The late historian William Estep wrote in the Texas Baptist Standard that if the Southern Baptist Convention went Calvinist on evangelism, it would become a “perfect dunghill.” Strong words, but many would agree. Not Baptist scholars Michael A.G. Haykin and C. Jeffrey Robinson Sr., though.
In To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014) Haykin and Robinson turn standard understanding upside down and say John Calvin and other Reformers were strongly mission-oriented. Dubious? Below, by publisher’s permission, is the book’s introduction. Please read on. —Marvin Olasky
The Rev. S. L. Morris, on the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of Calvin’s birth in May 1909, told the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States as it gathered in Savannah, Georgia, to mark the Reformer’s birth, “Calvinism is the most potent agency in the evangelization of the world.” At the time, no one would have regarded Morris’s affirmation as outlandish. Today, though, just over one hundred years later, his remark is the stuff of controversy and considered a complete oxymoron.
Calvinism’s Bad Press
In the West in 2013, a sentiment opposite that of Morris’s is more typically heard among evangelicals: “Calvinism is the enemy of world evangelization.” Virtually every admirer of Calvin and his theology has heard the same refrain: Calvin, his fellow Reformers, and their theology were not, are not, and cannot be, logically or theologically, pro-missions or pro-evangelism. The critics and their critiques border on cliché, and most who delight in a theology of sovereign grace can recite them: the sixteenth-century Reformers had a poorly developed missiology; overseas missions were given no thought or attention; Calvinism’s theology of an absolutely sovereign, choosing God has precious little to say to the lost and is anti-missions and opposed to evangelism.
John Calvin wished to be interred, upon his death, in an unmarked grave and asked that his family, church members, and intimate friends avoid any form of memorial service so that no cult of personality might spring up around him. In his last will and testament, Calvin’s instructions to those at his deathbed were similarly pithy, the language unadorned: “I desire that my body after my death be interred in the usual manner, to wait for the day of the blessed resurrection.” Nearly 450 years after his death, historians still do not know the location of Calvin’s grave, and given his reputation in the twenty-first-century West, Calvin’s anonymous resting place is likely best for all parties concerned. It is quite conceivable that knowledge of his burial location would only incite some of his opponents to make pilgrimage there so as to spit upon it.
John Calvin is a historical figure in desperate need of a public-relations makeover. Of all the Western church Reformers of the sixteenth century, none has been so consistently defamed, none so ruthlessly castigated in both his doctrine and his personality from his own time to the present. For scores of modern-day evangelicals, Calvin is the ultimate megalomaniac, a dark figure, a theological hall monitor, a figure fixated on a wrathful God whose life and doctrines stood firmly opposed to missions and evangelism.
Even the so-called new media of the twenty-first century has been commandeered to wage this perennial war on Calvin. Visitors to YouTube, the Internet dumping ground for everything from home movies depicting stupid pet tricks to Duran Duran videos, will find numerous broadside attacks on John Calvin and his theology. The unsubtle titles include, “How to Defeat Calvinism,” “All of Calvinism Refuted by One Verse” (by one who apparently thinks Arminians hail from the Eurasian republic of Armenia), “Why I Am Not a Five-Point Calvinist,” “Burn in Hell, John Calvin, Burn,” “Calvinism Creeping In,” and “Sovereign Grace Is a Heresy.” Even the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart took an oft-quoted swipe at Calvin, declaring that the Genevan Reformer was responsible for causing “untold numbers to be lost—or seriously hindered—in their spiritual walk and relationship with God.” If only his contemporaries had been so kind to Calvin! Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec (died c. 1584), a contemporary of Calvin and one-time Protestant advocate, published a biography of the Reformer after returning to the Roman Catholic Church, which the twentieth-century Calvin scholar Richard Stauffer termed “nothing more than a vile tract.” In it, Bolsec vilified the Reformer as “ambitious, presumptuous, arrogant, cruel, evil, vindictive, avaricious, and, above all, ignorant.” Once he commenced, Bolsec kept the fists flying. For him, Calvin was “a greedy man, … an imposter who claimed he could resurrect the dead, … a gadabout, a Sodomite,” an outcast of God.
