Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study. By James Leo Garrett, Jr. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009. 742 + xxvii pages. Hardcover, $55.00
With Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, James Leo Garrett, Jr. has written a book that rivals in its long-term relevance and utility his own magnum opus, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical. Indeed, there is little doubt that Garrett's Baptist Theology is the most important text to have been written on the Baptist movement in the last 100 years, and will probably retain that distinction for another like period. Every Baptist pastor should purchase this masterpiece and consult it often; every college and seminary professor should assign it to every student who enrolls in a course related to Baptist history, theology, or ecclesiology; and, every research scholar with a stake in Baptist history should consult this book regularly for its insights. With that clear affirmation of this book's essential status for the library of every Baptist theologian and minister, we now consider the author, his method, and subject content.
First, James Leo Garrett Jr. is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Historical and Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and has given more than half a century of his life to theological education there as well as shorter tenures at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University. The well-known author of the two-volume Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical (2nd ed., 2000–2001), co-author of Are Southern Baptists Evangelicals? (1982), and editor of The Legacy of Southwestern (2002), Garrett has authored and/or edited books, essays, and journals in the disciplines of systematic theology, historical theology, ecumenical theology, and Baptist theology, including major contributions in the latter’s sub-disciplines of religious liberty, church polity, and Baptist identity, and ground-breaking research in the doctrine of universal priesthood.
Second, regarding his method, Garrett draws upon his expertise as an historical theologian and his many years of teaching courses on Baptist theology and Baptist theologians at the Master's and Research Doctoral levels. That hard-won maturity is evident in the depth and breadth of his knowledge of both the primary and secondary sources related to his subject matter. Each chapter considers the major theologians and theological movements within a particular sub-tradition, and a conclusion summarizing his findings is provided at the end of each chapter (although not identified by a subtitle). In his writing style Garrett carefully balances the need for both conveying historical insight and demonstrating historical sensitivity. On the one hand, through careful reading, he attempts to let each theologian or sub-tradition speak on its own, demonstrating a rare sensitivity to allow the subject to speak through accurate compilation and selective quotation. On the other hand, Garrett models historical insight by explaining to his readers the deeper significance of the contributions made by our Baptist forefathers and by select Baptist contemporaries, but always with appropriate restraint.
Third, regarding its contents, the book is divided into thirteen chapters and a conclusion. The chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning with the "roots" of Baptist beliefs and proceeding to detailed considerations of the English General Baptists; English Particular Baptists; Early American Baptists; Awakening and Missionary Baptists; Baptist Landmarkism; Baptists in Controversy; Biblical Theologians; Twentieth-Century Southern Baptists; Recovering Evangelicalism and Reassessing the Baptist Heritage; Incursions into Baptist Theology; Missions, Ecumenism, and Globalization; and, New Voices in Baptist Theology. Also provided is a list of abbreviations (necessary for keeping the bibliographical references from becoming too lengthy in such a comprehensive and well-researched text); a helpful glossary of important terms in Baptist theological discourse that was compiled by Dongsun Cho; a preface and dedication by the author; and, an index of persons. We will not attempt to summarize the contents of the chapters as that would result in the authorship of a small book. Rather, we interact with some of the more critical aspects of the author's contribution.
Regarding the roots of Baptist beliefs, Garrett plants Baptists firmly in the broader Christian garden, highlighting widespread Baptist affirmations of the orthodox developments in Trinitarian and Christological doctrine made by the early church fathers and codified in the conciliar creeds. Garrett also notes the Baptist appropriation of such Reformation doctrines as justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. As for the much controverted issue of the relationship of seventeenth-century English and American Baptists to the sixteenth-century continental European Anabaptists, Garrett judiciously notes that the question is not about whether early Baptists read Balthasar Hubmaier but whether the Anabaptist "concepts of religious freedom, baptism, church discipline, and the rightful use of the sword" prepared the way for later English Baptist developments. Garrett indicates from original sources that Baptists personally and explicitly affirmed some distinctive Anabaptist doctrines while they rejected yet others (11–16). Similarly, Baptists affirmed yet transcended various doctrines garnered from the native British movements of Separatism and Independency. Garrett is aware of the fractious debates regarding Baptist origins but is primarily concerned with what history definitely has to say about the matter.
In his discussion of the English Baptists, Garrett rightly places the General churches first in his discussion, but fails to incorporate Stephen Wright's recent groundbreaking research (Stephen I. Wright, The Early English Baptists, 1603–1649. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2006), which argues, compellingly, that the Particular Baptists most likely garnered the practice of immersion from the General Baptists rather than vice versa (35–36). Garrett also notes that Thomas Grantham, a General Baptist, authored the first treatise "which can be reckoned as a systematic theology," a fact commonly overlooked by proponents of Calvinist theology (42). In his chapter on the Particular Baptists, Garrett fails to note that the First London Confession was organized along the lines of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (even as it incorporated the Separatists' A True Confession of 1598), but correctly notes that the first Particular Baptist confession expressed only "a mild form of the ordo salutis" (53–55). Garrett provides a fivefold indicator for identifying Hyper-Calvinism (89), by which he concludes that John Gill, in spite of modern defenders like Timothy George and Tom Nettles, "can hardly be removed from the ranks of the Hyper-Calvinists" (99). Garrett's conclusion that Gill's rejection of baptism as a church ordinance "would not be accepted by the great majority of later Baptists" may disappoint some, but Garrett is doubtless correct (102).
