Westminster Theological Seminary: Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love? (Part One)

220px-Machen_Hall,_Westminster_Theological_Seminary,_Glenside_PA_01In early June I commented on my Facebook wall about the “retirement” of Old Testament professor Dr. Douglas Green at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia (WTS). You can read the official Westminster announcement online. The seminary says that Dr. Green is leaving for early “retirement.” But Doug Green is not of retirement age in the normative use of this word, meaning he is not 65 or older. The school says that he will honorably retire next year, on October 1, 2015. But he left his teaching position as of the end of the last term (2014). I commented on my Facebook wall about this departure in a manner that challenged this statement. I also questioned the integrity of the investigation and the final decision made by the board. (My words were not as charitable as they should have been and I noted that within a few hours of posting my short comment.) While I confess that I know a great deal about this decision, and much which gives me genuine pause (none of which comes from Dr. Green who rightfully remains silent), I have concluded that I will not attempt to challenge the trustees or administration through a social media attack. I have agonized about this subject for months. When the announcement became public I reacted adversely on June 6. Since the announcement was posted I have prayed, sought the counsel of several friends, and spent considerably time gathering as much information as I could to help me understand what both sides have said about this controversial “retirement.” Therefore, my appeal in this blog series is multi-faceted. After much work on my thoughts they fell into three  parts. The largest part will be the heart of my most earnest appeal to the trustees, the present faculty and the former faculty of Westminster Seminary. This appeal will be rooted in the question that I ask in my title for this series of posts noted above.

First, a bit of history about Westminster Seminary and its long struggles with faculty, administration and trustees. These struggles have been on-again and off-again at WTS for many decades. I will not provide an extensive history but friends of the seminary know this legacy all too well.

Westminster Seminary was formed in 1929, largely under the leadership of the famous New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen. Though the school is independent, it has  had a close relationship with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) from the beginning of that denomination. The OPC is the church body which Machen helped to found in 1936 after he left the Presbyterian Church over a debate regarding the work of missions. Westminster has a unique governing structure in which the faculty has a great deal of power in regards to internal decision making. This structure, so far as I can tell, comes out of Machen’s struggles with Princeton Seminary and the Presbyterian Church. (Princeton Seminary did not have a president, so I have come to understand, until the twentieth century!) Oddly enough the first president of Westminster Seminary, which followed some of the Princeton model and not other parts, was the late Edmund P. Clowney. Dr. Clowney served from 1966 until 1984. (This means that the school did not have a president for thirty-seven years!) I had the great joy of knowing Ed Clowney. I consider him to have been one of the finest and most irenic conservative Reformed leaders in North America. I once engaged in a dialogue with him, and several other scholars and younger Christian students, over a meal. He was challenged about his view of infant baptism. (My own view at the time was that of a Baptist, which I have subsequently changed.) Clowney showed unusual clarity in this dialogue. But he also showed an even more unusual gentleness and grace in his engagement with believers over a controversial topic. He was outnumbered in the discussion by the Baptists at the table but he never wavered nor spoke a word in a passionate or untoward manner.

Edmund Clowney was followed at Westminster Seminary by George Fuller and later by Samuel T. Logan (1991-2005). Sam Logan is also a very good friend. I believe Sam Logan served the school in the spirit of the late Edmund Clowney. In 1982, the California branch of Westminster became an independent institution, thus it is now Westminster Seminary California. For some years these two schools had functioned together but they always felt very different to me. While I had friends in both places Philadelphia felt more like an “open” evangelical seminary where diversity could be honestly expressed in public ways. Another Westminster satellite was later established in Dallas. This school became Redeemer Seminary in 2009. Wikipedia has an entry about President Sam Logan which says, “Logan’s tenure was abruptly terminated in 2005 by the seminary’s Board of Trustees due to their perception that he was too inclusive of liberal scholarship” (italics mine). My sense of things is that this is an honest reporting of what actually happened. Others may have a different take on this matter but whoever wrote this entry seems to have gotten the story right.

