A Kuyper Prize?

Bill Evans head shot

In an e-mail earlier today Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, announced that PTS will not award its Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to the Rev. Tim Keller after all.

Keller, as most readers are aware, is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and a well-regarded expert on church planting and cultural apologetics. He is also a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative Presbyterian body that opposes the ordination of women and practicing homosexuals to church office.

After some boilerplate affirmation of academic freedom at his school, Barnes added that

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.

I have also had helpful conversations about this with the Chair of the Kuyper Committee, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Reverend Keller. In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.

Barnes announcement is not surprising to those of us familiar with the ethos of the PCUSA, and there certainly was some pushback. PTS alumna and PCUSA minister Traci Smith opined that her feelings had been hurt by the announcement of this year’s Kuyper Prize award:

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.). 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.

Another feminist critic of this year’s award wrote that she was “literally shaking with grief,” before declaring (in boldface type, no less) that Keller’s “Complementarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.” (I’m guessing that Keller’s wife Kathy would have a different take on that matter, but I digress.) Rhetorical excesses notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that Barnes and the Kuyper Prize committee stepped into a hornet’s nest on this one.

In the past, it seems that the criteria for the award have been fairly broad. For example, in 2010 it was awarded to the UK’s leading rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. At first blush, one would think that someone like Tim Keller, whose stance on the role of Christianity in relation to the broader culture meshes rather well with Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism, would be an appropriate choice.

That being said, announcing the award and then rescinding it is bad form and doesn’t reflect well on the school and its leadership.

But my question is different. If, as President Barnes’ e-mail suggests, support for the ordination of “women and LGBTQ+ persons” is now a criteria for receiving the Kuyper Award, why in the world does PTS have a Kuyper Award in the first place? Don’t they know that Kuyper was, to use the more recent term, a convinced complementarian with definite views on gender and sexuality as normatively defined by the order of creation? In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper wrote:

In creation itself the difference has been established between woman and man. . . . Modernism, which denies and abolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and, putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism [Eerdmans, 1931], 26-27).

In fact, such was Kuyper’s programmatic distinction between men and women that he opposed women’s suffrage in the Netherlands. James D. Bratt, in his magisterial recent biography of Kuyper writes:

He so fundamentally assumed the patriarchy of separate gender spheres that he came to its overt defense only in late career, when the Netherlands began moving toward women’s suffrage. More broadly, he took the pattern of dichotomous thinking for granted; thus the long train of common grace and special grace, institute and organism, kernel and husk, everlasting principle and temporal application. . . . Kuyper’s solution was a justice of order more than of liberty or access. (James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat [Eerdmans, 2013], 247).

Later in the book, Bratt adds:

Feminism proper brought out his harsher tones. . . . God ordained males for strength, females for beauty, he said; man sinned as oppressor, woman as seductress. That contest was no contest, however; women won. There was a “magnetic power,” an “irresistible magnetic power,” in female charms that bent men to her will. So also there was a depth in her depravity quite below his: “The woman who sins sinks much deeper than does the man. She stands for nothing. Unrighteousness seizes her as a life-rule.” Not alone but also not least among the male commentators of his time, Kuyper was profoundly anxious about the power of female sexuality (Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 362-363).

Having read some of Keller’s work and being somewhat familiar with his ministry, I’m guessing that his view of the role of women is rather more “advanced,” by modern standards, than that of Kuyper.

So, the question is posed: What business does a school like Princeton Theological Seminary—an institution that is apparently committed to the feminist and LGBTQ+ social agenda—have awarding a Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness?

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