“In This Corner . . . ” Two Reformed Theologians Express Opposing Opinions on the Great Commission and the Validity of Mission Agencies

Two Dutch theologians, living in the 17th century, held opposing positions on the topic of the validity of the Great Commission and the legitimacy of mission agencies. Both men held to the Reformed theology of John Calvin. One of them would carry the day for the entire Reformed church, reasoning that the Great Commission was a first century concern, and that mission agencies should therefore be suppressed. The other man, isolated from the popular opinion, would move to England and help translate the King James Version of the Bible.

Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) held that the Great Commission was a first century concern and that mission agencies were not biblical. Mission agencies acted independently of the administrative bodies of the church, therefore they disturbed the peace, unity and purity of the church, and for this reason mission agencies were out of order. This opinion was held by the majority of church leaders of his day. Voetius held that only apostles or synods or presbyteries have the right to establish missions (I suggest the term sola synodica for this opinion). It is only within the context of the organized Church that true sending takes place. All other attempts to organize Christians for any purpose are outside the church and must be suppressed. The Church organized in its Reformed version is the bride of Christ and all other forms and all other mission initiatives are unbiblical.[1] Neither the pope, nor princes and magistrates, nor companies may do so. (Hence the Danish-Halle mission, chartered in 1706 by the king of Denmark, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, chartered by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament in 1649 were out of order). Thus, it is said, “If the church were properly organized we would not need the para-church agencies.”

This theory prevailed in the Reformed Churches, and for this reason the Reformed Churches send almost no missionaries. This did not vex the leaders of the Reformed denominations, as what mattered more than sending missionaries was the peace, purity, and unity of the church. I created a timeline comparing the number of notable Reformed missionaries to the number of Catholic missionaries in the first two centuries of the Reformation:

The Reformed Churches sent 7 missionaries in this 183 year period, or one every 26 years. The Catholics sent 126 missionaries in this same period. I honor these seven Reformed missionaries. You can read their biographies here.

Gisbertus Voetius spoke for most of the Reformed Church leaders of his day, but Adrian Saravia was his capable opponent.

Adrian Saravia (1532-1613) held that the Great Commission was valid for all times. He also held a positive opinion toward independent mission efforts. This is because the Holy Spirit sends missionaries as He wills, as, for example, the missionary bands in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit still sends missionaries, and these efforts are part of the church because the church is not only that which church men have made. Agencies are part of the church and have an apostolic mission to establish churches in regions beyond. If the Holy Spirit sends missionaries, these efforts should be recognized by the church men have made. More about him here. [2]

Adrian Saravia was born in Belgium of Protestant parents and educated in Paris. He established a Walloon church in Brussels, and assisted in the drafting of the Belgic Confession in 1561 when he was 29 years old. Between 1584 and 1587 he was professor of divinity at Leiden. Because of his involvement in political turmoil, Saravia left for Britain, where he became an Anglican and was a canon of Canterbury and then at Westminster Abbey. He was one of the translators of the King James Bible, and the only translator not born in England.

In 1590 Saravia published De diversis ministrorum evangelis grad bus (“The Diversity of Evangelical Ministries”).[3] Saravia promoted his idea that the “Great Commission is [still] binding on the Protestant Church.”[4] He maintained, David Bosch wrote, “that we could only appropriate the prom­ise of Jesus in Matthew 28:20 if we also obeyed the commission of Matthew 28:19.”[5] Saravia’s views were, however, “fiercely opposed by Theodore Beza, Cal­vin’s successor in Geneva, as well as by the Lutheran Johann Gerhard.”[6]

The viewpoints of Saravia and Voetius are going to be with us for a long time. One viewpoint starts with the church as constituted by its administrative boards. These alone are valid mission agents (sola synodica). This viewpoint would rather have no missionaries, a small price to pay to maintain the peace, unity, and purity of the church. The second viewpoint starts with the Holy Spirit as the mission sender. The church as organized by fallible men and these church men should validate those efforts which are set in motion independent of church boards. More about Adrian Saravia here.[7]

Summary. The history of the Protestant mission is the tension between two ideals, expressed in the 17th century by Voetius and Saravia. What is apparent from the record is that the sola synodica theory did not produce a mission agenda. There was an operating system failure; the Reformed churches suppressed the agencies of mission enabled the missionaries of the Bible (Paul and Barnabas, Prisca and Aquila) Patrick and the Irish missionaries (such as Columbanus) who advanced the cause of Christianity across Europe, and the Catholic mission agencies, which were active during the long Protestant mission ice age. For nearly three centuries the Calvinist and Lutheran churches “failed to develop a missionary structure that was reproducible and sustainable. Protestants had no structure through which to send missionaries.”[8] Then, in 1792, William Carey’s zeal for God’s glory among the nations and his simple proposal to use “means” set in motion the modern mission era. His simple assembly kit enabled citizens everywhere to organize themselves to send missionaries to the regions beyond.


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[1] Boston University online biography of Voetius, https://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/t-u-v/voetius-gisbertus-gijsbert-voet-1589-1676/, accessed 02/11/2022

[2] https://www.bu.edu/missiology/missionary-biography/t-u-v/voetius-gisbertus-gijsbert-voet-1589-1676/

[3] Anderson, Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. 592

[4] Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 247.

[5] Ibid. 247

[6] Ibid. 247

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadrian_%C3%A0_Saravia

[8] Mulholland, “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement.” 87