Boyce the Theologian

Founders Journal 69 · Summer 2007 · pp. 10-18

Boyce the Theologian

Tom J. Nettles

“But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).

In 1920 Mrs. J. E. Peck contributed to the Western Recorder an article in remembrance of J. P. Boyce (1827–1888). Among many outstanding features, she remembered him vividly as a great theological teacher through biblical exposition. She recalled the first time that she saw him when he gave an exposition to a group of students at a commencement.

He took for his text the epistle to the Romans. Romans is next to Ephesians the deepest book in the Bible. I groaned inwardly. Dr. Boyce was a learned man and I looked for a discourse over the heads of his audience, especially of the students to whom he was preaching. He had not spoken a dozen sentences before everyone, including the students, was listening with the most absorbing attention. He made Romans a living entity. He put Paul’s great argument so clearly and simply all could understand. We saw clearly what were the errors in that important church and that Paul combated them in the best and most powerful way. That was a matter of course since Paul was inspired, but it was not a matter of course that an audience of plain people unlearned in the schools should be enabled to comprehend all these great things in that great epistle and it showed that the speaker was as great an expositor as has been known in the world.[1]

This charming memory not only points to the pedagogical magnetism of Boyce but to two other life-long commitments. One, he never grew weary, but rather increased in his intense affection, toward the great systematic expression of doctrine laid out by Paul in the book of Romans. Two, he believed that these doctrines were for all the sheep of Christ. Doctrine, particularly the distinguishing doctrine of God’s sovereign grace, should be the common property of all the church for its edification and comfort.

Early Preparation of Mind and Heart

J. P. Boyce was reared in the richest home in South Carolina. His mother came to faith in Christ under the ministry of Basil Manly, Sr. in 1830 and left the Presbyterian to be a part of the Baptist congregation. For ten years he felt the deep impressions made both by Manly’s pastoral care and his theologically alive experimental preaching. Others that deeply influenced his thinking were W. T. Brantly, Sr., Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller. During spring vacation from Brown, Boyce, already showing signs of deep conviction about his sin and the undeniable truth of biblical Christianity, attended the preaching of Richard Fuller who had come from Beaufort to preach each evening at the First Baptist Church of Charleston. He was converted and baptized on April 22 while the meeting was in progress.

On returning to Brown, Boyce immediately began Christian service in earnest and a rigorous reading program. Boyce’s reading regimen during his last year in college was very impressive, demonstrating an increasing zeal for Christian theology and apologetics, including Bishop Butler’s famous Analogy of Religion. A spiritual renewal on campus prompted Boyce to observe, “Never have I felt until this revival,” Boyce revealed, “what a blessed privilege it is to save a soul.” Giving a foretaste then of his future calling, Boyce remarked, “May my prayer evermore be to God that he may make me instrumental in his hands in the salvation of many! It is indeed a glorious and blessed privilege to labor in the vineyard of my Master.”[2]

A Worker in the Master’s Vineyard

Boyce, licensed to gospel ministry on November 14, 1847, was kept from immediate theological study by problems with his eyes. He married on December 20, 1848, about a month after having accepted the position as editor of a Baptist newspaper in Charleston SC, The Southern Baptist. He had begun gathering an impressive theological library during and immediately after his final year at Brown and had scheduled an arduous and aggressive reading program. Boyce’s voluminous reading of substantial theological works and his zeal for orthodoxy immediately showed itself in the pages of the paper. The almost twenty-two year old Boyce began to argue for a doctrinal standard to mark the Baptist witness southwide. In his introductory editorial he staked a claim to the task of theological watchman: “We are as editor of the Baptist as much a Watchman on the Walls of Zion as he who sounds the alarm from the sacred desk. May God strengthen me to perform this work.” He closed with the pregnant sentiments of a lover of truth: “But if an earnest desire for the furtherance of the principles of our denomination, and a full belief in their scriptural truth, accompanied by a determination to labor earnestly, industriously and prayerfully, be any index of success, we have that index.”[3]

The most ambitious theological undertaking during the few months that Boyce edited the paper consisted of his publication of a lengthy defense of the doctrine of imputation in a series of eight articles. Concurrent with these articles, Boyce included seven articles by W. B. Johnson that defended a scheme of redemption that did not involve the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer. Greg Wills has made a strong case for J. L. Reynolds as author of the articles.[4] Other evidence suggests that Boyce at least participated in some aspects of the writing and certainly sympathized fully them. An editorial he wrote prior to the appearance of these articles, entitled “Purity of Heart,” included the theological point “Christ is made your righteousness. He imputes unto you the purity of his own pure life and ensures unto you the blessings which that purity gives.”[5] Books in his library show personal engagement in the content of the articles. At any rate, it is clear that Boyce approved the articles that endorsed imputation of the righteousness of Christ. I will treat them as presenting Boyce’s views and representing his life-long commitments.

