The Tim Keller Controversy at Princeton: And What It Means for the Church

OOOOPS!!  It was a shocker when the Oscars mistakenly first awarded Best Picture to “La La Land,” instead of “Moonlight.” But who would think that a leading Protestant seminary would do the same type of thing? (photo credit: Kevin Winter/ Getty Images)

Normally, when a theological seminary gives an award to someone in the greater community, the announcement brings about as much excitement as saying how many millimeters your grass has grown up so far this spring. But when the prestigious Princeton Theological Seminary announced that Tim Keller, a New York City pastor, was to be awarded the esteemed Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness… and then later rescinded the offer, it created quite a stir.

Tim Keller is probably one of the most well-known, conciliatory voices in the conservative evangelicalism movement. His books on the Bible, marriage, and particularly, apologetics, like Reason for God and Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical, have helped millions to better understand how the Gospel of Jesus Christ effectively relates to the challenges of living in a postmodern culture. The Gospel Coalition, an organization that Keller helped to found, is a “go to” resource for many evangelicals, for encouragement, Bible teaching, and cultural analysis.

Interestingly, Keller in the past has had his critics on the extreme conservative side. Keller’s openness to some aspects of evolutionary creationism has come under a suspicious eye, for some, while others have branded his book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Justas uncritically paving the way towards an embracement of socialism. But most evangelical Christians, who know anything about Tim Keller, regard him as a gracious and thoughtful spokesperson for evangelical faith, even if there is disagreement on relatively minor matters, according to Richard Mouw, former president at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a past recipient of the very same Kuyper prize, awarded at Princeton Seminary.

Tim Keller

Tim Keller: A type of evangelical thinker who models the kind of irenic approach to Christian apologetics, that Veracity tries to follow.

However, when some members of the Princeton Seminary community realized that Keller was a member of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), a Christian denomination that does not confer ordination on women, or practicing gay or lesbian people, they became angry over the Seminary’s plans to honor Keller with the Kuyper award, leading to the rescinding of the award offer. Apparently, you just can not make everybody happy. As a type of compromise, Keller has still been invited to speak on the topic of mission at the seminary, an invitation which he graciously accepted. Yet the controversy regarding Keller forebodes several signs, that do not look good for the health of the Christian community in America in our day. I will list four, but see if you agree with these assessments:

  • Oversimplifying Complex Points of View. Keller’s position on both women’s ordination and gay/lesbian ordination was the stated reason for rescinding the award. Issues concerning how men and women relate to one another, and how the church can best address the concerns of the LGBTQ community, are quite complex, so it seems rather flatfooted for dissenters at Princeton to base their protest over Keller’s theology of ordination. While it is true that the large majority of evangelicals do oppose both women’s and gay/lesbian ordination, there is also a significant voice among evangelicals that opposes gay/lesbian ordination, but believes that the question regarding women’s ordination is still a matter of vigorous debate. Yet there is even another debate among Christians as to what constitutes ordination in the first place. Presumably, Tim Keller’s wife, Kathy Keller, who at one time advocated for women’s ordination, but now opposes it, would never be eligible for the Kuyper award, per the dissenters at Princeton. Keller’s dissenters at Princeton do not seem to be aware of these divergent, complicated factors, apparently out of step with the discussion in the evangelical church body at large. Jim Daly, of Focus on the Family, insightfully remarks that Princeton Seminary needs Tim Keller more than Keller needs Princeton. Is Princeton in danger of unnecessarily conflating complex issues together?
  • The Intolerance of Tolerance. For years, progressives in various churches have complained that conservatives have shut down conversations on sensitive, controversial issues. So, it seems strange that progressives at Princeton would attempt to try to “marginalize” a moderate figure like Tim Keller. Even a few progressive types, like Jonathan Merritt, of the Religion News Service, believes that Princeton’s actions are over the top, observing that Keller is no misogynist and no bigot. So, when did an attempt to maintain fidelity to the long standing traditional interpretations of Scripture make someone a misogynist or bigot?
  • The Flipping of “Orthodoxy” Upside Down. For much of the 19th and early 20th century, Princeton Theological Seminary was self-consciously the guardian of conservative evangelical orthodoxy. Abraham Kuyper, for whom the Princeton award is named for, was one of the distinguished leaders of confessional evangelicalism, in the latter 19th century and early 20th century, at one time the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Kuyper’s doctrinal commitments mirror much of what Keller’s denomination, the PCA, believes. Some even argue that Kuyper negatively would be greatly more conservative than Tim Keller. Is it not strange that if Abraham Kuyper were alive today, that he would not be eligible to receive an award that bears his name?
  • The Polarization of American Christianity. It is as though the extremes on both sides, conservative and progressive, are getting more extreme, and those who propose a more measured, moderate approach to sensitive issues, are caught in the crossfire. Will divisive rhetoric continue to polarize Christians, or will voices be allowed to emerge that promote dialogue and unity, while preserving orthodox faith?

While there are some at Princeton who begrudgingly will allow Tim Keller to come and speak, anyway, we here at Veracity have no hesitation in offering the kind of thoughtful engagement with contemporary issues that Tim Keller offers to the church, as well as the largely secular folks at Google. Here is Keller’s talk at Google last year, articulating the main ideas found in Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (be sure to hear the question that is relevant to the fundamental concern of the dissenters at Princeton, and Keller’s response, starting at the 52:45 mark).

UPDATE: March 29, 2017

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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