On the Passing of James Leo Garrett Jr., “The Last of the Gentlemen Theologians”

Numerous tributes and expressions of grief appeared on social media yesterday as we awoke to the news that Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett Jr. had passed away in the night.

Students and colleagues mourned and reminisced about the unique and impactful character and work of this beloved scholar and churchman. Malcolm Yarnell, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, referred to Dr. Garrett yesterday as “the last of the gentlemen theologians,” a phrase he has used many times to describe him.

Paul Basden also used that interesting term of Dr. Garrett in Baptist Theologians, stating, “I predict that future generations will regard him as a ‘gentleman theologian.’” While many may see this phrase as generalized reference to Dr. Garrett’s irenic spirit, it is actually more of a technical term.

The idea of “the gentlemen theologians” was proposed in 1978 by historian E. Brooks Holifield who used the term to refer to southern theologians in the late-18th to mid-19th century who, unlike the common stereotype of southern ministers and theologians of this time, eschewed mere emotionalism and playing to the ecclesial gallery and, instead, were marked by both gentility and rationality.

In other words, the “gentlemen theologians” were committed churchmen of deep faith who exhibited great scholarly care in their approach to the theological task and offered strong but irenic defenses of orthodox theology and belief. They were respected and their ministries and scholarship were robust and marked by integrity.

In light of this, it is difficult indeed to deny the title “gentleman theologian” to James Leo Garrett Jr. He …

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