Tag Archives: the Great Commission

Revisiting Boer and Bucer

In 2011, Reformation Media and Press published For the Cause of the Son of God, a revised form of my doctoral dissertation.  This book discussed at length the missionary significance of the Belgic Confession.  My main foils were voices within the Christian Reformed Church of North America who had argued that the Belgic Confession was not only irrelevant for mission, but even a liability to a missionary church.  Among the CRC scholars with whom I interacted was Harry R. Boer.

Early in his own revised doctoral dissertation Pentecost and Missions, Boer argued that Reformers like Calvin and Luther believed that the Great Commission (in Matthew 28:18-20 and parallels) was meant only for the apostles.  Then Boer gets to Martin Bucer and he has to admit that Bucer was different.  He had a missionary concern.  Yet, Boer detected an inconsistency in Bucer’s missionary outlook, one which allegedly lined him up with Calvin, Luther and others Reformers on the limited nature of the Great Commission.  Boer quoted from Bucer’s 1538 book Von der waren Seelsorge:

What Christians in general and the civil authorities neglect to do with respect to seeking the lost lambs, this the elders of the Church shall undertake to make good in every possible way.  And though they do not have an apostolic call and command to go to strange nations, yet they shall not in their several churches…permit anyone who is not associated with the congregation of Christ to be lost in error.

The italics were added by Boer and I assume that the translation was his own (he does not indicate otherwise).  From this Boer concludes that “even Bucer did not free himself from the Reformation conception that the Great Commission was limited to the apostles” (Pentecost and Missions, 20).

When I came across this quote and conclusion in my doctoral research, I was perplexed.  Certainly a later book by Bucer (De Regno Christi) sang a different tune.  However, I was faced with two problems:  1) I did not have ready access to the German original of Von der waren Seelsorge (no Post-Reformation Digital Library yet) and 2) Bucer’s book had not yet been translated into English.  I had no way of verifying Boer’s conclusion, but yet I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this was in the literature and offer a possible explanation.  I decided to be charitable to Boer and posited that the difference between Von der waren Seelsorge and De Regno Christi might be chalked up to Bucer changing his mind over time, the former book preceding the latter by about 12 years.  Alternatively, I wrote, perhaps the difference is attributable to the fact that Bucer was writing about elders in Boer’s quote, whereas in De Regno Christi, he was writing about minister-evangelists.

I have recently had the opportunity to revisit this question and I think I have put it to rest.  In a couple of weeks, I’m going to be speaking at two conferences in Brazil about the Reformation and evangelism.  I decided to dig a little deeper into Martin Bucer.  Now I have the opportunity to do that with the help of Peter Beale’s English translation of Bucer’s earlier book, Concerning the True Care of Souls.  More than ever, I’m convinced that Boer got Bucer wrong.

Chapter 3 deals with the management of the church.  Specifically, it is about “how our Lord Jesus carries out his pastoral office and the work of our salvation through his ordained ministers.”  As he does in each chapter, Bucer begins with some relevant Scripture passages.  The very first one in this chapter is Matthew 28:18-20!  After a number of other passages, Bucer offers some explanation.  He says again that it is through his ordained ministers that Christ does his work on earth.  He says, “Through them he calls all nations to reformation and declares to them forgiveness of sins…” (page 21).  This, he writes, is shown by the first text mentioned.  The Great Commission is applied to the ministers of the church.

The most intriguing chapter is the seventh, “How the Lost Sheep Are To Be Sought.”  Again, one finds a number of Scripture texts at the beginning and among them is Mark’s version of the Great Commission in Mark 16:15.  Writes Bucer, “There are three things to learn from these texts.  The first is that those who exercise Christ’s ministry in the church are to seek to bring all people to the knowledge of Christ” (page 76).  In the first paragraph sub-heading, Bucer writes, “All people are to acknowledge Christ as their Lord, therefore his kingdom must be proclaimed and offered to all nations” (page 76).  In that paragraph he acknowledged that not all are elect.  But we have no access to “the secrets of his election.”  So “he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature” (page 77).  He is paraphrasing Mark 16:15, the Great Commission, and says that it applies to “us.”

