Is Calvinism Anti-Missionary?

Posted by on Apr 16, 2012 in Calvinism, Interviews, Matthew Barrett, Missions | 17 Comments

Interview by Matthew Barrett–

In the March issue of Credo Magazine, “Make Disciples of All Nations,” we interviewed Kenneth Stewart, Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College and the author of Ten Myths About Calvinism (IVP). Here is what Ken had to say about Calvinism and Missions…

Calvinism is largely anti-missionary. True or False?

It is historically false. Surprisingly, the charge that it is true seems to have grown up especially since 1960 when it was given respectability by the Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology professor W. Richey Hogg.  More recently, the charge has been repeated by the late historian of Southwestern Baptist Seminary, William Estep and the evangelical apologetics writer, Norman Geisler.  A better knowledge of mission history would have kept them from making this indefensible claim.

What about the Reformers? Did Luther, Calvin, and others care about evangelism and missions?

In the sixteenth century, transoceanic missionary activity required both a supportive monarchy and a national program of overseas expansion. As neither Switzerland nor Saxony were maritime nations, their transoceanic missionary efforts awaited developments beyond their control. Until those developments came, Lutheranism concentrated on the missionary penetration of adjacent territories (Poland, the Baltic countries and Holland). Swiss Reformed missionary penetration of Holland, France and Hungary ran along similar lines. And it was just as perilous work as missions to the tropics.

Many may be unaware that several “Genevan Calvinists” sought to take the gospel to Brazil. Who were these men and what is their story?

In the 1550’s, largely-Catholic France (which was itself playing colonial catch-up with neighboring Spain and Portugal) determined to try an adventure in South American colonization. Though they were unwelcome there (given the prior Spanish and Portuguese division of the continent) they focused their energies on an island off Brazil’s coast. But not enough French Catholics were willing to go on the colonial adventure and so Huguenots were welcomed (Genevans among them). These made a serious attempt to evangelize the aboriginal peoples on the Brazilian coast before being ordered home by the unsympathetic colonial governor.

Were Calvinists among some of the early settlers in the New World and if so what were their methods in sharing the gospel with Native Americans?

There were two notable efforts in Puritan New England. Puritan donors in Cromwellian England raised funds to assist the ministries to Indians of Richard Mayhew on Martha’s Vineyard (an island off Cape Cod) and of John Eliot, who travelled west of his frontier home of Roxbury, MA. The strategy of each was to organize distinctly Christian villages (called ‘praying towns’) for converted Indians and to as rapidly as possible produce Indian versions of the Scriptures with native preachers responsible for the proclamation. This came with amazing speed.

The Synod of Dort is famously (or infamously!) known for its defense of the doctrines of grace against the Arminian Remonstrance of the day. Do we see any signs of missionary zeal among the representatives at Dort?

More than is realized, there was a strongly pietistic element among the Dutch delegates to this international Synod hosted at Dordrecht 1618-1619. This same Dutch Reformed pietism saw in the far-flung efforts of the Dutch East India Company to SE Asian regions such as the present Sri Lanka and Indonesia (formerly Portuguese territories) an opportunity for company chaplains to do missionary work among the native peoples. This happened before Eliot and Mayhew were at work in Massachusetts.

Thanks to Jonathan Edwards, we are left with the diary of David Brainerd. What kind of legacy did Brainerd leave behind in his efforts to preach the gospel to the Indians?

Globally, the missionary devotion and example of Brainerd was transmitted by President Edwards’ Memoir of Brainerd. We know for a fact that it was in turn influential in fixing the outlook of subsequent missionaries to the East such as William Carey and Henry Martyn.

Calvinistic Baptists were  among the   pioneers of the modern missionary cause. What was the significance of William Carey’s mission to India and the foundation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792?

Carey in particular, but also his circle including such persons as Andrew Fuller, were fully cognizant of earlier Reformation-based missionary effort – both in Massachusetts and in South India. Carey and his circle organized a non-ecclesiastical society of the like-minded that would, in due course, act like a ‘leaven’ to influence their (and other) denominations to officially sponsor overseas missions.

How did William Carey handle the protest from hyper-Calvinists that “when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without you”?

