« Prev The Helvetic Confessions of Faith Next »

§ 57. The Helvetic Confessions of Faith.

Niemeyer: Collectio Confess. (Hall. 1840), pp. 105–122 (Conf. Helv. prior, German and Latin), and 462–536 (Conf. Helv. posterior).—Schaff: Creeds of Christendom (New York, 6th ed. 1890), vol. I. 388–420 (history); III. 211–307 (First and Second Helv. Conf.), 831–909 (Second Helv. Conf. in English). Other literature quoted by Schaff, I. 385 and 399.

Bullinger and Myconius authoritatively formulated the doctrines of the Reformed Churches in Switzerland, and impressed upon them a strongly evangelical character, without the scholastic subtleties of a later period.

The Sixty-seven Conclusions and the two private Confessions of Zwingli (to Charles V., and Francis I.) were not intended to be used as public creeds, and never received the sanction of the Church. The Ten Theses of Bern (1528), the First Confession of Basel (1534), the Zürich Consensus (1549), and the Geneva Consensus (1552) were official documents, but had only local authority in the cities where they originated. But the First and Second Helvetic Confessions were adopted by the Swiss and other Churches, and kept their place as symbolical books for nearly three hundred years. They represent the Zwinglian type of doctrine modified and matured. They approach the Calvinistic system, without its logical rigor.

I. The First Helvetic Confession, 1536. It is also called the Second Basel Confession, to distinguish it from the First Basel Confession of 1534. It was made in Basel, but not for Basel alone. It owes its origin partly to the renewed efforts of the Strassburg Reformers, Bucer and Capito, to bring about a union between the Lutherans and the Zwinglians, and partly to the papal promise of convening a General Council. A number of Swiss divines were delegated by the magistrates of Zürich, Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen, St. Gall, Mühlhausen, and Biel, to a conference in the Augustinian convent at Basel, Jan. 30, 1536. Bucer and Capito also appeared on behalf of Strassburg. Bullinger, Myconius, Grynaeus, Leo Judae, and Megander were selected as a commission to draw up a Confession of the faith of the Helvetic Churches, which might be used at the proposed General Council. It was examined and signed by all the clerical and lay delegates, February, 1536, and first published in Latin. Leo Judae prepared the German translation, which is fuller than the Latin text, and of equal authority.

Luther, to whom a copy was sent through Bucer, unexpectedly expressed, in two remarkable letters,331331    One to Jacob Meyer, burgomaster of Basel, Feb. 17, 1537, one to the Swiss Reformed Cantons, Dec. 1, 1537, in De Wette’s ed., vol. V. 54 sqq. and 83 sqq. his satisfaction with the earnest Christian character of this document, and promised to do all he could to promote union and harmony with the Swiss. He was then under the hopeful impressions of the "Wittenberg Concordia," which Bucer had brought about by his elastic diplomacy, May, 1536, but which proved, after all, a hollow peace, and could not be honestly signed by the Swiss. Luther himself made a new and most intemperate attack on the Zwinglians (1545), a year before his death.

The First Helvetic Confession is the earliest Reformed Creed that has acquired a national authority. It consists of 27 articles, is fuller than the First Confession of Basel, but not so full as the Second Helvetic Confession, by which it was afterwards superseded. The doctrine of the sacraments and of the Lord’s Supper is essentially Zwinglian, yet emphasizes the significance of the sacramental signs and the real spiritual presence of Christ, who gives his body and blood—that is, himself—to believers, so that he more and more lives in them, and they in him.

Bullinger and Leo Judae wished to add a caution against the binding authority of this or any other confession that might interfere with the supreme authority of the Word of God and with Christian liberty. They had a correct feeling of a difference between a confession of doctrine which may be improved from time to time with the progress of religious knowledge, and a rule of faith which remains unchanged. A confession of the Church has relative authority as norma normata, and depends upon its agreement with the Holy Scriptures, which have absolute authority as norma normans.

II. The Second Helvetic Confession, 1566. This is far more important than the first, and obtained authority beyond the limits of Switzerland. In the intervening thirty years Calvin had developed his theological system, and the Council of Trent had formulated the modern Roman creed. Bullinger prepared this Confession in 1562 for his private use, as a testimony of the faith in which he had lived and wished to die. Two years afterwards, during the raging of the pestilence, he elaborated it more fully, in the daily expectation of death, and added it to his last will and testament, which was to be delivered to the magistracy of Zürich after his decease.

But events in Germany gave to this private creed a public character. The pious elector of the Palatinate, Frederick III., being threatened by the Lutherans with exclusion from the treaty of peace on account of his secession to the Reformed Church and the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), requested Bullinger in 1565 to prepare a full and clear exposition of the Reformed faith, that he might answer the charges of heresy and dissension so constantly brought against the same. Bullinger sent him a manuscript copy of his confession. The Elector was so much pleased with it that he desired to have it translated and published in Latin and German before the Imperial Diet, which was to assemble at Augsburg in 1566 and to act on his alleged apostasy,

In the meantime the Swiss felt the need of such a Confession as a closer bond of union. The First Helvetic Confession was deemed too short, and the Zürich Consensus of 1549 and the Geneva Consensus of 1552 treated only two articles, namely, the Lord’s Supper and predestination. Conferences were held, and Beza came in person to Zürich to take part in the work. Bullinger freely consented to a few changes, and prepared also the German version. Geneva, Bern, Schaffhausen, Biel, the Grisons, St. Gall, and Mühlhausen expressed their agreement. Basel alone, which had its own confession, declined for a long time, but ultimately acceded.

The new Confession was published at Zürich, March 12, 1566, in both languages, at public expense, and was forwarded to the Elector of the Palatinate and to Philip of Hesse. A French translation appeared soon afterwards in Geneva under the care of Beza.

In the same year the Elector Frederick made such a manly and noble defence of his faith before the Diet at Augsburg, that even his Lutheran opponents were filled with admiration for his piety, and thought no longer of impeaching him for heresy.

The Helvetic Confession is the most widely adopted, and hence the most authoritative of all the Continental Reformed symbols, with the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism. It was sanctioned in Zürich and the Palatinate (1566), Neuchâtel (1568), by the Reformed Churches of France (at the Synod of La Rochelle, 1571), Hungary (at the Synod of Debreczin, 1567), and Poland (1571 and 1578). It was well received also in Holland, England, and Scotland as a sound statement of the Reformed faith. It was translated not only into German, French, and English, but also into Dutch, Magyar, Polish, Italian, Arabic, and Turkish. In Austria and Bohemia the Reformed or Calvinists are officially called "the Church of the Helvetic Confession," "the Lutherans, the Church of the Augsburg Confession."





« Prev The Helvetic Confessions of Faith Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection