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The Prague-blogs continue, now from the seventh Baptist International Conference on Theological Education (BICTE), which got underway Saturday afternoon on the campus of the International Baptist Theological Seminay (IBTS). The stately campus is located in a peaceful setting on a ridge of the Sarka Valley, on the outskirts of Prague.

The opening session sought to look both backward and forward, with Ian Randall of IBTS offering a paper on “Tracing Baptist Theological Footprints over the Past Four Hundred Years.” He was followed by Daniel Carro, an Argentian theologian who currently teaches at the John Leland Center for theological studies, who spoke on “Anticipating Kairos Moments that Await the Baptist Theologian of the 21st Century.”

Carro’s delightfully presented and free-wheeling paper gave rise to much discussion but no real conclusions, as it became clear that there are many different approaches to what constitutes a “kairos” moment, a proper or crucial time in the biblical sense of the word. His paper is worthy of considerable attention, but here I’ll focus on the first paper, and that will probably be more than most readers want.

Randall, focusing mainly on Baptists in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, sought to identify “five crucial convictions” that marked early Baptist communities. The five he identified were:

1. Reading the Bible – What was distinctive was not a doctrine of biblical authority, but a particular way of reading the Bible, he said: members of the community would gather to read and discuss the Bible, each with an opportunity to contribute and to learn from others, rather than simply gathering to hear an approved sermon from the priest.

2. Living the life – Discipleship was a central theme among the Anabaptists, with the aim of “holy living in word and deed,” Randall said. As the Baptist movement began, Thomas Helwys stressed the importance of study the scriptures “for they testify of Christ.” This was also reflected in early Baptist confessions and a belief that “The true Christian is someone who loves Christ and walks in the ways of Christ,” Randall said.

3. Nurturing the community – Early Baptists held the concept of covenant as a central conviction, a mutual covenant between God and the members of the faith community, realizing also that the various churches lived under a common faith with Christ as the head. Randal suggested that the early Baptists saw the Lord’s Supper as more sacramental than symbolic, as commonly perceived by most contemporary Baptists.
4. Redeeming the powers – Though the Anabaptists and some early Baptists sought to distance themselves from association with human government, Baptists as early as Helwys saw the importance of Christians having a role in the nation. Helwys suggested a separation of church and state by citing clear differences between the “worldly power” of the king and the heavenly kingdom of God, but that did not prevent Baptists from wanting to be involved in public work such as helping the poor, but voluntarily, not under compulsion.

5. Telling the story – Early Baptists were quite evangelistic in their theology, following a strong missionary tradition among the Anabaptists. This was most explicitly enunciated, Randall suggested, by Johann Oncken, who declared “every member is a missionary.”

Randall concluded by recognizing that others have emphasized more soteriological or individualistic Baptist distinctives, such as a personal choice to accept Christ, soul liberty, individual interpretation of scripture, the priesthood of believers, and the autonomy of the local church. “It will be evident that this is not the vision that I have been seeking to put forward,” Randall said. “Indeed some of the supposed distinctives of Baptists seem to be to be a odds with the formative Baptist vision.”

Curtis Freeman, who directs the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University, and Neville Callam, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, offered formal responses to Randall’s paper.

Freeman offered high praise for the paper, saying he resonated with its conclusions, especially Randall’s frequent references to the importance of creeds among early Bapists. “I respond with a hearty ‘amen’ to the recitation of the Orthodox Creed,” he said, “though some contemporary Baptists have an allergy to creeds as unbaptistic.”

Baptist life cannot adequately be described by what we are not, Freeman said, lauding Randall’s effort to describe Baptists based on living practices more than particular doctrines. “The value of these firm yet supple practices is that they are not limited to one culture or region.”

Callam said the paper had many “salutary features,” including the location of Baptist ecclesiology within orthodox church history by reference to historic Baptist creeds. The paper was “a masterful effort to retrieve the notion of Baptists as a people of community,” not as loners, but as “creatures of community shaped by the faith of the community.” The paper was “not harping on soul freedom against community responsibility,” he said.

Callam said he wished the paper had delved more into the role of the Holy Spirit as a guide when the community gathered to read and interpret scripture, and on what hermeneutical methods were employed by the early Baptists.

As for Randall’s claim that “redeeming the powers” was an early Baptist theme, Callam suggested that more attention should be given to those who thought the powers were unredeemable.

A variety of people raised questions and offered responses, and time ran out before I could contribute to the conversation. There seems to be a strong trend, at least among many academically oriented Baptists, away from the emphasis on individualism that has been predominant in Baptist circles for many years (at least among Baptists in the southern part of the U.S.), while pushing for a more communal and creedal understanding of the Baptist identity.

I was a bit surprised that no one who made it to the microphone spoke up for the individualistic aspects of the Baptist heritage. As one who was raised
in the middle of that stream and who still finds it most attractive, I wanted to suggest that none of the community-oriented aspects of Baptist life could have come about apart from individualistic beliefs about soul freedom, the priesthood of the believer, and the ability of individuals to read and interpret scripture for themselves.

Baptists began as dissenters: how can one dissent without the recognition of his or her right to think outside of the previously-existing communal box?

How could early Baptist communities have gathered, as Randall noted, to read and discuss the scripture with a view toward its life application, if they did not presuppose that each individual believer had the freedom to interpret scripture and contribute to the conversation?

We must certainly not overlook the importance of learning from the larger community, but the wisdom of the community arises from the individuals within it as well as those who have come before. It is not static, but dynamic. Our understanding of the faith cannot be limited to creeds or confessions of Baptist forerunners, but must remain open to the fresh wind of the Spirit who remains free to speak to the hearts and minds of individuals – and communities – of today.

Thus, while the value of community is clear, I believe communal and individualistic aspects are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The most vital communities of faith, I believe, are those who recognize that their members are not just creed-reciting drones, but individuals who stand free and competent before God, individuals who learn from the community and are shaped by it, but whose participation in Christ and the community comes by virtue of their own choice, not by ecclesial unction or authority.

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