For those acquainted with Southern Baptist history, the name James P. Boyce is synonymous with theological education. Boyce championed the founding of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and convincingly prescribed its academic program in his “Three Changes in Theological Institutions.” Boyce’s vision for theological education was most immediately implemented and historically captured through Southern Seminary, but his “Three Changes” continues to influence Southern Baptist theological education, and it merits renewed attention.
As previously outlined, Boyce’s “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” called for a more abundant ministry, a learned ministry, and a doctrinally sound ministry. First and foremost, Boyce argued that an inadequate supply of ministers hindered the church and undermined the Great Commission, leading him to begin “Three Changes” with an impassioned call for a more abundant ministry.
An Abundant Ministry in Boyce’s Day
While acknowledging the sovereignty of God in calling one to ministry and the local church’s responsibility to affirm that call, Boyce nonetheless argued that the principle cause for a shortage of ministers was the failure to train them. According to Boyce, a new and rightly structured seminary could ameliorate the two primary factors that precipitated this shortage of ministers. First, in Boyce’s day the standard admissions requirements into theological institutions included a classical education, which disqualified many would-be students who enjoyed no such prior education.
Second, classical education encompassed proficiency in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. While this expected linguistic proficiency ensured the theological institution could base its curriculum on the original languages, it both formally and functionally precluded all potential students lacking such academic preparation. Interestingly, though seminaries and divinity schools held to the highest academic standards of admittance, Baptist churches routinely ordained men to ministry with little or no formal training, revealing a chasm between the expectations of the academy and the church.
These two factors led Boyce to conclude, “The consequences have been, that the number of those who have felt themselves called of God to the ministry, has been disproportioned to the wants of the churches; and of that number but a very small proportion have entered it with a proper preparation for even common usefulness.”
Boyce’s Proposed Remedies
To supply a more abundant ministry, Boyce proposed two remedies. First, he argued a new seminary should accept applicants regardless of their previous level of academic training. Second, in order to facilitate this shift in acceptance and to train more ministers, Boyce contended the curriculum should be based on the English Bible, not Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—a revolutionary paradigm shift for theological education.
Though these students may not be able to take more advanced courses or attain advanced degrees, at least some measure of theological equipping would be theirs. Anticipating that critics would argue a move to full acceptance and to an English-based curriculum would obviate the need for theological education, Boyce rebutted, “In adopting this change, we are so far from saying that education is unnecessary, that we proclaim its absolute necessity.”
An Abundant Ministry for Today
The need for a more abundant ministry still exists today. Demographics reveal an aging pastorate, with churches looking for a new generation of pastors to take the ministerial baton. Additionally, the International Mission Board has mobilized itself to take the gospel to the world’s remaining unreached people groups and the North American Mission Board aims to plant 15,000 churches over the next decade. There does not currently appear to be enough ministers in the pipeline to fill these needs.
Moreover, the seminary labors with the churches under a Romans 10 mandate to preach the gospel to all people so they may hear and believe. Therefore, we must ask, “How can the seminary serve the churches by providing a more abundant ministry today?”
First, the seminary must lend its support to the calling out of ministers. To be sure, the seminary is dependent upon the churches for the quantity and quality of students they receive; nonetheless, the seminary is more than a mere bystander. Often students arrive on campus with a generic sense of call, but with little prior shepherding as to what all that call means. They arrive with wax noses, so to speak, and the seminary must encourage them toward serving the church, especially toward the pastorate and ministries of preaching and teaching God’s Word, both domestically and internationally as missionaries.
Second, the seminary should strengthen its undergraduate program. As in Boyce’s day, many are called to ministry later in life with little or no post-high school academic preparation. The undergraduate program enables a seminary to accept virtually anyone desiring ministry training. Dual major offerings, with one degree in biblical or ministerial studies and the other degree in a secular field, are also key. In that many overseas missionaries serve from a business or professional platform and that the majority of stateside pastors are bi-vocational, offering dual majors is a significant ministry advance, and one to which a growing number of students are availing themselves.
Third, the seminary must strive to keep tuition as low as possible. Students often arrive with previously incurred indebtedness, and, more than likely, they will graduate to serve in ministry contexts where their capacity to pay back debt will be limited. Additionally, lower tuition enables students to pare back their employment responsibilities, thus permitting them to more quickly graduate and be deployed for ministerial service. Accomplishing lower tuition is largely out of the seminary’s direct control, as it is dependent on the Cooperative Program for revenue and is inescapably tethered to the escalating costs of higher education.
Fourth, when students cannot come to seminary, the seminary should do its best to go to them, especially through online education. To be sure, nothing can replace life-on-life ministry training in the context of a seminary community, but such is not accessible to all. Boyce’s vision for educating as many ministers as possible and as thoroughly as possible not only permits the use of online technologies, but demands it.
To attain a more abundant ministry, we need not only Boyce’s theory, but also his passion. As we possess it, we will long for the church to be blessed and the gospel advanced through a more abundant ministry. As we see the fruits of our labors, perhaps we will exclaim as Boyce did, “Oh! Were there ever a time when we would expect that God would answer the prayers of his Churches and over flood the land and the world with a Ministry adequate to uphold his cause in every locality, it should seem to be now—when the multiplication a thousand fold of the laborers will still leave an abundant work for each; but now, alas! Now, when our Churches at home are not adequately supplied; when dark and destitute places are found in the most favored portions of our own land; when the Heathen are at our very doors, and the cry is help, help, and there is no help, because there are not laborers enough to meet the wants immediately around us.”
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,” 4.
 Ibid., 4.
 Ibid., 10.