His target in these articles probably was the professor at Furman University, whose place years later Boyce was to fill, J. S. Mims. Mims rejected the doctrine of imputation and had made caustic remarks on the issue in 1848 in an address entitled “Orthodoxy.” Also involved in resisting the confessionally orthodox position was the seasoned preacher and denominational leader William B. Johnson, from whose pen Boyce published seven articles. The deep earnestness and serious mindedness about issues of doctrinal truth permeate the entire series. In his announcement of the series Boyce wrote, “Opposed as we are to controversies generally, we can never refuse our columns to contributions such as these.” He could not object to a “temperate discussion of any theological question” because “controversy is apt to elicit the truth.”[6]

Several enduring traits of Boyce’s subsequent contribution to the theological life of Baptists appear rather boldly in this early polemical exchange. First, Boyce shows that he has read widely in Reformed literature and accepted it as the Baptist heritage a departure from which could only bring disaster. Second, Boyce indicated his confidence in the confessional history of Baptists and his zeal to preserve the Particular Baptist heritage so thoroughly entwined in the doctrines of the proto-Southern Baptist generation. Third, while dealing with the issue of imputation, Boyce showed his penchant for clearly stated categories of systematic theology involving an awareness of the interdependence of all the facets of a system of doctrinal truth and their necessary development from Scripture rightly interpreted.

The Reformed Heritage

One must recognize that Boyce’s love for the family of Reformed thinkers in these articles precedes his study at Princeton. His various mentors prior to Princeton all gave Boyce reason to consider that heritage as his own. The articles quote Charles Hodge, J. H. Thornwell, Richard Furman, Andrew Rivet, Turretine, the Westminster Confession, Archibald Alexander, Jonathan Edwards, Andrew Fuller, Robert Haldane, Herman Witsius, Gerhard Oncken and others. They specifically criticized Socinianism, Arminianism, Pelagianism, the New Divinity, as well as a point by point refutation of William B. Johnson and his absorption in the New Divinity viewpoint.[7]

This love affair with a wide range of Reformed literature continued throughout his life. His massive and lovely library contained all the major works of the Continental Reformed theologians, the English Puritans, the Presbyterians both in Scotland and America, Jonathan Edwards. He required his students to read Turrettin in Latin. John A. Broadus commented on Boyce’s love for this tradition.

For one who sympathizes with what we call the Calvinistic, or Augustinian, type of Theology, this work is in certain important respects unrivalled. Many a subject is presented with such exact analysis, such complete statement, such consummate argumentation, as one very rarely encounters in the noblest writings. Some persons call the book dry,—an epithet which not a few apply to all systematic theological discussions; but to Boyce it was simply delightful. It gratified his taste for analysis, it satisfied, his Calvinistic convictions, its energetic and forcible exhibitions of truth awakened in him practical as well as intellectual sympathy.[8]

Boyce continued this interaction with the Reformed thinkers, virtually identifying Baptist theology as a species of that great tradition. His Abstract of Systematic Theology, published in 1887, Boyce gave witness to his forty year commitment to and love of that theololgy described by John Broadus as “that exalted system of Pauline truth which is technically called Calvinism, which compels an earnest student to profound thinking, and, when pursued with a combination of systematic thought and fervent experience, makes him at home among the most inspiring and ennobling views of God and of the universe he has made.”[9]

The Use of Confessions

The importance of Baptist confessionalism also appears strongly in the articles on imputation. The series began by quoting from the Baptist Catechism and the Charleston Confession of Faith. A sense of honest stewardship demanded that faithfulness to a confessional standard be maintained. A simple agreement that the Bible is inspired while “exploding” its distinctive doctrines does little to protect the substance of the Christian faith. A confession of faith protects the denominational witness to full-orbed truth and must be set forth as the documentation of unity. If Baptists tolerate the “explosion” of such doctrine as the deity of Christ, total depravity, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, “unless the churches interpose, it is difficult to predict what explosions are to follow.” Should other explosions begin to occur, however, “the final explosion,” so affirmed the article, “will send the denomination in twain.” If such a division may be avoided “only by conniving at pernicious errors, and standing silently by, while the landmarks of our fathers are one after another stricken down, I for one say—Let it come.”[10] Whether Reynolds or Boyce, the urgency sizzles.

