Martin Luther’s Missiology (Part 5)

lutherIn last Monday’s posting, we summarized Johann Gerhard’s theological position regarding world-wide evangelization. Gerhard’s position had a profound influence on Lutherans and their “slow” response to the Lord’s commission to “Go!” 

This week’s posting identifies additional dogmatic barriers that influenced subsequent generations of Lutherans to be obstinate in responding to the Great Commission.


Many other Lutheran theologians reflect Gerhard’s views when commenting on why Lutherans should not concern themselves with worldwide evangelization.   Like Gerhard many Lutheran theologians believed the Great Commission was no longer binding on the church because the Great Commission had been completed by the Apostles.

The faculty at the University of Wittenberg supported Gerhard’s position.  In 1652, the faculty was asked to provide an opinion statement concerning the scope of the Great Commission.  Montgomery observes that the faculty,

Issued a document declaring that the command to go into all the world was only a personale privilegium of the apostles, and had already been fulfilled; were this not so, the faculty reasoned, the duty of becoming a missionary evangelist would fall to every Christian – an absurd conclusion!  World evangelism would violate the creative orders (Schopfungsordnungen) by which God gives each man a stable place in society, sets rulers over their subjects, and requires a definite and limited call for ministerial service. Thus, the argument goes, Luther himself held that the world had already been totally evangelized, and maintained that since all church workers must be ‘duly called’ (rite vocati), and the heathen obviously are not going to call Christian evangelists to serve them, missionary work is unjustifiable in principle.”  (Montgomery, 162; cf. Scherer, 68-69.)

The second dogmatic barrier to mission work was tied to the understanding that all initiative leading to the salvation of people lay with God alone.  David Bosch describes the Lutheran position: “The attitude was that no human being could undertake any mission work; God would, in his sovereignty see to this. God does not chase us here and there.  He confines us to the place where we have grown up and calls us to serve the nearest neighbor to whom we do not have to travel more than a thousand yards.” (Bosch, 250)  Bosch further adds, “It could, after all, be argued that since the initiative remains God’s, and God is the One who sovereignly elects those who will be saved, any human attempt at saving people would be blasphemy.” (Ibid., 242). In other words, the mission belonged to God and God needed no human initiators or helpers.

A third dogmatic barrier to mission work was tied to the understanding “that mission is not the task of human agents except in the closely controlled circumstances where the ius reformandi applied, viz., that evangelical princes are responsible for evangelizing their non-Christian subjects.” (Scherer, 67) Rulers could send pastors to preach the gospel to Christians and non-Christians in their territorial lands, but “missionary responsibility ceased when one went beyond the territories ruled by an evangelical prince, whether at home or abroad.” (Scherer, 67) Regional parishes were allowed to preach the Gospel within their territorial boundaries, but not beyond those boundaries.

A fourth dogmatic barrier to mission work was tied to the Lutheran definition of “church” being a place where the Word is preached and the Sacraments administered.  Bosch observes that the church was “defined in terms of what happens inside its four walls, not in terms of its calling in the world.  The verbs used in the Augustana are all in the passive voice: the church is a place where the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.  It is a place where something is done, not a living organism doing something.”  (Bosch, 249)

With Augsburg Confession VII as the operative definition of “The Church”, the pastor was the shepherd “rightly called” to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments and the laity (i.e. the sheep) were to be fed.  If there were any straying sheep to be found such was the responsibility of the pastor.  The result was a clergy focused on ministering to those already saved and a passive priesthood of believers who grazed lazily on “the green grass by the still quiet waters” with little initiative to seek and save lost sheep.  

A fifth dogmatic barrier to mission work was tied to the Lutheran theologian’s understanding of vocation. Christians were to “remain statically were they were – in the fixed orders of life – witnessing solely to those locked into the same life-structures with them!” (Montgomery, 165) Faith, active in love, was to characterize the believers’ life, but only within their God-given vocations.  The word “neighbor” was narrowly defined to mean that person in your home or community … not the lost soul in a neighbouring territory and certainly not in another part of the world.

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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