In Memoriam, James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000)
June 16, 2010
June 15 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of James Montgomery Boice, who was for thirty-two years the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, the dean of Reformed pastor-scholars in his generation, and my beloved pastor. The enduring image of Dr. Boice in my mind is also the first, when I had walked into Tenth Church for an evening service in 1990: standing in the pulpit preaching God's Word with authority, clarity, and both intellectual and spiritual power. The ten years since his death have seen little decrease in his standing and influence among evangelical Christians. Through his continuing radio ministry on The Bible Study Hour and especially through his writings, Boice continues not only to teach the Scriptures and its great doctrines, but he continues to anchor the commitment of his followers and admirers to the innerancy and sufficiency of God's living Word.
In my opinion, the reason for James Boice's influence and legacy is seldom understood. What was it about him that drew so wide an audience of pastors and laypeople? The answer is that as a Reformed theologian, James Boice was a Christian first. That is, the issues for which he stood were Christian issues: the inerrancy of Scripture, the gospel of faith in Jesus, the sin-cleansing power of Christ's blood, and the Christian witness for the salvation of the lost. It is true that Boice served this Christian and evangelical cause from a distinctively Reformed perspective, but his cause was simply that of Christ and his gospel. It is in this way that Boice so ably advanced the credibility of Reformed theology within evangelicalism, by showing that it is only the Reformed doctrine that can consistently uphold Christian distinctives. Boice taught, proved, and defended Calvinism by teaching, proving, and defending the Bible. On a personal level this Christ-centered priority was also true for James Boice. While Boice was a Calvinist through and through, his passion was for the person and work of Jesus Christ, and his labor was offered in personal service to his living and reigning Lord and Savior. Calvinism was ever the servant of Boice's passion for Jesus and never the master.
I think that James Boice's ministerial career can be seen in three phases. The first phase of his career, from the mid-1960's to around 1980, involved the defense of evangelical doctrine against liberal assaults. These were the years when Boice was wrapping up the education he received in liberal institutions like Princeton Seminary and the University of Basel. In his John commentary, dating from these early years, one will frequently read Boice defending the Bible from the interpretations of liberals like Rudolf Bultmann. These were also the years when Boice was ordained in the liberal United Presbyterian Church, so that the context for his ministry was that of opposition to liberal attacks on the Bible. It is no surprise that Boice's chief concern during these years was to defend the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, as seen in his leadership of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI).
The second phase of Boice's ministry took place from around 1980-- when Tenth Presbyterian Church left the liberal UPC and eventually made its way into the evangelical Presbyterian Church in America -- until 1993. This phase of Boice's ministry focused on the teaching of Reformed theology within an evangelical context. Boice believed that the evangelical movement could only maintain its doctrinal moorings (and therefore its spiritual vitality) by standing on the foundation laid by the Protestant Reformers (and the apostles before them). The crowning achievements of this period of Boice's ministry were his four-volume commentary on Romans, which not only lays out the biblical basis for Reformed doctrine but also shows the necessity of these doctrines for Christian faith and life, and his lay-friendly systematic theology, Foundations of the Christian Faith.
The final phase of Boice's ministry can be dated from the publishing of David Well's book, No Place for Truth, in 1993, which uncovered the looming danger of worldliness in the faith and practice of evangelical churches. These years saw Boice emphasize not merely the inerrancy of the Bible but also the sufficiency of Scripture for the church's evangelism, holiness, guidance, and cultural impact. It was around this time, 1994, that Boice (along with Michael Horton) founded the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals, which carries on his work to this day. One of Boice's final and best books issued this clarion call to reformation, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? a book which retains every bit of its relevance today and will continue to be relevant for decades to come.
Was James Boice successful in his endeavors as a Christian statesman? I think the answer is that he was remarkably successful as God blessed his Bible teaching and statesmanship. As for his early defense of the Bible, Boice did not persuade the liberals, but his and others' efforts did anchor a generation of evangelicals to the inerrancy of Scripture. As for his middle years and their emphasis on Reformed doctrine as key to the gospel, Boice lived to see the beginnings of the Reformed awakening that is now in full bloom among so many evangelical Christians. When Boice founded the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology in 1974, experts insisted that no one wanted to hear Reformed teaching much less pay to attend such a conference. Today, not only is Boice's PCRT still going strong (with over 2000 people attending in 2010), but it has spurred a host of even larger conferences such as the annual Ligonier Conference and the more recent Together for the Gospel. Finally, as for Boice's later endeavors as a reforming leader, in this he also was blessed by God with considerable success. It is true that Boice, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and other like-minded groups have not stemmed the flood of worldliness and doctrinal infidelity in the broader evangelical world. But Boice did inspire a generation of young Christian leaders who are passionately committed to biblical fidelity and filled with gospel zeal. In the last couple of years of his life, Boice often spoke to me about his excitement for the future due to the emergence of so many fervent, well-grounded young pastors and lay leaders. Jim Boice did not die with a sense of failure but with a joyful optimism regarding what God would do in the coming years through the legion of fervent, Bible-believing, cross-exalting, sovereign grace-proclaiming Christians he saw coming behind him.
