The Reformation and Missions: Theology and Doctrine

From J. Herbert Kane’s A Concise History of the Christian World Mission:

One would naturally expect that the spiritual forces released by the Reformation would have prompted the Protestant churches of Europe to take the gospel to the ends of the earth during the period of world exploration and colonisation which began about 1500.  But such was not the case.  The Roman Catholic Church between 1500 and 1700 won more converts in the pagan world than it lost to Protestantism in Europe.  Why did the Protestant churches take so long to inaugurate their missionary program?  What were some of the contributing factors?

The first, and perhaps the most potent, factor was the theology of the reformers.  They taught that the Great Commission pertained only to the original apostles; that the apostles fulfilled the Great Commission by taking the gospel to the ends of the then known world; that if later generations were without the gospel, it was their own fault–a judgement of God on their unbelief; that the apostolate, with its immediate call, peculiar functions and miraculous powers, having ceased, the church in later ages had neither the authority nor the responsibility to send missionaries to the ends of the earth…

Moreover there were the Predestinarians, whose preoccupation with the sovereignty of God all but precluded the responsibility of man.  If God wills the conversion of the heathen, they will be saved without human instrumentality.  If God does not will the salvation of the heathen, it is both foolish and futile for man to intervene.  Calvin wrote: “We are taught that the kingdom of Christ is neither to be advanced nor maintained by the industry of men, but this is the work of God alone”.

Added to this was the apocalypticism which anticipated, with some dismay, the rapidly approaching end of the age.  Luther particularly took a dim view of the future.  In his Table Talks he wrote: “Another hundred years and all will be over.  God’s World will disappear for want of any to preach it”.

22 thoughts on “The Reformation and Missions: Theology and Doctrine”

  1. Calvin wrote: “We are taught that the kingdom of Christ is neither to be advanced nor maintained by the industry of men, but this is the work of God alone”.

    Where did Calvin supposedly write this? I’d like to see it in context.

    The assertion that “neither the missionary nor the preacher is of any account, but only God who causes the growth of His church” goes back to 1Cor3:7, but that didn’t stop either Paul or Calvin from being obedient to Christ’s call to missions. As I posted elsewhere, these guys did a good job documenting Calvin’s actual beliefs and efforts, as opposed to the common myths and misrepresentations:

    http://www.founders.org/journal/fj33/article2.html

  2. “The Roman Catholic Church between 1500 and 1700 won more converts in the pagan world than it lost to Protestantism in Europe.”

    Are we to assume from this statement that the author of A Concise History of the Christian World Mission believes that the Roman Catholic Church preached the New Testament gospel and the faith to which it made converts was the New Testament faith or an approximation thereof. It is noteworthy that he makes no reference to the methods the Roman Catholic Church used to make these converts. I believe that the Inquisition was at its height during the same period.

    Just a thought.

  3. The key question has not been addressed.

    As someone who grew up in the “Protestant Episcopal Church” I was taught that the Reformation was the most important event in Christian history after the Resurrection. (Maybe a slight exaggeration, but not much…) But there’s no question that Reformed Protestantism has regarded this event and the doctrines that came out of it as the ne plus ultra of true Christianity.

    That being the case, why the two century delay in the start of a serious missionary effort from Protestant churches? Why wasn’t the Reformation the catalyst for the start of this at the time?

    1. I may suggest that it took the church two centuries to first clean the house before going out since the founding fathers of Reformation had to coin sound theology for the church, penned down liturgy and systematized their reformed teachings. Luther had to write to defend the truth found in scriptures, write hymns and teach, preach and train the grow christians for the new church movement. Calvin, Zwingli and others wrote, taught and preach what today is in volumes for the church to consume. The truth taught took time to grow and by God’s grace reached a time when the people were enabled by the Holy Spirit to take a step of obedience in the direction of missions. keep in mind that they were out to clean up unbiblical teachings that might have kept them from missions actions.
      On the other hand, Luther, Calvin and others did train people who went out with the truth they were taught. Calvin while in Geneva send missionaries back to France who were killed. Moreover, it is probably better to see every christian ministry as missions. therefore, they were doing missions in the reforming of the church. Every christian ministry should not be dissociate from missions lest we may miss the point for to them at the time it was missions… thanks

  4. Are you depending upon what one author has written or a wide survey of the literature on the subject?

    The missionary focus of Protestantism in 1500s and 1600s from what I have read was primarily the British Isles and Europe and took the form of the reform of the church in that part of the world and the evangelization of a nominally Christian population with the biblical gospel. The same period was marked by a great deal of political instability with Protestant and Roman Catholic armies fighting over territory in Germany, Holland, and elsewhere.. The Roman Catholic Church sent Jesuits secretly into the British Isles in an effort to win England back to Roman Catholicism. The Recusants conspired to murder the Protestant English monarch and put a Roman Catholic monarch on the English throne. .In those parts of Europe that Roman Catholic armies conquered from the Protestants such as Holland and France, the Inquisition accompanied the victorious armies and “converted” the population back to Roman Catholicism with the bonfire, the rack, and the sword. The population of entire Huguenot towns were massacred in France.

