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Reformed Confessions: The First Helvetic Confession (1536)

John R. Muether

After the death of Ulrich Zwingli on the battlefield in 1531, his pupil and friend, Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) was appointed his successor in Zurich. There he consolidated and advanced the Swiss Reformation through a forty-four-year tenure as the chief minister of the city.

Meanwhile, Pope Paul III, sensing that the Protestant Reformation was no longer confined to a few preachers, launched efforts to call a council. (Delayed in convening until 1545, it would become the Council of Trent.) Upon hearing of those plans, Protestant cantons in Switzerland sought to unite around a common confessional statement.

The result was the First Helvetic (Swiss) Confession. Bullinger is largely regarded as the principal author of the confession, working in collaboration with four others (Samuel Gyrnaeus, Leo Jud, Kaspar Megander, and Oswald Myconius), with Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito serving as advisors. Its twenty-seven articles summarize major themes of Protestant theology, including Scripture (articles 1–5), doctrines of God, sin, Christology, and salvation (6–11), the benefits of grace applied by the Spirit (12–14), followed by a lengthy section on the ministry of the church (15–23), and concluding with articles addressing church order, heresy, schism, and marriage.

In its teaching on the Supper, the confession sought language that might unite the Swiss with the Lutherans. Although Martin Luther expressed approval when he was presented with the Lutheran-leaning first draft, revisions aligned more closely with Zwingli. The sacraments are affirmed as signs of “sublime, secret things.” “However, they are not mere, empty signs, but consist of the sign and the substance” (article 20). Thus they “present and offer the spiritual things they signify” (22). Luther’s enthusiasm would not last, and his polemics against the Swiss churches resumed.

A noteworthy feature in the confession is its early criticism of the Anabaptists. The brief chapter on baptism is largely a defense of infant baptism: “We baptize our children in this holy bath because it would be unjust if we were to rob of the fellowship of God’s people those who have been born of us for a people of God” (21). Later, article 25 identifies Anabaptists as chief evidence of heretics and schismatics “who do not hear and heed the warning of the Church and Christian instruction, but obstinately want to persist in their contention and error.” The confession urges that “they should be punished and suppressed by the supreme power, in order that they may not poison, harm, or defile the flock of God with their false doctrine” (article 25). The clear intention is to distance the Swiss Reformation from the anarchy of the radical Reformation.

If the First Helvetic Confession failed to unite the Swiss with Lutherans, it succeeded in uniting the Reformed churches in Switzerland when it was unanimously adopted by delegates from seven cities. It served as a Reformed counterpart to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) and established the precedent for national creeds in the Reformed confessional tradition (followed by French, Scottish, and Belgic Confessions). Three decades later Bullinger would build on its foundation in his far more expansive Second Helvetic Confession in 1566.

An Excerpt from Article 18, “The Office of Ministers”

The highest and chief thing in this office is that the ministers of the Church preach repentance and sorrow for sins, improvement of life, and forgiveness of sins, and all through Christ. In addition they are to pray unceasingly for the people, to apply themselves earnestly and diligently to Holy Scripture and the Word of God, in reading and devout meditation, and with God’s Word as with the sword of the Spirit to pursue the devil with deadly hatred by every means, and to crush and weaken his power so that they may defend Christ’s stanch citizens and may warn, repel and put away the wicked. And when the wicked in their sacrilege and shameless vices are forever determined to scandalize and destroy the Church, they are to be expelled by the ministers of the Word and the Christian government instituted for that purpose, or they are to be punished and corrected in some other suitable and proper way until they confess their error, change and are restored. But when a citizen of Christ, who has been delinquent and derelict and has been expelled, is converted and earnestly confesses and admits his sin and error (for this is the purpose of the punishment), willingly seeks remedy for his failing, yields to spiritual discipline and gladdens all the pious with his new diligence and zeal in the exercise of piety, he should be accepted again into the Church.

The Sequence of Confessions

Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, dean of libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, March 2017.

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