is, thus,  free from reproach and blessed with eternal life. Now this is the grace of God: that he by himself, from pure goodness and mercy, without any human merit, has received the sinner in goodwill, forgiven him his sin, and has made him an heir of eternal life. From eternity he has intended to show this grace to the world at the appointed time through our protector Jesus Christ; he has come into this world, has in himself all the treasures of heaven and salvation, has satisfied the law of God, has willingly and obediently let himself be martyred for the sin of the world and died for it, has therefore paid and put down the ransom that our sins may be forgiven and no longer be charged toward our condemnation, but that his perfect righteousness may be reckoned to us as blamelessness, provided that we trust [him]. For by the confidence of faith we gain a share in the freedom from guilt and in the perfect righteousness of Christ. That is why the holy apostolic scriptures testify and teach often and unanimously: We only become free from reproach before God, and thus pardoned from guilt and punishment, by faith and not by works; therefore, believers possess everything in Christ alone.

Article 6. Faith. The proclamation of the Holy Gospel and of repentance.

All Christians should know: The faith by which we are pleasing to God is not only knowledge––an understanding of the mind––but also a firm trust and secure reliance of the heart on God and his true Word, especially on the promise that is given to us by God in Christ, and on all that which is contained in the articles of the holy Christian confession of faith. The true believer perceives Christ and lives in Christ.

But this confidence of faith is taught and planted by the preaching of the true Word of God, given and increased through the living Spirit of God, sought with diligent prayer, and shown visually and sealed with the holy Sacraments. In order to plant and to preserve this confidence of faith, our protector Christ has appointed his own and the servants of the Church, to whom the keys to the kingdom of heaven are given; this means that they should preach the holy Gospel, the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ, and of repentance, i.e., of improvement and of the repenting of sins. One should, indeed, whenever one falls into sin, be able to come back into order and draw hope, and to be admonished, encouraged, and strengthened for a new struggle against the devil, against the world, and against the flesh, so that, in the future, throughout one’s entire life, one may serve God in all honor and righteousness. In this sense, he commanded the servants to administer the sacraments.

Article 7. The invocation, the prayer of believers.

All Christians should know: The invocation of the name of God, prayer, is a consequence of deep trust, a particular effect of the confidence of faith and the worship of God. The faithful should pray, and, indeed, in their prayers, they should not at all, in any of their requests, call upon the creature, but only upon God. For God is the cornucopia [Füllhorn] of all gifts, and he [alone] gives to people all gifts and whatever they need.

It should also be that they call upon God only through Jesus Christ. For God has appointed only Jesus Christ in the heavens as mediator and intercessor for people. He calls all poor sinners to himself and promises them all goodwill and all gifts. He also teaches us the best of all forms of prayer, namely, the holy “Our Father.”

Article 8. The holy sacraments of Christ and his holy Christian church.

All Christians should know: Our Lord has put the sacraments, namely, baptism and the Supper of Christ, alongside the preaching of the holy Gospel. These sacraments are holy actions of faith in the church of Christ; the Lord himself has appointed them as signs and seals of the truthful teaching. This teaching says first, that he is our God, adopting us into a covenant for our well-being, purifying us from our sins, giving birth to us again, making us new and adopting us as his children into his fellowship, and we should cultivate only this, fellowship, and live blamelessly before him; second, it says, as God promised the Messsiah to the ancient patriarchs from the beginning, so he has now truly given to the Christian church Jesus Christ, who has truly given his flesh and blood in death, in order to be our Savior and in order to feed us and give us drink for eternal life; and third, that we, as his ransomed congregation, should hold this death of our Lord at all times in fresh memory, praise him, and thank him. In addition [besides this institution as signs and seals of the teaching], the sacraments are appointed for this: that we might be reminded of our duty and obligation and walk accordingly in the unity of the body of Christ in proper fear of God and brotherly love, and that we might wisely keep ourselves solely in this faith, by the sacrament of which we are distinguished from all other religions.

Article 9. The good works of believers.

All Christians should know: Although the good works of the faithful do not lead to acquittal, but faith alone, they are nevertheless a consequence of true faith; they are neither unnecessary nor to be dismissed. For whoever, by grace through faith in Christ, becomes blameless, thus, has been acquitted, shows righteousness as its effect, namely, good works. These works please God in such a way that he wants to reward them and even does so.

However, believers never forget the merit of Christ; they do not argue their own merit before the merit of Christ; they do not let this be obscured by anything. For they very well recognize their own stupidity, and therefore they do not ascribe to their works that which only the suffering of Christ provides.

They also do not recognize as good works all that which is generally considered to be so. For just as faith relies solely on God’s Word, so the believer does not imagine for himself what is to be done as a good work, but he recognizes it from the Word of God. So he then serves God with spiritual worship, has good trust in God, prays to him, calls upon God in everything he holds dear,  thanks God, keeps body and soul pure at all times; and therefore he practices renunciation and tolerates and suffers willingly what God gives him to suffer; in short, he walks in the commandments of God, serves the neighbor in love, makes great effort in his whole life of duty and obligation in the service which God has prescribed for him, and he knows what he owes to God.

Article 10. The blessed death. The end of all things.

All Christians should know: They are born mortal and must die once and just as nothing is more uncertain than the hour of death, so nothing is more certain than death itself. Therefore, they should always keep death in mind and prepare themselves for death at any time, but especially in sickness. Then anyone can pass away to God in peace, into eternal joy and blessedness, when death comes one day, whether expected or suddenly.

Likewise, all believers should await the end of all things and the last judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ. For although the ignorant world considers this a fable, and the hour of judgment and the end cannot be declared, there are nevertheless clear and reliable prophesies and witnesses concerning the judgment and end of all things. In addition, the signs that shall precede the judgment and the end are fulfilled. Therefore, all believers should rightly live with heads held high and wait with vigilance and prayer for the judgment and the end and for the eternal reign of Christ.

Compendium Christianae Religionis (Zürich, 1556); G: Summa Christenlicher Religion (Zürich, 1556); Modern GT: Christliches Glaubensleben. Summa christenlicher Religion 1556. Translated by Siegfried Müller; Foreword by Jochanan Hesse-Recher (Basel: Limache Verlag, 1995).

[1] According to the late Edward A. Dowey, Jr., after the Decades were published, Bullinger was asked for “a briefer, more accessible instruction for the adult layperson.” In 1556, then, Bullinger produced his Summa Christlicher Religion as “a brief summation of essential material.” As Dowey puts it, quoting from the title page of the Summa: “Bullinger has one goal here: ‘A summary of the Christian religion in which we present briefly and correctly, without wrangling and scolding, such matters drawn from Holy Scriptures as are necessary for every single Christian to know, believe, do and allow, and also to suffer and to die in blessedness.’ It advertises also on the same title page that this material includes short explanations for the Decalogue, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Sacraments. This was an opportunity for the adult to recall catechism instruction and advance to necessary and appropriate maturity.” Edward Dowey, “Heinrich Bullinger as Theologian: Thematic, Comprehensive, and Schematic,” in Architect of Reformation: An Introduction to Heinrcih Bullinger, 1504–1575, eds. Bruce Gordon and Emidio Campi (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 35–65, esp. 53.

Timothy Matthew Slemmons
Timothy Matthew Slemmons
Timothy Matthew Slemmons is Professor of Homiletics and Worship and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.


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