The day is dreary at Princeton, New Jersey. Rain, cold, not much glimmer of the sun on the chapel walls.
The news from Princeton Theological Seminary is hardly cheery. It is grey and muddy.
Their attempt to stoke the theological fires by awarding the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life to the renowned New York City pastor Timothy Keller was going to bring joy to the campus, hearty congratulations all around, and claps to ward off thoughts of March melancholy until April joys. All the scholars were gathered around their hearths to hear the good news.
The Kuyper Prize is named after a famous Dutch theologian, journalist, and politician Abraham Kuyper. In 1898 at Princeton, he gave a famous set of lectures on Calvinism. The Kuyper Center’s announcement at the beginning of March praised Keller as “an innovative theologian and church leader, well-published author, and catalyst for urban mission in major cities around the world.” Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s best-known evangelical Christian thinkers.
Princeton Theological Seminary is one of the most prominent theologically liberal seminaries in the nation and is affiliated with the old-line denomination, the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. It has been declining in enrollment, finances, and prestige. The board brought in a new president to re-light the fires. The seminary would bring Keller, who has grown his Manhattan church into a movement of hundreds of churches, to light a bonfire.
But some demurred – Keller is not a jolly fellow for our high table; he can’t inspire our cold fish. In fact, fish-eyes to Keller. The feminists and gay religious drew back in horror saying, that his flame should not touch our wood.
So today, there is no joy in Mudville, the mighty president of Princeton seminary, M. Craig Barnes, has struck out. He beat such a hasty retreat that the “M” fell off his name at the bottom of the memo withdrawing the Kuyper award from Keller. The fire in the Princeton seminary hearth is left with a thin smoke coming out, and it doesn’t even smell good.
That’s about how former Kuyper Prize winners see the situation. There are few optimists in the group. They mainly feel diminished: maybe, they really don’t deserve the prize either.
Last year’s prize winner Elaine Storkey observes that the prize judges didn’t look very carefully into her own theological background. If they had, they would have discovered some disturbing facts, some things that might have left the food cold on the table at the big banquet to celebrate her prize.
Storkey is a notable feminist in Anglican circles. She has played an important role in shaping that church’s policy on ordination and gender.
She wrote to A Journey through NYC religions, “I don’t believe the same enquiries were made of the denomination to which I affiliate, the Church of England. We too have restrictions on ordination, in that although we do ordain women, (and indeed have women bishops), we require our clergy (male or female) to be either celibate or married. The church of England’s definition of marriage is that it is between a woman and man, not those of the same sex.”
She brought great cheer to the Princeton Seminary high table because she is encouraging and open to different views. “I also support the plea from those within our church who disagree on theological grounds with its position on either gender or sexuality, to be regarded as loyal and faithful Anglicans,” she wrote.
Now, she is a little saddened by the grimness that has settled into the event. “When we cannot always reach one mind on an issue, we need to exercise Christian generosity towards one another.”
Richard J. Mouw was at the high table in 2007 to receive the prize as President of Fuller Theological Seminary. His school is on the other coast in the Los Angeles area and is one of America’s largest and most influential seminaries. He has plenty of disagreements with Keller, but he gives the New York City pastor his highest regard. He wrote us,
“I disagree with him [Keller] on the ordination of women, but agree on same-sex topics. On the latter subject, I am not alone among the 19 persons awarded the Kuyper Prize since 1998. Furthermore, Tim has fostered a wonderful laity theological education program at Redeemer, associated with the church's Faith and Work Center, where many women in the professions have been affirmed and equipped for their callings in the public sector.”
He wondered if the criteria for the prize is just political: whoever wins the day with the loudest voice? Let the dinner and shouting begin?
“For some of us who have received this award in the past, we see Tim as more deserving of the honor than we are--and we can only conclude that in retrospect we are seen as not having met Princeton's standards for those who deserve the Prize.”
Nicholas Wolterstorff, the renown Yale philosopher who won the prize in 2014, ticked-tocked off a list of similar thoughts as Mouw. He wrote to A Journey:
"I regard the withdrawal of the Kuyper Prize as a deeply mistaken decision. Keller is profoundly Kuyperian in his overall orientation, and has shaped the lives of many in that direction. That's what he would have been honored for had he been given the prize. Why would it be thought that PTS was affirming his views on the ordination of women and on LGBT matters if it gave him the prize? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners. Was the US affirming slavery when we constructed monuments to them on the Washington Mall in the early 20th century?
I personally disagree with Keller on both the ordination of women and on LGBT matters. But I regard him as eminently worthy of the prize, not because of his stand on those matters, but because of his other remarkable contributions."
James Skillen, the 2001 Prize winner, is noted for his work on promoting and thinking about how Christians and non-Christians can promote the social welfare of the poor, the downtrodden, and the abused. His theology is generally from the Calvinist or, what is called, the Reformed perspective. He notes that the prize originally was established “to recognize those who have demonstrated 'excellence in Reformed theology and public life.'” However, the criteria for the prize reflected a value also given to generosity. “To my knowledge, none of the recipients have been without sin as judged by standards biblical, conservative, liberal, or the standards of any other religion or non-religion in the world,” he told A Journey through NYC religions.
Ian Buruma, a terrific journalist on human rights and civil society and professor at Bard College, admitted that when he heard that he was receiving the prize in 2012 that he was surprised because “I have never been aware of having rendered any services at all to neo-Calvinism.” Consequently, he doesn’t have a strong opinion on Keller’s exclusion. It is not his debate.
As far as Buruma is concerned, “the givers of prizes should be free to follow their choices.” As he told Princeton, “Theology has been very good to me” though he is “without any specialized or particular knowledge of theology.” However, most of the theologians who have won the Kuyper Prize wonder, what does the prize now mean for them?
The prize is awarded to Christian and non-Christian, Calvinist and anti-Calvinist, reformed and unreformed. The only discriminating factors seem to be fame and strict adherence to a certain fundamentalism in gender politics. Shall the fundamentalists win?
“If the standard of exclusion is now to be that a recipient must belong to a religious institution that ordains women and LGBTQ+ persons,” Skillen wonders, “then that will mean the exclusion of many who have demonstrated high degrees of the excellence for which the award was established and the inclusion of many who have made NO contribution to Reformed theology and public life even if they have demonstrated excellence in some other religious theology and its approach to public service.”
Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, professor at University of Notre Dame, summed up much of the sentiment. He wrote to Journey, “I was shocked and saddened by Princeton’s decision to retract it plans to award the Kuyper Prize to Reverend Tim Keller because his denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America, prohibits the ordination of women and gays.”
Princeton Seminary has smothered the fire in a particularly clumsy way that makes this dreary day seem even darker. It seems that the fundamentalists have won and generosity doesn’t have a chance in Hell. Let the laments begin.
Plantinga, the 2009 Kupyer Prize winner, notes, “Keller is a splendid and courageous spokesman for serious Christianity these days: the fact is, it’s very difficult to think of anyone who is more deserving of the Kupyer Prize.”
To get more background to the controversy, you might want to read our Sunday article, "Sunday News — Princeton Seminary takes back decision to give prize to Timothy Keller."