(This chapel message was preached by Dr. Yarnell after the passing of distinguished SWBTS professor Dr. Garrett.)
Our key texts today are found in Matthew 5 and 11.
Among the first beatitudes of his inaugural sermon, Jesus said, “Blessed are the gentle [hoi praeis], for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Later, after praying to the Father who gave him all things, Jesus invited the disciples, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle [praüs eimi] and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (11:28-29). Praüs eimi: I am gentle.
The Greek adjective praüs may be translated as “gentle,” “humble,” “considerate,” or “meek” (NIDNTTE, 4:123). Canonically, Jesus is the promised Christ of Zechariah 9:9, who would be characterized by gentleness (cf. Matt 21:4-5). Ontologically, therefore, gentleness is a Messianic attribute. Recognizing this, in 2 Corinthians 10:1, Paul noted that because “gentleness” (praütetos) characterized Jesus, gentleness must also characterize his people.
Note these two truths held in tension: On the one hand, it is only through the Spirit’s grace of our God-ordained union with Christ that Christians, “little Christs,” receive the required Messianic attribute of gentleness. On the other hand, sincere Christians absolutely must exhibit Christ’s virtuous attribute of gentleness.
Alas, to the contrary, among the ancient pagans, gentleness was considered not to be a virtuous strength but a despicable weakness. And today, gentleness and humility are, to our great scandal, sometimes explicitly despised, among some calling themselves “Christian.” But against the heathen spite toward being gentle, the Apostle Paul, like our Lord Jesus, treated being gentle as both right and necessary.
First, in Colossians 3:12 Paul listed “gentleness” (praütes) as a sign of election to salvation. Second, in Ephesians 4:1-2 he spoke of gentleness as a virtue displayed by those who received the saving call. Third, in Galatians 5:23, Paul argued Christians should manifest “the fruit of the Spirit,” which include gentleness. Fourth, in Titus 3:2, Paul commanded Christians to “always show gentleness to all people.”
Moisés Silva opines, therefore, that gentleness is “the rule for the way in which Christians and non-Christians should live together” (ibid., 125). Let us mourn that gentleness is becoming a forgotten, even despised, rule of life.
The greatest theological educator I have ever known modeled how one gains peace through gentle submission to the yoke of the Gentle One, Jesus. James Leo Garrett Jr. learned the virtue of gentleness from Jesus, who is Gentleness Personified. And I learned to treasure gentleness through the exemplary theology and ethics of Dr. Garrett. As of last Wednesday, he now enjoys the rest of his soul even as he awaits the resurrection of his body when he will participate in our Lord’s coming inheritance of the earth.
During his earthly career, theologians across the spectrum honored Garrett as first among equals with titles like “Last of the Great Gentlemen Theologians,” “Dean of Southern Baptist Theologians,” and “The Most Knowledgeable Baptist Theologian.” Dr. Garrett blushed at such accolades, for he was genuinely self-effacing. But you need read only one of his two greatest works before realizing no other contemporary Baptist systematic theologian has yet risen to his level of authorial achievement. And when you consult his entire corpus, you discover it may well be a long time before anybody will. Who was this man? And, for us today, what was his view of revelation? How can his gentle theology help us now?
A. Who Was Leo Garrett?
The son of a Baylor University professor and of a mother named for a Baptist missionary, Garrett was born again by faith at the age of nine and baptized into the church of B.H. Carroll, the founder of Southwestern Seminary. Disappointed after the military twice rejected his voluntary service (due to extreme myopia), he entered college instead, ultimately sensing God’s call to pastoral ministry. He married his soul mate, Myrta Ann, a fellow Southwestern student, in 1948, who herself became a highly respected Roberts librarian.
Between leading three churches, he earned bachelor’s degrees at Baylor and Southwestern, a master’s degree at Princeton, and two doctorates, through Southwestern and Harvard. His formal academic career spanned some 50 years, including tenures at Southern Seminary and Baylor University, alongside 28 years at Southwestern Seminary alone, interspersed with stints in Oxford and Hong Kong.
He was deeply influenced by Southwestern’s first great systematic theologian, Walter Thomas Conner, upon whose theology he wrote his first dissertation. Garrett once said, “The Lord and W.T. Conner called me to teach theology” (Garrett, “Baptist Identity and Christian Unity,” 54).
