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Garrett, retiring, reiterates Jesus’ prayer plea for unity

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–“Leo’s Theo” comes in a two-volume set. But his prophetic challenge comes from a few verses in the Gospel of John.
“Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical and Evangelical,” republished in 1996 by Eerdmans, covers the spiritual and intellectual watershed of James Leo Garrett’s 48 years of teaching. But as he officially retired from the faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary this summer, his heart and prayers and professorial concerns focused on John 17.
And retired certainly doesn’t mean retiring in his case.
“Jesus’s four-repetition prayerful plea that his disciples ‘be one as he and the Father are one’ demands that we give his emphasis serious attention,” Garrett said at the chapel service where he was honored for his 1948-59 and 1979-97 tenure at Southwestern.
Garrett also taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., from 1959-79. A native of Waco, Texas, he is a 1945 graduate of Baylor University there who earned a bachelor of theology from Southwestern in 1948, a master of theology from Princeton University in 1949, a doctorate in theology from Southwestern in 1954 and a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1966.
Just as he has since 1948 when he taught his first class of seminarians, Garrett still yearns for the clear command of Scripture to root deeply in the hearts of men and women training to be the church leaders of tomorrow.
The modern world, splintered into hostile and often-warring ethnic, economic and religious factions is much like the first-century world when John was writing his gospel, Garrett noted. “Ours is a fractured, divided, alienated, hostile and worrying world, so this is not only an abiding theological truth John reveals but it is also contemporary commentary.”
Garrett reminded the seminarians that Jesus tied successful evangelism to a unity of believers. “That same prayer says the results of unity among the present and future disciples of Jesus would allow the world to ‘believe,’ to confirm and make persuasive the claim of Jesus to be on mission to the world.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “animosities, altercations and ugliness among Christians, past and present, have been perpetual stumbling blocks to an unbelieving world.
“The body of Christ in reality, like the world, is marred by divisions — not the kind that reflect diversities of gifts and ministry but the kind that mirror fault-finding, bitterness and unforgiveness and what the Bible calls the works of the flesh.”
But John 17 has even more specific application, Garrett insisted. “Let’s be honest, before the true and living God,” he said. “For too long Southern Baptists have been marked more by antagonism and party division and strife than by brotherly love and cooperation; more by alienation than love; by works of the flesh than fruits of the spirit; more by division than by unity.”
And despite “many wonderful instances of forgiveness, reconciliation and self-giving love … nevertheless, Southern Baptists are in a state of brokenness and disunity,” Garrett said.
“That ought not to be a continuing, live option for those who would be truly obedient to our Lord in this great prayer and who would obey his Great Commission,” he said.
Today’s seminary students, Garrett said, have known nothing except denominational conflict and have a right to declare, “This situation is not of our doing. We are baffled by it and don’t really understand it — our elders have been responsible for this so go talk to them!”
But, he said, “while it is not of your making, it is the situation in which you have been called to minister. With all the truths, blessings and resources of this denominational heritage, you have received also a fractured and embittered controversy.”
More importantly, this inherited situation “may also be the situation where, under God, you may be used to heal!”
Garrett said he is encouraged by that possibility, because, “In 48 years of seminary teaching, I have never seen as much genuine love and caring for fellow seminarians as I’ve seen on this campus in the past five years.
“God may be teaching and preparing you and this student generation to become agents of reconciliation. A broken and divided world, broken and divided nation, broken and divided communities and families will not readily find the answer to their brokenness and division among broken and divided Christians.
“The remedy must match the disease — more disease does not cure disease.
“Our Lord bowed before his holy and righteous Father and prayed that we might be one,” Garrett reminded again.
“Can the arrogance of our triumphalism, the bitterness of our struggle be transformed into a brotherhood of unity as children of God? Can brother and sister, without surrender of any cherished convictions, lay aside fractiousness and extend hand and hearts in love?”
If and when reconciliation occurs among Southern Baptists, Garrett concluded, “the glory will belong to God. And the unbelieving world may be inclined to take notice and even be attracted to Jesus Christ!”

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  • Craig Bird