Reflections on Theology with Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr.

I conducted this interview with Dr. Garrett sometime in 2001 or 2002.  I previously had located and offered here just the last few questions and answers, but am happy to be able to provide the full interview now.

“James Leo Garrett, Jr. is Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He holds a B.A. from Baylor University (1945), a B.D. from Southwestern Baptist Seminary (1948), a Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1949), a Th.D. from Southwestern Baptist Seminary (1954), and a Ph.D. from Harvard University (1966). He has also studied at the Catholic University of America, the University of Oxford, St. John’s University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has taught at both Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was a visiting professor at the Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary. He has also lectured in Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Romania, the Ukraine, and at numerous U.S. schools.

He has been author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of a dozen books, including Baptist Church Discipline (Broadman Press, 1962), Baptists and Roman Catholicism (Broadman Press, 1965), and We Baptists (Providence House, 1999). He has also contributed articles to twenty-one other books and has published hundreds of journal and encyclopedia articles and book reviews.

He has been a pastor or interim pastor at a number of Baptist churches. Among other activities, he has also served as the chairman of the Commission on Cooperative Christianity of the Baptist World Alliance, was an official guest at the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity during Vatican Council II, was secretary of the Commission on Human Rights of the Baptist World Alliance, is a former managing editor of the Southwestern Journal of Theology, and is a former editor of the Journal of Church and State. He is currently co-chairman of the Division of Study and Research of the Baptist World Alliance.

Professor Garrett has three sons and lives with his wife, Myrta Ann, in Fort Worth.” (biographical information from his D.F. Scott Author’s Page)

Reflections on Theology – An Interview With Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr.

Conducted by Wyman Richardson
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas

Dr. Garret, many people feel that modern American Christians are by and large disinterested in theological pursuits. Do you feel that this is an accurate assessment?

No, I wouldn’t say there is a deep disinterest. I would say that their interests are focused on issues that are important to them. For example, where did humans come from? Are we creations of God or are we the product of millions of years of evolutionary development? Is there meaningful life after death? Questions like that don’t go away, and Christians and others are interested in those questions. How can I be right with God? What does God do in relation to me and my family? How does faith and God’s will relate to my family and its problems?

These, I think, are there, although certainly there is not necessarily an interest in certain technical theological questions that maybe leadership is interested in – laity may not be. But, interested in religious and moral ultimates? Yes. I think it’s still there if you get down to people’s levels.

Can we honestly and realistically expect the modern, busy, American Christian to care about deeper theological issues? Is that a realistic goal?

I think it is if we can present those issues and keep those issues in the most practical format. The issues need to be seen as vital to life and not simply speculation and they need to show the meaning of the truth in relation to life and practice – individual’s lives, the church’s life and so on. So I think a lot of it depends on how we handle these issues. We don’t need to major on minors. We need to major on majors.

Well, by and large, I get the feeling that that is the view of theology that a lot of people have – that it’s something impractical and that it doesn’t pertain to modern life so much. Is anybody to blame for this perception that many people have or is there something we can point to as being responsible for creating that climate around theology?

Well, maybe some theological issues in the past have been taken out of proportion as to their real importance and maybe we have spent too much time on things that are not vital and, too, there’s a kind of anti-supernatural bias in our culture. There’s a secularism and a humanism there that doesn’t want to talk about God. So, you have the cultural influence that is very strong in Europe and North America but not so strong in the rest of the world – in Asia and Africa and Latin America.

Theology used to be considered “the Queen of Sciences,” but one cannot help but sense that it no longer enjoys this status among either the academic or lay communities. Do you agree with this and why do you think this is or is not the case?

Well, I’m not sure that theology has been “the Queen of the Sciences” since the Middle Ages or since the Reformation, if you mean by that the most important academic discipline. And that would not be true, obviously, in the American university or the European university today.

Now, does it have a place in the church’s life? Yes. I think the church sees the importance of theology. But in the academic community, especially the publicly funded universities and the public schools, you have a separation of the religious and, therefore, a downplaying of that in the public scene. So the place of theology is different, even, say, from German and English universities and American universities. In German and English universities you have theological faculties in a way that you don’t here. And, on the other hand, we have here a system of church-state separation that has mandated that churches do their own theology and provide for it and not depend on the university.

Well, I guess what lies behind that question – and I guess I may be wrong in my understanding of this – but were not most of our ivy league schools founded originally as seminaries?

Well, they provided training for ministers but they were never solely for that purpose. The Harvard, Yale, Princeton origins are in the training of ministers, that’s to be sure. And training for ministers was a part of that college life. But from the beginning there were always people trained for other vocations, so, in that sense, it would not be a seminary strictly speaking, but it would be a college environment in which training for ministry took place. And in each of those colleges, which became universities, they developed ultimately a divinity school or a seminary, but that was a later development. That came in the 19th century for the most part, not in the time of the origin of the college.

