When Tim Keller, senior pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, was selected earlier this year as the recipient of Princeton Seminary’s 2017 Kuyper Prize for ‘Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness’ (a $10,000 prize), the Reformed world was ecstatic.
Princeton had even celebrated Keller as ‘an innovative theologian and church leader’ and a ‘catalyst for urban mission’ (Christianity Today Gleanings, 22-3-17).
The award is named after Abraham Kuyper, a prominent neo-Calvinist theologian from the Netherlands, and is awarded to academic persons ‘whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement, in matters of social, political, and cultural significance, in one or more of the “spheres” of society’ (ibid.).
However, that excitement was dashed to pieces when Princeton rescinded their decision and stated they would not award Keller because of his views on women’s ordination and LGBT. Instead, they would forego the award ceremony and only invite Keller to give a lecture on missionalism, at the conference in April.
Evangelicals were dismayed and confused, wondering why a liberal seminary would want to award Tim Keller, a conservative, complementarian, Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) minister, and then back out of it?
Being part of Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary has a distinguished heritage and history. Princeton University — or what was once known as the College of New Jersey — began in 1746, under the auspices of the New Light Presbyterians. It had John Witherspoon, a Scottish minister and signer of the Declaration of Independence, as one of its first presidents.
The college undertook the training of ministers, but by the early 19th century decided they needed more concentrated training, and so Princeton Theological Seminary was born.
Chartered by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1812, Princeton Theology Seminary was born into a stronghold of strong Scotch-Irish theology and thought. Starting with only three students, the seminary grew quickly and furnished pulpits with excellent gospel preachers, all over the United States.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Princeton Seminary was foremost in the defence of Calvinism and Presbyterianism in the American church and trained some of the finest theologians to that end. B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen, and Geerhardus Vos were all trained at Princeton during that time.
However, this staunch defence was not to last much longer. During the 1920s the great debate between modernism and fundamentalism shook Princeton. Modernism and liberalism were creeping into the church at this time, and Princeton had front row seats to the debate.
At the heart of the issues debated was the authority of Scripture, and the meaning and reality of Jesus’ death, resurrection and atonement. In the end, evangelicals held firm to the orthodox teaching of the Scriptures and Christ’s death, resurrection and atonement, while the modernists stated that you could modify these teachings for a modern audience.
When Princeton sided with the modernists in 1929, Machen, along with several others, including Cornelius Van Til, left Princeton and founded Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Since that point, Princeton Seminary has aligned with the liberal Presbyterian Church (USA). It now holds unorthodox teachings and a modernist stance on large portions of theology, including such hot topics as the ordination of women and LGBT matters. Their desire is to embrace a ‘full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church’ (ibid.).
Historically speaking, it made sense for Princeton Theological Seminary to grant its Kuyper Prize to one of the most well-known Reformed pastors and writers in America, Tim Keller. In fact, his work as a pastor, church planter and author fits the description of the qualifications for the award.
However, it also seemed ironic for him to be selected, considering Princeton’s theologically liberal stance on the orthodox teachings that Keller and the conservative PCA hold high and dear.
Princeton president Craig Barnes issued a lengthy explanation for rescinding giving the prize and stated that, ‘We have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year’. Their reason for saying this was the concern of several alumni that giving Keller the award would affirm his and the PCA’s stand on women’s and LGBT ordination — a stance the seminary does not share.
Barnes elaborated: ‘As I indicated in my previous letter, it is not my practice to censor the invitations to campus from any of our theological centres or student organisations. This commitment to academic freedom is vital to the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community. In talking with those who are deeply concerned about Reverend Keller’s visit to campus, I find that most share this commitment to academic freedom.
‘Yet many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained. This conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And it is an important issue among the divided Reformed communions.
‘I have also had helpful conversations about this with the chair of the Kuyper committee, the chair of the board of trustees, and Reverend Keller. In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the PCA’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year’.
After this statement was issued, many in the evangelical community condemned Princeton for their tactics and defended Keller through Twitter and other mediums.
Dr Rev. Ligon Duncan, president of Reformed Theological Seminary, tweeted: ‘This is @ptseminary’s loss, not @timkellernyc’s’. Dan Darling, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, stated: ‘If you can’t give an Abraham Kuyper award to Tim Keller, who can you give it to?’
Tim Keller’s own reaction was less boisterous: ‘Let’s just set aside the prize. It’s gotten to be too much of a distraction’ (Sojourners interview with Craig Barnes). On 6 April, he arrived at Princeton as re-planned and lectured solely on ‘Seven ways to have missionary encounters in Western culture’, which were his gleanings from the work of Lesslie Newbigin, an 18th-century British missiologist (Jeff Chu, ‘Princeton seminarians were outraged over Tim Keller. Here’s Keller’s point I wanted my peers to hear’, Washington Post, 12-4-17).
As Chu noted, Keller barely quipped about the liberal mainline, except at one instance where he criticised liberals ‘for overemphasising the gospel’s horizontal, social axis at the expense of the vertical and salvific’. On the whole, Keller’s talk was not antagonistic and did not incite violent commentary from the students. His response to the reversal of the award should be commended; he acted in a gracious and Christian manner.
If there is anything to be said of Tim Keller, he is most certainly not a Martin Luther in temperament. While Luther would have heeded Kuyper’s words that, ‘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’, Keller responded quietly, but still stuck to his convictions.
Keller is a winsome man and that should earn him respect among those who do not share his views, even at Princeton. But it is disturbing to think that the freedom to express what we believe and what is absolutely true in Scripture is no longer acceptable in academic institutions or public places around the world.
Still, we must proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified and not be surprised when others mock or persecute us. As Jesus says, ‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you’ (John 15:18).
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA.