Princeton Theological Seminary, Rev. Dr. Tim Keller, and the Abraham Kuyper Lecture

When I was in my early 20s, I was unclear about whether or not I was “allowed” to be a minister. By “allowed” I mean if it was something that I thought the Bible permitted. Even though I grew up in a denomination that ordained women, I went to a college that was a part of a denomination that did not, and so I was confused.

See, I loved (and still love) my faith and I took (and still take) the Bible very seriously. Some Christians said I could be a minister, and some said I could not. At the time I was working as a youth director at a great church. The pastor of the congregation listened to my struggle and said something to the effect of “I respect your high view of Scripture, it’s the same as mine.  I want you to know our denomination allows for the ordination of women from a reformed perspective.” He went on to tell me about that reformed perspective and how it included women in ordained ministry. He even told me about all the women he met in seminary and how gifted they are. He further went on to tell me about the gifts he saw in me. He challenged me to rethink my views and consider whether or not the Spirit was leading me to ordained ministry. He is a graduate of Princeton Seminary. Without his influence in my life, I would have neither attended Princeton Seminary nor become a Minister of Word and Sacrament (Teaching Elder) in the PC(USA).

I’m thinking about that story this evening because I did a double take (ok, a TRIPLE TAKE) when I read that The Reverend Dr. Tim Keller is Princeton Theological Seminary’s choice of speaker for the Abraham Kuyper Lecture. He will also be awarded a prize for excellence in Reformed Theology and Public life.  Spoiler alert: Rev. Keller is arguably the most influential pastor of a denomination that is very clear in its assertion that women should not be ordained to ministry. He (and the denomination he serves) is also very clear in its exclusion of LGBT people.

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.).  My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings. 

But he’s not even talking about “women’s issues” or “LGBT issues,” some will argue. The lecture is on church planting. Who can argue with church planting? Can’t we look past what divides us find common ground? Of course we can find common ground. Let me state clearly and without equivocation: I believe Rev. Keller loves Jesus. I believe he is a man of faith. I believe he works hard and has a respectable career. I would happily go to the church he pastors and listen to him preach. He’s absolutely invited to come to the church I pastor and listen to me preach. We can totally hold hands during the hymn sing.  The reason that’s not enough in this case (and the reason he shouldn’t have been invited to give this lecture and receive this prize) is that this isn’t some minor thing. This is a giant lecture with a giant whoop-de-doo factor.  There’s a place for common ground, but unless Rev. Dr. Tim Keller is prepared to argue for the ordination of all the women students of Princeton Theological Seminary, the The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life is not that place in my opinion.

I would love to talk to the people from Princeton Theological Seminary who made this decision to better understand their position. Give me a call. Let’s chat.

UPDATE: The Seminary responded by referencing this email to the seminary community:

Dear Members of the Seminary Community,

I am aware that many in our community are deeply concerned by the invitation of the Kuyper Center at our seminary to have the Reverend Tim Keller come to campus next month. He will speak on the work of the theologian Lesslie Newbigin, and receive their annual prize as one who embodies their aspirations for extending the mission of the church in society. The focus of the concerns that have come to me is that Rev. Keller is a leader of the Presbyterian Church in America, which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained ministry to Word and Sacrament.

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.

The seminary has many student organizations and several theological centers that bring speakers to campus. While my office issues the official invitations to campus, I don’t practice censorship over the choices of these organizations, even when I or the seminary disagree with some of the convictions of these speakers. It is also 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. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we 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.

So my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice.

Sincerely,

Craig Barnes

If President Barnes and I were chatting over coffee or margaritas, I’d gently challenge some of these assertions and we’d probably have to agree to disagree on what his role is or should be in this. I admire many of the things he’s done for the Seminary, and I also appreciate that his job is unimaginably difficult in so many ways. It’s also worth mentioning that, though the buck stops with President Barnes and though he had (and still has) the option to be much stronger in his response, he’s not the one who extended this invitation. Those who still feel compelled to respond ought to write, not only to President Barnes, but also to the Kuyper Center who can be reached here: http://kcpt.ptsem.edu/contact-us-2/

Onward.

UPDATE #2 on this. From President Barnes:

Dear Members of the Seminary Community,

On March 10 I sent a letter to the seminary community addressing the emerging objections to the Kuyper Center’s invitation to the Reverend Timothy Keller to speak at their annual conference and receive the Kuyper Prize. Those who are concerned point to Reverend 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.

As I indicated in my previous letter, it is not my practice to censor the invitations to campus from any of our theological centers or student organizations. 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 Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.

However, the Kuyper Center’s invitation to Reverend Keller simply to lecture at their conference will stand, and he has graciously agreed to keep the commitment.  We are a community that does not silence voices in the church. 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.

I want to thank all who have communicated with the administration of the seminary as this important conversation has unfolded on campus. We have heard many heartfelt perspectives from both sides of the debate. It has been a hard conversation, but one that a theologically diverse community can handle.

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.

Sincerely,

Craig Barnes

Well done, President Barnes. I appreciate this response, and you. This is the right move. Yes to academic freedom. Yes to listening to others whose opinions are different from our own (no matter how distasteful they may be.) No to giving large fancy prizes that can be confused with endorsement. Some may not be satisfied with this response. I think it’s a great compromise. Yes to this! -T