My alma mater Princeton Theological Seminary has endured an uncomfortable episode over the last few weeks. PTS is the flagship seminary of the PC(USA), an increasingly theological liberal mainline denomination. Tim Keller was due to be awarded the Abraham Kuyper Prize which is given annually to “a scholar or community leader who has contributed to the further development of Reformed theology, particularly as it bears on matters of public life.”
Tim Keller has served as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City for more than two decades and under his leadership Redeemer has impacted tens of thousands, if not more, young urbanites who many Christians once wrote off as unreachable. Keller is the author of dozens of books and has had an untold positive impact on American evangelicalism. Redeemer has consciously cultivated a love for the city, fostered church planting and leadership development worldwide and is as responsible as anyone for the recovery of practical missional theology.
Near the heart of Reformed theology is the Biblical mandate to engage culture and be a faithful, irenic, victorious presence therein. Keller and Redeemer fit this to a “T.”
Keller’s receipt of the award was strenuously objected to by some because he and Redeemer are part of the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA does not ordain women and, of course, does not ordain “practicing” members of the LGBT community or recognize same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, the seminary announced they were rescinding the award but Keller was still invited to deliver a lecture at PTS, under the flag of ‘academic freedom.’ President Craig Barnes said the award was being rescinded because it “might imply an endorsement” of Keller’s views. What I write below is not intended as a criticism of President Craig Barnes who I know to be a very Christ-filled and compassionate man and a leader placed in challenging situation, faced with a difficult choice. PTS is better for having Craig Barnes at the helm and so is the Church.
I am critical, however, of those who forced PTS to rescind the award. Christian liberalism has become a shadow of that which it once hated, a mirror image of the movement it defined itself against and in so doing is losing its soul and the essence of the faith taught in Scripture, given by Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Christian liberalism arose largely as a response to fundamentalism. Early in the 20th century conservative fundamentalists sought to “purify the church” from evolutionists, skeptics, cultural accommodationists, and the like. A seminal moment in the development of Christian liberalism was a sermon preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick at First Presbyterian Church of New York called “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s sermon was a call for tolerance and mutual forbearance in the Church.
He preached: Here in the Christian Church today are these two groups, and the question which the Fundamentalists have raised is this—Shall one of them drive the other out? Do we think the cause of Jesus Christ will be furthered by that? If He should walk through the ranks of his congregation this morning, can we imagine Him claiming as His own those who hold one idea of inspiration and sending from Him into outer darkness those who hold another? You cannot fit the Lord Christ into that Fundamentalist mold.
Fosdick, a Baptist preaching in a Presbyterian Church, earned the wrath of the 1923 PC (USA) General Assembly for what some called the “worst act of heresy in 100 years.”
Despite the furor directed at Fosdick and other liberals, conservatives failed in their effort to purify the Church. The pain of that battle set a template and a pattern that many Christian theological liberals have largely practiced. They have backed into becoming fundamentalists in their own right and are growing into a mimetic image of long-dead, dour, joyless and intolerant Christians whose chief witness for the Kingdom of our Lord was the expurgation of sinners. This is not a happy vocation.
Historian George Marsden said a “Fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” Is a liberal fundamentalist angry about something?
The remarks of those who objected to Keller’s receiving the award seem to bear this out. A PTS alum who pastors a church in San Antonio wrote that awarding the prize to Keller was “…offensive, and as I have taught my four and five-year-old to express, hurts my feelings.” Another writer denouncing Keller’s receipt of the award, wrote, “I am literally shaking with grief as I write this.”
I first learned about the controversy through a Facebook post filled with negative comments about Keller and the award. One PTS alum simply wrote, “Gross.”
Christian theological liberalism is losing its soul, at least as defined by Fosdick. A fundamentalist strain has indeed won and it looks much like the conservative fundamentalism they once rejected. Among liberal fundamentalists, there is an overriding desire to ‘purify’ the Church. Men like Keller who hold divergent views are pollutants whose very presence threatens the integrity of the institution, if not the souls of those who find a mere portion of his theology and practice repugnant. It does not matter that there is much about Keller to admire and that he and Redeemer have modeled and practiced well “love for neighbor.” Because there is a speck in Keller’s eye, the whole body of work is unclean.
Both liberal and conservative fundamentalism is a near kin to the Pharisaism railed against by Jesus. It ignores the Biblical mandate to love mercy and live by grace, establishing instead a purifying moral code. Pharisees found moral fault with nearly everyone who did not hold to their strict interpretation of the law. Under this kind of thinking, Keller’s complementarianism is an unpardonable sin. Granted this issue is near to the PTS community and proximity equals pain. But is it not fair to say that Keller (or anyone else) would have been disqualified in the minds of many for any of a long list of sins: homophobia, climate change skepticism, denying white privilege, young earth theory adherence, Zionism, Islamophobia, Biblicism, to name a few?
None of this is to say that there should be no theological essentials. We are all fundamentalists about something. There need to be clear lines. It is good to have a handful of things upon which we will not compromise. But, how we regard those whose fundamentals fall on the other side of our lines is surely close to what is most fundamental of all.