Boyce continued strongly to urge the prescriptive and disciplinary use of confessions as a safeguard for denominational identity and witness and a grand privilege for all who are set aside as teachers. He argued that case strongly in July, 1856, before the trustees of Furman University after he was as professor of Systematic Theology at Furman University. His inaugural address to that position became one of the true landmarks of Southern Baptist denominational life. He proposed as one of his key ideas about theological education that the denominational theological seminary be protected by firm subscription to a confession of faith. He argued that this requirement did not contradict Baptist views of liberty but represented a faithful execution of the Baptist concern for church purity. “The same views of the spirituality of the church,” Boyce explained, “have impressed upon us the necessity of excluding those who have violated the simplicity which is in Christ.”[11]

He contended that “peculiar obligations rest” on those responsible for educating a rising ministry. That person should have perfect agreement with the confession proposed. “No difference, however, slight, no peculiar sentiments, however speculative, is here allowable.” He may not teach if he has mental reservation concerning the doctrinal statement and never should private understandings of disagreements be foundational to a person’s employment in a confessional institution. If a confession is wrong, then those who have legitimate authority may change it; but never should the principle be established that “the professor sign any abstract of doctrine with which he does not agree and in accordance with which he does not intend to teach.”[12]

In 1874, Boyce answered an article that appeared in the Baptist Record about two objections to the seminary. One concerned the ownership of the Seminary and the nature of the Board of trustees, which Boyce answered energetically and exhaustively. The second concerned the “doctrines taught in the Seminary against which some four or five State Conventions have earnestly protested.”[13] In investigating the second objection, Boyce found that it amounted only to the fact that one of the current five professors had stated a willingness to accept immersion in a non-Baptist congregation as acceptable for membership in a Baptist church.

Giving full attention to the objection, Boyce reviewed the importance of having a “creed” as a doctrinal standard for the school in securing the perpetuity of sound teaching. He recalled the difficulty some brethren had in accepting the idea of a “creed.” In light of disagreement on which currently available confession most suitably met the need, the decision to write a new doctrinal platform met with approval. With Basil Manly carrying the lion’s share, but all the faculty and the educational committee joining, finally a twenty-article platform, distilled mainly from the Charleston Association Confession, was adopted entitled the Abstract of Principles. Three principles governed the final articulation of the text. 1. “A complete exhibition of the fundamental doctrines of grace, so that in no essential particular should they speak dubiously; 2. They should speak out clearly and distinctly as to the practices universally prevalent among us; 3. Upon no point, upon which the denomination is divided should the Convention, [that is the educational convention convened for this purpose] and through it the Seminary, take any position.”[14] “There were brethren,” Boyce recalled, “and I admit that I was one of them—who would then and there have abandoned our object, rather than aid in raising an institution whose funds and endowments were not secured to the maintenance of the principles and practices then prevalent, and still prevailing, in our Southern Zion.” In particular Boyce emphasized that “the doctrines of grace are therefore distinctly brought out in the abstract of principles.”[15]

Boyce saw clearly that the nature of biblical revelation called for the summation of its progressively revealed redemptive scheme in succinctly articulated confessional articles as Paul himself did in 1 Timothy 3:16, among other places. God’s revelation in Scripture is both propositional and clear. In addition, Boyce listened well to the history of the church. He knew that individual items of biblical truth had progressively been condensed into confessional formulas, beginning with the great Christological creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries and culminating in the great Protestant creeds, in order to highlight truth and root out and reveal error. Also important was Boyce’s conviction that heretics often like to hide their deviations from biblical truth behind an ostensible devotion to the words of the Bible. One of the surest ways for error to overtake and smother truth is its appearance as an angel of light, heterodoxy appearing as pious devotion. Furthermore, Boyce knew that confessions had played an important part in the Baptist witness through the years. Baptists had protected the purity of their testimony to truth through the publication of confessions. They had both affirmed their faith and tested its existence in others through this method.

