“A Thorough Knowledge of the Word of God”

Founders Journal 77 · Summer 2009 · pp. 5-8

“A Thorough Knowledge of the Word of God”

James P. Boyce

When the seminary failed to open in 1858, Boyce completed raising the endowment from South Carolina and went to help with that task in Virginia. This speech, made at the meeting of the General Association meeting, shows Boyce’s zeal for theological education, the importance he placed on each separate division of study, his concern for a full knowledge of the Bible and orthodoxy, and his understanding that Baptists had a right to confidence that their institution would instruct a ministry fit for Baptist churches.

Address of Rev. J. P. Boyce at Hampton
Religious Herald – July 1, 1858

Brother President and Brethren of the General Association of Virginia:

I have earnestly desired an opportunity of meeting with you in your General Association, and especially of conferring with you upon the subject of our contemplated theological Seminary. The first impulse in its origin was from you. On several occasions there had been made abortive attempts to secure something of this kind. But to Virginia belongs the credit, whatsoever that may be, of first starting the movement which has resulted in the establishment of the Southern Baptist Theological seminary. It was by the chairman of a delegation appointed by this Association, that the meeting of the friends of Theological Education was called at Montgomery in 1855. The result of that conference was the Convention at Augusta, Ga., in May 1856 by which the call was made for offers for location, to be tendered in a similar meeting at Louisville. At this meeting the offer of the South Carolina Convention, made the preceding July, was cordially accepted, with some modifications, and the Institution virtually established….

The possibility of failure is not now to be thought of. So much has already been done, that it would be a waste of Christian energy to allow it to be for naught. So marked have been the providences by which it has been brought to its present position, that the work is seen to be of God, and he will not let it fail….

It is sometimes supposed that to teach a man theology is to give him the precise views of his teacher. There is a tendency in that direction, and hence we have guarded our institution by an abstract of principles, to prevent any one holding erroneous views from being among its instructors. There is certainly a molding influence, and hence the importance of an institution of our own, in which the instructors shall be men who take similar views with ourselves of the teachings of the divine word. But among these teachings we find the obligation to search the Scriptures each man for himself. And he who is true to the principles for which our fathers have contended in the past, will ever see to it that those trusted to his care shall be taught to examine the word of God for themselves. The teacher will present the truth with the reasons for it, and will encourage the young men to study the word of God to see if this be not the truth. May God deliver us from any other kind of teachers and from scholars who will take any truth ever upon the mere opinion of a man. The scholar must be taught to study for himself, and diligently to enquire if this be so. And were it my opinion that any other course could ever be pursued in this institution, I would be the first man to lift the hand for its destruction.

Prior to any question as to the importance of such instruction appears the fact that many of our rising ministry will have it. In the absence of such schools among us as they have felt the need of, they have gone to Baptist Institutions at the North, and to Paedobaptist Institutions to the North and South…. Is it not our duty to provide for a want so generally felt by those who have received the best advantages of other kinds? And can Baptists depend on the charity of other denominations? Are they willing that their ministry shall either be left untaught in many important matters of truth, or that they shall listen, however incredulously to false views of the church and of its ordinances? Is it the part of wisdom with us to allow such education as this to be given to those of our ministry who enjoy the best educational advantages? Or, if they attend Baptist schools at the North, are we willing to accept charity from those from whose fellowship we are cut off, from whom in all matters we are separated, and whose opinions upon the subject of our internal institutions are such as, if imbibed by our young ministers, render them unfit to labor successfully in our midst?

