New biography explores life and theology of Southern’s founding president

Communications Staff — June 10, 2009

Tom Nettles has written, co-written or edited nearly a dozen books on Baptist history.

But he wanted to quit in the middle of his latest book, a recently-released biography of James Petigru Boyce, founding president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Buoyed by encouragement from a friend and a deep love for his subject, Nettles persevered and the finished product is a detailed 600-page grand tour of the life, theology and legacy of Boyce titled “James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman” (P&R).

“I almost gave up on writing it,” Nettles said, “because I became so distressed that this person who had such gifts and such love for theology was forced into money raising to finance Southern Seminary in its early days.

“For years he was out of the classroom and not able to do what he wanted to. But that was because he knew in the long run that a theological seminary would be able to perpetuate the teaching of a theology for generations and that was the reason he gave himself to (the raising of funds). He did it because of theology.”

Thanks to the perseverance of Boyce and the three men—John Albert Broadus, Basil Manly, Jr., and William Williams—who served with him on the school’s founding faculty, Southern Seminary is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Nettles’ work traces the formative years of Boyce’s life from his birth in South Carolina through his theological studies at Princeton Seminary under stalwarts such as Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander and details the beginning of his career as a theologian on the faculty of Furman University. Prior to becoming an educator, Boyce served as a pastor in Columbia, S.C.

While on faculty at Furman, Boyce developed and articulated his now famous vision for theological education, which he termed “three changes in theological education.” This vision became foundational for Southern, which Boyce founded in Greenville, S.C., in 1859.

Nettles shows how Boyce gave thousands of dollars out of his own pockets to insure that Southern Baptists would have a seminary. In the 1860s, the Civil War nearly killed the institution, but it returned after the war, moving to Louisville in 1877.

The book also details Southern Seminary’s first significant challenge from theological liberalism—that coming after the move to Louisville in the person of professor Crawford Howell Toy, who embraced liberal views of Scripture along with Darwinian evolution. Unable to teach in accord with Southern’s confession of faith, the Abstract of Principles, Toy resigned in 1879. Boyce knew it was inevitable, Nettles writes, but was deeply saddened by his young professor’s embrace of heterodoxy.

“This event and the tensions leading up to it showed that even the greatest vigilance and most determined confessional commitment could not hold back the pressure toward embracing modernity,” Nettles writes.

“At the same time, it demonstrated the clear meaning of the confessional stance of the school and gave Boyce a clear resolution to encourage orthodoxy and cut off error wherever he found it.”

Later in the book, Nettles examines Boyce’s theology, showing his deep love for the Bible and his unwavering commitment to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura—the authority of Scripture alone.

Nettles says writing a full-length biography presented a daunting challenge, one that resulted in what may be his most satisfying work thus far.

“I was intimidated with the whole idea of trying to write a biography from beginning to end and deal with the sorts of sources that you need to be able to uncover,” he said.

“But I also love Boyce and was determined, to the degree that I was able to do this, to make sure that I was at least accurate and gave something of the ethos of who Boyce was. I want people to like Boyce.”

For a full interview with Nettles on the book, please see news.sbts.edu/?p=729.

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