Prof. Gritters is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Reformation and missions? The Netherlands of the sixteenth century and world evangelism? Some might propose these as new examples of oxymoron. In the early decades after the Lord began reforming His church, the Reformed believers in the Netherlands (and elsewhere, for that matter) did relatively little mission work outside their own lands.
But the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed in the Lowlands did make important contributions to God’s cause of missions in the world—enduring contributions worthy of note by Reformed churches today.
Reasons for inactivity in missions
The temptation to criticize the Reformed in the Netherlands for their failure to send out many missionaries early on and to great distances ought to be resisted. For many reasons:
First, the reality of distant lands with many peoples was just beginning to dawn on Europe. World exploration was in its infancy. Reformed believers certainly knew of the Jews and Muslims (“Turks” as they called them). They knew of Asia and Africa. But of the unevangelized heathen in the more distant lands of Asia, Australia, and the Americas they were largely unaware.
Second, how to travel to what distant lands they did know was challenging. Mission work after the Reformation was hindered by the political realities and the church-state relations of the day. In most countries the church was under the authority of, or at least under the influence of, the state. The political reality of cuius regio eius religio (whose is the region, his is the religion) applied. The government of a land determined the religion of the land. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for a missionary to attempt to influence the religion of a people in a neighboring country. Then, Spain and Portugal, both Roman Catholic countries, had dominion over the seas. How could Protestant missionaries go out of the Netherlands?
Third, the Protestants in Europe were literally fighting for their lives, threatened as they were by the Roman Catholic majority. A people under such threats could not have the energy to send out many missionaries. The Peace of Westphalia gave Protestants a glimmer of hope. But that did not come until the middle of the seventeenth century (1648).
Fourth, the controversies among the Protestants themselves sapped strength from the churches. Protestantism battled over doctrines and quickly divided. Calvinism’s battle against Lutheranism, and the Reformed against Arminianism in the Netherlands, took time and energy—necessary time and energy. But the Roman Catholic charge stung: “Laboring in unity, we have gained thousands of converts from Jews and Turks. Divided, you have but a handful.”
Finally, doctrinal positions put roadblocks in front of an aggressive and healthy labor in missions. Some of the reformers, Beza included, believed that the great commission had been fulfilled by the apostles—at least that the great commission did not apply to the church of the day. Also, Luther contended that the end of the world was imminent. (“In a hundred years this will all be over.” “The last day is not far away.”) Their view was that the unbelief in the world at large was God’s judgment upon the nations for rejecting the gospel many years before. The nations were beyond hope. Christ would return soon.
Reformed Dutchmen going out
Nevertheless, Reformed believers in the Netherlands began to engage in missions. Missionaries went out with the merchants of the Dutch commercial ventures: the United East-India Company, founded in 1602, and the West-India Company, founded in 1621. When missionaries were in short supply, a special training school for missionaries was established in Leiden—the “Seminarium Inductum.” Dutch missionaries went to Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, China, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Australia, Malaysia, and India. In their work, they translated the Bible into many of the languages of the native populations. They wrote gospel literature. By the end of the 1600s, well over 300 missionaries had been sent to the newly discovered East Indies. The Dutch also went west. The West Indies, the mainland of North America, and Brazil were destinations. The story of Reformed missions in each of these lands is fascinating all by itself.
What is not so happy is the way in which much of the mission work was performed in the early days after the Reformation.
The work of most missionaries was inseparably related to commercial ventures and colonialism. The leaders of business ventures wanted Reformed ministers to travel with them to be pastors to the colonists. The faithful ministers among them did see the God-given opportunity to bring the gospel to the unbelievers in these dark lands. But the ministers came at the behest of business. Even the missionary-school was established by the United East India Company. Also, because of commercial interests and governmental influence, some foolish practices took place on the fields: missionaries received cash bonuses for each new convert; there were requirements of a Christian profession for employment in the colonies; and the United East-India Company in Japan issued warnings against handing out Christian literature, public worship, and observing the Sabbath.
