Tom Nettles: The Early Years By Greg Wills

Published on May 20, 2014 by Igor Mateski


In his early career, while serving as an assistant professor of church history at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1976 to 1982, Tom Nettles produced scholarship that contributed powerfully to the renovation of Southern Baptist seminaries and agencies in the 1980s and 1990s. It is easy from our current vantage point to overlook the fact that the conservative cause could easily have failed. The battle was closely fought. Although the conservatives in the end won a thorough victory, they most certainly could have lost.

Not only was conservative success not inevitable, it was not even likely. Progressive leaders had long sought to improve the vitality and relevance of Southern Baptist piety by introducing the enlightening scholarship of good historical criticism. By the time conservatives decided to undertake a broad challenge to the dominance of liberal theology in denominational entities in the late 1970s, the moderates had every reason to be confident of their success. They were firmly ensconced in the seminaries and in denominational leadership, they followed a proven strategy, they possessed effective instruments for spreading their views, and they were winning the denominational field battles when they were challenged.

Conservatives in other denominations had generally lost such battles with progressive and liberal wings. In the Southern Baptist Convention, conservatives had often won in votes on controversial issues, but all efforts to forestall liberal advances in Southern Baptist institutions had failed. The three most influential leaders of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention disagreed concerning the prospects of their success when they initiated their effort in 1979. Paul Pressler was confident of success; Paige Patterson rather expected that they would fail although they had responsibility to try; and Adrian Rogers was certain they would fail. One of the most important factors in securing the conservative victory was Tom Nettles’ scholarship in his early career.

The Issue In Focus

The chief initial difficulty was to convince a sufficient number of Southern Baptists that the seminaries and agencies had abandoned commitment to the Bible’s full integrity and authority as God’s word. The Southern Baptist Convention’s “moderate” leaders denied that their view of the Bible was anything other than the traditional and orthodox view that Baptists had always affirmed. They claimed that they were not liberals and that they believed the Bible fully, undergirded by the doctrines of soul liberty, the priesthood of the believer, and the right of individual interpretation. They quoted Baptist leaders of the past to support their claim.

Tom Nettles showed irrefutably that their claims were fatuous. In 1980 he and L. Russ Bush published a book called Baptists and the Bible. This book established, by meticulous argument and extensive research that the traditional Baptist view included the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Appearing when it did, immediately after the start of the conservative effort in 1979, it played a critical role in supporting the critical necessity of a conservative revolution by demonstrating that until the rise of modern liberalism, Baptists had affirmed the necessity of belief in the full authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Bible. And by careful explanation of the views of such liberal Southern Baptists as Crawford Toy, Nettles and Bush demonstrated that by any straightforward analysis, contemporary Southern Baptist moderates actually held the same liberal views of scripture as did Toy, whose views Southern Baptists rejected one hundred years earlier.


The publication of this important book was not inevitable either. Nettles published it only after confronting opposition, rejection, and warnings that it would injure his career. Nettles experienced several occasions when the “prudent” and safe thing to do would have been to keep quiet in order to please colleagues or denominational leaders and avoid their disfavor.

After Southern Baptists elected Adrian Rogers president of the convention and so launched their conservative revolution, the church history faculty at Southwestern Seminary led a movement among faculty to stand in opposition to the conservative effort by affirming their commitment to liberty of conscience by signing a moderate statement on freedom of interpretation and individual liberty. Church history professor Leon McBeth called Nettles while he was in Mississippi and asked him to sign it. Tom said he could not sign because he did not believe it. McBeth said that his refusal to sign could come back to hurt him, and that it would make him look out of step with his colleagues. The document was published without Nettles’s signature. He was out of step with his colleagues in this fundamental matter.

Sustaining the Cause

Nettles also around this time wrote an analysis of a Baptist General Convention of Texas document that affirmed that the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message included everything that Southern Baptists needed to be affirmed. Nettles wrote an article on creeds to explain Southern Baptists’ commitment to the central role of confessions of faith and to explain that the Bible corrected the creeds whenever necessary. The editor of the Texas Baptist Standard, said he would publish it. He later contacted Nettles and apologized that he was now no longer able to publish Nettles’ article. Russell Kaemerling called him having heard about it and offered to publish it in the inerrantist-advocacy journal, the Southern Baptist Advocate. Tom finally agreed to, since no one else would publish it. A fellow professor warned him to be careful not to alienate himself from the faculty. And a Texas denominational leader called and said that he was having a hard time convincing people in the state’s denominational leadership that Nettle was really one of them. Nettles’ convictions were alienating him from his faculty colleagues and from powerful denominational leaders.

I am thankful that in his early career Nettles followed his convictions concerning faithful service to Christ and faithful interpretation of the Bible. It was in significant measure because of his faithful witness to truth that he has served since 1997 among a faculty who are not alienated from him but who share his views of the Bible.

Dr. Gregory Wills
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Church History
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary


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