The Duties of Civil Magistrates and Citizens as outlined in Heinrich Bullinger's Second Helvetic Confession (1564)

24 June 2024

By Dr Adi Schlebusch

The great Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger (1504—1575) authored the Second Helvetic Confession in 1562 and revised it in 1564. This document would go on to be adopted as confessional standard by the Swiss, Hungarian and Polish Reformed churches, making it one of the most  widely recognized confessions of the Reformation.

In its 30th chapter it addresses the issue of civil government under the heading of "The Magistracy." Here Bullinger outlines the core duties of both civil rulers and subjects.

The duties of magistrates include the following:

1. Preserving Peace and Tranquility: The primary responsibility of a magistrate is to maintain public peace and order. This is best achieved through a God-fearing and religious approach, emulating godly rulers of the Old Testament who promoted truth, eradicated falsehoods, and defended the Church.

2. Promoting True Religion: Magistrates should support the preaching of the gospel and the true faith, while actively opposing idolatry, superstition, and impiety. Bullinger clearly sees civil officers as guardians of religious orthodoxy, even to the point of ensuring that nothing "contrary to the Word of God is taught." It is difficult to imagine how civil magistrate would be able to practically fulfill this duty in the absence of an established church.

3. Theocratic/Theonomic Governance: They are to govern with laws "made according to the Word of God," ensuring discipline, duty, and obedience among the people. Fair judgment, impartiality, and protection of vulnerable groups like widows and orphans are emphasized. That the confession adds that magistrates also have to punish and suppress heretics and idolaters, shows that there was no doubt in Bullinger's mind that the civil magistrate ought to uphold both tables of the law.

4. Waging War: If necessary, to protect the populace, magistrates may engage in war. However, this must be a last resort, undertaken in faith and righteousness, seeking peace first.

When it comes to the duties of subjects or citizens, the confession emphasizes that they are to recognize the magistrate as a divine instrument ordained for their governance. To this end they owe godly magistrates:

1. Honor and Reverence: Citizens should honor and respect magistrates as ministers of God, offering love, support, and prayers for them.

2. Obedience: They are to obey all just commands and fulfill civic duties.

3. Support in War: In times of necessary war for public safety, citizens should willingly and courageously support the magistrate, even to the extent of sacrificing their lives.

It is important to note here that the confession limits righteous obedience on the part of subjects to commands of the civil magistrate which are "just and fair," that is, laws which do not contradict the Word of God. This is further underscored by the concluding sentence of this confessional article, in which Jesus Christ is referred to as "our only Lord," implying that all civil authority ultimately comes from him and that such authority is therefore only legitimate if exercised in accordance with his will.