Is it fair to say that 100-120 years ago, though, the study of theology may have had more of a respect surrounding it by those outside of the field than it does today? Has it been relegated to a kind of ghetto in the university?

Well, let’s keep in mind that in the public universities, many of them have departments of religious studies today. You might take the University of Virginia, the University of Iowa, and schools like that, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They all have even doctoral programs in religious studies, but they are interreligious and ecumenical. They do not represent a viewpoint, and, in those settings, it is possible to do religious studies. So it’s not completely out of the university curriculum, but it does not have a dominant role in any of those places. And in certain private universities you also have religious studies departments, as in Rice University, for example. And so those departments of religious studies do exist, but many times you have, in those settings, you’ll have Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists all teaching in the same setting.

In a variety of different ways, I often hear people say that preachers should be less theological in their preaching and more practical. What do you make of this distinction between theology and practice and how would you respond to this idea? Where do you think this distinction comes from?

Well, I think it is possible to talk about preaching that’s more theological and more practical, but if we take our cue from the Apostle Paul in writing his letters, the doctrinal comes first usually and the practical flows out of it, or the ethical and the practical. They go together. Paul seldom does one without the other. So I think that is a clue. You can say that strong preaching, good preaching, balanced preaching has doctrinal elements in it and has moral and practical elements as well. The overall preaching ministry of the church should reflect that.

Now, it’s possible to have a kind of preaching that is very shallow theologically, and I think that would be the problem. To play down theological truth in the interest of finding some kind of non-theological church message – I think when you do that you’re in trouble. At the same time, the truths need to be related to life, and theological preaching or doctrinal preaching, needs always to have a practical side with it. How does this truth effect your life? What are the practical implications of it? When that approach is made, then I think that there is not such a hiatus between the so-called theological and the so-called practical. Good theology will be good for the church and not simply for the academic community.

How would you respond to the preacher that comes to you and says that his people are concerned about how to raise their kids well, how not to lust, how not to cheat on their taxes, these kinds of things. How are people going to find the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, applicable in those circumstances?

Well, I’m not sure that the doctrine of the Trinity is the first doctrine that they need there. It might be the doctrine of sin that needs to be emphasized or the doctrine of forgiveness. But I think it’s very important to relate truth to the issues and practices of today. I think that moral issues have to come out of some kind of worldview, some kind of faith presupposition. If your ethics are theological based, then you can have the proper wedding of the theological and the practical, the theological and the ethical.

Perhaps in many cases churches do not address, for example, family life issues enough in the past. Even taking Ephesians 5 and Paul’s view of relations between a husband and wife, for example, and Christ and the church. Perhaps we’ve underplayed that in a lot of ways and haven’t helped people see the connection. I think some of the problem is the way we’ve handled it, not the fact that the theological has no relation to the problems of the day.

Many people in the church feel that theology is largely synonymous with doctrinal controversy. When they hear the word “theology” they think of a group of men sitting around fighting about issues. Is this sentiment understandable? Is it accurate? How would you respond to this idea?

Well, I think it’s particularly true in the Southern Baptist context today because we have been through two decades of theological and doctrinal controversy. Younger people today do not even remember a time when it was different and therefore the situation we have faced does lend itself to the accusation that theology seems to be a matter of controversy. And, of course, it’s always been that way in a measure. There’s always been a need to state the Christian position over against the non-Christian, whether it be non-Christian philosophy or non-Christian religions or whether it be heresies that sort of invade the church or are on the margins of the church. There’s always been that polemical need to highlight truth over against what Christians regard as error. But sometimes controversy has overplayed itself.

This was true, for example, among Lutherans in the 17th century and that’s how Pietism grew. Pietism arose as a protest against a kind of dead orthodoxy where they were more concerned about some issues that weren’t so practical. Therefore, if you look at the history of Christianity, there’s always been the need to define error and truth, to separate and distinguish, but there’s also a need for the positive side, the teaching, the affirmation side. Perhaps that’s where we’ve been lacking in these recent years. We’ve said, “Well, this is something preachers are discussing and pastors are talking about. It doesn’t affect me. I’m a layman.” The truth is, we’ve spent far less time than we should making Christian truth applicable to the workman in the pew who’s in the workplace and needs our help.

Is it fair to say that in today’s world the average Christian would be more likely to have a reaction against public controversies in theology in the direction of agnosticism on these questions. For instance, I hear people who seem to be saying, “Nobody really knows what we think about these things otherwise we wouldn’t be always fighting about them.”

