Tag Archives: Old Princeton

Redeemer Seminary, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, and the Parachurching of Reformed Theological Education

Bill Evans head shot

By William B. Evans

[Full Disclosure: For well over twenty years I’ve taught at a denominationally affiliated College and Seminary.]

Readers of this blog are probably aware of my interest in theological education (e.g., here and here and here). Although I’ve spent much of my professional academic career teaching undergraduates, I’ve also taught on the seminary level at a number of institutions. I have friends and acquaintances teaching at many seminaries, and I keep my ear to the ground.

The impending closure of the Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas is now known to many. Responding to overtures from the Redeemer Board, Reformed Theological Seminary will, according to RTS Chancellor Ligon Duncan, implement “a two-step plan whereby Redeemer would ‘close with dignity’ and RTS would petition ATS and SACS to begin offering theological education in Dallas, while helping Redeemer and its students in all possible, prudent ways.”

Having taught systematic theology at Redeemer as an adjunct professor I’m sad for the students, whom I found to be both engaged and engaging, the faculty, and staff. According to reliable reports, all Redeemer faculty and staff will be terminated as of December 31, 2016.

Redeemer Seminary began in 2001 as the Dallas Campus of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and was spun off as in independent institution in 2009. The timing of that development was significant. As WTS in Philadelphia moved steadily to the right in the wake of the Peter Enns controversy (a trajectory I’ve chronicled here and here and here and here), the Redeemer faculty self-consciously sought to perpetuate what has come to be known as “Middle Westminster”—the Westminster ethos that prevailed from the second generation of faculty until the recent lurch to the right and is exemplified by the careful biblical scholarship of people like Moises Silva, Ray Dillard, and Richard Gaffin, and the generous Reformed orthodoxy of systematicians such as Sinclair B. Ferguson (who subsequently was part of the founding faculty at Redeemer). I took two degrees at WTS in the 1980s before going off to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D., so I think I have some background to speak to this.

Doubtless there are multiple backstories here—having to do with leadership, fundraising, and student-recruitment challenges at Redeemer. What I find more interesting is how this particular episode has played out within the larger scope of conservative Reformed theological education, and the way that context has been profoundly conditioned by successive iterations of what has been called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

As those with an interest in church history are aware, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy proper raged in earnest from about 1920 until 1930, with conflict especially prominent in the Northern Presbyterian and Northern Baptist churches, with the former especially important for our purposes (the best study of which is Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates [Oxford UP, 1991]). By 1926, conservative efforts to enforce creedal orthodoxy and biblical authority had failed and the PCUSA moved steadily in the direction of a more inclusive and diverse vision (a history ably chronicled in Lefferts Loetscher’s The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 [UPenn, 1954]). In 1929 Princeton Theological Seminary (until then a conservative bastion) was reorganized so as to reflect the theological diversity present in the church, and J. Gresham Machen and other conservatives promptly left Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. With the formation of Westminster a template was established—when conservatives lost control of denominational educational institutions they moved on to form independent, parachurch agencies to replace them. This template would be used repeatedly in subsequent decades.

By the 1950s, similar conflicts over doctrine and Scripture were raging in the Southern Presbyterian Church (then known as the PCUS), and these debates eventually led to the formation of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 and the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. RTS was even more explicitly parachurch in its organization—to this day its governing board is made up of laymen (primarily attorneys and businessmen) rather than ministers. Unencumbered by denominational constraints and enjoying both able leadership and considerable financial support, RTS has since expanded beyond its origins in Jackson to campuses in Orlando, Charlotte, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, New York City, RTS Virtual, and now Dallas. As an RTS executive said to me recently, RTS has figured out a financially viable model of professional theological education. He’s right, and RTS has been very aggressive in pursuing that model.

Fast forward to the 1970s through the 1990s as somewhat analogous conflicts emerged within the Dutch Reformed community in this country (though the ethnic character of the Christian Reformed Church meant that these debates would have a somewhat different character and result). Concerns about the denominational seminary (Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids), led to two more parachurch seminaries being formed—Mid-America Reformed Seminary (initially located in Iowa before moving to Dyer, Indiana) and Westminster Seminary in California.

