EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Michael A.G. Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book — co-written with freelance writer and alumnus C. Jeffrey Robinson Sr. — To the Ends of the Earth, with Towers book review contributor Matt Damico. 

MD: Why is this book necessary?

MAGH: I think a book like this is necessary because, in the last 100 years or so, there’s been a perspective that Calvinism is a theological position that is inimical to evangelism, that people who are Calvinists aren’t really interested in doing evangelism because of their conviction of the sovereignty of God in salvation. So, those whom God has elected to save he will save, therefore we don’t need to do evangelism. And that’s a charge that’s been made a number of times; it’s a frequent one that comes up, particularly in the SBC. And it just isn’t true.

MD: What was Calvin’s view of the Great Commission? Did he see it as fulfilled in the apostolic age?

MAGH: If you go through Calvin’s perspective on the whole area of the expansion of the kingdom of God and missions, there is just no way that you can argue that he saw it as being fulfilled in the apostolic era. There is some indication that some of his successors in the 17th century would have argued that way. But there’s no evidence that Calvin really argued that way. In fact, there’s every evidence to the contrary.

You see it in Calvin’s comments about the extension of the kingdom. You see it in Calvin’s prayers, especially where he prays that the gospel will go to the ends of the earth. If he believed that was something already fulfilled, he certainly wouldn’t be praying about it. And you also see it in the one opportunity he really had for significant cross-cultural mission to Brazil, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, he and the other elders in Geneva jumped at the chance.

So, in terms of his thinking, his praying and his activity, there is no indication that he felt that the Great Commission would already be fulfilled in his day.

MD: How did Calvin display his concern for the spread of the gospel? Was it just something he wrote about?

MAGH: There was one opportunity that presented itself where the French king had an opportunity to plant a colony off the coast of Brazil. The French king’s thinking was more in terms of preventing the Portuguese and Spanish empires from dominating what becomes to be known as South America. But Calvin was offered the opportunity to send some pastors there with the possibility of having an actual mission station. He took that opportunity, and a couple of men were commissioned and sent. So that’s one indication of Calvin’s activities in missions.

Related: Join Dr. Haykin, the Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, for the Andrew Fuller Conference at Southern Seminary 10/21-22/2014. 

Others would involve his actual correspondence. He was in correspondence with a significant number of princes in Europe. One of the things that is certainly different from us is that he was quite convicted that one of the ways to spread the gospel was through the conversion of political leaders. And so he would be in correspondence of a number of individuals: Queen Elizabeth I, for example, of England, and he hoped obviously through their embrace of the gospel that they would allow the gospel free course in their countries. None of these countries are democracies. Access was often dependent upon the good will of the ruler, and so as a strategy it makes sense.

Calvin was also carrying on an extensive correspondence with significant numbers of individuals throughout Europe. And one of the things he was doing with that, again, was seeking to use the medium of the letter as a vehicle of evangelism.

MD: You devote a chapter to the missionary zeal and activity of Jonathan Edwards. What’s the relationship between John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards?

MAGH: Well, Edwards was a Calvinist, though he insisted that it wasn’t because of what he read in Calvin, per se, but how much he knew of Calvin. Certainly we have access to a lot more of Calvin’s writings than Edwards did. Edwards’s Calvinistic convictions were not because of what he read in Calvin, but because of what he read in Scripture. Edwards in is in that line of men who come down from Calvin and other reformed teachers at the time of the reformation.

MD: What relationship does Calvin have with the modern missionary movement?

MAGH: Well, all of the early wave — the first two generations of missionaries in the modern missionary movement, people like William Carey and Samuel Pearce, Henry Martin, Adoniram Judson — all of these men and women who went out, like Judson’s wife, they all would’ve been Calvinistic. Again, how much they read of Calvin is a debated point. A lot of their Calvinism would’ve been learned in two ways: through listening to Calvinists preach and reading it for themselves in Scripture.

