Baptist Theology with James Leo Garrett, Jr

Founders Journal 78 · Fall 2009 · pp. 10-18

Baptist Theology with James Leo Garrett, Jr.
An Interview and Review

Wyman Lewis Richardson

The following interview and review were occasioned by the January 2009 publication of James Leo Garrett, Jr.’s Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (Mercer University Press). The interview was originally conducted on Monday, March 2, 2009 and posted April 28, 2009 on Founders Ministries Podcast ( I would like to thank Scott Kerlin of First Baptist Church, Dawson, GA, for his technical assistance in the conducting of this interview. In the review that follows, I have tried not to address issues that are sufficiently covered in the interview so as to avoid repetition.


Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. has been a Baptist theological educator for over fifty years. He has taught primarily in three Baptist institutions: Southwestern Seminary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University. He was at Southwestern Seminary from 1949 to 1959 and from 1979 to 1997 with post-retirement teaching until 2003. We really do appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today, Dr. Garrett.

Thank you, sir.

Dr. Garrett, I hope you will indulge me for just a moment. I wanted to share just a brief word of appreciation for you as a former student, if that is ok. I thought I might do so by sharing just a small paragraph from Paul Basden’s chapter on you in the 2001 edition of Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (Broadman & Holman). Paul Basden wrote this:

“For five decades now James Leo Garrett, Jr. has taught and written about Baptist theology. Given the size of the schools which he has served, one can only begin to estimate the number of students whom he has influenced to think biblically, historically, and theologically about the Christian faith. Who knows how many young seminarians had their minds broadened in his introductory theology courses or received flashes of inspiration in his famous ‘after-lecture’ discussions, or first encountered the mystery of the Trinity in his beloved patristics elective, or learned to grapple with Luther or Augustine in one of his doctoral seminars? Who knows how many times he invited classes into his home for a meal or recommended former students for church positions or faculty appointments or counseled confused young ministers about their calling or career? He has had an enormous influence on Southern Baptists during the past half century. Beloved by students and fellow professors alike, Garrett is recognized by many of his peers as the most knowledgeable Baptist theologian living today.” (p.298)

Dr. Garrett, I just wanted to say here at the beginning that I share in those words of Paul Basden and just want to thank you here at the outset for your life, your ministry, and your work. As a former student, I owe you a great debt of gratitude as do so many others. So, thank you very much.

Well, Pastor Wyman, those words, I am sure, are vastly exaggerated, but I am grateful to have had you as one of my students. Thank you very much.

The occasion of this interview is the publication in January of this year, two months ago, of Dr. Garrett’s new book, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, which was published by Mercer University Press. I have only recently finished reading the book and it is a kind of education in and of itself. So let me begin, Dr. Garrett, by asking this question: “Why this book?”

Well, Pastor Wyman, I will answer it in two ways. First of all, I will give a more personal answer. In 1950, when I was a very young instructor at Southwestern Seminary, the faculty allowed me to introduce a new elective course in the curriculum called “The History of Baptist Theology.” I taught that course at Southwestern during the 50’s and again, later, in the 80’s and 90’s and at Southern Seminary during the 60’s and early 1970’s. That course involved having students write papers on many subjects. Then, after my 2nd retirement from teaching in 2003, I began an intensive reading of all of these sources and a research project which eventuated in this book.

Now, why this book? No book of this kind, of this nature and scope, on this subject, had ever been written in the history of the Baptists so far as I knew. I did not know when I started that William Brackney would write A Genetic History of Baptist Thought and that it would be published in 2004. I did not know that when I began my book and I’m sure he did not know, when he was writing his, that I would be writing mine.

So these are the only two books that have attempted to cover comprehensively Baptist confessions of faith, Baptist theologians, and theological movements and controversies. There have been books on each of those three areas, many books, but only these two on the whole field.

It is a massive book, well over 720 pages of text, not including the index of names, and I imagine when you sit down to begin to write a Baptist theology covering four hundred years that you have really got to think through your methodology and your approach. What was your methodology in writing this book?

As I just said, it sought to cover in an integrated, not a segregated, interpretation, the major confessions of faith adopted by Baptists, the major theologians among the Baptists, and the major theological movements and controversies that have affected Baptist life.

Now, I tried to do this by using both what we call “primary sources” and “secondary sources,” that is, the original writings of the people we are discussing and then what’s been written about them. Take two examples: one is John Gill, back in the 17th century, the other, E.Y. Mullins, at the beginning of the 20th century. Both of those were very influential Baptist theologians and it’s important to read, study, and interpret their own writings. But because of their importance, there have been many things written about them, both favorable and unfavorable, both positive and negative. So it is important to look at those assessments as well as what I would say in interpreting these.

