(RNS) Faced with mounting criticism for its decision to give a major award to the Rev. Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s best-known conservative Christian thinkers, Princeton Theological Seminary has reversed course and said Keller will not receive the honor.
In an email to faculty and students on Wednesday morning (March 22), the president of the venerable mainline Protestant seminary, the Rev. Craig Barnes, said he remains committed to academic freedom and “the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community.”
But he said that giving Keller the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness – named after a famous Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian – might “imply an endorsement” of Keller’s views against the ordination of women and LGBTQ people.
Barnes said the seminary would not award the Kuyper Prize to anyone this year.
But he said that after he and Keller talked, and after discussions also with the chairs of the Kuyper Committee and the Board of Trustees, Keller had agreed to deliver the annual Kuyper Lecture on April 6 as planned.
“We are a community that does not silence voices in the church,” Barnes wrote. “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. Reverend Keller will be lecturing on Lesslie Newbigin and the mission of the church – not on ordination.”
Newbigin was a British theologian renowned for his writings on mission, and Keller is known for his success at “church planting.”
Barnes acknowledged that the entire episode had been “a hard conversation” but one “that a theologically diverse community can handle.”
In its announcement earlier this month that Keller had been chosen to receive the Kuyper Prize, the seminary’s Kuyper Center for Public Theology had praised Keller as “an innovative theologian and church leader, well-published author, and catalyst for urban mission in major cities around the world.”
But critics quickly noted that 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.
Princeton seminary, one of the oldest in the U.S., is associated with the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA.
While Keller is not known for pushing hot-button culture war issues, several critics said 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” — 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, which she publishes on the website of the Christian Century, the flagship magazine for mainline Protestantism. “Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”
Barnes had initially defended the decision to give Keller a platform, saying that even though his own views and those of the seminary diverged from Keller on those contested issues, “censorship” was antithetical to the seminary’s mission and identity; it is, Barnes wrote in a March 10 note, “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.”
“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.
What sort of reception Keller will receive at the lecture next month is the next question.
But one critic, the Rev. Traci Smith, a seminary alum and currently a PCUSA pastor in San Antonio, Texas, called Barnes' decision "the right move."
"Yes to academic freedom. Yes to listening to others whose opinions are different from our own (no matter how distasteful they may be)," Smith wrote on her blog, where she had initially blasted the award to Keller as "offensive."
"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-minded Christians, on the other hand, rose to defend Keller and criticize Princeton.
"How deeply saddening and upsetting this is," wrote Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"Those who promote tolerance in our time show so little of it; those who call for charitable dialogue do so little to extend it. Biblical sexual ethics is where this take-no-prisoners battle is the fiercest."