Bucer also has some advice for rulers in this chapter.  When rulers take their spiritual responsibilities towards their subjects seriously, “then our dear God will also surely entrust them with rightly seeking out and bringing to Christ those who by birth and breeding are estranged from Christ, such as Jews, Turks, and other heathen” (page 86).  Unfortunately, notes Bucer, many rulers have done a disservice to the gospel by invading and robbing foreign countries.  God judges this behaviour by returning the same upon the heads of oppressors:  “Thus the Jews have sucked dry the poor Christians to a remarkable extent by means of their usury, and the Turks day by day strip us of land and people with violence, making quite alarming advances” (page 87).

Now we come to the quote that Boer supplied in Pentecost and Missions.  This is Peter Beale’s translation:

Now, the elders of the church are always to see to the supply of those things which we have concluded in this article to be lacking in the seeking out of lost lambs by ordinary Christians and rulers.  And if they do not have the apostolic call and command to go to foreign people, they must still see that in the churches where the Holy Spirit has appointed them as bishops and overseers no-one anywhere who does not belong to the fellowship of Christ is left to wander, but seek in every case to do what God always entrusts to them, in order to bring such people to the full communion of Christ. (pages 88-89)

This translation is different from that of Boer in one key word.  In the second sentence, Boer had “And though they…”  Beale has “And if they…”  The German original says, “Und wo sie…”  I’m not a German expert, but from what I can tell, Beale’s translation is more accurate.  If that’s the case, then Bucer is making a concession to those who might argue that the Great Commission does not apply to church elders.  By the way, he is explicitly referring to elders — in German, Bucer uses the word “eltisten,” an older form of the modern German “ältesten.”

To me it is clear that Boer was mistaken about Bucer.  Not only in his later book De Regno Christi, but also in his earlier book Von der waren Seelsorge, Bucer viewed the Great Commission having continuing application in the church of Christ.  Bucer never changed his mind; rather Boer misunderstood him.  How and why did Boer get this wrong?   I could only speculate.  What I know for sure is that my own published doctoral work contains errors too (though nothing that negates my overall thesis).  In some instances, I too misunderstood someone or something, in others I had incomplete information.  All of us are merely human and not only prone to sin, but also to mistakes in our research and reasoning.  This is why advancing scholarship in a field has to be a joint venture.  As we study together and check our work, we can detect the mistakes, correct them, and move forward.        

 

 


Outward Looking Church: Current Craze or Christ’s Commission? (4)

Earth from Space

Revised from a presentation for the Spring Office Bearers Conference held March 22, 2014 in Burlington, ON.  See here for part 1here for part 2, here for part 3.

How Do the Scriptures Answer?

Let’s start with the Old Testament, at the very beginning.  We’re supposed to be finished with the Belgic Confession, but here I just can’t get the words of article 17 out of my mind.  It’s expressed so powerfully:

We believe that, when he saw that man had thus plunged himself into physical and spiritual death and made himself completely miserable, our gracious God in his marvelous wisdom and goodness set out to seek man when he trembling fled from him.

Of course, this is a faithful summary of what happens in Genesis 3.   Adam plunged himself into trouble, but God set out after him.  God pursued Adam and Eve.  He did that to comfort them with a promise, the mother promise of Genesis 3:15.  There would be salvation through the seed of the woman.  But I want you to take note of what God does here:  he pursues the lost and then brings that lost sinner the gospel.  He does not turn in on himself and forget about his creation.  Instead, he looks outward, has compassion on his creature, and seeks him.   If you think about it, this is remarkable.  God was the first missionary.  True, he set out to seek the lost on his own initiative (no one sent him), and he did this in an entirely unique way.  Yet his activity and attitude here should be seen as a model for the church.  It is part of God’s character to look outward, seek out the lost, and call them back to himself.  Doesn’t Scripture say in Ephesians 5:1 that we are to be imitators of God?  Obviously, we cannot imitate an infinite God in every respect, but the context of Ephesians 5:1 is that of God’s love and forgiveness.  We can certainly imitate him in those ways, and we must!  Similarly, as God looked outward and mercifully sought to save our first parents, we are to imitate him and do likewise with the lost in our world.

