Book Review: Ministry by His Grace and for His Glory: Essays in Honor of Thomas J. Nettles, ed. by Thomas Ascol and Nathan Finn
Thomas Ascol and Nathan Finn, eds., Ministry by His Grace and For His Glory: Essays in Honor of Thomas J. Nettles. Founders Press, 2011. 342 pp.
Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a man known as much for his piety as for his years of pastoral and academic service to Baptist churches. In fact, several of his students have noted that he is as likely to break into a hymn in the middle of a class as he is to discourse on the finer points of Baptist history.
CELEBRATING TOM NETTLES’ 35 YEARS OF MINISTRY
The recent festschrift published in his honor, Ministry by His Grace and For His Glory, celebrates the 35-year milestone of Dr. Nettles’ seminary teaching ministry. Edited by Thomas Ascol and Nathan Finn, this collection of essays focuses on the subjects Nettles has championed in the course of his ministry: the inerrancy of Scripture, the doctrines of grace, biblical Baptist theology, and the need for a theologically defined Baptist identity.
BAPTIST HISTORY, THEOLOGY, AND ECCLESIAL IDENTITY
The book has three major sections which mirror the structure of Nettles’ own major work, By His Grace and for His Glory. The first section focuses on matters related to Baptist historiography and theological controversies that Nettles has helped to clarify over the course of his ministry. The second section is theological, focusing on the Reformational emphases of the doctrines of grace and justification by faith alone. The final section focuses on practical matters of ecclesiology, ministry, and Baptist identity.
The Question of Baptist Identity
Though more than twenty authors contributed to the book independently, the same themes run through many of the essays. For instance, the question of Baptist identity is addressed from a number of angles. Ben Mitchell notes that “a great deal of concern has been expressed…about the loss of Baptist identity” (316) and several of the contributors share that concern. Many of the essays endeavor to forge out the particulars of that identity.
One of the most helpful essays on this subject is C. Jeffrey Robinson’s, who relates Nettles’ reflections on Baptist identity to the broader evangelical movement. In contrast to theological moderates who want to maintain a latitudinarian posture and to conservative separatists who seek to find their origins in the Swiss Anabaptists (62), Nettles has argued persuasively that Baptists stand in the stream of historic evangelical Christianity.
Robinson also notes that Nettles has helped a generation of Baptists define evangelicalism as a “Word-centered, Christ-centered, and Cross-centered” movement (66). In contrast to historians such as David Bebbington, Nettles has shown that evangelicalism and its Baptist children are not primarily products of the Enlightenment. Rather, the theological convictions, worldview, and praxis of Baptists derive from their commitment to the authority of Scripture and the work of Christ. As such, Baptist identity is marked by the theological legacies of the Protestant Reformation: sola scriptura, justification by faith alone, and the doctrines of grace.
The Authority and Inerrancy of Scripture
Another theme that runs through many of the essays is the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Nettles’ writing ministry, especially his landmark book Baptists and the Bible, co-authored by Russ Bush.
Nathan Finn’s essay provides readers with the historical context which precipitated Baptists and the Bible; it also delineates the impact the book had on the inerrancy debate among Baptists. In his essay on the C. H. Toy controversy, Greg Wills also addresses the issue of Scripture’s authority in Baptist history. And David Dockery likewise weighs in with a short essay that attempts to rightly define “authority” and “inerrancy” and to survey historical Baptist convictions about the character of Scripture.
Some More Valuable than Others
As is often the case with a collection of essays, some are more valuable than others. Unfortunately, a few of the essays in the second section fail to meet the standard of quality achieved by most of the others. Notably, Geoff Thomas’ impassioned defense of limited atonement lacks the charity and clarity Nettles so consistently models when dealing with volatile subjects.
Other essays in this section, however, are exceptionally good. Samuel Waldron’s article on justification by faith alone in Romans 4:3 is commendable, as is Phil Newton’s reflection on the perseverance of the saints.
Most Helpful Parts for the Busy Pastor: The Summaries of Nettles’ Work
For the busy pastor, the most helpful parts of Ministry by His Grace and For His Glory are the summaries of Nettles’ most important contributions to Baptist history and theology. And one of the most helpful of these is Nathan Finn’s essay on Baptists and the Bible. As Finn explains, Nettles and Bush argued that “most Baptists have historically believed the Bible is fully trustworthy, even though the word ‘inerrancy’ is of relatively recent vintage. In other words, Baptists have almost always affirmed the doctrine of inerrancy, even if the nomenclature itself has evolved over time” (4). Finn also helpfully summarizes the argument of Bush and Nettles that a consensus of historic Baptist figures has affirmed the authority and inerrancy of Scripture until certain transitional figures, such as E.Y. Mullins and A.H. Strong, opened the door for more progressive theological positions.
A JOY TO SEE A FAITHFUL MAN HONORED
Tom Nettles deserves to be commended for his faithfulness to the gospel and his commitment to excellence in academic and pastoral ministry over the course of the last three and a half decades. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to sit in Dr. Nettles’ classroom lectures and witness his devotion to Christ and deep learning. It is a joy to see him honored by so many friends, colleagues, and students.