There is actually some dispute as to whether these words of spoken objection were actually uttered. But if they were spoken, they were not necessarily the sentiments of an indolent Christian. There was an old attitude, left over from before the days of transoceanic exploration, that—since God is free to do all things—He might also have a way of saving those beyond human reach.  But Carey and his circle, full of the new knowledge of the world mediated through the published travel journals of Captain Cook, understood and were made confident of the fact that nations not long before reckoned “beyond reach” were now, in the days of regular transoceanic navigation, made accessible. It was time for the right use of means.

Many Southern Baptists today argue that a zeal for Calvinism has undermined missions. From a historical standpoint, does such a charge hold water?

My personal view is that the reason why these charges were not made longer ago than 1960 is that before that time, fair-minded observers of world missions could plainly observe that missionaries of Calvinist sympathies were more than pulling their weight.  The noted missionary scholar Samuel Zwemer pointed out in 1952 (for instance) that Calvinists had been the pioneers of Protestant missions to Arab and Muslim societies.  Such charges, when made today, strongly suggest ignorance of the historical record.

Are you encouraged by what you see in our day when it comes to Calvinists taking the gospel to the lost throughout the world? Where might there be areas of improvement?

This is a difficult question. As a Presbyterian, I cannot speak for what is taking place in the SBC. But I am conscious that the missionary energies (as well as other energies) of the church in the West are being sapped by materialism and that, in this existing context, scarce congregational resources are being diverted more and more into short-term missionary ‘stints.’ Moreover, not all evangelical and Reformed seminaries are maintaining their former levels of instruction in missions in this era of budgetary constraints. At very least, this is no time for evangelical Calvinists to be resting on the bare historical record of how our convictions have, in past, promoted missionary sacrifice; we must demonstrate that these same principles are operative now.

Kenneth Stewart is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College. He is the author of Ten Myths About Calvinism (IVP).

Did you enjoy this interview? Read others like it in the March issue of Credo Magazine,“Make Disciples of All Nations.”

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) These words, spoken by Jesus after his resurrection, are famously known as The Great Commission. As disciples of Christ, it is our great joy to go and tell the nations about the good news of salvation for sinners through Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. The March issue of Credo Magazine will seek to ignite a passion for missions. And what better timing as this year marks the 200th anniversary of Adoniram and Ann Judson setting sail aboard the Caravan with to take the gospel to Burma. Contributors include: Ted Kluck, Jason Duesing, Nathan Finn, the Housley Family (missionaries in Papua New Guinea), Kenneth Stewart, Brian Vickers, David VanDrunen, Matt Williams, and many others.



  1. Around the Blogs 4/18/2012 | Servants of Grace
    April 18, 2012

    [...] Around the Blogs 4/18/2012 Posted by Dave Jenkins on Apr 18, 2012 in Resources | 0 comments If you're new here to Servants of Grace, you may want to subscribe to our RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!Is Calvinism Anti-Missionary an Interview with Dr. Kenneth Stewart Conducted by Matthew Barrett [...]

  2. Kevin Fiske
    April 18, 2012

    I greatly appreciate Dr. Ken Stewart and his work! He was kind enough to do a couple interviews at my blog last year…the links are below…

    “MYTH: Calvinism Promotes Antinomianism”

    “MYTH: TULIP Has the Imprint of Antiquity”

  3. Ed Gross
    April 20, 2012

    Your Comments D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that all the founders of the great mission societies in Britain and America at the beginning of the 18th Century were, to a man, Calvinists. Those who believe that God has ordained the ends understand that He has also ordained the means, namely, the preaching of the gospel, the making of disciples, the development of leaders, the training of pastors and the planting of churches.

  4. Dan Hicks
    April 20, 2012

    There may have been efforts to evangelize, by Calvinists, in the past, but according to this doctrine there should be little motivation to do so.

  5. Desmond
    April 20, 2012

    You missed out completely on the damage done to South Africa by the Calvinists. Preachers like the Scottish Presbyterean Andrew Murray, who started the Dutch Reformed Church, based their teaching on reaching the heathen on the “hewers of wood and carriers of water” doctrine. From that stemmed the sin of making “apartheid” law in SA. Verwoerd was the Holland-born creator of the hated word, which led to the demise of SA. People naturally lived separate lives. They did not need laws. The “missionaries” of the DRC and other “Reformed” churches had their black members in the NG Church of Africa, and the “coloured” half-black in the NG Sending Kerk (DR Mission Church). Other races were not welcome in the white Calvinist churches. Some missionaries! They even hated and mocked us English-speaking Christians.

