Tom Nettles on new Boyce biography: Q&A, part I

Communications Staff — June 10, 2009

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Nettles is the author of a recently released biography on Southern Seminary’s founding president titled, “James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman” (P&R). Nettles has served as professor of church history at Southern since 1997, and in his career of more than 30 years as a Baptist historian, Nettles has written or co-written more than a dozen books on Baptist history.

QUESTION: As a Baptist historian and professor, you have been teaching on J.P. Boyce and his theology for many years, but what did you learn about Boyce while working on this book that surprised you?

THOMAS J. NETTLES: This may seem like something that should not surprise me, but I was impressed with just how deeply theological he was…I don’t think I ever realized how deeply committed he was to systematic theology in the teaching of ministers and how central he believed theology was to the task of ministry. In his thought and in all his expositions, in preaching, in his perception of the world and his perception of the pastoral ministry is so bound up with his commitment to a robust theology. I came away from the research much more impressed that this man was a serious theologian. In fact, at one point I almost gave up on writing it 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.

Q: Would Boyce be please with Southern Seminary’s present status?

TJN: He would. He would think that what he sees today makes it worth the suffering and the resistance and the controversy and the tears and the tiredness and the loss that he experienced. He probably would have been distressed and wondered if his life had been spent in vain, like Paul to the Galatians wondering if he’d run in vain, but if he saw the school today, I think he would say, ‘This is good. This is what I had in mind.’ He wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the way we test and the way we lecture; he would do it in a different way, but what we are aiming at as an outcome and what is driving the school in every different department right now, I think he would approve it and say, ‘This is the kind of school I had in mind.’

Q: So, his vision of three changes in theological education is in place?

TJN: I believe so. Although we don’t have the same kind of mix in the classes that he had envisioned—both the plain English student and the college graduate—that vision has been kept alive by the fact that we do provide through Boyce College, and we have provided in the past through the diploma programs, that kind of education for the non-college graduate. A version of that vision has been kept alive. And then the vision of producing scholars that can be teachers in Baptist schools through a graduate program is alive and well. And the confessional aspect, which has always been formally present, but not taken seriously for several decades, is now in place again in the very way he would expect it to be in place in accordance of the way he envisioned it in the three changes: no professor should give his name to a document which in accordance with which he has no intention to teach. I think that overall Boyce would be pleased.

Part II of the interview is available here: news.sbts.edu/?p=732

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