James Petigru Boyce “Abstract of Systematic Theology”

Introduction

The attempts to systematize the religious principles and theological teachings were made by many theologians during the 19th century, but the most significant contribution in this area was made by James Petigru Boyce. The book Abstract of Systematic Theology written by this famous theologian was published in 1887. It is important to note that the book attracted the attention of the public because it was written for teaching purposes, and it aimed to include a series of lectures to be presented to students in the classroom. From this point, Boyce’s book became discussed as a standard in teaching the principles of the Baptist religious tradition[1]. Abstract of Systematic Theology is referred to as the main practical text in the sphere of the systematic theological science since its first publication, and much attention should be paid to summarizing the book, interpreting its points, and concluding on its meaning and significance.

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Summary of Abstract of Systematic Theology

Boyce’s book is divided into forty-two chapters that are separated according to the specific topics they cover in detail. The science of theology is discussed in the first chapter of the book, where Boyce states that theology can provide answers to the most general and important questions like the nature of God and His relations with humans. In addition, Boyce provides arguments why theology should be considered a science[2]. The doctrines of theology such as the existence of God, the reason and revelation, God’s spirituality, unity, divine attributes, immutability, power, holiness, justice, will, and decrees are discussed in Chapters 2-13 of the book. In these parts of Abstract of Systematic Theology, Boyce states that theology exists because God exists, but “God cannot be fully known”[3]. Therefore, there is a theological science to find the answers to humans’ questions about God. Boyce provides arguments to support the existence of God as well as the “almost universal belief” in God and states that “if there is a God, there must be eternal principles of right and wrong which may form a foundation for conscience”[4]. From this point, the following chapters aim to discuss such sources of knowledge for theological science as reason and revelation.

Then, Boyce shifts to the discussion of God in terms of spirituality, unity, and other attributes. According to Boyce, God is “a pure spirit without outward form or material organization”[5]. Furthermore, the author draws the reader’s attention to the fact that God is characterized by such qualities as eternity, simplicity, infinity, immensity, and omnipresence. In addition, God is “incapable of change”[6]. It is important to note that Boyce is also inclined to discuss God in terms of moral aspects like “holiness, goodness, truth and justice”[7]. Much attention is paid to identifying differences in the concept of justice with the focus on the person’s understanding of justice and God’s justice as the perfect one in contrast to the people’s choice of just or right and wrong actions[8]. God’s decrees are also presented by Boyce as “just, wise, and holy” as well as necessary to follow[9].

The other part of the book is devoted to the discussion of the concepts associated with the Divine Trinity. In chapters 14-16, Boyce concentrates on the role of the Trinity for Christians, analyzes the relations of Father and Son, discusses Father as God and Son as God, focuses on their features, proposes the discussion of the Holy Spirit in terms of its personal and divine nature, and provides details on the unity of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, on subordination, and their outward relations. The story of creation is presented in Chapters 17-24, with the focus on the creation of angels and a man and with accentuating the role of a man’s sin. Boyce notes that there are many religious theories of creation, and it is “the duty of Theology to examine each of these theories”[10]. The great part of these chapters is dedicated to discussing the origin of souls. Boyce claims that souls are important to be examined in detail to understand the nature of humans’ relations with God. The author also concentrates on the story of Adam and tries to explain the theological background associated with the story of the first sin in his book. In their turn, chapters 25-28 are dedicated to the figure of Christ. Discussing Christ, Boyce reveals the elements of Jewish history in order make the discussion logical and systematic. The author tries to analyze how the reader of the Scripture can perceive Christ as a man and as God. Moreover, Boyce notes that Christ should also be viewed as a priest and as a king.

Chapters 29-37 present the detailed discussions of such important theological concepts as election, reprobation, calling, regeneration, repentance, faith, justification, adoption, and sanctification. In this context, much attention is paid to the idea of the individual’s faith, “As disbelief was so prominent in the sin of the first Adam so faith is most prominent in the redemption through the second Adam”[11]. The final chapters of the book discuss such issues as immortality, the second coming of Christ, and the Final Judgment among others. According to Boyce, death is viewed in theology as a blessing for a person because of the further immortality of the soul. In this context, the discussion of the Final Judgment is detailed to cover all the questions that can be interesting for the Christian.

Despite providing detailed discussions of concepts associated with God and His attributes and qualities, Boyce does not analyze the role of God’s word in a form of the Scripture. References to the Bible mostly work as examples in the text, but the author avoids discussing the Scripture itself. From this perspective, the main points of the book are the discussion of God’s nature and attributes, the concept of the Trinity, the discussion of Christ, and the analysis of the key theological concepts.

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Interpretation of the Book

Focusing on the structure of Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology, it is possible to conclude about the author’s approach to systematizing the aspects and concepts of theological science. The largest part of the book discusses the grounds of theology in terms of God’s attributes and doctrines. Analyzing such aspects as God’s spirituality and unity as well as immutability and power, Boyce can prove his statement that the first duty of Theology is “to set forth the reasons men have for believing that such a being [God] exists, and is a true object of dependence and worship”[12]. Thus, the author seems to be credible while starting education of the reader from discussing the person of God and His attributes. Boyce repeats several times that the existence of God is the subject matter of theology as a science, therefore, Christians need to know how God can be represented in terms of power, holiness, justice, or will. Developing this idea, Boyce shifts to the discussion of the idea of the Trinity. This concept is viewed by the theologian as important to explain how God can be represented as both the unity and Trinity and how God can be represented in its personal and spiritual formation. Theological notes of Boyce are important to help the reader understand how he or she expects to discuss God in terms of its universal character or absolute nature.