  6. D Staton
    April 20, 2012

    Your CommentsTwo things I have noticed about “true” Calvinist;
    1. They fight tooth and nail for their beliefs.
    2. They never fail to use a sledgehammer when a feather duster would serve better.

  7. David Severy
    April 20, 2012

    I’m not a Calvinist. I’m not reformed. Evangelism is the least of my concerns regarding the church today. And what ever was done in Calvin’s day has little impact on us except for the idolatry that seems to accompany some of his teachings.

    You can take the message of Jesus to your next door neighbor. In fact if your next door neighbor does not know you to be a follower of Christ likely you are not following Christ.

    God knows who are His. But I don’t. Men are some what like angels in this regard. We don’t know who it is who will wind up in heaven in every case. This is all the more reason to make disciples of Christ and not of Calvin. Wherever Calvin is in heaven or in hell I know he will agree with that.

    Calvinists have one particular defect in their doctrine that needs wholesale overhaul, and that is the future of Israel, the people and the land. I challenge anyone to show me where God has gone back on his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the faithful of the children of Israel to keep them as a distinct people and finally return them to their promised land of Israel (Canaan). To do this as has been done is to twist a few scriptures against many, many others. But more to the point, for God to go back on a promise from His mouth is unthinkable. And the promise to Abraham is a unilateral promise.

    Jeremiah 31
    35 Thus saith the LORD, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which divideth the sea when the waves thereof roar; The LORD of hosts is his name:

    36 If those ordinances depart from before me, saith the LORD, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me for ever.

    37 Thus saith the LORD; If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith the LORD.

    Don’t let yourself be fooled to think that the gentile church of today is the seed of Israel. It is not. All the descendants of Abraham through Isaac are the seed of Israel including the greatest seed the Messiah Yeshua (Christ Jesus).

    John 4:22
    Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.

    It is remarkable that so many do not know yet what they worship.

  8. Is Calvinism Anti-Missionary? - Gadsit
    April 20, 2012

    [...] Continue reading at [...]

  9. Dwayne
    April 20, 2012

    I do believe traditional and historical Calvinism was evangelical in thought and action. Evidence is strong for missionary endeavor in that day. But, it is now time to give my observation of many self-proclaimed Calvinists. I have read and listened to their comments. I have watched their behaviors. There is impressive evidence that, if measured, analyzed, and evaluated, that the posture of these is a-missions or even anti-missions. Call it passivity or intentional, it is noticeable. All I can say is for those Calvinists now identifying themselves as such, there should be a distinct theological identity. I would suggest New Calvinists or Neo-calvinists. Actually, I wish they would discard Calvin’s name altogether. I can go one step further in saying that I have experienced hostility from these folk as well when I confront them scripturally. It seems it is more than missiology that is on their mental agendas for being discarded. If you like, just bring up ecclesiology or eschatology. Assert sola scriptura and get interesting responses. Their sense of having been elected and others not having been is more important than all other doctrines.

  10. Stephen Ray Hale
    April 21, 2012

    I used to be a non-Calvinist (believing in eternal security made be a bit of leaner to that side, though) and used the verse in 2 Peter 3:9 where God is unwilling that any should perish, to bash the calvinist on the head. BUT it was that same verse that humbled me, and rebuking the arrogancy of my statement that if God was like what the Calvinists say He is, He is no God of mine.
    BUT, like any good Christian should be, and that is the observer of the ENTIRE of the contexts (bringing to mind this correct translation of 2 Peter 1:20, “This first knowing that every prophecy of scripture is not of ITS OWN INTERPRETATION. – a corollary of the Torah law of two or three witnesses that establishes a matter, where Moses said that no man should be put to death at the testimony of one witness), I noticed the word “longsuffering” and remembering that Peter (who is doing commentary on Paul’s writing) mentioned the term “longsuffering” in this context, “the LONGSUFFERING of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you,” decided to find out where Paul actually was using this word in such applications concerning God…and to my chagrin found it in the heavily Calvinistic proof texts in Romans 9:20-24. I will let YOU figure this out…pay particular attention to the concept of “us” and who thise actually refers to, in both Paul and Peter’s writings.

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