By Richard Burnett, Executive Director and Managing Editor, Theology Matters
Princeton Theological Seminary recently rescinded its decision to award Dr. Timothy Keller the Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness. The Board of Directors of Theology Matters respectfully asks Princeton Seminary and the Kuyper Center to reconsider their decision. This decision calls into question the Seminary’s commitment to academic freedom, and makes hollow its claim to be a “theologically diverse community.”
The reason the Seminary has given speaks of Dr. Keller’s “leadership role in the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.”
This decision raises serious theological questions:
1. If being in a denomination that prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from ordination disqualifies one from receiving the Kuyper Award, who now will be eligible to receive any award from Princeton Seminary? Are only those who affirm the ordination of women and LGBTQ+ persons now eligible? Should work worthy of honor in Christ’s kingdom be limited to such a small percentage of Christians?
Should the witness of all popes, priests, or patriarchs of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church, or of countless monks and nuns, such as Mother Theresa, be excluded from recognition at Princeton Seminary?
Should the witness of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Billy Graham, or most Protestants in the world today be automatically excluded from consideration?
Is none of the work of the overwhelming majority of 2.6 billion Christians around the world worthy of honor because they do not affirm the ordination of women and LGBTQ+ persons?
From what standpoint, by what standard or authority, has this judgment been made? Is it one that has ever been recognized in the history of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church?
2. President Barnes states: “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).”
But since when has “the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” mattered on Princeton Seminary’s campus? How many faculty members and administrators have been hired over the last forty years who have openly defied the official “stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” with respect to its ordination standards? Is it not ironic that Princeton Seminary has only recently discovered a renewed loyalty to its ecclesial heritage?
What warrant has the Seminary found in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for this new requirement? Could the faculty or administration of Princeton Seminary help those who seek to be faithful to our confessions understand on the basis of them why our work or witness, like Dr. Keller’s, will never be worthy of Princeton Seminary’s recognition, since many of us within the PC(USA) also do not meet this new standard?
3. President Barnes writes, “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.”
We are grateful to hear this sanguine assessment of the situation, but does genuine commitment to academic freedom consist merely of allowing a person with “heterodox” views to speak on campus for an hour on a non-controversial topic?
Should academic freedom not extend to those who try to live and work in such a community? Should not Princeton Seminary’s commitment to academic freedom be at least as robust as Princeton University’s commitment?
We are grateful for Dr. Barnes’ assurance that, “We are a community that does not silence voices in the church.” But is this true? There are hundreds of graduates who would deny this, as well as many current students. Since there are many ways to silence students and faculty, and many who feel silenced, and since Dr. Barnes acknowledges that most (but not all) on campus are committed to academic freedom, is Princeton Seminary as diverse and committed to academic freedom as it claims?
Is it still possible, for example, to affirm with impunity on campus that “councils will err” regarding the ordination standards of the PC(USA)? Could any Protestant now be called to the faculty who opposes the ordination of LGBTQ+ persons on biblical and confessional grounds?
If not, if Princeton Seminary has made support for the ordination of LGBTQ+ persons a test of fellowship – contrary to the overwhelming consensus of the universal church – how seriously can we take its talk of academic freedom or diversity?
Withholding the Kuyper Award from Dr. Keller reflects a dangerous anti-ecumenical spirit and embarks upon a path of narrow-minded sectarianism. It demonstrates an unprecedented degree of weakness and insecurity. This is not the way of the Princeton Seminary we know.
While the Seminary’s invitation to Dr. Keller still stands and he has graciously accepted, the debacle has gained national attention. See, for example, the Wall Street Journal article of March 24.
We commend Dr. Barnes’ original letter to the Princeton Seminary community that describes giving the award to Dr. Keller as consistent with the Seminary’s values of openness and ecumenicity. We share Dr. Barnes’ aspiration: “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.”
We at Theology Matters want Princeton Seminary to be a theologically diverse Christian community, and indeed wish it were more diverse, not less.
Princeton Seminary is for several of us our alma mater. She has shaped us and we are grateful. We love her because she inculcated in us a generous ecumenical spirit and taught us to value rigorous critical inquiry and open debate. We pray that Princeton Seminary returns to this path.
Executive Director and Managing Editor
PTS alumnus, M.Div. 1988, Ph.D. 2001