Heinrich Bullinger, Sola Scriptura, and the Catholicity of the Reformation

One of the most pervasive misunderstandings of the Protestant doctrine and practice of sola Scriptura is that such a notion is naive at best and dangerous at worse because it essentially opens the door to any number of contradictory interpretations of Scripture. In other words, to many Roman Catholic ears, sola Scriptura simply sounds like “anything goes” or “everyone’s own understanding of Scripture”. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Sola Scriptura is not “solo” or “nuda” Scriptura, as though the Protestant Reformation eliminated all authority in the church with the sole exception of the Bible. Rather, sola Scriptura, correctly understood, entails a reordering of authority into their proper relations. Recognizing that Scripture is the means by which, in Calvin’s words, “God himself speaks in person” to his church, the Reformers acknowledged Scripture as possessing a level of authority higher than that of all other church authorities. At the same time, the Reformers zealously upheld the importance of the early creeds and ecumenical councils, not to mention many of the writings of individual church fathers, as secondary authorities that helped to regulate the right interpretation of Scripture even as they themselves were subject to Scripture’s own regulation. The distinction made was between Scripture as the norma normans non normata – the norming norm that is itself not normed – and church tradition as the norma normata – the normed norm that governs only derivatively. For the Reformers, the secondary authority did govern, yet always in subjection to the authority of God exercised through his Word by the power of the Spirit.

Illustrative of this is Heinrich Bullinger, the Swiss Reformer who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli
in Zurich. Protestant historian Richard Muller provides the following analysis of Bullinger’s view of bullinger-2Scripture, church tradition, and the relation of the two to each other and to the Protestant (i.e. truly catholic) church:

The brief “argument” prefacing Book I of Bullinger’s Compendium is a fairly representative statement of the doctrine of the Reformed churches, already at a rather early stage buttressing the teaching of sola Scriptura with statements concerning the divine authorship, inspiration, and authority of the text:

It behooveth all and every faithful Christian to know, that without all gainsaying, they ought to believe the holy Scriptures of the Bible contained in the old and new Testament. Forasmuch as they are the true word of God, inspired by God, and have of themselves authority and credit, so that it is not needful that they should be made authentic by the Church, or of men. Furthermore, we ought to know, that the said Scripture was truly and uncorruptly written and set forth unto the world, by the holy Prophets and Apostles: and that it doth fully and plainly comprehend, and teach all these things, which are necessary to godliness and salvation: also that the holy Scripture ought to be read, and heard of all men. All causes and controversies of Religion ought to be determined and approved by the holy Scriptures. But such as agree not with these, either are contrary hereunto, of them we ought to beware, whether they be named Traditions or Decrees of Elders, or what name soever they have else. Although the same are either set forth or received by many of few: of learned or of unlearned: although they have been by common consent and custom ever so long received. For the word of God ought by right to be preferred before all other things, inasmuch as the Author thereof is the truth itself, the very eternal and almighty God.

These considerations in no way stand against the use of creeds and confessions in the church as derivative or secondary norms, nor do they in any way indicate a perceived discontinuity on the part of the Reformers between their doctrine and the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Thus, Bullinger’s Decades contain a preliminary section, set prior to the first decade of sermons, in which the results of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon, are exposited and complete texts of their creeds provided together with the creeds from two synods of Toledo, the rules of faith from Ireneus’ Against Heresies and Tertullian’s On the Praescription of Heretics, the Athanasian Creed, the creed of Damasus, bishop of Rome (ca. 376), and the imperial decree concerning the catholic faith from the Tripartite History. Bullinger states in his preface that he has included these works in his theological summation in order to show that Protestant doctrine is indeed the historic teaching of the Church. Even so, Bullinger’s Decades and his related Compendium christianiae religionis, plus Calvin’s Institutes and the Heidelberg Catechism, all follow out the catechetical practice of basing their primary doctrinal exposition on the articles of the Apostle’s Creed…

