Protestant interest in mission overseas took some considerable time to develop. During its formative phase, Protestantism seems to have had little interest in the notions of "mission" or "evangelism." Neither John Calvin nor Martin Luther had any particular concern to reach beyond the borders of Christendom. In particular, Calvin's model of evangelism, evident in his approach to the French situation, is primarily that of the reformation of Catholics—that is to say, the conversion of people from one form of Christianity to another.
Protestantism was initially landlocked, surrounded by Catholic or Orthodox territories; reaching the heathen would have been problematic. Both Luther and Calvin were emphatic that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were Christian; what they required, they argued, was reformation. Even Calvin, who did not deny the validity of the Great Commission (the traditional term used for Christ's command to take the gospel to all nations; Matthew 28:17-20), maintained that the propagation of the Christian faith was not under the jurisdiction of the church but was the duty of the "Christian" state. After the rise of con-fessionalism in the 1560s, characterized by the principle cuius regio, eius religio ("whoever rules the region decides its religion"), the primary means of evangelism was through the activities of the local prince. Evangelism was thus seen as a function of the Christian state rather than the responsibility of the individual Christian. On this understanding, evangelism was about reaching non-Christian peoples—such as Jews, Muslims, and, most significantly, the Lapps of northern Scandi-navia—within their own territories.
Catholicism was able to race ahead of Protestantism in this respect through the vast maritime exploits of its Spanish and Portuguese mariners. Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits led missions to North
America, South America, India, and Japan. Even if it had missionary inclinations (which Protestants generally did not at this stage), no Lutheran or Reformed territory had any serious capacity for such voyages of exploration or evangelism; most, in fact, did not even have access to the sea. By the second half of the sixteenth century, the Christian population of the world had soared through expansion in new regions. Yet Protestantism was largely unaffected by this expansion. To some of its worried supporters, it seemed to have abdicated its missionary responsibilities.
This early Protestant disinterest in mission was first noted by Gustav Warneck in the 1880s.1 His historical research convinced him that there was a simple explanation. Although his observations have been qualified by subsequent scholarship, they have yet to be convincingly rebutted.2 Basing his conclusions on a careful analysis of the sources, Warneck identified three reasons for Protestantism's lack of interest in missions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
1. These early Protestants interpreted the "Great Commission"—the command to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19)—as a task given to the apostles of the first century, not to their successors in the post-apostolic church.
2. They believed that the end of all things was close to hand, so that there was little point in embarking on such an ambitious undertaking.
3. It was their theological conviction that God could be relied upon to convert peoples in his own good time.
Warneck's third point is well illustrated by a famous incident involving William Carey (1761-1834), later to be one of the most important British missionaries to India. He began to frame the idea of a missionary calling after reading Captain Cook's account of his voyages in the South Seas. Yet few shared his enthusiasm. In 1792 Carey proposed—to general astonishment, it seems—that a group of Baptist ministers in Northamptonshire discuss "the duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel among heathen nations." An older minister rose and rebuked him: "Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine." Warneck's third point precisely.
The earliest Protestant advocate of worldwide evangelization is believed to have been Adrian Saravia (1532-1613), a Flemish Reformed theologian who converted to Anglicanism and became a close associate of Richard Hooker.3 Saravia argued "that the command to preach the Gospel to all peoples is obligatory upon the Church since the Apostles were taken up into Heaven, and that for this purpose the apostolic office is needful." This led him to insist that the obligation to evangelize all peoples rests upon the Christians of every age in history in that Christ, in giving this commission, promised to be with his disciples to the end of time. Since the apostles left the work incomplete, it is the duty of the church to carry out the Great Commission. Both Reformed and Lutheran theologians of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, such as Theodore Beza and Johann Gerhard, argued that the Commission came to an end with the close of the apostolic age. Given this hostility toward mission within classical Protestantism, the rise of missionary activity during the eighteenth century is actually quite remarkable and requires explanation. It was not until the 1830s that most mainline Protestant churches in the West regarded mission as a "good thing."
This important transition is partly explained by a classic feature of the development of Protestantism: the shifting interpretation of core biblical texts. Definitive interpretations of those texts were offered and accepted by one generation, only to be overturned by another; a new understanding of the identity and mission of Protestantism thus arose as being self-evidently correct. In this case, the text was Matthew 28:17-20, which relates how the risen Christ commissioned the apostles to take the gospel to the ends of the earth:
Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
The command is clear—but to whom is it addressed? Who is being asked to take the gospel to all nations?
Warneck's point is that early Protestants interpreted this command as being spoken to those present on that occasion—the apostles. The task was specific to them and to their age; with their passing, the command was no longer binding on Christians. After all, the apostles had traveled to the ends of the known world to spread the gospel. That task was over. Yet when the eighteenth century revisited this interpretation of the passage, it was found to be increasingly problematic. Voyages of discovery had opened up vast new territories, unknown to the apostles. Why should not the gospel be proclaimed there?
Perhaps more significantly, Pietistic and evangelical forms of Protestantism, which emphasized personal conversion, were naturally oriented toward the idea of reaching out to those who were not converted— whether in Christianity's heartlands in western Europe, then passing through a period of religious indifference, or in the new territories being opened up through exploration.4 German Moravian Pietists, though a small community, were engaged in missionary work in Greenland, America, and Africa by the 1750s and saw this work as the natural extension of their calling as Christians.
Yet Warneck's analysis needs expansion, and perhaps a little modification, if the surge in Protestant missionary work in the eighteenth century is to be understood. Important though the new interpretation of the Great Commission might be, this theological adjustment was inadequate in itself to transform the situation without the means to project the gospel into distant lands. The new theology might create aspirations, but it could not solve the practical problems that attended them. A Protestant mission to a region required a Protestant presence in that region. But how could Protestant churches carry out evangelism when they lacked the means to reach those parts of the world where evangelism was possible?
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