Tom Nettles, ‘legendary’ historian, retires from Southern Seminary
Thomas J. Nettles, professor of historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1997, is retiring from full-time teaching after 38 years in the classroom.
Nettles’ teaching has involved “areas which I have thought are important and even critical for the health of Christianity and for the health of Baptist churches,” he told Southern Seminary Magazine as the spring semester comes to an end.
“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.”
Before joining the faculty at Southern nearly 17 years ago, Nettles spent 21 years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mid-American Baptist Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Donald S. Whitney, now a fellow professor at Southern Seminary who was among Nettles’ students at Southwestern, has since developed a decades-long relationship with him.
“Tom has shepherded me countless times, both when I was pastoring and during the past 19 years as a professor,” Whitney said. “On so many occasions when I was burdened, I made my way to Tom’s office, where he always welcomed me, listened as long as I needed to talk, offered counsel and prayed with me.”
Nettles’ students can attest that his classroom is a place of joy and song. A gifted singer, he often breaks spontaneously into a song or hymn.
He is renowned for a particular song, Whitney said, recounting, “No matter how many classes you have had with Tom Nettles, you’ve never really had him as a professor until he has sung in class ‘Ya Got Trouble’ from ‘The Music Man,’ a musical in which he played the lead when he was in college.”
Whitney is but one of many for whom Nettles has served as a spiritual father during his decades in the classroom.
Tom Hicks, pastor of discipleship at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., studied under Nettles as both a master’s and doctoral student in the early to late 2000s at Southern. Hicks and Nettles have developed a deep friendship over the years.
“Dr. Nettles has been faithful to shepherd students both inside and outside of the classroom,” Hicks said. “I remember that he often began classes by reading Scripture and having prayer. He would then sometimes lead the class in singing an old hymn. After singing, he would show how rich theology and worship had been tightly interwoven.”
Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., was a student at Southwestern in 1979 when he first met Nettles. Their families have since developed a deep friendship. Nettles nearly took a pastoral position at Grace in 2007 but decided to remain at Southern.
“Tom has a pastor’s heart and considers his teaching ministry to be pastoral work,” said Ascol, who is also chairman of Founders Ministries. “He has encouraged me countless times through the years by giving me biblical counsel, offering needed but at times unwanted rebuke and correction, and challenging me to think more biblically and carefully about knotty pastoral issues.”
Nettles, however, never planned on being a seminary professor.
He attended Mississippi College, a Baptist school, and then moved on to Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Nettles entered seminary during a tumultuous time in the Southern Baptist Convention over the question of the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. The Lord would eventually insert Nettles and a fellow Southwestern student, Russ Bush, into the front lines of the denominational battle.
During his second year as a master of divinity student, Nettles accepted the challenge of a moderate professor to defend biblical inerrancy in a class session. The experience was pivotal to his ministry future.
Nettles eventually completed a doctor of philosophy degree in historical theology, still at least partly convinced that his future lay in the pulpit of a local church.
But in 1976, Southwestern hired him to a teaching position in the history department. In 1980, Moody Press published the landmark study by Nettles and Bush on the historic Baptist view of Scripture, Baptists and the Bible. The book crystallized and strengthened the case for inerrancy as they showed how thoroughly Baptists had adhered to that fundamental doctrine in the past.
Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said Nettles is a "legendary" Southern Baptist professor, citing his crucial role to the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence.
“When he and Russ Bush penned Baptists and the Bible, they put to rest the argument that Baptists had ever held historically to anything other than the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Word of God,” Mohler said.
“At decisive moments in Southern Baptist history,” Mohler said, “[Nettles] has stood for the faith of those who founded our Southern Baptist Convention, and he has been a winsome and deeply convictional advocate for those beliefs.”
Nettles also has written important books on Baptist ecclesiology, catechisms and the place of Calvinism in Baptist history.
“Tom Nettles is a formidable scholar,” said historian Gregory A. Wills, dean of Southern Seminary’s school of theology. “His Baptists and the Bible, co-authored with Russ Bush, and By His Grace and for His Glory have had wide influence and established him as a Baptist scholar of the front rank." By His Grace and for His Glory argues exhaustively that Baptists are theological heirs of the Protestant Reformation
Wills also commended Nettles’ recent biographies of James P. Boyce and Charles Spurgeon as “remarkable achievements.”
“The breadth of his command of the historical documents of the church across 2,000 years has amazed me many times,” Wills said. “Most impressive, however, is the fact that his scholarship has always been in the service of the church’s gospel mission.”
Describing Nettles as a “masterful classroom teacher,” Mohler said the full reach of his classroom “will never be known in this life, for there will be many people around the world who will hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ because of his influence on the lives of those who will take the Gospel to the nations."
“I have always wanted what I’ve done to be serviceable to the church,” Nettles 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.”
Jeff Robinson is a freelance writer who earned a doctorate in historical theology under Nettles in 2008. James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor and chief spokesman at Southern Seminary.