(RNS) Princeton Theological Seminary is facing criticism for its decision to honor the Rev. Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s most popular and influential conservative Christian thinkers.
Keller will receive the 2017 Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness at the venerable mainline Protestant seminary in New Jersey on April 6 and will also deliver a lecture on evangelization and “church planting.”
As the seminary said in announcing the award, Keller “is widely known as an innovative theologian and church leader, well-published author, and catalyst for urban mission in major cities around the world.”
But Keller is also a leader in the Presbyterian Church in America, or PCA, which is the more conservative wing of U.S. Presbyterianism and does not permit the ordination of women or LGBTQ people.
That has prompted criticism from those who believe that a seminary such as Princeton, and one associated with the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA, should not be honoring Keller at all.
“I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology,” the Rev. Traci Smith, a seminary alum and currently a PCUSA pastor in San Antonio, Texas, wrote on her blog.
“My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings.”
On her blog published on the website of the Christian Century, the flagship magazine for mainline Protestantism, author Carol Howard Merritt focused on what she said was Keller’s promotion of the view that Christian women should be submissive to their husbands – an idea known as “complementarianism” — and argued that such thinking has encouraged domestic abuse.
“I am literally shaking with grief as I write this,” wrote Merritt, whose latest book is “Healing Spiritual Wounds.” “I have spent years with women who have tried to de-program themselves after growing up in this baptized abuse.”
“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,” she concluded. “Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”
Recognizing that “many in our community are deeply concerned” by the invitation to Keller, the seminary president, the Rev. Craig Barnes, sent an email to faculty and students noting his own disagreements with Keller on issues related to women and LGBTQ people and reiterating that the seminary “embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church.”
But Barnes also said that “censorship” was antithetical to the seminary’s mission and identity; it is, Barnes wrote, “a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church.”
“Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school,” he wrote, noting that speakers from other wings of Protestantism as well as from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have spoken there.
“So my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice,” Barnes concluded.
Conservative voices have also begun weighing in to defend Keller — who plans to step down as full-time head of Redeemer this summer — and question his critics.
As Mark Tooley, a Methodist who heads the tradition-minded Institute on Religion and Democracy, put it, Keller is not known as a culture warrior.
He “typically avoids culture war issues and hot button debates” and he “affirms traditional Christian sexual ethics and marriage teaching but rarely speaks about it,” as Tooley put it. “His churches are full of New Yorkers who are socially liberal but drawn to his intellectually vibrant presentation of Christianity.”
“Although its celebrants often don’t realize it, the universe of liberal Protestantism is very small and getting smaller,” he concluded. “Keller will speak at Princeton on church planting, and hopefully he will be heard.”