When the subject of Anglican theological formation comes up, what texts come to mind? What should clergy and literate laity be reading? It’s no surprise that the list will have changed since the sixteenth century, but one title that can still make a strong case for a spot is Bullinger’s Decades. Of course, many foreign reformed figures had a profound influence on English reformed, or Anglican, theology, piety, and practice, and this was not even limited to those who had notable tenures in England, such as Martin Bucer or Peter Martyr Vermigli. It also extended to men like Henry Bullinger. Nor did Bullinger’s influence cease after the Marian exiles who had taken refuge under him and others on the continent were returned safely to their mother country. His influence continued to be felt through his correspondence, but especially through his Decades – a series of fifty sermons covering all the major subjects of Christianity (compare, e.g., the contents of our BCP Catechism).
The Parker Society’s introduction to Bullinger’s Decades relates how at the Convocation of Canterbury in 1586, Archbishop Whitgift directed that every minister with a cure who did not have a degree from Oxford or Cambridge was to acquire a Bible and Bullinger’s Decades in Latin or English, along with a paper notebook, and follow a scheme of reading one chapter of Holy Scripture every day, and one sermon from Bullinger’s Decades every week, marking down “the chief matters therein contained” in his notebook, and reporting it to a neighboring preacher assigned to him once each quarter. These directives were upheld by the Archdeacon of London in his visitations the next year.
But didn’t the reformations on the continent and in England diverge from one another in significant ways? And weren’t the Elizabethan Puritans agitating precisely against the lack of uniformity between the order of their own established church and that of the reformed churches abroad? While the reality of later fissures cannot be denied, as I have so far read through the first fifteen of Bullinger’s sermons, I have been impressed by the harmony between them and our own Anglican formularies in place at the time – the Prayer Book, Articles, and Ordinal – which are still essential for Anglican identity today.
Bullinger’s expositions of the Apostle’s Creed, for example, are right at home with the Articles and BCP Catechism. Even his discussion of the descent clause allows for the kind of generous breadth of opinion that one can fit honestly within the boundaries of Articles II and XXII. But I find the most striking examples of Bullinger as a proponent of characteristic Anglican values in his treatment of the Ten Commandments – which, we might recall, were recited at the beginning of every Holy Communion from 1552 onward. This appears in no less surprising a place than his sermon on the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”, a topic that would become a source of great unrest for the separatist Puritans.
Bullinger’s position on the fourth commandment is basically that of Calvin. Following the traditional, threefold division found in Aquinas and elsewhere of moral, ceremonial, and judicial laws, Bullinger distinguishes between the moral and ceremonial aspects on the fourth commandment laid down in Exodus 20. He also finds both an inward, spiritual, or “allegorical” sense of the sabbath as rest from sin, and an outward sense of setting aside time for the exercises of religion. The moral aspects are perpetual. The ceremonial aspects, in particular, the specific day set aside, are not. In regard to the continuing relevance of the sabbath’s outward requirements, Bullinger attributes the choice of day to the church. Of this, he writes:
And although we do not in any part of the apostles’ writings find any mention made that this Sunday was commanded us to be kept holy; yet, for because, in this fourth precept of the first table, we are commanded to have a care of religion and the exercising of outward godliness, it would be against all godliness and christian charity, if we should deny to sanctify the Sunday: especially, since the outward worship of God cannot consist without an appointed time and space of holy rest.
The phrase “it would be against all godliness and chrsitian charity” contains an apology for established religion. Bullinger reinforces this later, writing:
But it is a heinous sin and a detestable schism, if the congregation be assembled, either in cities or villages, for thee then to seek out byways to hide thyself, and not to come there, but to contemn the church of God and assembly of saints: as the Anabaptists have taken an use to do.
Here is a commitment to common worship in a common place – the parish ideal of ministry. His rationale is consistent with Articles XX and XXXIV. And isn’t Bullinger’s critique of the Anabaptists essentially how conformists in the Church of England, including conforming Puritans, would view various stripes of separatists?
His perspective on the fourth commandment also provides Bullinger with an apology for the “evangelical feast days”, such as those marked by the seasonal prefaces at Holy Communion:
I suppose also, that we ought to think the same of those few feasts and holy days, which we keep holy to Christ our Lord, in memory of his nativity or incarnation, of his circumcision, of his passion, of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord into heaven, and of his sending of the Holy Ghost upon his disciples. For christian liberty is not a licentious power and dissolving of godly ecclesiastical ordinances, which advance and set forward the glory of God and love of our neighbour.
Though Bullinger appears much more cautious about saint’s days, nevertheless, his rationale – that worship must always be directed to God alone – is exemplified in how our Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for those days steadfastly recall the saints as witnesses to Christ and exemplars of the faith, not as mediators to pray to (as is also forbidden in Article XXII).
This perspective is built on Bullinger’s foundational categories of ecclesiastical and political laws as grounded in God’s moral law, imprinted on man’s consciences in the law of nature, and clarified against the corrupting tendencies of fallen humanity in the Ten Commandments. So, under the fifth commandment – “Honor thy father and thy mother” – Bullinger reasons that in places where “liberty is given for the congregation to assemble, and to hear the free, sincere, and true preaching of the gospel, and lastly, to celebrate the sacraments, there must those private and domestical churches be broken up and come to an end.” In other words, in places where the Christian religion is not established by law, the church has an independent power and responsibility to meet, whether in houses or catacombs. But in nations that have received the gospel, the ideal is one parish for each place. As Bullinger states, “God’s word, prayer, and the celebrating of the sacraments, ought to be public and common to all the saints.”
Here is the Anglican parish ideal, a commitment expressed even by the title of The Book of Common Prayer. And this is the view of a foreign, reformed divine. All that being said, we should not be afraid to add a foreign, reformed divine to our Anglican reading list.