August 6, 2021

Is Nicene Trinitarianism Biblical and Necessary?

The question of both the biblical basis and the necessity of affirming the theology affiliated with the Council of Nicaea has again become a matter of discussion.

Having spent some time studying this issue, and having published my examinations in both monograph and essay form, I wish to go on record, again, of affirming Nicene Trinitarianism is both biblically grounded and necessary for Christian teachers who wish to be recognized as orthodox. (Michael A.G. Haykin, a longtime colleague of mine in historical theology, today corroborated my thoughts.)

While I have interacted only somewhat formally with the modern theology known as Eternal Functional Subordination, it seems increasingly likely the churches and their responsible theologians will be required to address these teachings more formally. May the humility of the Lord Jesus Christ, who participates without any limit whatsoever in the divine nature, will, and authority equally with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, guide his people as they do so.

The following works trace my understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and of various historic responses:
If you wish to see my lectures on the matter, please feel free to sign up for the Master's elective and/or research doctoral seminar which I teach on “God the Trinity” at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The PhD seminar will next be offered in Spring 2022.

July 5, 2021

National Treasures

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

Read from the steps of the State House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Timothy Matlack, Clerk of the Second Continental Congress, on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence still rings beautifully in our ears. Those words reflected Matlack’s own beliefs that God created every human being equal, giving each person rights which cannot be taken away, and that governments derive their powers from the governed, not vice versa. When Romans 13 says we must obey “the powers instituted of God,” Americans like Thomas Jefferson and Timothy Matlack understood constitutional government.

Matlack was a microcosm of America. Nearly 20 years before the Bill of Rights, he led Pennsylvania to declare our rights include religious liberty, freedom of speech, trial by jury, and “a right to bear Arms.” On July 19, 1776, he engrossed the official copy of the Declaration of Independence now in the National Archives. He wrote the congressional instrument appointing George Washington Commander-in-Chief. Colonel Matlack led the Philadelphia militia as the Army of the Potomac fought for survival. He warned Washington about Benedict Arnold long before that traitor was caught selling the fortification plans for West Point. An enlightened thinker, he was appointed to the American Philosophical Society by Benjamin Franklin. In 1780, Matlack prompted Pennsylvania to adopt a bill abolishing slavery gradually, the first such act. He served in Congress and supported his old radical friend, Thomas Jefferson, in his hotly contested election as President. Jefferson and Matlack maintained a friendly correspondence late into their long lives. Matlack is a national treasure.

Personally, however, Matlack was an intemperate and hypocritical man. He loved his wife, Ellen Yarnall, and they had two sons and three girls together. But after her death, this radical advocate of human equality violated both his own ideals and a fellow human being. He bought an African American girl, Hester, ostensibly to keep his house. He sold Hester to another white man upon his second marriage. He had once felt a call to ministry, but he later caned two Quaker ministers in the street. Ejected from his church, he subsequently found peace and planted a church. (You can visit the meeting house which Matlack designed and built as you walk from Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell to the National Constitution Center. The Free Quaker house is across the street from Benjamin Franklin’s grave.)

Matlack’s brother-in-law was just as bad. Son of a famous preacher named Mordecai Yarnall, Peter had a reputation for memory and mimicry. Known in both the Army and the Navy as “a singular character and degenerate son,” Peter would walk into Quaker churches and preach just for the fun of it. One fooled congregation even extended him a call to ministry. After hearing a prophetic sermon at his mother’s funeral, Peter made his way to a pub, where he regaled his army buddies. He repeated the sermon point by point, applying each to his drinking friends. “Now Tim,” he told Matlack, “this is for you.” They laughed heartily! 

But at the end of his mimicked message, Peter said, “Now this is for none of you, it is for myself.” The young surgeon’s demeanor changed immediately, and he left quietly. After traumatic dreams, he recalled the faith preached by his father, a faith which compelled his great grandfather to flee from England’s religious persecution in 1683. In this way, Peter converted to Christ, proclaiming to everyone who would listen that he had once “missed his way.” Dr. Yarnall ended his days as a widely regarded and true gospel preacher. The Word of God is so powerful that it can change even those who use it in mockery.

