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5 Steps from Baptists’ History Define Their Vision

Editor’s note: This column is another of several EthicsDaily.com will carry from an initiative from Great Britain called “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.”
As we look beyond 400 years of Baptist life in England, I want to trace five theological footprints that marked early Baptist communities, which might still be important as we “look beyond the horizon” and ask what our vision might be.

Reading the Bible

There is a challenge to help churches to engage in reading the Bible. We may have colluded too much with a pulpit-orientated form of church life on the one hand and an individualistic piety on the other.

There are possibilities for imaginative ways of reading the Bible together. In looking at the role of the Bible for Baptists, I suggest that what has been distinctive for Baptists has not been a doctrine of biblical authority but rather a particular way of using the Bible.

It is remarkable that in his “Short Confession of Faith” of 1609, John Smyth does not include a clause about Scripture. This might have been due to the fact that the document was written in a hurry.

Even so, the omission suggests that a doctrinal formulation on the Bible was not at the forefront of Smyth’s mind. What did concern him deeply was how the Bible functioned in practice.

Living the Life

There is an emphasis in Baptist thought, as in Anabaptism, on the new way of life that is to be lived, but what is striking is the strongly Christ-centered framework in which this set.

On the question of “living the life,” one of my own interests is in how biography can be used to shape our Christian stories today. There is much to explore here.

Nurturing Community

A third footprint is around nurturing community. The way in which church commitment was formulated in early Baptist life was through the concept of “covenant.”

Baptists took up and developed the theology of “covenanting together” that was present among the English Separatists.

The 1644 “London Confession” described the church as “a company of visible Saints, called and separated from the world, by the word and Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other.”

Each local congregation was seen as having “power given them from Christ for their better well-being, to choose to themselves meet persons into the office of Pastors, Teachers, Elders, Deacons,” emphasizing the congregational pattern.

However, strict independency was rejected; congregations were encouraged to seek counsel and help, “as members of one body in the common faith under Christ their only head.”

It is clear that early Baptists gave wide-ranging attention to a theology of community. How can we nurture community that is covenantal, interdependent and eucharistic?

Redeeming the Powers

Similarly, the Baptist tradition offers us powerful models for redeeming the powers, for example the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

I am deliberately proposing the idea of redeeming the powers as a mark of the Baptist vision, although at times it has been true to say that “resisting the powers” or even “abandoning the powers” have been more apt descriptions of baptistic reactions to the world.

Sometimes to resist or even to abandon public life has been the appropriate response in given circumstances.

There were many ways in which early Baptist communities functioned as alternative “redemptive” powers.

The 1660 “Standard Confession” used the matter of helping the poor to make a political as well as an ecclesial point.

Like the earlier confessions, it insisted that “the poor saints belonging to the Church of Christ are to be sufficiently provided for by the Churches, that they neither want food or raiment.”

It then spelled out that such help was by “a free and voluntary contribution;” that is “not of necessity, or by the constraint or power of the Magistrate.”

Giving to the poor was organized in General Baptist churches through the deacons, who were designated “overseers of the poor,” and who were described as “faithful men, chosen by the Church, and ordained by prayer and laying on of hands, to that work.”

This confession re-emphasized that, unlike in the state churches, giving among Baptists was not compulsory. Baptists were serious about using money for the good of others.

Fascinatingly, this article in the confession is located between doctrinal statements. It was not an addendum.

Telling the Story

A final footprint is around telling the story. The Baptist theological footprints have been missional and have been focused on telling the gospel story and people’s stories of finding their lives within it.

The Anabaptists, the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists all shared a belief that the Christian life was not something inherited. It was a path that was chosen.

This is why the “baptism of believers only” was of such importance. Baptism was integral to the story of salvation.

We need to recover ways of telling the story in vivid rather than pedestrian ways, perhaps in post-modern varieties of Bunyanesque language.

Probably the most imaginative evangelist among the Particular Baptists was John Bunyan, with his many dramatic depictions of the gospel, his passionate “Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ,” and his remarkable personal narrative, “Grace Abounding.” Here was a master at telling the story.

Ian Randall has been the tutor in Church History and Spirituality at SpurgeonsCollege, and more recently a senior research fellow of Spurgeon’s College after a similar role at InternationalBaptistTheologicalSeminary in Prague, Czech Republic. This column first appeared on “Beyond400.net – Baptists Imagining Life After 400 Years.” This is an edited version of a longer academic paper, which can be downloaded hereasaworddocument.