Of course, there are still denominational seminaries in the conservative Reformed orbit—Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA) and Erskine Theological Seminary (ARPC) come to mind—but one fact is abundantly clear: the conservative Reformed community has in large measure outsourced theological education to parachurch agencies. For all the blather in such circles about “connectionalism,” when it comes to theological education at least, conservative Presbyterians don’t seem to have much of an ecclesiology!

It’s worth noting that conservative Lutherans and Southern Baptists don’t do things this way. There the emphasis is on church-affiliated seminaries, and those denominational schools are doing quite well.   In fact, efforts to form more moderate-liberal schools in the wake of conservative victories in the SBC (e.g., the Cooperative Baptist schools) and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (SEMINEX) have not been particularly successful.

The difference here is both obvious and crucial—theological conservatives in both the LCMS and the SBC were able to gain and maintain control of their seminaries, while the Presbyterians lost Princeton, and Union in Virginia, and so on, and thus felt compelled to adopt the parachurch model.

In retrospect, the Presbyterian trajectory was probably inevitable, though should be viewed as a concession to weakness and failure rather than a mark of strength. But has there been a price to be paid for this outsourcing to parachurch groups? Indeed, some (perhaps many) would say that the current system is working rather well. But I see a number of potential downsides to this Reformed parachurching of theological education.

First, decision making, especially in a context dominated by lay leadership, is going to be driven by financial, market, and other practical considerations rather than by churchly concerns. No matter the pious rhetoric of “service to the church” that one may encounter, this is the reality. Or, to phrase it somewhat differently, institutional agendas will often transcend churchly agendas.

Second, this practical bent has been accompanied by the increasing dominance of the “school-for-pastors” model and the “pastor-scholar” as a primary faculty profile (for my take on different models of seminary education, go here). After all, that’s where the market is. As I wrote in a post a number of years back:

Concurrent with this we see the rise of the “scholar-pastor” model in Presbyterian circles (i.e., a well-known and popular pastor who happens to have a Ph.D. from somewhere). A problem here is that first-rate scholarship is a full-time job, and some of these (there are, to be sure, some blessed exceptions) are not really equipped to drive the theological discussion forward. And where are such people publishing? I see lots of popular-level books but fewer and fewer volumes coming from university presses, or from traditional Evangelical academic publishers like Eerdmans, Baker, IVP, Paternoster, etc.

And this emphasis has, not surprisingly, been accompanied by a decline in Reformed intellectual leadership within the broader evangelical world. In fact, when we think of schools now setting the intellectual and theological agenda for evangelicalism we tend to think of schools like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Gordon-Conwell, Fuller, and Southern Baptist—some of them denominationally affiliated, some not, but none of them explicitly Reformed.

And this scholarly eclipse is not perplexing. When faculty are viewed as commodities and there is often a price to be paid for even thoroughly orthodox theological creativity, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of scholarly contributions.

Third, there is the matter of theological influence on the churches. Seminaries have a tremendous role in molding the sensibilities of the clergy, and do we really want the theology of ministers to be shaped by the well-heeled supporters of parachurch seminaries rather than by the church? The increasing dominance of literal six-day young-earth creationism (LSDYEC) within the conservative Reformed community, as I see it, has rather little to do with careful theology and exegesis and a lot to do with reaction against a secular culture and the way that reactionary impulse has been embraced by certain seminaries.

Fourth, there is the related question of market domination. We are not too far from a situation in which one particular school is dominant within the American conservative Reformed context. Is this healthy for the church? The Presbyterians of old were right, it seems to me, in establishing multiple denominational seminaries, and the cross-talk between various schools in the nineteenth-century was incredibly productive theologically (Princeton vs. Union, Princeton vs. Yale, Princeton vs. Mercersburg, Princeton vs. Danville, and so on).

