In recent weeks, Sojourners has been reporting on the controversy surrounding Princeton Theological Seminary’s plans to honor Rev. Tim Keller with an award. After significant criticism, the seminary decided to rescind the award but uphold the invitation for Keller to speak on campus. Yesterday, we spoke with Princeton Seminary president Dr. M. Craig Barnes about the controversial decision to rescind the award — which he revealed to us was actually Keller’s suggestion — and his hopes for the school moving forward.
You can listen to our audio story about the lecture and the student “preach-in” that was planned in response here. The transcript of our conversation with President Barnes is below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Layton Williams, Sojourners: I would love to hear from you, now that the event has passed, how you felt Rev. Keller's talk went overall?
Dr. M. Craig Barnes, President, Princeton Theological Seminary: I thought he gave a good lecture. I was never worried about that. I was sure he would provide a good perspective on Lesslie Newbigin, which was always what the plan was.
Williams: Our interviews with your students were really wonderful, and they were very thoughtful — and clearly care a lot about the seminary and were respectful, and all of that. I was wondering if you could speak to — thinking of our audiences who are not necessarily plugged in to denominational differences theologically — if you could speak a little bit to the main theological concern raised to you by those who were upset about the initial award offer.
Barnes: This is still very much an intense debate within the Reformed communions, and as a leader in the PCA, Tim Keller kind of embodies — more than he wants to, I'm sure — he embodies the resistance to women's ordination and the ordination of LGBTQ individuals.
So when the Kuyper Center announced that he was going to receive their award this year, many of the students who — and rightly so, I think — feel very strongly about the legitimacy of women's ordination, they really thought that what the award was doing was affirming a person who opposes that. And therefore, that we were affirming the resistance to women's ordination. That’s how this thing unfolded.
…Tim Keller and I talked about this three times over the phone, and then finally we just agreed — it was his suggestion, actually — to say, "Let's just set aside the prize. It's just gotten to be too much of a distraction."
What we both wanted was just an exercise in freedom of speech on campus, and that all voices are welcome here, including his. So the decision to set aside the award actually was necessary in order to achieve our greater goal, which was freedom of speech on campus.
Williams: Great, thank you for clarifying that a little bit. Relatedly, one thing we were struck by initially as we learned about the Princeton students’ preach-in was the decision to hold it in a separate location, and not at the same time as the lecture. What students told us was that they didn't actually want to compete with the lecture, and they wanted people who wanted to attend both to be able to. We talked to a number of people who did attend both. Having had the preach-in happen, I'm wondering what you thought that choice and the event as a whole?
Barnes: I thought it was fantastic. That's also freedom of speech. The women who organized it are students, and I just thought they did it an incredibly mature way — they didn't want to be disruptive of Keller being on campus. But they needed to make their voices known. And that was just a really helpful, productive, healthy way to do it.
Williams: Coming off of this lecture and this preach-in, what is your vision or hope for dialogue across difference on Princeton's campus moving forward?
Barnes: Well, that's what we're all working on right now. …What we have to do is return to this as a way of saying, "How could we have had this controversy better?”
Schools are supposed to have debates. That’s part of what we do. But I want us to debate this with more of a sense of covenantal community — that we're committed to each other even though we disagree about some important issues. The petitions came from both sides of the debate — initially petitioning us to rescind the award, and then probably even more petitions and emails after we did [from] people who were upset with us. I want us to be able to have debates, especially about something as important as ordination, but I want us to do it in a way that builds up the body of Christ.
Williams: One of the concerns brought up after the award was rescinded was this question of, "Well, who does qualify for this prize?” I'm wondering if there's been conversation or plans to tweak the process of how award recipients are selected moving forward?
Barnes: Oh yeah, there's been a lot of conversation about that. And I met with the Kuyper Committee that same day, Thursday, and we've already begun the process of that, [so] that the awards can't be given out without more vetting before the award is made.
On the question of who can receive the award: anybody can. Again, this is a family argument within the Reformed communions between the PCUSA and the PCA. And as a Presbyterian seminary, it's in our bylaws, we have to uphold the polity and the procedures of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So once the award became a matter of affirming a man who doesn't believe women can be ordained, you know, that's a problem for us. And that's what the entire controversy became about. Not [about] what I wanted, which was just to have Tim Keller on campus to speak, because we have all kinds of people speaking.
We've had other people receive this award in the past who aren't particularly Reformed, even. If you look at the list of previous recipients, it isn't that we have criteria like that for the award. It’s just that this particular issue for Presbyterians against other kinds of Presbyterians — the award just became impossible to maintain, because we were, through the award, affirming Keller's position on women's ordination.
Williams: I know that often those whose tradition opposes ordination point to particular Scriptures as the basis for that belief. And I'm wondering if you can articulate, briefly, the PCUSA's theological justification for affirming women's ordination, and LGBTQ inclusion in the church more generally?
Barnes: We tend to view those proscriptions in Scripture against women speaking or against homosexuality as being very culturally conditioned and limited. And when the Scripture is speaking eternal truths, it says things like, "God created humanity in God's image, male and female.” Or, as Paul says, "In Christ there's neither male nor female, but all one in Christ."
So these distinctions — and certainly a distinction like complementarianism — we just don't hold up in terms of the eternal view of Scripture.
Editor's Note: You can see the full Facebook Live stream of the preach-in below.