With the retirement of Professor Jack Cottrell in the Spring of 2016, students will no longer be privileged to sit under one of the best theologians of our time. But Cottrell’s teaching will continue for generations.
There are some theologians in life who will make a lasting impression and will influence thousands, if not tens of thousands, and yet may never grace the pages of any history book. They go about their writing tasks and teaching duties, year after year, laboring in hopes to make a difference in the lives of students and disciples they come into contact with. Their work is often done in the solitude of their book-filled office, although the effects of it are often felt rippling through higher institutions of learning and churches. Oftentimes their work arouses one of two reactions: consternation or edification. If it arouses consternation, it is because their work challenges a new innovative theology or cultural standard. If edification, it is because it encourages and strengthens those who ardently desire to grow in their faith and to know God better. These kind of theologians become giants of a sort, carving out their own niches, confident of their own convictions, unswervingly teaching Scripture, always being faithful, and always ready to instruct with gentleness and grace while never withholding the truth. This is no less true of the theologian Jack Cottrell, except I think some good reasons can be given to argue that he is in a league of his own.
What is it about Cottrell that makes him in a league of his own? For starters, he taught and completed all his writing (will there be more?) at the same academic institution (Cincinnati Christian University, or CCU) where he began his theological career. Not many theologians have a resume like this. He founded the theology department and began teaching at CCU (at the time it was Cincinnati Bible Seminary) in 1967, the same year his doctoral work at Princeton commenced. By the time I arrived on CCU’s campus in the fall of 2000, he was already in his prime, having taught thousands of students over a period of thirty-three years. He had already written many of his most popular works, including a trilogy on the doctrine of God, two works on feminism, a two volume commentary set on Romans, and many other books on Christian doctrine. By the time he retired last year (2016), he had taught for forty-nine years at CCU, written twenty-one books, and contributed chapters to twelve books. Many of these books had been translated into eleven other languages, such as Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Rawang, Tamil, and Spanish.
Cottrell also carved out his own place in the theological world by his style of teaching. He had a way of captivating his students. Certainly most students have that “one professor” whom they all enjoyed and were influenced by. But Cottrell was different. He impacted every student. If I had to put my finger on exactly what it was about his teaching that lured his students in, I wouldn’t say it was his dynamism (although he had that). He was more quiet spoken than he was vivacious. It wouldn’t really be his humor (although I must admit I enjoyed his theological humor, but I’ve also been accused of being a theological nerd!). And he was more serious than funny. Perhaps the best way to describe his teaching style is that it was simple (not to be confused with simplistic) and truthful (yet gracious). No student left with doubt as to what Cottrell believed the Scriptures taught. It was lucid. He made theology understandable, avoiding all the esoteric language that so many seem to enjoy puffing themselves up with. But he never left behind the concepts. Exactly how he was able to weave the theological discussions with differing points of view into such a simple picture was the most admirable and awe-inspiring construction of art one could behold. He even did it without “dumbing” it down. His students still learned all the pertinent theological vocabulary and concepts.
At the same time, Cottrell would always be clear about truth. This was one thing that could not be missed. His lecture outlines were a testimony to his dedication to the truth in his teaching: view 1, view 2, view 3, and the biblical view. Of course, the biblical view was his view! It was clear where he stood in his understanding of the teaching of Scripture. He made no bones about it. Having such confidence in a postmodern age when skepticism about truth reigns was refreshing to many. To be sure, such confidence was a stumbling block for others. I always found it refreshing myself, even if I at first disagreed with his view. At least he believed the Bible taught something and it was not up to the reader as to what it meant. It is common, even in a seminary setting, to hear professors play with the meaning of Scripture back and forth like a ping pong match. You never found this in Cottrell’s class. You could be sure that there would never be a stone left unturned and never–never–was there any heretical residue left over.
Cottrell especially carved out a special place for himself in theology with his influential course The Doctrine of Grace. If one were to ask CCU seminary graduates what class was the most influential, hands down they would say, “Cottrell’s Doctrine of Grace.” What was it about his class that made it so memorable? I would imagine that most students would point to the time during the course when it finally “clicked” for them that salvation is based upon the righteousness of Christ and not their own, and the fact that they can have assurance they are saved because of what Christ did and not what they do. For sure, many of his students may have understood this in some manner before taking his course, but it is quite another to finally feel it in such a real way as one did in Cottrell’s class. Perhaps one could liken the experience to Martin Luther’s when he finally came to understand the true essence of salvation by grace. Thankfully, Cottrell’s Doctrine of Grace course has been forever imprinted (literally!) on the annals of history with the publication of his book Set Free: What the Bible Says About Grace (2009), which is essentially the contents of what his students learned in that most memorable class.
It was not just the students at CCU who were privileged to be the recipients of Cottrell’s theological teaching and writing. Evangelicalism was too. If I had to guess who has been the most influential Arminian theologian of the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century in American evangelicalism (and especially the Restoration Movement of which his roots are found), it would have to be Cottrell. The evangelical world is more than sprinkled with fine Calvinist theologians, but Arminian ones are more difficult to find. Cottrell changed this. He put free will back on the theological map and has kept it there. This was especially seen with his chapter “The Classical Arminian View of Election” in the popular evangelical work Perspectives on Election: Five Views. Even the popular evangelical apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig has made reference to his work on the doctrine of God. Cottrell has effectively shown that Arminian (as well as Christian Church and Church of Christ) theologians can be just as rigorous as any other.
What is quite astounding is that some evangelicals have yet to interact with Cottrell’s theological works. This was evident in one of my own doctoral seminars during the fall of 2008. A student had critiqued a paper of mine in which I referenced Cottrell’s works. The student’s critique effectively called into question the legitimacy of using Cottrell as a source. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to introduce this student to Cottrell’s theological prowess, I prepared a defense of my paper by loading every single book Cottrell had written into two large paper bags and taking them to class. At the time of my presentation, I addressed the student’s critique and introduced him to Cottrell by laying out every single book–one by one–in a single stack in front of him (I estimate that the stack was every bit of four feet tall). The professor of the course (who personally knew Cottrell), being quite amused, looked over his glasses at the student and said, “I think Rasor has got you there.”
To put it simply, Cottrell is in a league of his own. There never has been a theologian like him and there never will be. He has forever left an imprint not just upon theology but upon the thousands of students and Christians he has taught–in the classroom and in the church building. I personally will always see myself as a theologian first and a philosopher second, although my PhD is in philosophy. Why? Because of Jack Cottrell. And I imagine many others, whether they are aware of it or not, will always be theologians first and something else second–because of Jack Cottrell. The truth he has taught and the care he has shown will live on forever in the hearts of thousands, even those yet to be born. He may be retired, but his legacy will never be retired.
Grace and peace, Dr. Jack Cottrell! You are loved my many.
Just one of your understudies and friends,