Transforming Mission. 2nd of 4: The Hobbled Mission of the Protestant Reformation

Luther believed the message of Christianity would reach to the ends of the earth; not so the generation that followed him. “Later Lutheran theologians were less clear on the missionary nature of theology.”[1] Calvin propounded a missionary theology. “Still, very little happened by way of a missionary outreach during the first two centuries of the Reformation . . . In abandoning monasticism the Reformation denied themselves a very important missionary agency; it would take centuries before anything remotely as competent and effective as the monastic missionary movement would develop in Protestantism.”[2] Catholics could say, “We know why the Protestants are in error; they have no missionaries.” Fortunately, the Reformation era knew at least one champion of the idea of sending missionaries to “the regions beyond”:  the Dutch theologian Adrian Saravia (1531-1613). Saravia was a younger contemporary of Calvin. In 1590 Saravia published a tract in which he argued in for the validity of the Great Commission; he maintained that we could only appropriate the promise of Jesus in Matthew 18:20 if we also obeyed the commission in 28:19. Saravia’s views, however, were fiercely opposed by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, as well as by the Lutheran Johann Gerhard.[3] Saravia had had enough of this nonsense he move to England and join the Anglican Church.

Gisbertus Voetius (1588-1676). Voetius was the first Protestant to develop a comprehensive “theology of mission.” Voetius regarded only the church as the legitimate bearer of mission. Neither pope nor bishops nor religious orders or secular authorities were approved. We see how his experiment has worked these past 500 years . . . “The Puritan understanding of mission was not essentially different from that of Voetius. Dutch overseas mission work began on Formosa (today’s Taiwan) in 1627. Shortly before that date, Alexander Whitaker had laid the foundations for mission work in the colony of Virginia.

John Elliot. The undisputed Protestant missionary pioneer was the Puritan John Eliot (1604-1690). Elliot spent practically his entire ministry among the Indians of Massachusetts. In 1649 the New England Company was founded in England to underwrite the missionary enterprise in the transatlantic colonies. It was the first Protestant society exclusively devoted to missionary purposes. But John Eliot was the only member of the New England Company who became a missionary.[4]

Classical Puritanism lasted more or less until 1735, that is, until the beginning of the Great Awakening. The theologians who helped develop the missionary idea in this era were—in addition to Eliot—Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, and Cotton Mather, while Jonathan Edwards was something of a transitional figure.[5]

Each version of the Protestant church wrote up its own doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and baptism that was right in its own eyes. Each fearlessly excommunicated all kinds of Christians who held differing opinions. Thus, the Swiss theologian Zwingli persuaded the city of Zurich to make adult baptism a capital crime. One of Zwingli’s ardent supporters, Felix Manx, tested the law by undergoing baptism at the age of 29. For this “crime” Manz was found guilty and taken, bound, to the river, where he was executed. Manz was “bound and drowned.” (Torture and punishment for holding different opinions be found every time some Christian denomination enjoys the favor of the government. But when a government ends this ruinous practice of favoring one doctrine over another, the different versions of Christianity have to make their appeal for members on an “even playing field.” All the threat to dissenting opinions vanishes considerably.)

Sadly, the denominations enjoyed a too cozy relationship with the rulers of this world for many centuries. This is the principle of Cuius regio, eius religio—“whose ruler, his religion.” The entire population of a city or a region was held captive to the religion preferred by its prince. No wonder we think of European Christianity as “nominal.” It was Christianity “in name only” and by force. Stephen Neill: “Since all in Europe are Christians in some sense, there is no need other than to safeguard against error in religion and viciousness in life.”[6] In all these instances the church was defined in terms of what happens inside its four walls, not in terms of its calling in the world. The verbs used in the Augustana are all in the passive voice: here, in our church, “the gospel is taught purely, the sacraments are administered rightly. It is not a place of doing.[7] A church battling other denomination over doctrine was a church without mission.

Next: Transforming Mission (3rd of 4). Voluntary Societies Create the Modern Mission Era

Previous: Transformation Mission (1st of 4). Early Christianity.

References Cited

Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

[1] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991). 245

[2] Ibid. 245

[3] Ibid. 247

[4] Ibid. 257

[5] Ibid. 257-8

[6] Ibid. 249

[7] Ibid. 249

[8] Ibid. 289

[9] Ibid. 290