Princeton Seminary Retracts Award to Tim Keller — Over Women and LGBT Pastors

On Wednesday, Princeton Theological Seminary announced that it would no longer be awarding the Kuyper Prize to New York City Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor, Tim Keller. In a letter, the seminary’s president explained that he did not want Keller’s award to imply that his school disagreed with the ordination of women and LGBT people.

“In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year,” Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes explained. He had previously noted that the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) “prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.”

Barnes had previously announced that Princeton Seminary would be awarding Keller the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness — named after Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper (here are his lectures on Calvinism).

Keller’s position — and that of the PCA — is in line with the longstanding tradition of the church, which has viewed homosexual practice as a sin and insisted that since Jesus Christ was a man, only men may be ordained to the ministry.

Princeton Seminary, however, is affiliated with the liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) or PCUSA, a denomination which ordained women beginning in 1956. In 2011, the denomination altered its documents on required sexual ethics for ordained ministers, expanding them to include those living a homosexual lifestyle.

Princeton received backlash for naming Keller for the award, despite the fact that the Redeemer Presbyterian pastor is not known for pushing hot-button culture war issues. According to Religion News Service, liberal Presbyterians attacked his “positions against the ordination of women and against LGBTQ rights, as well as his endorsement of a traditional view that women should submit to their husbands — a view known as ‘complementarianism’ — [arguing that they] fostered domestic abuse and prejudice against gays and lesbians.”

“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,” author Carol Howard Merritt wrote on her blog, published on the website of the longstanding mainline protestant magazine Christian Century. “Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”

Contrary to Merritt, the Christian idea that wives should submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24) has a very important complementary duty for husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). This teaching of complementarianism emphatically does not justify abuse — if anything, it calls for husbands to be willing to face death (as Jesus Christ did) to achieve the good of their wives.

Similarly, the language of “LGBTQ rights” is misleading. People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, et cetera already have the same rights as everyone else. It is important for Christians to condemn all violence and prejudice against people, but scripture is also clear on sexual ethics: a Christian ought to pursue marriage between one man and one woman, or remain celibate. This is a hard standard, but it is the teaching of Jesus and the apostles.

Despite Princeton Theological Seminary’s decision to not award the prize to Tim Keller, the seminary’s president, Craig Barnes, insisted that the New York pastor will still be invited to speak at Princeton. “We are a community that does not silence voices in the church,” Barnes declared, championing the principles of academic freedom.

“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,” Barnes explained. “Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church — not on ordination.”

James Edward Lesslie Newbigin (1909—1998) was a British Reformed theologian best known for his commitments to ecumenism (bringing Christians of different denominations into alignment) and the Gospel and Our Culture movement (presenting the gospel of Jesus Christ in a winsome way to non-Christian cultures). Newbigin wrote the book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.

Barnes had defended giving Keller a platform, saying that “censorship” was contrary to the commitments of Princeton Theological Seminary.

The Reverend Traci Smith, a seminary alum and currently a PCUSA pastor in San Antonio, Texas, said Barnes had made “the right move.” On her blog, Smith wrote, “Yes to academic freedom. Yes to listening to others whose opinions are different from our own (no matter how distasteful they may be).”

But she also insisted, “No to giving large fancy prizes that can be confused with endorsement. Some may not be satisfied with this response. I think it’s a great compromise.”

Conservative Christians, however, defended Keller and criticized Princeton’s decision. “How deeply saddening and upsetting this is,” Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote.

“Those who promote tolerance in our time show so little of it; those who call for charitable dialogue do so little to extend it,” Strachan lamented. “Biblical sexual ethics is where this take-no-prisoners battle is the fiercest.”

Denny Burk, professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., explained in a blog post that “on the standard articulated by [Barnes], it means that Abraham Kuyper himself would not be qualified to win this award.” Burk added that other “giants” of Princeton’s past, like Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, would also be disqualified because of their teachings on sexual morality.

In his letter, Barnes said that he and Keller spoke about the Kuyper Prize and the annual lecture associated with it. Keller agreed to deliver the annual lecture on April 6. Given the horrendous riots at University of California, Berkeley and at Middlebury College, the verdict is very much out on how Keller’s lecture will be received. Hopefully, Christians at a seminary will be more restrained, even if they do protest his speech.

Who would ever think that a Christian pastor would be denied an award by a Christian seminary — for the crime of holding to orthodox Christian teaching? Welcome to the culture wars, which are now firmly taking place inside the church.