Professor Thomas J. Nettles is one of my favorite historians. It was a joy to audit a course he taught on Baptist history, and I profit much from his writings. Last summer he published a biography of James Petigru Boyce, founder of Southern Seminary, where it is our privilege to teach.
Dr. Nettles graciously agreed to answer a few questions on the book (see if you can guess which of his answers made me laugh out loud).
As you did the research for this book, what surprised you most about James Petigru Boyce?
I expected to find in Boyce a soul-mate in theological commitment. What surprised me was the degree to which he was committed to the entire spectrum of orthodoxy as well as those distinctive issues that make one a Baptist—philosophical foundations for belief in God and the unity of truth, Trinitarian construction, Christology, soteriology, Baptist ecclesiology. He was relentlessly theological in his vision of what SBTS should be and how preachers should preach to the end of his life. Also the importance of the incarnation and a vigorous application of the doctrine of Christ’s humanity to each segment of theological discussion as well as to Christian ethics stands out in Boyce’s work.
What do you find most compelling about Boyce’s life and legacy?
Consequent to all that I admire about his theology and his consistency and power in applying it, the idea of legacy points to his thoroughgoing confessional commitment. This was a constant theme of his from his earliest reflections on theological education and was perhaps the most important part of his pivotal address before the Trustees at Furman, Three Changes in Theological Institutions. This confessional commitment, reiterated frequently, built into the founding documents of SBTS, gave historical, and legal, rationale for the Renaissance of doctrine in this institution. The vision of the “Resurgence” trustees and the prodigious labors of Dr. Mohler in theological reformation would simply mark the triumph of the personal opinion of a dominant thinker rather than a testimony to the immutable character of the faith once delivered to the saints, had it not progressed along the lines of return to a commonly-shared confession. Boyce’s vision made that work.
What should people in ministry today learn from Boyce?
We should learn that truth, or lack of it, commitment to the clear statement of truth, or lack of confidence in the ability and legitimacy of giving clear statements determines the character of one’s ministry. To the degree that we embrace, know, and state the truth of divine revelation, so will our ministries glorify God. God has placed the declaration of his glory in this age in the clear and faithful handling of his word by his ministers. The truths of Scripture were embodied ontologically in Christ as God and Man, two distinct natures in one person, and pragmatically (the only true pragmatism, the only thing in all of history that truly works) in the redemptive operation of the triune God in the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection, ascension, and session of Christ. To glorify Christ in his person and work and thus glorify God we must know and preach the revealed word of God as contained in Holy Scripture. Lack of clarity in this stewardship means a veiling of the divine glory in our ministries. This was Boyce’s conviction, this is what he wanted The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to teach and to model.
How would you respond to someone who said he would never read your book for the simple fact that James P. Boyce was from the South and owned slaves?
I would try to resist the production of a long list of insults to the intelligence of one so bigoted, narrow-minded, unthinking and hypocritical as even to think such a thing. Employment of such a principle would shut one off from the study of the Old Testament, virtually all of the ancient cultures, Greek dominance of the intertestamental period, the Roman Empire, the history of England until the first half of the nineteenth century, the history of colonial America, the lives of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, the entire ante-bellum South and so forth. If one believes that the union of church and state has brought untold suffering and evil to both church and state as well as society in general (which I do), and feels that avoiding the documents produced in that context is a moral necessity for a Christian and that awareness of their viewpoints on theology, politics, philosophy, and society are reprehensible and unworthy of the intellectual and spiritual life of a Christian (which I don’t), then avoid the study of the German Reformation, the English Reformation and all western medieval culture. Bring to void any benefit from the study of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Know nothing of the City of God, the Proslogion, and the Summa. If one studies history and gains interest in persons and nations simply on the basis of personal moral approval of the subject or the era in which he lived, he probably can find justification for the study of nothing and spend his life congratulating himself that he is ignorant of everything. But if one wants to see the operations of the mind of a highly gifted, intellectually and morally driven person, whose flaws are obvious and will not hurt us and whose strengths are massive and will inspire and help us, then go for Boyce. If one wants to see the way in which theological and biblical commitments transcend the ability of any individual to facilitate the moral, intellectual, and spiritual loftiness engendered in the study of divine revelation, study Boyce. If one want to see how that same commitment, nevertheless, raises a common sinner such as we all are to uncommon heights of self-sacrifice inspired by a vision of the divine glory, study Boyce. If one wants to see how Christian character constantly nourished by increased knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ can interrupt the natural tendency to bitterness and resentment and seething hostility fostered by the crushing destruction and snarling ridicule of deeply-held conviction and unfettered commitment to a cause and transform the soul to the sweetness of a reconciled and reconciling posture of mind, study Boyce.
Does reading a biography such as the one you have written on Boyce aid those who preach and teach the Bible? If so, how?
I believe knowledge of the life, works, and work of a man like Boyce holds great promise for positive instruction for preachers of the word. First, one can sense the intensity of Boyce’s commitment to theological education as foundational to and in service of gospel preaching. Two, one can trace in his theology the transparent assumption of the utter truthfulness, sufficiency, and clarity of Scripture. Three, one can interlace his sermons with his Systematic Theology and see that they are all of a piece and learn something about the power resident in the application of theology to ongoing Christian discipleship. Evangelism is doctrinal proclamation; the sanctifying influences of the word come through doctrinal proclamation; comfort for struggling souls comes by knowledge of the surety of the redemptive covenant, and thus through doctrinal proclamation; hope for a sinless God-saturated future invades the soul through doctrinal proclamation. Exegetical and expository preaching always must treat the chosen text as part of a larger doctrinal context. For Boyce, systematic theology was an aid to preacher in preaching as truly and clearly as each text demands. Boyce did that and a knowledge of the passion of his life and work engenders like passions in one that would spend some time being a student of his life.
What are your next projects?
Presently, I am working on a biography of Charles Spurgeon. The title will be something like “Living by Revealed Truth: the Life and Ministry of Charles Surgeon.” Spurgeon and Boyce were contemporaries. Boyce met Spurgeon a few weeks before Boyce died and felt overwhelmed at the unwasted intensity of Spurgeon’s multifaceted ministry, all built on clear obedience to biblical truth. I also have a desire accompanied by the production of a few chapters to write an analysis and advocacy of doctrinal preaching.
Hearty thanks for answering these questions, Dr. Nettles!