Review: Exploring Baptist Origins

Anthony R. Cross, and Nicholas J. Wood (eds.), Exploring Baptist Origins (Centre for Baptist History and Heritage Studies  1; Oxford: Regent's Park College, 2010). paperback. pp.xx+163. £20. Copies can be ordered by going here.

With thanks to Regent's Park College for sending me a review copy of this volume.

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It is an enormous pleasure to welcome this, the first volume in the newly inaugurated monograph series, Centre for Baptist History and Heritage Studies.  Those of us who published with and valued the scholarship contained in the now defunct Paternoster Press series (Studies in Baptist History and Thought), should be grateful to Anthony Cross, Director of the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage at Regent's Park College for picking up the legacy of high quality Baptist scholarship and securing its future in the volumes of this new series.

It is highly appropriate to begin this new series with a volume exploring the topic of Baptist beginnings. The fact that 2009 saw the 400th anniversary celebration of the first Baptist congregation in Holland in 1609 was the most obvious reason for holding the lecture series on which this volume of essays is based. More importantly, however, the historical and theological studies enclosed here find their purpose not simply in historical recollection, but in theological reflection on issues of Baptist theology, identity and practice today.

Thus, Anthony Cross re-tells the story of Baptist beginnings, gathering the extant information about the life and work of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and the eventual split between them over the issue of se-baptism. Central to Cross's account of this history is his conviction that the disagreement was the result of both parties' commitment to the kind of deep and serious theology of baptism that, frankly, many Baptists today would not recognize or hear about.

Paul Fiddes' argues cogently that from the earliest formulations, Baptist self-understanding was ecclesial more than sectarian (and that, as a result, although both Weber and Troeltsch were wrong, Weber was more wrong than Troeltsch). The key to the early development of the notion of a 'free church' was the covenantal theology that undergirded the thought especially of the early General Baptists. Though framed as a historical argument, anyone who knows Fiddes' work elsewhere will know that there are important implications for Baptists in disavowing the Baptists=sect equation.

Brian Haymes asks whether Thomas Helwys' bizarre magnum opus, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, is still relevant in the 21st Century. He answers affirmatively, suggesting that a recovery of Helwys' vision of a free church, religious toleration and the nature of Christian obedience might still be instructive for us today.

Larry Kreitzer studies the 'anabaptist petitions' presented to the House of Lords in 1660 and 1661 in the difficult period post-Cromwell and prior to the Toleration Act. A critical edition of the petitions is provided.

Crawford Gribben studies early Baptist millenarianism, moving from Münster to John Gill. The explanatory framework that shapes his analysis (the relationship between 'other worldly ecclesiology' and 'this worldly eschatology') can be questioned, I think, but there is interesting material here, not least in the analysis of Gill.

Stephen Holmes study of biblical interpretation within General Baptist christological debates is, for me, a highlight of the volume. With one eye clearly on later versions of the same controversy (Downgrade in the 19th Century, the 1971 Assembly in the 20th) Holmes re-articulates his earlier argument about the significance of reading Scripture with attention to the tradition of the church built in. It is failure to pay this attention that makes possible a failure in ecclesial identity. The final reflections on whether sound theology generates spiritual vitality (as many of us would wish) or whether (as history might tell us) it works the other way round, are worth further consideration.

Finally Keith Jones offers a case-study in Jim McClendon's biographical approach to doing theology. Using the story of Jonas Inkenas, a Lithuanian Baptist and his family, Jones points to 5 features of the 'baptist vision', that the telling of the story prompts: ecclesial interdependency; the nature of leadership and pastoral ministry; Christian community in hostile surroundings; spirituality; the role of women at the heart of Baptist life. The essay is wide-ranging and moving, and the story of Inkenas is given the status of 'witness' to core baptist convictions.

Two further things can be said overall about this volume and the new series.  First, this volume contains a largely number of excellent reproductions of maps, pictures and portraits relating to the early years of the Baptist movement. I know of know other volume where these images are reproduced in this way and they form an excellent supplement to the main text.  Secondly, the editors and Regent's Park College are to be congratulated on making sure that the volumes are reasonably priced. The result is a volume that ministers and students can afford, and I trust that the survey of the essays offered here will whet some appetites, generate sales, and give this new series the start that it clearly deserves.