The Nationalism of the Protestant Reformation: Heinrich Bullinger on the Covenantal Basis of Nationalism

October 16th 2023

By Dr. Adi Schlebusch

This October marks 506 years since Martin Luther initiated the Great Reformation of the Church of Christ. In celebration thereof Pactum will be publishing a series of blog posts on the nationalism of the Reformation in the run-up to Reformation Day on October 31st.

In this, the fourth installment of our series, we'll be focusing on the Covenanted Nationalism of Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), a Swiss reformer famous for his contributions to covenant theology. In one of his most famous works, A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God, Bullinger emphasized the continuity of the one covenant of grace throughout two administrations (the old and the new), countering as erroneous any sharp distinctions made between the covenantal principles of the Old and New Testaments.

Bullinger also recognized the important role reserved for nations as covenantal units in God’s will. In 1528 Bullinger wrote a short tract addressed to the Swiss people, Indictment and Earnest Admonition of God Almighty to the Confederation that It Might Turn from Its Sins and Return to Him. In the tract, God addresses the Swiss nation in the first person, reminding them of their special covenantal relationship to Him as their heavenly King.

Speaking of the hardships endured by the Swiss people since the confederation’s national founding in 1291, God proclaims his covenantal faithfulness to this particular nation:

In all those wars and battles, I was your God. I fought for you, I protected you. . . . I will be your God as I was before, and you will be my people.1

Bullinger seamlessly applied the biblical covenantal principles, first revealed to ancient Israel, unto the Swiss nation, insisting on their national repentance and continued obedience to God's Law as a condition for receiving national blessings from God:

Your land [must] be a land of liberty for the oppressed and a house of righteousness. . . . You should rule not at your own discretion but according to the common laws and in fear of me. . . . Therefore, abandon your ways and serve me with faith, love and innocence. . . . If you remain unfaithful, if you do not protect the good and punish the evil, if you do not forsake your wars and sins and establish a Christian government, then I will punish you as I did Judah and Israel.2

Bullinger saw a covenantal connection between his nation’s forefathers, his own generation, and their posterity. His tract emphasizes the importance of ethnic lineage in God's covenant. Furthermore, Bullinger understood his people’s national baptism as sanctifying their national and ethnic identity, i.e. by no means abolishing its relevance, but rather elevating it to a higher and more honorable covenantal purpose in serving God’s Kingdom. This is also seen in his emphasis on the distinct common law of the Swiss Confederation alongside biblical law as the only just way by which the confederation is to be ruled according to God’s will.

Understanding the Swiss people as covenantally related to God, he proclaimed that their national sins, as covenantal sins, would be followed by a just national punishment from God, whereas God rewards national repentance with His gracious blessings. For Bullinger, the international character of Christ’s New Testament Church in no way undoes the ethnic or racial elements of God’s covenantal relationship to mankind. The principles of God’s covenantal engagement with mankind are eternal and unchanging.

1. Bullinger, H. 1544 (1528). Anklag und erstliches ermanen Gottes Allmachtigen zu eyner gemeynnen Eydgenosschaft. Zürich: Froschauer, 7.

2. Ibid., 52.