Our nation began with great ideals, but we have not always lived up to them. Our nation is full of hypocrites like Matlack and godless mockers like Yarnall. But God’s grace can extend even to hypocrites and mockers. The question is whether we will repent of our own hypocrisy and our own mockery. By all accounts, both Matlack and Yarnall ended their days in peace with God and reconciliation with their fellow human beings. Hester was also granted her freedom through Quaker intervention. These men repented of their hypocrisy and mockery, and they were made right through faith in Jesus Christ the God-Man. The question is whether we who dwell in a land which has religious freedom will be changed by the gospel we can so freely hear. You can be made right through the same faith these national treasures subsequently embraced.

June 10, 2021

By All Means Discuss the Southern Baptist Convention, But in the Right Spirit

But the question arises: Is the co-operative work of the churches a proper subject for discussion? Certainly it is a proper subject for discussion, of broad and unceasing discussion, if it be done in the right spirit. By all means, let all our co-operative work—missionary, educational, and benevolent—be fully and faithfully discussed by all the people. But let such discussion be candid and truthful and constructive and Christian. The more of such discussion, the better will it be for every good cause. But when such discussion is uncandid and untruthful and un-Christian, when it leads to sourness and bitterness and alienations and non-co-operation, then such discussion is to be reprobated by all who care for the honor of Christ’s name and the advancement of His cause. Paul points the way for Christ’s people in his ringing words to the Galatians: “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty: only use not your liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love, serve one another.” Love is the supreme inspiration and dynamic for all Christly service. “Love never faileth.” God give our Baptist people to remember, now and always, that the last word in our Baptist vocabulary is not liberty but love!

Christian Education: An Address by George W. Truett, of Dallas, Texas, at the Southern Baptist Convention in Houston, Texas, Thursday morning, May 13, 1926 (Birmingham, AL: Education Board, Southern Baptist Convention, 1926), 11

June 9, 2021

Basic Theological Texts for Growing Systematic Theologians

Scripture is normative for our theology and must remain our everyday text, as one of my PhD students, the leading Dalit theologian, Binu C. Paul, recently noted here. As embodied persons living in history, moreover, we would be wise to read the Bible with other saints from throughout the history of Christianity. Paul noted the Holy Spirit does not restrict himself to certain believers (1 Cor 7:40). Moreover, the same Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical text (2 Tim 3:16) illumines the perfect Word of God to believers in every age. The Apostle thus considered "private interpretations" theologically dubious (2 Pet 1:19-21).

Often, I am asked by young theologians who attend my lectures and wish to move further in their theological studies, "What should I read next?" In response, I refer them to texts which have shaped classical Christianity and the various Reformation traditions as well as the Baptist tradition. (On the treasures which Baptists have accessed in classical Christianity, see this helpful text edited by Matthew Emerson, Chris Morgan, and Luke Stamps.)

Recently asked by a student for such a list, I offered the following 15 writers with their basic texts. These are the leading writings from the history of the Church which I recommend every rising theologian read. It is becoming increasingly obvious with novel systematic theologians today that they could have avoided theological error, such as denying the eternal generation of the Son of God, if they had first immersed themselves in the basic theological treasures of the past.

None of the following basic theological texts are sufficient; none are perfect, not even together; for only Scripture is sufficient and perfect. But in the midst of reading the tested exegesis of Scripture offered by those Christians who have preceded us, we learn a thing or two which keep us from the errors and heresies which may crop up among those who neglect to listen to the Spirit's witness through the ages. Enjoy!

  1. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
  2. Gregory of Nazianzus, Five Theological Orations
  3. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions and On Christian Teaching
  4. Gregory, On Pastoral Rule
  5. Anselm, Monologion and Cur Deus Homo
  6. Martin Luther, On Christian Freedom
  7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1
  8. The Heidelberg Catechism
  9. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor
  10. Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria
  11. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
  12. J.I. Packer, Knowing God
  13. John Stott, The Cross of Christ
  14. Paul Fiddes, Tracks & Traces
  15. Scott Swain, The Trinity: An Introduction

February 5, 2021

James Leo Garrett Jr. (1925-2020): The Funeral Sermon

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

You need only rehearse James Leo Garrett Jr.’s educational attainments—bachelor’s degrees from both Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary, a master’s from Princeton Seminary, and research doctorates from both Southwestern Seminary and Harvard University—to realize that here was no mean scholar. You need only remember that he taught for lengthy periods at three great Baptist schools—Southwestern Seminary, Baylor University, and Southern Seminary—to realize he exercised a widespread influence. You need only read his two magna opera before realizing no other contemporary Baptist systematic theologian has yet risen to his level of authorial achievement. 

