Reformation as Mission (Or What Is, After Torrance, the Heartbeat of Reformissio)

This week I was delighted to discover that Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan recently made available, free of charge, an online archive of its journal Reformed Review. The reason for my excitement was that it now provides access to a rather difficult to come by interview with T.F. Torrance conducted by I. John Hesselink in 1984. As is usually the case with Torrance, the entire interview does not disappoint, but I was particularly struck by the way in which the interview began as Torrance gave a unique glimpse into his understanding of his vocation:

IJH: I was impressed by the fact, Professor Torrance, that you were born in China of missionary parents.This was particularly interesting to me because of my own previous experience as a missionary in Japan over a span of twenty years. I know that our children, the older three having lived in Japan almost all of their childhood years until they were seventeen or eighteen, are somewhat different because they were born 1978_-_torranceand reared in Japan. In your case, I understand that you lived in China for your first fourteen years. Do you feel that colors your thinking, or has it made an influence on your personality and outlook in any way?

TFT: Well, it’s not something I have reflected very much about, but at least I think I can say two things: It has left me with a decidedly missionary and an evangelical outlook. I look upon my life as dedicated to the spreading of the gospel, evangelizing in different areas of human life and thought, and I think that is undoubtedly derived from my parents and from my upbringing. It was my own great desire from as early as I can remember to be a missionary in Tibet; however, that never came off. But I claim in some ways still to be a missionary in other ways. [1]

I was already aware that Torrance, usually considered as belonging to the world of academia, actually considered himself primarily as a missionary whose scholarly work aimed, as indicated above, to spread the gospel by “evangelizing in different areas of human life and thought”. An example of what Torrance meant by this can be found in highly accessible work Preaching Christ Today where he states:

Let me now end by directing attention back to those two passages in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (1:17.18; 2:2-5) and through them to the cross of Christ as the power of God and to the kind of faith that does not stand in the wisdom of human beings but in the power of God. I believe that emphatic focus upon this truth is precisely what is very much needed in the church today in its calling to preach Christ. This is the central truth that we must surely stress in the ministry of ministers, and elders, and deacons, and church workers alike, and in the Christian witness of every member of the church. It is the one message that really reaches the multitudes that are outside the church, the young as well as the old. Unfortunately the kind of evangelism that is so often most vociferous actually seems to blur the radical nature of Christ’s vicarious humanity and the New Testament gospel that proclaims it. That kind of “evangelism” itself needs to be evangelized! The gospel must be proclaimed in an evangelical way! [2]

Though it might sound strange to some, Torrance regarded much of what passes for preaching, teaching, and evangelism in the evangelical church to be highly un-evangelical and thus in need of being reformed. In a sense, Torrance understood himself to be, among other things, a missionary to the church whose work of reformation through his constructive appropriation of patristic, catholic, Reformed, and Barthian themes (all ultimately subordinated to the authority of Scripture) endeavoured to bring the church into greater conformity with the Word of God. This was necessary, as Torrance believed, on account of the

…subtle form of Pelagianism in the way people often preach the gospel and claim that people will be saved only if they believe, or on condition that they believe. Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” [3]

Torrance’s missionary work encompassed much more than this, of course, but I make reference to this particular aspect in order to highlight the missional nature of reformation. It is sometimes said that the Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, in their zeal to reform the church, were not concerned about things such as evangelism and missions. In my view, this critique is misguided, not only because it is historically untenable (especially in relation to Calvin) but also because it misconstrues the nature of what reformation truly is. As Scott Hendrix argues in his book Recultivating the Vineyard,
the Protestant Reformation was, like its Catholic counterpart, the effort to re-plant the Christian faith in soil that had been damaged and eroded by the medieval church. In other vineyard-of-the-lord-by-cranach-the-younger600words, reformation is the form that Christian mission takes in contexts where the church once thrived but later lost vitality and withered away. In such places, mission will not necessarily look like what occurs in parts of the world that have not yet been reached with the gospel; it will look like reformation.

This, I believe, is what motivated Torrance throughout his life and in his many theological labors. As a student and admirer of Torrance, it is also what motivates me in my work in Italy. Some may find it odd that Italy, a country that for centuries has been home to the center of Roman Catholicism, would need missionaries. True enough, it does not need missionaries in the same way in which China needed Torrance’s parents. However, it does need missionaries like Torrance himself, for regardless of its history, it is a place that has been surrounded for hundreds of years by Christianity but has yet to see the light of true gospel reformation. As Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio:

The fact that there is a diversity of activities in the Church’s one mission is not intrinsic to that mission, but arises from the variety of circumstances in which that mission is carried out…[T]here is an intermediate situation, particularly in countries with ancient Christian roots, and occasionally in the younger Churches as well, where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a “new evangelization” or a “re-evangelization.”[4]

This is what Torrance believed was necessary in his generation, and it is that which I believe is necessary also in ours. The call to this kind of mission is a call to reformation, a call for the reformed church to engage in the task of always reforming according to the Word of God. This is not ‘missions’ in the traditional sense, it is rather ‘reformission’. And this is the vocation that I believe that God has given to me and of which this blog Reformissio and my work in Italy are evidence. This is not to exalt me in any way, it is only to share with you what drives me to write what I write here and to encourage you to join with me and many others who are working to see the church always reformed and brought into greater conformity with the Word of God.

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[1] Hesselink, I.J., 1984. ‘A Pilgrimage in the School of Christ: An Interview with T.F. Torrance’ in Reformed Review 38(1), p.49.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.38-39.

[3] Ibid., p.37.

[4] John Paul II, P., 1990. Redemptoris missio: on the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate. [online] Available at: <http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_07121990_redemptoris-missio.html&gt;, sec.33.

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This entry was posted in American evangelicalism, Evangelical Calvinism, Evangelical theology, Gospel, Italian evangelicalism, Italian Reformation, Italy, Personal, Protestant theology, Reformation, Reformed theology, Roman Catholicism, T.F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Reformation as Mission (Or What Is, After Torrance, the Heartbeat of Reformissio)

  1. Bobby Grow says:

    Good post, Jonathan! I agree with you about TFT’s heart, and it is a great hear to emulate.

    Liked by 1 person

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