This article explores John Calvin's view on the missionary task of the church.

Source: The Monthly Record, 2001. 3 pages.

Calvin and the Missionary Task

While Calvin cannot be ranked among the great leaders of the Missionary Movement we do him an injustice if we give him no place at all in connection with the awakening of Protestant missionary activity. It is true that his works contain no specific doctrine of missions and we may be surprised to find that he seems to limit the extent of the great commission of Matthew 28:19 to the times of the Apostles. There is convincing evidence both in his “Institutes” and in his commentaries that he was conscious that there were regions where the saving knowledge of Christ was not to be found and that the kingdom would go on growing and expanding itself until the Second Coming of our Lord. Iain Murray in “The Puritan Hope” (page 89) rightly calls attention to this when, after quoting statements of Calvin that affirm the rule of Christ from sea to sea and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth, he writes,

A consideration of such texts as these quoted by the Reformer awakened afresh in the sixteenth century zeal for the world-wide acknowledgement of the claims of Christ and taught men to look with assurance for the progressive realisation of his kingdom.

In considering Calvin’s view on the missionary task of the church we must be careful not to introduce the language and thought-forms of the present-day mission work into an assessment of the drives within the church in the time of the Reformation. In a sense all the work of the church was “mission”, and world-wide mission for Calvin. Again and again a longing to see the whole world come to glorify the true God appears in his writings. His vision he beautifully expresses, seeing the whole world as a “theatre for the glory of God”, or a place where God’s glory would be already seen in the life of man.

What does Calvin see as the Church’s duty in view of such a vision? Here his deep sense of the sovereign lordship of Christ over the whole of life comes to the fore. In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, 2:12, he observes that God’s people make progress as a door is opened to them in God’s providence, and that door is closed when there is no hope of fruit. It is the work of God, his electing love and not the work of man that has priority. When we remember how the Reformers were for the greater part shut off from the world, since the New World continued under Roman Catholic domination, it was felt to be a direct favour of providence when a door of opportunity was opened to them. We certainly have no reason for believing that his doctrine of Predestination rendered Calvin inactive in the face of the world’s need. Indeed on the contrary, he teaches (Inst.III, XXIII, 14) that because we do not know the number of the elect our attitude must be determined by the desire that all may be saved.

His view of the church and her role was that she should be “essentially militant and aggressive and all-conquering ... pressing to bring all mankind under the sway of the Gospel.”

He himself did what was to his hand in the training of pastors, sending help to the Reformed Churches and in seeking to keep Protestant communities in some form of international fellowship.

Moreover, he was actively involved (a fact strangely passed over by Kenneth Scott Latourette) in the brief and apparently unsuccessful mission sent to Brazil I555-56. Robert Baird in the “Christian Retrospect and Register” gives the following account of the first foreign mission attempted by Protestantism.

“To Calvin, the Reformer of Geneva, belongs the credit of having first attempted, in the Protestant churches, to excite interest in behalf of a heathen nation. An expedition was fitted out in the year 1555 by Villegagnon, a Knight of Malta under the patronage of Henry II of France with a view of establishing a French colony in the New World. The approbation of the Monarch was secured through the medium of the excellent Admiral De Coligny, whose favour Villegagnon propitiated by the secret understanding that the projected colony should protect the Reformed religion. Accordingly Calvin was applied to, in order to obtain ministers to embark with the expedition.

“After consultation with the other pastors of Geneva he sent two — Guillaume Chartier and Pierre Richier — who were afterwards joined by several others. Their object was, at once, to labour among the colonists and to evangelise the heathen aborigines. The expedition reached Fort Coligny, as it was named, on the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in March 1556. On their arrival, the Genevan ministers proceeded to constitute a church, according to the forms of the Reformation Churches, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. But Villegagnon soon betrayed his true character and disposition, and after cruelly maltreating the missionaries forced them to re-embark and return to France.”

In letters sent home by members of the expedition it is clear that their first interest was not to bolster up a colonial project but to bring the gospel to those who lived in heathen darkness. We can hear them talk to the Indians about God, creation, sin and redemption, true reflections of the Genevan teaching, as we read how they sought to bring knowledge to the native population. Alas, Calvin’s letters to them have been lost. It is futile to speculate, but one cannot but believe that with them went a unique contribution to the science of missions.

Although the episode in itself was to end so tragically we know that Calvin was personally interested in it, and deeply shocked by the betrayal and death of some of the emigrants. He saw a door open in God’s providence and was ready to do all in his power that the gospel might find entry. Here in this one short episode a direct and concrete interest in missions is to be found. It would seem to guarantee the evangelistic spirit of Calvinism. At any rate Calvin himself was not blind and deaf to the needs of the heathen world.

For a time the Reformed Churches seemed to find their role in juxtaposition to the church from which they had separated: when this alignment ended, the missionary force in Calvinism soon became apparent. Voetius, known as “the father of the Reformed science of missions” and a theologian in line with Calvin, wrote out from Calvinistic premises an exhaustive treatise on missions. He made patent what was latent in Calvin’s teaching and shows how we must look to the later development of Calvin’s teaching to find the development of the missionary idea which has its roots in the world thought of Calvin himself. Dutch Calvinists and English Puritans, men like John Eliot, Calvinistic missionary to the Indians and “the man who laid the idea of heathen missions upon the conscience of the British people,” all lived by a Calvinistic theology which held a positive missionary content. And the line could be followed down through the amazing 19th century missionary activity of Protestantism and not least Presbyterian Protestantism.

This fact is accounted for, in part at least, by the emphasis so characteristic of the Reformed Churches, upon the doctrine of the Kingship of Christ.

Myklebust, Vol.II p.320, quoted by J. Vanden Berg in Calvin, Contemporary Prophet

We ask, briefly, what are the Calvinistic emphases we must apply to the contemporary missionary situation?

First then, it is the Lord alone who calls us to obedient service in the ranks of his followers, calling us to make this earth a “theatre of His glory.” Then there is the idea of divine guidance. It is God who opens doors in His grace and fits men to go in. It is God who closes doors. The preaching of God’s word must take precedence over all other missionary activity; not to the exclusion of other activity, but all must be subject to the rule of the Word over the whole of life, as someone has said “in a totalitarian fashion”. Then Calvin’s teaching on the church could be profitably studied. We have come to think of institutional missions as a special and separate function of the church. If we understand Calvin’s view of the church correctly (Inst.IV:1.4) all our missionary work must be church-centred and more inside the church orbit as part of one dynamic witness. With the Calvinistic emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, the distinction between “lay” and “cleric” virtually ended. The position of the elder was enhanced and the corporate spiritual unity of the church built up by all having their own part to play. This is a most valuable concept for rooting evangelical life in a missionary community.

We know that Calvinists are not alone in holding the points I have mentioned. Others hold them in essence if not in the same form. What I would maintain is that in the whole round of Calvin’s teaching they find an accent and a balance that gives them special appropriateness for the contemporary missionary task.

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