The Systematic Arrangement of Doctrine

Equally as important, additionally, for maintaining theological faithfulness is the extended argument for theological coherence built upon a full display of all the relevant biblical material on any subject. As the Confession, or catechism, consisted of a distillation of thought into a simple, but hopefully sufficient, assertion, even so a systematic theology involved the expanse of thought that provides the demonstration in support of the assertion.

The articles on Imputation reveal Boyce’s conviction that systematic theology has both a pedagogical and a protective function. Pedagogically, it serves as an aid to give structure to biblical teaching. Christians learn the Bible better when they have a guide that helps them know how to relate the multiplicity of subjects to one another in Scripture. As a protective measure, systematics upholds Christian truth by helping one discern the relationships of the various elements of truth to one another. In his Abstract of Systematic Theology, Boyce observed on the issue of Christian Dogmatics, “It comprises in addition such philosophical explanations as seem necessary to make a complete and harmonious system. These additions are not necessarily non-scriptural, for they are often the embodiment of the very essence of Bible truth, though not of its formal utterances.”[16]

The initial article on imputation quoted Archibald Alexander as confirming the systematically strategic place of the doctrine of imputation. “We confess ourselves to be of the number of those,” so wrote Dr. Alexander, “who believe, whatever reproach it may bring upon us from a certain quarter, that if the doctrine of imputation be given up, the whole doctrine of original sin must be abandoned.” But even more was at stake in the relinquishing of this truth. Its sinews connect the whole of specifically Christian truth. “And if this doctrine be relinquished, then the whole doctrine of redemption must fall, and what may then be left of Christianity they may contend for that will, but to ourselves, we shall be of opinion that what remains will not be worth a serious struggle.”[17]

Boyce did not change his views on that issue. In the opening paragraph to his discussion of justification in the Abstract of Systematic Theology he wrote, “No doctrine of Scripture is more important than that of justification. It involves the whole method of the salvation of sinners. It is vitally connected with all other fundamental doctrines. A correct conception of it cannot exist when other truths are ignored, or only partially received. The opinions held upon this point control in great part the theological views in general of all Christian individuals and parties.”[18]

The fourth article laid siege to the New Divinity theology itself invoking this same conviction of the internal connections of doctrine. After giving voice to the judgment of James H. Thornwell on the New Divinity, Reynolds, and Boyce through him, remarked that, though the charges seem startling, they are verified in the history of New England Congregationalism. “The pantheistic Parkerism of the present day, is only one of the stages in the descent from the denial of imputation, down through Socinianism to open infidelity and Atheism.” He continued, “For if this doctrine be chargeable with injustice, Atheism is our last and only refuge.” Why is this so? Imputation is “inextricably interwoven with the Sacred scriptures—it pervades the moral government of God.” But in the New Divinity movement God’s moral government of the world necessarily excluded any hint of imputation. Philosophically, they concluded the very idea to be intrinsically unethical. If so, its clear presence in Scripture renders that book as built on an ethically faulty foundation. Should the opponents of imputation succeed in their charge, “the converts to their opinion would reject a book which so manifestly teaches the doctrine,” and, if consistent, would proceed to the “denial of all moral government and the entire rejection of the divine existence.”[19]

This same commitment to coherence and synthesis based on the unity of truth Boyce demonstrated throughout his career. He referred to the development of doctrine as the process by which the truth becomes “harmoniously stated.” “The leading truths involved in every prominent doctrine of the word of God,” Boyce wrote in explaining how systematics arose incrementally in the history of Christianity, “were held and maintained long before the doctrine itself became the subject of definition.” If this were the invention of new teaching, it would be wrong and rightfully rejected by every Christian. When it represents, however, the gathering of all the relevant biblical material and placing each idea in its proper relation with its proper weight, excluding nothing and comprehending everything, this alone produces true teaching and protection from error.[20]

Boyce’s colleagues and students recognized his love of systematization. Broadus made the following observation.

