Today we begin a week-long series of posts in honor of Dr. Thomas J. Nettles, to mark his retirement this month from The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY. We encourage you to visit each day to see the biographical sketches, book review, and personal tributes that we will feature to acquaint you better with him and his faithful and fruitful ministry.
I love my friends. Each is a good gift from God, and I thank him for them all. But it’s the case with all of us that there are some friends in particular who have for whatever reason secured a special place in our hearts. For me, one of those friends is Tom Nettles. I cannot say we have been close friends, but I have known him for nearly 20 years. We first met at a conference in Canada where we both were speaking, and we have maintained occasional contact since. Speaking in a conference with him again late last year I was reminded what a strikingly gifted man he is. He has an encyclopedic mind, and he is as warmly passionate as he is articulate. Theological conversation with him is always a treat. And who wouldn’t enjoy his many sudden outbursts in song with that very pleasant tenor voice? And anyone who has ever been treated to Tom’s extended recitation of “Trouble in River City” from The Music Man will remember him with a smile every time.
But from our first meeting I loved him. I appreciated his grasp and ministry of the Word, I appreciated his time with me and my family, I appreciated his good humor, I appreciated his evident zeal for Christ, and he immediately became a treasured friend for whom I continue to have great affection. And beyond the personal affection I am grateful for the important ministry and strategic influence God has given him over the years. He has been faithful, and God has used him effectively.
Since 1997 Tom has been teaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, where God has used him to influence many students to think biblically about the ministries they pursue. He now has announced his retirement, and this month he finishes up his years of full time work in Christian academia – a deep loss for SBTS but we trust a new chapter of blessed ministry for Tom.
Here at Books At a Glance we regularly pay attention to significant authors, and given Tom’s retirement and my own affection and admiration for him we thought it fitting to highlight his life and ministry in each blog post this week. Each day this week we will feature biographical sketches, tributes, and other highlights of his good ministry. Today, to start us off, we are pleased to have him speak to our readers himself.
FGZ: First of all, hearty congratulations on your retirement, and thanks to you from so many of us who have benefitted from your fellowship and your ministry. We thank the Lord for you.
If you would, please tell us something about your family and background. Where did you grow up? What were your early Christian influences?
TJN: I am married to Margaret, a wonderful Mississippi girl. We both were born in Brandon, MS, and the same doctor delivered us. Her family moved soon after her birth and we met again during our junior year in high school at the Young People Speakers Tournament, an event sponsored by the Southern Baptist Training Union. She and I have three children and five grandchildren. My home church provided tremendous love, and encouragement and the pastor was a master of engaging young people in friendly, encouraging, and endearing terms. I never knew that a church relationship could be discouraging all the way from kindergarten until the time I graduated from college.
FGZ: When and how did you come to Christ? What were the circumstances?
TJN: Though I had great encouragement in church and found all my teachers to be godly and consistent in their profession, my decision to become a Christian was more in line with the rite of passage model that came to dominate many Baptist churches in the South. I experienced great struggles from my junior year in high school through my first year in seminary over assurance – or so I thought. I was converted after my first year in seminary (SWBTS) while I was leading singing in a revival meeting in Perrin, Texas.
FGZ: What were your initial ambitions when you went off to college? What areas of study did you first pursue? When did you first consider Christian ministry? And when did you determine that you would pursue a career in academia and Church History?
TJN: I went to college to study music – theory, voice, and choir. I ended up majoring in Spanish. I committed to ministry during the late first or early second year of college as one of the many means that I pursued trying to gain assurance. After conversion, I examined my status as a student of theology and concluded that God had indeed put me there and had now pressed Christian ministry on my conscience in a genuine way. Becoming a professor was matter of pure providential arrangement as I was intent on serving as a pastor. When I received a call, however, from SWBTS to interview with President Robert Naylor and he offered me a position as assistant professor of church history, I knew that God had called me to that.
FGZ: Tell us where all you have ministered and taught. Start at the beginning.
TJN: I have served, beginning in 1965, on church staff in four churches – Jackson, MS; Alvarado, TX; Cleburne, TX, Shreveport, LA. I have taught seminary since January 1976 at Southwestern Baptist Theological, Seminary, Mid-America Baptist theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
FGZ: Give us a sampling of authors or others who have been most influential in your life and work.
TJN: J. I Packer, John Stott, Clark Pinnock, and Francis Schaeffer had a very positive impact early in my theological development. B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, John L. Dagg, and James P. Boyce were instrumental in helping me with understanding something of the rich confessional heritage of evangelicalism in general and Baptist life in particular. Charles Spurgeon (I don’t remember when I first began to encounter Spurgeon) showed me that fervent preaching could be irrepressibly doctrinal in content. Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and the Anabaptists not only informed me theologically in many areas, but studying them convinced me that historical study opened wide the windows for the investigation of all important questions. Jonathan Edwards, during my first year of teaching, began to become a dominant figure in my perceptions of the beauty and compelling coherence of the entire corpus of revealed truth. An early reading of Philip Schaff had an impact on my perception of the value of history and style of presentation.