The repeated references to Old Princeton in this post lead to this last point. Awhile back I noted that the comprehensive theological vision of Old Princeton is now pretty much dead. I wrote:

To be sure, elements of the Old Princeton legacy persist at a number of evangelical seminaries, but the total package—that breathtaking combination of wide-ranging scholarly attainment, healthy confessionalism, and a balanced view of the nature and authority of Scripture—is hard to find. Two prominent evangelical seminaries—Westminster and Fuller—were founded with the express intention of continuing the Old Princeton tradition, but both have moved away from it (albeit in very different ways).   Perhaps the death of the Old Princeton approach was inevitable, but I can say with confidence that the life of the church has not been enriched by its demise.

That eulogy notwithstanding, I continue to think that Old Princeton continues to provide a compelling model for theological education, and, moreover, that a denominational setting is probably the best way to achieve something analogous to Old Princeton for our own twenty-first century context. The question is whether conservative Reformed churches are willing to commit to such an endeavor.


Nazarenes, Calvinists, and the Authority of Scripture

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One of my former students who is now in seminary (thanks Josh!) alerted me to an intriguing blog post by Nazarene theologian Thomas Jay Oord entitled “Nazarenes Reject Strict Inerrancy.”  Over the years I’ve had a number of very good friends who were members of the Church of the Nazarene, one of the historic Wesleyan holiness denominations, and I’ve admired their commitment to the transformed life (though I would frame the doctrine of sanctification somewhat differently) and to the evangelistic mission of the church.  In addition, I’ve blogged from time to time about the doctrine of Scripture (e.g., here and here and here and here and here), so this development was of considerable interest to me.

Of course, it is also good for Reformed Christians to be aware of what is going on elsewhere in the Evangelical world, especially when developments in other churches are framed over against “Calvinism,” as is the case in this instance.

Oord describes a recent attempt to modify the denomination’s official statement on the authority of Scripture from “inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation” to “inerrant throughout, and the supreme authority on everything the Scriptures teach.”  A study committee recommended that no such change be made, and this recommendation was accepted by the 28th quadrennial General Assembly that met earlier this year.

On the basis of the committee report Oord develops a distinction between “soteriological inerrancy” and “absolute inerrancy” or “detailed inerrancy.”  The former affirms the full authority of the saving message of the Bible, while the latter, Oord claims, asserts the “complete detailed factual literal accuracy of every part of Scripture.”

Of particular interest to this writer was Oord’s contention in a subsection entitled “Nazarenes, not Calvinists” (and developed more extensively in the committee report) which attributes the “absolute inerrancy” position to a “particular Calvinist tradition.”  Upon closer examination of the report, this particular tradition turns out to be the Old Princeton Seminary of Hodge and Warfield, and Oord and the committee report take considerable pains to distance their “Wesleyan” point of view from this “Calvinism.”

How shall we evaluate this?  We should note, first of all, that Oord presents some legitimate concerns that should be factored into a high view of Scripture that claims the label “evangelical.”  For example, interpretation does matter, and some inerrantists have tended naively to conflate issues of authority and interpretation.   Second, there is the question of how one defines an “error” in Scripture.  It certainly is the case that some inerrantists have expected to find in Scripture an unrealistic level of precision (what John Murray memorably termed “pedantic precision”).  Here we may recall Harold Lindsell’s tortured attempt in his The Battle for the Bible (1976) to reconcile the passion-week accounts in the Gospels by asserting that Peter must have denied Christ six times rather than three!  Finally, there is the purpose for which Scripture was written.  The Bible is intended to infallibly tell us what we need to know about the grand sequence of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, rather than to provide us with a detailed textbook of history or science.

But, it seems to this outside observer, there are also some troubling problems here.  First, this distinction between “soteriological inerrancy” and “absolute inerrancy” will almost inevitably have the practical effect of setting up a soteriological canon-within-a-canon.  While the intention here may be to prevent people from asking impertinent questions of the biblical text, the result will be the bracketing of matters deemed non-soteriological as non-authoritative.  But on what basis are such judgments to be made?  Would it not be better to say that Scripture is fully authoritative in all that it teaches, and then allow the legitimate and faithful interpretive process to sort out what precisely is being taught?

