The Beginnings of the Reformed Tradition: Calvin, Bucer, Vermigli, & Bullinger

The celebration of “Reformation Day” is a day to remember those who have gone before us and established foundations upon which we stand. Flowing from the Protestant Reformation are three main streams: the Lutheran, the Reformed, and the Anabaptist (also called the Radical Reformation). There is a common misconception that just as we can trace the origins of the Lutheran stream to Martin Luther, we can also trace the Reformed stream to John Calvin. This is not true. One of the most memorable lessons I learned from Dr. Frank James at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL, is that the Reformed tradition should not trace its roots back to one person, but to four primary figures: John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Heinrich Bullinger.

What is fascinating about these three men is that their theology was developed in the midst of a theological and pastoral community with each other. All four of them were close, and they worked with each other in the process of theological development. Dr. James observes that one example of this type of discussion is John Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper, which is almost certainly from the influence of Peter Martyr Vermigli.

The paths of each one of these men crossed at various points in their ministry. Bullinger’s ministry is the longest and most stable. He is the minister in Zurich from Zwingli’s death in the 1530s until Bullinger himself dies in 1575. Because of this stability, Zurich is a central location for the development of the Reformed faith. Martin Bucer ministers in Strasbourg in various capacities from the 1520s until he goes to Cambridge in 1549. Vermigli eventually ends being appointed professor of theology in Strasbourg with Martin Bucer during the mid-1540s. In 1547 Vermigli goes to Oxford. And when Calvin is exiled from Geneva in 1538, he travels to Strasbourg and comes under the influence of Bucer until Calvin returns to Geneva in 1541.

One of the more significant developments in this story occurs in 1549. This is perhaps the first point at which we can speak of a Reformed branch of Protestantism. Up until that time, we can find several differences among the forerunners of the Reformed tradition. In Zurich the influence was from the tradition of Zwingli (who had some peculiar views) and his followers known as the Zwinglians. In Geneva, the strong influence was from John Calvin, who truly wanted to bridge the gap between the two cities. Calvin travels to Zurich to meet with the Zwinglians, specifically Heinrich Bullinger, who seems to have had a more moderate nature than Zwingli. Calvin and Bullinger agree to a confessional statement called the Consensus Tigurinus that essentially bridged the theological gap between Geneva and Zurich in relation to the sacraments.

What do we learn from this short reflection on the beginnings of the Reformed faith? We learn the crucial role that theological discussion plays in the formation of a significant tradition. I don’t think we can overestimate the importance of this theological community and what it meant for the trajectory of the Reformed tradition. Our theological work should take place in the life of the church, in conversation with one another, with our Bible’s open and our hope in the work of the Spirit as he opens our minds and hearts to God’s word.

Suggested Resources

Be sure to check out Tim Challies’ blog for “The Third Annual Reformation Day Symposium” as he lists the various blogs and articles that participated in this event.

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