William Carey, referred to by some as the Father of Protestant Missions, wrote his great booklet, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” Carey came from a religious group, the Particular Baptists. As “dissenters” of the state church, they could, potentially, have a greater desire to share the gospel beyond national boundaries. However, this potential was crushed by a form of Calvinistic theology that saw the work of salvation as God’s alone. If, then, salvation was only a work of God, then it seemed quite logical that evangelism, both locally and cross-culturally, was irrelevant or even impertinent.
Carey chose not to challenge the theology of his church. Rather, he chose to challenge its implications. Preachers of his time and denomination commonly deduced from their theology that the Great Commission, in its Matthew 28 form, was simply Jesus’ address to his eleven present disciples. As such it lacks relevance today. Carey made three arguments against this thinking:
- If “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel” is not for us today, then neither is “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” What is our justification for baptizing, as Baptists, if Jesus only commanded the original disciples to baptize, and not us?
- If the commissioning in Matthew was only for the original 11, presumably then every preacher who has shared the Gospel to unreached peoples over close to two millenia, including those who shared their faith to ancestors of the majority of readers of Carey’s booklet, did so without God’s authority/blessing.
- If the commissioning was only to the disciples who were present with Him, why did Jesus end the commissioning with “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world.” Such a statement would be appropriate if Jesus was talking to people throughout future history. If Jesus was only talking to the Eleven, He might be more likely to say something like, “Lo, I am with you always, as long as you live.”
With this, Protestant missions gradually grew from a trickle into a stream and then into a mighty river.
But there was still a problem. The theology of many of the Particular Baptists said, “God has determined salvation from the past, and His work is completely unaffected by our activity today, so there is no need or value in evangelizing.” Carey added an important, but dissonant, statement. “Jesus has commanded us to evangelize, so you should do so– regardless of whether you believe it is effective.”
People can often live their entire lives with opposing beliefs… but this conflict can spring to the forefront when such a conflict is articulated effectively. It could be argued that the Baptists in London were already struggling between the belief that salvation is the work of God alone, and the clear Biblical record of God working through people to carry out His mission. The words of William Carey in his Enquiry, led to a great change of direction. But eloquence in a different direction can result in a very different result.
In 1826, Daniel Parker published “Views on the Two Seeds.” The two seeds he was referring to were those mentioned in Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between you,” the serpent, “and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”
Parker expressed the belief, in pages 4 and 5 of his work, that the seed of the woman was “Christ and the elect,” while the seed of the serpent is “the Non-elect.”
“Eve’s sin allowed Satan ‘to beget the wicked, sinful principle and nature in her,’ thus allowing both the seed of Satan and the seed of Christ to enter the human bloodstream. Satan’s seed is represented in the covenant of works, Christ’s in the covenant of grace. The elect seed can be redeemed, but the nonelect cannot.” (H. Leon McBeth. “The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness,” 374.)
The theology of this work resonated with Baptists, especially in the Western (what we would now call Mid-Western) regions and their view of determinism regarding salvation. McBeth, on page 372, lists three line items from the “Apple Creek Association” from that period showing Anti-Missions sentiments:
“19 We as an association do not hesitate to declare an unfellowship with foreign and domestic missionary and bible societies, Sunday Schools and tract societies, and all other missionary institutions.
21. No missionary preacher is to have the privilege of preaching at our association.
22. We advise the churches to protest against masonic and missionary institutions, and not to contribute to any such beggarly institutions.”
Of course, the anti-Missions movement was driven by other factors than theological. There were regional disagreements or rivalries. Most Baptists in the Eastern United States were “Regular” or supporting Missions, while those in the West tended to be anti-Mission. Cost had a factor, and poor churches in the frontier regions were more likely to see mission organizations as parasitic on the church. (I get reminded again, of the 2nd century work, the Didache, that gave local churches strict guidance to identify true versus false apostles. The biggest criteria was on how much time and support they sought from local churches rather than getting about their business of mission work.) Additionally, there was a suspicion of theological education, and seminaries were often lumped together with mission organizations in their opposition.
However, another major theological view that greatly strengthened the Anti-missions movement was ‘Biblicism.’ This is the belief or theological stance that only institutions that are expressly noted in the Bible are legitimate. This was very strong in the early 1800s, but still exists today. I have heard people say things to the effect that “The church is the only God-ordained institution to carry out His work in the world.” The statement presumes Biblicism, and then deduces that only one institution is established in the New Testament— the Church.
In 1827, the Kehuckee Association published “A Declaration Against the Modern Missionary Movement and Other Institutions of Men.” Those who agreed with such declarations, often called themselves “Old School Baptists” referring, presumably, to the pre-Carey Particular Baptist tradition, or even further, perhaps, based on the “Trail of Blood” belief that Baptist churches go back to Jesus and John the Baptist. The Campbellite Baptists, led by Alexander Campbell saw themselves as Reformers of the Baptist tradition, until they broke free from the Baptist fold to form the Campbellite or Church of Christ, movement, opposed Missions as well. Both of these have an underlying premise of Biblicism. For the Kehuckee Assocition, the Modern Missionary Movement is an “Institution of Men” rather than of God. For Campbell, “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” led to ‘where the Bible is not explicitly affirming, we oppose.” The Anti-Missions Baptists and the Campbellites saw themselves as seeking a “primitive” New Testament church and more recently, a “pre-Carey” Baptist church.
In the 20th century, other theological concerns have crept in. Perhaps most well known as the Liberal-Fundamentalist controversies in the 1920s. In broader Protestant circles, this can be seen in the controversy generated by “Rethinking Missions: A Layman’s Enquiry after One Hundred Years,” published in 1932 largely through the work of W. E. Hocking.