Time has done little to temper public opinion of John Calvin. In 1951, André Favre-Dorsaz wrote what Stauffer called “the most destructive book about Calvin with which I am acquainted.” Favre-Dorsaz contrasted Calvin with Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, calling the Reformer “an acid, negative person” who was a “withdrawn, embittered and unfeeling, coldly committed pessimist; an uneasy, worried, anguished man, alternately sympathetic and cruel; proud, a repressed sentimentalist, truly sadistic; a sick man … and … a dictator.” Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) considered Calvin interchangeable with Adolf Hitler, while Oscar Pfister, Sigmund Freud’s Swiss theological admirer, wrote off Calvin as a “compulsive-neurotic who transformed the God of Love as experienced and taught by Jesus into a compulsive character, a fanatic of hateful cruelty, bearing absolutely diabolical traits.” More recently, Will Durant, coauthor with his wife of a multivolume series on the history of Western civilization, offered criticism of Calvin that seems unfit for a historian: “We shall always find it hard to love the man, John Calvin, who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense.”
The Missiology of the Reformers
If John Calvin the man is viewed as something of a theological despot in the Western mind, his theology, particularly as it relates to the area of soteriology and its link to missions and evangelism, has fared even worse. Reformed theology, which has become identified with Calvin’s name—though, to tell the truth, his thinking is only one of a number of springs that produced this theological stream—emphasizes the absolute sovereignty of God in both creation and redemption. This sovereignty entails the doctrines of unconditional election and particular redemption, subscription to which, some have argued, renders Calvin and those who share his theology as logical nonstarters in the church’s missionary task. It has often been maintained that the sixteenth-century Reformers had a poorly developed missiology and that overseas missions to non-Christians was an area to which they gave little thought. Yes, this argument runs, the Reformers rediscovered the apostolic gospel, but they had no vision to spread it to the uttermost parts of the earth. Historian Gustav Warneck, for example, has painted Calvin as missiologically anemic because of his belief in the doctrines of predestination and election:
We miss in the Reformers, not only missionary action, but even the idea of missions, in the sense in which we understand them today. And this not only because the newly discovered world across the sea lay almost wholly beyond the range of their vision, though that reason had some weight, but because fundamental theological views hindered them from giving their activity and even their thoughts a missionary direction.
And Ruth A. Tucker has argued the same: Calvin’s doctrine of predestination “made missions extraneous if God had already chosen those he would save.”
Possibly the very first author to raise this question about early Protestantism’s failure to apply itself to missionary work was the Roman Catholic theologian and controversialist Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621). Bellarmine argued that one of the marks of a true church is its continuity with the missionary passion of the apostles. In his mind, Roman Catholicism’s missionary activity was indisputable and this supplied a strong support for its claim to stand in solidarity with the apostles. As Bellarmine maintained:
In this one century the Catholics have converted many thousands of heathens in the new world. Every year a certain number of Jews are converted and baptized at Rome by Catholics who adhere in loyalty to the Bishop of Rome. … The Lutherans compare themselves to the apostles and the evangelists; yet though they have among them a very large number of Jews, and in Poland and Hungary have the Turks as their near neighbors, they have hardly converted so much as a handful.
This characterization, though, fails to account for the complexity of the historical context of the Reformation. First of all, to answer both a Roman Catholic apologist like Bellarmine and a Protestant missiologist like Warneck, in the earliest years of the Reformation none of the major Protestant bodies possessed significant naval and maritime resources to take the gospel outside of the bounds of Europe. The Iberian Catholic kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, who were the acknowledged leaders among missions-sending regions at this time, had such resources aplenty. Moreover, the Roman Catholic missionary endeavors were often indistinguishable from imperialist ventures. It is noteworthy that other Roman Catholic nations of Europe, like Poland and Hungary, also lacked sea-going capabilities and evidenced no more cross-cultural missionary concern at that time than did Lutheran Saxony or Reformed Zürich. It is thus plainly wrong to make the simplistic assertion that Roman Catholic nations were committed to overseas missions whereas no Protestant power was so committed.
Second, it is vital to recognize that, as Scott Hendrix has shown, the Reformation was the attempt to “make European culture more Christian than it had been. It was, if you will, an attempt to re-root faith, to re-christianize Europe.” In the eyes of the Reformers, this program involved two accompanying convictions. First, they considered what passed for Christianity in late medieval Europe as sub-Christian at best, pagan at worst. As Calvin put it in his Reply to Sadoleto (1539):
The light of divine truth had been extinguished, the Word of God buried, the virtue of Christ left in profound oblivion, and the pastoral office subverted. Meanwhile, impiety so stalked abroad that almost no doctrine of religion was pure from admixture, no ceremony free from error, no part, however minute, of divine worship untarnished by superstition.
