Arrival at Southern
Tom Nettles had taught Reformation history and theology for nearly two decades when in 1997 he became part of one of the most remarkable reformations in recent church history.
That year, Nettles joined the faculty at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as part of the school’s return to its confessional roots orchestrated by new president R. Albert Mohler Jr. Southern had been commandeered by theological moderates in the middle part of the 20th century, but the 1993 election of Mohler as the school’s ninth president represented a return to the confessional roots of founding president James Petigru Boyce.
Mohler has often called 1997 a pivotal year in the life of Southern’s reformation as Nettles, New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner and theologian Bruce Ware, all joined the faculty. Nettles, who had written extensively about Reformed Theology in Baptist history, particularly through his seminal study By His Grace and for His Glory, was now in the middle of a full-fledged reformation himself.
By the turn of the millennium, Southern’s regeneration was complete; the moderate faculty was gone and a group of conservative evangelical professors with a decidedly Reformed bent had arrived in their place. The vision Boyce established for Southern Seminary in 1859 – based on the Abstract of Principles, a theological cousin to the Second London Confession – had returned. Unlike other American seminaries that had embraced theological liberalism, Southern had returned to Canaan from Egypt in a miraculous recovery only God could cause.
Buoyed by teaching at a school that shared his theological convictions, Nettles continued to write, and here he penned some of the most important works of his career, including important works on Baptist identity. Whereas earlier in his career Nettles had wrestled with issues related to Baptists and the doctrines of grace, at Southern the question “What is a Baptist” drew the attention of his significant scholarly gifts.
The first of these studies came in 2001 from B&H in a multi-author volume Nettles edited with Russell D. Moore, Why I Am a Baptist.
Four years later in 2005, Nettles penned a shorter work for B&H on Baptist identity that included the place of Reformation Theology in Ready for Reformation? Bringing Authentic Reformation to Southern Baptist Churches. In this volume, Nettles argues that substantive, lasting reformation in local churches must go deeper than a recovery of biblical inerrancy; it must take that doctrine as a foundation and build a superstructure on all its core doctrines.
The first part of Nettles’ most significant work on Baptist identity was released the same year when the first of a three-volume study was released through Mentor, titled The Baptists: Key People Involved in Forging a Baptist Identity (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3). The series examines Baptist history and argues for a four-fold view of Baptist identity through the theology and ministries of key figures in the rise of Baptists from John Smyth in the late-sixteenth century Britain to the central figures in the SBC Conservative Resurgence. One volume was issued per year from 2005-2007. Volume one begins the discussion with a look at the headwaters of Baptist life in seventeenth century Britain, volume two deals with Baptist beginnings in America and the final installment tackles the modern era among Baptists, including a lengthy treatment of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In The Baptists, Nettles convincingly argues for an objective, theologically-motivated Baptist identity on four grounds, seeking to establish that Baptists are defined by: a commitment to confessional theology, a commitment to orthodoxy, a commitment to the evangel and foundational commitment to a theologically integrated ecclesiology.
Nettles fittingly calls his vision of Baptist identity and history the “coherent truth” view and sets it over against what he calls the “soul liberty” vision of theological moderates, who define “Baptist-ness” centrally as a commitment to personal autonomy and the priesthood of the believer. The moderate vision sees the Baptist genius as being subjective, while Nettles sees it as bound up in an objective theology and an objective, biblical definition of the church.
Two Definitive Biographies
Over the final five years of his career at Southern, Nettles has written exhaustive biographies of two giants on the landscape of Baptist life. The first, published by P&R in 2009, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, gives a full examination of the life, theology and ministry of Southern Seminary’s founder. Nettles’ work shows that Boyce was a giant on the landscape of Baptist life during the early years of the SBC.
The second, published last year by Mentor, was nearly twenty years in the research and writing. At nearly 700 pages, Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, presents an exhaustively researched examination of the Prince of Preachers that will surely set a new standard for Spurgeon studies. There is much in this volume that has never brought to light from the life, ministry and doctrinal emphases of the great British lion.
While Nettles’ scholarly production has been significant in his nearly two decades at Southern, perhaps more important has been the lives of students who have been impacted by the pastoral spirit he has brought to the classroom. Nettles leaves many students, including the author of his article, who are his spiritual sons in the vein of Timothy to Paul.
In an interview with me for the Southern Seminary magazine, Nettles said he had always taught with pastoral goals in mind always aimed at serving the local church. I am one among many in a cloud of witnesses whom Dr. Nettles has impacted deeply for service in the local church.
“I have always wanted what I’ve done to be serviceable to the church,” he said. “I’ve wanted it to be something that can be taken by our students who are going into the pastoral ministry and be used for the glory of God and the clarity of the Gospel and the good of their churches.
“I have taught areas which I have thought are important and even critical for the health Christianity and for the health of Baptist churches. I have tried to teach things that I felt had been ignored or represented in a wrong way. So I think that is what has driven me to be an advocate of things that some others are not advocating. I have sought to help students become better pastors by helping them to understand the critical truths that churches have been built upon in the past.”