Missional Paradigm of the Protestant Reformation

martin-lutherPerhaps no single verse has shaped the contours of theology, and even history, like Romans 1:16-17. Here it is in the King James:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

David J Bosch (obviously) identifies this passage as THE paradigmatic text that embodies the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther’s rediscovery of this truth was a beacon of light in the obscure soteriology of the time. 2 Peter 1:19 is an apt description of what was going on. It’s not that justification by faith was completely absent from Roman Catholic theology, but it was obscured by auxiliary stipulations- charity, self-mortification, good works.

“‘Smashing prejudices is more difficult than smashing atoms’, said Albert Einstein on one occasion. I would add that, once they are smashed, they release forces that can perhaps move mountains.”

–Hans Küng

Like the slip of built-up pressure in an earthquake, new paradigms come through crisis, revolution, a breakthrough insight, hermeneutical innovation, or even “hermeneutical shock”. The paradigm may gradually shift, but there is often a concrete event that triggers the rupture. And yet there is never a total break. We are still dealing with the same facts just in new relations.

“What had been habitually believed became a matter of urgent conviction; what had been taught as ancient and accepted doctrine was realized as vital experience; what had been one truth among others became the truth.”

–H. Richard Niebuhr

The theological underpinnings of the Reformation and the immediate situation the Reformers found themselves in, had a major effect on mission during that time.

As Greg Dutcher pointed out recently in his book, Killing Calvinism, the sovereignty of God, if taken wrongly, can become a major excuse for missional inactivity. After all, if God is sovereign and accomplishes everything in salvation for His glory, what difference does it make if we are zealous or not? Can man’s indifference or lack or relevance trump God’s sovereignty? If this is the case, as John Welsey famously reasoned against George Whitefield, the devil’s temptation is as useless as our evangelization.

Besides the theological emphasis behind the Reformation, more immediate concerns complicated and stifled the Reformers missionary endeavors.

First and foremost, the Reformers were tied up trying to reform the church. However, when the Reformers ultimately split from the Catholic church, they were obligated to redefine the marks of the true church to justify their departure. These definitions are embedded in the confessions and councils of the 16th century- the Augsburg Confession, the Council of Trent, the French Confession, and the Belgic Confession.

“Each confession understood the church in terms of what it believed its own adherents possessed and the others lacked, so Catholics prided themselves in the unity and visibility of their church, Protestants in their doctrinal impeccability… The Reformational descriptions of the church thus ended up accentuating differences rather than similarities. Christians were taught to look divisively at other Christians.”

–David J Bosch

Finally, in all the confessions and councils, the church was defined in passive terms, as a place “where something is done, not a living organism doing something.” All this became a major deterrent to both aspects of mission, activity (Matt. 28:19) and testimony (John 17:21). It wasn’t until Pietism that there was another breakthrough.

4 thoughts on “Missional Paradigm of the Protestant Reformation

  1. Kyle,

    Are you suggesting that we should only find things to unify around? (I’m only asking because I don’t want to misinterpret you). If so, I can find good and bad on both sides of the spectrum. I remember writing a blog post (that I will not link to because it was hideous) pointing out Calvinism as a system originating as reaction to the doctrines set forth by the Synod of Dort in the 1600′s. I didn’t want my theology to be reactionary or characterized by what I am against, but what I am for. This is why I’ve never adopted the term “Calvinist,” even though, truth be told, I am one. Because I’m probably wrong about a lot of things that I’ll discover at some point, and in the meantime, I want to sit at the feet of the John Wesley’s.

    Years after writing that post, I recognize the need to be against certain things. Though God has made Himself known, he cannot be exhaustively known, and is certainly beyond imagination in certain things. Therefore, it doesn’t profit to speak only about what He is. That list would move into an ambiguous eternity without hope of a systematic theology. We must sometimes wrestle with what God is not in order to find out who God is. Hence the Nicene creed, the councils of Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc. Men of God declaring in the face of gross heresies, “God is better than that!”

    This leads me to another thought. If we are only known for what we can agree on (those things we are for), the list of agreeable options is going to be very small, indeed. If you were to gather a Presbyterian, a Baptist, a Dispensationalist, a Pentecostal, and an Anglican into a room, they might only have the basics of the Apostle’s creed to agree on in worship! And how lovely that unity around the gospel would be. I do see the value of gathering with the larger body of Christ around the historical truths of the Gospel, yet nothing more—to be kingdom-minded, so to speak. But as far as worshiping in a local gathering… I don’t want my spiritual food to be limited by the lowest common denominator. I want to feast on theology—who God is, and who He is not—so that I may worship with the full capacity of my mind, heart, and soul, with others who are in confessional agreement.

    I hope to have reached a balance since my first blog. I want to be known by the church for what I am for (as you have suggested), while still plumbing the depths of truth, and enriching my worship and the worship of those I gather with locally.

    On a side note, Wesley was surely preaching to the choir. Whitefield’s brand of soteriology did not quench his own evangelistic tears. Neither did Welsey’s sinless perfectionism. One has to wonder what their commonality was centered on as the Great Awakening swept through their respective nations. My first guess is the presence of the Holy Spirit with the truth of the gospel.


    • Lazo,

      Thanks for the extended comment and questions. 1) No, I am not suggesting that we only find things to unify around. I definitely agree with the need to be FOR specific things and AGAINST specific things. I think this maintains the balance of intensity, clarity, and purity. In the Reformation, being against things couldn’t have been more necessary. But in this post I was trying to look more at why there wasn’t much of a missional thrust with the Reformers. The reasons are complex, but they include the need to legitimize themselves against the Catholic Church, survive against its persecution, and maintain their own internal unity. Then there were different views on whether the great commission was still binding or even open to their participation. Obviously even among groups that all rally around solo scriptura there will be different emphases and distinctives. The deeper question for me is, how do we maintain the genuine, visible, practical oneness in the Body of Christ and yet allow for different doctrinal considerations. Or even, which one trumps the other? How do we preserve both John 17:21 and Romans 14:1?

      2) I hear ya on “I don’t want my spiritual food to be limited by the lowest common denominator.” Jason Helopoulos had a good post on this a while back that resonated with me:



      • Ah, I see. Thank you for this! I love this –> “The deeper question for me is, how do we maintain the genuine, visible, practical oneness in the Body of Christ and yet allow for different doctrinal considerations.” I can see how being reactionary is difficult to reconcile with mission—even when called for, it usually seems to turns us in on ourselves and away from others.

        Thanks also for that blog link. I’m going to devour it this afternoon.


  2. Pingback: Evangelism is not Proselytism | life and building

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