And in the Institutes Calvin commented that in the churches of Europe, “Christ lies hidden, half buried, the gospel overthrown, piety scattered, the worship of God nearly wiped out. In them, briefly, everything is so confused that there we see the face of Babylon rather than that of the Holy City of God.” And so, the Reformers did indeed view their task as a missionary one, for they were planting true Christian churches.
Calvinism and Missions
Some recent evangelical scholars have also painted Calvin’s theology as an unbiblical system that neutralizes the Great Commission. In an article in the Texas Baptist Standard newspaper, the late William R. Estep, a noted historian on the Reformation period, sounded the alarm to awaken his fellow Southern Baptists to the growing menace of “the new Calvinism.” Should the Southern Baptist Convention embrace Calvinistic soteriology in wholesale fashion, Estep—ironically borrowing a phrase from Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), English Baptist theologian and ardent Calvinist—predicted the denomination would become “a perfect dunghill in American society.” Why such a blanket dismissal by such an able historian? Estep chronicled five problems with Calvinistic soteriology, arguing centrally that it denies many salvation passages in the New Testament and that its God resembles Allah, the God of Islam, more than the gracious God of Christianity. Chief among his concerns is that, Estep argued, unconditional election is “logically … anti-missionary” and renders the Great Commission “meaningless.” Calvin’s soteriology means that every person is “programmed” to be damned or saved, and it makes “a person into a puppet on a string,” he further argued.
Not everyone within the great cloud of historic and contemporary witnesses, however, views Calvin and his theology as a great enemy of missions and evangelism. In a recent work, evangelical historian Kenneth J. Stewart forcefully argues that Calvin and the Reformed tradition have by no means neglected world missions and evangelism. Calvin was deeply concerned about the salvation of the lost, which, along with the recovery of biblical worship, was one of the major goals of the Reformation. Writes Stewart:
Late-twentieth-century prognosticators about an assumed dampening effect of Calvinism on missions have therefore made their pronouncements rashly. Alarmist statements, made in these last decades in the face of the current resurgence of interest in Reformed theology, surely ought to give way to more careful assessments if missions history is to be trusted. If it is true that all branches of the Christian family might have done more for missions, then it is also true that this branch has been “in missionary harness” as long as any expression of Protestantism.
David B. Calhoun has also argued that Calvin and his fellow Reformers were by no means guilty of missional absenteeism. Rather, the Reformers in general and Calvin in particular provided the theological framework that energized global missions. One of the primary themes in Calvin’s mission theology, Calhoun asserts, was the spread of the kingdom of God:
Calvin, along with the other Reformers, did a great service to missions generally by his earnest proclamation of the gospel and his re-ordering of the church according to Biblical requirements. The missionary message and the structure of missions are two primary concerns which can be informed by his insights. More specifically, however, Calvin’s teaching concerning the universality of Christ’s kingdom and the responsibility of Christians in extending the kingdom have immense missionary implications.
Calvin’s theology was actually no impediment to his own missionary activities, but, rather, served as a catalyst for transforming Geneva into a hub of missionary activity where Reformed ministers were trained and sent out to proclaim the gospel throughout Europe and beyond, especially France and Brazil. Despite his reputation, Calvin was no stay-at-home theologian, and his theology was by no means a do-nothing worldview. Philip E. Hughes concurs:
Calvin’s Geneva was something very much more than a haven and a school. It was not a theological ivory tower that lived to itself and for itself, oblivious of its responsibility in the gospel to the needs of others. Human vessels were equipped and refitted in this haven, not to be status symbols like painted yachts safely moored at a fashionable marina, but that they might launch out into the surrounding ocean of the world’s need, bravely facing every storm and peril that awaited them in order to bring the light of Christ’s gospel to those who were in the ignorance and darkness from which they themselves had originally come. … Geneva became a dynamic center or nucleus from which the vital missionary energy it generated radiated out into the world beyond.
