Were The Protestant Reformers Missionary Failures? Challenging The Nineteenth-Century Narrative

…One of the stories told about the Reformation in missiological circles is that the reformers weren’t interested in seeing the gospel go to the ends of the earth. Those who make this claim propose a variety of reasons for the failure. Perhaps the Reformers’ horizons were limited to Christian Europe or they were too busy arguing amongst themselves about minute points of doctrine to worry about the millions perishing abroad. Maybe their exegetical method caused them to limit the Great Commission to the apostolic era. Or maybe something inherent in Reformation theology works at cross purposes with global evangelism.

Whatever the rationale alleged, one important source of the claim that Protestants were missionary failures is the founding father of academic missiology, Gustav Warneck (1834–1910), who took the Reformers to task. Warneck concluded that Luther’s “view of the missionary task of the church was essentially defective” and Calvin’s comments on the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) had “not a word to say of a continuous missionary obligation of the church,” but instead used the text as a launching pad for an attack (yet another!) upon the papacy.  Even in its second edition, Ruth Tucker’s popular biographical history of missions implicitly follows Warneck’s interpretation of the Reformation, and a recent missiology textbook claims that “the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation did not produce any missionaries.”

To state the obvious, the theological vision of Protestants draws heavily upon the reformers. If Warneck is right that they didn’t have time for missions, will those of us who locate our confessional roots in the Reformation find that they don’t nourish and support an effort to take the gospel to the nations?

Now, in their kinder moments, Warneck and his many followers concede that Luther, Calvin, and their fellows simply couldn’t do everything. They had their hands full with reforming the church and avoiding arrest and execution. To expect them also to have focused their limited energy on reaching the ends of the earth, which admittedly felt much further away in the sixteenth century than they do today, is presumptuous and a bit unfair.

But as more and more scholars reexamine the data, the story of a Reformation that wholly ignored mission is being replaced by one in which the “Reformation as a whole was mission,” to borrow historian Scott Hendrix’s lapidary phrase. Read more»

Patrick J. O’Banion | “Praying for the Nations in Reformation Europe” | Credo | August 25, 2021


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  1. Some Puritans had missionary work in their sights – By the end of his life, Joseph Alleine was aspiring to go to China. And everyone, surely, knows of John Eliot?
    And had Warneck never heard of Christian Friedrich Schwarz (1726 – 1798)? Admittedly, he wasn’t contemporaneous with the Reformers; he WAS contemporary with the Moravian missionaries, but I don’t think his call to India was in any way connected with them. I think he was a straight down the line Lutheran.

    • Well, it was a commercial mission to which a pastor was attached. It’s significance has been blown out of proportion by those who want to defend Calvin from the 19th-century criticism that he was indifferent and by those who want to show that he was indifferent (i.e., it was a failure).

  2. I read another good article on this topic by a Reformed scholar of yore ( I cannot remember his name, but I think he was Dutch). Through that article, I was directed to John Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 12.
    It really shows Calvin’s “missionary” heart and vision! It was encouraging to read.

    • The Reformed, Calvin included, were zeal for the mission of the church. In the 16th century the Genevans educated and sent dozens of missionaries to France and other places to plant evangelical Reformed congregations in Romanist dominated countries. As Patrick says, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformers weren’t looking much at the New World but it’s also true, as he notes, that the story told by historians of missions in the nineteenth century were self-serving. It helped their narrative to make the Reformers into bad guys for they purposes of their narrative.

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