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.”
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.