Musings from a veteran missionary

     Early in our time of service among the Batak people of North Sumatra from 1971-79, I learned much about how one's worldview can color just about all one does and thinks. Our perception of reality and what we consider absolute truth can cause even those who consider themselves Christians to hold unbiblical thoughts and practices. This is just as true for those Christians who live in very developed countries. Two seemingly different situations highlighted the problem.

     My friend, Mr. S., had five daughters, and his mother had long urged him to take a second wife to get a son. He loved his wife and was a godly Christian, so he didn't. Eventually the Lord gave him two sons. But why this pressure from his mother, who was at least nominally Christian?

     Sometime later S., a fourth-year theological student confessed that he had held pre-Christian beliefs regarding ancestors well into seminary. He would go to the grave of his ancestors with his Christian (baptized) parents to give prayers and offerings to their ompu (distinguished ancestors). Only towards the end of his third year of theological study did he realize that he couldn't do that.

     How could these professing Christians retain such pagan beliefs? It was partly the result of very rapid, and therefore superficial, evangelism, without adequate follow-up. I later found that the contradictions stemmed from the Batak worldview - something I did not sufficiently understand.

     I realized I needed to prepare my students to be good pastors to these people. But how could I, as a church history teacher, do that? I began to study the writings of the Reformers - Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer - and discovered they had much to say to combat certain Batak ideas. We can find them helpful even in our society, where sin is more subtle, but there all the same.


     The Bataks believed in a "high god," but this being was not in total control, nor distinct as creator from creation. There was no idea of creation from nothing. In fact the god's original name was "Supreme Ancestor". He was not God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

     The sixteenth century Reformers also had to struggle to communicate a clearer concept of the true God. On Genesis 1:2 about the creation of the world ex nihilo, Luther said,

So far as I can see, these remarks about the subject under consideration are sufficient for us to set aside other opinions and to establish the following: Out of nothing God created heaven and earth .... Now, after the creation, he is within, without, and above all creatures ....

     For pre-Christian Bataks, (and many Christian Bataks), the control of ordinary daily events was in the hands of lower beings, especially the higher ancestral spirits and the evil spirits. Luther and Calvin emphasized that God's power as maker of all things embraced also His control of all things. So, for example, we have the children of Geneva learning from Calvin's Catechism:

Minister: Why then do you call God merely creator, when it is much more excellent to defend and preserve creatures in their being, than once to have made them?
Child: This term does not merely imply that God so created His works once that afterwards He took no care of them. Rather, it is held that the world, as it was once made by Him, so now is preserved by Him, and that similarly both the earth and all other things persist only in so far as they are sustained by His virtue and as it were His hand.

     Many of our Christian ancestors in the 16th century believed that astrology could pinpoint the lucky day for a wedding or the stars could tell one's future. Some Bataks also use astrology, having been influenced by Indians. In the United States today, New Age astrology is big business. Writing on Genesis 1:14 ("Let them be for signs and times and days and years"), Luther said that astrology's claims were entirely without proof and not in the best interests of our trust in God. Calvin went straight to the heart of the matter with typical theological-cum-pastoral insight:

But when unbelievers transfer the government of the universe from God to the stars, they fancy that their bliss or their misery depends upon the decrees and indications of the stars, not upon God's will; so it comes about that their fear is transferred from him toward whom alone they ought to direct it, to stars and comets (Institutes 1.16.3).

I found that the writings of the Reformers could combat certain Batak ideas -- and be helpful in our society, where sin is more subtle, but there all the same.

     While we were in North Sumatra, one of our students from a very remote village died while home on vacation. When the time came for his funeral, we discovered that his parents had already buried him far from the village and had returned by a very circuitous route to their house. Why? Dying without issue as he did would force his soul to become an evil spirit that would bring trouble on their home if it found the way there.

     Quite opposite to a worldview that gives Satan and evil spirits power over us independent of God's control, Luther and Calvin taught that Satan was God's instrument. God may, for His own good purposes, withdraw His hand and Spirit, so allowing Satan to afflict us. Calvin's Catechism teaches clearly that the devil is so under God's power that, willy-nilly, he obeys his Creator:

Minister: Now what shall we say of wicked men and devils? Shall we say that they too are subject to him?
Child: Although He does not govern them by His Spirit, yet He checks them by His power, as with a bridle .... Further, He even makes them ministers of His will, so that they are forced, unwilling and against their inclination, to effect what seems good to Him.

