Guest Writer

by Alan F.H. Wisdom


Guest Writer

Princeton Seminary

March 30, 2017

Presbyterian Raw Feelings at Princeton Seminary

It has been hard for me to ignore the controversy over the decisions by Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) to extend and then retract an offer of the Kuyper Prize to the Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. In the end, Keller graciously consented to deliver a Kuyper lecture on mission without receiving the corresponding award. The reason cited by PTS for denying the award was Keller’s affiliation with “the Presbyterian Church in America [PCA], a denomination which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.”

As the controversy spread beyond the bounds of PTS and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I saw friends comment in different senses. I refrained from adding my voice because I have little direct experience of PTS. I was never a student there, nor at any specifically Christian educational institution. I must confess, to my shame, that when I was a graduate student at Princeton University in the early 1980s I walked past the seminary campus every day and never stopped. The only seminary student I knew at the time was one bold fellow who ventured out to take a Reformation history course from my economic determinist professor at the university.

Nevertheless, I believe I can claim some stake in PTS, since I have been blessed repeatedly by the ministries of its graduates. And as it turns out, I got into a private discussion yesterday (including several PTS grads) in which I shared some thoughts. So here are edited excerpts of those thoughts, for any who might have interest in the matter:

What struck me in this incident is what it says about relationships within the larger Presbyterian/Reformed community. Even after more than 40 years, the feelings toward the PCA are still so raw. Could it be that they are rawer still with the addition of new issues (sexual morality) that didn’t divide us in the 1970s? And we have newer Presbyterian splitoffs—the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians—where the wounds of separation are fresher.

These more conservative denominations are our estranged sisters. We share much in the way of common history and heritage. We say we believe the same Gospel. An observer would notice family resemblances: hymns that are paraphrases of psalms, carefully prepared sermons with many references to God’s sovereignty and grace, a certain dignified reserve in worship, presbytery meetings everyone says are long and boring. Yet we can barely talk to one another. We mostly talk about one another—in negative terms.

I saw the initial invitation to Tim Keller as a small gesture to lessen that estrangement. The Kuyper Committee chose Keller, I surmise, because he represented the most congenial face of the PCA. If a PCUSA seminary could see some good in that sister denomination, if we could find something worthy of honor there, if we could start a respectful conversation with anyone in the PCA, Keller would seem to be the best bet.

But in the end even Keller was judged unworthy of honor. He will be allowed to speak only as a marked outsider “with whom we disagree about important issues,” in the interest of “critical inquiry and theological diversity,” with the understanding that his lecture won’t touch on the topics of disagreement. I wonder whether Keller or anyone else from the PCA would ever be invited by PTS to explain their perspectives on women’s and LGBTQ+ ordination. I wonder whether today’s PTS would allow someone inside the PCUSA to speak against the affirmation of same-sex relations.

Some have worried that the rescission of Keller’s award signals a new progressive fundamentalism in which PTS and the PCUSA will break relations with all fellow Christians from denominations that refuse women’s and LGBTQ+ ordination. There is some ground for this fear. Such a move would fit with the vindictive mood among today’s triumphant LGBT movement, which seeks to eliminate all remaining resistance by bringing shame and ostracism down on all who still affirm traditional Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality.

Yet I think the fear about Princeton Seminary is probably exaggerated. In an initial letter defending the award to Keller, seminary president Craig Barnes noted that “we [PTS] have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions.” This is undoubtedly true, and I expect it will continue to be true at PTS. I can’t imagine that the seminary would snub a major Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox figure in the way it did Keller. As long as that figure was known principally for contributions other than upholding his or her tradition’s standards regarding sexuality and ordination, I’m sure he or she would be welcomed and honored at PTS. The attitude would be: “Well, he or she is Catholic. What else would you expect? They can’t change the doctrine of the church, whether they like it or not.” There is little likelihood that Princeton Seminary, aspiring to be in the mainstream of global Christianity, is going to cut itself off symbolically from the vast majority of the church worldwide.

But the PCA, EPC, and ECO are a different story. It is easier and more satisfying to cut off these younger, smaller siblings that have crossed us. I have had occasion to witness the hostility that is felt toward the PCA, especially among older PCUS people in the South. There was a history behind that attitude. The PCA had decimated the PCUS in some areas, painting harshly negative pictures of the larger denomination that induced hundreds of congregations to leave. (And in turn PCUSA leaders have painted harshly negative pictures of the PCA and other breakaway denominations.) PCUS leaders felt they had taken a courageous stand for racial desegregation and women’s equality and they were repaid unjustly with massive defections to the PCA.

I had hoped that this hostility might be diminished among younger PCUSA members without scars from the 1970s, and among PCUSA members in parts of the country where the PCA has grown by church planting (as with Keller in NYC) rather than by corralling PCUSA strays. That would seem to be an accurate description of most of the PTS community at present, and yet the hostility persists. If anything, this latest incident suggests it may be stronger than ever, with new grounds of grievance introduced.

Still, we must always hope for reconciliation. A true ecumenism and a truly “generous orthodoxy” will reach out with the right hand as well as the left. Perhaps Tim Keller and his hosts can handle his upcoming appearance at PTS in a gracious way that will bring something positive out of this awkward and painful incident.

alan.jpgAlan F.H. Wisdom is the former Director of Presbyterian Action for Faith & Freedom. He has served as IRD Vice President for Research and Programs and interim editor of the journal Theology Matters.


2 Responses to Presbyterian Raw Feelings at Princeton Seminary

  1. Patrick98 says:

    Just to be clear for those who are not Presbyterians reading this article, the PCA is an older denomination than the PCUSA. The PCA was formed in the early 1970s while the PCUSA was formed in 1983 by the merger of two existing denominations.

  2. Memo to Jeff – I like your columns and insight, but I must disagree with this assessment, “a new progressive fundamentalism in which PTS and the PCUSA will break relations with all fellow Christians…” Progressives have always been fundamentalists. They’re just a bit more open about their prejudices now that they think they’ve “won.”

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