Bullinger’s expositions of doctrine manifest both a close attention to the scriptural ground of his formulations and a careful use of the tradition. Bullinger has read the fathers closely. He views their interpretation of doctrine as of greatest importance to Christian doctrine—and he frequently dwells on ancient heresies and their refutation as essential to the understanding of the dynamics of correct doctrinal formulation. The issue of the use and abuse of tradition was, therefore, a basic issue to be dealt with among one’s doctrinal presuppositions. Moreover, in all three of his more or less systematic works Bullinger was intent upon demonstrating both in principle and in specific doctrinal argument the continuity of the Reformation with the tradition of patristic interpretation and theology and, therefore, the catholicity of the Reformation. To that end he prefaced his Decades with an essay on the four general councils of the ancient church and with full quotations of their creedal formulations and the rules of faith of several church fathers. Similarly the Confessio is prefaced by a quotation from the Imperial edict of AD 380—the code of Justinian—which defines orthodoxy and heresy in terms of adherence to and departure from the Apostolic faith and the Nicene symbol. Bullinger manifestly belongs to the interpretive model of “Tradition I,” where Scripture provides the absolute norm for doctrine and tradition remains a norm, but clearly subordinated to the biblical standard.[1]

As we can see from this, Bullinger, like the other Reformers, laid great emphasis on the ultimate authority of Scripture, interpreted however in strict continuity with the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Indeed, the Reformation was a repristination of the earlier orthodox tradition that had been obscured by later deviant tradition. The Roman magisterium had become so swollen with its own subjectivity that it effectively usurped the authority of God by claiming for itself the exclusive right to interpret Scripture and, as a result, it could no longer distinguish the faith inherited from the apostles and the early church from its own aberrant interpolations. For this reason, the Reformers endeavoured, not to dispense with church tradition, but to retrieve its truly orthodox and catholic elements from the quagmire of philosophical, scholastic, and medieval accretions that had hidden them from view. This they did by subjecting medieval Catholicism to the purifying fire of Scripture (the norma normans) and the universal consent of the fathers (the norma normata) in order to expunge the dross and restore the church to its ancient splendor.

The Reformation, therefore, can be seen as a re-catholicizing of the church, bringing it into greater conformity not only with the Word of God (although this was primary) but also with the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian faith of the early church. Sola Scriptura did not elevate “everyone’s own idiosyncratic interpretation” over “the church’s one infallible teaching”. Rather, it pitted the ultimate authority of “Scripture interpreted according to the universal consent of the fathers” against “Scripture and the fathers distorted by the deviant additions of later tradition”. Despite the ways in which the great Reformation principle may have been abused, this is what sola Scriptura meant then and it is also what sola Scriptura means now.


[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 2: the cognitive foundation of theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.72, 353.


15 thoughts on “Heinrich Bullinger, Sola Scriptura, and the Catholicity of the Reformation

  1. Jim Matis 21 November 2016 / 20:03

    I sure am glad Bollinger agrees with me. He was a smart man. heh heh heh.


  2. matthewdatura 21 November 2016 / 20:30

    The obvious problem with your claim here that the reformation is simply re-Catholicizing of the church by bringing it into conformity with the word of God and the early councils is that you ignore all the teachings of the church that your Protestant tradition rejected. The church of the councils believed in real presence of our lord in the Eucharist as one example. It also held to a completely different view of justification and sanctification then your tradition. It also holds a much different view on many other issues. All of those things are ignored in your article. Ultimately what you agree with in the councils is what you think the scriptures teach.

    At this point we are back at the same problem. You define the church and all the correct doctrine based on your reading of scripture. Like Keith Mathison said ultimately it always falls back to this. All appeal to scripture is an appeal to your interpretation of scripture.

    In this case it can be further extended to this. You agree with the fathers and the councils in points that you think are biblical after you appealed to scripture. You judge the fathers and councils by your interpretation of scripture.

    This argument has been refuted increadibly well by the good people at Called to Communion site. Link for reference.



    • Jonathan Kleis 21 November 2016 / 22:46

      Matthew, there are teachings of the church fathers that even the Church of Rome rejects. This is not merely a Protestant phenomenon. Some of the apostolic fathers were only economic trinitarians, something akin to modalism. Tertullian was a trinitarian subordinationist, not to mention his later flight into the heretical and schismatic Montanist sect. Then there’s Origen, about whom we could go on and on regarding the things that he taught that Rome rejects. So it is very disingenuous of you to say that Rome accepts “all the teachings of the church” that Protestants reject. Not only that, but beyond the universally recognized ecumenical councils, there are blatant contradictions in the tradition, such as the later popes’ rejection of the declaration made at the Council of Constance that councils hold authority over the pope.