In discussing the early Calvinistic American Baptists, this distinguished Southwestern Seminary professor considers not only their theological teachings but also their ecclesiology through the church disciplines published in the Philadelphia and Charleston associations. He also avoids a myopic Calvinist historiography through dealing with the American General Baptists as well as the consolidation of a dominant "moderately Calvinistic" or "moderately Arminian" theology in the ubiquitous formula known as the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (132). Garrett skillfully maintains a separate theological history for the Separate Baptists, who, though they adopted the Calvinistic Philadelphia Confession as the only one available to them, affirmed this did "not mean that every person is to be bound to the strict observance of everything therein contained" (165). Garrett, like other impartial historians, also accepts as genuine the report of John Ryland Senior's rebuke to William Carey that he should restrain his zeal for missions (169). Fortunately, Carey ignored such advice and with the collaboration of Andrew Fuller, among others, helped launch the first modern missionary society. Garrett considers the theological ruminations of the missionary Baptists as well as that of their Primitive Baptist and Campbellite detractors.
Garrett's discussion of Landmark Baptists exemplifies his characteristic deep reading of both primary and secondary sources, privileging the former while interacting with the latter with discernment. Unfortunately, Garrett states that Benajah Harvey Carroll agreed with the Landmarkers "in denying a universal church," though it would be more accurate to say that Carroll was "delaying" its appearance (235). Garrett considers not only Landmark contributions, but also the ecclesiological ruminations of non-Landmark Baptist theologians in the nineteenth century. He concludes this chapter by outlining four effects that the Landmark movement had upon twentieth-century Southern Baptists (246–47). A fifth one could have been added to account for the popular though inappropriate use of "Landmarkist" as a means to denigrate those today who actually hold to non-Landmark, but firmly Baptist, ecclesiological positions.
Garrett's chapter on "Baptists in Controversy" outlines the battle between Campbellites and Baptists, and summarizes the battles that the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon engaged with the Church of England, with the Hyper-Calvinists, and with the Downgrade tendencies evident, for instance, in the theology of John Clifford. Garrett also provides a lengthy description of the problems created by the growth of liberalism in North America, holding separate and nuanced discussions regarding the theologies of fundamentalists, conservatives, mediating theologians, and liberals. This chapter in itself may be worth the price of the book as Garrett painstakingly listens to theologians often flippantly lionized or demonized by their opponents. In this chapter alone, Garrett demonstrates what it means to be a competent historical theologian even as he maintains his own theological convictions. Another groundbreaking chapter, on “Biblical Theologians”, will be of especial value to those Baptists engaged in the discipline of biblical studies.
Chapter nine considers the influence of theologians such as Edgar Young Mullins, Walter Thomas Conner, Herschel Harold Hobbs, and Wallie Amos Criswell on Southern Baptists in the twentieth century. It also summarizes confessional statements and doctrinal controversies that have defined as well as fractured Southern Baptists. Garrett's expertise as an historical theologian also deserves notice in this chapter, as he knew many of the combatants in the various controversies, yet he always attempts to treat them with empathy and accuracy. Chapter ten considers the concurrent attempts of more contemporary theologians to recover evangelicalism and/or reassess the theological heritage of Baptists. This is a debate in which the current reviewer has been involved so a critique will be withheld. Chapter twelve is a wide-ranging essay that takes into account the missiological and ecumenical contributions made by various Baptists including Billy Graham and William Owen Carver. African-American theologians as well as far-flung global theologians receive treatment in a chapter that will prove beneficial in uncovering confessional discussions not properly appreciated in other parts of the world. In chapter 13, Garrett considers the contributions of ten "new voices" in Baptist theology, ranging from Christian ecumenist Paul Fiddes to Christian hedonist John Piper.
In the eleventh chapter, Garrett steps perhaps his furthest into an evaluative mindset by defining various "incursions" into Baptist theology. Having discussed three such "incursions" in previous chapters, he focuses here upon four others: Modernism, Dispensationalism, the English Christological controversy, and Open Theism. While this reviewer would perhaps agree with the definition of three of these movements as incursions, it is surprising to find Dispensationalism valued (or, devalued) as such (560). Garrett is more than aware of the developmental nature of all theology, including Baptist theology, so the temporal lateness of Dispensationalism should not be the only factor that necessarily identifies a theological movement as an "incursion." Indeed, according to the same logic, could not detractors identify Baptists' own primary principle of believers' baptism by immersion as an "incursion" into the greater Christian tradition? Again, could not the missiological focus of late eighteenth-century Baptists be identified as an "incursion" rather than a proper development from existing ground principles? While this reviewer might even agree with much of Garrett's theological critique of traditional Dispensationalism, orthodox Dispensationalist theology does not seem to deserve the proffered appellation, especially considering the unseemly company of clearly heterodox movements such as Modernism, Arianism, and Open Theism.
In spite of my rare questioning of Garrett's method and content, the reader should be in little doubt that this reviewer considers Garrett's Baptist Theology to be the most important work available on a subject that needs renewed consideration, especially by its own adherents: Baptist theology. As Garrett notes in his conclusion, while the Calvinist-Arminian debate, the Liberal-Conservative debate, and the reaffirmation of Christian and Reformation orthodoxy are necessary considerations, perhaps the most critical issue at the beginning of Baptists' fifth century of existence is the "state of comparative neglect or assumed irrelevance" into which Baptist distinctives have fallen among many Baptists. "Today's question may be whether Baptists hold to and clearly affirm and practice their distinctives" (725–26). Thus, with characteristic subtlety and grace, James Leo Garrett, Jr. has prophetically framed the contemporary question from the perspective of a grand historico-theological narrative. May Baptists answer that question and its prior question, "What does the Lord Jesus require of His New Testament churches?" as well in the future as our illustrious ancestors have in the past.
Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary