THR Web Features   /   March 28, 2017

Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian Pastors, and Purpose

John D. Inazu

Princeton Theological Seminary library. Billy via Flickr.

Last week, Princeton Theological Seminary announced it was rescinding its decision to bestow an award upon Presbyterian pastor and author Tim Keller. The seminary’s president explained that Keller’s leadership role in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America was at odds with the school’s mission. Keller’s denomination, unlike the seminary’s own Presbyterian Church (USA), “prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.” He also emphasized that the school’s reversal in no way undermined its commitment to open dialogue—the award comes with a lecture, which Keller was still invited to to deliver: “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.”

Keller is in some ways an unlikely candidate for headline-generating controversy. He’s more known for writing readable books, ministering to Millennials in New York City, and engaging in dialogues with atheists on college campuses. Last year, he and I coauthored an article that argues, among other things, that we can and must figure out a way to live peaceably in the midst of our deep differences, and that we can treat each other charitably across those differences. Those ideas emerge out of the intersection of Keller’s approach to pluralism as a pastor and my academic framework of confident pluralism.

One of the core commitments of confident pluralism is that the First Amendment should permit private associations—including private institutions of higher education—to follow their own norms absent extraordinarily compelling governmental interests. Since interests of such magnitude are not implicated here, Princeton Seminary can do whatever it wants. It could give or not give the award to Keller. It could—as it did—offer and then rescind the award for just about any reason. It could—as it did not—disinvite Keller to deliver his lecture. Still, this whole episode raises questions, not only about the purpose of Princeton Theological Seminary, but whether or not the school has adequately articulated its sense of purpose.

According to its website, the seminary’s mission is to “prepare women and men to serve Jesus Christ in ministries marked by faith, integrity, scholarship, competence, compassion, and joy, equipping them for leadership worldwide in congregations and the larger church, in classrooms and the academy, and in the public arena.” Keller’s views on the ordination of women arguably place him at odds with aspects of that mission. But so would the beliefs and affiliations of past recipients of the same award, including a conservative rabbi who does not support the idea of female rabbis (Jonathan Sacks), the then-president of an evangelical seminary that does not recognize same-sex ordination (Richard Mouw), and an Anglican theologian who believes that marriage is limited to heterosexual unions (Oliver O’Donovan). The seminary’s mission statement seems even more in tension with its recent reversal: “In response to Christ’s call for the unity of the church, the Seminary embraces in its life and work a rich racial and ethnic diversity and the breadth of communions represented in the worldwide church.”

Of course, institutions frequently change their missions and identities, and maybe Princeton Seminary has simply evolved in recent years. Maybe a broader ecumenism worked for the seminary in 2010 but not in 2017, on the other side of the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision and gender issues foregrounded in the last presidential election. Still, if these observations are accurate, Princeton Seminary’s evolution may have been more unconscious than deliberate, creating an institution that does not entirely understand itself: A better self-understanding might have prevented the school from offering the award to Keller in the first place, and perhaps the same is true for some past awardees.

In some ways, Princeton Seminary’s decision to rescind its award to Keller resembles Vanderbilt University’s recent campaign against conservative religious groups. Founded as a Methodist University in 1873 decision, Vanderbilt adopted an “all comers” policy in 2012 that required student groups to accept any student who wants to be a member or leader. When some religious groups suggested to Vanderbilt that they wanted their student leaders to share the group’s beliefs, Vanderbilt gave them the boot. Even an edgy female priest who likes bourbon was too much for Vanderbilt’s progressive orthodoxies. Vanderbilt insisted that its decision wasn’t about ideology: There were no exceptions to its all-comers policy. No exceptions, that is, except for singing groups, honor societies, sports teams, fraternities, and sororities. It’s not easy to discern an institutional purpose from these various exceptions and exclusions.

If the decisions of Princeton Seminary and Vanderbilt reflect an inability of these schools to articulate a deeper purpose, they are not alone. The fundamental question of purpose—the point of an institution’s existence—is one that plagues much of higher education today. The absence of a coherent institutional purpose is not always a bad thing, but it often reflects a deeper lack of commitment to something greater than the sum of the parts. That kind of ambiguity frequently elevates individual pursuits over any sense of a common good. Absent a shared purpose, the people with the loudest voices and the most money usually determine the shape of an institution. These institutions will occasionally take positions, as Princeton Seminary did in its “strong disagreement” with Keller on what it sees as a “critical issue of justice.” But an amalgam of various positions does not add up to a purpose.

Princeton Seminary’s willingness to host Keller in spite of objections is indeed a kind of compromise toward dialogue and an effort to find common ground. Those kinds of dispositions and actions are important to realizing confident pluralism. But confident pluralism at its best requires people and institutions that know themselves well enough to articulate the reasons for their differences. For Princeton Seminary, and for many other institutions of higher education, that kind of deep self-awareness may be slipping out of reach.