However, the discussion of God in theological science is almost impossible without focusing on the concept of creation. To analyze this aspect, Boyce views creation from a wide perspective, while describing the creation of angels, a man, and a soul. Boyce is quite consistent in discussing the creation of angels and fallen angels to demonstrate the origin of the existing conflict between evil and good in the world. The most surprising feature of Boyce’s discussion is his tone of a scholar rather than a believer. Therefore, the reader receives an opportunity to learn how to analyze the Scripture like a scholar rather than an ordinary person interested in religion. As a result, the discussion of a man’s creation, unity of race, the nature of a man, and the unity of soul and body is presented in much detail in the text of the book. Boyce notes that a man alone is created to possess “both spirit and body”, and he is “the link which binds together the world of spirit and that of matter. His existence is not one only, but twofold”[13]. These statements are important to provide the background for understanding why a man led himself to the fall.

The logic of Boyce’s book leads the reader to compare the persons of Adam and Christ to understand their role in humanity. It is important to state that in most cases, Boyce avoids any personal interpretation of the described events, and this approach of an objective theologian allows the reader to focus independently on the points that are interesting for him. The last part of the book is dedicated to the complex analysis of the main theological concepts like faith, justification, and sanctification among others. Thus, the reader can focus much on the last chapters describing the aspects of the Final Judgment, and Boyce’s approach to discussing this aspect is effective because he chooses to divide this concept into several points and to describe each one with the focus on the concrete evidence from the Scripture. Much attention should be paid to the analysis of Boyce’s words on the purposes of the Final Judgment for a man and then on the “the spiritual agony” for the wicked persons[14]. The reader can ask whether a man’s soul can survive after the “the spiritual agony” and unite the ideas regarding the “twofold” nature of a man with the idea of his spiritual survival[15]. However, although Boyce discusses such challenging religious concepts, he is still focused on structuring and systematizing this knowledge for the reader.

The meaning of this text is in the fact that Boyce provides a rather logical explanation of the main theological notions and principles based on the evidence from the Scripture and presented in a highly systematical manner. In this context, Boyce is one of the first authors who seem to approach theology as a science that can be systematized or discussed as any other science. Therefore, Abstract of Systematic Theology can be read like a textbook for those people interested in studying the Scripture and theological questions, as it was planned by Boyce. From this point, the Scripture is analyzed as a source for the Christians to study according to certain guidelines similar to those proposed by Boyce. However, the role of the Scripture and such concepts as God’s Word are not examined in Boyce’s work. Referring to the Scripture as the basic source of evidence, the reader can become interested in examining it in detail, but Boyce only refers to the Scripture while discussing the advantages of learning the aspects of theology systematically, stating that “we thus ascertain all that nature and the Scriptures teach on each point”[16]. From this point, the question of God’s Word and the role of the Scripture remains to be open while referring to Boyce’s systematic approach.

Conclusion

Focusing on the summary of the book and the reader’s reaction to it, it is possible to state that the most surprising point for the reader is the logic in the structure of the book that affects the understanding of the discussed concepts. Boyce’s work is important to comprehend and analyze the main theological concepts not only as part of Biblical stories but as part of systematic knowledge. In this case, by reading the book and studying Boyce’s ideas, the person learns how to analyze and interpret the basic religious ideas and principles to become a thoughtful learner of the Scripture and theological science.

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The author seems to organize the book focusing not only on the importance of topics but also on the logical order of the presented topics. There are many separate chapters in the book covering different topics, and the reason is that the systematic approach to theology requires a detailed and narrow analysis of the concrete theme. Therefore, the reaction of the reader to these parts can also be different, depending on what aspect is covered in the concrete chapter and how the reader is interested in learning the details of this specific topic. Thus, the reader pays attention to discussing the chapters about the role and powers of God, the nature of a man in the context of the creation story, the comparison of figures of Adam and Christ, and the Final Judgment aspects. It is possible to note that these topics are emphasized depending on the reader’s approach to Boyce’s work and personal visions. Focusing on the systematically presented knowledge, the reader can choose any topic of interest for him to examine in detail.

Nevertheless, it is also important to take into account the primary purpose of this work as a textbook on theological science. Therefore, it is assumed that the reader will learn each chapter with equal interest and that the purpose of the book is to guide the reader’s interpretation while organizing the main concepts in a system. In his book, Boyce aimed to state that theology can be systematized and learned as organized knowledge like any other science. The reader’s reaction to this systematic approach is based on the personal visions of the described notions. While accepting the author’s approach to systematizing theological knowledge, the reader also needs to refer to his or her visions of the discussed ideas. In this context, the interpretation of Boyce’s words is a result of the reader’s personal experience and thoughts on the topic. Boyce’s ideas on justice, the power of God, and the second coming of Christ can provoke significant reactions in readers. It is expected that the reader has certain knowledge on the topic and basic theological concepts, therefore, reading the book, he or she receives a chance to systematize the previously learned knowledge and get an insight into the key religious principles.

It is possible to state that the reader can mostly agree with the approach which is used by Boyce to systematize the work, however, there can be disagreements in interpreting the basic ideas or details. The manner of Boyce’s writing allows the reader to focus more on aspects and discussions that seem to be controversial for him. The book is a significant and good choice for those people interested in studying theology as a scientific discipline that can be systematized and which concepts can be structured and discussed with references to the scholar’s methods of analysis and interpretation.

Bibliography

Boyce, James Petigru. Abstract of Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1887. Web.

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