During the administration of Russell Dilday, when over 5,000 students were enrolled at Southwestern Seminary in one year alone, 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 that I might hear every word. But only the hardy enrolled in Garrett’s classes. Known affectionately as “Machine-Gun Garrett” for his rapid-fire lecture style, graduating students proudly wore t-shirts emblazoned with “I Survived Theo with Leo.” Thousands of pastors, missionaries, professors, and other ministers filed through his classrooms, and many of those found their way into his office and his home for personal encounters.
Beyond the classroom, he continues to teach through his writings. His magna opera include his precisely detailed two-volume Systematic Theology and his exhaustive Baptist Theology. His thoughtful methods garnered lasting respect even as he significantly reoriented classical debates over doctrines like sanctification or election.
In his systematic method, Garrett began with a review of the biblical literature, moved to a summary of historical responses, and only then proposed a system. What shocks many readers is that, in his conclusions, he may appear only to review the options. This is because, except in the essentials, he avoided strong statements. As a gentleman, Garrett’s own persuasions are discerned clearly in the indicative or implied through the interrogative but never through the pejorative nor the pugilistic.
He also demonstrated a gentle reverence for the biblical text. He actually listened carefully to its contents, consulting as many other believers as possible, before daring to formulate what he believed was biblical. Such gentle exegesis contradicts the all-too-common practice of running forward with a doctrine, assuming it is “biblical” just because one read a text loosely or, worse, because one received uncritically the dogma of a popular preacher.
Garrett’s gentle love for Baptist life manifests itself in his second magnum opus, wherein he rehearsed the history of Baptist ruminations, respecting the diverse breadth of our life, honoring our belief in the dependability of Scripture and concern for following Jesus, even while holding at bay various “incursions.” Garrett elsewhere either initiated or expanded the Southern Baptist participation in 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, about whose congregational implications we were co-authoring an essay before he died.
B. What Was Garrett’s View of Revelation?
Let us focus today upon Garrett’s doctrine of revelation. I want to rehearse the humble search for balance that Garrett pursued in his theology by showing how he navigated the difficulties faced by evangelicals and Baptists in the late Twentieth Century over revelation. (Stay with me. The mental effort will be worth it when is drawn together.)
1. Fruitful Conjunction: Garrett believed the locus of revelation should be considered in the “fruitful conjunction” of all its doctrines. Such teachings as biblical inspiration, the Canon, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, biblical criticism, biblical interpretation, the Word of God, the dependability of Scripture, and the question of authority “cannot be studied or expounded effectively in isolation” (Systematic Theology, 1:136). This requires a massive effort at carefully moving back and forth from one Bible-based doctrine to another as you progress toward orthodoxy while making sure each claim is grounded in Scripture itself.
2. General Revelation: Garrett believed the Trinity remains the gracious and unique source of all revelation of Godself. Like John Calvin and Emil Brunner, he concluded from Scripture that, although general revelation through nature and conscience is helpful, human attempts to construct a redemptive natural theology through it are ultimately fruitless. With Edward Luther Copeland, he concluded that non-Christian religions are “at best dim, flickering lamps with blackened globes” (72). Though helpful for corroborating faith, the various proofs for divine existence “do not absolutely and irrefutably prove” faith (104). As for worldviews, Garrett believed these human constructions “vary considerably in respect to their possible compatibility with the Christian revelation of God.” Human philosophies will continually be “debated and reassessed” (96).
3. Divine Self-Revelation: Garrett asserted that “God’s revelation has uniquely and supremely occurred in Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, Son of God, and Lord, and that this revelation has had a certain exclusive salvific character” (78). Special revelation happened historically in two phases, “to and through the people of Israel (Old Testament)” and “in and through Jesus Christ (New Testament)” (105). The Old Testament necessarily grounds the New, and the limits of the Old were overcome in Jesus Christ. Subtly correcting both neo-orthodoxy and fundamentalism, he surrendered neither the relational nature nor the propositional nature of revelation. After all, Jesus Christ is God’s revelation in person, and Jesus Christ teaches us through propositions (112-15). Reinforcing the Triune structure of divine self-revelation, Garrett affirmed, “Even the [believer’s] reception itself is due to the working of God, or, more explicitly, the working of the Holy Spirit” (117).
4. Biblical Inspiration: Revelation and inspiration are closely related. Inspiration is “God’s working through the biblical writers so as to secure an authentic declaration and record of the revelation” (122). Surveying the epistemological and soteriological implications of 2 Peter 1 and 2 Timothy 3, Garrett said that inspiration includes not just the process but also the product, citing Dilday to confirm the latter. After surveying the multitude of modern attempts to define a theory of inspiration, he noted, on the one hand, Conner’s conclusion that precision in extrabiblical adjectives is “not required” (134). However, this gentle bow toward his own professor did not keep him from asserting, “modern Christians cannot avoid the need to deal directly and responsibly with this topic.”
