What The Reformed Can Learn From A 1532 Synod


In researching the essay on sola scriptura I found myself reading the 44 articles of the Synod of Bern, which was held January 9–14, 1532. In attendance were 230 delegates, including Wolfgang Capito (c. 1478–1541) and William Farel (1489–1565). Two things impressed me immediately, 1) how remarkably Christ-centered the confession is; 2) the relative clarity about church and state. To be sure, the Synod was not overturning the reigning paradigm of state-enforced religious orthodoxy. That would not happen for another 256 years.

In some secondary literature, the Swiss Reformed, including figures like Capito, are pictured as Erasmian moralists, who did not fully embrace the essential Reformation breakthrough of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) and as rationalists who placed reason above Scripture. The latter allegation almost certainly comes from the Lutheran caricature of the Swiss Reformed in the 1520s, because the Zürichers did not accept the Lutheran Christology and the Lutheran doctrine that the humanity of Christ is in, with, and under the bread and wine in communion. In Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant, however, I argued that by comparison, the Lutheran orthodox relied much more heavily on philosophy than the Reformed in their account of the relations between the two natures.

These 44 articles contradict the caricature too often drawn of the Swiss Reformed and they instruct us about how we might go about articulating the Reformed confession in our own time.

Chapter one: We should administer our office with diligence

First of all, we as ministers and preachers, more than anyone else, ought to be, and ought to be called, the ambassadors of Christ, servants of the Spirit, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Likewise also the honorable government of the city of Bern, and other magistrates, are and should be spoken of as the servants of God in respect to outward ordinances. This implies that there is a great necessity, as provided in the statute enacted by our gracious lords touching the gospel, that we should give careful attention to our ministry and to the office enjoined upon us, which is a spiritual, inward and heavenly one, and that we should apply ourselves to it with all diligence and full seriousness. Our office requires two things: sound doctrine and an amended, honest life both in regard to ourselves and also in relationship to those who with us belong to the household of faith.1

There are a number of features of these 44 articles that deserve comment. First, we should notice where we are in history. In 1532 Calvin wrote his first book, a humanist commentary on Seneca’s De clementia. He had not been an evangelical (Protestant) very long at all. In this year he would be forced to flee Paris and the first edition of his Institutes would not appear until 1536. In other words, the Reformed reformation was older and broader than Calvin.

Second, early on, Reformed began working out their idea that there are two spheres under God’s sovereign government of the world, his general providence and his special providence. The former they described as secular and the latter they described as sacred. This venerable and useful distinction has been muddied in the last century and particularly since World War II, with the growing influence of the neo-Kuyperian movement(s) but it has deep roots in the Reformed tradition and even in Scripture itself.

As a corollary to that distinction they sought to distinguish the sacred ministry of the church from the secular ministry of the civil magistrate. They had to make this distinction carefully and respectfully, as the reader will note, but make it they did. That distinction would eventually bear fruit, in the New World (and eventually elsewhere) in the disestablishment of the visible church, whereby the state would not punish religious heterodoxy but leave such matters (as far as the civil magistrate is concerned)  to the conscience.

What we see here is something like what Calvin would call, in his 1536 Institutes, the twofold government (duplex regimen) of the world. The visible church is to administer the spiritual and the civil magistrate is to administer the temporal or secular. Christians live in both spheres simultaneously but we have distinct responsibilities in each. There is a Latin word that would help us a great deal as we seek to navigate the minefield that is the distinction between Christ and culture: quatenus, insofar as. As much as we are members of the visible church, our duties are thus. Insofar as we are members of the secular and civil realm, our duties may be different. How many confusions might be resolved if we might re-learn this distinction?

A Christocentric Theology

As mentioned above, one of the more persistent caricatures of the Swiss Reformed has been that there were not Christ-centered in their reading of Scripture and theology and that they were overly concerned with sanctification and morality. There are two questions here: 1) whether that is a good test. Richard Muller has raised serious questions about this. 2) whether this account is accurate. This confession by the Synod of Bern puts the lie to the caricature that the Swiss Reformed were moralists. They were Protestants, who accepted the basic breakthroughs of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide. They read Scripture to teach that progress of revelation and redemption leads to Christ.

Chapter two: All doctrine consists in Christ and Him alone

Soundness with respect to doctrine will be found in nothing other than the unique and eternal Word of God, and the kindness and good will which the Father has manifested to us through Christ. This doctrine is nothing else than Christ Jesus Himself, who was crucified for our sins, and was raised from the dead to procure the righteousness by which we are justified. Whatever is contrary to this doctrine is contrary to our salvation. Any teaching which does not carry with it this understanding and this substance may never be called Christian, for all Christian preachers are ambassadors of Christ and witnesses of His sufferings. They are to carry out His will and His command exclusively, being sent out and prepared by their Lord for this purpose alone, even as the Lord Christ Jesus Himself had been sent from the Father to reveal the glory and name of His Father and nothing else besides, which He faithfully discharged throughout His life. For He was unceasingly occupied with the business of His heavenly Father, and had nothing to speak from Himself, but taught what He heard from the Father.2

Were we to judge confessions by how soon they get to Christ, these articles win. The Augsburg Confession does not get to Christ until the third article. In fact, this is a silly test but I mention it only to illustrate that even on such a test, the Confession of the Synod of Bern must be characterized as Christocentric.

We might also contrast this confession to Dispensationalism, at least the varieties (e.g., the revised versions of Ryrie et al). For the Reformed Christ is the center of the history of redemption. We do not read Christ into the Old Testament. We refuse to read him out of it.


1. James T. Dennison, Jr., ed. Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in English Translation 4 vol. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–14), 1.233.

2. Dennison, ibid., 1.234.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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