A. Garrett as a Theologian 

Baptized into the church of Southwestern Seminary’s founder, Benajah Harvey Carroll, Garrett was also deeply influenced by Southwestern’s first great systematic theologian, Walter Thomas Conner. He once wrote, “The Lord and W.T. Conner called me to teach theology.” Through his long career, he taught masses of theological students. During the administration of Russell Dilday, Garrett’s classes in particular overflowed. 

I still appreciate the student who allowed me to move from the very back to take his front row seat so I might capture every word. But only the hardy enrolled in his classes. Known affectionately as “Machine-Gun Garrett” for his rapid-fire lecture style, his students proudly wore t-shirts emblazoned, “I Survived Theo with Leo.” Thousands of pastors, missionaries, professors, and other ministers filed through his classrooms, and many found their way into his office and home for personal encounters.

Beyond his now silent classroom, he continues to teach through his writings. The method he followed in his two-volume Systematic Theology garnered widespread respect even as it gently but significantly reorients several classical debates. Garrett as a rule began with a review of the biblical literature, moved to a summary of historical responses, and only then considered systematics. 

He was gentle before the Word of God. He always respected the Bible even as he subtly challenged those who undermined its teachings, theologically or morally. Except in the essentials, he avoided strong statements. As a gentleman, his own persuasions are discerned clearly in the indicative or implied through the interrogative but never through the pejorative nor the pugilistic. 

Garrett’s special love for his own churches manifests itself in his second magnum opus, his comprehensive and unparalleled Baptist Theology, wherein he rehearsed the history of Baptist ruminations, respected the diverse breadth of that life, and honored our dependence upon Scripture and our ultimate concern for following the Lord Jesus.

While speaking of Baptist theology, Dr. Garrett asked me to convey to his own beloved churches two special messages: 

  • First, submitting to Jesus’s desire for our unity revealed in John 17, which establishes a divine mandate for us, the Southern Baptist Convention should seek a restoration of fellowship with our Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ through rejoining the Baptist World Alliance.
  • Second, there is “no substantial theological reason whatsoever” to maintain separate Baptist conventions within the state of Texas. The Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention should restore the bonds of fellowship, and the Baptist Missionary Association should consider doing the same.

Garrett also initiated or expanded the academic disciplines of ecumenism, religious liberty, believers’ church identity, and the close relationship of Baptists with Evangelicals. A particular doctrine close to his heart was the priesthood of all believers.

B. The Importance of Garrett

In order to convey the academic impact of Leo Garrett, one might consult two festschrifts published in his honor, The People of God, edited by Paul Abbott Basden and David Samuel Dockery, and the 2006 issue of Perspectives in Religious Studies introduced by Canadian Baptist William Henry Brackney. Or, one might rehearse the long list of his students and their accomplishments. However, in honor of his passion for congregationalism, hear a selection of testimonies from his former students, all of whom provide their full names out of respect for his precise academic style. We wish, in respect for the words of the apostle, to “imitate his faith.”

Robert Stanton Norman, President and Professor of Theology at Williams Baptist University, and author of More Than Just a Name and The Baptist Way, studied with and worked for Dr. Garrett from 1987 to 1997. He writes, “James Leo Garrett Jr. was one of the most prolific, prodigious writing theologians of the twentieth century. No other theologian was as thorough in breadth and scope of research, nor as fair in representation and assessment of diverse perspectives, nor as irenic and charitable in interactions. He instilled a deep love within me for the people known as Baptists, an appreciation for Baptist history and theology, and a belief in the promise of our distinctive convictions to engage and overcome present and future challenges.”