      I assume you are aware with the distinction made at Vatican II between the “hierarchy of truths”. This is simply to acknowledge that not all doctrines bear equal weight and importance with respect to the essentials of the Christian faith. The Creeds, for instance, say nothing about the Eucharist nor about any of the other Roman sacraments beyond baptism. In the fourth century, the Nicene fathers realized that the fundamental issues at stake in preserving Christian orthodoxy revolved around the Trinity and Christology. All this to say that Protestants, like Catholics, evaluate secondary doctrines in light of those that are primary. For Protestants, there are many elements of Roman theology (like transubstantiation) that developed in contradiction to the fundamental doctrines formulated by the Nicene fathers, and so they are rejected as defective.

      I would highly recommend that you read T.F. Torrance’s book “The Trinitarian Faith”. In it you will see exactly how a Reformed theologian like Torrance can lay claim to essential continuity between the Protestant church and the universal consensus (not the contradictory or idiosyncratic teachings, mind you) of the fathers.


      • matthewdatura 22 November 2016 / 00:08

        So much to go through… Please bear with me.

        First you said: “So it is very disingenuous of you to say that Rome accepts “all the teachings of the church” ” – I didn’t say that but even if I did I don’t equate the teaching of the church to the teaching of the fathers there is a distinction there.

        I agree that not everything that the fathers taught and said is correct. Especially pre Nicene fathers often used language and terms that in a post Nicene world would seem not orthodox. The council after all was connived to settle the matter and for that it needed to invent new worlds and re-define others. Also like you rightly said some fathers went beyond orthodoxy and the Church acknowledges that. There is a reason we don’t have St. Origen as wonderful a writer as he was and as correct he was on many issues. All of this is besides the point. It was the Church of Christ that determined the orthodoxy of the position of these men. It did it by looking at the scriptures and the apostolic tradition. This is not me picking and choosing, what the Church said was orthodox at the time of Origen and the fathers I still hold to be orthodox. The mass, the sacraments and the whole liturgical life of the church. You don’t. You pick and chose from what the church was already very clear about.

        As to the council of Constance and the decree on councils having the ultimate authority in the church, this was simply never approved by any pope ever. Therefore it has no authority what so ever for the Catholic Church. It was called by an anti-pope and when it was approved this particular decree was rejected. So I don’t see how this is any problem for a Catholic. Also this brings to mind another weird thing about your position. You accept Nicene for some reason but you don’t accept Trent? Why not? We defined transubstantiation way before the reformation, why not accept those councils? The only reason I can think of is that you hold the councils to the same standard as you do the Church and the gospel. Namely to your interpretation of scripture. This is the problem you are trying to prove does not exist in your article but everything points back to it. All appeal to scripture is an appeal to your interpretation of scripture. Your judgement of the Church, gospel, councils is based on your interpretation of scripture, and if you meet someone who differs with you then you have no way to decide who’s interpretation is correct. This is the failure of Protestantism in my opinion. (We don’t have to agree). Take William Lane Craig a brilliant defender of theism against atheists but he himself does not accept Nicene because it doesn’t match HIS interpretation of scripture.

        Here is his statement when someone called him out on this:

        No earnest Christian wants to be considered a heretic. But we Protestants recognize Scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith (the Reformation principle of sola scriptura). Therefore, we bring even the statements of Ecumenical Councils before the bar of Scripture. While one disagrees with the promulgations of an Ecumenical Council only with great hesitancy, nonetheless, since we do not regard these as invested with divine authority, we are open to the possibility that they have erred in places. It seems to me that in condemning Monotheletism as incompatible with Christian belief the Church did overstep its bounds.

        Read more: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/monotheletism#ixzz4QgfkjON8

        Just because you accept some councils doesn’t mean the next protestant will. This is the problem. It always always falls back to YOU interpretation of scripture and which protestant tradition YOU chose to follow.

        Next is this statement:
        “In the fourth century, the Nicene fathers realized that the fundamental issues at stake in preserving Christian orthodoxy revolved around the Trinity and Christology” Although this is correct is it not 100% correct. The reason for Nicene as for all councils that define doctrine and create creeds is to remove the heterodox position from the picture. In this case Arianism. The councils that followed further clarified the Trinity as new set to heretics arose. (Most those heretics were bible only Christians by the way who refused to acknowledge the constant teaching of the church in both scripture and the apostolic tradition).

        Even though I really appreciate that at least you accept the early councils with their creeds this cannot be said for all protestants and even with your interpretation of sola scriptura it still falls to the exact same traps as solo scriptura. All appeal to scripture is an appeal to your own interpretation of scripture, which ultimately its an appeal to yourself.

        Thank you for the book recommendation, I will add it to my list. I’m always looking for new things to read.