FGZ: Of your many academic pursuits and publications over the years, which have interested you the most? Were there particular circumstances that shaped those interests?
TJN: Most of my writing has arisen from a deeply felt sense of conviction and need. Baptists and the Bible developed from a question as to whether inerrancy had been a historical Baptist conviction or if it was a superimposition on Baptist life from other traditions. By His Grace and For His Glory came from a personal quest to find out if my rapidly developing theological convictions had any sympathizers in the history of Baptists. The Baptists (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3) arose from a conviction that Baptist identity had been defined in terms far too narrow and focused too much on Baptist distinctives without recognizing the larger Christian, confessional, and evangelical framework from which Baptists developed their distinct ecclesiology. The biographies of Boyce and Spurgeon were contracted before I wrote them, but answered a need to give testimony to the valuable contributions of two personal heroes.
FGZ: God gave you a vital role in the conservative resurgence in the SBC. Are there any outstanding memories of those days or observations that you could share with us?
TJN: Most outstanding is the friendship with the late L. Russ Bush III. There are so many things about our relationship during those early days that were formative; as we bounced ideas and research off of each other from 1977-1979 when we were deeply involved in writing B&B that I could not begin to estimate their impact on my thought. Some of our colleagues felt a bit miffed that we were going to argue that Baptists had, from their beginning affirmed the infallibility of Scripture. We probably were a bit naïve in sharing so freely what we were discovering in our research. In addition, the progress of the entire phenomenon demonstrated that a strong conviction on an important subject shared by many people can make a big difference.
FGZ: God also gave you an important role in the Calvinistic resurgence in the SBC. Any reflections here you can share?
TJN: It is a vital area of theological discussion and is in progress today. I hope we can continue to carry on a dialogue and move toward a more profound unity on these issues so central to our presentation of the gospel.
FGZ: When you were still at TEDS and had just announced that you were moving to SBTS, I recall your telling me that as much as you enjoyed TEDS, going to SBTS was “going home.” Of course you were referring to your background among the Southern Baptists since childhood. And you have since mentioned how much you have enjoyed your time in Louisville. What have you found most enjoyable or rewarding about your time there? And what significant changes have you seen during that time?
TJN: The level of collegiality, confidence, and trust among the faculty is an amazing thing. The confessional stance of the school, taken seriously by both administration and faculty gives a sense of affirmation in theological commitment. While we have diversity in some areas and ways of formulating ideas, we still operate with the confidence that what we say in one class will not be dismantled or ridiculed in another.
FGZ: Given your long involvement in the SBC, seminary work, and the perspective all this has given you, are there any particular hopes or concerns you might have for the SBC and/or SBTS? Any particular challenges you see?
TJN: While Camelot was sung of as “one brief shining moment,” I pray that the stance of SBTS will not share that relatively ephemeral season of joy and light, but will be rich, enduring, and deeply established. I do pray that this commitment to theological education will outlive one academic generation and will find greater unity of affirmation across the SBC.
FGZ: We have to ask you to say at least something about your more recent work on Spurgeon, Living By Revealed Truth (Mentor, 2013). What a rich and wonderfully informed work! How long have you been studying Spurgeon? And I realize this will be difficult to narrow down, but after getting know Spurgeon as well as you have, what great lesson(s) from his life and/or ministry stands out most in your mind?
TJN: In the deepest of trials, never despair of God’s purpose for your life. An uncompromised, thorough preaching of the eternal covenant of redemption as fundamental to understanding the gospel is not irrelevant scholastic fireworks but powerful to the converting of sinners and growing saints. We should seek some consciously constructed doctrinal foundation for all activities we pursue in ministry. In controversy, do not surrender to pragmatics and a false contention for unity, but always aim at God’s glory, God’s truth, God grace, and God’s word, being willing always to be corrected, but also willing to be in a minority. Spurgeon had a clear vision of his calling, his gifts, and the demands of stewardship on his public ministry and private life and held more tenaciously to truth than he did to the good opinion of fickle friends.
FGZ: What are your plans for retirement? You’re much too energetic and still way too youthful to sit back and retire altogether! Will you still teach on an adjunct basis? Will you be traveling still to minister elsewhere? As the Lord continues to give you birthdays, what writing projects can we look to see from you?
TJN: Lord willing I will teach a course now and then adjunctly. I want to write also and complete some projects that I have dabbled in for a while – a book on doctrinal preaching and a short life of Spurgeon, tentatively entitled The Child is Father of the Man.
FGZ: Know that we love you very much and that there are many who are profoundly grateful for your life and ministry. We thank God for the influence he has given you, which you have used faithfully, and we pray that your retirement will only mark a new phase of effective ministry for our Lord.
Note: In October of last year Tom and I were together in a conference in Mississippi where for one of his sessions Tom told us his life story and his testimony of how he came to Christ. It was a blessed time, which you can listen to here.