The Reformation in France and the Mission to the World
September 18, 2014
The accusation that Protestants were slow to take up the evangelical mission to the world and that this exposes some sort of fundamental flaw in our faith has been almost as sticky as it is spurious. Already in the air by the late sixteenth century, Rome's great counter-Reformation polemicist, Robert Bellarmine, likened Protestants to heretics on this count (see, for example, his ninth mark of the true church in Disputationum de Controversiis Christianae Fidei).
The suggestion, popularized by Stephen Neill in A History of Christian Missions, that Protestants failed to join the mission to the world until the late eighteenth century is now conventional wisdom. Lutherans no doubt have their own critics, but anti-Reformed writers have ludicrously suggested Reformed churches failed in part due to their views on predestination and apostle-focused understanding of the Great Commission.
The accusation is difficult to square with theological or historical reality. The Reformation was an evangelical mission to the world from the beginning. Beneath the political and social upheavals of the age was an attempt to recover the gospel from Rome's sacerdotal system, preach and teach the good news to people in the vernacular, and build up biblically ordered churches to sustain God's people and the evangelical ministry in every nation. Wherever Reformed folk ventured, some of them evangelized their neighbors, including indigenous peoples in new lands. That the mission began where Reformed believers happened to be located can hardly be surprising or a point of criticism.
There's much (for someone else) to say about the mission activity of the Reformed churches prior to the so-called modern missionary movement. Certainly late medieval and early modern Europe did not lack the gospel in just the way other parts of the world did; if it had, the Reformation would have never taken hold and there would have been nothing to reform. The work of reform is not the same as evangelizing new fields, either. But the heart of the evangelical mission to the world is to proclaim the gospel in order to build up the church and from that perspective it seems reasonable to view our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century forbears as engaged in a great missionary endeavor.
But I am not as interested in defending the missionary honor of earlier generations as I am convincing you that there are rich insights to be gleaned from these historical fields--valuable lessons that are sometimes startlingly relevant to our contemporary context.
I have been reminded of this most recently while reading through a forthcoming volume edited by Martin I. Klauber: The Theology of the French Reformed Churches From Henry IV to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (Reformation Heritage Books, accepting preorders here). This is the next installment of the Reformed Historical-Theological Studies series, and a great addition.
The volume opens with six chapters of historical overview followed by nine studies of key and sometimes controversial figures within the French Reformed churches of the era. There is little to no attempt to draw out the lessons of the age for the contemporary scene, much less to apply those lessons to the current mission to the world, but the lessons are there for the taking. This intriguing and I suspect much neglected history deserves our attention and this book on the course of Reformed church development in what was once a place of intense missionary activity is an rewarding place to start.