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What did the reformation ever do for mission?


Ralph Winter, the American missiologist, says that there were 3 great periods in history for mission : 1792, influenced by William Carey; 1865 and following, due to the impact of Hudson Taylor; 1934 and following, due to the influence of Cam Townsend, who founded Wycliffe Bible Translators and Walter McGavran.

He says nothing about Calvin. In fact, he argues that ‘Calvin didn’t even talk about mission outreach.’ This view is supported by many other American missiologists, such as A N Hunter, who writes ‘There is no trace of mission in the ministry of John Calvin’.

Many Reformed people seem to concur also – take the ‘Calvin 500’ events in Geneva which celebrated the 500th anniversary of his birth earlier this century. In the events organised, there were 52 lectures but nothing about his vision for mission.

Continental missiologists are also in agreement with this trend. Gustav Warnek argues ‘We miss in the Reformers not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions.’

 Recent studies however have challenged this view, based on the argument that Calvin had a coherent theology of mission and was actually engaged in much creative missionary endeavour.

It is worth noting the observations of Johannes Verkuyl, the Dutch missiologist, who wrote in 1978, ‘It was easy to misunderstand Calvin’s mission because there was little organisational structure in the church which was born out of the Reformation.’

Before 1555, frankly, the Reformers were too busy with internal matters at that time. In addition, much of the world outside Europe had not been discovered yet, including much of the Pacific, Australia, the west coast of the Americas etc. Also the Roman Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal dominated the southern seaways and so prevented Protestant missionaries especially from making headway in Latin America.

Owen Chadwick, the Oxford historian, adds to this. ‘One of the consequences of breaking down the papal authority was that the Reformation seems to have left the authority of the Christian ministry vague, uncertain and loosely organised. There was therefore need for organisation in both structure and practice in the first decades after the Reformation before widespread missionary engagement could occur.’

Recent missiologists have demonstrated, however, that Calvin’s period was a significant period of missionary engagement through the 2 following criteria. First of all, his deeply–felt convictions and secondly his amazingly creative approaches to taking the gospel cross-culturally.

Calvin’s theological convictions

Calvin had a coherent theology of missions, based on at least four convictions :

1)  A vision of the victorious advance of Christ and His kingdom and glory. This is highlighted in his Institutes in which he writes, ‘God the Father has appointed Christ to rule from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth.’

Many of his Biblical commentaries confirm this – on 1 Timothy 2:5-6, he writes, ’Our Lord Jesus came to extend his grace not just to the few but over all the world...’

Further, in Acts 2 he wrote, ‘The Holy Spirit descended in order that the gospel should reach all the ends and extremities of the earth.

Again, in the commentary on Deuteronomy 33, he comments,We must, as much as in us lies, endeavour to ‘draw all men on earth to Him’.

On 1 Timothy 2 he comments, ‘No people and no rank in the world is excluded from salvation, because God wishes that the gospel be proclaimed to all without exception.’

2)  His all-consuming desire for God’s glory.

On Deuteronomy 33 v18-19, he comments ‘When we know God as our Father, should we not desire that he be known as such by all? And if we do not have this passion, that all creatures do him homage, is it not a sign that his glory means little to us?’

3)  His theology of the ‘open door’.

We see this highlighted in his commentaries on 2 Corinthians 2 and Colossians 4. He writes ‘When the door is opened, so the servants of the Lord should make advances where an opportunity is extended...let us not withhold compliance with so kind an invitation from God.’

4)  His concern for the lost.

This is highlighted in his commentary on Deuteronomy 33: ‘If we have any humanity in us and see men going to perdition, ought we not to be moved by pity to rescue the poor souls for hell and teach them the way of salvation... a Christian who is not involved in mission is a contradiction in terms’...’the godly will not be satisfied with his own calling and personal salvation. He will have desire to draw others with him.’


Calvin’s methodology

In order to engage in cross-cultural mission, Calvin’s methodology included both traditional and innovative and creative approaches. Inevitably he emphasises the role of preaching, as well as what he called ‘countless prayers’ and the dissemination of the word which led to production of his Geneva Bible.

But in addition to these approaches which we might have expected, based on his reputation, he engaged in the formation of the Academy in Geneva, which came into existence in 1555.

It was based on rigorous discipline, where Greek and Latin were taught. He targeted university-educated students and the sons of the aristocracy. Few peasants were trained at the academy.

He placed a strong focus on character training as well as church history and systematic theology. Within a few years, in fact by 1564, 1,000 men were being trained through the academy, not only for ministry in Switzerland, but especially for France and further afield.

In addition, he was committed to the publication of high quality Christian literature. By 1560, when the situation in Geneva was much more settled, Calvin was instrumental in setting up 34 printing presses. In that year, in that city of 20,000, these printing presses produced 300,000 books, many of which were distributed through missionaries acting as colporteurs in France.