      • Jonathan Kleis 22 November 2016 / 09:52

        You’ve written quite a bit here, and I won’t try to respond to everything, but let me just make three points.

        1) Your reading of history is clearly conditioned by the narrative spun by Rome. The development of orthodoxy was not as smooth as you seem to think (read Lewis Ayres, a Roman Catholic, on this). For example, while it is easy to look back now on the Western Schism and say that the rival popes were anti-popes, it simply wasn’t that clear at the time. So unclear was it, in fact, that a council had to be convened to clean up the mess. It was only the authority of Constance that resolved the problem by exercising an authority superior to that of the popes. How else could the council have declared who was the true pope? This authority was overturned later. Now you might want to reinterpret this to maintain a sense of continuity, but things at the time were not that clear.

        2) Your whole argument about the interpretation of Scripture seems naive. The Roman solution of positing itself as the one infallible interpreter of Scripture gives the impression of certainty, but it really only pushes the problem to a different level. Why? Because it raises the problem of who interprets the interpreters. The magisterium interprets Scripture, but who interprets the magisterium’s interpretation? This is not a benign question, as evidenced by the wildly divergent interpretations of Vatican II and the current ambiguity regarding Pope Francis’ position in Amoris Laetitia. Sure, the magisterium can issue clarifications, but even then, those clarifications must be interpreted. Ultimately you are left with an endless chain of interpretations requiring interpretations requiring interpretations. The Roman solution sounds nice on the surface, but it only furthers the problem.

        3) The fundamental difference between you and I seems to be this: you have faith in the church to be the interpreter of Scripture, and I have faith in God that his Word will not return void but will accomplish the purpose for which he sends it (Is. 55). Your insistence on the necessity of ecclesial interpretation betrays a lack of faith in the Word of God itself to make itself known through the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Scripture it is not just a Word with which we have to do, but the Word of God. It is God’s Word, and as such he and he alone is able to make it clearly known and understood. If you were to respond with something like: “Well, if that’s true, then why are there so many divisions among Christians?” In response I would simply say this: this is what it means to live by faith and not by sight. The whole point of faith is that we believe even when what we see seems to contradict what we believe. Romans 4: Abraham believed God that he would have a son from Sarah even when external circumstances seemed to exclude this possibility. We walk by faith and not by sight. Thus, despite whatever divisions there might be, this should in no way lead us to doubt God’s power to make his Word known and understood without needing recourse to ecclesial intervention.


      • matthewdatura 22 November 2016 / 11:51

        Of course my reading of history is conditioned but that doesn’t meant that it is not the correct reading. Your reading of history is conditioned to. You see the triumph of council over pope. I see various anti popes resigning for the sake of the church in order to finally end the infighting. I see the Holy Spirit working. The same spirit that always stays with the church. History is incredibly messy and the fact that the church is still here after 2000 years of fights, councils, arguments, schisms, various heretics is amazing to me. To my eyes this is further proof of the protection Jesus gave to his bride the Church.

        Your second point calls me naive. Really? I don’t think I even made the point. I’m pointing out the fatal flaws in the Protestant view. And you really thing the church will break apart because of Amoris Laetitita? This is naive. The church will do what it always does. Talk. Discuss. Fight. And the truth will always win. The schisms can’t destroy the church I doubt a little footnote will.

        Your third point again insults me. You assume way to much and clearly don’t have a good handle on how the church and me in it view and read the Bible.

        You chose not to answer any of the many objections to your view I posted. This article is about the Protestant view as you understand it. I pointed out its fatal flaws and you instead of defending it chose to attack me based on points I didn’t even make.

        I’ll leave it at that. Have yourself a blessed day. If you want an answer to your second point read the article that I linked to in my first comment. It does a much better job then this untrained amateur can. God bless.


      • Jonathan Kleis 22 November 2016 / 11:55

        Matthew, it was never my intention to insult you. Rather, I intended to point out the flaws underlying your position. It is not an insult if a doctor diagnoses a disease so that it can be treated. Likewise, it is not an insult if a Protestant points out the problems inherent in the Roman system for the sake of proposing a true solution. The reason I didn’t respond more specifically to the points you raised was because underneath all of those points I discerned more fundamental errors. That is, I didn’t want to merely address the symptoms but the underlying disease.

        I hope that you as well have a blessed day.


      • matthewdatura 22 November 2016 / 14:33

        You didn’t insult me just twice now called me naive and disingenuous for things I didn’t even write.