Likewise, it can be argued that Calvin’s theology has served as a great engine that has empowered the church since the Reformation in its task of world evangelization. One can point, for example, to Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, who preached a decidedly Reformed soteriology. Edwards’s preaching animated the First Great Awakening in the 1740s in America, and he developed a strategy for prayer that was crucial in later periods of revival and missionary endeavor in the eighteenth century. In fact, he himself later served as a missionary to the Indians on the rough and rugged frontier of western Massachusetts. Or one can single out Samuel Pearce, an unabashed Calvinist, who was a domestic “rope holder” for William Carey and his colleagues in their mission to Bengal and who exemplified a Calvinistic Baptist missionary spirituality. Largely because of Andrew Fuller’s biography of Pearce, the mission-minded piety of Pearce came to be regarded as exemplary not only by the Calvinistic Baptist community to which he belonged but also by other evangelical traditions of the day, such as the Methodists. The lives and ministries of these two men and countless other Calvinists go a long way toward disproving the popular notion that Calvin’s theology severs the missiological and evangelistic nerve of the gospel.
But why is there so much reticence about the missional credentials and motivations of Calvin and his theology? Joel Beeke attributes this attitude toward Calvin and his theology to several factors, including “a failure to study Calvin’s writings prior to drawing conclusions, a failure to understand Calvin’s own view of evangelism within his own historical context and/or preconceived doctrinal notions about Calvin and his theology.” Largely, it is attributable to theological and historical naïveté and fear.
Whatever the factors that call into question the missionary and evangelistic commitments of Calvin and the other Reformers, an examination of Calvin’s most important writings reveals a focused concern for the recovery of the purity of the gospel with the salvation of souls as the final end. Alongside the majority of believers throughout the history of the church, Calvin affirmed election and predestination as doctrines articulated by the Word of God. And yet, for Calvin, it was necessary that the church undergo reformation to recover the gospel and bring the good news of God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus to those who for centuries had walked in the darkness of a severely deficient Roman Catholic gospel. Calvin made these core concerns clear in his treatise on the necessity of reforming the church, addressed to Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, at the Fourth Diet of Speyer in 1544. After setting forth the recovery of the pure worship of God as the first aim of the Reformation, Calvin expressed as a second fundamental goal a rediscovery of “knowledge of the source from which salvation is to be obtained,” a teaching he called “the second principal branch of Christian doctrine.” Calvin maintained that human depravity, the unmerited grace of God in Christ, and the exclusivity of sola fide in salvation had been twisted by the superstitions of Rome to such a degree that fallen men and women saw neither their captivity to sin’s dark night nor the unilateral sovereign grace that must shine light into blackened hearts if they would be rescued. Ultimately, Calvin’s concern was that the eclipse of the gospel imperiled human souls.
For Calvin, the inextricably related truths of the pure worship of God and the salvation of souls were the two great concerns of the Reformation. It is historically and theologically naive to charge Calvin and his fellow Reformers with lacking a desire for the salvation of souls and failing to possess a concern for the nations. This was the Reformers’ chief concern in seeking to recover pure worship and the pure gospel from what Martin Luther called its “Babylonian captivity” to the unbiblical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The present work will demonstrate that Calvin, in his writings and by his own missionary activities, was decidedly pro-missions and pro-evangelism. Considered together, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, his biblical commentaries, his sermons and other writings, and the system of theology expressed in them paint a picture of a man who understood that the Great Commission given by Christ in Matthew 28 remains in force and is the obligation of every Christian. For Calvin, the Reformation and its mission represented a recovery of the pure gospel of God, who is on mission to expand his kingdom through the salvation of sinners by the atoning work of Christ on Calvary.
Calvin’s theology of sovereign grace, complete with its doctrines of predestination and election, would ultimately bear fruit in that major wing of the modern missions movement that commenced with William Carey. And as we shall see, his soteriology served as foundational for the doctrinal beliefs of others, like Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Pearce, by which they were motivated to take the gospel to the nations. It may be the case that the Calvinism of the men studied in this book is not biblical—though we would beg to disagree—but after one reads about the missionary passion of these Reformed pastor-theologians, may it not be said that being Calvinistic and being missional are mutually exclusive!
Excerpt from To the Ends of the Earth. © 2014 by Michael A.G. Haykin and Charles Jeffrey Robinson Sr. Published by Crossway. Used by permission.