Was the Reformation Missions-Minded?
Martin Luther was so certain of the imminent return of Christ that he overlooked the necessity of foreign missions… Calvinists generally used the same line of reasoning, adding the doctrine of election that made missions appear extraneous if God had already chosen those he would save.” So writes Dr. Ruth Tucker, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and author of From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Zondervan, 1983, p. 67).
Well-meaning, but ill-informed, accounts such as these have been repeated so frequently that they have become clichés in discussions of missions. Tucker repeats the caricature: The Reformers were not terribly interested in evangelism and missions, but the Anabaptists and Pietists gave birth to the modern missionary movement (p. 24). While I am not a missiologist, I do have an interest in this subject and if the Reformation had negative effects on the advance of the Great Commission, we ought to be the first to point it out. The facts, however, point in quite a different direction.
First, there is the nature of the Reformation itself. Throughout the late middle ages, there was something of a lull in Roman Catholic missions. That is not to say that they did not exist, but it was nothing like the evangelization of the Roman Empire or of the pagan European tribes that preceded it, nor like the missions of the Jesuits and other Counter-Reformation groups that followed it. It was, in fact, the Reformation itself, combined with other factors (such as exploration and the rise of colonialism), that not only gave birth to Protestant missions, but revitalized Roman Catholic missions by reaction.
But what was the Reformation? One’s answer to this question will determine one’s appraisal of its missiological significance. If the Reformation was simply a period of internecine squabbling that interrupted the more important activity of the church, then it was indeed an appalling distraction. But if one maintains that it was the greatest recovery of the biblical faith since the first century, the Reformation constitutes the most remarkable missionary movement in post-apostolic church history. For those of us who agree with the Reformers that the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone is “the article by which the church stands or falls,” and the Gospel — “the power of God unto salvation” — one can only interpret the Reformation as the re-evangelization of Europe. Is this not the point of the Great Commission? The Jews to whom the Gospel first came were certainly aware of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, but they did not properly understand them as referring to Christ. The Reformers believed that those who confused the Law and the Gospel, merit and grace, judgment and justification, were in precisely the same category as the unconverted, even if they were part of “Christendom.”
This is why, as we read Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers, we cannot help but come away with a deep sense of admiration for the pastoral, missionary, and evangelistic heart of this movement. Designating themselves the “evangelicals” because they were recovering the Gospel (“evangel”), these Protestants so indefatigably preached the Gospel through print, pulpit, and in everyday conversations that the Good News spread quickly throughout the Empire. Had the same movement occurred on another continent, with the same extensive effects, the Reformation would be considered the most significant missionary enterprise since the apostles.
Therefore, the starting point is essential. Those who cannot see the Reformation as anything more than an in-house dispute over less than ultimate issues will not regard this as the re-evangelization of Christendom.
Second, there is the matter of categorization. For instance, in Ruth Tucker’s volume, such distinguished Calvinistic missionaries as John Eliot, David Brainerd, Eleazer Wheelock, Isaac McCoy, William Carey, the Judsons and Boardmans, David Livingstone and many others are treated as products of Pietism, when in actual fact these men and women had their roots in the Reformation-Puritan tradition. In fact, the most prominent names of the modern missionary movement were Calvinists! So much for the caricature that the “doctrine of election…made missions appear extraneous if God had already chosen those he would save.” This is merely an inference of Tucker rather than an effect of this doctrine on the minds and hearts of those great missionary heroes who embraced it. They saw their theology as the engine behind their efforts, not as an embarrassing obstacle.
Besides Carey, Eliot, Brainerd, and Livingstone, there were the evangelists such as Whitefield, Edwards, the Tennents, Spurgeon, and on we could go. All of these disciples of the Great Commission credited their theological convictions with their energy and motivation, knowing that it was God alone who saves sinners whenever and wherever he will. While we carry the Good News to the poor, only God can grant repentance and faith, and this relieved missionaries and evangelists of either despair on the one hand, or proud triumphalism on the other.
At last, however, we return to the Reformers themselves. While their followers may have been great evangelists and missionaries, were men such as Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Knox, and Melanchthon interested in such things?
Interestingly, Tucker herself makes an observation that appears to contradict her previously-cited remark that even appears in the same paragraph:
Calvin himself, however, was at least outwardly the most missionary-minded of all the Reformers. He not only sent dozens of evangelists back into his homeland of France, but also commissioned four missionaries, along with a number of French Hugeunots, to establish a colony and evangelize the Indians of Brazil (p. 67).