Steven Ray Harmon, Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity and Co-Secretary of the Baptist-Catholic International Joint Dialogue Commission, and author of four books including Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future, was guided by Dr. Garrett through his PhD studies from 1993 to 1997. He writes, “Dr. Garrett’s theological scholarship has been especially influential ecumenically, for he rigorously sought to frame Baptist theological identity in terms of its relation to the larger Christian tradition in ways that helped both Baptists and their ecumenical dialogue partners to see more clearly both their commonalities and their differences that call for ongoing dialogue—an influence discernible especially in the second phase of the international dialogue between the Baptist World Alliance and the Catholic Church. I am working as a Baptist ecumenical theologian because of this influence, which in my own ecumenical work has helped me take differences seriously rather than as something to be minimized for the sake of easy agreement.”

Matthew Lee Sanders, Senior Pastor of the Wai’alae Baptist Church in Honolulu, and Assistant Professor at The College at Southwestern from 2007 to 2015, writes, “When I was a master’s student working for the seminary, I remember running into Dr. Garrett in the hallways more than once and casually asking about some theological topic. I would go to my office, and he would go, I thought, wherever he was headed. But he would pop into my office 30 minutes later with several library references on the topic we discussed. He apparently stopped whatever he was doing to help me. He was the best and only research assistant I ever had. If I could have only two books in addition to the Bible, they would be Dr. Garrett’s two-volume systematic theology. The only rival to his brilliant mind was his humble servant heart.”

Stephen Martin Stookey, Dean of the School of Christian Studies and Lester W. James Sr. Professor in Religion at Wayland Baptist University, was taught by Dr. Garrett during his PhD studies from 1991 to 1992. He writes, “James Leo Garrett Jr., through classroom, print, and pulpit, sharpened the global Baptist family’s theological perspectives and modeled the virtue of ecumenical engagement for kingdom service. His mentorship contributed to my academic focus in church-state studies, active participation with the Baptist World Alliance, and understanding of academic service as ministry. Like so many colleagues and friends who came under Dr. Garrett's influence, I am deeply indebted to him, as well as to his wife Myrta.”

Ronjour Melvin Locke, Instructor of Preaching and Urban Ministry, and Director of the Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is an African-American mentored by Dr. Garrett between 2009 and 2011. He writes, “Dr. Garrett showed that a scholar can also be a gentleman, loving and respecting others—even those with whom we disagree—by treating them and their arguments fairly and by responding charitably, for they are truly loved by our Lord. Personally, Dr. Garrett showed Annie and me what it looks like to love the body of Christ in faithful service and generous kindness, and for his and Mrs. Myrta’s example during and after our years at Meadowridge we are eternally grateful.”

Gregory Dale Tomlin, Carroll Fellow and Associate Professor of Christian Heritage at the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute, who studied with Dr. Garrett from 1997 to 2003, writes, “I owe to him and his lovely wife many things. He was the greatest of theologians and historians in my eyes, but most of all he was a good man and my friend. Kindness and gentleness permeated his character—I was able to complete my theological education because of Dr. Garrett’s generosity when he saw a need. I have learned recently that the students he provided for financially number in the dozens.”

Christopher Bart Barber, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville and prominent Trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, studied with our mentor between 1994 and 2006. Bart writes, “Amidst the dark stories of theologians who strayed from their faith, marriages, denominational affiliations, or academic callings, shines the bright story of James Leo Garrett, whose lifelong faithfulness to the work, to Southern Baptists, to Myrta Ann, and to the Lord Jesus Christ were never called into question. It is no accident but rather the fruit of his deliberate effort that I can say the most important things he taught me were about neither history nor theology. Instead, he taught me how to have unwavering convictions in a way that brought people together rather than driving them apart.”

Adam Lyndell Harwood, McFarland Professor of Theology and Journal Editor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, who studied under Garrett in 2002 and 2003 and is currently writing a systematic theology, says, “Dr. Garrett modeled peaceable interaction with the entire Christian tradition rather than merely his perspective. I was impressed by this accomplished scholar’s humility, demonstrated by his willingness to learn from anyone, including his students.”

