An Orthodox Ministry: James P. Boyce & the Abiding Relevance of "Three Changes in Theological Institutions" (IV)

James P. Boyce’s “Three Changes in Theological Institutions” served as the founding rationale for Southern Seminary, and it continues to shape the denomination’s efforts in theological education. In his proposed “Three Changes,” Boyce advocated an abundant ministry  and a well-learned ministry , but his third change, an orthodox ministry, is the most self-evidently necessary to Southern Baptists—then and now. To this end, Boyce argued the new seminary should be established with a confession of faith and must be resolutely bound to its maintenance and adherence.

Confessions of faith are as old as the church itself. Peter’s declaration that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” was a confessional statement, and our Lord’s approval of Peter’s declaration was itself a confessional commitment. In fact, the history of the church is a history of defining and defending orthodoxy, and over the centuries Baptists churches, associations, and conventions have consistently expressed themselves through confessional formulations as well. Indeed, Baptists are a confessional people, and Boyce in his “Three Changes” sought to strengthen and guard that confessionalism.

Boyce’s Concern for a Doctrinally Sound Ministry

By 1856, when Boyce delivered his “Three Changes,” European institutions had long since succumbed to theological liberalism, as had much of Northern Protestantism. Yet for Southern Baptists, Boyce perceived the two most pressing theological concerns to be Campbellism and Arminianism, and he argued the new seminary should guard against these twin errors through a “declaration of doctrine.”[1]

Boyce noted both the spread of Campbellism, with its unhelpful insistence on “no creed but the Bible,” and the encroachment of Arminianism could be defended against by a doctrinally sound ministry, produced by a doctrinally sound seminary. Hence, the preservation of sound doctrine was nonnegotiable. Boyce viewed this stewardship with moral urgency, arguing, “A crisis in Baptist doctrine is evidently approaching, and those of us who still cling to the doctrines which formerly distinguished us, have the important duty to perform of earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. Gentlemen, God will call us to judgment if we neglect it.”[2]

In order to rightly defend the faith and avoid God’s judgment, Boyce argued the new seminary should, from its inception, be accountable to an abstract of doctrine, stating, “The adoption of an abstract of doctrine is but the means taken by a Church to meet these obligations. Perceiving the probability, that at some time such questions must arise, she acts beforehand, when her judgment is perfectly cool, when there are no outward circumstances to warp it, and when she can patiently examine the word of God, and know if these things be so. The time of trial is not the time for legislation.”[3]

The Focus is on the Faculty

For Boyce, the focus of accountability rested on the faculty, and priority one was ensuring its members were doctrinally sound. He argued, “This it is that should make us tremble, when we think of our Theological Institutions. If there be an instrument of our denominational prosperity which we should guard at every point, it is this. The doctrinal sentiments of the Faculty are of far greater importance than the proper investment and expenditure of its funds, and the trusts devolved upon those who watch over its interests should in that respect, if in any, be sacredly guarded.”[4]

Boyce seemed to foresee—almost prophetically—the doctrinal challenges Southern Seminary would face in the twentieth century. He specifically cautioned against any loosening of the professor’s confessional commitment, writing, “His [the faculty member’s] agreement with the standard [Abstract of Principles] should be exact. His declaration of it should be based upon no mental reservation, upon no private understanding with those who immediately invest him into office.”[5]

Confessional Integrity and the Toy Controversy

If Boyce were to grant a faculty member a secret exception to the Abstract of Principles, he would have done so for Crawford Howell Toy. Toy, the fifth signer of the Abstract of Principles and the first not to be one of the seminary’s founders, enjoyed the respect and personal affection of Boyce and Broadus.

Toy, who drank deeply from the wells of Julius Wellhausen while studying at the University of Berlin, introduced the higher-critical method of interpretation, and its theological conclusions, into the classroom. Toy’s colleagues, especially Boyce and Broadus, repeatedly confronted Toy, calling him to repentance and exhorting him to return to orthodoxy. Toy’s theological recalcitrance left Boyce no option but to seek his removal from the faculty. As Broadus noted, “Duty to the founders of the institution and to all who had given money for its support and endowment, duty to the Baptist churches from whom its students must come, required [Boyce] to see to it that such teaching should not continue.”[6]

In C. H. Toy, the necessity of confessional integrity, the need for institutional stability, and the often-confusing potion of personal affection all intersected. So fond was Boyce of Toy that when he accompanied Toy to the Louisville railway station for his final departure from the seminary and the city in which it resided, Boyce lifted his right arm, and exclaimed: “Oh, Toy, I would freely give that arm to be cut off if you could be where you were five years ago, and stay there.”[7] Even with such great personal affection, in the end, Boyce gave Toy no succor, and his resolve for confessional integrity held steady.

A Doctrinally Sound Ministry for Today

Writing to Basil Manly, Jr. on October 1, 1888—a mere two months before Boyce’s death—Boyce reflected on the Toy controversy, “I greatly rejoice in the certain triumph of the truth. I feel that nothing but our own folly can prevent the success of the Seminary. If we keep things orthodox and correct within and avoid injudicious compromises while we patiently submit and laboriously labor, we shall find continuous blessing. So much do I feel this that I look back on my life’s work without any apprehension of future disaster.”[8]

In spite of Boyce’s confidence, the decades following his passing marked Southern Seminary’s slow, and typically deft, drift from its confessional heritage. A drift eventually paralleled, to a greater or lesser extent, by all six Southern Baptist Seminaries, most especially Midwestern and Southeastern. At its founding, Midwestern Seminary’s trustees deliberated between the Abstract of Principles and the Baptist Faith and Message as its doctrinal statement, eventually choosing the latter. Yet, the first signatory to its Articles of Faith was Ralph Elliott, whose commentary, The Message of Genesis, plunged the seminary—and the entire denomination—into one of the most spectacular theological controversies in the history of the SBC.

In the aftermath of the Conservative Resurgence, whereby all the SBC’s entities have been recovered, one can enjoy a false confidence, a misplaced assurance. Just as Boyce celebrated Southern Seminary’s promising future in the aftermath of the Toy controversy, so it is easy now to reflect on the Conservative Resurgence and conclude that past theological recovery guarantees present institutional health and future confessional faithfulness. Theological fidelity cannot be assumed; rather it must be intentionally cultivated, carefully guarded, and resolutely insisted upon.

From Toy to Elliott, to more contemporary examples, we are reminded that a confession of faith is only as good as the willpower of those entrusted to enforce it and the personal integrity of those who sign it. The ever-present witness of our own denominational history reminds us that vigilance must be maintained.


In 1950 Ellis Fuller wrote to Miss Lucy Boyce, the last living daughter of the Boyce family, reflecting, “We must wake up Boyce’s name and put it upon the lips of students and faculty members because of what the name has meant, means now, and will continue to mean to Baptists throughout the world.”[9] Indeed, Fuller was right, and as we heed his counsel to awaken Boyce’s name, may the church be blessed with a more abundant, well-learned, and doctrinally sound ministry.

[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,” 15.

[2] Ibid., 15

[3] Ibid., 18

[4] Ibid., 17

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Timothy George, “James Petigru Boyce,” in Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (ed. Timothy George and David S. Dockery; Nashville: B&H, 2001), 85.

[7] John A. Broadus, Memoir of James Petigru Boyce, D.D., LL.D. Late President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), 263–64.

[8] Timothy George, James Petigru Boyce: Selected Writings (Nashville: Broadman, 1989), 23

[9] Ibid., 15


Part I // Part II // Part III // Part IV


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