Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Bullinger on Rome, a Reply
01/28/2007 - Mike PorterI made sure I looked both ways before posting. It appeared clear, so cover me: I'm going in.
Kevin Johnson responded to my article on Bullinger. He seemed to understand the implications of Bullinger's views regarding Rome to some of his own views on the matter, although it seems he missed the larger point of the article. The main objections that Johnson issued to my "interpretation" of Bullinger, as he calls it, break down into the following points:
- Bullinger's context is 500 years removed from ours and must be read in a proper historical context to not superimpose our modern and personal perspectives (per his statement about imposing the most absurd sort of anachronistic categories upon the matter)
- Bullinger did not mean all individual churches of Rome; he meant only the leadership of Rome, the hierarchical structure. The people, Kevin asserts, were "largely" viewed as Christians.
- Rome's great blasphemy is therefore reduced to claiming authority and identity exclusively that she simply did not have. While she is not exclusively the true church, she is a part of the true church and still shared in the rights and privileges of the true Church of Christ.
- Kevin claims all of this is indicative of Bullinger's supposedly "fuller ecclesiology," one due to the continued presence of Word and Sacrament among the Romish churches. What Kevin means by Word and Sacrament is unclear, but appears to be synonymous with baptism, communion, and reading Scriptures.
A caution about context is a two-edged sword, of course, and applies equally to Kevin's offered interpretation. Several things must be considered: Bullinger's Decade's have not been republished in English in over 150 years until 2004, his role within the Reformation became somewhat obscured by Calvin, Zwingli and other names, and many of his writings remain in Latin or German still. The danger that many recent scholars of Bullinger face is interpreting Bullinger as ever the student of Zwingli and never his influencer, interpreting Bullinger in view of other Reformers or perceptions of Reformers, or interpreting Bullinger without considering the significance of his role within the Reformation and later Reformed thought (this is an entirely simplistic reduction of points that would require its own article to elaborate).
For instance, Drs. Muller and Venema have both stated in their respective works that Bullinger has been misread or misunderstood. Other scholars have claimed that since Bullinger's 500th birthday, his role and theology have been or is being clarified. So Kevin's caution is well taken, but to my knowledge Johnson has read only Bromiley, which contains sermon one from the Fifth Decade.
So he must also make certain that the scholars he has read on Bullinger are not of the class that are claimed to have misread him, that they are not imposing "the most absurd sort of anachronistic categories upon the matter," or at the least admit that such dialogue is taking place. (Incidentally, the above comment was not intended to assume that Kevin hasn't read the sermon in question or have access to the sources. I have not visited his library in quite some time, so it only pertains to what he told me in personal correspondence that he has read.)
Kevin argues that Bullinger meant hierarchy or leadership when referring to the upstart Church at Rome or other designations. This is a curious argument; by claiming this, he attempts to nuance Bullinger so that only the authority structure is not the true church. The argument, Kevin asserts, is that Rome was claiming exclusive rights and were the Church. As Johnson himself puts it:
In other words, Bullinger when he condemns Rome as a false and upstart church, he is speaking specifically about the organization of Rome as a corporate entity that has attempted to usurp privileges which were never exclusively her own
But is this really the argument Bullinger made? Even if that is among Bullinger's arguments for denying Rome as the true church and even if, for the sake of argument, we grant Kevin's assertion, do we see Bullinger in the citations I gave making the singular argument that Rome was claiming exclusive rights for being the church? Hardly, for within the citations we see mentioned the corruption of the sacraments, the corruption of the Gospel, the corruption of the natural sense of the Scriptures, and the persecution of the believers in Christ, etc. Even if Kevin was granting privately that this supposed claim of Bullinger was part of a greater argument (and thereby including the additional charges I just cited), was Bullinger ever only referring to a hierarchical structure? There are many problems with Kevin's argument, but I will start with the identity of Bullinger's target.
Despite Kevin's assertion of Bullinger's fuller ecclesiology it is evident that Bullinger did not have in mind exclusively an organization of leaders. It is clear that Bullinger held out the hope and confidence that there were many brethren in Rome, but he neither thought that the corruption remained exclusively in the leadership of the church nor that individual churches did not become corrupt. (To what degree is another dispute altogether.)
Bullinger, in the same sermon I mention in my previous article, addresses the Anabaptists over their not associating with a church:
We acknowledge that there be just causes for the which the godly both may and ought to separate themselves from wicked congregations, in which not only the lawful use of the sacraments is altogether corrupted and turned into idolatry, but also the sound doctrine is altogether adulterated, the preachers or pastors are not now prophets, but false prophets which persecute Gods truth, and finally to them that sit to receive food of life they minister poison.
