Do We Confess That The Preaching Of God’s Word Is God’s Word? A Text-Critical Note On The Second Helvetic Confession

Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) was Hulrych Zwingli’s successor as the Antistes (Chief Preacher) in Zürich and an influential figure in the transition between the first- and second-generation Reformers. He wrote the Second Helvetic Confession in 1561 as a private document but at the request of Frederick III (1515–76), who had to defend his Reformed convictions before the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) in 1566. It became public as part of Frederick’s defense. It was adopted by the Swiss Churches and widely used beyond the Swiss Cantons, e.g., in England, France, the Palatinate, and elsewhere. In Reformed circles it has become a truism that, in the Second Helvetic Confession, we confess that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. More than one edition of the English text says that very thing in a sub-heading under chapter 1. E.g., in A. C. Cochrane’s edition of the Second Helvetic, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century (1966), which was reprinted in the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions, under chapter 1, “Of The Holy Scripture Being the True Word of God,” the sub-head reads, “THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD.” The text of paragraph of the chapter one in question says:

Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

In the first paragraph, the Bullinger explicitly identified the Bible with and as the Word of God: “We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God…”. Whereas the PCUSA’s Confession of 1967 was animated by the Barthian conviction that the Bible is a witness to the Word the Second Helvetic was affirming that the Bible is the Word. On the difference between the historic Christian doctrine of Scripture and that of the Confession of 1967 see Ed Clowney’s critique (see the resources below).

The sub-head, when isolated from the first paragraph, might be understood by Barthains to imply that the preaching of the Word becomes the Word inasmuch as the sermon becomes the vehicle for the Christian’s existential encounter with the Word. This is rather far from the intent of the sub-head. Is does not signal becomes. The Lord’s Supper does not become the body and blood of Christ, as Rome claims. It is Christ’s body and blood. In orthodox Reformed circles I have heard the sub-head invoked as evidence that the Reformed had the highest view of preaching possible, to the effect that the sermon preached by an ordained minister is to be regarded as God’s Word. This is the intent of the Confession itself but views assume the authenticity of the sub-head, which is to be investigated.

To answer the question I began working backward through the various editions. The modern critical Latin text of the Confessio Helvetica Posterior was published in E. F. Karl Müller, ed. Die Bekenntnisschriften Der Reformierten Kirche in Authentischen Texten Mit Geschichtliher Einleitung Und Register (Zurich: Theologische Buchhandlung, repr. 1987). In that edition the sub-heads appear italicized, in parentheses (brackets to the English). In Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom (3.237), however, there are no sub-heads above the paragraphs because he followed the 1657 edition of the Corpus et syntagma confessionum fidei (1654), where what we know as a sub-head appeared as a marginal note. Those marginal notes were reproduced in H. A. Niemeyer, Collectio Confessionum in Ecclesiis Reformatis Publicatarum (Leipzig: Julius Klinkhardt, 1840), 467.  In the 1612 edition of the Corpus et syntagma, however, there were no marginal notes. In the earliest published edition of the Confessio that I have been able to see thus far (1581) published in the Harmonia confessionum fidei orthodoxarum et reformatarum ecclesiarum (The Harmony of the Confessions of Faith of the Orthodox Reformed Churches) a collection of Reformed Confessions (and including the Augsburg Confession) produced as a response to the Lutheran Book of Concord (1580), the Second Helvetic does not have any subheads and the marginal note is merely topical: “externa praedicatio” (external preaching). There is one other wrinkle. According to Schaff, ibid., Niemeyer reproduced an edition from 1568, which would be a very early witness indeed except that I can find nothing in Niemeyer indicating that. Niemeyer does have the 1566 preface by Bullinger. Müller dates the confession to 1562 (p. xxx) but it is not yet clear to me which edition he was using. He does say (p. xxxi), however, that he moved the marginal notes into the text, put them in italics, and placed them in brackets (parentheses). Now we know how the sub-heads came to appear in the later editions.1

The question remains, however, whether we confess what the sub-head says. Do we confess marginal notes? What is the status of a marginal note? That, it would seem, is an ecclesiastical decision. It is ambiguous at best is it not? Bullinger himself did not use sub-heads. Did he make the marginalia himself or was it the printer? Is that why the 1581 edition has a different marginal note? Certainly we know that it was Müller who, in 1903, moved the marginal note next to paragraph 4, under chapter 1, into the text itself, in italics and in parentheses.

Does the marginal note cum sub-head capture accurately the substance of the paragraph? I think so, given the interpretation I offered above. The intent of the paragraph is that the congregation should regard the sermon by a minister, “lawfully called,” as God’s Word. We should note the warning that we are not Anabaptists, whom Bullinger knew (as did Guy de Bres, among others) to claim continuing immediate revelations from the  Spirit, and thus we are content with the Holy Scripture as the sufficient revelation of God’s saving and moral will for his people. Further, the congregation it have regard for the Word preached, not the preacher. We are not Donatists. We do not make the legitimacy of the message depend upon the personal qualities of the minister.

When we invoke the sub-head, we should do so with the knowledge that Bullinger used no sub-heads and that a much later edition moved a marginal note into the body of the text, which was turned by later publishers into a sub-head.



1. There is a French translation of the Second Helvetic, Confession et simple exposition de la vraye foy published in Geneva in 1566. On page 3, in chapter 1, the marginal note says: “La predication de la parole de Dieu, est parole de Dieu” (the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God). Thanks to HB reader Daniel Scheiderer for calling my attention to this note.

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  1. Hello RSC,

    It is still the confessional standard of the Hungarian Reformed Church (Magyar Reformatus Egyhaz) and the Transylvanian Reformed Church (in Romania) even down to today with the Heildelberg Catechism. Some Hungarians believe Bullinger was more influential than even Calvin through his vast correspondence (see = use translation feature, this website also has an English page for those interested). There are numerous Synods scattered throughout the Carpathian Basin that split the Hungarian Reformed church geo-politically due to the tragedy of the Trianon Treaty after WWI which is commemorating its 100th year in 2020. I was baptized in the Yugoslavian Hungarian Reformed Church in Serbia (formerly territory part of the Austro-Hungarian Kingdom). Surprised Robert Godfrey does not speak about it more being married to a magyar wife.

    With Christian regards,

    Csaba (the Reformed Hun)

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