POSTMILLENNIALISM AND MISSIONS

CareyPMT 2015-069 by Thomas Schirrmacher

Carey’s Theology – the “Missing Link”

William Carey is considered the “Father of Protestant missions.” His book, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, was written in 1792, the beginning of the so-called “Great Century” (1792-1914) between the French and the Russian Revolutions. For the centennial anniversary, none lesser than the mentor of German missiology, Gustav Warneck, wrote, “Thus, the year 1792 may be considered the true birthdate of modern missions.” Less that twenty days after the publication of the “Enquiry,” Carey held his sermon on Isaiah 54:2-3 and began to disseminate it with a clear appeal for missions to his fellow pastors, which soon led to the foundation of the mission society, “The Particular Baptist Mission”. The first mission society to do without state supervision, it was founded on different lines than the Anglo-Saxon honor societies.

Much has been written about Carey and his colleagues, their mission field in Serampore, and their achievements in printing, in Bible translation, in teaching and in many other areas.

Strangely enough, however, little attention has been paid in his numerous biographies to his theology, as expressed in his major work, even not in Bruce J. Nichols’ article “The Theology of William Carey.” (The only exception I know of is Iain Murray’s study, The Puritan Hope.) This failure is probably due to the fact that Carey’s theology differs from that of the presently predominant, Post-Classical mission societies, which happily claim him as their father, although he was a Calvinist and a Postmillenialist. Even the two dissertations which discuss his achievements ignore large areas of his theology. Neither mention his eschatological views, which played a major role in his decisions. The best description — interestingly, actually a biography of his first wife — mentions his personal optimism in the chapter on “Attitudes Towards the Future,” but not his optimistic perspective on world missions, which he derived from his Postmillenial theology.


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German speaking theologians have shown little interest in Carey’s “Enquiry” although Protestant mission societies continually refer to his work as the origin of their own. The German edition, which identified the geographical details for the first time, did not appear until 1993. In 1987, the first German biography of Carey was published, a work which, however, only described his life up to the publication of the “Enquiry” and has little to say about his theology.

This fact is even more surprising, for Carey was no pioneer missionary who, due to conditions, left no material for posterity. A. Christopher Smith writes, “He was much more of a mission motivator and Bible translator than a pioneer in the heart of India — or a mission strategist.”

The significance of Carey’s work lies not in the 420 converts in Serampore. Carey, settled and a thorough designer, left many texts which describe his thought and his theology.

Smith attempts to liberate Carey from false renown by referring to the achievements of his colleagues, William Ward and Joshua Marshman, but goes too far, in my opinion. The whole idea behind the “Enquiry” and the “Baptist Mission,” as well as most of the work of translation were Carey’s work. Besides, Carey’s team, particularly the “Serampore trio,” Carey, Marshman and Ward, have always been properly esteemed, especially since the publication of John Clark Marshman’s The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman and Ward in 1859. “Carey was a man of team-work,” writes W. Bieder, who advises the modern missionary:

“He can learn from Carey, that is quite possible to work for twenty three years under difficult conditions – together rather than against each other.”

Even E. Daniel Potts, who has best analysed and honored the significance of the teamwork in Serampore, emphasises Carey as the driving force behind the work.

Postmillennialism and Missions

Classical and Post – Classical Missions and Eschatology

Klaus Fiedler has suggested a good classification of Protestant mission societies. “Classical” mission societies are denominational organizations which usually originated with the Reformed tradition. They began with Carey’s “Baptist Mission Society” of 1792. “Post-Classical” missions are those of the Brethren, including the socalled free missionaries, the faith missions, which, Fiedler believes, originated with Hudson Taylor (and include most modern Evangelical mission boards), and Pentecostal mission societies (movements listed in chronological order of origin). Classical mission societies arose during the first and second Great Revivals (Pietism), the Post-Classical faith missions during the third Revival (the socalled Sanctification movement).


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The difference between modern “evangelical” missions and modern “ecumenical” missions is a century old. “Ecumenical” missions are Classical, Reformed missions which have become liberal. Faith missions are those, which differ from the Reformed theology of the Classical mission societies on various points and in various intensity.

Eschatology is a clear example. The Classical churches tend to be A- or Postmillenial, while the Post-Classical mission boards are generally Dispensationalist or Premillenialist.

Eschatology, Missions and Postmillennialism

Already at the beginning of this century, Theodor Oehler, director of the Basler Mission, observed, as Gustav Warneck had done:

“. . . there is an undeniable connection between missions and the Christian hope for the future: “We will soon discover that missionary attitudes will be suppressed by a certain view of the future, which will dampen earnest motivation for missionary activity.”

“Expectations on the future of God’s Kingdom have not always moved in the same direction as missions, which has not served to vitalise them.”

Of the three most common eschatologies, Pre- , A- and Postmillennialism,32 the latter has most often been the champion of increasing missionary fervor.

G. Clouse defines the role of Postmillennialism fittingly:

“In contrast to premillennialism, postmillennialists emphasize the present aspects of God’s kingdom which will reach fruition in the future. They believe that the millennium will come through Christian preaching and teaching. Such activity will result in a more godly, peaceful, and prosperous world. The new age will not be essentially different from the present, and it will come about as more people are converted to Christ.”

One of the best-known Reformed Postmillennialists, Loraine Boettner, defines Postmillenialism in his standard work, The Millennium, as follows:

“Postmillennialsts believe that the Kingdom of God will be realised in the present age by the preaching of the Gospel and by the saving influence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, and that at an unknown time in the future, the whole world will be Christianised. They also believe that Christ will return at the end of the so-called Millennium, an epoch of unknown length, marked by justice and peace … The Millennium, according to the Postmillennialist view, is a Golden Age at the end of the present dispensation, the Age of the Church.”

Boettner does not, however, believe that, “there will ever be a time on earth in which all living men will be converte or when all sin will be eliminated.”

Evil will, however, be reduced to a minimum, and Christian principles will no longer be the exception, but the rule. Boettner sees this achievement as the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

To continue reading and for footnoted documentation: http://www.contra-mundum.org/schirrmacher/careypostmil.html

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