He also took a turn similar to David Dockery, who wrote one of the best conservative evangelical treatments of inspiration: “Even as in Christology, wherein extremes of emphasis on the divine to the neglect of the human or on the human to the neglect of the divine have led to heretical conclusions and serious theological conflict, so also extremes in respect to the divine and the human associated with the Bible need to be avoided. Neither a ‘docetism’ regarding the Bible nor a mere ‘humanitarianism’ as to the Bible can be adequate” (135-36). Here is a biblically grounded and historically aware balance unusual for its subtlety in the midst of many heated and often carnal conversations.
5. The Canon and the Unity of Scripture: Garrett summarized the basic development of the Canon of Scripture. His conclusion regarding the unity of Scripture is especially noteworthy. He argued that the Bible’s unity is grounded in Triune ontology and manifested in Triune economy. First, yes, “there is a diversity” in the biblical texts, but it occurs “amid an underlying unity.” Second, this unity is grounded in “the identity of the One who has been manifested under both covenants and in both testaments.” This One is always “Yahweh God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and “the Father.” This One is also “the man Jesus,” who is also “the incarnate Word and the eternal Son of God.” This One is likewise the “Spirit of God who empowers and indwells persons under both covenants and in both testaments.” The unity of the God of the canon correlates with the unity of the divine economy and the unity of the people of God, comprised of Israel and the church (151).
6. Biblical Criticism and Biblical Hermeneutics: Turning to developments surrounding the Historical-Critical Method, Garrett distinguishes between Textual Criticism, which he considered a “science,” and the other criticisms, deemed mere “studies.” The higher criticisms are marked by “the subjective factor” of its scholars. One of the best things Dr. Garrett did for me as a student was to point out that the conclusions of modernist commentaries, which yet dominate our libraries, must sometimes be “confirmed” and sometimes “invalidated.”
Correcting the dominant trends in biblical studies, Garrett said the academic mantra about “the assured results of biblical criticism” must be coupled with the words “the criticism of criticism.” He thus proceeded to undermine the overwrought ideas of Ferdinand Christian Baur, the JEDP hypothesis, and Rudolf Bultmann (161-63). Garrett also exposed the “alien presuppositions” behind the historical-critical method (170-71). Like Dockery, he fairly evaluated the various author-oriented, text-oriented, and reader-oriented hermeneutical philosophies, while lamenting the destructive results of postmodern deconstructionism (176-77).
7. The Bible Is the Truthful Word of God: Garrett worked through the biblical data regarding the concept of “the Word of God,” noting its three meanings as the preaching of the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ, and the Bible itself. Recognizing scholarly disagreements over the third meaning in John 10:35 and Hebrews 4:12, he nonetheless concluded, “the Bible is at the same time the Word of God and the words of human beings” (182).
While preferring the terms “dependability” and “truthfulness,” rather than “reliability” or “infallibility” or “inerrancy” to describe Scripture, he did not disapprove of the latter. He even began to use the last term in his subsequent discussion. All these terms are intended to teach that “the books of the Bible are able to be depended upon and are worthy of trust with respect to all that God intends in and through the Holy Scriptures. These terms mean at least that they are fully adequate and altogether sufficient ‘to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ’ (2 Tim 3:15b)” (183).
Garrett noted the common agreement among evangelicals regarding the first and second levels of inerrancy: the truthfulness of the original texts and the dependability of the doctrinal and moral teachings of the extant texts. Disagreement focused on the third level of inerrancy, the historical and scientific matters. He dismissed several weak responses to the controversy and opted for a careful harmonizing of difficult texts without “forced or dubious ‘solutions’” (192).
He concluded with three statements: First, it is important to affirm Scripture’s truthfulness. Second, even during Evangelicalism’s Twentieth-Century arguments over third-level inerrancy, no major doctrines were ever in doubt, except for the various views of inerrancy themselves. Third, those engaged in “theological controversy and warfare … stand under the mandate of Jesus Christ concerning love for and among his disciples (John 13:34-35)” (192).
8. Authority in Christianity: The final doctrine within Garrett’s locus of revelation concerned authority. Reminding us that dogmas develop within contexts, he rehearsed various understandings of authority from the New Testament forward. After the patristic “rule of faith,” he recalled the creeds of the early councils, the exalted claims of the medieval papacy, the Reformation recovery of sola scriptura, and modern challenges to sacred Scripture.
