The appearance of Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study is a welcome occasion not only because it presents us with the seasoned offerings of arguably the greatest living Baptist historical theologian, but also because it appears at a time in Baptist history when myopic tangents and agendas seem increasingly to dominate our particular ecclesial landscape from various idiosyncratic corners. That is to say, voices like Dr. Garrett’s are needed in our day of confusion and denominational flux in which the very question of “What is a Baptist?” seems to be more unresolved than resolved.
This is not to suggest that Garrett has presented an argument in this work, or that he is pushing a point. Rather, he is telling a story, and he is wearing the cloak of the objective historical theologian in doing so. But he tells the story in such a balanced way, and with such painstaking documentation, that it cannot help but shed light on the various and sundry conversations and skirmishes one encounters here and there about what it means to be a Baptist Christian.
We need to hear the story again, particularly the story of the theological convictions of the people called “Baptists.” We need, in other words, this book.
It is, perhaps, an odd thing to say about a work of historical theology, but let me simply say that for this reader, this book was, strangely enough, an occasion for deep introspection about what it means to be Baptist Christian. The story Garrett tells creates context and context brings perspective. In this sense, the almost overwhelming amount of data presented in the book is fascinating not only for the events that it chronicles, but also for how these events might help us to see our own place in the Baptist story more clearly today.
It is not a perfect book. Readers will invariably find some sections more interesting than others, but I daresay that Dr. Garrett has achieved a measure of objectivity and clarity in this work that render none of the sections unprofitable for the reader.
To be sure, there are quibbles. Dr. Garrett is famously fond of footnotes (e.g., Paul F.M. Zahl rather fascinatingly chided Dr. Garrett with, “There are just too many footnotes,” in his response to Garrett’s essay in Perspectives on Church Government [Broadman & Holman, 2004, p.207]). Of course, a work like this is necessarily going to be well-documented, but there were sentences in which it seemed almost overly so. At the risk of self-contradiction, let me add that the footnotes were simultaneously one of the more fascinating aspects of this work. The reader will find here a massive bibliography of Baptist sources that will inevitably aid him in his own study.
And I do so wish that the book contained a “Subject Index” and not only an “Index of Persons.” I found myself time and again wanting to trace the Baptist approaches to this or that particular issue, and, in this respect, such an index would have been very helpful. I do suspect the “Subject Index” would have made this already pricey book even more expensive and this already heavy volume even more physically ponderous, but it would have been helpful nonetheless. But these are trifles, really, and the latter may have more to do with Mercer University Press than Dr. Garrett.
In truth, what Dr. Garrett has given us here is a treasure trove of well-documented, carefully structured, and clearly presented snapshots of Baptist life which, when put together, made this reader thankful, once again, to be a Baptist. Simultaneously, I was challenged to avoid the unfortunately all-too-prevalent pitfalls into which too many in our story have fallen over the years.
I daresay every pastor should own this book and read it. Furthermore, interested laypeople, and those who are not but should be, ought to be encouraged to consider immersing themselves in the four hundred year old story of Baptist theology that is capably told by Dr. James Leo Garrett, Jr. in ways that will challenge and inspire any who take up this profound work.