Calvin and Missions, Part II: Practice

(see also Calvin and Missions, Part I: Theology)

The 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. In practice, however, Calvin exemplified great readiness to spread the gospel beyond Geneva. Refugees who fled to Geneva were trained and then sent back to their home countries. France was a particularly fruitful field, seeing the number of churches grow from 5 to over 2000 in less than 10 years. There are several particular practical means that Calvin used that blossomed into important aspects of missions in his wake.

Vernacular Languages

One is the revival of language work. Instead of forcing Latin on everyone, whether they understood it or not, the reformers recovered the original languages in Greek and Hebrew, and then translated the Scriptures into vernacular languages.

Printing Literature

Another means tied closely to this was the use of the printing press to print and disseminate literature throughout Europe. “English…Italian, Spanish, and even Greek books came from the Genevan printing presses… In this way the printing press became one of the principal missionary tools.”[1]

Theological Education

A third means that fostered missions was the education and training of those who came to Geneva. They didn’t want to send unprepared men back to their home countries, so they trained them in languages and theology. In his Commentary on Acts 13:1, Calvin lays out a Biblical vision for this: “Even in our time God enriches certain churches more than others, so that they may be nurseries for propagating the teaching of the Gospel.”[2] Indeed, Geneva became “a dynamic center or nucleus from which the vital missionary energy it generated radiated out into the world beyond.”[3] It is important to keep in mind that Calvin’s lectures were not “ivory tower” theology lectures. “It was for missionaries in training, for envoys on furlough in Geneva and for other interested parties that Calvin’s lectures were intended; and it is in this light that they are to be read.”[4]

Missiological Influence

All of these elements show up later in the lives of men like Eliot, Edwards and Carey, and those who followed after them. The necessity of the use of means; the need for earnest prayer; translation work; printing; education: all of these elements are beginning to blossom in Calvin’s Geneva, both in teaching and practice. While we would want to think more carefully about “apostolic cessationism” and its tie to the missionary mandate, we would do well do draw from the riches of Calvin’s thought and example in missions.



Photo by Hannes Wolf on Unsplash

[1] W. Stanford Reid, “Calvin’s Geneva: A Missionary Centre,” Reformed Theological Review 42 (Sept.-Dec. 1983), 68.

[2] Calvin, Acts 1–13, 351.

[3] Philip E. Hughes, “John Calvin: Director of Missions, “in The Heritage of John Calvin: Heritage Hall Lectures 1960–1970, ed. John H Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 45.

[4] Pete Wilcox, “Evangelisation in the Thought and Practice of John Calvin,” Anvil: An Anglican Evangelical Journal for Theology and Mission 12 (1995), 202.

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.

“Habitually thought in Latin”

Reading the preface to my NKJV this morning:

The scholars [who translated the original KJV] were almost as familiar with the original languages of the Bible as with their native English (Preface, iv).

I used to take that as hyperbole, hagiography, etc, part of a desperate attempt to hang on to the traditional English translation in the face of so many modern translations done under the banner of “scholarship,” and I didn’t buy it. I believe in real advances in scholarship, including the biblical languages. I’m still not sure about this idea of some “golden era” in the 17th century which has never since been matched. To avoid the ditch of “chronological snobbery” does not mean that you must veer off to some particular point in the other ditch and plant your flag there instead. I think this way about translations, creeds, confessions, and theologians.

However, to original point above, I was also reading the preface to Calvin’s Institutes this week, and was amazed to find this:

The first [French edition] of which we have knowledge is the celebrated edition of 1541, Calvin’s own translation from the Latin of 1539… It is undeniably the earliest work in which the French language is used as a medium for the expression of sustained and serious thought. It is remarkable that a book so creative in giving character to the language of the French nation should have been itself a translation made by an author who had from his boyhood habitually thought in Latin. (Introduction, xxxv, xxxvi).

It may be do the smallness of my own circle, but I don’t know of anyone of whom that is true. Perhaps there was something special about those earlier men after all.

Review: Calvin and the Biblical Languages

Calvin And The Biblical Languages by John D. Currid

Calvin – an inspiration to learn Greek and Hebrew

This short book is essentially a short biography of Calvin with reference to the biblical languages. It covers the fact that an essential factor in the Reformation was it’s recovery and emphasis on the biblical languages. “The Reformers,were, for the most part, seriously committed to the original languages of the Bible. It was a hall-mark of the Reformation.” (p. 66) This was true of Luther, Melanchthon, Beza, Erasmus, and of course Calvin. This was a time when there was an explosion of interest in Greek and Hebrew, oftentimes in the face of fierce opposition. When and how Calvin learned the Biblical languages is covered, including some historical controversies (only in academia 🙂 as to the specifics.

Calvin’s life as a scholar and preacher is given in detail, focusing on his use of the languages in that work. “His Hebrew was good but his Greek was outstanding.” (41)

A whole chapter, most interesting, is given to The Academy founded at Geneva for the training of pastors and scholars, with emphasis on the biblical languages. “His aim in the schola publica was to raise up and train pastor-scholars. These were men who could work well with the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, who could perform proper exegesis of a text, and who understood theology and philosophy; yet, they could take all that intellectual work and translate it to the masses… Calvin himself was such a pastor-scholar.” (60) Especially interesting is how the faculty was assembled from the best scholars in all the world at the time.

Currid is a great scholar in his own right. This book is loaded with footnotes, (thankfully at the bottom of each page) for further research. The book demonstrates a thorough understanding of the time and the controversies in this very specific subject. The book is loaded with direct quotes from Calvin and other reformers themselves, as well as the current scholarship on them.

In all, this book had the effect of convincing me even more thoroughly of the necessity of learning the biblical languages for myself. Calvin is both persuasive in his arguing for this, and encouraging. I am inspired more than ever to press into this great task with discipline, and this book has played a part in that. I do recommend it for anyone interested in Calvin, the Reformation, or the biblical languages in the life of pastor or student.

Here are some other great quotes from the book:

Erasmus – “How much better…to learn Greek or Hebrew, or at least Latin, which are so indispensable to the knowledge of Sacred Scripture that I think it extremely impudent for anyone ignoring them to usurp the name of theologian.” (17)

Melanchthon – “The Scripture cannot be understood theologically unless it be first understood grammatically.” (20)

“[Calvin] knew and used the [Latin] Vulgate, but he did not trust it in the way that he trusted the [Greek] original.” (42)

“[Calvin] believed that ignorance of biblical languages resulted in mistakes in matters `easy and obvious to every one’ and those without skills are led `most shamefully astray.’ He concurred fully with the old rabbinic adage that studying the Bible without Hebrew is like kissing one’s bride through the veil.” (60)

Calvin – “I know for a fact that one who has to preach and expound the Scriptures and has no help from the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, but must do it entirely on the basis of his mother tongue, will make many a pretty mistake. For it has been my experience that the languages are extraordinarily helpful for a clear understanding of the divine Scriptures.” (67)

Calvin – “Once we understand the significance and weight of the words, the true meaning of Scripture will light up for us as the midday sun.” (68)