Yes, that’s possible just to dismiss the whole thing. I find that among younger pastors in our convention there is a tendency to want to throw this whole controversy in the background and say, “We’re going to do our ministry [and not worry about the controversy.]” And that’s a reaction against some of the bitterness and controversy, but unfortunately it can be a kind of neglect of teaching truth if we don’t watch it.

Are there any examples in Christian history of revivals of interest in theology among lay people?

Well, that may be a hard question to answer. Back in the early 4th century, at the time of the Arian controversy, we’re told that in Alexandria, Egypt, Arius put some of his views into little songs, little popular jingles as we would say today. People on the street would sing these. Even later, in Constantinople, in a controversy, people would be talking on the streets or singing songs.

I just mentioned Pietism a minute ago. Pietism arose out of German Lutheranism and to a certain extent out of Dutch Reformed life. That was a protest against an overemphasis on a wooden theology, but it sparked a new life for the laity that centered around small groups and Bible study and prayer. So you had a kind of practical lay revival going on that was a kind of protest against the theology of the day. It was in a sense a new theological movement and the laity were greatly affected by some of this.

Yes, there have been times, but at times it is hard to delineate some of those because, you know, in the writing of history sometimes it’s the layman who gets left out of the story. We write from the leadership viewpoint, not from the laity viewpoint.

I’d like to ask you to generalize about something here. As you look at the church and as you come into contact with students and churches, do you think there’s any possibility of something like a revival of lay interest in today?

I think it’s spotted. I think that here and there you do have examples of that. You have churches here and there that provide extended opportunities for study, small groups, discipleship groups, lay training groups, optional features in the life of the church that people can take advantage of. I think where you see that being provided there’s been a good response.

Now, that’s not very widespread, of course. In some of our new and innovative churches we have the problem of training the new converts that we have and we’re not always doing the most complete job. It’s always a challenge, is it not? I think it’s very difficult without some extensive questionnaire to assess where churches are on that. If you know of certain ones here and there you tend to generalize, but then there are other ones where not very much is being done. So it’s hard to say.

The Baptist Faith and Message is perhaps the one work of theology that the Baptist layperson is most likely to read. To what extent do you think, in light of the recent controversy, that that work is providing a sense of theological consensus among Baptists today?

Well, first of all, let’s talk about the reading. I would say that the new Baptist Faith and Message statement of the year 2000 as adopted in Orlando does provide a document that is short enough for church members to read. It’s not a long document. It’s something that can be read and read with some understanding. I think that churches ought to encourage people to read that document. I think that is definitely true.

Now, does it provide a sense of theological consensus? Well, first of all, it’s much too early to answer that about the 2000 document. Let me go back and answer that in regard to 1925 and 1963. The 1925 statement of Baptist Faith and Message was written and adopted at a time when evolution was a big issue in Baptist life, in our Baptist colleges and universities, and in our convention, and in our churches. And much of the discussion in that day was over creation versus evolution. Of course, there are many other articles in there, and it is very interesting that that document was kind of a rewriting of the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, which had been widely used in the South, which is a kind of moderate Calvinistic statement without getting involved in the Landmark positions and all of that. And so what the 1925 committee did, which was made up of leaders, including Dr. Mullins and Dr. Scarborough, was to simply overhaul the New Hampshire Confession and to add a number of articles dealing with things of importance in the twenties, including such things as religious liberty and war and peace. They were remembering the First World War when they wrote that.

Now, in 1963, the Baptist Faith and Message statement was created in response to the Elliott Controversy which, again, took Baptists back to the book of Genesis and was not a matter of biological evolution, but a matter of how we understand the early chapters of Genesis, whether a more historic approach or a more symbolic approach. And so the 63 document, which was composed, incidentally, by a committee of all the state convention presidents in that day (a very representative group, because everybody on that committee had been elected in his home state to a leadership role), overhauled the 1925 [statement], keeping the base of the New Hampshire, going back and picking up some of the Philadelphia Confession, and also doing some new writing of their own.

So I think you can say that, overall, both in 1925 and 1963, the resultant statement did, to a large extent, reflect the beliefs of Southern Baptists. There was some problem in 25 about how they were going to deal with an interpretative amendment to the document about creation and evolution, but, by and large, the document reflected the beliefs of the day. So I think you could argue, historically, that in 1925 and 1963, those documents, as adopted, did represent the broad spectrum of Southern Baptist beliefs. Now, they were not as specific in some areas as people might have wanted them to be, because one of the things that Baptist confessions had tried to do in the past was to provide a consensus among the beliefs of those who were making the confession. In other words, that it would reflect whatever they could together affirm. So built into that process was a sort of desire to arrive at consensus, and not to try to pronounce on questions where there was division within the Convention or within the local church. In other words, if you were divided on something, usually you didn’t put that division into your Faith and Message statements, your confession.