Along the same lines, we can think of Ezekiel 18:23, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the LORD God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”  This is why the LORD sent prophets, because he wanted the wicked to turn from their evil ways and live.  God looked outward and had a heart of compassion for those who were rebelling against him in their wickedness.  He sent prophets to call them to repentance.  Here too we see the heart of the LORD looking outward, seeking the lost, pursuing them.  If this is our God, aren’t we called to reflect him in these ways?

Going back to Genesis, let’s briefly look at the beginning of chapter 12 and sort of track the development of redemptive history from there, at least the history as it bears on our question.  In Genesis 12:3, God makes the promise to Abraham that “in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”  This promise comes back in Genesis 22:18.  The covenant with Abraham had the salvation of many as part of its purpose.  The covenant was not just about saving one man and his family, but salvation for all the nations of the earth.  In this, we also have something significant about the reason for the church’s existence.  On the basis of this passage, we can conclude that the church (where God’s covenant people are found), she exists at least partly for the sake of the world.

As the Old Testament develops from that point forward, there is somewhat of a narrowing.  What I mean is that, for a period, God is working mostly only with one people, only with Israel.  However, if we look carefully we do see signs that something bigger is being conceived through this development.  There is an outward looking perspective in the big picture.  There are numerous signs.  Let me just mention a couple of passages from Isaiah.  Isaiah 49:6 speaks of the Servant of the LORD being given as a light for the nations, so that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  In Isaiah 25:6-8, a feast on Mount Zion is described which will be for all people, for all nations.  The church here is prophetically represented by Mount Zion and this illustrates again that, in the big picture, the church at least partly exists for the salvation of people from all nations.  There is an outward looking perspective engineered into the church’s design.

If we would survey more of the Old Testament we would soon be led to observe a pattern.  Despite what I just mentioned, the general pattern in the Old Testament was that the nations could be drawn to Israel.  There were exceptions – what happens in Jonah being the most prominent.  But in general, the pattern is a passive one.  The Israelites were God’s people and if Gentiles were attracted and wanted to join them, they were welcome to, there were provisions for proselytes.  But there was no explicit mandate in the Old Testament to proclaim God’s promises for salvation to those outside of God’s people.  It’s in the new covenant administration that we find the flowering of God’s concern for the drawing in of all nations.

As we turn to the New Testament, it’s rather remarkable that its first pages don’t differ that much from the last pages of the Old Testament.  Yes, our Lord Jesus seeks out the lost, but for the most part he only carries out that ministry among the covenant people of Israel.  At that period in redemptive history, there was still more of an inward orientation.  And when he first sends out his disciples, he doesn’t send them to the Gentiles, but to the Jews.  We would say not “to the world,” but “to the church.”  He said it explicitly in Matthew 10:5-6, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  As long as our Lord Jesus was on earth, and even for some time afterwards, the covenant people of Israel held priority in the gospel calling of the disciples.

So the focus in Christ’s ministry is on the covenant people, the church.  It’s generally oriented inward.  Yet, as in the Old Testament, there are these signs that there is a bigger picture.  There are signs that something greater and broader is coming; the orientation is going to dramatically shift with the progress of redemptive history.  I just mentioned Matthew 10:5-6.  A little bit further in Matthew 10, in verse 18, Christ says that his disciples will be delivered to kings and governors for the purpose of bearing witness to them.  This is one hint that the orientation is going to shift outwards.

Other hints are seen in the several times that our Lord Jesus interacted with Gentiles during his earthly ministry.  In John 4, Jesus travels through Samaria.  There’s a remarkable thing in verse 4. It says, “he had to pass through Samaria.”  He was compelled to.  There he found the Samaritan woman.  Our Lord Jesus had compassion on her and reached out to her, even though that was socially unacceptable for a Jewish man.  In Mark 7 and Matthew 15, Christ travelled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, outside the Holy Land.  He actively goes to the Gentiles.  He interacts with this Syro-Phoenician woman.  He acknowledges her faith and heals her daughter.  Something similar takes place with the Roman centurion in Luke 7 and Matthew 8.  With his faith, the Gentile centurion stands out in contrast to the sin-stubborn covenant people.  Because of their stubbornness, they are going to be cast out.  Gentiles will be brought into a healthy, friendly relationship with God.  There will be judgment for the Jews, but through an outward looking ministry of the church, there will be salvation for the Gentiles.  This is all hinted at in preliminary ways in the earthly ministry of Christ.

