Calvinism and Christian Missions

Michael Horton’s presentation

Michael Horton devotes chapter 7 of For Calvinism,  to an inspiring defense of Calvinism against the charge that its doctrines discourage missionary activity and prayer for it.

History

Horton begins with a historical survey of missionary work by Reformed churches.

  • In the Reformation era, both Lutheran and Reformed churches were landlocked and needed time to develop the missionary personnel which Roman Catholic monastic orders had already been raising for centuries. But Calvin was arguably the most missionary-minded of all the Reformers. “He not only sent dozens of evangelists back into his homeland of France, but also commissioned four missionaries, along with a number of French Huguenots, to establish a colony and evangelize the Indians in Brazil” (153, citing Ruth Tucker).
    • 142 graduates from the Academy in Geneva were commissioned as missionaries by the churches in Geneva, in 1561 alone (154).
    • Calvin’s sermons reveal a passion for missions, and the Heidelberg Catechism (1564) was used as an evangelistic tool, being translated into many other European languages within 25 years of its formation (154). Striking instances of this were: the translation into Hebrew by Tremellius (d. 1580), a Reformed theologians who converted to Christ from Judaism and wanted the catechism to serve in evangelization of the Jewish people; and a Greek translation which was sent to the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, who officially adopted the Catechism (and even the Canons of Dort), although his action was repudiated by later leaders. In the post-Reformation era, the Catechism was also translated into Malay, Javanese, Singhalese, Tamil, Chinese and Japanese. All of this gives evidence of the active missionary thrust from Reformed churches, even prior to the rise of the modern missionary movement (155).   It was precisely this active missionary work that stimulated the foundation of the Jesuit Order, as part of Rome’s counter-Reformational response.
  • Reformed missionary activity continues to be very impressive in the modern missionary movement.
    • Agencies established by self-consciously Calvinistic individuals and churches included the London Missionary Society (1795).
    • The Dutch Reformed Church vigorously pursued missionary activity in areas where the Dutch were active in trade.
    • The New England Calvinists conducted evangelistic ministry among natives in the New World, out of which grew the English Parliament’s authorization of the founding of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. Individuals who are well known for their missionary work in New England include John Eliot (1604-90), the Mayhew family, and David Brainerd (1718-47). Schools were established which did significant work in training missionaries, including Dartmouth College, Yale, Andover, and the Log College (later named Princeton) (157).
    • Pioneering work was done in Africa by Presbyterians like Robert Moffat (1795-1862), David Livingstone (1813-73), and Mary Slessor (d. 1915) (158)
    • Thrusts were made into the Far East by Reformed and Presbyterian Churches, but also by Calvinistic Baptist and Anglican churches. Individuals noted for their work include Robert Morrison, and Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth, all of whom went to China (158-59). William Carey (1761-1834), a Calvinistic Baptist, “is celebrated as the founder of the modern missionary movement.” In fact, among Baptists, “it was the Calvinists who led the way in missions” (160). Reformed and Presbyterian missionary work in Korea was particularly fruitful.
    • In the Middle East, the fruit of pioneering Calvinistic missionary work is still evident, in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, modern Palestine, Kuwait, Oman, Syria, Lebanon, and Morocco (161-62).

This historical review greatly undermines the concerns expressed in Southern Baptist circles these days, that Calvinism will dampen enthusiasm for evangelism and missions within the Convention. Particularly noteworthy, I think, is Horton’s citing the fact that the Presbyterian Church in America “supports three times more foreign missionaries per capita than the SBC supports foreign and domestic missionaries combined.” And the PCA gives to international missions twice as large a percentage of the funds it receives from members as the SBC does (162).

Theology

Horton wraps up the chapter with a good look at the reasons why Calvinist theology motivates to mission, rather than discouraging it, as non-Calvinists often assume it would or should. Among factors Horton mentions are:

  • the belief that “election is the source, but God works through means” (164)
  • the confidence that we get from knowing that God has chosen to use our gospel witness to draw his people, those whom he effectually calls (166), and that God “has actually accomplished the salvation of all who trust in him” (164)
  • the universal sufficiency of Christ’s death for sinners, taught in Scripture and affirmed by the Canons of Dort (167-68)
  • God is able to overcome the unbelief of those to whom we minister, “no matter how hard their hearts” (166)
  • “Every time we pray for God to save someone, we are assuming that the new birth is a gift of God prior to the act of faith” (166)

My reflections

This is a chapter to which I regularly felt the urge to say “Amen,” and to give praise to God. I find the history of Calvinistic mission inspiring, and I agree with Michael Horton that Calvinistic theology naturally stirs joyful obedience to Christ’s commission. I saw this in my childhood as a missionary kid in India, and I experienced it in my own missionary experience in the Philippines. It is a wonderful privilege to have been chosen by God to share in his great missionary work, as he ransoms people for himself “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). There is a wonderful comfort in knowing that God only summons us to faithfulness, not to “success” by the measures we might establish. God graciously accomplishes his purposes through, and sometimes in spite of, us. God blesses us with a diversity of gifts for his service, and he uses us to sow and water the seed of his Word, but he alone can produce a harvest. Even our inadequacies and times of disobedience do not thwart God in the accomplishment of his missionary purposes, though they deprive us of the joy of feeling God’s pleasure. I have sometimes wondered how synergists get to sleep at night, given the possibility that their shortcomings might result in others spending eternity alienated from God. I can’t say that I have never felt guilty for not doing what I felt I should have done in situations, but I am grateful that I do not live with the burden of feeling responsible for the extent to which God’s missionary purpose in the world is achieved.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Part 4. Part 5

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2 Responses to Calvinism and Christian Missions

  1. Andrew Lake says:

    I’m researching Protestant missions to the Arabic world and discovered that a century and a half before the Calvinists turned up the Arminians had published and circulated the first Protestant apologetic literature in Arabic. The work was Grotius’s ‘De veritate religionis Christianae’. The translator was Edward Pococke who had served in Aleppo, Syria, as a chaplain to the English merchants. He was the first Professor of Arabic at Oxford University but was persecuted for being Anglican during the Commonwealth period. In the same period Anglican scholars, who would probably rate as Arminians, also produced the great work of biblical scholarship , Walton’s Polyglot. Surprisingly, John Owen derided it arguably because he was piqued by it being an Arminian effort.

    I’m not anti-Calvinist and resognise the heroic and impressive achievements of the Reformed branch of Christianity in carrying out the Great Commission but it’s worth taking other than a ‘Banner of Truth’ approach to history. Also the old story that Cyril Lucaris, the Patriarch of Constantinople, became a Calvinist is worth reappraising. The back story is his alliance with the Protestants to combat the machinations of the Jesuits in seeking to win the Greek Christians over to Rome.

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thank you Andrew. Your reflections on aspects of the history of Christian mission are illuminating. As a Calvinist, I have had to conclude that the lack of consensus in regard to the critical monergism/synergism watershed is part of God’s providence. For some reason, God has chosen to let these two different understandings of his work in the world persist and, through the ministry of people on both sides of the question, God is achieving his purpose among the nations. It is delightful to watch, and I am encouraged that even though my theology is wrong at some points, God can use me to draw people to himself and to help them to grow.

      Grace and peace to you.

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