The son of Heinrich Bullinger, dean of the capitular church, by Anna Wiederkehr, he was born at Bremgarten, Aargau. The bishop of Constance, who had clerical oversight over Aargau, had unofficially sanctioned clerical concubinage, having waived all penalties against the offense in exchange for an annual fee. As such, Heinrich and Anna were able to live as virtual husband and wife, and young Heinrich was the fifth son born to the couple.
At 12 years of age, Bullinger was sent to the distant but celebrated gymnasium of Emmerich in the Duchy of Cleves.
In 1519, at the age of 15, his parents, intending him to follow his father into the clergy, sent him to the University of Cologne, just as the Luther affair was on everyone's tongue. Bullinger felt that he needed to decide the issues for himself, and began a systematic program of reading that started with Peter Lombard's Sentences, then compared the Sentences with the church fathers that Lombard cited and with the Bible. In 1520, he moved on to a consideration of Luther's treatises and concluded that Luther was more faithful to the church fathers and the Bible than Lombard. In late 1521, he read Melanchthon's Commonplaces and was similarly impressed. Now a convinced "Martinian" (follower of Martin Luther), Bullinger renounced his previous intention of entering the Carthusian order.
In 1522, Bullinger returned home, accepting a post as head of the cloister school at Kappel, though only after negotiating special conditions that meant he didn't need to take monastic vows or attend mass. At the school, Bullinger initiated a systematic program of Bible reading and exegesis for the monks there. He heard Zwingli and Jud preach several times during this period. During this period, under the influence of the Waldensians, Bullinger moved to a more symbolic understanding of the Eucharist. He contacted Zwingli with his thoughts in September 1524. In 1527, he spent 5 months in Zurich studying ancient languages and regularly attending the Prophezei that Zwingli had set up there. While there, he impressed the Zurich authorities and they sent him with their delegation to the Bern Disputation - there he met Bucer, Blaurer, and Haller for the first time. In 1528, at the urging of the Zurich Synod, he left the Kappel cloister to become a regular parish minister.
In 1529 Bullinger's father announced that he had been preaching false doctrines for years and now renounced them in favour of Protestant doctrines. As a result, his congregation decided to remove him as their priest. Several candidates were invited to preach sermons as potential replacements, including the young Bullinger. His sermon was so powerful that it led to an immediate burst of iconoclasm in the church, and the congregation spontaneously stripped the images from their church and burned them.
In the same year, he married Anna Adlischweiler, a former nun. His marriage was happy and regarded as a shining example. His house was continually filled with fugitives, colleagues and people searching for advice or help. Bullinger was a caring father of his eleven children who liked to play with them and wrote verses to them for Christmas. All his sons became pastors themselves.
After the defeat at Battle of Kappel (11 October 1531), where Zwingli fell, the Aargau region (including Bremgarten) had to return to the Catholic faith. Bullinger and two other pastors had to leave the town, though the people did not like to see them go. Having gained a reputation as a leading Protestant preacher, Bullinger quickly received offers to take up the position of pastor from Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Appenzell. During his negotiations with the civic leaders of Zurich, Bullinger refused to accept their terms - they had offered him the position with the condition that he shouldn't criticize government policy (they still blamed Zwingli for the disastrous defeat at Kappel). Bullinger insisted on his right to expound the Bible, even if it contradicted the position of the civic authorities. In a compromise, they agreed that Bullinger had the right to criticize the government privately in writing. Bullinger took up the post of minister of Zurich; he soon gained oversight over the other Zurich ministers, a position which would later be known as the Zurich Antistes.
Bullinger arrived with his wife and two little children in Zurich, where he already on the Sunday after his arrival stood in Zwingli's pulpit in the Grossmünster and, according to a contemporary description, "thundered a sermon from the pulpit that many thought Zwingli was not dead but resurrected like the phoenix". In December of the same year, he was, at the age of 27, elected to be the successor of Zwingli as antistes of the Zurich church. He accepted the election only after the council had assured him explicitly that he was in his preaching "free, unbound and without restriction" even if it necessitated critique of the government. He kept his office up to his death in 1575.
Bullinger quickly established himself as a staunch defender of the ecclesiological system developed by Zwingli. In 1532, when Jud proposed making ecclesiastical discipline entirely separate from the secular power, Bullinger argues that the need for a separate set of church courts ended when the magistrate became Christian, and that in a place with a Christian magistrate, the institutions of the Old Testament were appropriate. However, Bullinger did not believe the church should be entirely subservient to the state. Also in 1532, he was instrumental in creating a joint committee of magistrates and ministers to oversee the church.
A strong writer and thinker, his spirit was essentially unifying and sympathetic, in an age when these qualities won little sympathy.
Bullinger's hospitality and charity was exemplary and Zurich accepted many Protestant fugitives from northern Italy (Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was a descendant of such fugitives) and after the death of Edward VI also from England. When these returned to England after the death of Mary I of England, they took Bullinger's writings with them who found a broad distribution. From 1550 to 1560, there were in England 77 editions of Bullinger's Latin "Decades" and 137 editions of their vernacular translation "House Book", a treatise in pastoral theology (in comparison, Calvin's Institutes had two editions in England during the same time). Some historians count Bullinger together with Bucer as the most influential theologian of the Anglican reformation.
Though Bullinger did not leave Switzerland after becoming antistes of Zurich, he conducted an extended correspondence all over Europe and was so well informed that he edited a kind of newspaper about political developments.
His controversies on the Lord's Supper with Luther, and his correspondence with Lelio Sozzini, exhibit, in different connections, his admirable mixture of dignity and tenderness. With Calvin he concluded (1549) the Consensus Tigurinus on the Lord's Supper. He worked closely with Thomas Erastus to promote the Reformed orientation of the Reformation of the Electorate of the Palatinate in the 1560s.
Bullinger played a crucial role in the drafting of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. What eventually became the Second Helvetic Confession originated in a personal statement of his faith which Bullinger intended to be presented to the Zurich Rat upon his death. In 1566, when the Frederick III, the Pious, elector palatine introduced Reformed elements into the church in his region, Bullinger felt that this statement might be useful for the elector, so he had it circulated among the Protestant cities of Switzerland who signed to indicate their assent. Later, the Reformed churches of France, Scotland, and Hungary would do likewise.
He died at Zürich and was followed as antistes by Zwingli's son-in-law Rudolf Gwalther. His circle of collaborators in the Zurich church and academy included Gwalther, Konrad Pellikan, Theodor Bibliander, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Johannes Wolf, Josias Simler, and Ludwig Lavater.
Among his descendants was the noted Biblical scholar E.W. Bullinger.
See Carl Pestalozzi, Leben (1858); Raget Christoffel, H. Bullinger (1875); Justus Heer, in Hauck's Realencyklopädie (1897).
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