It has often been alleged that the Reformers, particularly Luther and Calvin, had little interest in and, in fact, no understanding of the mission mandate of Christ to His Church. An example of this thinking is found in the book, De Geschiedenis Van De Zending, by a certain Ds. H.A. Wiersinga. This same charge has been leveled repeatedly at the Protestant Reformed Churches. We have been labeled as “non-mission minded.” We want to quote Wiersinga at length and then examine the writings of the Reformers to determine whether what Wiersinga says is true. It is our contention that he grossly misrepresents the Reformers, does them an injustice. We believe that the Reformers had a keen interest in missions and a Scriptural view of the Church’s calling. We also believe that the Protestant Reformed Churches stand squarely in the line of the Reformation when they say: “We believe that this missionary activity includes the work of church extension, and church reformation, as well as the task of carrying out the Gospel to the unchurched and heathen. However, we are convinced that our present duty lies primarily in the field of church extension and church reformation.” (Church Order of the Prot. Ref. Churches, 1961 edition, p. 43)
This is what Wiersinga says (translation by Rev. C. Hanko): “Luther and Calvin did not clearly recognize the mission calling of the church. They failed to see almost entirely that Christ’s church is a mission church, and therefore must be. Luther never escaped completely the idea of the Roman Catholic Church that the mission calling was laid by Christ only on the apostles. He proceeded from the assumption that the apostles had carried out that mandate in principle. The nations had heard from them the Gospel and had chosen for or against. Since that time the world consists of Christian nations and hardened peoples. The mandate ofMatthew 28 does not apply to the church anymore, was not a mission commission. There is no demand to go out for the very purpose of bringing the Gospel to outlying nations. Those heathen that still come to repentance and salvation are the .ripples that follow from the great wave of mission performed by the apostles, like ripples that appear when a stone is cast into the water. ‘Many imagine,’ he says (Luther—R.D.), ‘that the ingathering of the other sheep from the other fold has not yet happened, but I say: No, it has happened in the apostolic times.’ (Wiersinga does not give us the reference to Luther’s writings so we have no way of checking this statement in its context.)
“Sending out missionaries to non-Christian nations was ruled out by Luther. Only when someone should happen to come into contact with a pagan or a Mohammedan was it proper to let him hear the Gospel. Even in 1651 the theological faculty of Wittenberg expressed that the great commission was addressed only to the apostles.
“Luther’s attitude was influenced by his reaction to Rome in the fear that too much emphasis would fall on the work of man. Over against the Roman Catholic idea that everything depended on the effort of man, Luther emphasized that God will see to it that those who must be gathered in will be brought in. Mission endeavor was above all God’s work.
“Among those who opposed Luther in this was Erasmus. . . he wrote: ‘Europe is the smallest part of the globe, but what does the Christian Church possess in Asia, which is the greatest part of the earth, or what in Africa? In those wide expanses there are barbarian tribes that could readily be drawn to Christendom, if we were to send men there to sow good seed.’ . . . Certainly Erasmus expected too much from human activity, but he saw the mission calling of the church better than Luther did. It is true that in 1523 Luther pleaded for a Christian attitude toward the Jews and for preaching the gospel to them. . . but he later took quite a different attitude toward the Jews and poured out some pretty strong invectives against them . . . .
” . . . Calvin, even as Luther, was of the opinion that the mandate of Matthew 28 was principally carried out by the apostles. He considered it a moot question whether God would still call someone to the mission field . . . . And even though he laid more emphasis on the fact that we must wait for God to give an open door, more than Luther, he did not consider it the specific calling of the church to carry out mission work in heathen lands.
“Both of these reformers failed to understand that the promise of Matthew 28:20: ‘And behold, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world,’ belongs with the mission mandate, and is inseparably united with it. Then they would have seen that not only the promise but also the mandate is ‘unto the end of the world.’ They regarded this passage as a conclusion to the entire Gospel according to Matthew, rather than the promise of the ascending Lord that He would remain with His church even until He comes again. Thus not so much as a promise for the mission church.
