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Reformation and Reformission: Luther as Missionary

Category Articles
Date October 19, 2015

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses for public debate to the church door at Wittenberg on the 31st of October 1517, the Protestant Reformation officially began its long journey.1 Luther was not the sole pioneer of Protestantism, as he had already been influenced in his theology by the life of Jan Hus (1369-1415) and likewise by the Lollards.2 He became, however, the pivotal historical figure of the Reformation and his Protestant stance would go on to help shape mission practice to become what is now termed ‘evangelical’ mission.

Bosch names Luther as the catalyst for a new mission paradigm,3 which he lists as having five key features: justification by faith; the universal impact of the Fall; the subjective dimension of salvation; the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.4 Bosch’s conclusions concerning the Reformers’ missionary activity reveals a dim view of Reformation mission, suggesting that a doctrinal overemphasis on the sovereignty of God, the objective nature of faith and the sinfulness of sinners in light of the Fall all pointed towards little missionary activity on behalf of the Reformers.5

However, Bosch’s conclusions in this regard are refuted by Emile G. Leonard, who observes that Luther, as a new born-again Christian, may have found his salvation and as a teacher, his doctrine; but also observes that, ‘He at once turned to the task of spreading the message he had thus received. To this end, he made use of the university exercise of disputation, which enabled him to diffuse it among the intellectuals.’6 This Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith and not by works helped to form Reformation theology, and Luther was fervent in his passion to spread this theological perspective to the ends of the earth. The spread of Reformation doctrine may have come mainly through the higher echelons of European culture1 but there was still nevertheless a clear dissemination of Reformation thought – which would have been greatly enhanced by Luther’s use of the printing press – yet hands and feet were necessary in passing books and documents out from Lutheran centres of doctrine.

Perhaps the Reformation presented Protestantism as a movement for reform from within the Church, which Luther felt had betrayed biblical precepts.8 Therefore, if doctrinal reform was at the heart of the Protestant initiative, can it really be regarded as mission? It must be argued that it can, for Luther’s doctrinal revelations primarily brought both the scriptural emphasis of justification by faith and a reformed theological perspective of the cross to both the Church and the common people, due largely to his written works. In other words, the message of the gospel was being spread across Europe, and not only by word, as once Luther’s words were read, many times and in various contexts, those words were also translated into preached sermons. Commenting on the Reformation arriving in England, Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné suggests that it was the English Reformers’ faithfulness to gospel preaching9 that saved the nation from revolution.

A new paradigm in mission, as Bosch suggests, was taking place through the Reformation. However, Bosch’s conclusion that Lutheran doctrine did little to enhance Christian mission may be a misrepresentation of history. The Reformation spread widely across Europe in the sixteenth century, helping to cement the foundations of Protestantism, and did so due to a new form of missionary venture – a complete reliance on words, either printed or spoken. This shift in missionary approach also heralded a stronger and more specific emphasis on personal salvation.10 This new approach was fundamentally different to the Celtic and Friar method of community Christianity, and became more individualistic. In other words, the experience of salvation was an individual salvation, which was translated by the Reformation movement as being superior to any kind of communal activity, therefore striking at the heart of the Mother Church identification within Catholicism.

Community in Lutheran Protestantism became replaced by services (which had already been established in the Roman Catholic Church, apart from the community life in the monasteries) and the main thrust of Protestant mission was preaching and writing. The Holy Spirit may have been leading the events in the expansion of the Reformation, but the expectation of the miraculous petered out, and due to a severe persecution towards many converts to the Protestant faith, the missionary travels once seen in the Celtic and Friar era became more localised, preaching-based (in institutions, universities or churches) and apologetic concerning the written works being distributed. Moving along with cultural advances in the spread of literature, books also became ‘missionaries’. Therefore, the advent of the power of printing helped shape not only theological communication, but also the focus of mission, from the borderless neighbourhood-type missionary approach of the early centuries to a more removed, doctrinal, written and apologetically-preached approach. Here, culture has a profound effect on Reformation mission, based on the advent of the printing press shaping the contemporary culture into one of logocentrism.11 Thus logocentrism, found primarily within the printed page (then translated into the Church and the academy as sermon and lecture), allowed for words to become doctrinal and missionary weapons, on a par with the cultural advances of a developing literary society.


  1. Peter G. Wallace, The Long European Reformation (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 75.
  2. Ibid., p. 60.
  3. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (New York: Orbis Books, 1997), p. 239.
  4. Ibid., pp. 239-242.
  5. Ibid., p. 261.
  6. Emile G. Leonard, A History of Protestantism Vol. 1: The Reformation, ed. by Harold H. Rowley (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1965), p. 47.
  7. Ibid., pp. 122-128.
  8. Ibid., p. 162.
  9. Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné, The Reformation in England (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1963), pp. 84-94.
  10. Bosch, op. cit., p. 239.
  11. The term logocentrism, although not originally coined by Jacques Derrida, has been used by Derrida in an extensive and systematic way, referring to the exclusivity of words to portray information. See Graham Ward, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 5.

William Wade is an Army Scripture Reader (evangelist) with SASRA, and is studying with Chester University.

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