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Princeton Seminary takes back decision to give prize to Timothy Keller

Critics’ heavy duty salvos cause President to beat the drums for a hasty retreat

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Reverend Tim Keller turned over the leading pastoral role in 2015 to Reverend Abe Cho, pictured on the right with his family and others. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions


President M. Craig Barnes announced on Wednesday that Princeton Theological Seminary reversed its decision to give its Kuyper Prize to Reverend Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

At the beginning of this month, the Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton announced that Keller was their pick for the Kuyper Prize, which is named after a famous Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper. The institute’s announcement 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.

Critical reaction from theological liberals about their seminary was swift.

Calling Keller’s theology “toxic,” Carol Howard Merrit wrote her adamant objections on the website of the long-time beacon of liberal thinking, the Christian Century. “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.”

Some critics said Keller could come – if he would toe the Princeton line on ordination of women.

Blogger Tracy Smith wrote that Keller shouldn’t be invited to get the prize “unless Rev. Dr. Tim Keller is prepared to argue for the ordination of all the women students of Princeton Theological Seminary.”

The Princeton alumna and Presbyterian pastor in San Antonio, Texas admitted that she was shocked by the announcement. “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…. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings….”

Many students and alumni signed onto a letter authored by the Center for Theology, Women, and Gender Advisory Council and Women’s Center as well as BGLASS, the seminary’s LGBTQ group. They asked, how could the seminary “honor its commitments to these ideals while also honoring a pastor whose own ministry and practice stands in direct opposition to them?”

There was also a hint that the award to Keller could cost the seminary money. Wealthy philanthropist Emily Nielsen Jones wrote in a comment, “People just see him [Keller] as such a spiritual giant, for many good reasons, but are less aware of the extremist circles he has been in which are highly patriarchal.”


Princeton Seminary’s declining fortunes

After these heavy duty salvos from the theological artillery corps, the seminary in Princeton, New Jersey beat the drums for a hasty retreat. The school for pastors was already taking a beating from dwindling enrollments, declining finances, and dropping prestige. The school seems to have lost its footing in the 21st Century.

The year after Moody’s downgraded Princeton seminary’s credit rating in 2012, Barnes was made president with the task of saving the school. In a restructuring plan, twenty-one staff were laid off in 2013.

In 1995-1996, Princeton was in the top ten category of enrollment at seminaries with 776 students, but the number of students that it has been able to attract has gone down by thirty percent, according to the Association of Theological Schools. In 2013, the seminary enrollment had fallen to 520.

Meanwhile, the top ten seminaries in the United States by enrollment are now all evangelical seminaries. Keller took his seminary degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary which has experienced a 57% increase in enrollment over the last twenty years.

Although some evangelical schools have had big rises in student enrollment, some evangelical schools are also facing declining demand for their education, especially since the financial crisis of 2008. Some of this drop is also related to the fact that many new evangelical schools opened while demand was strong. Now that the demand has dropped, some evangelical seminaries are not able to enroll as many students as before. Before coming to New York City to become pastor, Keller was a professor at Westminister Theological Seminary, which has had about a 20% drop in enrollment over the last ten years.

Locally in 2015-2016, General Theological Seminary had 34 full-time students, Union Theological Seminary had 199 full-time students, and New York Theological Seminary has 196. Pentecostal and Charismatic theological training is taken at the over one hundred Bible institutes in New York City.


Fighting off critics, then retreat by seminary

The president of Princeton seminary at first tried to ward off critics. On March 10th, he sent out a placating email to faculty and students stating that he was against censorship on campus. He argued that “a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution … will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church.” Then, he changed his mind and decided that a little bit of censorship and exclusion was needed.

In an email to faculty and students last Wednesday morning, the president of Princeton seminary said that the critical reaction had persuaded him that Keller did not represent the values of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.  In a modest tip of the hat to freedom of speech and the “theological diversity of our community,” he announced that Keller was invited and would be speaking on April 6 at the Kuyper gathering. But no prize.

