Why Would Tim Keller Accept Princeton’s Invitation?

Owen Strachan is at a loss to explain why Princeton Seminary has decided to withdraw the Kuyper Prize from Tim Keller:

How odd that this fracas has happened at Princeton. Princeton Seminary is the ancestral home of Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen. For a good long while, Princeton was one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in all its gleaming brilliance, turning out thousands of Bible-loving, gospel-preaching pastors in days past. Princeton has long had ties to Abraham Kuyper, who delivered his famous “every square inch” Stone Lectures at the school in 1898. The Princeton-Kuyper-evangelical connection is alive and thriving at schools like Westminster Seminary, which produced sterling graduates like Harold John Ockenga.

Beyond thriving Westminster, as just one humble example, I will be teaching a July PhD seminar with my colleague John Mark Yeats at Midwestern Seminary on “Biblical Theology and Culture.” We will be discussing Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. Baptists like me are thankful for our brother Abraham and his insights. Over 115 years later, the Kuyperian tree yet blooms, and on numerous campuses, the “Princeton Theology” yet lives.

But mark the irony: today, Kuyper could not receive his own award, as Michael Guyer noted. Nor could Hodge or Warfield or Machen—strong complementarians all—win such an honor, or perhaps even teach at the school they did so much to establish and strengthen.

Does Strachan not see the irony that Machen had to leave Princeton for Old Princeton’s theology to thrive? Doesn’t he understand the irony of the anti-Machen Princeton awarding (the pro-Machen?) Keller with a prize associated with the Calvinist orthodoxy of Abraham Kuyper?

Strachan interprets this episode as another indication of how deep the antithesis goes:

Don’t be confused: this world hates the gospel, hates God, and hates Christ (Romans 8:7). It calls faithful men and women of God to sit down and fall silent. But, in love for fellow sinners, we graciously refuse to do so. We will preach the whole counsel of God, including biblical sexual ethics, which glisten with divine craftmanship. We will rise to praise Tim Keller, a man who received a weighty charge from God, a man entrusted with much, a man who did not drop the baton.

That’s pretty arch for a defender of Keller since that world-hating-Christ meme has never been prominent in Keller’s we-can-redeeem-this approach to the big apple.

But if the world is all that, why would Keller recommend Gotham the way he does? And if the world hates Christ as Strachan says, why would Tim Keller not look at Princeton’s effort to award him as an indication that he may not have been as clear in his communication of Reformed orthodoxy? After all, when E. J. Young received an invitation merely to serve on Christianity Today‘s editorial board, he refused to identity institutionally with the church for whom Princeton Seminary is the theological flagship:

As you well know, Carl [Henry], there was in the Presbyterian Church a great controversy over modernism. That controversy was carried on by Dr. Machen in part. There were many who supported Dr. Machen in his opposition to unbelief. On the other hand there were many who did not support him. When matters came to a showdown and Dr. Machen was put from the church there were those who decided it would be better to remain within and to fight from within. . . . Since that time I have watched eagerly to see what would be done by those who remained in the church. They have done absolutely nothing. Not one voice has been raised so far as I know to get the church to acknowledge its error in 1936 and to invite back into its fold those who felt constrained to leave, or those who were put out of the church. . . . What has greatly troubled me has been the complete silence of the ministers in the church. They simply have not lived up to their ordination vows.

If Keller had been holding out for confessional Presbyterianism, Princeton never would have paid him attention. And if Princeton Seminary had ever checked Keller’s curriculum vitae, they’d have seen Westminster Seminary, the school founded by Machen, and wondered, “what were we thinking?”

If only the New Calvinists paid a little more attention to Old Calvinists, they might know that Calvinism is never sexy. As Mencken said for many mainstream media members, “Calvinism is but little removed in the cabinet of horrors from Cannibalism.” But instead, New Calvinists listened to Keller and thought, if he can make it in New York City, so can we.

26 thoughts on “Why Would Tim Keller Accept Princeton’s Invitation?

  1. Princeton is far more orthodox today than it was in the early 20th century, so I’m not sure that Strachan has a relevant point. Never mind that guys like Strachan are fairly selective in their readings of Kuyper and the Old Princeton theologians. They just pick and choose from the parts that support their biblicism, which, in my view, is little more than a slightly Christianized version of Islam. After all, inerrancy is little more than an Islamic interpretive rubric imposed onto Christian texts. Strachan is about as Christian as the local imam.


  2. Here’s a different perspective: If Princeton asked me to come preach the good news to them, why not?

    Sure, you can turn them down on principle… you hold them in contempt because of what Princeton did to Machen,
    although I doubt that there are many at Princeton who were even born in 1936.

    FWIW, I’m no big fan of Keller. I’ve read a couple of chapters of his marriage book (which I enjoyed), but I never finished it, and that’s all of his that I’ve read. But as I’ve seen people bat this story back and forth, that’s what I’ve been wondering – if they want to hear you speak, why not?