The current president is Dr. Peter Lillback, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. (Lillback did a doctorate at Westminster.) President Lillback also serves as a professor of Historical Theology. He has been both a scholar and pastor. He is also the author of the book George Washington’s Sacred Fire. This is a very conservative pro-America book that was openly promoted by Glenn Beck. It was also a number one bestseller at amazon.com. One of the internal controversies that remains at Westminster, and is still unresolved, has to do with Dr. Lillback’s abiding public interest in conservative political issues that are historically of little concern to some (perhaps most) of the faculty.

Under the wise leadership of the late Edmund P. Clowney, who served WTS for nineteen years, the seminary engaged more deeply with the wider Christian world while it also remained intentionally connected to the conservative Reformed world. Clowney, to give just one example, spoke to the famous Urbana Missionary Conference (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship). This venue would not have been common for a leader at Westminster before his time. Under Clowney’s leadership Westminster became an internationally respected seminary with a high standard for academic excellence. It also hired new faculty members that were noteworthy for both scholarship and the kind of missiology that went far beyond the rigid confines of the small Orthodox Presbyterian Church. (One instance of the latter was Harvie Conn, who was one of the finest missiologists of his era. Tim Keller also taught at Westminster before he began his church planting work in New York City.) In this era Westminster became a growing school that wonderfully touched leaders from all over the world. The student body was genuinely international, or at least heavily Asian. When I first visited the campus in the late 1980s and early 1990s it was a rather exciting time for the school. I was received with great warmth and did not sense any suspicion among the faculty or administration. Leaders like Ed Clowney, and later Sam Logan, along with men like Harvie Conn, Will Barker and Ray Dillard were all delightful to share with personally. I enjoyed their company and warm fellowship. But I came to observe, over the next few years into the early 1990s, a growing change in the culture and context of the seminary.  Before my own eyes, based upon my repeated visits to campus, I watched one faculty member after another leave. Some left on their own, sensing that it was good time to go before prevailing storm clouds opened up. Others were pushed in various ways. Then I saw Dr. Samuel Logan, the president who had taught historical theology and had a strong background in Jonathan Edwards studies, pushed out by the board. It was a tragedy to my way of seeing it. During this same time I  came to know Norman Shepherd, long after he had left the school in a major controversy. Norm had moved to the Chicago area to pastor a Christian Reformed Church. Norm was a theologian who was examined at WTS, and in his presbytery as well, about his teaching on justification. He was then encouraged to leave Westminster. The said irony is that he did finally leave but is was ultimately voluntarily. He was examined on three points and one faculty member who recalls the time period well told me there was a split about him remaining that included three groups of people and each made up about one-third of the whole. President Clowney encouraged him to leave for the overall peace of the school. (Peace might have come in Norm’s leaving, but at a severe price to his family and others as time would tell!) In every instance the issues that troubled people at WTS were different, as they usually are in these settings. But the school’s culture was generally one that I saw as controlled by fear and constant debate over points that were not central to Christian orthodoxy, even to interpreting the Westminster Confession of Faith itself. The questions often seemed to revolve around who was in and who was out. The school went through major changes as new professors came and new issues arose.

During the years I visited the school I became grieved by what I personally witnessed. I would visit with my friends, share a meal and listen. Since the middle of the last decade I was no longer welcome to contribute at Westminster. The reasons for this were certainly not all on the side of the school. When Sam Logan left my deep ties to the school were clearly severed. My developing views on broader ecumenism were not going to be welcomed by the institution and I do understand this without any personal rancor at all.  I hold no animosity toward the school. My not speaking at WTS any longer simply fits with the direction of the school and its hyper-confessional stance. I respect that view more than some realize but obviously I do not agree with it. My point is that there was never any open conflict between me and/or anyone at the school, at least so far as I personally know. If someone at the seminary does not care for me I have no idea who that is or why. I do care about the school, as you will see in my ensuing comments, but I care more about the people that I know and love who have been, or still are, on the faculty at WTS.

 

This entry was posted in American Evangelicalism, Biblical Theology, Current Affairs, Hermeneutics, History, Personal, Reformed Christianity, The Church. Bookmark the permalink.