Quick Hitter: What You Can't Concede

Bill Lindsey has a series of posts on the recent dust-up at Princeton Theological Seminary with relation to Tim Keller.  To briefly summarize, Princeton is an old and very well-respected Seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA).  PCUSA allows women to be ordained and lead congregations, and also allows LGBT folks to fully participate in the life of the church (and last year authorized same-sex weddings).  Tim Keller just stepped down as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a large congregation.  Redeemer is affiliated with the rival Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), which does not allow women or LGBT people to be ordained, and is much more conservative.  Keller and Redeemer have publicly endorsed the positions of the PCA along these lines (here's a position paper on women's ordination from Redeemer).  Princeton initially awarded a theology prize to Keller, before later revoking it.  Hence the brouhaha.

Bill was responding to a piece by Jonathan Merritt, where he tut-tutted and whattabout-ed those who were mad at Princeton offering the award to Keller.  Like Bill, Merritt's piece really irritated me, but for an additional reason than the one Bill brings up.  Merritt's piece shows how unserious a certain kind of person who likes to identify with "progressive Christianity" is about the theological underpinnings of that position.  A brief scroll through Merritt's work will show that he would likely on some level identify himself as such--he is an openly gay man, he writes about challenges to the evangelical orthodoxy opposing LGBT relationships, etc.

Here's the deal--there are two reasons why one might be a progressive Christian, and only one of them is the right one.  Either you are a progressive Christian because your reading of the Bible, your grappling with the traditions of the church, your personal experience of God, your prayer life--in other words, your theology, understood in a broad sense (not merely propositional formulations)--compels you to come to those conclusions.  Or you consider yourself a progressive Christian because, at the end of the day, some set of non-Christian principles makes you want to adopt progressive positions, and so you do so without regard to your theology.  And, if you fall into the second category, we need to be honest about what is going on--everything the conservatives accuse progressive Christians of being is 100% true in your case.  You are compromising your faith in the name of a set of secular cultural values, because at the end of the day you are in essence conceding that the conservative vision of the faith is the correct one, but you just don't want to follow it.

If progressive Christians are not willing to stand on their theology as the basis for their position, then they might as well fold up the tent now and go home.  If progressive Christianity is going to soto voce recognize that conservatives have it right about who God is and what God wants, but they don't want to say that or follow that because it "wouldn't be nice," then there is no there there to progressive Christianity.  And, frankly, I think many progressive Christians, and I have to say I get this vibe from Merritt in his piece, really do think that the Tim Kellers of the world are right at the end of the day, and are trying to get some sort of special pleading so they don't have to acknowledge or live out that fact.

The Keller thing has nothing to do with being nice, or respecting other views.  No one is saying Keller can't speak, or that he must be cast into the outer darkness.  This is about how much you really believe what you are saying.  This is saying that Princeton Seminary and the PCUSA take their positions on women and LGBT people seriously, and believe them to be a faithful reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Progressive Christianity only has a future if progressive Christians have the courage of their convictions regarding their theology.  Such courage requires one to be willing to say "Tim Keller may be a nice guy, but he and his church and his denomination read the Bible the wrong way, in a way that is not ultimately faithful to the purposes and goals of God, and in a way that affirmatively harms people, especially women and LGBT folks."  And, if you believe that and are willing to say that, then you have no business giving Tim Keller an award for his theology--after all, you think his theology sucks.  Or, more accurately, you say his theology sucks, but do you really believe it?

Princeton is not likely giving an award for theology to a Mormon, or to a Jewish rabbi--however nice those people are, no matter what other good things they might be about, their theology is not consistent with the theological vision of the institution.  Invite them to come talk about the good works they have done, sure.  Invite them to talk in the context of a comparative religion presentation, absolutely.  But honoring them for their theology is endorsing in a generalized sense their theological vision.  And endorsing their theological vision is saying that your own official theological vision isn't to be taken particularly seriously.  At the end of the day, Keller is basically indistinguishable from a Mormon or a Jewish rabbi--a dude with theology that you think is wrong in a way that matters to your institution. Or at least, in a way that you say matters to your institution.

Progressive Christians need to become convicted (to use an evangelical term) that what they are doing is a product of a theology, and that theology matters.  That doesn't mean that we need to use theology as a club, or to become excessively narrow in our scope, but it does mean we have to be clear about what we believe.  No one is ever going to take this seriously unless we communicate, clearly and unambiguously, that we really believe the stuff we are saying.  In this case, we really believe that God is calling women and LGBT people to ordained service; we really believe that LGBT relationships are blessed by God.  Otherwise, all of this is an enormous waste of time, and we might as well all stay home on Sundays.


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