  3. 2webb, one to receive an award and accept recognition of approval. Another to be invited to preach.

    Why is that so hard? Do you go to the Academy Awards to preach the gospel?


  4. But, twebby — you know these things are mutual backscratching fests. One party picks up shine from the other. Everyone is nice. Keller accepting the award (which he was willing to do) or even just speaking (which he’s still going to do) lends credibility to Ground Zero of the Presbyterian Controversy, to a well-endowed still-prestigious high temple of liberalism. They haven’t changed — they’ve gotten worse than Machen could ever have dreamed. If Keller goes in there and says “We disagree because we have radically different views of the bible, the gospel, and the church’s mission…maybe that would be OK. But, he’ll go on with tons of nuance, dripping with Third Way thoughtfulness. I hope I’m wrong.


  5. It all reminds me of the Schaeffers (Keller’s inspiration) who wanted to make the gospel relevant, and the way that backfired with son Franky embracing the avant garde and rejecting the Westminster Confession. It’s one thing to be culturally aware, another to not realize cultural appreciation simply exists in an awkward tension with the hard truths of the reformed Gospel. Man is good, but he and his works quickly go bad. In Young Life meetings with very young crowds that’s an easy dilemma to gloss over. For adults, it remains a more prominent mystery that just is, all the fist pumps to Times Square nothwithstanding.


  6. Two points here. A lot of what I see from some old Calvinists is a forgetting of love, which is not good according to the Good Samaritan Parable or John’s first epistle, while they speak as if our traditions are equivalent to the Scriptures. The story where Jesus challenges the religious teachers on their failure to honor their parents comes to mind.

    The second point is why shouldn’t Keller jump at the opportunity to speak at Princeton? After all, didn’t Paul preach to the Greek about their gods? And as for the world, doesn’t John identify the threats of the world to be the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life? That those who are with Christ have defeated the world, that is have defeated the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life? To view the world as just the collection of its people would mean that the parts of 2KT that teaches us to work, as individuals, with unbelievers on worldly problems?


  7. Here’s the question nobody seems to be asking except for the people on this site:

    If an apostate seminary was willing to give Keller an award, why are we not asking more questions about Keller?

    I’m all for being “winsome,” but are you being faithful to your church and your theological tradition when leaders of an apostate seminary can recognize you for excellence in gospel ministry?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Dr. Hart,

    I have not read the other comments so maybe someone addressed this already. The questions you ask are inappropriate insofar as the details of the invitation narrative are absent. You ask ‘why would Tim Keller not look at Princeton’s effort to award him as an indication that he may not have been as clear in his communication of Reformed orthodoxy?’ And you wonder why ‘Princeton paid Keller attention’. It might be helpful to clear up exactly how this invitation comes. PTS qua PTS does not confer the Kuyper award. They merely approve it after it has been decided upon by an outside board. The board is made up of evangelicals especially from the Dutch Reformed tradition including Dutch theologians, British theologians, and American. These guys are from traditions like the Vrijgemaakt and the Free Church of Scotland. Only one of these is a PTS faculty member, at least that was the case last time I saw the list. The Kuyper Centre operates in a distinct way from PTS and its general ethos. The Kuyper Center was established at PTS a while ago and hosts a conference there every year. Its previous guests include people like Wolterstorff, Oliver O’Donovan, and others in that academic ilk. Keller is the first one to receive condemnation. There is certainly division in the PTS community about hosting the Kuyper center and this is a particular instantiation of a debate that is not new. The culture of the conference at core, especially if you attend the short papers, is conservative in its theological emphases reflecting the theologies of Bavinck and Kuyper mostly. PTS is a host site in a more practical way but since the center was donated to them they do stamp the event. Keller’s communication of Reformed orthodoxy was clear enough, at least, that he received an invitation from the Kuyper Centre board, which is not at all made up of the seminary ethos described in your post but of a Vrijegemaakt ethos, among others. And, further, his ‘orthodoxy’ was at least clear enough that the PTS stamp of approval was revoked upon further inspection. This detail adds some potential for nuances to the narrative above. Princeton did not pay Keller attention. Rather, the Kuyper center board did, and PTS was consequently forced to. It might also help to know that at the conference the last few years, there have been at least 4 presenters from the Free Church of Scotland, which may come closer to qualifying as old Calvinist.


  9. Are we to suppose that Keller’s time at WTS toughened him up for Princeton’s poor treatment?

    It was a sobering moment of clarity for me — time slowed down for me. In that moment, my entire seminary experience flashed before my eyes. At Westminster Theological Seminary, they called themselves “Machen’s Warrior Children,” and they wore it like a badge of pride. Faculty behind closed doors would refer to times when they colluded to get other faculty fired as “My tour in ‘Nam.” Students would get together at pubs and talk about how all the other seminaries were much worse, too soft, not insightful enough, not consistent enough, not vigilant enough.

