Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) recently announced that it would be awarding the well-known pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, Tim Keller, the (Abraham) Kuyper award for “Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness.” According to Christianity Today, in Princeton’s initial announcement, it “called Keller ‘an innovative theologian and church leader’ and a ‘catalyst for urban mission.’” Keller has certainly made an impact in the city of New York, one of the most challenging cities in the world to speak the gospel, especially in light of the highly-educated and progressive demographic of the region.
But due to immediate backlash from people associated with both PTS and its affiliated denomination PCUSA, PTS decided to rescind their decision of awarding Keller but opting to still have him speak at the event.
PTS President Craig Barnes wrote in a letter on PTS’s website: “As I indicated in my previous letter, it is not my practice to censor the invitations to campus from any of our theological centers or student organizations. This commitment to academic freedom is vital to the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community. In talking with those who are deeply concerned about Reverend Keller’s visit to campus, I find that most share this commitment to academic freedom. Yet many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained. This conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And it is an important issue among the divided Reformed communions.”
Three thoughts come to mind, none of them relating to my agreement or disagreement with ordaining women or members of the LGBTQ+ community.
First, it is surprising that PTS would even consider Keller a potential recipient of this award, given the (what I thought was) obvious theological disagreement between the two parties. Personally, I think Keller is a fine candidate for that award, given that it goes to a leader who has exhibited “Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness.” I’m not necessarily a Keller fan, but it’s difficult to say he has not made an impact in the Christian community.
But at the same time, it is no secret that Keller and his church are a part of the PCA, a more conservative brand of Presbyterianism that does not endorse the ordination of women and LGBTQ+ people. It is also well-known that the PCUSA does endorse and allow their ordination. That has been clear. And those involved in the decision to award Keller must have known that. So why wasn’t the cost counted beforehand, and why make an initial decision that would be controversial, unless the decision would be final after having counted the cost?
Second, this illustrates the importance of decision-making. I’m not talking about whether one should wear jeans or chinos on a given day (as significant to some as that may be). But it seems to me that a major part of being in leadership, at any level, requires good decision-making skills. And, after making a decision, one should stand behind those decisions, because I would imagine that the more important a decision is, the more thought and research would have (supposedly) gone into it. I once heard that a good leader is a good decision-maker, and that a good leader only rarely has to make a better second decision.
Sure, we all make mistakes. I’ve made a fair share myself… and have had to reap the consequences of those decisions. And truthfully, some decisions are made that have grave consequences, reflecting the character of the person who made them. Think about the pastor who decided to commit adultery. Sure we can forgive, but the consequence is that he or she disqualifies oneself from the ministry. The decision of adultery reveals that the person is not fit to be a good leader. The ability to make good, solid decisions are what make a good leader, and the ability to stand by those tough decisions, especially in the face of adversity or criticism or backlash, separates a great leader from a good one.
Third, I realize that it is much easier to stand on the sidelines and criticize others in higher-up positions than to be in one. I realize that I am a mere fledging in the academic world, just about to complete the PhD and find a full-time academic post. I also realize that being in such a leadership position, especially as an administrator in a higher education institution, is no easy task and there is a lot of weight that comes with the position. But that’s the point. It is not a position to be taken lightly, and those who are in those positions need to respect those who put them there by making good decisions.
Either the award committee should have never offered the Kuyper award to Keller or it should stick to their decision regardless of public opinion. It’s disappointing that we see leaders of a major seminary make a (bad) decision, and then rescind that decision due to public opinion. It reminds me of the recent decision and reversal by the ESV committee we wrote about recently. Again, I’m not necessarily a Keller fan, but this reversal decision is a huge act of disrespect and dishonor to him and reflects terribly on PTS and on any notion—real or imagined—of academic freedom (clearly more notional than real, as Keller’s is denied in the face of political correctness). I think PTS owes him more than a mere apology for this one.
— David I. Yoon