The Majestic Beard of Zurich
By David Mathis
In an age when the celibate priesthood set itself apart from the laity, in part, with clean-shaven faces, the Protestant Reformers grew beards to make a statement. They were restoring both maleness and humanity to church leadership, and they weren’t afraid to have it written on their faces.
Word is that Heinrich Bullinger, chief minister in the leading Swiss city of Zurich, had the best beard of all. One historian describes Bullinger’s as “majestically bushy” — and it wasn’t altogether disconnected from the theology he carefully grew, and groomed, in the wake of the Reformation’s first shocking loss.
Protestant and Preacher
Bullinger, son of a Catholic priest, was born in the Swiss town of Bremgarten in 1504. He went off to the University of Cologne in Germany in 1519 to study humanities, not medieval theology. While there he encountered a book-burning of Luther’s works, and it piqued his interest. He then determined to read the Reformer for himself, and as he did, his world turned upside down. He was now eighteen years old, and a Protestant convert.
In 1523, the year after his conversion, Bullinger met Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), who had been converted in 1519, around the same time as Luther, and quickly became the leader of the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli was twenty years Bullinger’s elder, but the two became allies, and eight years later their lives were forever linked when disaster struck the fledging Reformed movement.
Zwingli was not only pastor in Zurich but also army chaplain. On October 11, 1531, the great Reformer joined the Battle of Kappel to defend the city against Catholic forces. He was wounded, then found by the invading army, and executed.
After the Protestant loss, Bullinger’s hometown, where he now was pastoring a Protestant church, came under threat. He fled for Zurich. There he took into his own household the wife and two surviving children of his dead friend, and within weeks he was chosen as his successor as chief minister in Zurich, a post at which Bullinger would stand for 44 years, from age 27 until his death at 71 in 1575.
Early Covenant Theologian
How often history pairs the strengths of great men with attendant weaknesses. One of Bullinger’s signature contributions was his primitive form of “covenant theology.” Here he followed the lead of Zwingli, who organized his theology by the covenant motif, rather than by medieval categories.
Zwingli located his theological center in God’s creation covenant with Adam. Bullinger matured and modified that theology to focus on Abraham, a step in the right direction, but as historian David Steinmetz notes, both located their theological center of gravity in the Old Testament rather than the New. The strengths included reading the whole Bible as one story; the weaknesses included a penchant to minimize (or reject) discontinuities revealed in the New.
In short, Zwingli and Bullinger read the whole Bible but still a flat Bible. What remains unclear is how much such early covenant theology led to the mistreatment of Zurich’s so-called Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”), and how much it developed in response to these “radicals.” In 1525, Zwingli and Bullinger together defended infant baptism at a public disputation against the Anabaptists, which led to the eventual drowning of some.
Bullinger also followed Zwingli in opposing church music because of its danger to become an idol and hinder true worship. Bullinger groomed Zwingli’s instinct into a matter of principle, and church music was not restored in Zurich until almost 25 years after Bullinger’s death.
Yet his life and enduring legacy would not be as a divider, but as a unifier. Behind his majestic beard was one of the biggest hearts of the Reformation era, and one of its most tireless peacemakers. Though he rarely left Zurich, he engaged in voluminous personal correspondence (some twelve thousand of his letters have survived) to counsel and build coalition with Reformed leaders across Europe.
Even more than his gifted preaching, he was known for his patience, wisdom, and generous spirit. He stabilized the young but influential Zurich church, not only after its shocking tragedy but then for more than forty years. He grew and groomed what Zwingli began. According to Steinmetz, “Without Zwingli there would have been no Reformation in Zurich; without Bullinger it would not have lasted.”