Jack Cottrell: Professor, Theologian, Mentor, Man of God (1938–2022)
This past Saturday I woke up to the news that my former seminary professor, Dr. Jack Cottrell, had passed away after a battle with cancer. He taught at Cincinnati Bible Seminary for 49 years, authored over 40 books, and wrote countless theological and devotional articles. He was, in my opinion, the greatest living theologian, writer, and thinker in the Restoration Movement, and his death has left a gaping hole in our fellowship that we will struggle to fill. I cannot overstate the influence that Dr. Cottrell has had in my life.
I vividly remember my first day walking into my first seminary class in the fall of 2009. Dr. Cottrell was my professor. The class was The Doctrine of Grace. After the first twenty minutes or so, I was sure seminary was going to be the ride of my life. Indeed, it was. Dr. Cottrell began the class by having us sing a hymn about grace, a cappella. At first this seemed to me an odd way to begin a class on theology, but slowly we all began to realize it was as if he was showing us, rather than telling us, that learning about God is not simply an academic exercise meant to fill your head with knowledge. It is meant to fill your heart with joy and satisfaction, and lead you to worship.
During the first break of that first class, I called my wife and she asked, “Well, how was it?” I told, with tears in my eyes, that it felt like I had been to church… and it felt like I was doing what God put me on this earth to do. For the next three years, Dr. Cottrell fed me rich spiritual food and I consumed every bit of it with a voracious appetite.
His Romans NIV Commentary (College Press) was like a copernican revolution in my thinking on salvation. His teachings and writings on baptism—especially this book—solidified my understanding of the connection between baptism and salvation. His magnum opus, the What the Bible Says About God trilogy is perhaps the greatest theological work I have ever read. Furthermore, his book on grace, his book on the Holy Spirit, and his systematic theology have all be absolutely indispensable in my ministry. I have read and re-read all of these books multiple times. If you are looking to dip into Dr. Cottrell’s writings for the first time, I would suggesting beginning with the smaller books of his collected writings, published by the Christian Restoration Association.
While the amount of Bible, theology, and interpretive skills he taught me are too much to recount, there are a few lessons I will never forget. First, he taught me to always have a high view of God and the Bible. I will never forget how my mouth hung open when he told us all how he wrote his trilogy on God. He printed out the entire Bible, then read through the whole thing, cutting out every verse that said anything at all about God. When he was done, he laid them all out on the floor and began organizing them. After a lot of work, he had three groups: one on God as creator, one on God as ruler, and one on God as redeemer. These became his magnum opus.
Second, Dr. Cottrell taught me to never fear who I might offend by standing on the truth of God’s Word. Jack was an equal-opportunity-offender when it came to teaching theology. While he was the foremost critic of Calvinism that I was aware of, he would also teach certain doctrines (especially on GRACE) that would make traditional Restoration Movement folks bristle. I was always struck at how he would present the opposing viewpoints, and then, when he came to his interpretation, he would call it the biblical position. This was not arrogance, but firm conviction.
Early on in our Doctrine of Grace class, he taught us about egocentric versus theocentric religion. In egocentric religion, the center is the self and God is primarily viewed as the answer to human problems and needs. God and the Bible exist for us. We come to God because of what we can get from him. The American church today is infected and infested with egocentric religion. On the other hand, theocentric religion places God at the center of all. We seek God because in him we find the greatest satisfaction for our souls. He created us. He initiated a relationship with us. He must tell us who he is. Our life is a response to his revelation. As Paul says in Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
I will never forget those lessons. I will never forget Dr. Cottrell’s unselfish willingness to read and endorse the two books I have written. I will never forget the way he sometimes stood up on his tip-toes to make an emphatic point while preaching. I will never forget the face he would make when some arrogant, young seminary student thought they were presenting an objection he had never heard before. I will never forget his willingness to lead a cappella singing boldly and unashamed in any setting. I will never read Romans and not think of him. I will never teach on baptism and not think of him. And I will never forget how he always lived to teach others about the two things John 1:14 tells us Jesus had in abundance… GRACE and TRUTH.
I thank the Lord today for the life of Jack Cottrell, my theological mentor. He fought the good fight. He finished the race. He kept the faith. I pray for God to raise up more men like him, especially in the Restoration Movement, for we need them now more than ever.