One way for me to eulogize James Montgomery Boice is to recount both the first and the last things he ever said personally to me. My first conversation with Boice took place at a congregational dinner of Tenth Church, shortly after I had been converted and joined the church. I remember arriving late for the meal in the church's crowed fellowship hall, filled with circular dinner tables, and seeing no available seat except for one directly next to the senior minister, Dr. Boice. I suppose others were too intimidated to sit next to the great preacher, but I was thrilled. During the meal I recounted to Boice how I had been growing under his preaching and especially how my reading of his books was enriching my soul and leading me into truth. After a bit of this, Boice interrupted me and said, "Young man, you are talking too much about me. I would suggest that you stop reading my books and start reading the Bible for yourself, focusing on the truth that Jesus will teach you by the Holy Spirit." At the time I was downcast over this reproof, but the episode left a permanent impact on me on the importance of being devoted to Christ and his Word rather than the teaching of any man.
My final meeting with James Boice took place about ten years later, just a few days before he died. A group of us from the church had gone to his home to see him for a last time and to sing some of the hymns he had written and which were set to music by Paul Jones. The last of these hymns we sang was in my view Boice's best: "Come to the Waters," a hymn gathering together all the "water of life" themes in the Bible as they flow from the gospel. (If you want to feel the very heart-beat of James Boice's ministry, just sing this hymn!) Sitting on the couch with Jim afterwards, he grabbed my arm and in his cancer-weakened voice he said to me, "Rick, do you see what I am saying in that hymn? It all flows to Jesus and out from him. Don't ever forget that!" By God's grace, I don't believe I ever will forget it, and I will certainly never forget the inspirational, Christ-centered life and ministry of my friend and pastor, James Montgomery Boice.
Not long after that final meeting, I had the privilege of preaching the evening sermon at Tenth on the Sunday after Dr. Boice died. Phil Ryken and I had scripted that Sunday, with him preaching a pastoral message of comfort to the congregation in the morning and with me preaching a memorial message that evening. I chose as my text 2 Kings 2:11-15, the ascension of Elijah in a chariot of fire. One reason for selecting this text was that when I had learned weeks earlier that Dr. Boice would soon die of cancer, I had gotten onto my knees and prayed for God to give me double the portion of the Spirit so as to be one of those who would carry on Jim's work. In the sermon I wanted to point out that we as a congregation could take up Boice's legacy, like the mantel that fell from Elijah's ascending chariot, and carry it on by holding forth the convictions he had taught us from God's Word. A couple of days before preaching the sermon, however, Phil Ryken gave me a cassette tape of a message Boice had preached on that passage. I had thought that Jim had never preached from that text, but it turned out that he had done so for his tenth anniversary as Tenth's pastor. In that sermon, Boice revealed that when he was a seminary student at Princeton in 1960, his father had called to tell him about the sudden death of Donald Grey Barnhouse, then pastor of Tenth Church and Boice's pulpit hero. Jim related how when he heard the news, he fell to his knees in his room and prayed for God to give him double the portion of Elijah if he was to take up the mantle of so great a man as Barnhouse. I ended up telling this story in my memorial sermon for Boice, pointing out that he was, like us, simply a man of faith who had prayed to be used by God. It is therefore our sovereign and gracious God who deserves the praise and glory for the life and ministry of James Montgomery Boice, as Dr. Boice himself would be the first to insist. If we will pray for the same - for God's mighty Spirit to equip us to minister the gospel truth to our generation - we can expect God to do great things through our labors as well.
Dr. Boice's favorite benediction from the Bible says of God that "from him and through him and to him are all things." Paul concludes, "To him be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:36). It was James Montgomery Boice's own glorification to leave us and be with God, ten years ago today, having devoted his life and labors to the praise of God's glorious grace.