    Roman Catholic priests may have accompanied the Portuguese and Spanish to Africa, the East Indies, and the Americas and tried to convert the native population to Roman Catholicism. They resorted to same harsh methods in these parts of the world as they did in former Protestant lands.

    Not only was Europe embroiled in a number of wars during this period, England was torn by a civil war as well as involved in wars with foreign enemies, including the Scots. At the same time we also see the beginning of Protestant missionary work in the New World as England and Holland established colonies in North America.

    A common error is to presume that we know how God works. But as the Scriptures remind us, God’s ways are not our ways; his thoughts are not his thoughts. Because God does not do things the way that we feel he ought to do them does not mean that he was not at work in the events of a particular period in church history. .

    I further gather from my reading that denigrating the Reformatiorn on is pretty standard fare for the Church of God. It does not view the church as having been adequately reformed at the Reformation and calls for the further reform of the church along the lines of its interpretation of the New Testament church.

    1. “A common error is to presume that we know how God works. But as the Scriptures remind us, God’s ways are not our ways; his thoughts are not his thoughts. Because God does not do things the way that we feel he ought to do them does not mean that he was not at work in the events of a particular period in church history. . ”

      The issue here isn’t how God’s work starts or moves. The question here is how it stops. But that leads to the next issue…

      “I further gather from my reading that denigrating the Reformatiorn on is pretty standard fare for the Church of God. It does not view the church as having been adequately reformed at the Reformation and calls for the further reform of the church along the lines of its interpretation of the New Testament church.”

      The idea that the Reformation was an unfinished work–which is the stopping issue–is common to virtually any church with Wesleyan roots, i.e. the Methodists, Holiness and Pentecostal churches. The Church of God is not unique in that respect, although your use of the term “denigrating” is too strong.

      But these churches are not alone. Another dissenter in the pack are the Baptists. Irrespective of whether their theology be Calvinist or not–and Baptist churches have been and are all over the map on that–their attack on the Reformers’ state-supported and enforced ecclesiology is, in its own way, as fundamental as the issues we have debated. That attack came to fruition in this country, where the Anglican churches were disestablished in no small measure due to Baptist pressure (there were others, to be sure). And, of course, Baptists reject the whole concept of pedobaptism, which made them a stench in the nostrils of the Reformers.

      One interesting sidelight to this is the issue of “Baptist Succession”, i.e. that Baptist churches are really not Protestant churches because they, through antecedent groups, antedate the Reformation.

  5. Are you referring to the sixteenth century Anabaptists or to the seventeenth century English Independents-Baptists? If the latter, General Baptists or Particular Baptists? You also need to provide primary and secondary sources. Baptists are a very diverse group as I suspect that you know. They do not all subscribe to landmarkism.

    1. As Pascal said in the Provincial Letters, there is no part of my patience you have not pushed to the limit.

      I don’t need a lecture on the Baptists. I have deep Baptist roots. I spent 2 1/2 years in an SBC church. I researched their history very extensively before joining.

      The points you bring up are irrelevant to the topics at hand. You know and I know that Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican alike hated the Baptists in Germany, Holland and England. They intensely disliked the practice of rebaptism which was common to them all. Believers’ baptism is the defining characteristic of Baptist churches, irrespective of their doctrine (and, as I noted above, I am aware of those variations).

      The Reformers further disliked the fact that they were dissenters with their own ecclesiastical structure, a structure that was not dependent upon state sanction. The persecution of Baptists by Reformed churches of all kinds is a blot on those Reformers. But getting past that is one of those “progress” issues.

      If you’re interested in sources, the one I still have on hand is L.D. Foreman and Alta Payne’s The Church That Jesus Built.