Isolating the more severe challenges, he opined, “For Christians, therefore, the controverted issue is not whether truth does indeed rest in and derive from God, but instead how and where this divine truth is faithfully and responsibly transmitted to humans, and especially to Christians” (204). There are three possible avenues for communicating divine truth: church tradition; the Scriptures; and “an immediate transference of truth with a self-authenticating principle of authority,” as in reason or experience (204-6).
In a long essay, written and published in the late 1990s, Garrett rehearsed the Baptist idea of authority in particular. He demonstrated at length how Baptists have always held a high view of Scripture, which has revolved around three major ideas: the primacy of Scripture among the sources of authority, known as suprema scriptura; the divine inspiration of the Bible; and, “the trustworthiness and reliability of the Bible” (Collected Writings, 1:248).
But he also noted, “Not only does the authority of the Bible for Baptists need to be exhibited in the Baptist confessions of faith [which he demonstrated they so did] and in the writings of Baptist theologians [which he also demonstrated], but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the piety and practice (i.e. living and activities) of the people called Baptist” (Collected Writings, 1:248). For Garrett, our mental abstractions of biblical authority are important, but so are our concrete moral responses to that authority.
He concluded his systematic treatment of biblical authority with five claims: First, the Bible derives its authority from God and is intended to reveal God. Second, the message of Scripture transcends every human culture. Third, the “sovereign God” does not enslave or coerce but redeems or liberates people through his revelation. Fourth, the Bible is only accurately interpreted “in its historical context and by the criterion of Jesus Christ,” who is “the central personage and theme of the Bible.” And fifth, “the Bible is authoritative as the Holy Spirit bestows illumination” (Systematic Theology, 1:208-9).
C. What Can We Garner from Garrett Today?
Please allow me to point out three helpful truths we might garner here and now from the gentle doctrine of revelation developed by James Leo Garrett Jr.
1. The Holy Spirit Illumines the Bible to the Church: Garrett properly emphasized the abiding Baptist conviction that the Holy Spirit who originally inspired the prophets and apostles to write the inspired texts of the Old and New Testaments is the same Holy Spirit who must now illumine our minds so that we may properly interpret the Bible. Citing the great evangelical hermeneutics scholar, Bernard Ramm, Garrett wrote, “the Protestant principle of authority is ‘the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures’” (209).
Because of the passion to maintain the objectivity and utter truthfulness of the biblical text, apologists go too far if they forget to balance their claims with the necessity of the Holy Spirit. When a Christian argues that human reason grounds the truthfulness of Scripture, he bypasses the Holy Spirit, forgetting Calvin’s beautiful description of the Spirit as the One who verifies the authority of God’s text. When a Christian argues the exegete need not prayerfully request the special grace of God’s Spirit to illumine the saving meaning of the biblical text, he sounds at best like Alexander Campbell, at worst like Pelagius. And when a Christian excoriates a gentle theologian for speaking of the need to hear from different perspectives within the church and demeans any who call for humility in listening to the interpretations of women and minority Christians, then he may want to recall that Paul taught not, “I have the mind of Christ,” “But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). The Spirit-inspired plural is not without significance.
2. The Unity of Scripture and the Triunity of God: While many evangelical Bible scholars decry the Historical-Critical Method, and rightly so, one nevertheless detects within scholarly Evangelicalism a tendency toward downplaying the unity of Scripture. This may have something to do with the divisions in the Evangelical academy. For instance, there have been numerous occasions in which I have been personally challenged for speaking of the God of the Old Testament in the same way I speak of the God of the New Testament.
On the one hand, I concede the objection. This is why I wrote my book, God the Trinity, in a way commensurate with Garrett’s claim that we must interpret Scripture “in its historical context,” that is, respecting contemporary historical methods of Bible study. We should not surreptitiously jump to a Christological reading of an Old Testament or New Testament text.
On the other hand, Garrett also taught that the one Canon must be interpreted “by the criterion of Jesus Christ,” who is the “central personage” of that Canon. Or, as the Baptist Faith and Message now states, Christ is “the focus of divine revelation.”
It is true that the Old Testament speaks of Yahweh and Elohim and does not relate these names directly to “the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” but the relations are revealed in the New Testament (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 8:6; etc.) Evangelical Baptist orthodoxy affirms the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament, and vice versa. Therefore, while we recognize progressive development in the Bible’s revelation of the fullness of God, continuity remains between the clearly explicit Trinity of the Apocalypse and the clearly implicit Trinity of Genesis.
