Preaching As For The Free

One of the privileges of editing the Classic Reformed Theology series for Reformation Heritage Books is that I get to work closely with significant Reformed texts and shepherd them through the process from translation (e.g., from Latin to English) to publication. Currently I am working through J. H. Heidegger (1633–98), The Concise Marrow of Christian Theology (1697). Just as Berkhof (and now Horton) wrote a large volume, a middle-sized volume (“middle Berkhof”), and a “little Berkhof,” so Heidegger produced three versions of his dogmatics and this is the Medulla Medullae (Marrow of the Marrow) or his little volume.

You may not have heard of J. H. Heidegger (not to be confused with the modern philosopher, Martin Heidegger, 1899–1976) but that does not mean that he was not a significant figure. During his career, Heideigger, a Swiss Reformed theologian, taught Hebrew, moral philosophy, and theology in Heidelberg and Zürich. He is most famous for his career in Zürich and for his work, with Francis Turretin (1623–87), on the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675), which confessed the faith against the Amyraldians, the Arminians (Remonstrants) and defended the reliability of the Scriptures as they began to come under assault by the rationalists. His Wikipedia entry (as of this writing—caveat, the entry could change at any time) seems accurate.

This work suggests that Zürich theology grew up, as it were. Obviously it matured under Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) but it continued to mature. Heidegger was in Heidelberg and he worked closely with Turretin in Geneva, so he was not parochial. Scholars of his calibre read widely within their own (e.g., Reformed) traditions but beyond. By 1697 there is little indication of a peculiarly Zürich theology in Heidegger.  On the Lord’s Supper (locus 25) there is a strong note of ανάμνησις (remembering) but he also taught that the Supper is a mystery (25.16) in support of which he appealed to the Song of Solomon (5:1). He called it a “feast” the food of which is Christ’s body and blood (25.17) and a “true and real” communion of the body of Christ (25.20).

That he and Turretin were able to draft a confession that united the Swiss Cantons (for about 50 years until J. A, Turretin, Francis’ son, undid his father’s work in the service of broad evangelicalism) suggests that Reformed theology at the end of the 17th century was relatively more coherent than it had been 150 years earlier. For all the talk about diversity in the Reformed theology (it existed but not to the degree that some would have you think) there is a remarkable unity and core of Reformed theology, piety, and practice at the end of the 17th century.

The passage that prompted this morning’s reflection is in 25.2, where he sketched “the exercise of” New Testament worship. He wrote:

Preaching has this in peculiar: it is generally evangelical, not domineering as for slaves but pleasant as for the free, and a certain encouragement (παράκλησις) rather than domineering legislation (2 Cor. 5:20).

This is a pregnant comment. It reflects the experience of a minister and theologian who had heard a lot of bad sermons of a legal type. He has already asserted repeatedly the theological distinction between the law as God’s condemning and killing Word and the gospel as God’s life-giving and gracious Word to sinners. That distinction is part of the background for this characterization of preaching. Heidegger knew the difference between legal and gospel preaching. He knew the difference between preaching that liberates slaves by allowing the law to be what it is and that preaches the unfettered, well-meant good news to freely. Thus, New Testament preaching is to be “generally evangelical.” It is to be colored by the gospel. When he wrote “not domineering” he was reflecting on a pattern of preaching that has always existed, which he had experienced (and perhaps with which he himself had struggled as a preacher). The English word “domineer” is an apt choice (thanks to Dr. Casey Carmichael, the translator of this work) captures the sense of “asserting one’s will over another in an arrogant way” (s.v., Oxford American Dictionary). The legal preacher is a domineering preacher. The message of the legal preacher is that he, not Christ, is lord. We must do what he, the legal preacher, says. The legal preacher is a not a true minister of Christ insofar as he asserts himself rather than abandoning himself to Christ and to Christ’s law and to Christ’s gospel. In contrast, the prophet of the Lord says,

The Spirit of Adonai Yahweh is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound… (Isa 61:1)

The gospel preacher has given himself over to bring the good news of free salvation in Christ, through faith alone, to those held captive by sin and death. The gospel preacher does not impose himself upon the brokenhearted. He heals them. He does not put sinners in additional bondage, he liberates them. He does not add additional locks to the doors. He unlocks them.