He was a strong and deep thinker. Very rarely do you find a man so widely acquainted and actively occupied with practical affairs, yet so delighting in the profoundest thought. He really loved to follow out a close-linked and vigorous line of argument. He took pleasure for its own sake in the elaborate analysis, exposition, and vindication of some great theological theme. In our hurriedly practical age many talented men imagine that they have no time for calm and prolonged thought; yet not only ministers, but lawyers and business-men and teachers, might well observe the examples in which the reflective and the active powers of a strong man reinforce each other.[21]

The students learned to appreciate their drilling in systematics. What they found irksome in its exacting requirements, they soon found beneficial in real substantial and observable progress in knowledge and expression. “Many a time since,” so testified J. William Jones, “I have had occasion to thank God and to thank my old professor for the thorough drill he gave us in the doctrines of God’s Word.” He spoke of the requirement Boyce had of minute analysis of the flow of argument, paragraph by paragraph, of Dick’s Systematic Theology. Another said that Boyce’s “faithful teaching and thorough drill in Systematic Theology” had been a healthy tonic to him “in a malarious atmosphere.”[22]

The same commitment to coherence and system one may find throughout his Abstract of Systematic Theology. He compared theology to a science that is built on facts. “It inquires into their existence, their relations to each other, their systematic arrangement, the laws which govern them, and the great principles which are the basis of this existence, and these relations.” How clearly and consistently he articulated this commitment can be seen in his approach to the doctrine of perseverance. He affirmed its inseparable connection with “the other doctrines of grace which we have found taught in God’s word.” According to Boyce these doctrines usually are accepted together or rejected together because of their mutually dependent character. While all Romanists, Arminians, and Lutherans reject them, Calvinist confessions contain them all together. “All the evidence therefore, of the truth of the doctrines already examined, may be presented in favour of this which is a necessary inference from them.” By the same token, he claimed, “all the independent proof of this doctrine confirms the separate doctrines, and the system of doctrine, with which it is associated.”[23]

And Now . . .

In closing, Christian commitment calls us to a genuine sympathy for the theological vision of J. P. Boyce and the firm commitment of the struggling saints and prominent preachers of the early years of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dissenters from these convictions have been scattered throughout each generation of Southern Baptists from the beginning but in increasing measure and proportion throughout the twentieth century. Many have observed the consequent fragmentation and destructive effects of this loss of conviction, but few have made a full recovery of the viewpoint that sustains life and truth. Many have felt the dark oppression of the loss of truth, but few have perceived the path that leads to the restoration of light and freedom. By God’s grace, may each reader be among those that embody that conviction and give strong encouragement to others in that direction. Such a profound conviction held conscientiously, will restore energy to one’s spiritual confidence, fullness of conviction to one’s love of the Bible, and zeal for the proclamation of the faith that leads to godliness.


1 Mrs. J. E. Peck, “James P. Boyce,” in Western Recorder (February 26, 1920).

2 John A. Broadus, Memoir of James Petigru Boyce (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), 50, 51.

3 James P. Boyce, “Our Salutatory,” The Southern Baptist (November 22, 1848).

4 Greg A. Wills, The First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina, 1809–2002 (Nashville: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2003), 44–51.

5 James P. Boyce. The Southern Baptist (November 29, 1848) 2.

6 Boyce, “Our Correspondents,” The Southern Baptist (February 21, 1849).

7 Boyce, “On Imputation, IV,” The Southern Baptist (March 14, 1849).

8 Broadus, Memoir, 268.

9 Broadus, Memoir, 73.

10 Boyce, “On Imputation, I” The Southern Baptist, (February 21, 1849).

11 Boyce, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions.” In James Petigru Boyce: Selected Writings ed. Timothy George (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1989), 56.

12 Boyce, Changes, 50.

13 Boyce, “The Two Objections to the Seminary, I” Western Recorder (April 11, 1874).

14 Boyce, “The Two Objections to the Seminary, V” Western Recorder (June 20, 1874).

15 Ibid.

16 Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 5.

17 Boyce, “On Imputation, I.”

18 Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 394–95.

19 Boyce, “On Imputation, IV” (March 14, 1849)

20 Boyce, “The Doctrine of the Suffering of Christ,” The Baptist Quarterly (October, 1870) 385–86.

21 Broadus, Memoir, 349.

22 Broadus, Memoir, 266.

23 Boyce, Abstract, 428.