Keller, Princeton, Barnes: Satisfying the Unsatisfiable

Thursday night (April 6, 2017), Tim Keller will visit Princeton Theological Seminary to deliver the 2017 Kuyper Lecture hosted by the Abraham Kuyper Center for Public Theology. Kuyper was an influential pastor, theologian, and government official who believed firmly that the gospel of Jesus Christ has bearing on every aspect of human life, public and private, social and individual, behind closed doors and in the public square. There are few leaders more in line with Kuyper than Tim Keller whose faithful preaching and devotion to the gospel have transformed the spiritual terrain of New York City over the last two and a half decades. 

But Keller will not receive the prize. The students and faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary rose up in opposition, claiming they were insulted and hurt to see Keller honored because he is part of a conservative branch of the Reformed tradition which does not ordain women or ordain leaders in homosexual relationships. 

There are many branches to American Presbyterianism, mostly defined by where to draw the circle around ordination. In the Reformed tradition ordination does not value one person over another, does not mark one person as holy and another as unholy, but sets a person aside for particular leadership under congregational and spiritual recognition that the person meets criteria in scripture for eldership and is called to serve in a defined season. In the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) there is a desire to draw those lines conservatively. As my friends in that tradition have told me, if they are to err--and we all err--they would like to have erred on the side of being too devoted to the plain sense of scripture. There sits Tim Keller, although anyone who follows these things knows he is constantly in trouble with his own denomination for pushing the boundaries toward women's leadership. 

The students at Princeton would not have it. They rallied around statements that Keller's reception of the award, the 2017 Abraham Kuyper prize, was hurtful, mean, and potentially damaging to their sense of fairness. President M. Craig Barnes was forced to intervene, pulling the prize away in some manner of compromise. The Kuyper Center is now hosting Keller for the 2017 Kuyper Prize lecture, but will not present him with the prize. 

In the days following this announcement hosts of former Kuyper Prize recipients spoke out in bereaved wonderment. What is now the criteria for this prize? If it is full-throated support of ordination and ecclesial blessing of homosexual practice very few of them would qualify. What are the requirements now for any theological prize or honor bestowed by Princeton Seminary, or by any other body on its grounds? Would the faculty, trustees and students like to state these criteria openly? If they were put down on paper, the vast majority of graduates from 1812 until today would not qualify. Should we posthumously remove those accolades? Aren't they also hurtful?

Dr. Barnes, a mentor and support to me in my early years of ministry, was himself known as a strong evangelical within the PC(USA). During another chapter of line-drawing around ordination, Barnes stood up for the conviction that a potential elder should value faithfulness in marriage and chastity in singleness. The loss of this language in recent years led to the latest fracturing when my body, ECO (Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians), was formed. 

President Barnes is in an impossible position. What would satisfy his seminarians? What would mollify his community? How can he possibly protect them from every idea that might bring them anxiety, hurt or potential insult? And why does Keller's position hurt this student body? His reading of scripture is not far-fetched or outside the Christian position from New Testament times until today. Can it be heard without hurting today's Princeton seminarian?

It hurts and insults me when I think that a leader like Tim Keller, in the final year of his active pastorate at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, will have a knot in his stomach on Thursday night when he nobly and humbly delivers his lecture on Lesslie Newbigin; that students may protest or cast aspersions on one of contemporary American history's most winsome advocates for the gospel of Jesus Christ. It insults me because I am a graduate of that seminary.

When I was a student my theology professor taught of theologies without foundation. They are like castles in the sky, he said, holding together in perfect form but based on nothing. The wind can blow them along and a change in temperature makes them disappear entirely. Castles in the sky, a tower of playing cards, a house built on sand. Who can protect these from wind and wave?

President Barnes will not be able, no matter how hard he tries, to keep the anxiety from forming when those whose theological positions lack scriptural foundations feel a challenge coming. The anxiety of the students will escalate again. Their sense of hurt and harm and potential emotional damage will again rise to intolerable levels. They will again call upon leadership to protect them, to defend and shelter them, to walk on eggshells around them lest a heavy footfall bring the whole tower down. But it is not possible. There is no leadership Barnes could offer to satisfy the unsatisfiable. 

"The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Matthew 7:27


Tim McConnell

Princeton Theological Seminary, M. Div., 1999