Amy Karen Downey, President of Tzedakah Ministries and author of Maimonides’s Yahweh, worked with Dr. Garrett in editing his Systematic Theology between 1994 and 1996 and in compiling his Baptist Theology after 2004. She says, “I reveled in his eidetic memory, and he taught me to love theology and appreciate even those with whom we disagreed. He was my advocate as I pursued graduate studies in both medieval Judaism and Holocaust studies, and he even allowed me recently to guide him in the process of leading an old Jewish friend of his to saving faith in Jesus Christ.”

Wyman Lewis Richardson, Pastor of Central Baptist Church in North Little Rock and the Editor of the multi-volume The Collected Works of James Leo Garrett Jr., 1950-2015, writes, “Dr. Garrett’s scholarship was important insofar as it created a substantial bridge between the Baptist family and the wider Christian world. Personally, his academic influence on me consisted of modeling what warm-hearted, sincere churchmanship looks like when coupled with high standards of academic rigor.”

Robert Byron Stewart, Professor of Philosophy and Theology and Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary studied with Dr. Garrett from 1990 to 1996. He says, “The atmosphere one breathed while studying with Leo Garrett was one of unrelenting precision and thoroughness coupled with Christlike character and graciousness.  Those of us who were privileged to study with him owe him a debt that cannot be repaid directly to him, but we can endeavor to repay it indirectly as we teach those who study with us with the same precision and care.  In fact, we should feel a moral obligation to do so.”

One last important word about the impact of James Leo Garrett Jr., this time regarding the future. Adam Wade Greenway, the ninth President of The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and David Samuel Dockery, Southwestern’s Distinguished Professor of Theology and Theologian-in-Residence [and now Interim Provost], both of whom were his students and have paid him tribute, have stated the conviction that Southwestern Seminary must maintain and sustain the highly laudable aspects of that which we recognize with honor to be “the Conner-Garrett tradition.”

C. Garrett as an Educator

Garrett amassed huge accomplishments in research, teaching, and churchmanship through his intentional method of incorporating detailed knowledge of Scripture and its interpretation with personal integrity of life. Soon after he retired and my career began, he shared an as yet unpublished piece about our calling. He defined the theological educator according to four roles: teacher, scholar, mentor, and practitioner. Listen to some of his ideas.

As teacher, he spoke, among other things, of cultivating the professorial decorum of respect and dialogue. Lifelong professors have had “that student”—you know, the one in a thousand who already knows everything. Through the years, I never knew Dr. Garrett to show a hint of indignation when “that student” violated his class’s decorum. He was always respectful. 

That said, I remember he once stopped and responded carefully to a perceptive question with a brilliant quotation from memory. He opened his eyes, gazing into the distance as if in a different conversation, and said, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!” He kindly smiled, recalled where he was, and returned to his lecture. The man was gentle, even in mental conversations with long dead authors.

As scholar, he argued that an educator must, inter alia, read widely and write wisely. Leo performed well these first two roles, of teacher and scholar, by all accounts. 

He also fulfilled two other roles that concern the heart and manifest themselves primarily through personal encounter. But we saw much of his heart. The last two of the educator’s roles concern being a mentor and practitioner. 

The student testimonies above show that many heard the apostle’s exhortation to “consider” our mentor’s “way of life.” James Leo Garrett Jr. believed that a personal life surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is as necessary for a theological mentor as for every believer. The theologian’s way of life must be characterized by love or be a failure.

In the role of practitioner, he emphasized the theologian must evince “the fruit of the spirit” as a Christian, a family member, a church member, a citizen, and a Southern Baptist. By all accounts, divine fruit was in that divine.


In conclusion, some final personal words. I knew Dr. Garrett, firstly, as a theological father, who encouraged me to research different aspects of universal priesthood at both Duke University and Oxford University. Secondly, I knew him as a senior professor who graciously affirmed my calling to imitate him while I trembled like a child in the basement of Fleming Hall. I knew him, thirdly, as a paragon of virtue after whom I could name my second son, Matthew Garrett Yarnell (and I was not the only one to do so); and fourthly, as a colleague who gave me the blessing of his lectern and his own faculty office, over my tearful objections. Finally, while I hope the Lord allows me in the near term to complete the essay we were writing together, I hope in the long term to be at least as much like our Savior as James Leo Garrett Jr.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).