Martin Luther’s Missiology (Part 4)

lutherWhy were subsequent generations of “Lutheran theologians, the intellectual children and grandchildren of Luther” resistant to responding to the Lord’s Great Commission to send missionaries to the ends of the earth?  Some reasons have already been highlighted in this paper, but James Scherer provides yet another reason stating, “Luther’s biblically based conviction about the proclamation of the gospel of the whole creation and his confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s kingdom gave way to dogmatic hairsplitting and ecclesiastical retrenchment.  In the period of Orthodoxy, Lutheranism erected formidable dogmatic barriers to mission work by evangelical churches.” (James A. Scherer, Gospel, Church, & Kingdom: Comparative Studies in World Mission Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987, p. 66, Emphasis added.)

What were the “formidable dogmatic barriers to mission work” erected by the intellectual children and grandchildren of Luther?

One of the most influential Lutheran theologians of Lutheran Orthodoxy was Johann Gerhard (1582-1637). Gerhard had a profound influence on the dogmatic attitude of Lutherans toward world-wide evangelization. Gerhard’s position regarding world missions might be summarized as follows:

  1. The Great Commission had been intended for the Apostles and since the apostolate had expired in its original sense and since there were no real successors, the Great Commission had no continuing validity in its original form.  Gerhard argued that the gifts and the powers of the apostolate had been conferred upon the church corporate and “were mediated through regular ecclesiastical calls to settled parochial ministries.  No theological basis existed for a call to preach the gospel to distant heathen.” (Scherer, p. 68)  Scherer observes that Gerhard’s position was “dictated by polemical necessity” as he argued against the Roman Catholic position of “apostolic succession”.
  2. In contrast to Bellermine’s assertion that one of the marks of the true church is its missionary activity, Gerhard argued the only necessary mark of the true church was to adhere to the rule and norm of Holy Scripture. (Scherer, p. 67) In so arguing, James Scherer says that “[Gerhard] neatly separated the missionary activity of the church from its claims to apostolicity and catholicity. … Only that part of the Lord’s commission that related to Baptism and the teaching office remained valid.” (Scherer, p. 68) Gerhard would not “concede that the Roman Catholic Church was apostolic, since its missionary agents struck him as ‘pseudoapostolic’ and ‘antichristian.’ The Lutherans laid claim to true apostolicity in view of their pure apostolic doctrine based on the Scriptures.” (Scherer, 68)  One might understand Gerhard’s position in light of the fact that a “salvation by works” message is not the Gospel. But, there is ever the temptation to see the primary mission of the church to be preserving pure doctrine and not as proclaiming the gospel to save the lost.  Erwin Kolb states, “They are both necessary and important but, when all our energies are spent on preserving, the primary mission is hindered.” (Erwin Kolb, “The Primary Mission,” CTQ, Vol. 54, No. 2-3, April-July 1990, 127)
  3. Gerhard held the position that the Gospel had been previously preached throughout the world and should not be proclaimed in those lands that had rejected it.  The historian Stephen Neill describes Gerhard’s position on worldwide evangelization: “the command of Christ to preach the Gospel to all the world ceased with the apostles.  In their day the offer of salvation had been made to all the nations; there was no need for the offer to be made a second time to those who had already refused it.” (Neill, 189; cf. Scherer, 67.)  According to the missiologist David J. Bosch, Gerhard proposed that, “all nations had long before been reached with the gospel: the ancient Mexicans received Christianity from the Ethiopians, an unknown missionary had gone to Brazil, the Peruvians, Brahmins, and others must also have been evangelized centuries ago, since their religions reveal Christian elements, etc. (cf. Warneck 1906:28-31).  If these nations were still pagan, in spite of having been evangelized at one time or another, there could be one explanation only – their heedlessness and ingratitude. Those who were still not Christian thus had no excuse and should not be given a second chance.”  (David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Missions.  Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991, 251.)

NOTE: This paper on Martin’s Luther’s missiology has been published previously on “Go!” But, I have had requests to publish it again. Over the next number of Mondays, an adapted version of a paper I presented at Concordia Lutheran Seminary, Edmonton (October 30, 2008) will be posted.

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