“The report distinguishes between temporary and permanent elements in the function of a missionary. The task of the missionary today, it was maintained, is to see the best in other religions, to help the adherents to discover, or to rediscover, all that is best in their own traditions, to co-operate with the most active and vigorous elements in the other traditions in social reform and in the purification of religious expression. The aim should not be conversion – the drawing of members of one religious faith over into another – or an attempt to establish a Christian monopoly. Co-operation is to replace aggression. The ultimate aim, in so far as any can be descried, is the emergence of the various religions out of their isoloation into a fellowship in which each will find its appropriate place.” (Stephen Neill “A History of Christian Missions, (Penguin Publishing, 2nd edition), page 419).
This report and the larger belief system it espouses, was a huge problem theologically. Despite the obvious differences with the narrow interpretation of Calvinist theology of the previous century, there was one obvious similarity. Both theological views said that there was really nothing that the church can or should do to offer God’s salvation to unbelievers. For the “Old-School Baptists” God did all the work of salvation, so their was nothing we can do to aid that activity. For those who accepted Hocking’s report, the best the church has to offer is not God’s call to salvation, but help for other religions to be better religions.
William Carey was wise in not challenging directly the theology of his compatriots, only the implications. But theology doesn’t just go away. Missions needs a better theological backing than what we normally give it. Most commonly it is given in the form of a series of “proof-texts” in a lecture or part of a course called “Biblical Basis for Missions.” Essentially, the course does what William Carey did. It says, “We don’t really need to deal with the issue of theology. Rather, if we will show that we are doing that we call ‘Missions’ can be linked to Biblical verses that are relevant and supporting.”
An acquaintance of mine is what sometimes gets called a Neo-Calvinist. A seminary interviewing him questioned whether his theology would work against the importance of Missions and Evangelism (these being important to the seminary). His response was that he strongly supported missions and evangelism and felt that this was empowered by his theology much the way several other missionaries, pastors, or theologians found their Calvinistic theology empowering their call to outreach. I don’t really know about some of the people he referenced. However, he mentioned William Carey, and from his writings it seems to me more that he bracketed his theology. Or, perhaps more sympathetically, he allowed his theology to maintain a certain unresolved tension. Not always the worst decision. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Some work in the vein of Carey’s Enquiry, answers more recent criticisms or interpretations of Matthew 28:18-20:
- Arguing for the authenticity of the passage (that Jesus actually said it or it at least accurately describes what Jesus was seeking for the post-resurrection church).
- Connect it with other Biblical passages to show that the passage is correctly understood and is consistent with other statements of Jesus, as well as other Biblical writers.
For a Christian Missions that is “built to last,” one needs a theological view, not a proof-text view, of Scripture. Regarding the latter activity, David Bosch states,
“I am not saying that these procedures are illegitimate. They undoubtedly have their value. But their contribution towards establishing the validity of the missionary mandate is minimal. This validity should not be deduced from isolated texts and detached incidents but only from the thrust of the central message of both Old and New Testaments.” (“Hermeneutical Principles,” pages 439-440)
A big problem is that Missions has been strangely quite absent from formal theological study over the years. As Christopher Wright notes,
“… there are many theological scholars and students whose understanding of theology is bounded by the horizon of the classical shape of the curriculum, in which mission in any form (biblical, historical, theological, practical) seems remarkably absent.” (Christopher J. H. Wright, ‘The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative,” p. 36)
In fact, one can even argue about where a Missions Theology would fit in. It could be a form of “Practical Theology”– attempting to bridge systematic theology (perhaps soteriology and ecclesiology) with real world practice. It could be its own sub-category of systematic theology, standing alongside Christology, Eschatology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology and the like). It could be a sub-set of Biblical Theology, going beyond “Biblical basis for Missions” to an attempt to draw the Testaments of God together to see the Missio Dei and the Missio Ecclesia.
For me, the most important is Missions Theology that establishes a sound foundation for Missions today. This would draw heavy on its Biblical Theology roots, but honestly and faithfully addresses systematization with historical and philophical sources as well. Wright goes on (on page 37) to quote Mark Spindler:
“If ‘mission’ is understood as the sum total of all actual missionary activities in the modern period or as everything undertaken under the banner of ‘missions,’ then an honest biblical scholar can only conclude that such a concept of mission does not occur in the Bible… It is therefore anachronistic and hence meaningless to attempt to base all modern ‘missionary’ activities on the Bible, that is, to seek biblical precedents or literal biblical mandates for all modern missionary activities. Mission today must, rather, be seen as arising from something fundamental, from the basic movement of God’s people toward the world… All ‘missionary’ activities that have grown up in history must be reassessed from this perspective. Once again, a biblical grounding of mission by no means seeks to legitimate missionary activities that are actually being carried out. Its goal is, rather, evaluation of those activities in the light of the Bible.”
We presently live in a “missionally sloppy” time. We live in an era where missions is often seen as converting people from one Christian denomination to another, or one theological ‘club’ within Christianity to another. For some it is about sending money to local workers, while others are convinced that missions can only happen when people are active cross-culturally. Some see evangelism as absolutely essential to missions, while others see social justice and ministry as key, while others identify a more holistic approach. Some feel that spiritual mapping and praying down ‘principalities and powers’ is essential, while others see it as useless fiction. Some see long-term workers as essential, while others see them as anachronistic and believe that more can be done with short-term teams. Some believe that we must do things “the way Paul did it,” others that we must be sent as the Father sent Jesus, while some see other forms of adaptation in missions. Many provide their ultimate theological justification for their Missions activities as “it seems to work” or “God appears to be blessing it” — (may as well use the line from the Debby Boone song, You Light Up My Life, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”)
A good missions theology would not answer all of these concerns, but would at least provide a foundation for evaluating the various currents.