     With regard to evil spirits--popularly believed to do physical harm to people--and the power of witches, both Luther and Calvin were rather skeptical. Luther thought it was basically deception. The Reformers had no doubt that evil spirits could do us spiritual moral damage, but only within the strict confines of God's permission.


     In the value system of most non-Christian cultures the chief function of woman and the purpose of marriage is childbearing --the seed-bed view. Where the worship of ancestors (the living dead) is the responsibility of the descendants, childbearing is of high religious importance. So it was in the Batak tradition. Childlessness in Batak culture is still seen by many as a curse caused by the incompatibility of the tondi (soul) of the husband with the tondi of the wife. And without male issue to do proper honors to the man after his death, his spirit remains a begu (evil spirit). Therefore, it is vitally important to have sons. Hence, the urging of my friend's mother to divorce his wife and marry another.

     In Luther and Calvin's time, too, most people held the fundamentally and almost solely procreative view of marriage. In addition, the married state was devalued and depreciated in comparison with celibacy. While lecturing to his students on Genesis 2:15-35, Luther told them that in his boyhood, teaching about celibacy had cast such a slur on marriage and sexual intimacy that he, as a young person, thought it sinful even to think of the life of married people. At the time of his lectures, some thirty-five to forty years later, he records that teaching on celibacy still caused people to look down on women.

     Perhaps Luther's comments on Genesis 1:26 reflect his joy in his wife, Katie von Bora. After extolling the intellectual capacity of our first parents before they sinned, he added this about Eve:

Eve had these mental gifts in the same degree as Adam ... [and] No other beautiful sight in the whole world appeared lovelier and more attractive to Adam than his own Eve (LW 1:67-69).

     Concerning Genesis 2:18, he tried to rehabilitate the propriety and goodness of the sexual intimacy of marriage and childbearing by telling his students,

For truly in all nature there was no activity more excellent and more admirable than procreation. After the proclamation of the name of God, it is the most important activity of Adam and Eve in the state of innocence. [They were] as free from sin in doing this as they were in praising God.

     Calvin's commentary on Genesis brings out clearly the ideal of a joining of hearts and minds, as well as bodies, in true mutuality of love and respect. Like Luther, he works hard at rehabilitating marriage as a holy estate. Hear him on Genesis 2:18:

The vulgar proverb, indeed, is that [a wife] is a necessary evil, ... if the integrity of man had remained to this day such as it was from the beginning, ... [the] divine institution [of marriage] would be clearly discerned and the sweetest harmony would reign in marriage, because the husband would look up with reverence to God; the woman in this would be a faithful assistant to him; and both with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as friendly and peaceful relationship...

By studying and applying the insights of the Reformers on the Scriptures, we and others can experience the freedom of the sons and daughters of God from the false values and beliefs of tribal traditions, whether Batak or ours.

     Calvin's comments on the death of his wife are a moving testimony to his high, biblical view of marriage, as well as to his love of Idelette.. They strike at the heart of much that denigrates the estate of matrimony in our society today, as well as elevating it above the seed-bed view of tribal societies. His words fittingly describe the experience of many: "... the death of my wife has been exceedingly painful to me.... truly mine is no common source of grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life ...."

     Christian values like these reflect beliefs based on Scripture and the experience of a godly companion, as interpreted by God's Word. Ours is the ongoing task of cleansing and ridding the remnants of pre-Christian or non-Christian beliefs about God and the world, our place in it, and human relationships. We must replace them with the biblical teaching about God and humankind, and the fuller, God-revealed purposes of marriage.

     Both the student who renounced the blessing-seeking, honorific and status-promoting rites for his ancestors, and my teacher friend who knew true mutuality in marriage as well as knowing the true God, experienced liberation. Many as yet do not. By studying and applying the insights of the Reformers on the Scriptures, we and others can experience the freedom of the sons and daughters of God from the false values and beliefs of tribal traditions, whether Batak or ours.

Dr. John McIntosh     Dr. John McIntosh has been a missionary, pastor, and teacher for many years. Some of that time was spent among the Batak people of Indonesia, where he taught theology at Nommensen University. The author of a number of popular and scholarly articles, Dr. McIntosh received his doctorate from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In addition to service as a missionary educator, he has taught at several colleges in Australia.

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 3, Fall 2000
© 2000 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

Last updated 11-10-2000.