      You also may find this of interest:

      https://www.vulcanhammer.org/2011/05/22/the-mcpherson-bogard-debate/

  6. In other ways, you are referring to the sixteenth century Anabaptists, not to the seventeenth century English Independents-Baptists, the forefathers of the modern-day American Baptists. The Anabaptists did suffer persecution as they were more radical in their beliefs than the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. These beliefs included the common ownership of property, rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, the superiority of personal revelations from the Holy Spirit to the Scriptures, antinomianism, and universalism. They also practiced rebaptism as you pointed out. Their modern-day successors are the Amish and the Mennonites (albeit these groups have abandoned the more extreme beliefs of the Radical Reformation.) The seventeenth century English Independents-Baptists with the seventeenth century English Independents-Congregationalists formed the bulk of Oliver Cromwell’s New Army in the English Civil War. In the broadest sense, these two groups may be described as “Baptist.” They both practiced believer baptism. Yet there are other groups that practice believer baptism, which do not describe themselves as “Baptist” or accept that designation.

    Two of the problems that I have with your posts are that you have a tendency to make broad, sweeping generalizations without offering support for your opinions. You also have a tendency to go off on a tangent. It may be trying to your patience that I ask you to be more specific but I believe that our readers are entitled to greater specificity. They may not be as well-informed as we are in regards to the history of the Christian Church, the Protestant Reformation, and the origins of the various denominations.

  7. “In other ways, you are referring to the sixteenth century Anabaptists, not to the seventeenth century English Independents-Baptists, the forefathers of the modern-day American Baptists.”

    No. It’s worthy of note that religious dissenters/nonconformists of any kind suffered various types of persecution and other legal disabilities in England until at least the repeal of the Test Act in 1828. That, along with a visceral disagreement with the whole concept of rebaptism, made Baptists a target of English authorities. Any relief they may have obtained from Oliver Cromwell was short-lived. Just because persecution isn’t consistent (it wasn’t before Constantine either) doesn’t mean it isn’t important. That’s one of the less appetising legacies of the Reformation, and not just in England.

    That history explains why the Baptists and others weren’t shy about persuing the disestablishment of Anglican churches (in transition after the American Revolution) in the Southern colonies.

  8. “No. It’s worthy of note that religious dissenters/nonconformists of any kind suffered various types of persecution and other legal disabilities in England until at least the repeal of the Test Act in 1828. That, along with a visceral disagreement with the whole concept of rebaptism, made Baptists a target of English authorities. Any relief they may have obtained from Oliver Cromwell was short-lived. Just because persecution isn’t consistent (it wasn’t before Constantine either) doesn’t mean it isn’t important. That’s one of the less appetising legacies of the Reformation, and not just in England.”

    And no one was persecuted before the Reformation? Baptists and other church groups, including your present denomination have not persecuted any group in their history?

    “That history explains why the Baptists and others weren’t shy about persuing the disestablishment of Anglican churches (in transition after the American Revolution) in the Southern colonies. ”

    Again, you are making broad, sweeping generalizations.

    1. “And no one was persecuted before the Reformation? Baptists and other church groups, including your present denomination have not persecuted any group in their history?”

      Basically what you’re telling me is that, since Roman Catholics persecuted people, it’s OK for others (including Reformers) to do so. I don’t think you believe that.

      It’s true that persecution of non-state endorsed religions was the common currency of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe on both sides of the Reformation. Changing that is as much a part of the “unfinished business” of the Reformation as anything.

      As far as the Church of God is concerned, it has not been around long enough (126 yrs), been a large enough portion of the population (6-7% max, in Jamaica) and had the access to the halls of power to persecute much of anyone outside of its own walls.

      Speaking of Jamaica–and working with them was a joy–the Anglican Province of the West Indies tends to be Anglo-Catholic. You think that the success of other churches is at least in part due to that Anglo-Catholicism? There’s some ammo for you there if you’ll pursue it.

      “Again, you are making broad, sweeping generalizations.”

      Then perhaps you have a better explanation for the disestablishment of Anglican churches.

  9. The point is that the persecution of other religious groups even of the same faith is not a phenomena particular to the Reformation. It is evidence, if anything, of human depravity and human failing. As Article IX points out, the inclination to evil is present even in the regenerate. Christians have acted in a number of reprehensible ways in the past 2000 odd years. Do we therefore dismiss Jesus and the Christian faith as some of our critics would have us do? Or do we recognize that we as Jesus-followers are not perfect and do “miss the mark”? In the same 2000 odd years God working through His Church has done a great deal of good in the world. We might like to take the credit for it but it was God working in us to will and do his good pleasure.

