Confirmation Bias: Missions and the Reformers

1. Researching the Reformers

From tooth fairies to old wives tales, most of us have believed something we later found out to be false. Why did we believe those things? Often, it’s because someone we trusted told us.

Much has been written on the ideological echo chambers we’ve curated for ourselves. By carefully following and subscribing to the particular voices we choose, we regularly listen to those that affirm what we already believe. The Internet and social media only exacerbate the confirmation bias fallen humanity prefers.

But long before feeds, books shared previous books’ assertions. Many times, authors on a particular subject merely agreed with a previous author’s conclusions, often with no more context than a footnote. Pre–web, the pulpit helped those ideas go viral.

So, imagine you didn’t prefer the theology of the Magisterial Reformers. Maybe your subtle antagonism arose because you couldn’t harmonize a particular theological distinctive with the clear call to mission. Therefore, you decide to ask someone you respect, perhaps your hometown pastor or favorite seminary professor, whether or not the Reformers cared about missions. Thankfully, they confirm what you already assumed. Great! Right again!

But, in good faith, you set out to study the issue for yourself. Now, the question you seek an answer for is this: “Did the Reformers Care about Missions?” Note, this is not, “Does this particular pastor in my community care about missions?” If that were the question, you’d set up an appointment and ask him. You might also watch his life or attend the church he leads. The research methodology would not be overly complicated.

Nor is your question this one: “Did Martin Bucer Care about Missions?” If that were the question, you could set out to read everything Bucer wrote, no small task, of course, while reading historical accounts of his life. In the end, though not as easy as asking the question of a modern–day pastor, this would be a narrow enough inquiry to come to a decent conclusion.

But, consider the breadth of the question at hand: “Did the Reformers Care about Missions?” To answer that query with integrity, you’d need to read much of what John Calvin, Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and a number of others wrote. Furthermore, you couldn’t just read their theological tomes; you’d need to read their sermons. Luther preached 6000 himself. Calvin preached more.

So, to find your answer, all you need to do is read or thoughtfully skim a thousand or so books.

This daunting task often leads one to decide, “Let’s just see what the missiological historian thinks.” Thankfully, he or she confirms what you and your pastor previously thought. Great! Right again!

But what if the book you consulted merely noted the conclusion of a different respected historian?

This is what Dr. Ray Van Neste’s fascinating article in the latest Southeastern Theological Review claims.

2. Dr. Ray Van Neste’s Research

First, concerning the question at hand, Dr. Van Neste asserts that many theologians chose to follow the conclusions, or at least cherry–pick particular conclusions, of influential German missiologist Gustav Warneck. To demonstrate this, Van Neste quotes from noted missionary historians Kenneth Scott Latourette, Stephen Neill, Ruth Tucker, and J. Herbert Kane concerning the missiological efforts, or lack thereof, of the Reformers. However, after examining their arguments, Van Neste notes a common theme, “Few of these works present their own primary source research on the topic. They simply cite or allude to Warneck or to someone who has followed him.”

Furthermore, it doesn’t seem clear to Van Neste that Warneck himself has even been read critically. That is, like most writing on this subject, Warneck had personally answered the question, “What is the Mission of the Church?” before venturing to write a history of missions. Consequently his definition of missionary activity served as the rubric by which the Reformers were determined to be missiologically conscious or not. The question Van Neste raises is salient: has Warneck’s definition of mission been critiqued?

In short, while Warneck acknowledges the effectiveness of the Reformers in taking the gospel to Europe, he faults them for not advocating for a systematic missionary enterprise. According to him, the Reformers did not seek to establish missionary institutions, that which was so identified with faithful missiology in Warneck’s milieu. In my favorite line of Van Neste’s article, he notes, “His (Warneck’s) arguments prove that the Reformers were not participants in a nineteenth century missions agency!” To summarize the implications for the reader, Warneck’s oft–cited and quoted conclusions should be understood within his overly narrow and era–shaped definition of missions.

That’s some of Dr. Van Neste’s claim. However, maybe you’re thinking, “But now you’re just taking his word for it.” And that’s a fair critique.

The balance of Van Neste’s helpful article includes scads of quotes and footnotes from various Reformers concerning their desire for the gospel to spread across the globe. For example, Calvin did not believe the apostles had fulfilled the Great Commission, thereby nullifying our present participation in it. Nor did his theological convictions negate the necessity of preaching the gospel to all peoples. For merely one example, Calvin wrote that the “gospel does not fall like rain from the clouds, but is brought by the hands of men.” Quote after quote from Luther, Calvin, and Bucer fill the article. I write this post mainly to encourage you to check out Dr. Van Neste’s footnotes.[1]


Could the Reformers have sent out more missionaries? Sure. However, I dare say most pastors would not want to stand trial with that as the charge. Who would be acquitted?

Contextually, it should be noted that due to the historical factors concerning church and state in Geneva and Germany, Luther and Calvin had scores of unbelievers attending their worship services week in and week out. Should the Reformers ignore the unbelievers they knew personally? Luther’s labors to translate the Scriptures into German serve as cogent proof of his desire for unbelieving neighbors to hear and believe the gospel. Notably, even Warneck admits the Reformers evangelized Europe. Therefore, it seems that when a historian concludes that you and your fellow workers played a significant part in bringing the gospel to an entire continent, it might be quasi–unfair to charge those same people with an amissiological theology.

Could the Reformers have written more on missions? Sure. Yet I know a particular missiology PhD student who wrote less. Martin Bucer’s quotations in Van Neste’s article could not be clearer. Luther wrote missionary hymns. One doesn’t generally write songs about things he or she doesn’t believe in. Again, see Dr. Van Neste’s footnotes for the proof.

As something of an aside, you know who else has been accused of not writing much commanding his hearers to evangelize? The Apostle Paul.[2] However, what he believed about the gospel combined with the example he set made clear to those he instructed the necessity of getting that gospel to the world. In a lesser sense, it’s well attested that Calvin’s church in Geneva sent out quite a few missionaries. At that point in history, to go to these foreign lands would often entail dying for the gospel. For those missionaries to embrace that cost, someone must have modeled or instructed––or both––the necessity of the mission of God’s people to the world.

Further, in considering the Reformers, can one actually share the gospel if the gospel isn’t rightly understood? In that era, the Roman Catholic Church asserted that they took the gospel to more places than the Reformation theologians. But did they? While they might’ve crossed rivers and borders, was what they shared with the unbelieving the true gospel? Histories of missions are worth reading, in particular Neill’s and Latourette’s, but the faithful missionaries they list in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries shared the gospel message the Reformers helped to recover. In short, one must have the right message before they can share it.

So, let’s be careful not to define missions more narrowly than the Scriptures do. Nor let us carelessly charge those in the past with unfair slights based on confirmation bias or hearsay. Maybe the missionary historian you read was right about the Reformers. Or maybe Dr. Van Neste is. But the latter shows his work, giving via citation directions to a starting point. Let’s read Calvin and Luther to find out.


[1] Read The Mangled Narrative of Missions and Evangelism in the Reformation.

[2] See Robert Plummer, “The Church’s Missionary Nature: The Apostle Paul and His Churches” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2001).