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.

 

Notes:

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[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.