    I tend to shy away from reductionist views of history. From what I gather, more than one factor contributed to the disestablishment of the Anglican churches. If I was writing a paper on the subject, I would look at what happened in each former colony.

    1. My original point was that Baptists were persecuted on both sides of the Channel, which you denied. While your diatribe above brings up some good points, it doesn’t speak to your basic contention. You have, to use your own expression, gone off on a tangent.

      I take your last paragraph to mean that you don’t really have a position on this subject.

  10. What I questioned was your lumping together of a number of groups on solely on the basis that they practiced rebaptism–a reductionist point of view. These groups may be described as “Baptist” in a very broad sense. They, however, differ from each other theologically and in other ways. They also have different origins.

    As for going off on a tangent, I responded to what you wrote. I did not go along with your reductionist viewpoint and explained why.

    I would not draw any conclusions from my last paragraph other than what I wrote. If I wrote a paper on the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in the former British colonies in North America, I would carefully research what happened and identify all the factors involved. This is the kind of methodology that the better historians use and the kind of methodology in which I was trained in university.

    Reductionists, on the other had, sacrifices historical accuracy and objectivity for pet theories. They fasten upon a particular theory and then selectively use data to support it, leaving out any findings that do not support that theory. If they cannot persuade others to accept their theory, they may resort to attacking competing views in an effort to discredit those who put forward these views. The aim is that their pet theory will be accepted by default and not on its merits. .

    1. I have a reasonably extensive academic career–BS, MS, working on PhD, teaching at the university level. I’ve been accused of many things, but I don’t recall reductionism being one of them.

      Ultimately, however, we study history to learn something from it. To do that we have to ask ourselves questions such as “why?” and “how does this impact the present?” To do that requires making hypotheses and then testing them against the knowledge we have on hand. If that’s reductionism, then so be it. One thing I have found, however, is that doing this exposes a great deal of weak conventional wisdom.

      Personally, I think your view of the English Reformation is reductionistic, although, as I admitted even before we got into this unedifying dialogue, I think you have the better case vis a vis the Anglo-Catholics. Better, but not airtight, and that assessment was not to your taste. Your response, IMHO, was pedantic in the extreme, and what’s more I still have no idea where you stand on the key issues. What brand of Calvinism do you really think is right, and why? Are the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession the better statement of faith? Do the Scots or the English have the better ecclesiastical structure to complement a Reformed faith? And to all of this why? These answers eluded me, lost in a morass of secondary sources which in many cases have agendas (reductionistic)? of their own. Why should I agree with a position that I don’t really know? Or am I just looking at another version of Anglican Fudge?

      I also think that this debate would have been better served if you had done it “blog to blog” rather than the way it was conducted. I try not to put too many rules on commenters on this blog, but I must say that only one other time in seven years have I been tempted to restrict this:

      https://www.vulcanhammer.org/2009/07/20/reply-to-jonathan-chm-to-his-endless-rant-on-the-blasphemy-of-the-holy-spirit-and-speaking-in-tongues/

      If you pursued the Anglo-Catholics with the same vigour you’ve pursued my posts, the course of North American Anglicanism might be altered.

  11. Don,

    It may be stating the obvious that we look at things from different angles and have different interpretations of the same events. My experience with this kind of discussion is that they tend to polarize those involved in them and go nowhere. They also take up time that otherwise might be spent more constructively.

    I have set a number of parameters for my blog within which I try to stay. The guiding principle by which I operate is to edify the reader. While slain in the Spirit at a revival in 2001 I received a word from the Lord, “Build my church.” From the Scriptures I gathered that this can mean a lot of things. It particularly means building up and not tearing down.

    I also value maintaining good relations with other bloggers even with those I disagree. With that in mind I will take a voluntary break from further pursuing this discussion.

  12. I have taken patience enough to go through your interactions. From start it looked like an edifying interaction in which godly interactions that refreshes the soul of the Saints flew. Being mortals with fallen natures and finite minds your interactions swept off and on to terms that would hurt or heal I can’t differentiate. People the very passion with which you defend what you are enabled by the grace of God to see is given you by God and it is not for you to wound others for whom Christ died except I am in a wrong forum. I am assuming you are Theologians who are Saved. Therefore, some maybe stumbled and the very question of why missions delayed maybe because we may spend time pour out our fire at each other and not seek to pursue peace and speak that which is encouraging for the purpose of Christ’s church growth. And how I pray you refrain from what may hurt those we disagree with. For Christ’s sake Love you all.

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