Second, this reduction of the authority of Scripture to matters deemed “soteriological” does not square comfortably with what Jesus himself and the Apostles taught.   Here we recall Jesus’ reference to the very wording of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34-35, along with his accompanying statement that “scripture cannot be broken.”  Here also we recall Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  All this suggests a doctrine of Scripture as comprehensively authoritative in all that it teaches rather than a soteriological reductionism of the sort that Oord advocates.

Third, the “great tradition” of the church has been loath to ascribe errors to Scripture when it is properly understood and interpreted.  Here we recall the words of St. Augustine in his “Reply to Faustus the Manichaean” (XI.5): “If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”  Again, this suggests a view of scriptural authority as comprehensive.

Finally, I do know a bit about the history of Calvinism, and it is pretty clear to me that, in blaming wooden and rationalistic views of inerrancy on Old Princeton, Oord and the report he cites have not gotten the relevant historical theology right.  If inattention to the importance of interpretation and to the human dimension of Scripture is a hallmark of a faulty view of inerrancy, then the charge simply doesn’t stick with respect to Warfield and Old Princeton.  Warfield and his colleagues readily conceded that the biblical writers could use the limited conventional and phenomenological language and ideas of their day in order to teach infallible divine truth.  Witness this extended passage from the well-known 1881 article on “Inspiration” by B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge:

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scripture, any more than their authors, are omniscient.  The information they convey is in the form of human thought, and limited on all sides.  They were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or human history as such.  They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology.  They are written in human languages, whose words, inflection, constructions, and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error.  The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.   Nevertheless, the historical faith of the church has always been that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained in their natural and intended sense.  There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed.

It is precisely for these reasons that the Old Princeton theologians were such careful interpreters of the Bible and why, for example, they did not obsess over issues such as literal six-day creationism.  Their hermeneutic was sophisticated enough to deal with such matters in a productive fashion.

To be sure, there are many contemporary evangelicals and even some Reformed thinkers who do evince inadequate views of inerrancy. The common denominator here seems to be a tendency to minimize the human dimension of Scripture so as to exalt the divine, and, by extension, to depreciate the importance of interpretation in light of the human historical, cultural, and religious context.  For example, one such individual recently wrote:

Doesn’t the Reformed doctrine of inspiration hold that the omnicompetent Spirit, who searches the unfathomable depths of God’s omniscience (1 Cor 2:10), is the determinative agent who has issued the written text of Scripture down to its very words? And as the “Spirit of truth” (John 16:30), did He not guide the biblical writers into all truth—indeed, could He do any other thing—barring any speck of error that might have otherwise intruded into the text of holy Scripture on account of the writers’ biases, confusion, ignorance, weaknesses, and, yes, exposure to faulty cosmologies? As I see it, Christians are obligated to receive the cosmology of Genesis in every detail as the inviolable truth that trumps any competing scientific claim and rebukes every pagan worldview because, as the Divines put it, it is the Word of God.

If such thinking did not emanate from Old Princeton, where did it come from?  A decade ago my good friend Ken Stewart at Covenant College wrote an important article in which he identified the nineteenth-century Swiss theologian Louis Gaussen’s book Theopneustia (French: 1840; ET: 1841, and frequently reprinted since) as a key influence in the rise of fundamentalist views Scripture and inspiration.  According to Stewart, Gaussen presented a view of inspiration that was “monergistic” (focused entirely upon divine agency), “oracular” (in that the mode of prophetic inspiration was the norm for all of Scripture),  “deductive” (rather than inductively focusing on the phenomena of Scripture itself), and “tending to rationalism” (in that Gaussen placed great stress on being able to solve alleged Bible “difficulties”).   Though, as George Marsden and others have demonstrated, the nineteenth and twentieth-century rise of popular fundamentalist views of Scripture is a complex issue, Stewart has undoubtedly identified a key influence in their development.