Thursday, March 23, 2017

An Open Letter to President Barnes and Princeton Theological Seminary Regarding the 2017 Kuyper Prize

This morning, I sent the following open letter to Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary.

Dear President Barnes,

Several years ago I applied and was accepted as a candidate for the Master of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. After some time, I decided to quietly withdraw my application and seek other institutions in which to pursue my academic work because of the impression that PTS was not interested in supporting me: a conservative Reformed Christian, minister, and student within the academic environment at PTS. Recents events seem to bolster my decision to withdraw my commitment to PTS and rather than be quiet this time, I want to bring it to your attention. 

You see, once I did want to be a student at PTS, but as a preaching minister who served in New Jersey for four years, who was a regular fixture in the splendid Princeton Theological Seminary Library, and was an avid participant in the annual Karl Barth Conference and in reading groups on Barth within the confines of the wonderful Barth Center, I am disappointed and saddened by the news received in an e-mail early Wednesday in which you announced that PTS will not award its Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to the Rev. Tim Keller. As you stated
...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.
How deeply saddening and upsetting this is. Tim Keller is a complementarian, yes. He has taught what the Bible teaches regarding male leadership in the home and church, and he does not believe homosexual practice is faithful to Scripture. Despite these views - views shared by a large portion of Christians in Evangelical and Reformed parts of the tradition - many evangelical egalitarians have made it a point to still work with Keller despite disagreement on this matter; I am thankful for them. 

But now, Dr. Keller’s views on complementarity and homosexuality render him a target from illiberal voices. Do not miss this: Tim Keller, a gracious man if there ever was one, is being publicly shamed for holding what Scripture teaches, which is now, according to author and PTS alumnus Carol Howard Merritt (writing in a post at the website of the Christian Century), “toxic theology.” She writes,
“In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genitalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”
Ms. Merritt goes on to write that she was “literally shaking with grief,” before declaring (in boldface type, no less) that Keller’s “Complementarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.” (I’m guessing that Dr. Keller’s wife Kathy would have a different take on that matter, but I digress.) Rhetorical excesses notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that you, President Barnes, and the Kuyper Prize committee stepped into a hornet’s nest on this one.

But it's all a bit confusing really. 

In the past, it seems that the criteria for the award have been fairly broad. For example, in 2010 it was awarded to the UK’s leading rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. At first blush, one would think that someone like Dr. Keller, whose stance on the role of Christianity in relation to the broader culture meshes rather well with Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism, would be an appropriate choice. The decision this year to announce the award and then rescind it is bad form and doesn’t reflect well on the school and its leadership.

In response to all this you write,
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.  
But it hasn't been handled fairly, has it? No, it has not. What it has been is so terribly predictable. In fact because of alumni, faculty, and student pressures this is what it has come to: one of the most influential Reformed preachers and authors in America today is not eligible to receive Princeton Theological Seminary’s annual award in Reformed theology and public witness, the 2017 Kuyper Prize.

Which brings me to the troubling fact, in light of these events, that PTS awards a Kuyper prize at all. If support for the ordination of “women and LGBTQ+ persons” is now a criteria for receiving the Kuyper Award, don’t you realize Kuyper was, to use the more recent term, a convinced complementarian with definite views on gender and sexuality as normatively defined by the order of creation? In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper wrote:
In creation itself the difference has been established between woman and man. . . . Modernism, which denies and abolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and, putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism [Eerdmans, 1931], 26-27).
In fact, such was Kuyper’s programmatic distinction between men and women that he opposed women’s suffrage in the Netherlands. James D. Bratt, in his recent biography of Kuyper writes:
He so fundamentally assumed the patriarchy of separate gender spheres that he came to its overt defense only in late career, when the Netherlands began moving toward women’s suffrage. More broadly, he took the pattern of dichotomous thinking for granted; thus the long train of common grace and special grace, institute and organism, kernel and husk, everlasting principle and temporal application. . . . Kuyper’s solution was a justice of order more than of liberty or access. (James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat [Eerdmans, 2013], 247).
Later in the book, Bratt adds:
Feminism proper brought out his harsher tones. . . . God ordained males for strength, females for beauty, he said; man sinned as oppressor, woman as seductress. That contest was no contest, however; women won. There was a “magnetic power,” an “irresistible magnetic power,” in female charms that bent men to her will. So also there was a depth in her depravity quite below his: “The woman who sins sinks much deeper than does the man. She stands for nothing. Unrighteousness seizes her as a life-rule.” Not alone but also not least among the male commentators of his time, Kuyper was profoundly anxious about the power of female sexuality (Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 362-363).
I’m guessing that Dr. Keller's view of the role of women is rather more “open,” by modern standards, than that of Kuyper. According to your seminary, the award goes to “a scholar or community leader 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.”

My goodness, if you can't give an Abraham Kuyper award to Dr. Tim Keller, who can you give it to? So, the question is posed: What business does a school like Princeton Theological Seminary—an institution that is apparently committed to the feminist and LGBTQ+ social agenda—have for awarding a Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness?

In light of the debacle of this year's award the answer seems: no business at all. Speaking as a former student who saw a better path of academic inquiry outside the confines of the PTS community and made the decision to leave before it all began, thank you for confirming my suspicions that I would not, in the end, be welcome in your institution.


Matthew Dowling