Over the course of the last seven years, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tim Keller many times. The senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Tim is one of our most popular broadcast guests.
He’s also become a good friend.
A quiet, cerebral, steely man of sound doctrine and strong conviction, Dr. Keller has been referred to as the C.S. Lewis of our time, and with good reason. A gifted teacher and preacher, whether in print or speaking from the pulpit, he knows how to engage both the head and the heart. And despite holding to orthodox Christian beliefs that admittedly stand in stark contrast to the values and traditions of popular culture, his ministry in the middle of Manhattan has thrived, with more than 5,000 people (many young and single) attending services each Sunday. Throughout the country and world, millions more have purchased his books.
And so when I heard the news earlier this week that Princeton Theological Seminary had decided to rescind an award they were planning to give him on April 6, I was perplexed.
Then, after reading a story about it, I was annoyed.
And then, after seeing the growing outrage and thinking of Tim’s temperament, I saw the irony in the whole spectacle.
That’s because the people who know and love Tim Keller are likely more bothered by this “snub” than he is.
What do I mean?
First, in case you don’t know, allow me to explain what happened.
Despite having announced months earlier that Dr. Keller would be receiving “The Abraham Kuyper Prize,” Princeton Theological Seminary’s president, Dr. Craig Barnes, announced that the award would no longer be given to Keller.
Why the sudden change of heart?
According to Dr. Barnes, the school had received complaints from people bothered by Dr. Keller’s orthodox theology, specifically his (and his Presbyterian Church of America denomination’s) belief that unrepentant same-sex attracted people and women should not be ordained.
According to Princeton’s website, “The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life is awarded each year to a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance in one or more of the ‘spheres’ of society.”
To be sure, there is room within Christendom for debate on the matter of female ordination, but in this case, Dr. Keller is being un-honored because he holds to biblically orthodox theological beliefs that show the truth and beauty of God’s design, like the complementarity of the sexes and one man-one woman marriage.
That the hierarchy of Princeton Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Church (USA) hold to more liberal views of Scripture than Dr. Keller is not new news. In fact, many of the mainline denominations and seminaries have followed suit over the last few decades – much to their demise, I might add.
A few revealing facts:
- PCUSA declined by 95,000 members in 2015.
- PCUSA’s overall membership was over 2.3 million in 2005. In 2015, overall membership was 1.57 million.
- The last year PCUSA’s membership increased was 1965.
- Princeton seminary’s enrollment declined, overall, from 660 in 2007-08 to 514 in 2012-13.
In contrast, conservative denominations and institutions are growing. Writing at Patheos.com, Owen Strachan wisely observed:
“Do not miss this: complementarian institutions teaching rock-ribbed theology are not struggling to draw students. Complementarian churches teaching biblical sexual ethics are growing like gangbusters. Complementarian theology, and a biblical approach to homosexuality, does not kill churches and schools. It brings them to life. It draws people who love the wisdom of God over the opinions of the world. We do not need to soften our doctrine, friends. We need to hold it, promote it, and celebrate it, for it is the truth of God. It is right, it is holy, and it is good for us.”
Which brings me back to Dr. Keller and his reaction to the “snub.”
In spite of being stripped of his award, Dr. Keller has agreed to still give the lecture that was to accompany the prize.
I think Tim Keller holds fast to Jesus’ words, that “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
If you ask me, the real “winner” here is Tim Keller.
In fact, I think Princeton needs Dr. Keller a lot more than Dr. Keller needs Princeton.
Dr. Keller’s reaction and response is instructive, especially in an age of increasing hostility towards orthodox biblical beliefs.
Princeton can keep its award, but in how he’s handled the “slight,” Tim Keller is rewarding us by showing the Christian how best to respond in a post-Christian world.