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.

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It's Not Always Sunny

What makes Christians gullible? Is it that gullibility a fruit of the Holy Spirit and I am insufficiently sanctified? Many Christians seem to think that criticism is unbecoming of believers. But what Bible are those Christians reading? Take the prophets, who go on, and on, and on, sometimes in inscrutable Hebrew poetry, about the woes of God’s people. And what about Jesus who could be as critical of his disciples as he was of the Pharisees? And then there are all those epistles that warn the early Christians about all sorts of false teachers. To be biblical, apparently, is to be critical. And yet, many Christians seem to want to think the best of others, as if the doctrine of original sin were not true.

The gullibility of Jason and the Callers has been the object of many posts of late, but the recent piece by Owen Strachan on King’s College’s new president, Greg Thornbury, fits neatly the journalistic genre of puff piece. Truth be told, I am no fan of Dr. Thornbury’s hairdo or his sartorial choices — hipster does not connote seriousness. And when it draws attention to itself — in Thornbury’s many glam shots — it draws even more attention to the idea that the one photographed is trying to cultivate an image. And image creation is not exactly a quality we look for in a serious academic and grounded theologian.

What makes Strachan’s piece sound so much like the ending to a Leave It To Beaver episode is the hopefulness he expresses in the face of what has been a rocky ride for a college that went defunct (the one Percy Crawford founded), only to be resurrected by Campus Crusade for Christ, which then changed its name to something resembling a wine varietal — Cru, which then proceeded to hire Dinesh D’Souza, only to have that appointment blow up and lose to King’s the services of Marvin Olasky. This is not an institution upon which donors would necessarily want to bestow lots of gifts (which need to be big ones if the school is going to make it in Manhattan — not Kansas, the other one). And yet, Strachan (who comes close but does not disclose fully his own ties to Thornbury) tries to string together the good things of New York City’s evangelicalism — Keller and Metaxas — along with the significance of institutions via Michael Lindsay and James Davison Hunter, to argue that Thornbury’s appointment could, may, possibly might, result in harnessing evangelicalism’s intellectual renaissance (an awakening that is not only not Great, but not even Pretty Good).

But it may be that the school will negotiate its challenges. It is possible that the school may not only survive but thrive in New York. Thornbury, after all, stands to benefit from the Manhattan evangelical network, loose as it is. The cultural prospects of evangelicalism and conservatism hang in the balance today, yet perhaps this time of tension will produce just the kind of ambition and restless energy that are needed for great projects like the one in question. To study the history of successful movements like the opposing poles of the Reformation or the Enlightenment, for example, is to see that great works rarely begin in periods of equipoise, but times of great uncertainty.

King’s cannot, in any matter, singlehandedly rehabilitate the evangelical mind. That project has already begun, and it proceeds with fits and starts, not least because to be successful, it must be confessional. Christian scholarship is, after all, at once unfettered, taking dominion of all things, and bounded, normed by divine revelation. There is hope of greater things, though. In one of the world’s truly global cities, a small college is calibrating itself for evangelical thought-leadership and cultural engagement.

It may just be that the hipster president, aided by a greater network of persons than this world can claim, will pull it off.

No one is going to refer back in future years to Strachan’s piece and hold him or The American Spectator to this positive spin. That’s the way that journalistic features work. But I (all about me) am a glass-three-quarter-empty guy. It probably has something to do with breast feeding or potty training. But I’d like to think it stems from observing life in a fallen world where the bad guys prosper, life is a struggle, and neither justice nor peace embrace. This doesn’t mean I wish Thornbury to fail or that I think Strachan should not have written about King’s. It is rather a point about how fluffy pieces like this are, with an evangelical unction mixed in for added uplift. In fact, these stories cover up realities that institutions like King’s face — both internal and external. I’ve seen spins like this before at Christian institutions of higher education. They fool trustees, donors, and those on the outside. But folks on the inside generally know a very different reality. Don’t let the hair or lapels distract you.