Then we tried to let the authors speak for themselves before I attempted to make any assessment of their work. Then, too, I operated on the basis of a five-continent or a six-continent view of Baptist history. It depends on whether you include Australia and New Zealand in Asia as to whether you have five or six continents. When I was a very young seminary student, I bought Latourette’s seven-volume History of the Expansion of Christianity, which was the first comprehensive missionary history of the world from a Christian viewpoint. It greatly influenced my life. Then, working with the Baptist World Alliance, as I have since 1965, I was intent on having a book that would include more than Britain and North America. Dr. Brackney confines his work to Britain and North America, and Dr. McBeth, in his history of the Baptist movement, included North America, Britain, and continental Europe, but not the other continents of the world.

So that’s what I would say about methodology.

It is an interesting look at Baptist theology over the last four hundred years, and I am just curious to know why the world would need such a book on Baptists appearing in January of 2009? Why Baptists in 2009?

We need the book, first of all, because we haven’t had this kind of thing before. Dr. Brackney and I have, in that sense, been breaking new ground. We needed an overview. We need to rise above the particulars. Some people would understand the 17th century and some might understand the 19th century, but we need a view of Baptist theology that is comprehensive. That is why the effort was made.

Now, Baptists need that for their own self-understanding. This is a great need today in our churches: that people understand what the Baptist identity is. What are the distinctives and what are the beliefs that Baptists share with other Christians? So there was a need for the book for Baptists and, then, for others to know what theology Baptists have had.

At one time there were people saying we did not have any Baptist theology. Theology was only written by Roman Catholics or Lutherans or Anglicans or Presbyterians or somebody else. But this book is, I think, quite clear evidence that that is not true. So, the Baptist movement with its distinctives–its religious freedom, separation of church and state, the supremacy of Scripture over tradition without rejecting all tradition, the tendency to want to go back to the New Testament to recover apostolic or primitive Christianity, the baptism of believers only by immersion and, with that, the goal of a regenerate church membership, the priesthood of all believers, congregational polity, and a strong emphasis on evangelism and missions; these are some of the things that are important for Baptists. Sometimes these distinctives have been taken by other groups. They are not altogether distinctive of Baptists today, but the mix of these distinctives is what has made the Baptist movement distinctive.

You mentioned regenerate church membership, and you have written on regenerate church membership. I know of at least one article you have written specifically devoted to the issue of regenerate church membership and, of course, you have published on the issue of church discipline as well. Let me just ask you about your thoughts concerning the recent discussions that have taken place in the Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings concerning an effort to see a resolution passed, that was ultimately passed last year, to call churches back to a regenerate church membership. Do you think this is a favorable development?

Yes, I do. I think that the Convention cannot mandate that, of course, because that is a decision that the local churches have to make, but to advise and counsel and encourage is certainly in order. I am very grateful for the good work that you have done in the field of church discipline. I think what you have written is the most practical set of helps that we have out there, available today, to help existing churches recover some sense of church discipline and positive discipleship.

So, yes, I think the regenerate church membership goal is a worthy one and it means, of course, that in the last century or so, many Baptist churches have been very loose in terms of their membership rolls and this is what they are trying to address today. It is at the front end, in terms of members being received, and then it is a continual problem of authentic membership in the years that follow.

Let me ask you to generalize just a little bit. You are a historical theologian, and you cover, obviously, a very long period of time, four hundred years, in your study of Baptist theology and much longer, of course, in your two-volume Systematic Theology. But I am curious to know, as you look at four hundred years of Baptist history, who you would see as the top three or four Baptist figures, from any time period, whose work, in your opinion, ought to be carefully studied by Baptist pastors and laypeople today?

Well, Pastor Wyman, I have a hard time limiting my answer to your requested three or four. I tend to want to identify more. Initially, in responding to you, I might be prone to say, “Oh, we have so many of the older works of Baptist theologians that are not in print.” But then I have to reckon what the electronic revolution has done. I have been told, on good authority, that almost all the works of Baptist theologians that are more than seventy-five years old are now available electronically. And through Google search, most of them are free, and there are other places where you have to pay for the text to be produced. So the availability will not be a big issue in my answer.

I would say, if we’re going back to the 17th century, that John Bunyan is the one who, above all, should be read. Not because he is necessarily right on all points, but here was a man who, with limited formal education, but with a passion for God and for the Bible, was able in rather remarkable literary form to write on many theological themes, not only in his famous Pilgrim’s Progress. We have today a wonderful thirteen-volume edition from Oxford if you want to buy the whole thing, but I believe you can get it free electronically. So I would say, from that early century, John Bunyan.

From the next century, I would take John Gill and Andrew Fuller, especially Andrew Fuller. His works have been republished in recent years. He was a very practical theologian, a pastor.

