This We Believe: the Second Helvetic Confession, chapters 1 and 2


Here we go, with our study of the Second Helvetic Confession, written in 1566 by Heinrich Bullinger, pastor and theologian in Zurich. For more introduction, see last week’s post here.

As I noted before, this is a long confession, and I’ll be typing here only quotes, not the full text. You can find the full text in the Book of Confessions or here.

Chapters 1 and 2 of the confession are about Scripture, interpretation of scripture, and the role of various people–preachers, church councils, traditions, etc.

The very first sentence of the confession will set the tone and the foundation for all that is to come: We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.”

Right away, we learn that the reason we read the Bible is not because it’s a well-written book, or because some preacher told us to. The value, authority, and teaching of the Bible comes directly from God. Not that God wrote the Bible, notice–there’s nothing here about God etching tablets or using lightning to write on papyrus or anything like that. God spoke to real live people, who conveyed the message, and that message still speaks through the scripture today.

“Scripture teaches fully all Godliness. … ‘All Scripture is inspired by God (II Timothy 3:16) …” Therefore it is good to read and to learn, and in the Bible we can find wisdom, doctrine, piety, exhortation, and even how to organize our churches. It often seems to us now as if the Bible is archaic, or as if our church structure and doctrine is already so set that we forget how it came about. Here we learn that everything is to be founded on the word of God–we don’t just make things up, we don’t just decide one day to organize differently or believe something new. It all is to come from the foundation, from the first principle.

“The preaching of the Word of God IS the Word of God.” Here’s where it gets scary for preachers–right on the first page of the confession! Preaching is the vehicle through which people hear the word of God anew, because the Holy Spirit is the one who does the proclamation. Therefore the preacher him/herself doesn’t matter as much as the fact of preaching–the Word of God is the same, and the Holy Spirit continues to work, no matter what person is speaking the words. The question is whether the word is proclaimed and we are receiving that word, not whether we like the preacher.

The value of instruction, preaching, teaching, etc, is considered for some time–because of stories like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, who said to Philip “how can I understand unless someone teaches me?” Yes, we can have an experience the confession calls “inward illumination” in which we come to understand things through our own reading and the work of the Spirit in our lives, moving in our hearts and minds. God is capable of teaching us even without the voices of teachers. But the scripture tells us that the main way that the word of God is learned is through, well, learning! In Deuteronomy 6 God commands us to teach our children, in Acts 8 Philip instructs the eunuch, throughout the epistles Paul talks of the importance of preaching and teaching as ways we can learn–“faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10.17). In other words, remember how the preaching the word IS the word? When we preach and teach, and when we hear (preachers can hear the sermon too!), we hear the Word of God beyond even the words the preacher uses.

Next comes a key aspect of the Reformed Tradition– “Holy Scriptures are not of private interpretation and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations.” (II Peter 1:20) We do not simply decide on our own what the correct interpretation of scripture is. We gather in community to discern what God is saying to our time and place through these words. One way we do that: We hold that interpretation of Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down) … and which agree with the rule of faith and love, and contributes much to the glory of God and man’s salvation.” In other words: Scripture helps us interpret Scripture–some passages are clearer than others, some shed light in unexpected ways–and we are to take into account the language and context in which they were originally written. We don’t simply read in our own language and insist the meaning is clear for all times, because often Hebrew and the ancient Middle Eastern culture can help us to understand and even to apply the word to our context. In addition, we don’t read Scripture without any lenses–instead, we read primarily with the lens of love and faith. If an interpretation does not glorify God, contribute to our faith, and (most importantly) help us to Love God and Love our Neighbor, it is not the correct interpretation.

There is a long tradition of scripture interpretation, and this confession rejects anyone (a church council, the pope, etc) whose interpretation is not held below the authority of Scripture. If the interpretation (or the interpreter) are not subordinate to the Word of God, or if they are contrary to the rule of faith and love or to scripture itself, then no matter their “high sounding titles” they are not valid. Even the preached word must be subordinated to the Living Word, and if it is not edifying and filled with faith and love, then we are to take the Word only.


why do you think this is where the confession begins? How do we build our lives, both personal and institutional, on the word of God? How do we learn to interpret scripture in the way taught here? What questions do you have?


5 responses »

  1. I have to comment on “the preaching of the word of God is the word of God.” I am happy to see that the HC does put some qualifications on who is doing the preaching, but it also leaves much to think about. One thought I had was that this confession lifts preaching up to the level of being a sacrament much as the Eucharist is a sacrament in the Romish churches. Only a priest can perform the Eucharist. That lends the priest, well, kind of a priestlyness, a level of holiness that others cannot attain to. With that holiness comes an authority ultimately expressed in the heirarchy of the chuurch. Does not the HC give the preacher that same kind of specialness. Afterall what comes from the preachers lips IS THE word of God. So what has become of the protestant thought which allows everyone direct access to God through the Holy Spirit? What is to keep the preachers from co-opting the word? I suppose more is to be revealed.

  2. I was wondering the same thing…though I did discover that, if we keep reading (aka if I had kept typing) that it does say in the next (several) halves of the sentence: “the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches.” the next paragraph also says something about how the Holy Spirit inwardly illumines people, but we’re not supposed to disregard preaching/teaching because of that. I wonder if this is in response to two things–1. the Latin Mass, 2. the resurgence of gnosticism during the post-enlightenment period. I suspect Bullinger is trying to place the Word at the center of the church’s life, and in so doing is swinging another way. He is clear in the parts I didn’t type out that the preacher is not the issue–“God can illuminate whom and when he will”–but the act of preaching is important.
    Also, in the beginning of chapter 2 (in the part I quoted near the end of the post) he notes that the Scripture is not of private interpretation, and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations. I wonder if that applies to preachers as well? He talks about how we are to interpret, what resources to use, and to discern the word and will of God in community. Perhaps preaching also falls into this category of interpretation? (I wonder this particularly in light of the rejection of “human traditions, even if they be adorned with high-sounding titles”…)

  3. Yes, he certainly allows for the human failures of the preacher who may be “evil and a sinner”.

    I really like the first paragraph of chapter II which you quote alot. It has a lot of implications for how we interpret scripture. I especially like what appears to be his “acid test” for true preaching: it must “agree with the rule of faith and love and contribute to the glorification of God and salvation of God’s children.” He also says that thhe words of scripture need to be understood within the context in which they were written – “according to the circumstances in which they were written”. I take this to be an endorsement of modern Biblical criticism and a rejection of literalism. But perhaps I read too much into it!

  4. That part about Bullinger’s endorsement of biblical criticism was “tongue in cheek” of course. It would be pretty hard for a 16th century theologian to comment on a 20th century phenomenon :~)

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