    I was new to the whole Presbyterian world. But after only a few months after I moved to Philadelphia to attend Westminster, it felt like home for one reason. My hypervigilant pursuit of truth was rewarded. My “black and white” conception of the world was applauded. Everyone was put in categories of “in” and “out.” If you fell in line, and paid allegiance to the right people, you were treated as family. If not, you were exiled, and treated as untrustworthy. I don’t know if all Presbyterian communities are like this, or if all Reformed communities are like this. But this was my experience of Presbyterianism in Philadelphia. It was political to the core. And the political players at Westminster were looking for soldiers to fight in their war. Against whom? Everyone else.

    It was at Westminster that I realized I had experienced trauma in my own childhood.


    Liked by 1 person

  10. Cory Brock, that clarifies some of the origins of the invitation, but the idea that this is a prize given to proponents of Reformed orthodoxy does not bear the weight of this list:

    2016- Dr. Elaine Storkey, distinguished scholar and journalist from the United Kingdom in the disciplines of sociology, philosophy and theology with past appointments at the University of Oxford and the BBC

    2015- Congressman John R. Lewis

    2014 – Dr Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, Yale University
    “Justice, Beauty, and Worship”

    2013 – Dr. Russel Botman, Rector of the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
    “Dread, Hope and the African Dream: An Ecumenical Collage”

    2012 – Dr. Ian Buruma, Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism, Bard College
    “Abraham Kuyper and the Muslim Question”

    2011 – Marilynn Robinson, writer and Pulitzer Prize Winner

    2010 – Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
    “Covenant and Hope in Civil Society”

    2009 – Alvin Plantinga, Professor of Philosophy, University of Notre Dame
    “Science and Religion: Where the Conflict Really Lies”

    2008 – Oliver O’Donovan, Professor of Practical Theology, University of Edinburgh
    “Reflections on Tolerance”

    2007 – Richard J. Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary
    “Culture, Church, and Civil Society: Kuyper for a New Century”

    2006 – Robert A. Seiple, US Ambassador
    “The Gospel Blimp Revisited: Reflections on Christian Witness and Persecution”

    2005 – Charles Villa-Vincencio (2005)
    “Aeolian Harp of Renewal: The Private and the Public in Political Engagement”

    2004 – Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister of The Netherlands
    “Solid Values for a Better Future”

    2003 – Andrew Young, US Ambassador to the United Nations
    “Principled Pluralism and Contemporary Development in Africa”

    2001 – James Skillen (2001)
    “E Pluribus Unum and Faith-Based Welfare Reform: A Kuyperian Moment for the Church in God’s World”

    2000 – Eka Darmaputera (2000)
    “The Search for a New Place and Role of Religion within the Democratic Order of the Post-Sooharto Indonesia”

    1999 – John Witte, Director of the Center for Law and Religion, Emory University
    “God’s Joust, God’s Justice: The Revelations of Legal History”

    1998 – George Puchinger (1998)

    They may be Reformed, but these are Reformedish, which his how some folks in confessional Reformed churches regard Keller’s New School/New Life Presbyterianism.


  11. Cory,

    Don’t complicate the discussion with facts. In some ways, Old Life is a venue largely committed to relitigating the controversies that captivated American Presbyterianism in the mid-1930s. Never mind that the liberalism that Machen fought had largely been swept out of PTS by the 1950s, which goes along way towards explaining why Edwin Rian rejoined the mainline church at that time.

    I suspect that Keller was a lightning rod to some at PTS because–unlike Nick Wolterstorff and Oliver O’Donovan–Keller associates rather closely with folks who would never receive an invitation from the Kuyper Center and whose ethos more closely reflects American fundamentalism than Vrijegemaakt-style Protestantism. I’ve run across Keller in several forums that were of the Vrijegemaakt sort. If you’d met him in those contexts, you’d think that this is a guy whose views are largely in line with those of Wolterstorff, O’Donovan, Miroslav Volf, etc. But none of those men would ever accept a board position with something like the Gospel Coalition, which is effectively a fundamentalist organization. And therein lies the problem. Keller appears with Vrijegemaakt-style Protestants one evening, and convinces them that he’s one of them. Then, the next evening, he appears with fundamentalists of the Al Mohler variety, and convinces them that he’s one of them. But which Keller is the real Keller? It seems that Keller’s theology consists only of affirmations on which the broad swath of conservative Protestants–from moderate Vrijegemaakt types to fundamentalist Baptists–are in agreement. He never seems to have an opinion on the many issues that divide conservative Protestants, and which function as significant barriers to fellowship for everyone else. How convenient is that? It’s all a bit too convenient, if you ask me.

