Dr. Michael Reeves joins us again from the United Kingdom, 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?
Calvin’s Heart for France
I think a classic example would be the life of the French Reformer John Calvin. Now, he was a Frenchman. 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. 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 Frenchman he always kept a heart for the evangelization of France.
Calvin is known for his wonderful theologies, his preaching — his Institutes, for example. If I could just mention, people are often scared of his Institutes. I find again and again that 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.
Apart from the actual theological work, what Calvin did in his time in Geneva was set up a secret network in France with safehouses, hiding places, so that agents of the gospel could be slipped across the border from Geneva into France 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 in order to provide gospel resources for these new young churches. 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.
Within about half a generation, Calvin’s efforts meant that more than ten percent of the entire population of France became Reformed. It is hard to get the precise numbers, but we are talking about some two million or more gathering in hundreds of churches that Calvin had overseen the planting of in France. Something like a third of the very influential nobility were converted.
“Calvin’s efforts meant that more than ten percent of the entire population of France became Reformed.”
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. Still, you see the evangelization of France that Calvin helped to orchestrate under God’s grace produced 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. Geneva became this nerve-center for world evangelization.
Sound Doctrine, Driven Saints
Here’s 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.
“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.”
Calvin 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, and so as many of these students were trained, they knew that they would be sent out into almost-certain martyrdom. These are not missionaries going to safe cities and countries. It varied from country to country what level of danger students would be going into.
For example, when the majority of the English students were in Geneva, they were in refuge from Queen “Bloody Mary”, who was overseeing a Catholic counter reaction to the Reformation in England. They had no idea at that time that anything might particularly change. There were a number of them seeking to go back to England, and the state of play in England at the time was such that if you stood boldly for Reformation theology and didn’t just sit on it quietly, you would be burned.