Now, what we have in 2000 are some issues where, in the Convention, there is a large measure of disagreement, and although the vote in Orlando was in favor of the document, those Southern Baptists have been highly critical of the document. And so it remains to be seen whether this statement will be as reflective of a consensus in 2000 in a way that was true in 25 and 63.

Well, then, it kind of sounds like in our history as Baptists, controversies have not only resulted in dividing us, but many times they have resulted in bringing us closer together and forcing us to draft these common understanding documents.

Yes. You know Baptists had a dual origin, even though General Baptists are a more Arminian group and Particular Baptists are a more Calvinist group. So there has never been a complete consensus, in a way, among Baptists. There have always been some differences. But it’s very interesting that over the centuries in England those two groups coalesced, so by the nineteenth century most all of them were in the Baptist Union. And so there are some tendencies for divisive issues in one period to cease to be divisive issues in another, but maybe another set of issues arises that are completely different.

So it’s too early to see where we’re going on this. And, of course, another question is how the new confession, the new Baptist Faith and Message statement, will be used, how it will be applied. That may be as big a question as what’s said in the document.

What would you say to the church that says, “We’re tired of the controversy surrounding theBaptist Faith and Message. We are going to draft our own confession of faith.”

Well, every Baptist church has the right to adopt its own confession of faith. That has always been true. Now, some churches have borrowed a text that others have already written and adopted it. Some have modified it. Some have started over. But each congregation has that prerogative and it may be that in some cases churches will want to write a briefer, maybe in some cases a less controversial statement, and, in other areas, a more definitive statement. But it would reflect the agreements that local church would have. If a church adopts a confession, it ought to represent the united convictions of the people, otherwise it becomes a tool of division.

A Catholic friend once commented to me in the middle of a discussion, “You Baptists are always talking about theology.” Do you think that we, as a denomination, are more or less focused on theology than other groups or denominations?

Well, number one, in answering that question, if I may be particular about Southern Baptists, we tend to be more concerned with theological matters, or talking theology, than would be true in the mainline Protestant denominations: Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, the United Church of Christ, etc. In the mainline churches there is definitely less interest in theology, I think, and talking about it. They would be more interested in moral issues. If you follow what’s happening in those denominations today, when they have their national meetings the big issues are abortion and homosexuality. They’re not the Trinity and the Bible, falling from grace or perseverance. Those are not the number one issues. The moral issues are what divide. And so, as far as basic theological questions, I would say yes. Baptists tend to talk more theology than others.

But now, when you compare us with Roman Catholic churches, I’m not sure that you can make that statement. I think many Catholics are very capable of and do engage in theological discussions. Sometimes it gets into practical Maryology, those areas. Sometimes it, again, bleeds over into ethical issues. They have some very strong feelings about contraception and some of those things. But I’m not sure you can say that Baptists as a whole talk more theological than Catholics do. It depends on the sampling you take.

When Baptists talk theology, they tend to talk salvation and the Christian life. How do you get saved? What does it mean to be a Christian? They tend to focus their talk about issues. They tend to veer away from some of the more transcendent aspects of theology and focus on how to become a Christian. In other words, for us, talking theology always involves the plan of salvation. How do you become a Christian? For us, that’s talking theology, and sometimes we don’t get much beyond that in our talking.

One semi-personal question. You can refrain from answering me if you like. You have been a professor of theology for how many years?

Well, here and elsewhere, fifty years, all told.

Fifty years. So you’ve probably seen a lot of things come and go. Is it possible for you to make any sort of statement about the overall climate of theology right now, in the year 2000, in the Southern Baptist Convention, the direction we’re going, and how we’re doing?

Well, theology is perhaps seen as more important today than in some periods of the past. If you compare today with the 60s, the 1960s, I would say that in Baptist life theology is seen as more important today. In the 60s we were dealing with the race issue, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and many of these things claimed our attention. Many of these things were not seen as immediate theological issues.

Now, having said that, I’ll go on to say that the climate of doing theology today is one in which there needs to be a proper balance between responsibility and freedom. There has to be academic accountability for those that teach, but there also needs to be enough freedom so that people can function without fear, without fear of losing their jobs, without a sense of insecurity, because people do not do their best work always beneath the threat of insecurity. So we need to seek for the balance there. True, people need to be accountable and they need to be responsible if they are working in a confessional context, but there needs to be more grace and more love and more patience as we deal with individual situations.

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  1. Pingback: The Collected Writings of James Leo Garrett, Jr., 1950-2015: An Announcement | Walking Together Ministries

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