Princeton Theological Seminary Writes Its Own Epitaph

Though the seminary has long departed from biblical orthodoxy, its revocation of Rev. Tim Keller's award reveals a new low.

By Michael Brown Published on March 23, 2017

Princeton Theological Seminary has just written its own epitaph. The venerable school departed from biblical orthodoxy many decades ago. But it has just crossed a shameful new line.

It may still have brilliant scholars on its faculty and some truly Christian students in its midst. It may still function for years to come. But by revoking its decision to honor Rev. Tim Keller with a special award, it has announced to the world that it worships at the altar of political correctness. It has shown more allegiance to the prevailing culture than to the timeless Word of God.

Departure From Faith

First, a short history of the school.

The seminary was founded in 1812 and was led by Dr. Archibald Alexander. He would hardly recognize the institution today, so far has it departed from its roots.

The seminary founded in 1812 has departed from its roots.

Through the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, Princeton was graced with top biblical scholars and theologians. These included such as Charles Hodge, J. A. Alexander, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. But in 1929, the seminary went in an anti-fundamentalist (anti-evangelical) direction and embraced modernism. Machen resigned, along with Oswald T. Allis, Robert Dick Wilson and Cornelius Van Til. These great luminaries in evangelical Christian scholarship then founded Westminster Theological Seminary.

Princeton seminary has not been a bastion of orthodoxy for nearly a century. But it has never before stooped this low in exalting the opinions of people over the truth of Scripture and historic Christian positions. 

Seminary Has “Concerns” About Keller

Rev. Timothy Keller is the longtime leader of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is one of the most respected and irenic pastors in America. He was scheduled to speak at the seminary and receive the Kuyper Prize, named after Dutch Christian leader Abraham Kuyper. (More on Kuyper at the end of the article).

However, the announcement that Keller would be receiving this award created an uproar at the school. This prompted the school’s president, Prof. Craig Barnes, to write a letter to the seminary community on March 10. “The focus of the concerns that have come to me is that Rev. Keller is a leader of the Presbyterian Church in America,” he explained, “which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained ministry to Word and Sacrament.” 

Barnes continued:

Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations. We know that many have been hurt by being excluded from ministry, and we have worked hard to be an affirming place of preparation for service to the church.

So, the complaint is not just that the PCA does not ordain women. Conservative Christians have long disagreed on this issue. For instance, one can point to women who have served in some leadership roles in the Church from New Testament times until today. The complaint is that the PCA does not ordain practicing gays, lesbians, etc. On these issues orthodox Christians have always agreed. This reflects the clear teaching of Scripture and the unanimous verdict of Church history — until recently. And note that the seminary claims to stand in “prophetic opposition” to these positions. It insists that the battle is a “critical issue of justice.”

Nonetheless, Barnes wrote, it is “a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church.” For that reason, he hoped that Keller would be welcomed in “a spirit of grace and academic freedom.” 

Irony and Double Talk

Twelve days later, on March 22, Barnes wrote again. The outcry was too great. Keller would not receive the award.  Remarkably, however, Keller agreed to deliver his lecture as planned. 

Barnes explained, “In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.”

PTS touts generosity and respect while revoking Keller’s award and violating Scripture.

“We are a community that does not silence voices in the church,” Barnes stated. “In this spirit we are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry. Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church — not on ordination.”

Is this not double talk? We don’t silence other voices, he says. No, we welcome leaders with other views. We just dishonor them by revoking a promised award. And we muzzle them by having them speak on a non-controversial subject.

It’s hard to disagree with Rod Dreher. “If I were Tim Keller,” he said, I would let the dying Mainline bury the dying Mainline, and not bother with them. Mainline Protestantism in most places has become a suicide cult.”

In a final irony, Barnes closed his letter saying, “In the grace and love of Jesus Christ, we strive to be a community that can engage with generosity and respect those with whom we disagree about important issues.”

Generosity and respect indeed.

How Would the Award’s Namesake Respond?

And who is this Abraham Kuyper after whom the award is named? He was a Dutch theologian, journalist, and political leader. He served as Holland’s Prime Minister from 1901–1905. And he was a staunch opponent of theological liberalism who believed in the absolute lordship of Christ. He famously wrote, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

“When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling.” — Abraham Chipper

That applies to Princeton Theological Seminary as well. If this school does not fully reverse its course, repent, and go back to its foundations, it will become ever more irrelevant and impotent. This is true, even though some brilliant scholars teach there and some fine Christians attend there.

And what would Kuyper say to each of us today?

I leave you with his resounding words. May we take them to heart and put them into practice:

When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.

The time is now.

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