Review: Thomas J. Nettles. James Petigru Boyce. Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2009. Hardcover. 616 pages.
Reviewed by Ryan McGraw
This is an unusual biography. It is not merely a biography about a godly man and a minister of the gospel. James Petigru Boyce was one of the primary founders of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he spent most of his life as chairman of the faculty and as president of that institution. Nettle’s biography of James P. Boyce provides a window into a world that would otherwise be unknown to most of us. As one who loves Southern Presbyterian authors, I in part began reading this book to learn what the Lord was doing in another part of the Church Catholic during that time period.
Nettle’s book is characterized by painstaking scholarship. It is well written and thoroughly researched. James Petigru Boyce studied at Princeton Seminary during the last years of both Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller. While deeply thankful for his education at Princeton, Boyce greatly desired to begin a seminary that would serve the newly formed Southern Baptist Convention and that would educate men for the ministry from a distinctively Southern Baptist perspective. Boyce sought to learn from “Old Princeton” without shaping the new seminary after “Old Princeton.” His accommodation to Baptist practices and polity are revealed most clearly by the fact that while the seminary offered a full three-year degree, men who studied there had the liberty to take as many or as few courses as they liked. The rationale behind this was that, on the one hand, some men were gifted for the ministry who did not have the faculties for courses such as Greek and Hebrew and Latin Theology. On the other hand, the flexibility of the curriculum reflected complaints from the Baptist convention against curtailing their “liberty” through imposing standards for ministerial education. This line of thinking is certainly foreign to a Presbyterian!
Boyce’s life was filled with much hardship, through which he triumphed through faith in our Savior. He faced constant opposition from those who believed that theological education was harmful to young men. Theological controversies within the denomination often became personal attacks against members of the faculty, with Boyce taking the brunt of the opposition. The most heart-rending episode, however, was Boyce’s push for the resignation of professor C. H. Toy. Toy was one of Boyce’s most brilliant and promising students. He was highly gifted and brought academic recognition to the seminary after joining the faculty. In his higher education, he studied in Germany and gradually began adopting higher critical views of Scripture. Thus Boyce stood against a former student, friend, and colleague over the authority of Scripture itself. This demonstrates Boyce’s great love for the truth as well as the dangers that too often attend young men seeking to be educated in the latest forms of unbelief that pass under the name of “scholarship.” On a brighter side, Boyce’s close friendship with John A. Broadus shines forth at every stage of the book.
One aspect of Boyce’s life and work is particularly prominent in this book. Nettles has provided extensive material relating the labor to sustain the seminary financially. The detail provided on this subject is tedious at times and frustrating at others. Ironically, this is part of what makes this biography so valuable. Boyce expended his time, financial resources, and even his very life with the monumental task of raising and of sustaining sufficient funds for the seminary. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded as a denominational seminary, yet its existence depended largely upon the benevolent giving of individual donors and of congregations. It was founded just prior to the War Between the States. After the war, many people were no longer able or willing to give to the seminary due to the financial instability of the South. Boyce, along with his good friend John A. Broadus, constantly traveled in search of potential donors. Often when a wealthy supporter gave a large donation, support from others fell away. Until Boyce’s death, the seminary fluctuated between relative financial stability and the brink of total failure.
There are at least three lessons to glean from this book. First, never assume that because others have given much to a theological seminary that there is no need for us to give as we have opportunity. If we believe that God’s hand is upon a particular work, let us give while praying that God shall bless above measure.
Second, without sacrificing or downplaying the importance of their distinctives, Presbyterians can learn much from other traditions. If anything, Boyce’s example teaches us to retain our distinctives without giving ground, while sustaining a winsome attitude and a godly relation towards those who disagree. Boyce’s ideal of a Southern Baptist Seminary, teaching Southern Baptist doctrine, and serving Southern Baptist churches is an ideal that Presbyterians should lay hold for their own tradition.
Third, Boyce correctly viewed the future of the Church as bound to the future of the seminary. This continues to be true due to the fact that most denominations require theological education for their ministers. When our seminaries are diverse in doctrine and practice, or when our seminaries instruct men in theological novelties, we should not be surprised at the resultant chaos in the Church.
Years after Boyce died, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary abandoned the principles of its founders. By the grace and power of God, Dr. Albert Mohler has been instrumental in restoring Boyce’s legacy. Perhaps this is the best happy ending to the biography of a seminary president. Surely a good Presbyterian should praise his or her Triune God for his faithfulness to the Southern Baptists!