What is Reformissio(n)?

The blog name Reformissio and its cognate reformission are a shortened form of the phrase “reformation as mission” used by Scott Hendrix in his excellent book on the history of the Reformation entitled Recultivating the Vineyard. Hendrix diverges from common perceptions that the Protestant Reformers were so focused on church reform that they had little to no interest in missions and evangelism. Against this mischaracterization, Hendrix shows that Luther, for example, understood the Reformation as fundamentally a missionary movement and his vocation as a Reformer in terms of the apostolic task:

[T]he conviction of being accountable to Christ alone reinforced both the christocentric dimension of [Luther’s] Reformation discovery and the Christianizing character of the agenda that accompanied it. The opposite of idolatry was not just faith in God but faith in Christ, who was the only Savior and provided exclusive access to the Father. For that reason, Christianizing Germany meant more to Luther than pushing traditional Christianity into the corners of the empire where it had not arrived. It meant changing Christianity in order to make  Christ central to its faith and practice and thus to intensify the specifically Christian character of European religion. Although he was discarding a medieval monastic identity and leaving hisvineyard-of-the-lord-by-cranach-the-younger600 Augustinian superiors behind, Luther was adopting Christ as his new abbot and reaching for the old ideal of turning the world into a monastery. He wanted to bring Germany, and more of Europe if possible, into the same subjection to Christ that he had experienced for himself…

In Luther’s mind, therefore, the Reformation became a missionary movement that was under his leadership. As his own vocation crystallized during exile in 1521, he identified closely with Paul and chose the apostolic mission recounted in Acts as an early Christian paradigm for the reform that as beginning in Wittenberg. From the Wartburg, Luther wrote to Philipp Melanchthon, comparing Wittenberg to Antioch and his colleagues to early Christian missionaries: “You lecture, Amsdorf lectures; Jonas will lecture; do you want the kingdom of God to be proclaimed only in your town? Do not others also need the gospel? Will your Antioch not release a Silas or a Paul or a Barnabas for some other work of the Spirit?” He would not be disturbed, claimed Luther, if the Lord opened a door for the word at Erfurt or Cologne or anywhere else, since there was a surplus of preachers in Wittenberg and a big harvest everywhere else…

For Luther to regard the Reformation as a missionary movement did not mean that one day an unbelieving world would be fully converted. He explicitly rejected that view in 1523. The majority would always persecute Christians because the cross was the truest mark of the church. The gospel had to be preached continually in order to bring people to faith, for “the kingdom of Christ was always in the process of becoming, never a finished event.” The mission was urgent, however, because the last days were at hand and reformers were convinced that idolatry had almost ruined the current state of Christendom. Even though only a few believed, the kingdom would extend its presence throughout the earth. Luther and his colleagues, however, regarded themselves as apostles whose work began at home: they were not being called to convert the heathen but to reconvert the faithful.[1]

As we can see from Luther’s example, the missionary task does not always consist in, as Hendrix states, ‘converting the heathen’, but also, depending on the context, in ‘reconverting the faithful’. To be sure, many places and peoples still exist that, as far as we know, have never heard the gospel and thus desperately need someone to go to them. Yet it is also true, as in the case of sixteenth-century Germany (or twentieth-century Europe and North America), that places and peoples once ‘Christianized’ may no longer be such and thus likewise stand in desperate need of the gospel. 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.”[2]

What happens when the situation that the pope described arises? According to Martin Luther, it is reformation that is needed. Reformation is the form that Christian mission luther-preaching-in-wittenbergtakes 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. Hence, reformission.

As per Hendrix’s account, Luther serves as a great (though of course not perfect!) example of what the task of ‘reformission’ entails. Let me highlight just a couple of aspects of this. First, we see traces of Luther’s theologia crucis in his acknowledgement that the work of reformission may not yield outstanding results. The gospel that is the driving force of reformission is, as Paul reminds us 1 Corinthians 1, foolish and scandalous to the world. As Luther knew all too well, reformissionaries cannot expect to be applauded and acclaimed. Rather they should prepare themselves for hardship and persecution. Yet this should not in any way deter them from obedience to their calling.

Second, we see that reformission does not aim only to evangelize those who have never believed in Christ. It also seeks to intensify the Christ-centeredness of Christianity. As often tragically happens, the church that bears the name of Christ can become enamored with and caught up in all kinds of pursuits and activities, many of them good, that nevertheless displace Christ from his place of absolute primacy. The preaching, teaching, and theology of the church can frequently manifest an astonishing lack of the Christ who alone makes it Christian. When the church no longer bows its knee in humble submission and confesses with its tongue that Jesus is Lord, then reformissionaries are needed to call it back to its first love.

To provide a more contemporary example of reformission, we can consider the life and ministry of Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. Although remembered primarily for his work in academia, Torrance, whose parents served as foreign missionaries in China, regarded himself as a missionary, although not in the traditional sense. He wrote:

That has been my concern throughout my life: devotion to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures and their message of the saving Love of God incarnate in Jesus. Concern for the propagation of the biblical message in China has remained with me, even when it was evidently not God’s will that I should be a “foreign missionary,” for I have remained a missionary at heart, and have regarded my theological work as a form of missionary activity.[3]

One aspect of Torrance’s missionary labor was directed, as strange as it may sound, toward certain sectors of the evangelical church in which he detected

…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 Thomas_F._Torrancepraying 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.” [4]

This, I believe, is what motivated Torrance throughout his productive life and ministry. As a student and admirer of Torrance, it is also what motivates me in my work as a church-planter in Italy. Some may find it odd that Italy, a country that for centuries has been home to the heart 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.

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 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] Hendrix, S.H., 2004. Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, pp.55-57.

[2] 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.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 2001. The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T.F. Torrance. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, p.304.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.37.