After his resurrection, and before his ascension, the time is right to begin shifting the orientation.  That really begins to happen with the Great Commission.  It’s most well-known form is Matthew 28:18-20.   This is an important passage for our topic and I’d like to make just two points about it.  Far more could be said, but we’ll stick to these two points.

First, our Lord Jesus addressed these words to his apostles.  He was not speaking to all individual Christians at all times and places.  The context here indicates that our Lord is speaking for the ears of the apostles first and foremost.  There is a connection to believers today, but it is not as direct and individual as many make it out to be.  In other words, this passage is not telling every individual Christian that they are a missionary.

However, the fact that Christ speaks of his presence to the end of the age in verse 20 points to a broader application than just the apostles living at that moment.  In fact, our Lord Jesus is giving the Great Commission to the church through the apostles.  He is sending out the church to make disciples and baptize.  In normal circumstances, the administration of the sacraments is not entrusted to individual believers.  Rather, it is the church which baptizes through its ordained ministers.  Therefore, the church as a body has been entrusted with the outward looking task of bringing the gospel to the nations – not individual members by themselves disconnected from the church.

The second point I want to make is that the Great Commission’s calling is to make disciples of people from all nations.  Often when we hear this, we think of other countries.  The original word used for “nation” here doesn’t mean country in the sense of a geo-political unit or territory.  It refers to a people group, an ethnicity.  These people groups or ethnicities are found everywhere.  We must not forget that the application of Christ’s command here begins at home, in our cities, communities and neighbourhoods – just as it did with the apostles in the days after the ascension of our Saviour.  “All nations” includes the people you work with, study with, live next door to, and so on.

This outward looking commission of Christ determines the course of events in the book of Acts.  In fact, we have a parallel to Matthew 28:18-20 in Acts 1 and that parallel basically gives us the outline of the book.  As the church looks outward, led by the Spirit of Christ, she goes from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth.

Certainly the book of Acts portrays an outward looking church.  At the forefront of this outward looking church are the special office bearers, particularly the apostles.  Paul and Peter and others were burdened for the lost and proclaimed the gospel to them.  Deacons also did this.  We think of Stephen and Philip.  But this outward looking orientation was not only found with the special office bearers.  It was something that characterized the whole church of that era.  In Acts 8:4 and Acts 11:19-21, we read of believers being scattered because of the persecution that arose after Stephen’s martyrdom.  These believers went about evangelizing, with the result that many people believed and turned to the Lord.  As one final example, in Acts 18 we are introduced to Apollos.  Later on, he may have become an office bearer, but when we first meet Apollos, he appears as a regular Christian with a heart for the lost.

The book of Acts presents us with a church turned outward, a church with a heart for the world.  We see the same picture elsewhere in the New Testament.  We’re running short on time, so let me just mention one passage from Philippians 1.  In verse 14, Paul says that because of his imprisonment, other believers have been emboldened to speak the Word.  There again we see New Testament Christians who see a world in darkness and seek to bring the gospel to it.

That brings us to conclude from Scripture that being an outward looking church is indeed the commission of Christ; it is the design of God for his church in this dark world.  If it is God’s design, then it must be a design for our good, for our collective health.  Scripture teaches that we are not only to passively be a light, but also actively to seek and save the lost through sharing the good news of Christ.  In this we are to reflect our missionary God.  In this we are to show that we are united to Christ, who himself came to actively pursue sinners for their redemption.

So you have heard me make the case.  Let me now turn and briefly address some thoughts which might pop up in some minds — let me try to answer some objections or questions. It would be easy to misunderstand what it looks like to be an outward looking church.  By way of these objections, perhaps I can make it clearer.

Click here for part 5 (the conclusion)…