A Learned Ministry: James P. Boyce & the Abiding Relevance of "Three Changes in Theological Institutions" (III)

James P. Boyce’s “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” remains one of the most consequential addresses in the history of theological education and the most seminal one for Southern Baptists. As previously referenced, Boyce argued for a new seminary, established in the South, that would provide a more abundant, well-learned, and doctrinally sound ministry. As “An Abundant Ministry” noted, Boyce maintained the new seminary could facilitate a more abundant ministry through open admittance and by an English-based curriculum.

At the same time, Boyce argued the seminary not only should open its admittance to train the masses, but that it should provide the highest level of scholarship and academic training possible. Boyce, the son of one of the South’s leading financiers, Ker Boyce, received an education envied by the masses, which culminated in his theological training at Princeton Seminary. He knew first hand the potential of a more learned ministry and the promise it held for Southern Baptists.

A formal education does not make a minister, nor does a lack of formal education disqualify one. Church history is a running catalogue of preachers mightily used by God who lacked formal training. Nonetheless, Boyce’s arguments for a well-learned ministry were soundly reasoned and resonate with current needs of the church.

The Necessity of a Well Learned Ministry

Boyce presented four primary motivations for the new seminary to furnish a well-learned ministry, the first being the challenges of liberal theology. Boyce argued the Baptist seminary should be free from the theological liberalism of European, and especially German, universities. Moreover, Boyce argued seminary graduates should be equipped to rebut higher criticism, noting, “We have been dependent in great part upon the criticism of Germany for all the more learned investigations in Biblical Criticism and Exegesis, and that in the study of the development of the doctrine of the Church, as well as of its outward progress, we have been compelled to depend upon works in which much of error has been mingled with truth, owing to the defective standpoint occupied by their authors.”[1]

Second, Boyce argued it was insufficient simply to rebut Germanic thinking, but Baptists should argue from a position of scholastic strength, especially when it came to defending their own Baptist heritage.  He maintained, “The history of religious literature, and of Christian scholarship, has been a history of Baptist wrongs. We have been overlooked, ridiculed and defamed . . . Historians who have professed to write the history of the Church, have either utterly ignored the presence of those of our faith, or classed them among fanatics and heretics.”[2]

Third, Boyce argued a well-learned ministry was necessary so Baptist distinctives could be defended and preserved. “The Baptists in the past have been entirely too indifferent to the position they occupy. They have depended too much upon the known strength of their principles, and the ease with which from Scripture they can defend them,” Boyce noted.[3] He further contended Baptists should bring the full measure of scholarship to bear in order to clarify and defend their principles, thus strengthening Baptist identity. “We owe a change to ourselves—as Christians, bound to show an adequate reason for the differences between us and others . . .”[4]

Fourth, Boyce argued for a well-learned ministry in order to fulfill the Great Commission: “The results of past Missionary efforts, appears to indicate that we, like the Apostles, must adopt the system of home laborers, if we would evangelize the world. We must get natives to proclaim the glad tidings of salvation. The men whom we send forth to Missionary stations, must then be qualified to instruct the native preachers in all elements of Theological Education.”[5]  According to Boyce, this especially encompassed linguistic training and an ability to refute the Koran and engage the followers of Mohammad. Boyce argued that when an institution of excellence arises “learning will abound among us. The world will be subdued to Christ. The principles dear to our hearts will universally prevail.”[6]

A Well-Learned Ministry for Today

The call to serve Christ is a call to give our best energies, including our intellectual efforts, in gospel service. The noetic consequences of the fall have tainted every mind, therefore it must be renewed daily by the Spirit and the Word. At the same time, a mind set apart to God’s glory can strengthen and serve the church in several ways.

First, the well-learned minister will not only avoid errant doctrine and faulty interpretive methodologies, but also rightly exegete the Scriptures, preach the Word, defend the faith, and strengthen the church. Therefore it behooves the churches, and the seminaries they own, to expect the highest level of theological education—not for the accolades of men or the applause of professional academic societies—but for the health of the church. The church needs a generation of ministers with minds sharpened to confront the culture with biblical truth, exposit the Scriptures with confidence and accuracy, and preserve and pass on the faith to posterity. It takes a well-learned minister to bring the “whole counsel of God” to bear on a local church.

Second, as in Boyce’s day, the Baptist tradition still needs our defense and advocacy. Not out of pride do we defend our own tradition, but in order to preserve rightly our legacy, honor our Baptist forebears, and advocate for what we believe to be clear biblical teaching, especially as it relates to believer’s baptism by immersion. Believer’s baptism may not be the most important Christian doctrine, but it’s not the least important either, and it merits our defense and advocacy.

Third, as in Boyce’s day, a well-learned ministry is needed to strengthen our own Southern Baptist identity. One of the most encouraging trends of the past decade has been the emergence of conferences and movements that have facilitated partnership and shared encouragement.  We should celebrate and happily join gatherings such as Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition, yet in so doing let us not diminish our own Baptist identity or compromise our own Baptist distinctives. As Southern Baptists, we should have the denominational self-confidence to link arms with those of similar faith for mutual edification and to fulfill the Great Commission, but we should do so without minimizing our own Southern Baptist identity. This balance can be maintained, but we must be intentional about maintaining it.

Fourth, the call of the Great Commission necessitates we produce a well-learned ministry. Domestically, a well-learned ministry is needed to reach the skeptic, evangelize university campuses, and confront the new atheism. Internationally, with more than 3,000 unreached people groups, translation needs remain. Moreover, we must train up a generation of missionaries able to deconstruct other belief systems and equipped to reason from the Scriptures when they encounter the “men of Athens.”


Boyce compellingly argued a seminary can maintain a breadth of enrollment all the while simultaneously achieving the highest levels of scholarly accomplishment and academic preparation. This is a commitment worth renewing and achieving in the 21st century.

The Southern Baptist Convention is not a denomination of elites, nor should we set out to be one. We are a I Corinthians 1 people, with “not many wise according to worldly standards, not many noble, nor many mighty.”[7] We are people of the gospel and of the Word, who willingly are counted by the world as fools for Christ’s sake.  Yet, that doesn’t mitigate our responsibility to “always be ready give a defense, an account for the hope that is within us.”[8] This was Boyce’s vision for theological education and it must be our vision to renew and strengthen.

[1] James Petigru Boyce, “Three Changes in Theological Institutions: An Inaugural Address Delivered before the Board of Trustees of Furman University, the Night before the Annual Commencement, July 31, 1856,” 12.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] I Corinthians 1:26.

[8] I Peter 3:15.


Part I // Part II // Part III

topicsChurch & MinistryEducationEvangelicalismJames P. BoyceSouthern Baptist Convention

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