        Your understanding of how the church works is incredibly weak. You are diagnosing a sickness that doesn’t exist. And then you are trying to cure it with Protestant poison. This is not constructive. If you want I can spend some time and present you the Catholic position. So that you may stop fighting ghosts and actually address the deathly illness of sola scriptura in the ripped apart body of Protestantism. Like I said in the last two replies others have done a much better job at this then I can but something tells me you are not willing to read the Catholic position. You are perfectly happy with the misrepresentation you hold of it. It is much easier to attack.

        And you still didn’t answer any of my criticism of your position.

        Sorry for the slaved allegory.

        One last question. Which brand of Protestantism are you? I’m guessing some sort of Calvin offshoot? It would be nice to know which one of the hundreds of versions of sola scriptura one is dealing with. Protestants have it easy. They only focus on one church who has clearly defined doctrine. I have to deal with hundreds of contradictory Protestant denomination all claiming what you claim. That they are lead by the spirit. That they got it right. It’s gets overwhelming sometimes.


      • Jonathan Kleis 22 November 2016 / 17:18

        I find it highly ironic that you accuse me with misrepresenting Catholicism and then you turn around and do the same thing. I answered your criticism, although perhaps not in the way that you expected. It is true that I critiqued things that you did not say, but that is precisely the point. Part of what is involved in critiquing another’s position is by pointing out problems in their thinking of which they are not even aware. That is what I was doing with you. If you think that is a misrepresentation, fine, but I understand Catholicism far better than you think I do.

        I am no “brand” of Protestantism. I hold to the theological convictions embedded in the five solas of the Reformation, and that is what all historic Protestants together profess in unity.


      • matthewdatura 22 November 2016 / 18:04

        If I misrepresented your position please point it out to me by answering my objections.

        All I want is answers to my objections. You are incredibly good at not answering questions. Pointing out things that you think I think and then critiquing it is just silly. How about we stick to what your article is about and my objections. If you are not willing to answer then this conversation is pointless.

        I have a hard time accepting that you are a non brand Protestant as such a thing does not exist. Even from day one Protestants were split into sects. But you are not even willing to share which Protestant tradition you follow. Don’t know why.


      • Jonathan Kleis 22 November 2016 / 19:13

        Matthew, I have responded to your objections. You may not like my responses, but I have responded nonetheless. I didn’t identify myself as any particular Protestant “brand” because I object to the way that you view the various denominations as diametrically opposing “sects”. This is a false interpretation of Protestant denominationalism for it fails to account for the unique kind of unity that Protestants share around a nucleus of core convictions: the “hierarchy of truths” with which you should be familiar. We are free to disagree about secondary matters. That is the genius of Protestantism: we don’t require uniformity to profess unity.


      • matthewdatura 22 November 2016 / 19:49

        That is what you say. Other Protestants will most likely condemn you as a heretic and tell you you are going to hell. SDA’s think you will be in hell for now worshiping on Saturday! Some of your believes as so opposite that I don’t know how can you with a straight face say otherwise. And who decides this hierarchy of truths? You? Why should any other Protestant accept your hierarchy? If I’m mistaken please point me to the official Protestant hierarchy of truth which includes all the non essentials that you all agree on. The only thing you agree on are your solas. How you interpret the various solas is open to interpretation. Crazy system.

        To a Catholic all is essential because truth is essential. If you can pick and chose what’s essential truth then that’s sad. If that’s the genius of Protestantism then God help us. No wonder Protestant denominations over time end up in a relativist land.

        Few examples to illustrate my point. Is baptism necessary for salvation? If you say yes. Then this is an essential no? Some Protestants say no. For them it is not essential. Some say no but you have to use immersion. That one I never understood. This things are diametrically opposed to each other.

        And you most certainly did not answer any of my objections.


      • Jonathan Kleis 22 November 2016 / 20:13

        Matthew, the concept of a “hierarchy of truths” is one that is well established even in the RCC since Vatican II. This should not be difficult for you to understand. It is akin to the “universal consent of the fathers” in relation to every single teaching ever espoused by every single father.

        You seem to be stuck on the issue of interpretation. I fully responded to that. For you, it is your faith in the church as the infallible interpreter of Scripture. This, however, only raises the further question of who interprets the interpreter. For me, and for Protestants in general, it is our faith in the power of God in the Holy Spirit to speak through his Word so that it is clearly understood. It is a matter of walking by faith, not by sight. That is the fundamental difference between us. Everything else is peripheral.


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