When the Second World War was over, European Baptists faced new challenges. Many churches needed to be rebuilt, both as buildings and as communities. Theological education offered hope and vision for the future.
However, in some countries, such as the Soviet Union, Baptist seminaries were closed and remained closed for decades. In some countries their work was severely limited, and in other countries in the so-called West, their role needed to be reinterpreted.
Consequently, in 1949 in Rüschlikon, Switzerland, the International Baptist Theological Seminary, supported by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptists, was established.
An international seminary – a new feature in European Baptist life – offered a platform for serving European Baptist theological research and ministries. The underlying message was conveyed: mission and theology are linked together in dynamic combination, and both are necessary for Baptist life and work.
The first presidents of the seminary shaped the vision. After the brief service of George Sadler, Josef Nordenhaug, an American theologian and clergyman with Norwegian roots, assumed leadership of the seminary (1950-1960). Nordenhaug had a broad and international vision, and later, from 1960-1969, he served as the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance.
D. Hughey (seminary president 1960-1964) highlighted Anabaptist studies, and thus expanded Baptist understanding of discipleship and being a church. For decades, the Rüschlikon seminary continued to offer bachelor’s degrees, and later master’s and doctoral studies through the University of Zürich.
This widened European Baptists’ horizons in theological studies, though most of the students came from Western countries, since the Iron Curtain still separated Europe.
But nothing is set in stone. By the early 1990s, the political situation in Europe had changed drastically. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Baltic States had become independent countries and communism had lost its grip in Eastern Europe.
Elsewhere, the Southern Baptist Mission Board had taken a turn towards fundamentalism, which caused inevitable tensions with European Baptist tradition. The Southern Baptists withdrew their financial support and handed the seminary over to the European Baptist Federation.
This was a critical moment, and some drastic decisions were made. Extreme situations require extreme measures.
In 1995, the seminary moved to Prague, which then offered financially more feasible options for running a theological educational institution. In 1997, after a search process for a new rector, John David Hopper handed leadership over to a European, Keith Jones from the United Kingdom.
Nevertheless, there was a bigger mission the seminary was fulfilling than just keeping an institution going. Its mission was to serve the countries that had recently found their freedom from atheistic pressures but had not been able to start their own seminaries yet.
IBTS in Prague, in the beautiful suburban area of Jeneralka, in an 18th-century manor house with surrounding buildings, offered both a Bible School level course (Certificate in Applied Theology, or CAT) and bachelor’s degrees. In cooperation with the University of Wales, both masters and doctoral programmes were initiated.
The seminary strengthened its international links. Students came from Ukraine and Hungary, from Russia and Albania, from Estonia and Finland. Teachers now represented a wider spectrum of countries, from Bulgaria to the UK, and from Germany to the United States. Adjunct lecturers were added to this picture with their experience and academic excellence.
IBTS Prague became a meeting place for people and theological ideas, with some scholars, like Glen Stassen and Nancey Murphy, visiting Prague repeatedly. On the campus, Parush Parushev became the proponent of James McClendon’s ideas, Peter Penner added to this his knowledge of Eastern European Baptist theology, and Ian Randall inspired students in the field of Baptist and Anabaptist studies.
But the third transition was not to be avoided. By the beginning of the 21st century, the model of learning and teaching was gradually shifting as residential programmes became less and less attractive for prospective students. The operational costs of the Jeneralka campus did not remain on the level of the mid-1990s.
Acting rector Parush Parushev, who followed Keith Jones after the latter’s retirement in 2013, faced the task of moving the seminary from Prague to Amsterdam. An enormous amount of work was done also by David McMillan, who was a key person in organizing this transition. Needless to say, the actual move was preceded by years of planning and preparation.
By summer of 2014, IBTS had “landed” in Amsterdam, building a cooperative with the Vrije Universiteit, accommodating the 40,000-volume library from Prague (and Rüschlikon), and helping students to continue or start their studies in a new setting.
Stuart Blythe, a Rüschlikon alumnus, led the seminary and study centre into a new phase of its life. This phase was characterized by focusing on doctoral research, creating a network of researchers, and developing academic study even further in the field of Baptist identity, mission, and practice.
Editor’s Note: Good Faith Media and IBTS (Amsterdam, Netherlands) are working on a partnership, across multiple media platforms, to provide diverse perspectives concerning global issues.
Director of Baptist Studies in IBTS Amsterdam and Editor of the Journal of European Baptist Studies.