From the 19th century, I might want to mention John L. Dagg, whose work is in print. He was a Southern theologian. Then the sermons of Charles Haddon Spurgeon are still filled with theological content and can be read widely because they were preached from a pulpit in Spurgeon’s day.

In the 20th century, I would speak of people like Carl Henry, Bernard Ramm and Millard Erickson. Most of these works are still in print.

And then, of course, in my book I have a group of baby boom theologians that certainly have works in print. So I’ve given you a broader answer, but these are some of the ones that I think would be worthy of attention. Now, that is not to say there are not others.

This may overlap a little bit, but let me ask you more personally, for yourself, who the Baptist figures are who have had the greatest impact on your own thinking and work? Let me put it another way: do you have favorite Baptist authors that you return to time and time again?

Pastor Wyman, as you may know, I was a student of W.T. Conner, the theologian at Southwestern for thirty-nine years, and my own teacher during the last days of his teaching career. When I began as a young teacher, of course, he had shaped my own thinking. I had read his works. I wrote my dissertation on his theology. So it would be important for me to list him as the number one influence in the early formation of my own theology.

In the 1950’s we did not have many evangelical theologians writing at that time. Non-Baptists like Emil Brunner, for example, were greatly helpful to me as I struggled with the teaching of theology. But then we had to deal with Landmarkism, which was alive and well at that time in Baptist life, still exerting quite an influence. So I had to read J.R. Graves even though I didn’t always agree with Graves. I had to interact with him.

And later on, as I began to be more mature in my theology, I had to rely on people like A.H. Strong as well. Then I was colleague to Dale Moody at Southern Seminary, and nobody who lives with Dale Moody could be unaffected by Dale Moody. And then, of course, Carl Henry was very active. When I came to write my own theology, beginning at the age of 63, I had to deal with Millard Erickson, who had already written his Christian Theology.

So these were some of the people who were very formative. Now, I read others. I read P.T. Forsyth. I read E. Y. Mullins. I read Luther. I read Augustine. I read Calvin. I read Schleiermacher. I taught Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, in seminars. But for Baptist theologians, these would be the first. And then I would say, as far as biblical theologians, I think I was more greatly influenced by H.H. Rowley, as an Old Testament theologian. In the New Testament field, Ray Summers, my teacher, was very influential on my views of last things, or the doctrine of eschatology.

This is likewise a bit of a personal question, along the same lines, but I am just curious about your own reading habits. Do you read daily, every day?

I usually read something, yes, every day. There will be days I do not because of schedule. Right now I am reading the festschrift honoring my colleague Leon McBeth, which was published late last year, called Turning Points in Baptist History. I am reading that and will be finishing that shortly. That is a book that has theological as well as historical significance.

I know you are retired, but do you have any other writing projects in the wings?

I cannot answer that with a clear affirmative. For some years, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell and I have contemplated co-editing a history of the doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians. I do not know if we will ever get that done. He has done considerable writing on the Reformation period, and I have done some writing on the patristic period. If we can ever get the medieval and modern sections done, we may be able to have a book. There is no comprehensive, good, reliable history of that doctrine. But Yarnell has other priorities, and I am not as well as I used to be; so we do not promise anything in that area. There might be some things I wish I had done in the past.

Well, that raises another question: are there any books that you have not been able to write that you wish you would have written?

There are two others I will mention. When I was at Southern Seminary, I gave an inaugural address on the methodology for the history of Christian doctrine, or historical theology, in which address I proposed that the best way to do this today would be to have an international, interdenominational team of scholars to do a comprehensive history of Christian doctrine. No sooner had I given that address and it was published in the journal Review & Expositor that I received a letter from Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale University telling me that he was launching a big five-volume history of Christian doctrine and, by implication, he was saying that my project was not needed. My later move to Baylor with different duties meant that I was not teaching the history of Christian doctrine for a while. After coming back to Southwestern and resuming that teaching in 1980, although I gave some serious consideration to doing something myself, I gave up the project because there is so little market out there since most seminaries require systematic theology but not historical theology. So I did not attempt that big project which I originally had proposed as a massive cooperative effort.

As for the other, for many years I taught a course at Southwestern on the theology of the American cults. We treated Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, the Unification Church, the Ba’hai World Faith, and various other movements that have been deviations from either Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. I, at one time, contemplated a textbook in that area. But, you know, each one of those religious movements is a field of specialization itself. You can be very good on the Mormons and you may be much less competent on Jehovah’s Witnesses at the same time. One needs to be competent on all of these in order to write a first-rate text, I felt that I never got to the point where I could do that like I wanted to do it. So I retired, after many years of teaching, without producing a book in that area. We still do not have a very good textbook in that field after all of these years.

Let me go back for just a minute to this letter you received from Jaroslav Pelikan. I know he passed away just a couple of years ago. Is that customary scholarly habit to receive a letter saying that your proposed writings are not necessary because it is being done?

