Looks like (and we’ve known this for some time) that Protestants have as much trouble with hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity as Roman Catholics. Something funny happened in the 1960s. Bishops met in Rome — was it hard to get a cab, a table at a trendy Italian restaurant? And at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) the second generation of faculty came along, most of whom had studied with the first generation. But the second generation decided it wouldn’t color within the lines drawn by the original faculty. Sounds like Vatican II, doesn’t it?
Evidence of the challenges of historical and institutional continuity comes from a post on Facebook at Tremper Longman’s page (made available at Greenbaggins). Tremper calls it Middle Westminster, an odd phrase if you think in historical categories of the West. Weren’t the Middle Ages also the Dark Ages? That surely is not what Tremper means to communicate since for him, Middle WTS is the good WTS. For support, he includes comments by Clair Davis:
The history of WTS divides itself naturally into three great epochs: before me, during me, after me. I came on faculty in 1966 at the same time that Ed became the first president, and retired as Sam was taken away as our leader. So Middle WTS is the same as My Time! Ed had a broader agenda than showing up liberals, so closely related to his own powerful work with the Word. He got around in the broader evangelical world and appreciated what we could give them. I give him so much credit along with Ed Clowney Redivivus George and Sam for broadening us up to look at the Bible itself, but I suspect that growing evangelical desire for more than the old WTS offered also played a large part.
Especially after Meredith moved on Ray Dillard became our leader, in OT and also in godly theology for life generally. The OT people had the only departmental prayer meeting! I am so glad they had room for Erik Davis too. Al led them and us all on after Ray’s early death. But what an amazing crew: add on Tremper Longman, Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, Doug Green, and Mike Kelly, and so many great grad students.
It was all about learning more and more about God’s Word, with all that learning other Semitic cultures could provide. I hope my Church History big picture way of thinking doesn’t blur the uniqueness of our OT—but the rise of Jay Adam’s and David Powlison’s and Ed Welch’s biblical counseling was going on at the same time. Then add in Harvie Conn, with his provocative questions and deep answers. I see our Old Testament department leading the way, but so many “cultural” things were happening at the same time! We all knew our God-given calling was to be “relevant,” to push the evangelical and Reformed world to think bigger than it ever had, to go far beyond hassling liberals and getting the grammar right. I believe myself that we succeeded mightily. To God be the glory, with credit to Ed Clowney and George Fuller and Sam Logan and Harvie Conn and CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) and those amazing students, asking better and deeper questions of us and demanding answers.
Clair’s reflections come at the conclusion of Doug Green’s teaching career at WTS. As Tremper explains, Green’s departure is one more piece of the “Westminster Diaspora.” I agree with Clair and Tremper that it is sad to see Doug leave WTS. I consider him a friend, thanks in part of the placement of the coffee maker in the work room outside my office in Montgomery Memorial Library which allowed him and me to talk about any number of things. At the same time, I’m pretty sure Doug would concede that WTS in the 1990s was a shaky place where confessionalists like myself and envelope-pushers like him (and Tremper, and Pete Enns, and Clair Davis) co-existed but rarely found themselves on the same page.
The question I had then is the same question I have now: why did administrators and board members think you could sow the fabric of continuity onto the inherent discontinuity between Old School Presbyterian types and New Life folks who were in awe of Tim Keller (the elephant in this historical room)? As if TKNY would bring us all together.
If Clair can lament the loss of Middle Westminster, can’t folks who think as Machen did that the Reformed faith is grand bemoan the loss of Early Westminster? What exactly happened to make the convictions of the original faculty either wrong or irrelevant? And did anyone actually make a case for changing course, pointing out where the older generation was wrong or shortsighted, and chart a better way based both on Reformed heritage and biblical teaching? Of course, John Frame has picked his winners and losers among the original faculty and derided those (like mmmeeeEEE) who still see merit in Machen’s founding vision for Westminster and his forthright defense of Reformed Protestantism. But Frame was not at Westminster Philadelphia in the 1990s. He didn’t need to be. The clear sense was that the Machen thing was passe.
And as I often said to friends and wife during the 1900s, the Machen thing may well have been irrelevant. But that requires an argument especially at an institution that prides itself on intellectual achievement. And an argument requires some awareness of what Machen tried to accomplish, and the context in which he tried.
Above all, shrugging off Machen and the original faculty of Westminster required a degree of loyalty for those whose work took place in places like Machen and Van Til Hall. I mean, if students at Princeton University can insist on removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from all associations with the institution, can’t Westminster faculty and administrators come up with a way to rid themselves of the bad parts of their institution’s past (Machen was after all a racist by today’s standards and even a family friend of Wilson)?
Or could it also be that the same sort of candor that Machen demanded of liberal Presbyterians has been in short supply among those Middle Westminster types who benefited from the institution’s reputation but failed to acknowledge it — even worse, disparaged it?
I wish Doug all the best. But the history of Westminster demands more scrutiny and awareness than those from the Middle period have been capable of producing.