“We are a community that does not silence voices in the church,” Barnes wrote. “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.”

Newbigin is a British theologian who is as admired for his writings on missions as Keller is for church-planting.


Continuing controversy

Princeton seminary students are organizing a “preach-in” to occur on April 6 for the hour before Keller’s lecture.

Princeton University professor Robert George disavows the seminary. He tweeted, “Plse Note: Princeton Theological Seminary which disgraced itself by rescinding Tim Keller's Kuyper Prize is NOT part of Princeton University.”

Many evangelicals see the controversy as evidence that the liberal academia is intolerant of people who don’t agree with liberal theology or liberal politics.

Southern Baptist leader Dan Darling tweeted a question, “If you can't give an Abraham Kuyper award to Tim Keller, who can you give it to?”

“This is @ptseminary's loss, not @timkellernyc's,” tweeted Reformed Theological Seminary president Ligon Duncan. The seminary is well-regarded among evangelicals and has partnered with Redeemer to teach theology here in New York City.

“Although its celebrants often don’t realize it, the universe of liberal Protestantism is very small and getting smaller,” wrote Methodist Mark Tooley, head of the influential Institute on Religion and Democracy. “Keller will speak at Princeton on church planting, and hopefully he will be heard.”

Some “progressive evangelicals” also lamented the seminary’s action. Writer Johnathan Merritt wrote a column for Religion News Service entitled, “Why Princeton’s snub of Tim Keller should outrage progressives.” Merritt told his liberal audience, “Tim Keller is no extremist. He is no misogynist. He is no bigot. He is not hateful. Anyone who has paid attention to his Manhattan ministry can attest to this.”

His lament concluded, “As progressive Christians gain more cultural and religious influence, will they embody the Golden Rule and make space at the table for conservatives (as they once asked conservatives to do for them)? Or will they treat conservatives the way conservatives have treated them for years? Though I wish it were not so, many will likely choose the latter. After all, conservatives haven’t cornered the market on fundamentalism.”

From Connecticut, controversialist and pastor Charles Redfern asked, “Should We Tag Tim Keller With A Trigger Warning? Nothing matches the closed-mindedness of the supposedly open-minded.”


Also read: 

Tim Keller. 25 Years in Manhattan

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  • Hi Howard,

    I believe your comment is meant to be like that hymn refrain,

    "When darkness veils His lovely face,
    I rest on His unchanging grace;
    In every high and stormy gale
    My anchor holds within the veil.
    On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
    All other ground is sinking sand."

  • Michael, thank-you for your feedback on our coverage of the Kuyper Prize controversy.

    It is one thing to deliver a lecture on the occasion of the Kuyper Prize and quite a different thing to deliver, in Princeton Theological Seminary’s words, “simply to lecture.” It is like being invited to receive the Nobel Prize and give the Nobel Lecture and then uninvited to receive the prize but still invited to “simply lecture.”

    However, we appreciate your interpretation of the transactions and believe that our readers will want to read your judgment about the situation. Thanks!

  • Your note on Princeton Theological Seminary’s awarding of the Kuyper Prize to Timothy Keller, and then withdrawing the award fails to mention that the invitation to Rev. Keller to speak was not rescinded. He will be delivering the lecture at the seminary. Your closing line wondering if “a new censorship is quashing church traditions of free academic debate and diversity” seems significantly overstated, if not plainly inaccurate.

  • So sad.

    As someone who worked for Tim Keller for 4 years, I will make only the briefest mention of how his (relatively liberal) position on female deacons raised the ire of his conservative PCA denomination, and how well-known TV political commentators from opposite sides of the aisle have met at Redeemer and started dating. Keller's ability to present the gospel as central and everything else as hinging on that seems to have eluded many at Princeton and around the country.

    To rescind an award is either an admission of lazy forethought or spineless decision making.

    Making the issues primary that the opposing groups are choosing to crow over is why, also, there are literally tens of thousands of Protestant denominations.

    And this row doesn't make me real jazzed to be a Christian either.

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