MD: How is it possible for someone to be a Calvinist and to believe in missions?

MAGH: Well on one level, we have no idea who the elect are, and it’s not our duty to figure that out. Our responsibility very clearly laid out in Scripture is to evangelize, plant churches, take the gospel to the ends of the earth and so on. And, so one can do all of that with the deep conviction that God is using that activity — using my preaching or my evangelism or my church planting or missions work — to convert those whom he has intended all along to save.

So, the doctrine of election is not at odds with the whole area of evangelism and missions. In fact, the doctrine of election gives confidence. If we don’t have that confidence of God’s sovereignty in salvation, it’s feasible that we could spend all of our energy and effort and never see one convert. If it’s all up to me and my energy and my persuasive skills and my techniques and my programs, etc., there’s no guarantee that anyone will ever get converted. But, if the activities I’m involved in are the means by which God fulfills his purposes that he has planned from eternity past, then I go with the confidence that God will use my activity as part of that expansion of the kingdom. It gives great encouragement.

MD: How would you describe Calvin’s influence, and where does he fit among the other major figures in church history?

MAGH: Well, Calvin is one of those theologians that, if he had not lived or had not been converted, or if he had never gone to Geneva, I mean, the entire history of the western civilization would be completely different. There are very few figures that you can say that about, that the whole course of western history would be massively changed.

I mean, Calvin is an enormous influence in France. You have the struggle with French Calvinists, known as the Huguenots, all through the 16th and 17th centuries, and the determination of the French crown to destroy Calvin’s French heirs, which he succeeds in doing in many respects. But, in doing so, he massively impoverishes France and destroys the French ability to exercise hegemony in western Europe. The 18th century was one long war between the French and the English. The English were at war with France every decade between 1690 and 1850. And one of the reasons why the English are able to win that war is because the French government’s desire for a unified religious state has gutted the Calvinist church, but in doing so has gutted largely its middle class. Calvin appeals very directly to the middle class and by gutting the middle class, there was a whole area of French life that never developed the way it did in Britain. And France didn’t have the finances to ultimately win that war and it eventually ended up in the Revolution as we have in the 1780s. Many of those who left France, the French Calvinists, ended up in England. And many of the areas where they settled were the areas where the industrial revolution began. England is the first to undergo the industrial revolution, and in part that is because of these French Calvinists. And so that is a very key area.

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Calvinism is the major shaper of Scotland. Presbyterianism becomes the state church in Scotland, and the English used the Scottish to expand their empire. For instance, in Canada, every university founded before 1900 was founded by a Scotsman, and most of them Scottish Calvinist Presbyterians.

In the United States, just to think about the United States as it exists, the Puritans are Calvinists. And, like it or not, Puritanism is a major shaper of the American character, American understanding of its self-identity, etc. Again, had Calvin not existed, you wouldn’t have had the Puritan movement in the shape that it was. And so America would be quite different.

So, if Calvinism had not existed — what we call Reformed theology or Calvinism — the Reformation probably would not have succeeded the way it did. Lutheranism wasn’t radical enough, or it didn’t have the revolutionary fervor (and I am using that in a religious sense and not a political sense), to carry the Reformation throughout the rest of Europe. But Calvinism did.

The Calvinists in the 16th century were very strongly religious radicals; they were determined that everything done in worship was going to be done according to Scripture. Whereas in Lutheranism, if something wasn’t forbidden in the Word of God, then it was allowable. And that gives you a whole different perspective on worship.

Whether or not the Calvinists were right, they had enormous influence and a lot of it is traceable back to Calvin. So Calvin is enormously influential as a theologian. If you were to ask me five greatest theologians in history of the church after the New Testament, Augustine is obviously one, but Calvin would definitely be in that five. There’s no way you could leave him out.


Michael A. G. Haykin serves as professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary. He is also the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He is the author of many books including most recently Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church and To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy. This article originally appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of Towers