Notice that in this context he is referring to a local congregation, not a hierarchical structure or church government. Thus, in Bullinger's own context, he acknowledges individual congregations can be wicked, and the priests and bishops there as false prophets.
Now it can be argued that Bullinger acknowledges merely the lawfulness of such an act (leaving or disassociating with a church) and is not referring to a particular, individual congregation at the present, but the point of my citation is to show that Bullinger is clear that this corruption does happen to individual churches, and not merely as a reference to a possible event. Again, how common or rare can be a matter of dispute, I suppose, but that this happened really cannot.
But let us go further. In discussing why Rome does not have the outward marks, Bullinger tells us:
These men say that the canonical scripture hath authority in the Church of Rome, and that the same word is read both in their churches and in their schools, and that the sacraments have their force and are effectual amongst them. But, I can show the contrary. (Unity of the Church, Decades 5:2)
Here, these men can be assumed to be the leadership. But what is the leadership asserting that Bullinger finds so objectionable? He not only asserts that he can show the contrary regarding the efficacy of the sacraments but also that the same word is read among their churches and schools! Thus, Bullinger is not limiting his comments to an organizational structure; neither does Bullinger agree with Kevin that universally," however corrupt their leaders were, still were faithful in terms of Word and Sacrament and filled with baptized Christian believers." Again, it is clear that Bullinger had the confidence that God preserved many faithful in Rome (as he believed that God had done so in a Muslim country). But this is not the same as what Kevin was asserting in his article. Indeed, Bullinger tells us that "the ecclesiastical ministry is extended both to stir up, and also to maintain, public prayers and the administration of the sacraments, and especially it is occupied in the preaching of the word of God." (Ministry of the Word of God, Decades 5:3, emphasis mine) And per Bullinger's views on The Right Exposition of the Word of God in the First Decade, it is not the same as simply reading the word. Though Kevin's article may be expressing his own views of Rome and his own views of ecclesiology, it does not represent what Bullinger was saying.
To demonstrate the extent of his folly, let us assume for the moment that Kevin is correct. Let us grant to him his assertion that Bullinger's fuller ecclesiology recognized that "while Rome was blasphemous in her exclusivity, she still shared in the rights and privileges of the true Church of Christ." To what degree is Kevin willing to argue it? For if Rome, though blasphemous, still shared in the rights and privileges of the true Church of Christ then I must ask the rather obvious question: Upon what lawful basis did the Reformers have to leave the communion of Rome?
Indeed, if it is Kevin's contention that Bullinger believed that Rome shared in "the rights and privileges of the true church" then upon what basis did he have to leave Rome's communion in the first place? This objection is not easily dismissed given that this is precisely the issue under discussion in Bullinger's sermon. Kevin's attempt to maintain Rome's authenticity puts Rome in the category of merely "corrupt" leadership. If this is all it is, then the Reformers were true schismatics. Bullinger states that evil men and hypocrites are not sufficient cause to leave a church: for as long as they lawfully administer the sacraments, sincerely preach (not merely read) the word, and maintain its natural sense, then they faithfully serve the ministry even if they be morally corrupt. (Yet he also says that we are to flee false prophets, and that false doctrine makes false prophets.)
Again, while what Kevin asserts may indeed be Kevin's fuller ecclesiology, it does not appear to be Bullinger's, for Bullinger did not assign Rome as being merely corrupt, exclusive, or arrogant, but:
[T]hese Romanists are neither evil men or hypocrites, but the very worst of the most cruel enemies of Christ his truth, openly blaspheming the gospel and persecuting those that believe in Christ; and therefore they have neither the outward, nor yet inward marks of the church.
While Kevin tries to minimize Bullinger's attacks to a hierarchical entity, he does not deny them the authority of a true church, which is precisely what Bullinger did, and because of it did not see himself as a schismatic for leaving. Says Bullinger, "Wherefore we cannot be schismatics, who, leaving the church of Rome, have not departed from the true church of God."
There is one last question I have for Kevin. Perhaps I misunderstood the thrust of his argument. Was the hierarchy outside the church since it does not possess the internal or external marks? This would include the Popes of the day, the cardinals, and the bishops, all who might be considered the leadership of Rome. And if this is the case, what implications does this have toward his theology and views of thinking that Word and Sacrament were faithfully proclaimed throughout?