“How different the churches of the reformation would have been if their organizers, Luther and Calvin, had understood the Word of God better in this respect. These churches would have been mission churches from the outset. That even now so many Lutheran and Reformed churches have so little zeal for mission endeavor today is the result of the attitude of the reformers. (Does not this unwarranted and unfounded charge make one bristle with indignation? R.D.)
” . . . Many arguments have been raised to try to defend the stand of the reformers. Mainly:
1. How could the protestants do mission work when the mission fields were closed to them? These countries, namely America, Asia were under the control of the Roman Catholics of Spain and Portugal. To go out into these lands meant gaining permission from Lisbon, and this was not given to a non-Catholic. There could only be an attempt at mission work by the protestants after 1600 when England and the Netherlands gained control of many colonies. In answer to this, let it be said that it is not a question of whether it was possible to perform mission work by the protestants, it is a question of whether they had zeal for it.
2. The reformers were much too busy with the work of the reformation in the churches of Europe to be engaged in mission endeavors elsewhere. All attention and effort had to be focused on the establishment of the purified church life. The reformers were entirely absorbed in that work. Again the same objection holds, did they see their calling? (A remark by Werner Elert, in The Structure of Lutheranism, p. 385 is to the point: ‘The poor man!—Luther—Instead of founding a missionary society, accompanying Cortez to Mexico, or at least assuring himself a professorship of missionary science he devoted himself, of all things, to the reformation of the church!’
3. Our conclusion must be that the century of the reformation did not much more than put forth a very meager effort toward mission endeavor, while the Catholic church was working very hard at that time. The idea of missions hardly troubled the church at that time. There was not real interest.”
Does this serious charge stand in the light of what the reformers themselves said? Let’s see. What did Luther say about mission work? It must be understood that if we search for a well-worked out theology of missions in the writings of either of the great reformers we are going to be disappointed. They simply didn’t address themselves to that question as such. But we can glean various statements from their voluminous works which indicate how they stood on the question. All of our quotations from Luther are taken from the book The Structure of Lutheranism, by Elert which quotes from the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works and hereafter only page references will be cited. This is what Luther concluded from Col. 1:23 and Mark 16:15 andPsalm 117: “the Gospel and Baptism must traverse the whole world.” p. 386. And from Hagg. 2 he concluded: “God wants to bless not two or three nations but the whole world.” p. 386. When Luther sometimes speaks as though the Gospel had already fulfilled its mission in all nations—as Wiersinga notes—it doesn’t mean that he had no understanding of the idea of missions. This for Luther was the simple conclusion to be drawn from the universal validity of the Gospel. Luther believed that if the Gospel is preached at all it is preached for all nations. The course of the Gospel to all nations is an act in progress in Luther’s conception, “The Kingdom of Christ passes through the whole world.” p. 387. Did he really believe that the mission mandate was intended only for the apostles and carried out by them alone? Listen: “The preaching. of the Gospelwas begun (emphasis mine, R.D.) through the apostles and continues, and is carried farther through the preachers here and there in the world, is driven out and persecuted; yet it is made known farther and farther to those who have never heard it before. . . . Or, as the saying goes, when someone sends out a message, the message has gone out, even though it has not yet come to the intended place or the specified location but is still under way.” p. 387. And again he says: “For the church is in constant use to convert others to faith and to call them to repentance.” p. 388. Luther believed that the Gospel even against those who do not want to hear it, “For the Lord does not want a flatterer as a preacher, since He does not say: ‘Go around the village or past it’ No, do not go around or past; go in; approach them boldly, and tell them what they do not want to hear.” p. 388. In this same connection concerning preaching to the heathen Luther states: “This has not yet been done. This time is in progress, inasmuch as the servants are going into the highways; the apostles made a beginning(emphasis mine, R.D.) and are still calling us together.” p. 389. In other words in Luther’s thinking the apostolic mission to the heathen (Matt. 28:19, 20) is continuing in us today. Luther thought of this in very practical terms as a duty and obligation of every child of God. “Christians should also bring forth much fruit among all the heathen by means of the Word, should convert and save many by eating about themselves like a fire that burns amid dry wood or straw; thus the fire of the Holy Spirit should consume the heathen according to the flesh and make room everywhere for the Gospel and the kingdom of Christ.” p. 389.