Furthermore, he engaged in public dialogue. There is a famous incident in 1536, when Farel and Viret, the Swiss reformer challenged Roman Catholic priests to a debate in Lausanne. Of the 330 priests invited, 174 attended. The debate focused on the issue of transubstantiation and one of the   Catholic priests began to argue that the early Church Fathers had always supported the concept of transubstantiation. Farel found himself in difficulties in trying to refute this, and turned to Calvin, who had only been invited along as a young observer, to ask if he had anything to contribute on this issue. At this point Calvin apparently started to quote extemporaneously from the writings of the early Church Fathers, demonstrating clearly that they did not believe in this view. As a consequence, 100 of the Catholic priests left the church. One was converted during the debate and Lausanne became a Protestant city.

Intriguingly and surprisingly, Calvin also targeted 16th century rulers and magistrates. When John Knox wrote his pamphlet against ‘The Monstrous Regiment of Women’, demonstrating his displeasure at the appointment of Queen Mary in Scotland and Queen Elizabeth in England, Calvin banned it in Geneva.

He subsequently dedicated his commentary on Isaiah to Queen Elizabeth. In 1564, Farel wrote that he believed Knox’s pamphlet to be the reason why Elizabeth became coolly disposed towards Puritanism.

Similarly in France, the Renaissance King Francis was originally open towards Protestants until Farel supported anti Roman Catholic posters around Paris in ‘Les Affaires Des Affiches’ (the affair of the posters).

This alienated Francis. Calvin was appalled and wrote his Institutes subsequently, pleading toleration of evangelical forms of Christianity. The Institutes were not actually an attempt to write a new systematic theology, but rather, in his introduction, Calvin is arguing that the Institutes are an attempt to provide a reasoned defence of authentic evangelical Christianity. He subsequently dedicated several of his commentaries to European kings and queens in an attempt to build bridges with them for the good of the gospel.

His ministry had a huge influence on migrants in Europe, as many fled to Geneva in the 1550s, escaping rulers such as Mary Tudor. John Knox was one such. On one day in 1537, 80 of these Protestant migrants turned up in Geneva, looking for help. John Knox, influenced by his time in Geneva, was said by Geoffrey Elton the Cambridge historian, to have returned to Scotland ‘refreshed by springs from the fountain-head.’

Calvin also had a strong commitment to church planting. Following the Reformation, the first church to ask for help from Geneva was the church in Tournai in Belgium. In the period 1555-62, 88 missionaries were sent to France. Their names are listed in the Genevan register of the company of Pastors and Missionaries. Robert Kingdom however argues that probably there were more than 140 sent in 1562.

By 1555 there were in France only a handful of ‘dressed churches’ (ie with elders) as opposed to planted churches, which were really cell-groups. However, Errol Hulse argues that by late 1560s, after Calvin’s death, there were over 2,000 congregations in France and within 2 years, perhaps as many as 2 million, to cope with the 20 million of French men and women who were Protestants.

In fact, the impact was so penetrating that Charles 9th in France pleaded with Genevan authorities to bring their preachers back to Geneva because ‘the Genevan preachers are disturbing my kingdom’.

The period of 1555-62 was remarkable for the number of missionaries who were sent to France especially. Calvin wrote to Bullinger, ‘It is unbelievable to see how impetuously our brothers are rushing forward. My door is besieged like that of a King. Vacant positions are fought over. Our resources are exhausted. We are reduced to sending men with a smattering of doctrine.’

One historian, as a consequence of this innovative approach to mission, has written that the period of 1555-64 was ‘the greatest home mission project since the apostles.’

Not only did missionaries go from Geneva to France, but others went to the Netherlands, where they were influential in writing the Belgic Confession; John Laski, from Poland pastored churches in London, Holland, Norway, Frankfurt as well as in Poland and Hungary.

As a result of Laski’s ministry in Poland, Calvin dedicated one of his commentaries to the Polish King Sigismund, writing, ’Your kingdom is extensive and renowned, and abounds in many excellencies, but its happiness will only be solid when it adopts Christ as its chief ruler and governor.’ Other missionaries were sent to Brazil.

It is intriguing in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation to visit the church in Wittenberg where it all started. In that church there are panels of stained glass windows of at least 12 Reformers, all influenced by Luther and Calvin and taking the gospel variously to Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Italy, Scotland, England and the Nordic countries.

In conclusion, therefore, it is easy to argue that the period 1555-64 was amongst one of the greatest periods of missionary endeavour in the history of the church, fostered by Calvin’s convictions.

There is much to learn from him, not only from his focus on preaching, but his creativity in terms of targeting university students, engaging with kings and queens,  his use of literature and his commitment to church-planting.

For him, truth and mission were indissolubly linked. Creative approaches were to be sought in trying to take the gospel cross-culturally by any means possible.

Perhaps we should do the same today!

Lindsay Brown
IFES/UCCF, Roving Evangelist and speaker at EMF's 2017 Huddle Conference

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