“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).