In addition Luther had a very high regard for missionaries and the mission calling of the church as is evident from these words: “Thus it is the best work of all that the heathen have been led out of idolatry to the knowledge of God.”
And finally Luther was aware of the fundamental importance of the preaching and of the fact that not societies or individuals but the church does mission work: “For if all the heathen are to praise God, it must first be established that He has become their God. If He is to be their God, they must know Him and believe in Him . . . . If they are to believe, they must first hear His Word . . . . If they are to hear His Word, preachers who proclaim God’s Word to them must be sent to them.” p. 390.
Admittedly one finds very little in the writings of Calvin that bears on this subject. This is not at all strange. There are many subjects that Calvin never dealt with. Calvin says virtually nothing in all his books on the second coming of Christ. Does that mean that he didn’t believe it or understand it? Nonsense! The same applies to the idea of missions. Just because Calvin says nothing specific on the subject doesn’t mean he had no understanding of the mission mandate of the church as Wiersinga so unjustly claims.
When we consult his commentary on Matthew 28:19, 20we find that Calvin nowhere suggests that he felt that the mandate was given only to the apostles and finished by them so that the church no longer has the calling to do mission work. In fact, that Calvin had a correct understanding of the significance of the promise of verse 20 (contrary to Wiersinga’s charge) is plain from these words in his commentary: “It ought to be likewise remarked, that this (the promise, “even to the end of the world”)was not spoken to the apostles alone; (emphasis mine, R.D.) for the Lord promises his assistance not for a single age only, but even to the end of the world (Calvin’s emphasis). It is as if he had said, that though the ministers of the gospel be weak and suffer the want of all things, (note, not just the apostles but the ministers of the gospel, R.D.) he will be their guardian, so that they will rise victorious over all the opposition of the world. In like manner, experience clearly shows in the present day, that the operations of Christ are carried on wonderfully in a secret manner, so that the Gospel surmounts innumerable obstacles.”
Now it is true that not one of the above statements of Luther and Calvin contains a theology of missions, not even all of them taken together. But it ought to be equally plain that they indicate exactly the opposite of what Ds. Wiersinga suggests. Luther and Calvin certainly were aware of the mission mandate of Christ and believed in it, taught it. It simply cannot be said of them that they had no interest in or understanding of the church’s calling in this respect.
Why then were virtually no missionaries sent out in those days of the 1500’s? Simply because the church at that time was in no position to do so! That ought to be plain. This was the period of upheaval and turmoil. God was calling His Church back to the firm foundation of His Word through Luther and Calvin and the other reformers. The church was being freed from the oppressive chains of Rome and the pope. There was no time, no opportunity to do mission work in the sense that it is being done today. The front line of the battle of faith in the sixteenth century lay between the reformers and Rome, not on some far distant mission field. After the church settled upon calmer times she turned her attention to carrying out the mission mandate of Christ. This was especially true in the 18th century as Rev. Hanko will no doubt show us in subsequent articles.
Finally, we quite agree with the remark of Conrad Bergendoff, “The charge sometimes made that . . . the church of the reformation showed no interest in missions is no longer considered valid, for the reformation itself was a tremendous mission effort opposed by formidable forces.” (The Church of the Lutheran Reformation, p. 187.) It should never be forgotten that the Reformation of the Church continues even to the end of the world. And, when the Protestant Reformed Churches say: “We believe that this missionary activity includes the work of church extension, and church reformation . . . “, (preamble, Constitution of Mission Committee) they are only asserting anew a soundly Reformed truth in the spirit of Luther and Calvin.