Moments from life at IBTS

Baptists and ‘Thick’ Human Rights: Let Us Not Abandon Our Baby

January’s over!.. Way too fast, really (reflected in the absence of blog entries for the last two weeks), but there we are. IBTS is in the middle of its doctoral colloquia, M-level intensives, and – as of tonight – at the beginning of a conference named ‘Living to Tell: A Gospel Informed Perspective on Human Rights, Justice and Peace.’ The conference has been organised by Thomas Helwys Centre for the Study of Religious Freedom, the Institute of Systematic Study of Contextual Theologies, and the Institute for Mission and Evangelism – and, if you’re still not impressed by long titles, also serving as a platform for launching the Centre for Just Peacemaking Studies – but more on that in some other entry.

The opening lecture was offered by Dr Glen Stassen, whose 75th birthday this Conference is celebrating. Glen is known to those interested in and committed to issues of human rights and just peacemaking, and tonight he was highlighting the Baptist contribution to the development of human rights which, he said,  still so often goes unacknowledged or under appreciated: “So many just skip from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, as if the 17th century never happened.” His urge was for us baptists to remember and uphold our own heritage: “Let us not abandon our baby.”  For that, our understanding of human rights must be deepened, or ‘thickened’, so that its origins in the Good News of Jesus are evident.

Glancing over the room and seeing all these dear friends and guests who turned up for the lecture, I could not help but start thinking of the many and various ways they are – or will be – faced with the struggle for peace and human rights, at times on an everyday basis.  That struggle will not be just for themselves, but for others too (perhaps even for others primarily?..). May we remember the wisdom of the parable of Jesus to allow the wheat and the weeds grow together. The Master of the field will sort them out and take care of the harvest.

– Lina


  • Virginia Spatz

    Would like to learn more about the concept of “‘thick’ human rights.” Are Dr. Stassen’s full remarks available somewhere?

    Also interested in the rest of the “Living to Tell” content.

  • Lina

    Hi Virginia,

    Taken from Michael Walzer’s notion of “thick and thin,” “thick” was meant as something very deep and particular, arising out of our specific context – but Dr Stassen may be interested to commen on this further himself.

    Publication of conference presentations is in the plans – please stay tuned!


  • Glen Stassen

    Hey Virginia and all,

    My argument is that the first real doctrine of human rights was developed by Richard Overton in 1646 during the Puritan initiation of democracy in England. I showed how he developed it on the basis of the need for the right to religious liberty, and so equal treatment before the law, which he then expanded to the right to life and basic needs of life, as well as the right to community. This is a thick, community-emphasizing understanding of human rights as opposed to the thin 18th-century Enlightenment laissez-faire individualism that neglects community, And it was thick in the sense that it was strongly grounded bibliclally and theologically, again by contrast with the later Enlightenment understanding. As Lina wrote, I commended Walzer’s book, _Thick and Thin_ for that distinction.

    And I argued that in our time human rights are supported by the history of revulsion against Hitler’s Third Reich, and by their role in the US civil rights struggle, the change of Latin American from military-dominated rule to democracies, and likewise in Eastern Europe, and South Africa, etc., more than by the free-church Puritan narrative or the Enlightenment. I pointed out that most German theologians had no doctrine of human rights because they did not know of the Christian origin of human rights and they mostly supported Hitler. Bu contrast, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth had a theologically grounded advocacy of human rights, and they led opposition to Hitler and defense of Jews. By their fruits you will know them.

    My manuscript will soon be found on my website. See our just peacemaking blog,

    In the meantime, you could get it from me at

    Glen Stassen

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