During this 500th anniversary year, the so-called Strangers Churches in London have planned a series of events telling something of the story of the Reformation and of its continuing liveness in their life and practice today.
The idea was one event or exhibition a month, but there are not 12 Strangers Churches. (These churches are based on language groups that mostly trace their presence in London to religious refugees at the time of the 16th-century upheavals.)
And so the organizers approached us. After all, Baptists are children of the Reformation too.
And this, of course, is where we begin to come up against some rather complex historical facts. Facts that challenge three assumptions we often make about what it means (and has meant) to be Baptist.
In the year when we are remembering the 500th anniversary of those events we call the Reformation, it is no bad thing to remember that our relationship to that movement is not simple and linear; it holds before us the truth that our relationship to nothing in our past is simple and linear.
Yes, of course, we are a product of Reformation theology. But our origins are not in the 16th century and the immediate religious ferment of that period.
Within England (where, of course, the Reformation was a very different animal from the Continental movement, shaped as much by politics, and subject to all sorts of stops, starts, changes and renewals as the political wind changed), there were those who moved beyond the position taken by the Church of England.
They did this partly under the influence of Continental theology and partly through the changes that come when people start reading Scripture in their own language and without the mediation of certain kinds of authority and training.
And among them, there eventually came to be those who rejected not only the episcopal structure of the Church of England and the parish structure of a national church, but also a theology of infant baptism, and who developed a theology of believers’ baptism.
It is worth remembering that, in this generation, the theology of baptism was a consequence of the theology of the church and its relationship to the state, and not, as we so often assert, developed as a direct result of reading the Bible.
And in Holland in 1612, and in the 1640s among some who did not travel, there developed what we can identify as Baptist congregations, communities with which we are in direct relationship. And yes, of course, these congregations developed as a result of what happened in the Reformation.
The move toward reading Scripture in one’s own language, the rejection of a papal and episcopal structure to the church, and the emphasis on the local community of believers were rooted in the challenges Martin Luther offered to the status quo.
A very significant mark of early Baptist congregations was the conviction that a life of faithful obedience and accountability was a calling on everybody, and not simply those who took religious vows.
A consequence of that recognition was that baptism was for believers and should not be offered to those who could not in good conscience and with some understanding ask for it themselves.
All of these beliefs are influenced by Luther and in the theologies that Huldrych Zwingli and later John Calvin worked out as coherent developments of the new positions that were being explored.
But there were those in the 16th century, as part of this movement on the Continent (specifically in Zurich and some other parts), who also developed theologies of local congregational responsibility, the need for meaningful discipleship and the practice of believers’ baptism – the Anabaptists.
The relationship between Anabaptists and the Baptist movement, which is our history, is still deeply contested, and there is not really room to deal with it here. But simply noticing the existence of the complex evidence and interpretation is a good reminder that it is not straightforward to say that “Baptists are children of the Reformation.”
But it’s good to recognize our roots in the Reformation and, in particular, the Reformation commitment to “sola scriptura” – Scripture Alone.
It is not uncommon to hear us say “our convictions about baptism are drawn from the New Testament and more closely in line with that than other traditions.” But our very understanding of baptism is not as straightforward as we might like to portray it.
However much we might like to think so, our practice is not that of the New Testament – first because there is not a single practice, but also because what we can see is a practice of immediate baptism, followed by a time of discipling and catechesis.
I know that in some instances, we may find ourselves doing that, but our normal assumption is that there will be conversion, there will be instruction, there will be examination and then there will be baptism.
And I am not at all disputing this as a correct procedure (it is actually very close to that which we see in the Church of the 2nd to 4th centuries); I am simply reminding us that it is not “the New Testament practice.” (Look, another misconception blown away; we are deeply formed by post-biblical early church tradition.)
Similarly, our convictions about mission are deeply rooted and highly significant in our identity, and I am convinced something we need to hold dear and continue to explore and develop.
But we regularly say, “Baptists have always been a mission-minded people” – and no, we haven’t.
Among our earliest identities – and controversies – is the debate (shaped by Reformation theology) about whether “offering” the invitation to salvation is appropriate or whether that will undermine God’s sovereign will.
This debate was there in the very beginning of BMS World Mission, and the very title of Carey’s book, “An Enquiry into the Use of Means to convert the Heathen,” is itself witness to that debate.
My point here is simply that our story is not simple or monolinear, and our relationship to the events of the Reformation make that very clear.
In our generation, as we reflect on how to be Baptists in our place and time, facing the questions that challenge us, this is a gift.
There is no “one answer” in our past, there is no simple straightforward place to stand and say “this is being Baptist.” There are conflicting stories, different emphases, always controversy and regular arguments.
This, perhaps, is what it means to be Baptist and to take our Reformation heritage seriously.
Ruth Gouldbourne is co-minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church and former lecturer in history and doctrine at Bristol Baptist College. A version of this article first appeared in Issue 2 2017 of Mission Catalyst, where other articles on this theme may also be found. It is used with permission.