Calvin and Missions, Part I: Theology

“All the Nations”

Calvin’s theology is robust and includes explicitly the scope of the gospel going through all the earth, to every nation. He has a biblical-theological shape to his missiology, seeing progression and fulfillment from the OT prophets and the nation of Israel to Christ, the Apostles, and the church. In his commentary on Acts 13:1, he says, “the calling of Paul ought to carry just as much weight with us as if God openly proclaimed from heaven that the salvation once promised to Abraham and his seed belongs to us today.”[1] From the commentary on Luke 24:47: “At last Christ brings into the open what He had concealed before, that the grace of redemption, brought by Himself, is clearly for all nations, without distinction.”[2] And later on Matthew 28:18: “The Lord orders the ministers of the Gospel to go far out to scatter the teaching of the salvation throughout all the regions of the earth…Thus was that prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled (49:6) and others like it, that Christ was made alight to the gentiles, that He might be the salvation of God to the ends of the earth.”[3] Calvin’s thought has “all the nations” clearly in view.

The Necessity of Means

Through the years many have been skeptical about Calvin’s theology and its influence on missions and evangelism, particularly the doctrine of predestination and election. However, Calvin’s commentaries contain explicit calls to use means for the conversion of the lost, including prayer, and preaching the word. In his commentary on the famous missionary passage of Romans 10, he says of 10:15 “how shall they preach, except they be sent?”: “the Gospel does not fall from the clouds like rain, by accident, but is brought by the hands of men to where God has sent it.”[4] In his section of the Institutes on the Lord’s Prayer, he comments: “We must daily desire that God gather churches unto himself from all parts of the earth.”[5] His theology explicitly calls for the means of preaching and daily prayer for the sake of the salvation of people from “all parts of the earth.”

Is Missions only for “Apostles”?

The blind spot in his missiology has nothing to do with election or predestination, but rather his teaching that the office of Apostle ceased in the 1st century. There were several reasons for this. One popular view of Calvin’s day held that the Apostles had in fact evangelized the whole world during the first century. Thus, every nation had already had a chance to hear and either accept or reject the gospel. “If the message had once been announced, was it necessary to spread it again?”[6]

The more pressing reason for Calvin’s rejection of the ongoing office of Apostles is a polemical one, vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic Church, which held Apostolic succession and authority down through the ages, including the current pope. Against this, Calvin argues that the office has ceased.

The negative implication for his missiology, however, is that the task of going to unreached peoples around the world was part of the office of Apostle. Calvin makes clear distinctions between Apostles who do initial gospel outreach, and pastors who continue the ongoing work of building up the church and preaching the gospel locally.

Romans 15:20 “The duty of an apostle is to disseminate the Gospel where it has not yet been preached, according to our Lord’s command (Mark 16:15) We must pay careful attention to this point, lest we make a general rule of what belongs particularly to the apostolic office… We may, therefore, regard the apostles as the founders of the Church, while the pastors who succeed them have the duty of protecting and also increasing the structure which they have erected… It is proper that this task should be performed by the apostles, for that command was specially given to them…Any attempt to apply this passage to the pastoral office is misplaced.”[7]

Nevertheless, Calvin does make room for the revival of the gift of apostleship in exceptional circumstances. “These three functions [apostles, prophets, evangelists] were not established in the church to be permanent ones, but only for that time during which churches were to be erected where none existed before… Still, I do not deny that the Lord has sometimes at a later period raised up apostles, or at least evangelists in their place, as has happened in our own day… Nonetheless, I call this office ‘extraordinary,’ because in duly constituted churches it has no place.”[8] He actually calls Luther a modern day apostle, in spite of the fact that Luther never traveled beyond Europe in his reformation work. In fact, Calvin himself, “was the only Reformer who actually planned and organized a foreign mission enterprise.”[9]

“The Task is Not Complete”

In spite of all this, Calvin also notes that there is still need for worldwide evangelism: “God commanded the Gospel to be everywhere proclaimed, and as at this day its course is not as yet completed.”[10] David Calhoun captures the tension in Calvin’s position aptly: “If the gospel must be preached to all the world, and the task is not complete, and the office of the apostle is no longer valid, who is going to do it and how?”[11]

This reaction to Roman Catholicism is the weakest point in Calvin’s missiology, one that needs correcting as we seek to appropriate his thought for our own day.



Photo by Lena Bell on Unsplash

[1] John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles 1–13, vol. 6 of Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. John W. Fraser and W.J.G. McDonald, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), 350.

[2] John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke Vol. III and the Epistles of James and Jude, vol. 3 of Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. A.W. Morrison, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), 246–7.

[3] Ibid., 251. See also his commentary on Isaiah 12:4–5: “The work of this deliverance will be so excellent, that it ought to be proclaimed, not in one corner only, but throughout the whole world… he shows that it is our duty to proclaim the goodness of God to every nation.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, vol. I, vol. 7 of Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 402, 403.

[4] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, vol. 8 of Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. Ross Mackenzie, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961), 231.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.20.42, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20–21 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 905.

[6] Amy Glassner Gordon, “The First Protestant Missionary Effort: Why Did It Fail?” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 8, no. 1 (January 1984), 13.

[7] John Calvin, Romans, 313. On the clear distinction between Apostles, evangelists, and pastors, see also his commentary on Ephesians 4:11 in John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, vol. 11 of Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. T.H.L. Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961), 178–80, and also commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:28: “Some of the offices to which Paul is referring are permanent, while others are temporary. The permanent offices are those which are necessary for the government of the Church. The temporary ones, on the other hand, are those which were designed, at the beginning, for the founding of the Church, and the setting up of the Kingdom of Christ; and which ceased to exist after a while… The Lord appointed the apostles, so that they might spread the Gospel throughout the whole world… In that respect, they differ from the pastors, who are bound, so to speak to their own churches. For the pastor does not have a mandate to preach the Gospel all the world over, but to look after that church, that has been committed to his charge.” John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 9 of Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. John W. Fraser, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1960), 270–271.  On “evangelists,” see also commentary on Acts 21:8 in John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles 14–28, vol. 7 of Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. John W. Fraser and W.J.G. McDonald, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1966), 194.

[8] Calvin, Institutes, IV.3.4, 1057.

[9] Samuel M. Zwemer, “Calvinism and the Missionary Enterprise,” Theology Today 7 (July1950), 211.

[10] John Calvin, commentary on Micah 4:3, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. III, vol. 14 of Calvin’s Commentaries, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 265.

[11] David B. Calhoun, “John Calvin: Missionary Hero or Missionary Failure?” Presbyterion 5 (Spring 1979), 24.

2 thoughts on “Calvin and Missions, Part I: Theology”

  1. Great points. I talked about this too in some post. I read Scott Christensen’s book “What About Free Will?” where he shows that many reformed missionaries sailed to other countries because of God’s sovereignty. They knew they were the means for those people to be saved.

    Liked by 1 person

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