Robust Theology Fuels Ambitious Evangelism
The following is a transcript of the audio.
Dr. Michael Reeves joins us again from the UK, filling in this week for John Piper. Pastor John once wrote about the role of theology in missions. He wrote: “[Pastors that aim to send missionaries] must give themselves to building sending bases that breed doctrinally-deep people who are not given to emotional dependency on fads but know how to feed themselves on Christ-centered truth.” So true. Doctrinal depth is essential for sustaining global missions. … So Michael, as a historian, when you look at Church history, in what ways has this principle actually played itself out? What examples come to mind of robust theology fueling missions?
I think a classic example would be the life of the French Reformer John Calvin. Now he was a French-man. He was born and brought up a little bit north of Paris. But he actually spent most of his adult life as an exile just over the border in Geneva which is now Switzerland. And it was an independent city. It wasn’t part of France and that was important. He couldn't have lived in France safely. But as a French-man he always kept a heart for the evangelization of France. And Calvin is known for his wonderful theologies, preaching, his Institutes, for example, which, if I could just mention people are often scared of his Institutes. And I find again and again when people dare pick them up and try them, they are always struck by how warm and compelling and clear and pastoral he is. So a little recommendation for the Institutes.
But apart from the actual theological work, what Calvin did in his time in Geneva was he set up a secret network in France with safe houses, hiding places, so that agents of the gospel could be slipped across the border from Geneva into France there to plant new sometimes literally underground churches.
Now to support them he arranged for secret printing presses to be installed in both Paris and Lyon to provide gospel resources for these new young churches. And the success Calvin had in this in his home country of France was simply astounding. Demand for the literature soon outstripped what the presses could supply. And printing became the dominant industry in Geneva in an attempt to cope with that theological thirst.
Now within about half a generation Calvin’s efforts meant that more than 10 percent of the entire population of France became reformed. We are talking—it is hard to get the precise numbers—we are talking about some two million or more gathering in hundreds of churches that Calvin had overseen the planting of in France. And that is something like a third of the very influential nobility were converted. And so within Calvin’s lifetime he had this long held dream of an evangelical France. And that began to look like a real possibility. It never happened in the end because eight years after his death there was a politically-inspired massacre of all Protestants which shattered that dream. But you see the evangelization of France that Calvin helped to orchestrate under God’s grace producing enormous effects. And it wasn’t just France, in fact. John Knox visited Geneva and went back to Scotland full of that theological, reformational vision. Other reformers went back to England. Missionaries were dispatched from Geneva to Poland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Italy. They even got to South America, to Brazil. And so Geneva became this nerve center for world evangelization.
Now here is the thing. Fueling all of that, fueling both the agents of the gospel and all those resources being printed was Calvin’s Academy in Geneva. It was a place where ministers would be trained up in the gospel who could then go out and pastor people, preach to people and produce those resources for print. What Calvin had done is he set up something that was really unknown before his time, which was not a theological ivory tower—theologians just living for their own thought processes. It was a seedbed of the gospel and its success was astounding. It really was theology driving global evangelization.
Calvin was planting underground churches. So many of these students knew when they were trained were sent back out into almost certain martyrdom. So these are not missionaries going to safe cities and countries.
No, absolutely not. So it varied from country to country what sort of level of danger students would be going into. But, for example, the English students, when the majority of the English students were in Geneva they were in refuge from bloody Queen Mary who is overseeing a Catholic counter reaction to the Reformation in England. And they had no idea at that time that anything might particularly change. So there were a number of them seeking to go back to England and the state of play in England at the time was if you stood up boldly of reformation theology, and didn’t just sit on it quietly, you would be burned.
Wow. That’s a good message for a comfortable Christian like me to hear. Thank you Dr. Reeves. Michael is the author of The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (2010), along with, Delighting in the Trinity, one of my favorite books of 2012. Mike lives in the UK and currently serves as director of the online theology website: uniontheology.org, and Senior Lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. Tomorrow Michael will return. I’ll ask him why Roman Catholics pray to Mary. How did this tradition emerge over time? I’m your host, Tony Reinke, we’ll see you tomorrow on the Ask Pastor John podcast.