    Conservative Protestantism of the Vrijegemaakt variety may not be popular among some at PTS. But it’s a far cry from the fundamentalism that inhabits places like SBTS. If Keller wants an award from the Kuyper Center, then he’s going to have to disabuse himself of his popularity among guys like Al Mohler and Owen Strachan.


  12. Did Charles Hodge also have two opinions (depending on the context), one when Hodge was arguing for an ecclesiology defined in terms of the Israel of the old covenants but a different opinion when Hodge was defending federalism against Nevin’s argument for “the church” always being visible?

    John Williamson Nevin—“We will not allow ourselves to be put out of course in so solemn an argument, by any catchword of this sort addressed to popular prejudice. The Liturgy avoids the ambiguous phrase; and we will do so too; for the word regeneration is made to mean, SOMETIMES ONE THING, and SOMETIMES ANOTHER, and it does not come in our way at all at present to discuss these meanings. We are only concerned, that no miserable logomachy of this sort shall be allowed to cheat us out of what the sacrament has been held to be in past ages; God’s act, setting apart those who are the subjects of it to His service, and bringing them within the sphere of His grace in order that they may be saved. We do not ask any one to call this regeneration; it may not at all suit his SENSE OF THE TERM; but we do most earnestly conjure all to hold fast to the thing, call it by what term they may. ”


    I think I understand why fundamentalists could speak well of Hodge (and Machen).

    Carl Truman always says bad things about evangelicals, when he speaks at evangelical conferences
    D G Hart always says good things about Lutherans, even when Hart speaks at Lutheran conferences.

    Mark 9: 38 John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” 39 “Don’t stop him,” said Jesus, “because there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name who can soon afterward speak evil of Me.40 For whoever is not against us is for us

    But what would Hodge or Kuyper have said when Volf and Oliver Crisp “make things easier” by dening the federal imputation of Adam’s guilt?


  13. evan/Bobby, Ed Rian went back to the PCUSA one step ahead of the law. He wasn’t exactly following best practices when raising money for the Christian University.

    And if you think PTS was fine in the 1950s, then where in hades did Ed Dowey come from and how did PTS lead the way in finally getting the PCUSA over the Westminster Confession with the Confession of 67 and the Bible “becoming” the Word of God?

    Read much?


  14. D.G.,
    That depends if you want to be a Pharisee. But since I am not qualified to be Jesus, I might modify the approach Jesus took when he responded to the pharisees.


  15. I’m not prone to give much weight to people so ignorant of theology that they can’t see the vast difference between Barth and Bultmann.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t agree with Barth’s notion of “becoming.” My views are largely consistent with those of Pete Enns.


  16. Back when you grew up baptist, what was your go to insult for people you didn’t know much about? Moving jobs from one evangelical seminary to another evangelical seminary is not quite the same things as being a pacifist who won’t take their children to the state church to eat the “bread-god” I know you mainly meant to insult Enns, but notice the collateral damage.

    Charles Hodge—“The communion of saints does not include the idea of any external organization. The bond of union may be spiritual. There may be communion between individuals in Christ without any external. organized union.” (Discussions in Church Polity)


    Unless God makes exceptions, there is no salvation for individuals who have NOT been watered by the true church, and “churches” which refuse water to infants are not in the apostolic succession because they do not have real clergy but the sacraments they administer (even if they are too ignorant to know) should and must be accepted as legitimate by real protestants who have continuity with the church which gave lLIFE to Luther and Calvin.

    Catholic become donatist if the church hands over donatists to the state for excommunication from the LIFE distributed in the eating of the living Christ. No Christ the person, no benefits. No Church, no Christ still given out. Though sacramental ministers have more power in this age than do the magistrates, what could it hurt for those who dissent from the national confession of faith to be sent outside the city because of their sedition?


  17. Saying one’s views are largely the same as Pete Enns isn’t exactly the best way to prove one’s critical thinking skills.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Yes, and I am not sure there was ever a distinction made between the meaning of the two words “world” and “liberal” Though it was agreed that you were not “saved” by what you did with the church or what you didn’t do with the world, it was also understood that the movies were “worldly”.

    Even though I don’t remember this insult being applied to music on the radio. I was so “separated out”, I never heard Bob Dylan until I arrived at the University of Virginia in 1973. That was the same year I began to go see lots of movies.

    “Well now what’s the use in dreaming?/You got better things to do/
    Dreams never did work for me anyway/Even when they did come true.”

    Bob Dylan– “I Feel a Change Coming On”:



  19. Mark, I was raised in what you all branded “worldly liberal” and married into semi-separatism. From what I’ve picked up, another term is “carnal.” It’s a bit dated, but I think it’s reserved for compromised types, as in “He said he saw ‘Goodfellas,’ so my mom says I can’t bunk with him at Bible Camp this summer since he’s so carnal and stuff.”


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