The message of the gospel preacher is “pleasant for the free.” It is encouraging for those who have been freely, graciously saved and who are being gradually, graciously sanctified—brought into conformity to Christ. It is edifying. How? Because it is focused upon Christ’s work for us as our substitute (a theme about which Heidegger was very clear) and the Spirit’s gracious application of that work to his elect, which Heidegger and Turretin both confessed carefully in the Consensus.

Heidegger taught that the law is to be preached the law in all its three uses. He explicitly repudiated antinomianism but he also recognized that there are ways of handling the law that are not faithful to the law, that are domineering, and that tend to obscure the good news.

That there were legal preachers in the period of classical Reformed theology is unexpectedly encouraging in an Augustinian way. It means that things do not really change. Seventeenth-century Zürich was not a golden age to which we are trying to return. Rather, we want to learn from Heidegger, Turretin, Owen, and the rest. Christ’s ministers want to be gospel men in our time as they were gospel men in their time.


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  1. Excellent! Thank you very much.

    The Lords Supper is a mystery is true, of course, but remember the Roman Catholic’s until today say that the Holy Eucarist is a mystery. I’m sure Heidegger goes on to explain the difference the RC view and the Reformed view.

    • He did, at length. He was thoroughly Protestant. It’s important to note that he was not a rationalist, eliminating mystery from the Supper in favor of mere remembrance. In other words, he was not a “sacramentarian” (the Lutheran pejorative for the Zürich and other Reformed theologians).

    • Dr Clark,
      When you say the Zurich theologians, does that include Bullinger ?, everybody I think
      with a basic Theological knowledge is probably aware that the “memorial” view was
      associated with Zwingli

      • Yes. Bullinger’s (the Antistes in Zürich) view matured beyond Zwingli’s by 1549, as reflected in the Zürich Consensus, but that agreement was facilitated by Calvin’s concessions. Calvin agreed to language on the Supper that was less sophisticated than the language he had already used in his 1541 Brief Treatise.

    • Thanks Scott,
      1549 that was the year that Calvins The Consensus Tigurinus was written with
      “the purpose of uniting all branches of the Reformed Church” Outlines of
      Theology – A.A. Hodge Appendix pg 651, was this the view Bullinger embraced,
      and did this document contain Calvins “less sophisticated language on the Supper”

  2. Thank you Dr Clark. I do endeavour to emphasise the law and gospel distinction when engaged in preaching in the public square, to bring healing to the broken hearted. It is my prayer to see qualified ministers standing in the market square proclaiming this counsel to those who might never darken the threshold of a church (I will give up my place to them in a heartbeat). I will be before the magistrate in Bristol UK, alongside Mike Stockwell and Mike Overd, on Thu 23rd Feb standing trial for an offence under Public Order Act. What was the position, encouragement or attitude of the prominent Reformed theologians to the public proclamation of the gospel? Did they have a view on those who stand in the public square and open the Scriptures?

    • Adrian,

      I’m sorry to read this. It is difficult to compare our situation with that of the pre-modern Reformed since they lived under a different social and political system. Public preaching, certainly without a license (e.g., in England) would have been forbidden and punished, at least at certain points in the 16th and 17th centuries. Religious freedom and freedom of speech were ideas that were not widely held by the orthodox in that period. Most of the Reformed would have looked askance at unlicensed public preaching as a disturbance of the public order.

      Our ground for public preaching today is the guarantee of the right of free expression under (in the USA) the 1st amendment. In places where there is no written constitution or where there is a state church, things are obviously a bit more fluid. Political correctness has made public preaching quite dicey in recent years.

      Grace and peace to you.

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