Heinrich Bullinger is considered one of the most influential Reformers in Christian history. Heinrich was born in 1504, outside the city of Zurich, Switzerland, to parents who were living in a common-law marriage. His father, also named Heinrich, was the local parish priest who had been given permission for his illicit relationship by paying off the local bishop. Young Heinrich was the fifth child born to this couple, and his father began grooming him for the priesthood from an early age.
Young Bullinger was sent to monastic school at Emmerich, Germany, where he studied the works of the great church fathers such as Aquinas, Augustine, and Bernard. Their writings stirred within Heinrich the desire for a personal experience with God. Upon graduation, he proceeded to the University of Cologne in Germany, where he began to realize the importance of studying the Scriptures for himself. This practice was rare among his Roman Catholic classmates, as tradition dominated the atmosphere and the Pope’s interpretations of Scripture were considered divine.
Zealots were burning the works of Martin Luther in Cologne, and this fanaticism piqued Heinrich’s interest. What was contained within those books that made the church feel the need to burn them? Upon obtaining copies of Luther’s work and of others who supported reform, Heinrich began to understand the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone. At age seventeen, Bullinger surrendered to the call of the Holy Spirit, and his life was transformed.
Heinrich Bullinger became the head teacher at the Cistercian convent in Kappel, Switzerland, and began teaching his pupils the New Testament from a Reformed perspective. Because of Bullinger’s influence in the school, many monks themselves became reformers and took the Protestant way of worship back to their parishes. In many churches, the Protestant theology of worship began to replace Mass and Catholic tradition.
When Heinrich Bullinger met the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli in 1523, Heinrich’s life was affected profoundly. Young Heinrich was invited to accompany Zwingli on one of his speaking tours, and the legendary Reformer soon recognized Bullinger’s mastery of the Scriptures. At the time, neither man realized that the young protégé would one day fill as important a role in the Reformation as did Zwingli himself.
In 1528, Heinrich Bullinger accepted his first pastorate in a village church at Hausen, near Kappel. The position was part-time but helped Bullinger develop his pulpit skills. At the same time, his father, Heinrich, Sr., embraced Reformed theology and began to preach it from his own pulpit. However, the resistance from his parishioners was harsh and immediate, forcing the elder Bullinger to resign. In an ironic twist, young Heinrich became the new pastor of his father’s church and continued the reformation of the parish that his father had started.
In 1529, at the age of 25, Bullinger married his common-law wife, Anna Adischwyler, a devoted proponent of Reformation theology in her own right. Together they had 11 birth children and adopted many others. Remarkably, all six of their sons became Reformed ministers. Roman Catholic resistance had become violent, and in 1531 Zwingli was killed. Within days, Bullinger was asked to fill the empty pulpit Zwingli had left, and soon Heinrich Bullinger was recognized as the new leader of the Swiss Reformation.
Throughout his life and ministry, Bullinger was a generous and tireless servant. He and Anna opened their homes to widows, orphans, and those fleeing the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. He was a prolific writer—127 titles, as well as 12,000 letters—and produced many important works. In 1536 Bullinger helped write the First Helvetic Confession, which attempted to reconcile a disagreement between Luther’s followers and Zwingli’s; in 1549, he wrote Consensus Tigerinus, a cooperation with John Calvin to clarify the Protestant understanding of the Lord’s Supper; in 1566, Bullinger helped unify other factions of the Protestant Reformation with his Second Helvetic Confession.
Though some modern evangelical scholars may disagree with some of the finer, more Calvinistic points of Bullinger’s theology, all admire Bullinger’s widespread and lasting influence. Heinrich Bullinger paved the way for all non-Catholic Christians to return to the Scriptures as their sole authority. Bullinger’s zeal for truth empowered future generations to seek truth from Scripture and to rely upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not the Pope, to explain it (1 Corinthians 2:2–5; John 16:13–14).