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Reformed Confessions: Second Helvetic Confession (1566)

John R. Muether

The three decades following the writing of the First Helvetic (Swiss) Confession in 1536[1] saw dramatic developments in the Protestant Reformation. New leadership emerged after Luther and Calvin passed away. The Roman Catholic “counter” Reformation convened the Council of Trent in 1545. Following the fragile 1555 Peace of Augsburg (which largely extended only to Lutherans), Reformed churches sensed the urgency of confessional unity in a thorough exposition of the Reformed faith that extended beyond the national confessions that had been composed. Elector Frederick III asked Swiss pastor Heinrich Bullinger (who had co-authored the First Helvetic), and Bullinger delivered by way of converting a personal testament into the Second Helvetic Confession.

The Second Helvetic presents Reformed teaching as the evangelical faith in conformity with apostolic teaching and practice. Though lengthy in argument, it is moderate in tone. Catholicity comes not from human tradition, but from the Word of God, which is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Harmony with the teachings of the ancient church is important; but harmony is not found in “external rites.” Thus, on the one hand, Roman Catholicism fails in its claim to be the true successor of the early church; on the other hand, the confession urges that “we must not judge rashly or prematurely” lest “we exclude, reject, or cut off those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church.”

What is particularly striking about the Second Helvetic Confession is its detailed treatment of the duties of pastoral ministry. Rejecting papal offices of priest and monk, and affirming the “priesthood of believers” in good Reformed fashion, the confession observes that:

The priesthood and the ministry are very different from one another. For the priesthood, as we have just said, is common to all Christians; not so is the ministry. Nor have we abolished the ministry of the Church because we have repudiated the papal priesthood from the Church of Christ.

It goes on to assert that Christ instituted the office with several duties: preaching of the gospel, administration of the sacraments, care of souls, and maintenance of discipline (see excerpt from chapter 18 below). The confession closes with discussions of practical issues in the church, such as public worship, prayer, fasting, the ordering of marriage, burial, and church property.

After it was published in Zurich and adopted by Swiss churches in 1566, it was quickly translated into several languages and enjoyed wide-spread acceptance among the churches, including those in Hungary, Poland, Scotland, and France. Cornelis Venema notes that “it is arguably the most widely disseminated of the Reformed symbols of the sixteenth century.”[2] Although unfamiliar to many Orthodox Presbyterians, the Second Helvetic Confession has remained popular among international Calvinists. According to John Leith it “can justly claim to be the most universal of Reformed creeds.”[3]

An Excerpt from Chapter 18—Of the Ministers of the Church, Their Institution and Duties

The Duties of Ministers. The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which all the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the sacraments. For it is the duty of the ministers to gather together an assembly for worship in which to expound God's Word and to apply the whole doctrine to the care and use of the Church, so that what is taught may benefit the hearers and edify the faithful. It falls to ministers, I say, to teach the ignorant, and to exhort; and to urge the idlers and lingerers to make progress in the way of the Lord. Moreover, they are to comfort and to strengthen the fainthearted, and to arm them against the manifold temptations of Satan; to rebuke offenders; to recall the erring into the way; to raise the fallen; to convince the gainsayers; to drive the wolf away from the sheepfold of the Lord; to rebuke wickedness and wicked men wisely and severely; not to wink at nor to pass over great wickedness. And, besides, they are to administer the sacraments, and to commend the right use of them, and to prepare all men by wholesome doctrine to receive them; to preserve the faithful in a holy unity; and to check schisms; to catechize the unlearned, to commend the needs of the poor to the Church, to visit, instruct, and keep in the way of life the sick and those afflicted with various temptations. In addition, they are to attend to public prayers of supplications in times of need, together with common fasting, that is, a holy abstinence; and as diligently as possible to see to everything that pertains to the tranquility, peace and welfare of the churches.

But in order that the minister may perform all these things better and more easily, it is especially required of him that he fear God, be constant in prayer, attend to spiritual reading, and in all things and at all times be watchful, and by a purity of life to let his light to shine before all men.

Discipline. And since discipline is an absolute necessity in the Church and excommunication was once used in the time of the early fathers, and there were ecclesiastical judgments among the people of God, wherein this discipline was exercised by wise and godly men, it also falls to ministers to regulate this discipline for edification, according to the circumstances of the time, public state, and necessity. At all times and in all places the rule is to be observed that everything is to be done for edification, decently and honorably, without oppression and strife. For the apostle testifies that authority in the Church was given to him by the Lord for building up and not for destroying (2 Cor. 10:8). And the Lord himself forbade the weeds to be plucked up in the Lord's field, because there would be danger lest the wheat also be plucked up with it (Matt. 13:29–30).

Even Evil Ministers Are to Be Heard. Moreover, we strongly detest the error of the Donatists who esteem the doctrine and administration of the sacraments to be either effectual or not effectual, according to the good or evil life of the ministers. For we know that the voice of Christ is to be heard, though it be out of the mouths of evil ministers; because the Lord himself said: “Practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do” (Matt. 23:3). We know that the sacraments are sanctified by the institution and the word of Christ, and that they are effectual to the godly, although they be administered by unworthy ministers. Concerning this matter, Augustine, the blessed servant of God, many times argued from the Scriptures against the Donatists.

The Worker Is Worthy of His Reward. All faithful ministers, as good workmen, are also worthy of their reward, and do not sin when they receive a stipend, and all things that be necessary for themselves and their family. For the apostle shows in 1 Cor. 9 and in 1 Tim. 5, and elsewhere that these things may rightly be given by the Church and received by ministers. The Anabaptists, who condemn and defame ministers who live from their ministry are also refuted by the apostolic teaching.

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)

Endnotes

[1] John R. Muether, “Reformed Confessions: First Helvetic Confession (1536),” Ordained Servant Online, http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=616&issue_id=123

[2] Cornelis Venema, “Predestination and Election” in Matthew Barrett, ed., Reformation Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 262n50.

[3] John H. Leith, Creeds of the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982), 313.

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, October 2017.

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