Dockery examines theological development of Carroll, Conner, Garrett at ETS

Ashley Allen
| Nov 22, 2021

During the 73rd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Fort Worth, Texas, Nov. 16-18, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was represented in academic paper presentations by 27 faculty members and doctoral students.

Through the three days, attendees had the opportunity to participate in discipline-specific sessions and panel discussions, including paper presentations focused on Baptist studies.

David S. Dockery, interim provost and distinguished professor of theology at Southwestern Seminary and past president of ETS, presented “James Leo Garrett Jr.: Theological Development in the Carroll-Conner-Garrett Baptist Tradition.” Garrett, who taught at Southwestern Seminary for 28 years over two different timespans, died in 2020. The late distinguished professor of theology emeritus was best known for his two-volume set Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical.

In his presentation, Dockery traced the theological influences of B.H. Carroll, founder and first president of Southwestern Seminary, on W.T. Conner, a founding professor at the Southwestern Seminary, who subsequently influenced Garrett, who was one of Conner’s students and Garrett’s mentor.

Explaining Carroll was “largely self-taught” though described by those around him as “brilliant,” Dockery said the former pastor of the First Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, was “regarded as the most thoughtful Christian leader in the entire Southwest region.” 

Recognizing the need for theological training for Baptist pastors in the growing American Southwest, Carroll championed the founding of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was charted on March 14, 1908, on the Baylor University campus in Waco and moved to its current location in Fort Worth in 1910. 

After the seminary was charted in 1908, Dockery explained, Carroll published “five lengthy articles in the Baptist Standard articulating this distinctive mission of the new seminary” which he envisioned as “theological education, grounded in historical Christianity … combined with a zeal for denominational unity and cooperation.” Carroll “believed his vision for the new seminary to be in continuity with Southern Seminary … [and] was specifically contextualized and adapted for the Southwest.”

Carroll served as Southwestern Seminary’s first president for six years until his death in 1914. However, he “established a seminary committed to historic orthodoxy and denominational unity characterized by a generous spirit of cooperation, a spirit that continued to influence Southwestern through the years, including the work of W.T. Conner and James Leo Garrett Jr.,” observed Dockery. 

Carroll was not a “writing theologian,” but taught the “entirety of the English Bible” in four-year cycles at Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary, he said. His lectures were published posthumously and “continue to serve as an important source for understanding Southern Baptist views of Scripture at the turn of the 20th century,” Dockery added.

“The Bible was the focus of Carroll’s career,” Dockery said. “His widespread reputation as a champion of Baptist orthodoxy was closely associated with his doctrine of Scripture. He understood the Bible to be the written revelation of God. The affirmation undergirded Carroll's entire theology and exegesis of Scripture, while noting a close relationship between revelation and inspiration, Carroll nevertheless went to great lengths to differentiate between revelation, inspiration, and illumination.”

Carroll “rejected all forms of partial or limited inspiration, saying that when you hear ‘the silly talk that the Bible contains the Word of God and is not the Word of God you hear a fool’s talk.’ Because Carroll emphasized the product of inspiration, he was largely silent on the method of inspiration,” Dockery observed. “He highlighted the result of inspiration which he believed to be an infallible Bible.”

Conner, who was a member of Southwestern Seminary’s first graduating class in 1908 with a Bachelor of Theology degree, observed about the seminary’s first president that “the two ideals that shape Carroll's life and thought were an authoritative Bible and the reality of Christian experience,” Dockery noted.

Conner, who was invited to join the Southwestern Seminary faculty by Carroll, received additional preparation at Rochester Seminary. Conner was the “primary writing theologian” at Southwestern Seminary and “wrote important books on Christian Doctrine, The Faith of the New Testament, The Gospel of Redemption, Revelation and God, and The Work of the Holy Spirit among others,” Dockery observed. 

Conner’s work “was also shaped by the emphasis on experience found in [E.Y.] Mullins’ methodology, along with the pragmatism and empiricism of William James,” Dockery said. “Conner emphasized the personal nature of revelation, as well as its progressive nature. He clearly affirmed biblical inspiration, but like B.H. Carroll, did not contend for a model of inspiration.”

Dockery concluded, “The bottom line for Conner was the authoritative character of Scripture, as expressed in his 1918 article on the nature and authority of the Bible. There he maintained that the only way to realize true freedom is by submission to rightful authority. The Bible then is the medium through which God's authority is made known.”

Garrett, whose 1954 doctoral dissertation at Southwestern Seminary focused on his mentor, Conner, was “widely recognized as the premier Southern Baptist theologian of the second half of the 20th century,” Dockery said, explaining the late Southwestern Seminary professor “exemplified a confidence in the Scriptures which he believed to be totally dependable, reliable, trustworthy, and infallible.”

Recognizing “his first calling was to the church,” Dockery said Garrett was a “committed Baptist” who finished a two-volume work on systematic theology in 1995 and his 2009 work on four centuries of Baptist theology when he was 84 years old. Noting Garrett was the Southern Baptist representative at the Second Vatican Council, Dockery said, “the longtime Southwestern professor maintained an infectious commitment to and hope for the unity of the people of God. In this sense, he was not only an evangelical Baptist, but a convictional, denominational, [and] ecumenical evangelical.”

The theological method Garrett utilized included “locating and correlating Old and New Testament text together with significant input from the patristic period to the modern context, asserting that the tasks of theology are instructional, apologetic, political, ethical, and missionary. While engaging more broadly with theologians of every era across various traditions, one of Garrett’s primary concerns was to help us readers understand who Baptists are and what they believe” while also “discovering, covering, and recovering” Baptist distinctives, Dockery explained.

Recognizing there were differences among the three Baptist theologians, Dockery concluded, “All affirm the promise of heaven, the reality of hell and the essential work of Gospel proclamation, evangelism, and missions. All saw theology’s purpose in light of serving the church, strengthening believers, and advancing the Gospel.”