Luther, Calvin and the Mission of the Church: The Mission Theology and Practice of the Protestant Reformers, Thorsten Prill. GRIN Verlag, Open Publishing GmbH, 2017. 96 pp.
It used to be, and to a certain extent still is, an oft-repeated assertion in mission studies that the Protestant Reformation had little or nothing to do with mission. The problem is that the historical evidence simply does not bear this out. I argued the point at length in my 2011 book For the Cause of the Son of God: The Missionary Significance of the Belgic Confession, a revision of my doctoral dissertation. Since then much more research has been done into the Reformation and what it represented and accomplished in terms of Christian mission. This small volume summarizes a great deal of that research and offers yet more.
Thorsten Prill is currently vice-principal and academic dean at Edinburgh Bible College in Scotland. Previously he lectured in missiology and other subjects at the Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary. He has experienced ministry in six churches, three countries, and two continents. Prill is an ordained minister of the Rhenish Church in Namibia, a denomination with both Lutheran and Reformed origins. He has written extensively on missions and mission history.
As the title indicates, a substantial portion of this book is historical. The first four chapters are focussed on describing the problem much of contemporary missiology has with properly understanding the Reformation as a missional movement. Most of this would be well-known to Reformed mission scholars, although it is surprising how much the error has persisted. Entirely new to me was the fourth chapter on “Wittenberg and the Reformation in Scandinavia.” Prill describes how missionaries brought the Reformation and the true gospel to Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and even Iceland.
The last chapter examines the theology of Luther and Calvin and how it relates to mission. Prill distils eight principles which continue to bear relevance for contemporary missional thought and practice. Among them, he rightly notes how the Reformers stressed “that mission is a church-based endeavour. It is local communities of believers which the Holy Spirit uses to expand the universal Church until the return of Christ” (p.79).
My only criticism of this volume is its relative lack of attention to the confessions produced by the Reformation. Prill does mention Luther’s Large Catechism a number of times, but other Reformation-era confessional documents would buttress the argument he wants to make. I think especially of those that were strongly influenced by the theology of someone like Calvin. Also, since many of these confessions were ecclesiastically produced and sanctioned, they could be regarded as of weightier value than the writings of individual Reformers.
Prill’s book is a valuable addition to the cause of historical accuracy. I can only rejoice that more missiologists are doing justice to the Reformation. I am hopeful that in time, with these corrections, the narrative will shift and most Protestant mission scholars will understand that what happened in sixteenth-century Europe was as much about getting the gospel out to unbelievers as it was about reforming the organization and beliefs of the Church. Moreover, as we see the Reformation correctly, we find that not only are there inspiring missional stories from this period, but also abiding biblical truths of which we need to be reminded.