These missionaries were killed by Jesuits, but another group was sent from Geneva. Not only were the New England Puritans busy building Harvard; they were simultaneously evangelizing the native Americans. (The first book published in the New World was the Bible in Algonquin, by John Eliot). In fact, the Reformed missionary enterprise was integrating the proclamation of the Gospel with the interests of justice and cultural betterment long before it became popular. One thinks of David Livingstone (1813-73), the Scottish missionary who was also an explorer and in the words of one historian, “exercised a greater influence on the history of central Africa than any other person, Christian or non-Christian, in the nineteenth century.” But history records Livingstone as more than a missionary and explorer; he was an indefatigable opponent of the slave trade. Livingstone knew that the same God who cared for the salvation of the lost also abhorred the bondage of injustice, and sin had not only personal but institutional aspects. He sought to interrupt the slave trade by building East African commercial trade and he pursued some extraordinarily brilliant ideas, but the British government ended his expedition in 1863. And yet, Brian Stanley concludes, “The Protestant churches of sub-Saharan Africa, many of them born in the aftermath of Livingstone’s explorations, are today among the strongest in the world.”
American Presbyterian missionary and educator Samuel M. Zwemer (1867-1952) is another example of this integration of preaching grace and doing justice. As a missionary in the Middle East, he earned the title of “the modern apostle to the Moslem world” and he opened up doors to missions throughout the region, especially by building hospitals and schools — a traditional approach to pre-evangelism taken by Reformed and Lutheran missionaries alike. Because these institutions are still among the most important to the locals, these missionaries and their spiritual descendents are among the only trusted Westerners. Zwemer himself argued that Calvinism could conquer the Moslem world because it was a system and the Moslems thought very systematically; they would not be won by mere pietistic sentimentality. Various cultural institutions bear his name in Cairo and in other cities in the Middle East.
Far East missions were no less led by Reformed Christians. One thinks of the Scot Robert Morrison, who was the first Protestant missionary to go to China. Confident in God’s sovereignty, he prayed for God to place him in a part of the world “where the difficulties are the greatest, and to all human appearance the most insurmountable.” Like Zwemer, who saw only few converts in the entire tenure of his missionary enterprise, Morrison saw fewer than a dozen converts and, as Tucker informs us, “at the time of his death there were only three known native Christians in the entire Chinese empire.” Nevertheless, both missionaries translated the Scriptures for the first time into the native languages and left these few converts to plant the seeds that would eventually produce a harvest of new believers. They did not despair in spite of few “results,” because all results are God’s results and he will see to the success of his own mission. The story of Korean missions is full of amazing twists and turns and figuring prominently throughout it all is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. By American standards, a small but faithful church, the O. P. C. had an inordinately large hand in the evangelization of the region before and after the division of North and South.
The greatest tragedy in modern missions, from this writer’s point of view at least, is the sad reality that although Reformation Christians launched modern missions, the “pentecostalization” of the missionary movement has devastated almost overnight the regions where missionaries labored carefully for decades. Huge crusades with spectacular side-shows have replaced the careful exposition of Scripture in large parts of the world. The two-thirds world, where the earliest missions produced deep conversions and strong churches, is now dominated by successive waves of Pentecostal phenomena. The results are evident everywhere on the mission field (even more so than in America): Hysteria and numerical growth, leading almost as quickly to despair and disillusionment, until the cycle repeats itself.
Just as British missions reflected worldwide missionary activity in the 19th century, American leadership in the 20th is obvious. “Evangelicalism” around the world is equivalent to American evangelicalism and the influence of such institutions as the Fuller School of World Missions, along with the leading trends evident in Christianity Today, leading evangelical seminaries and popular movements rather quickly overpower indigenous distinctives, many of the latter derived from the period of earlier missionary activity. Like so many other trappings of American popular commercial culture, when something gets started on the American evangelical scene, it eventually makes its way into the remotest regions.
Speaking for my own tradition, while many Reformed Christians are interested in restoring a sense of vocation and calling, including the vision of transforming culture as “salt” and “light,” there does not seem to be a parallel interest in spreading the Gospel, either in terms of local evangelism or missions. This is not to say that Reformed churches, whether local or at the denominational level, are not interested in missions: many of them have proportionately large missions budgets. But it is to say that at least this writer is unaware of very much thoughtful discussion of what a second Reformation might look like in, say, Thailand or Tanzania. If we truly believe that many of the crowds turning out for a healing crusade in Uganda or Tulsa are filled with people who have an erroneous understanding of the Gospel, we are in precisely the same position as the first Reformers, where “missions” and “evangelism” means first recovering the biblical Gospel. It is not enough for Reformed and Lutheran evangelicals to work side-by-side with mainstream evangelicals and attempt to influence them. The evangelicals are not simply “off a little” on this or that emphasis; there is quite often these days a fundamentally different message, leading to methods and a general agenda that is at cross-purposes with biblical, historic Christianity. There must be a distinctive Reformational agenda — one that neither attempts to recreate a sixteenth-century European movement in Bombay, nor one that capitulates to American evangelical tendencies on the other.
May God set our hearts and minds to this urgent task, and then may he prepare our feet to bring Good News to the captives, whether down the street or around the world. *
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, and Too Good to be True: Finding Hope in a World of Hype.