In 2014, Thomas J. Nettles retired as professor of historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he had taught since 1997. Dr. Nettles' theological instruction spanned a full 38 years in the classroom of various theological institutions including Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Nettles is considered by many to be one of the foremost Baptist historians alive today.
Beginning early in the 1980s, two of his books, one of which was co-authored by the late L. Russ Bush, ranked a special shelf life close to my study desk. Bush, L. Russ, and Tom J. Nettles. Baptists and the Bible: The Baptist Doctrines of Biblical Inspiration and Religious Authority in Historical Perspective. Moody Publishers, 1980. Nettles, Thomas J. By His Grace and for His Glory: A Historical, Theological, and Practical Study of the Doctrines Of Grace in Baptist Life. Baker, 1986.
The first volume became the Conservative Resurgence's first theological textbook used in recovering Southern Baptists' lost notion of biblical inerrancy, while the second volume would be used beyond the goal Conservative Resurgence architects envisioned by attempting to recover what Nettles believed was the lost notion of theological Calvinism. As I recall, Nettles (and a few others) understood that biblical inerrancy was only the first phase of what needed to take place in the convention. Phase two of the Conservative Resurgence would be a recovery of the historic doctrines of grace as preached and believed by the most prominent founders of the Southern Baptist Convention--James P. Boyce, J. L. Dagg, and W. B. Johnson to name a few. In short, the Conservative Resurgence which focused on recovering biblical inerrancy would neither work nor be complete or successful without a Calvinist Resurgence which would focus on recovering the doctrines of grace (i.e. five-point Calvinism).1
At that time, I embraced with hardly a question the theological presumptions and consequent moorings of both volumes. The first church I was privileged to serve as pastor was a Founders-friendly church, a delightful church and one from which I gained life-long Christian friends to this day (those who know me now know that while I still stand without apology on biblical inerrancy, I no longer share the theological moorings of strict, systematic Calvinism).
I offer this snapshot of my earlier life as a young Southern Baptist pastor simply to state I am no stranger to Tom Nettles. Like thousands of other Southern Baptists, we count him one of our teachers though we've never stepped one foot into his lecture hall. Rather we know him only through the printed page similar to the way the present Baptist generation knows either Boyce, Dagg, Mullins, or Manly. Thus, Dr. Nettles deserves to be honored for his biblical-theological scholarship, his ceaseless inquiry into Baptist history, and his undeniable passion for our rich heritage.
Below is an interview with Tom Nettles by Founders Ministries' Executive Director, Tom Ascol. Dr. Ascol serves as Senior Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida , and, along with Nettles, is one of seven original members of the Founders Conference movement beginning in 1982.
In the interview, Nettles comments upon the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845; the decline of the convention he believes begins around 1919 or so; and today's "young, restless, and reformed" community (what some call neo-Calvinists).
It's no secret I'm personally unconvinced by Nettles' historiography which, in my view, appears to be unacceptably reductionistic; that is, I don't think Dr. Nettles' conclusions adequately address an enormous amount of historical data which seems to dilute his over-all thesis that Southern Baptists held almost universally both a robust confessionalism and a strongly Calvinistic theology up until circa 1919.
Please know I do not consider myself to be in the same scholarly category as Dr. Nettles. Indeed few Southern Baptists are (or any other Christians for that matter). Nettles' scholarly reputation and impressive credentials remain beyond dispute. But two replies are in order.
First, I or anyone else with an inquiring mind can examine the very same primary sources Dr. Nettles can (so far as our Southern Baptist heritage is concerned). Primary and early secondary sources for Baptist history are abundantly available in libraries everywhere and even online. While one must have sufficient judicial skills to deduce reasonable inferences from the historical record, one needs only the will and directed passion to uncover a chest full of historic treasures lying around in the Baptist closet.
Second, as free church believers, Baptists cannot afford to leave either their theology or their history to the "professionals." Arguably, a significant slice of the very occasion leading to the need for a Conservative Resurgence in 1979 was the abject absence of grassroots Baptists in the academic life of the Southern Baptist Convention. This, of course, does not imply we minimize the academic role of scholarship in the development of our faith's community conscience. Rather it's to affirm that neither should we minimize the biblical role of the priesthood of the believer in the development of our faith community.
Thus, in the weeks to come I hope to ask a few questions I think Nettles' brief historical overview raises as well as cite some sources in which he appears to inadequately address.
If you're historically interested in Calvinism's influence in the Southern Baptist Convention, it doesn't get any better than Tom Nettles--at least from the Calvinists themselves.
I hope you'll take the time to watch and/or listen to the interview below.
1Given this presupposition, it makes perfect sense why Albert Mohler would make the following claim in Christianity Today: 'Non-Calvinist conservatives, Mohler says, "are not aware of the basic structures of thought, rightly described as Reformed, that are necessary to protect the very gospel they insist is to be eagerly shared."' In other words, absent the intellectual protection that apparently only Reformed theology might offer, the gospel cannot stand. It follows inerrancy is moot apart from Reformed theology.