The Substantial Dutch Contribution
The Reformed contribution from the Netherlands after the Reformation was not so much to the practice of missions as to the doctrine of missions. While missionaries were going out, others were reflecting on their work and on the biblical principles that should govern that work. What Reformed churches today can learn from Dutch history is perhaps more from these early writings as from the initial labors.
The Dutch Reformed theologian Gisbertus Voetius is considered the father of Reformed mission theology. Born already in 1589, Voetius was an early participant in the Reformation’s progress in the Netherlands. He served two pastorates, from 1610 to 1634, in which he gained good knowledge of the mission labors of the churches. From 1634 until 1676, when he died at age of eightyseven, he taught at the seminary in Utrecht. A delegate to the great Synod of Dordt, Voetius took part in the battle against Arminianism. He also participated in the synod’s decisions about missions, including the question of baptism on the mission field, which the consistory of Amsterdam raised.
Voetius did not develop the first Protestant theology of missions in an ivory tower. As an experienced pastor and professor, living among the churches and knowledgeable of the church broadly, Voetius wrote in reaction to 1) the explosive growth of Roman Catholic missions, 2) the relation of the government to the church, and 3) the commercial ventures of the Hollanders. (For those interested in a more thorough explanation of Voetius’ missiology, see Calvin Theological Journal, April 1991, pp. 47-79.) In his writings, he asked and answered some of the classic questions:
1. What is the purpose and goal of missions?
Voetius’ view was broad, but he identifiedmission’s purpose and goal as the conversion of men, the planting of churches, the glory of God. The “planting of churches” (he spoke often of plantatio ecclesiaeand wrote a major treatise entitled De Plantatione Ecclesiarum) came about by the conversion of God’s elect (he maintained a predestinarian emphasis) and the gathering of them to Christ by the Word preached. Voetius had a broad view of missions. Included in the goal was a) the re-gathering of scattered churches; b) the re-formation of churches deformed in doctrine, life, or discipline; c) the re-union of divided churches; and d) the support of poor churches. Ultimately, the goal of missions for Voetius was the glory of God through the salvation of people and through the planting and reformation of churches. Notice, Voetius did not speak of world “shalom” or “kingdom- building” as goals. It was not until the twentieth century that other Dutchmen would chastise Voetius for this “failure” and propose new goals, which are adopted broadly by churches today.
2. Who sends the missionaries?
Over against the Roman Catholic practices as well as some of the Protestant practices, Voetius maintained that the church alone may send missionaries. Specifically, Godmust send them through the church. Although Voetius would have allowed churches (that is, classes or synods) to send missionaries, Voetius vehemently opposed their sending by the government, by commercial interests, or by individual Christians or groups of Christians. Mission work is an ecclesiasticaleffort.
3. Who may be sent to do missions?
A most rigorous selection process was required, in which social skills, eloquence, prudence, diligence, piety, and boldness were required. Voetius advised that the missionary be trained not only in the most important discipline of theology (“no theological misfits al allowed”), but in science, history, and philosophy. Then, the man must have thorough knowledge of the people’s culture, history, religion, and language. No man may enter a field without language training. Interestingly, Voetius proposed a distinction between those who “plant” and those who “water,” and also made a threefold distinction between those who 1) preach, 2) those who teach catechism and visit the sick (both must be officebearers) and 3) those who, though not officially “sent” (Voetius kept his eye fixed on church order), were present to assist in all the other necessary work on a mission field.
4. Finally, who are the objects of missions?
The church must set her sights on all who are estranged from the church. Some are estranged by bare unbelief, others by heresy, and yet others by schism. There are Jews, Gentiles (pagans), and Muslims. Significantly, Voetius believed that the characteristics of the people on any particular field determine what particular man is qualified for the work in that place: are they cultured or uncultured, educated or unlettered, Jew or Muslim? Send a man fit for that work.
The length of this special issue does not permit a lengthier description of early Dutch missiology. The churches would be well served by a careful reading (or translation) of the Dutch sources. Latin would help, too, for Voetius’ main work, which includes much about missions, Politica Ecclesiastica, has never been translated. There is precedent that teaches. There are “old paths” in missions, too.