I do not think the letter was quite that specific. I think it was more of an indirect statement. I must say, of course, I have never received another letter like that. I did not feel any resentment about it at the time. My wife seems to remember the incident more than I do. I do not know how common that is, because I never experienced it in any other setting. But evidently he was wanting to be a little protective of his own interests. He produced a very important five-volume set, which is very topical rather than chronological. Therefore, it was not the method that I used in teaching. Mine was more chronological than topical. So I never did use his book in my classes, but certainly I have used the volumes. They are a very important contribution to the literature. There was never any ill-will between Dr. Pelikan and me.

Dr. Garrett, I really do appreciate, and I know that readers of this interview will appreciate, your taking the time to answer some questions and, God willing, if you will allow it, when the next book comes out, we will talk again.

Well, let me say in closing, Pastor Wyman, that I appreciate talking with you and having these questions from you. I would like to say to you as pastor of your congregation there in Dawson, GA, and other church people who should read or ponder these words, what I think is one of our greatest challenges today in the local Baptist church is to recover a sense of Baptist identity, to teach our heritage, to share with our people our stories, our heroes, our heroines, our triumphs and our tragedies, and to make being a Baptist Christian a much clearer and more responsible thing in today’s world. I believe every local Baptist church has that challenge today, and I know if anybody can meet that challenge, you can do it there in Dawson, GA.

I appreciate that so much. Thank you so much. Let me just encourage, in closing, readers of this interview to consider purchasing Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study. It is a great resource and would be a great help in the teaching of our distinctives and our identity and heritage in the local church, wherever you are. I encourage all of you to get this book.


The appearance of Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study is a welcome occasion not only because it presents us with the seasoned offerings of arguably the greatest living Baptist historical theologian, but also because it appears at a time in Baptist history when myopic tangents and agendas seem increasingly to dominate our particular ecclesial landscape from various idiosyncratic corners. That is to say, voices like Dr. Garrett’s are needed in our day of confusion and denominational flux in which the very question of “What is a Baptist?” seems to be more unresolved than resolved.

This is not to suggest that Garrett has presented an argument in this work, or that he is pushing a point. Rather, he is telling a story, and he is wearing the cloak of the objective historical theologian in doing so. But he tells the story in such a balanced way, and with such painstaking documentation, that it cannot help but shed light on the various and sundry conversations and skirmishes one encounters here and there about what it means to be a Baptist Christian.

We need to hear the story again, particularly the story of the theological convictions of the people called “Baptists.” We need, in other words, this book.

It is, perhaps, an odd thing to say about a work of historical theology, but let me simply say that for this reader, this book was, strangely enough, an occasion for deep introspection about what it means to be Baptist Christian. The story that Dr. Garrett tells creates context and context brings perspective. In this sense, the almost overwhelming amount of data presented in the book is fascinating not only for the events that it chronicles, but also for how these events might help us to see our own place in the Baptist story more clearly today.

It is not a perfect book. Readers will invariably find some sections more interesting than others, but I daresay that Dr. Garrett has achieved a measure of objectivity and clarity in this work that render none of the sections unprofitable for the reader.

To be sure, there are quibbles. Dr. Garrett is famously fond of footnotes (e.g., Paul F.M. Zahl rather fascinatingly chided Dr. Garrett with, “There are just too many footnotes,” in his response to Garrett’s essay in Perspectives on Church Government [Broadman & Holman, 2004, p.207]). Of course, a work like this is necessarily going to be well-documented, but there were sentences in which it seemed almost overly so. At the risk of self-contradiction, let me add that the footnotes were simultaneously one of the more fascinating aspects of this work. The reader will find here a massive bibliography of Baptist sources that will inevitably aid him in his own study.

And I do so wish that the book contained a “Subject Index” and not only an “Index of Persons.” I found myself time and again wanting to trace the Baptist approaches to this or that particular issue, and, in this respect, such an index would have been very helpful. I do suspect the “Subject Index” would have made this already pricey book even more expensive and this already heavy volume even more physically ponderous, but it would have been helpful nonetheless. But these are trifles, really, and the latter may have more to do with Mercer University Press than Dr. Garrett.

In truth, what Dr. Garrett has given us here is a treasure trove of well-documented, carefully structured, and clearly presented snapshots of Baptist life which, when put together, made this reader thankful, once again, to be a Baptist. Simultaneously, I was challenged to avoid the unfortunately all-too-prevalent pitfalls into which too many in our story have fallen over the years.

I daresay every pastor should own this book and read it. Furthermore, interested laypeople, and those who are not but should be, ought to be encouraged to consider immersing themselves in the four hundred year old story of Baptist theology that is capably told by Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. in ways that will challenge and inspire any who take up this profound work.