Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Reformation and Missions

In the 16th-Century Reformation, the essentials of biblical theology were recovered but the Reformers did not develop a biblical missiology. Sadly, they also did not address the need for a structural reformation and they retained many of the distorted forms of the past. Monasticism was rejected and for 300 years no missions structures were set up to replace it for the churches of the Reformation. The Reformation was, in fact, a structural "deformation." [Patrick Johnstone, The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends and Possibilities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP), 225]

It is almost a common caricature in "Evangelical" circles that the Reformation was anti-evangelistic. This book by missiologist Patrick Johnstone is no different, repeating that same tired canard like a truism. But for those who desire to know the truth, this common caricature of the Reformation is false. The historical perception by Evangelicals come about because of collective amnesia of these normally ahistorical Evangelicals, where the Christian faith is predicated upon the psychological experience of being "born-again," thus resulting in an false understanding of the Church and thus a false judgment of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

In this otherwise informative book, Johnstone writes about the history of the Church in regards to missions and religious changes, with many graphs and colorful charts. Yet in all of these, he praises Roman Catholic and Eastern (Assyrian, Persian, Nestorian) missions, and makes no distinction between Early, Medieval, Late Medieval, and Counter-Reformation Roman Catholicism. The focus is purely on the Evangelical "born-again experience" — having a personal relationship with God. Thus, we see talk about "Evangelicals" within Roman Catholicism, and to a much smaller extent, among Eastern Orthodoxy, as if biblical Christianity could flourish there.

The inclusion of Roman Catholics and Easter Orthodox as in some sense true Christians is what allows Johnstone to make such ridiculous claims about the Reformation. The Reformation was a time of great missions, except it was mostly missions to Roman Catholics to bring them to the true faith. For Evangelicals like Johnstone, such missions are anathema or at the very least not deserving of the term "missions." Geneva trained many missionaries and sent them to France, where many were martyred for the faith, but for those like Johnstone who accept RCs as Christians, I guess that does not really count. Yes, it is true that Roman Catholic missions were sent earlier to the New World and also to places like India and China, but that was because of the naval prowess and reach of Spain and Portugal in the 16th century. The Protestant churches were struggling for survival, and the nations that supported the Reformation did not have the navies to reach those far-off areas that Spain and Portugal could reach, so should we blame the Reformation for not sending more overseas missionaries?

Johnstone is partially correct in speaking about the lack of missions structures, if by that he means something like para-church organizations or its equivalent. The difference is that in the Reformed churches, it is the denomination or local churches in general that does missions. No doubt that is less efficient than specialized mission agencies, yet at the same time, such Evangelical missions have created almost as many problems in the receiving nations as they have in blessing them with the Gospel. Look at the state of doctrinal degeneration in the churches around the world. When Evangelicals think of only proclaiming the Gospel while having little to no doctrine of the Church, and an extremely shallow understanding of the Gospel too, the converts will not be any better. And since doctrines DO have consequences, and false doctrines thus create trouble within the churches, we see the bad fruit of Evangelical missions all around the world — proliferation of all manner of false doctrines, syncretism, and the inability of these believers to articulate a rigorous faith. The spread of Pentecostalism, while bringing in many people outwardly into the Church, creates a faith so grounded in the experiential that one has no idea whether the professing Pentecostal is truly saved, or is actually believing a false religion of emotions, or of health and wealth. Is that something to be celebrated? The Evangelical world seems to think so, since their one criterion for "being saved" is that one has the Evangelical born-against experience, and so experience trumps everything in the final analysis. Why else would there be an inability of Evangelicals to exclude those on the far left like Jim Wallis or Roger Olsen, for upon what basis can one deny the authenticity of another's "born-again" experience?

Johnstone gives a rather rosy report of progress in missions and evangelism. But if one removes from the equation Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-confessional Protestantism, and all forms of "indigenous Christianities," the outlook is actually rather grim. In fact, the state of Christianity and missions is just like the Late Medieval Era before the Reformation, and there is a lot of work to be done for the Christian faith to be spread throughout the world.

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