Among the charges the Reformers leveled against Rome was that it was corrupt and heretical. The Reformers also leveled charges against the Anabaptists stating that they were schismatics and unjustified in leaving the church. This same charge was, simultaneously, being leveled against the Reformers by Roman defenders, labeling the Reformers as being schismatic for departing from the catholic faith. Setting aside the Anabaptist issue, it is interesting to observe how the Reformers addressed the unity of the church and their separation from Rome. Henry Bullinger, successor to Zwingli at Zurich (though not to be considered his inferior) is briefly discussed here.
Henry (Heinrich) Bullinger, arguably one of the most influential Reformers, and one who has garnered the title by some as The Shepherd of the Churches or The Father of the Reformed Church(a title given also to Calvin and Zwingli by others), addressed this issue on many occasions. One such occasion is in his Decades, a series of fifty sermons, five sections of ten sermons, covering the whole of Reformed doctrine. This was his most popular work, though he was extremely prolific, writing more than Luther and Calvin combined.
In his fifth decade, second sermon, On the Unity of the Church, Bullinger addresses the issue by arguing the following points:
- Whereas there was once a true church in Rome, that church, the ancient and catholic church, knows nothing of the doctrines and practices of the upstart church in Rome and would have accursed the Romish church had it seen what it became.
- Since Rome is an upstart church and not the true church, then for leaving the church of Rome, the Reformers cannot be considered schismatics.
- The church will have evil and wicked men in the visible church, but the Romanists are the very worst of the enemies of God and therefore have neither the outward nor inward marks of the church.
- A church may exist among the those at Rome, those who worship Christ and keep themselves from all popish pollution but this is akin to saying that God has preserved a church in a Turkish country.
It should be noted that Bullinger does not believe that Rome had corrupted the sacrament of Baptism, for this he acknowledges that Rome did not do in the name of the pope (he alludes to the first sermon in this fifth Decade where he makes the argument). But, neither is that indication that Rome is in any sense a true church.
For argument one, Bullinger states:
For freely we confess, and with great joy giving thanks to God that hath delivered us we publish abroad, that we are departed from the Romish church, and that we do at this day abhor the same. But first of all we distinguish and put a diversity between the old church of Rome and the late upstart church. For there was sometime at Rome a holy and faithful church, which apostolic men and the apostles of Christ themselves did establish and preserve by the word of God: which ancient church was not only without the ceremonies there used and received at this day, but if she had but seen them, she would have accursed them.
Indeed, Bullinger distinguishes the ancient church from that late upstart church of Rome. Therefore, since Rome is a late upstart church and not a true church, it is impossible to be considered a schismatic for leaving the Roman church.
Bullinger states for his second point, “That ancient church wanted the decrees whereupon the church of Rome at this day altogether stayeth herself. She was ignorant of that monarchy and all that stately court. Therefore from that ancient and apostolic church of Rome we never departed, neither will we ever depart.”
And again, “Finally, we do not acknowledge that upstart church of Rome to be the true church of Christ, which doth acknowledge and worship the pope as Christ his vicar in earth,and is obedient to his laws. Wherefore we cannot be schismatics, who, leaving the church of Rome, have not departed from the true church of God.”
You will notice that he circumvents Roman criticism by arguing that since Rome is not a true church then to leave her is no crime, but in fact, a virtue. Yet, maintaining connectivity to the ancient church, they leave Rome with a clear conscience.
For the third point, Bullinger tells us:
The godly bear many things in the church, that is to say, in the members of the church and in the ministers (as I shewed of late when I entreated against the schismatics); but in that upstart church of Rome, thou shalt not find small and tolerable faults either of doctrine or of life or of errors: all these faults in her areheinous, desperate, and abominable. What manner of charity should it be therefore that could hope for better of the most untoward and lamentable things? Hypocrites and evil men are accounted to be parcel of the outward and visible church of God, and aresuffered in the same: but these 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.
It is quickly observed that Bullinger makes the connection with 1) blaspheming the gospel and 2) persecuting the those that believe in Christ as reasons why Rome has neither the external or internal marks of the church. Notice also that while Bullinger acknowledges evil men to exist among the visible church, he denies such identity to the Romanists but puts them in a separate category altogether “and therefore they have neither the outward, nor yet inward marks of the church.”
Bullinger also tells us that there is a church among the people at Rome. He offers qualification to this that those who are not entrapped by the papal corruption, but love Christ and cleave only to him and heed his word are our brothers. He states, “We acknowledge, moreover, all that are at Rome, who at this day do worship Christ and keep themselves from all popish pollution, to be our beloved brethren; of which sort we doubt not but Rome hath a great many.” Indeed, the fact that the city, Rome, has believers despite the dominance of the church of Rome is owed to God alone who has preserved himself a church. Pondering this, Bullinger rhetorically asks, “Moreover, God could undoubtedly reserve to himself a mighty church even under the papism; even as we doubt not but hath done a very great under Mahometanism: for who will think that no members of the church of God are remaining in all Asia and Africa?”
Bullinger’s faith that God had reserved brethren in Rome is the same as his faith that God reserved brethren under Muslim control. That the two should be compared is worthy of note.
It is clear from this sermon that Bullinger inoculated himself and the Reformers from criticism as being schismatics by denying that they have parted from a true church in the first place and that they maintain unity with the ancient church. Indeed, Bullinger’s argument implies that to leave if Rome was a true church, though corrupt, would have been schismatic. He denies this to be the case in no uncertain words. While acknowledging that there seem to be many who have kept themselves pure and safeguarded from the papal system, he further indicates that to be under that system and united with it is to depart with the ancient and catholic church.
Thus, Bullinger, “We know moreover that we ourselves, which at this day believe in Christ, are the true church of Christ our Lord: for we cleave by faith to our only head Christ and to all the members of the catholic church; so we are not destitute of the true marks of the true church of God.”
Those interested in obtaining a copy of Bullinger’s Decades can find a copy at Reformation Heritage Books