But allow me to say something of the value of this education. What do we mean by giving theological education? Nothing more than giving to a student a thorough knowledge of the word of God–of the way to study it, and the best means of preaching it to others. This is the entire object in view. It is for this purpose that we teach the languages in which the Scriptures were originally written. This, however, is less frequently objected to. It is admitted at once that there is some advantage here. Well, then as to systematic theology. The instruction in this is simply placing before the pupil, as it were, a map of Christian truth. We thank God for it that it can be systematized–that it does not teach any two truths which are opposed to each other. But to how many does the word of God have this appearance? Let any one sit down and try to balance the statements of different doctrines. How long will it take him to complete it, and how frequently will he have to modify it! After the utmost that he can do, how frequently will some friend be able to point out passages in the word of God which render further modification necessary. And when we remember how long a process one must go through to arrange all the doctrines, the task is seen to be interminable. And were it not for the instructions derived from books in which theology is set forth systematically how numerous would be the errors into which our ministry would fall. It takes a master mind to do alone what the best men of the churches were centuries in achieving–the arrangement of the whole truth without any admixture of error. And yet, such an approximation to this as is essential is easily attained with the help of some work or teacher of systematic theology. An illustration readily suggests itself upon this subject. Were you, Mr. President, to attempt to map off that county of Virginia with which you are most familiar, would there not be a thousand mistakes, unless you were to go about a systematic survey. Yet, if that county, already mapped out, were placed before you, you could, with little general knowledge, tell, at least in the general, if the map were accurate, and with much less than what is necessary to arrange it, could decide upon positive accuracy, If another hand has measured a line or taken an angle, you are satisfied with taking the same measurements once, if they coincide, and only when a difference occurs do you feel necessary a second measurement. Now, the study of systematic theology with a text book and instructor is precisely the same kind of work. The whole ground is mapped off, and all that has to be done is to examine it, to see if there be any mistake. The doctrine is presented as the piety and learning of the church have developed it; and it is accepted not because of that, but because it is seen to meet exactly all that the word of God says on the subject. With the helps now in use, every passage which bears upon a given doctrine may be gathered in a few hours. A few more will enable us to arrange them and to compare them with the statement made. The professor stands prepared to remove difficulties. The students come prepared to present any that may arise in their minds; and from such an examination it will be seldom found that the truth has not made its impression on the mind. There is no reason to fear that our students will too readily imbibe the opinions of their instructors. The Baptist mind is too well trained to independent thought, and realizes too strongly the obligation to present the reason of our belief. The Bible is the religion of our people, and the minister of the people must be a theologian of the Bible. Our present danger lies rather in the fact that in the absence of a thorough knowledge of the truth, the great doctrines of the Bible are never developed, their relation in the Christian life never made known, and the ministry itself, which should be apt to teach, thoroughly instructed in every good word and work, are found acknowledging their ignorance and excusing it upon the ground that these truths are not frequently to be proclaimed. Such certainly is not Bible instruction. Every truth has its place. Every truth is to be proclaimed. We are to give to each one precisely the importance given in the word of God, and systematic theology best enables us to do this.

The study of Church History also brings before us the mistakes of the past, and guards us against committing them. It tells us of errors, of the grounds on which they were based, and the manner in which they were refuted. And any curious theory which may have crept into our minds, is thus frequently shown off in its true colors. Ignorance of these errors leads to most frequent mistakes. No longer ago than yesterday did I meet with a book written by one of our best brethren–a man of great usefulness and whose praises are on the lips of many; yet in this book I found a theory which was exploded fifteen hundred years ago. I had seen it referred to before, but had not read it. And the refutation of it is so simple that one can scarcely imagine how he could have failed to recognize it. To its presentation by a writer in review of it, he has made no reply at all, so far as I know. Now, these mistakes are natural. They arise in the minds of all not thoroughly instructed who try to think about God’s truth. And the knowledge that they are not new, afforded by Church History, would put many in the way of finding out their mistakes.

The subject of church government is now awakening very general attention. How many of our brethren are able to meet its issues. And so with many other matters connected with this subject. The difficulty I always feel is in finding time to say all that I desire. I must not weary you; yet, my brethren, I could speak all night, and yet fail to say all that I desire.

Let me refer, however to one other point, and I am done. The question is frequently asked us, how will you secure to us a more practical ministry? The learned ministry of the past have frequently been without this character. They have not been sufficiently men of the people. It seems to me God has singularly put in our hands the means of securing this result. Our institution is located in the midst of an extensive rural population. The students will always have opportunity to preach as much as they can, profitably, during the term. And then, during the four months vacation they can labor as colporters, carrying books from house to house, and speaking to the people about their spiritual interests. When a resolution was introduced, a few nights since, into your Colporter Convention, to the effect that this kind of labor was singularly suited to educate the ministry, I was ready to respond to it, and would have done so but for the lateness of the hour. And I would have every influence brought to bear upon our young ministers, to lead them to engage in this work. Should this be done–with the educational advantages we can afford–with the spirit of independent thought which actuates our people–and with the earnest piety, which it is to be hoped, the churches will see to, is to be found in every student they recommend–we may well hope that a source of the richest blessings will be afforded to our churches.

Let me beg your hearty co-operation in this enterprise. I ask it for the sake of the church, from all parts of which comes the cry for more laborers for the harvest. I ask it for our most earnest young men, who desire it that they may learn more of Christ, whose hearts, burning to tell his love, and to feed his sheep, feel sadly the deficiencies of our present provision for them. Will you refuse? The interest taken in our enterprise to which I have before referred, assures me you will not. Brethren of Virginia, take your place in this great enterprise. And the Lord make it an abundant blessing to the church, and fulfill in it all our hopes, and answer in its prayers even more than we can ask or think.