3. On Biblical Dependability: Once, I asked my mentor, why did he not just come out with a full-throated affirmation rather than an oblique defense of the term, “biblical inerrancy,” especially in light of the maximal unity between what Garrett and at least two of his students, Dockery and Yarnell, were teaching. We both learned our love for Scripture in part from him.
Dr. Garrett stopped, looked at me, and said, “Malcolm, you have to understand. People used the term politically to inflict personal harm on people whom I love. These were my friends.” Then he wept. He wept for our brothers and sisters, who were unfairly treated, forced out, retirement benefits taken away, after years of sacrificial service for Southern Baptists at what Adrian Rogers himself considered the most dependably conservative seminary in the Southern Baptist Convention. James Leo Garrett Jr. absolutely believed the Bible was “truth without any mixture of error,” but he would not countenance the misuse of that precious doctrine.
Garrett’s gentle yet solid convictions about terms parallel some historical truths: The great defender of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria, was willing to compromise on the language of hypostasis, because he knew meaning takes precedence over naming. John Owen, that Puritan hammer of academic heresy, argued people may still be justified by faith even when disagreeing over the term “imputation.” Russell Bush and Thomas Nettles wrote that Baptists long held to the ideas behind biblical inerrancy avant la lettre. Paul Fiddes, Bill Brackney, and I disclosed in a recent book that Baptists embraced covenant ecclesiology at our foundations with or without the terminology. Any extrabiblical term, no matter how helpful for describing a reality, remains tertiary behind both meaning and morals. Some hold the meaning without a term; some deny the meaning while using a term; others betray the faith itself while shouting a term. Time tells all.
D. We Could Continue
We could continue our review of the gentle wisdom this Southern Baptist theologian displayed in his writings, in the classroom, in the church, and in the home. We could speak of how he smoothly balanced the divine attributes in a way that preserves divine simplicity, holds the attributes together well in the human mind, and pictures God’s holiness and righteousness and love in a powerful cruciform manner.
We could speak of how he honored all human beings as precious image-bearers, how he steadfastly advocated for African-Americans to have not only a place at the Southern Baptist table but also in Southern Baptist leadership. We could speak of how he defended Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to speak at Southern Seminary in 1962 or of his efforts to encourage an African-American professor at Southeastern Seminary in 2019. Garrett was awakened to the need for Southern Baptists to embrace the dignity of our minority brothers and sisters in Christ well before being “woke” was cool and Critical Race Theory was not.
We could speak of how he simultaneously advocated our Baptist and Free Church identity, holding the line against open communion, even while he opened the door to ecumenism. He wanted to converse with all who named Jesus as Lord, even when they took different ecclesial forms. He reminded us that Jesus prayed fervently for Christian unity in John 17—Love toward other Christian churches is not a human option but a divine mandate for Baptists.
We could speak of how he humbly listened to a woman theologian as she taught him to share his faith with a Jewish friend he had known since he was a child. And then, praise the Lord, Garrett led that man to faith in Christ, as revealed at his friend’s Reformed Jewish funeral. You heard me correctly: A woman taught our greatest theologian to witness in a contextual way, and somebody was saved as a result. He understood the priesthood of all believers applied to women as well as to men, the young as well as the old, the formerly free as well as the formerly enslaved.
We could speak of his consistent and tireless advocacy for liberty of conscience, for religious freedom. We could speak of his tears when Southern Baptist fellowship with the Baptist World Alliance was broken. We could speak… We could speak even more about this true gentleman theologian, but time for class is soon, and Dr. Garrett was always on time, books in arm, a bevy of writing instruments in his shirt pocket, lectures in his mind, a gentle smile on his lips, and love in his heart.
Was Dr. Garrett perfect? No. Good and gentle? Yes. Why? Because he had a manifestly genuine and lifelong union of heart and mind with the source of all gentleness, Jesus Christ.
May we all be united truly with Jesus, the one who is “gentle and humble of heart.” Perhaps we can do so through the witness of James Leo Garrett Jr., the gentleman theologian.
“Blessed are the gentle.”
Malcolm Beryl Yarnell III
Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Teaching Pastor, Lakeside Baptist Church of Granbury
Student of James Leo Garrett Jr., 1989-1991; Colleague, 2000-2020
Chapel Service, February 11, 2020 (SWBTS)