Keller and Coulter, Orthodoxy and Heresy

Keller and Coulter, Orthodoxy and Heresy April 27, 2017

Most of you have no doubt heard about this spring’s Kellerite controversy at Princeton Theological Seminary.

At first, PTS decided to award high-profile pastor and prolific author Tim Keller its 2017 Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness. In keeping with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to which Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church belongs, Keller opposes the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s stances on the ordination of women and LGBT individuals. More generally, he espouses the complementarian theology that my co-blogger Kristin Du Mez recently discussed here at the Bench.

As you have no doubt heard, after something of a campus uproar, PTS (with Keller’s gracious assent or at his suggestion) rescinded the prize but stuck with its invitation for Keller to give the lead address at PTS’s annual Kuyper conference.

Springtime is peak season for the invitation and disinvitation of speakers on American campuses. In recent years, universities have often found themselves under pressure after inviting politically conservative (even mildly conservative) public figures to deliver commencement addresses. Condoleeza Rice and Ben Carson are two examples from recent years. While teaching at the University of South Alabama, I had the chance to hear Carson at a commencement; he was more entertaining than the average speaker! Only Liberty University had the temerity to invite the sitting president of the United States this year. Notre Dame invited Mike Pence. In all likelihood, although some students are complaining that Pence’s appearance makes them feel “unsafe,” Notre Dame will resist calls to rescind the invitation.

Had Ann Coulter decided to speak at Berkeley today, she would not have been safe. At my own beloved alma mater Middlebury College, a mob attacked political science professor Allison Stanger and invited speaker Charles Murray. As a point of contrast, I am quite sure a professor assigned The Bell Curve (it was critically discussed) while I was a student at Middlebury.

In the wake of all such incidents, there has been a great deal of heated discussion about the fact that politically left-leaning universities are failing to protect free speech. After all, if student mobs can shut down lectures on campus and attack visiting lecturers, the ability of those lecturers to freely speak is rather impaired.

As conservative author and pundit Jonah Goldberg recently commented, the issue at stake is not the absolute right of free speech (nobody really believes in that) but rather the erection and maintenance of ideological or theological boundaries. In other words, no one (or hardly anyone) thinks that Yeshiva University or Notre Dame or Berkeley (at least outside of a free speech zone) should invite or even allow David Duke to speak on campus. David Duke is utterly beyond the pale.

But how narrow should those boundaries of orthodoxy be? Should institutions invite (or allow student organizations to invite) speakers who criticize Black Live Matter, same-sex marriage, or illegal immigration? That’s the crux of the debate. I think public universities have an obligation to keep those boundaries as wide as possible, especially because Americans are split down the middle on precisely those issues. Students need to hear contrary points of views on those issues.

What about private campuses? Because most of those campuses also receive federal funding, perhaps they are also obligated to keep those boundaries wide. Alternatively, though, private institutions might simply spell out their orthodoxies. If faculty, students, and guest lecturers who belong to the wrong political party or espouse viewed deemed heretical are not welcome on campus, administrators should simply say so. That’s fair to everyone, because then prospective students and faculty alike know what the boundaries of orthodoxy are and what heresies are so abhorrent as to be unwelcome. The reality is that all institutions define such boundaries. As Goldberg argues, the problem — or at least one problem — is that many institutions pretend otherwise.

It could be worse on campus…

I teach at a public university that strives quite hard and quite successfully to keep the boundaries of orthodoxy very wide. Democrats and Republicans hold rallies on campus. All sorts of religious groups make their pitches on public spaces on campus.

Many Christian colleges and universities also do an excellent job of spelling out their orthodoxies while allowing for a wide range of views to gain a hearing on campus. Others permit much less dissent.

Princeton Theological Seminary, with Keller’s help, threaded the needle on these matters rather well in the end. Women’s ordination is a clear boundary marker for the PCUSA. To the best of my knowledge, complementarians cannot be ordained as PCUSA ministers. The PCUSA would not ordain Tim Keller. The PCA does not ordain women. Both institutions have their orthodoxies. Thus, the seminary did not want to honor a theologian and pastor whom it regards as a heretic on a fundamental.

At the same time, by welcoming Keller to campus the seminary made clear that it does not regard all such heretics as outside the bounds of Christian fellowship. Keller’s views are not so beyond the pale that one cannot listen to him or mingle with him. At least from afar, it seems that PTS President Craig Barnes, PTS students, and Keller himself assiduously worked to maintain the bonds that knit them together as Christians regardless of their significant theological disagreements.

If only the country’s public and private universities and colleges were as open about their orthodoxies and as welcoming of heretics!


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