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

Yesterday I provided a general historical overview of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I wrote this overview because of my long interest in the school, its faculty and its students, mostly those who are graduates and who remain friends. I am not a Westminster graduate. I have never been a Presbyterian. I am an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. This Dutch tradition is far less rigid in how it uses the confessions standards than the more conservative tradition at Westminster. I say all this because my true desire in writing these posts is to serve the good of the kingdom of God and to be utterly transparent in what I write. I am far more interested in the impact of Westminster upon the wider church. Westminster’s impact, in my view, has been primarily one that has been good for the mission of the church. I am also deeply interested in how the school has dealt with the removal of several faculty members in recent years. green-2With this in mind my second point about Westminster Seminary, and the recent “retirement” of Dr. Doug Green, is that anyone who reads my blogs will be better able to process a great deal of publicly available information and then make up their own mind about the school’s decision(s) and current direction. What is publicly known about Westminster is being widely discussed. This is fact. There are people on both sides of this decision who have stated their concerns with strong passion. I believe they have done so with good intention. The seminary’s decision, right or wrong, is problematic. It challenges an outside reader no matter how you understand Westminster’s decision with regard to Dr. Green. As I have said this recent decision is hard for me to fully understand without forming some kind of opinion. So I encourage you, if you would like to step into this stream, to begin by reading the seminary’s statement first. The history of the schools decision is spelled out meticulously in this June 6 post. Some will be satisfied that the trustees made a good decision. Others, like me, are deeply discouraged by reading this account. But I was not in the room nor am I privy to every bit of information that went into this decision. So I am reminded of these words of the Apostle Paul:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NRSV).

Love believes. love hopes and love endures. My first duty as a Christian is to love Doug Green, a true and dear friend. But I must also love the trustees of the seminary, who I do not personally know but who are my fellow Christians. (Some former trustees are, in fact, dear friends. This also adds to my difficulty.) I am thus challenged by the clear teaching of Christ regarding love because I know several of these brothers personally though they are not close friends. Doug, and his lovely wife Rosemary, are dear friends. I have observed this termination/retirement from afar yet it has deeply touched me in a profoundly human way. More about this later. One of the very best posts I have read about Doug Green’s “retirement” was written by Dr. William B. Evans, a former classmate of Doug’s at Westminster in the 1980s. bill-evans-head-shotDr. Evans is now chair of the Bible, Religion and Philosophy Department at Erskine College in South Carolina. He did an M.A.R. and Th.M. at Westminster Seminary before he did an M. A. and Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. It should be noted that Dr. Evans is himself a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC). The ARPC is a confessional and conservative Presbyterian denomination. Dr. Evans’ post can be read at his blog. Dr. Evans says that in November of 2013 the Westminster Board reversed itself from an earlier stance. They had studied the Doug Green case and approved him. Then they reversed themselves deciding that Doug Green’s response to the ongoing controversy about hermeneutics was “no longer acceptable.” What is troubling is that Doug Green’s views did not change during this time. What changed is that members of the faculty and trustee board no longer had confidence in Doug Green’s views on this issue. The key issue, according to the trustees, is that Douglas Green has “expressed agreement with a ‘christotelic’ hermeneutical method that severs the organic link between the Old Testament and the New Testament.” This debate has gone on for some time at Westminster and anyone familiar with even the smallest amount of information knows that this did not simply drip from the sky in 2014. If I were to boil the trustees’ decision down to one simple explanation I would say that it centers around the way that the New Testament writers use the Old Testament and just how much the Old Testament writers knew about Christ when they wrote the Hebrew Scriptures. “How much of Christ are we warranted to read into the Old Testament text?” “How are we to decide what the authors knew if they were under divine inspiration?” “What is at stake if we follow the approach that Dr. Green has taught?” Evans asks, “What did the OT writers know?” All current controversy aside this really is a very interesting question! It is one that has been discussed within the Christian tradition since the second and third century. It is also one that no church council or creed, so far as I know, has ever settled once and for all. This itself is part of what I find so troubling about Westminster’s turning this rather limited controversy into such an important issue. Making this hermeneutical issue into a litmus test makes no sense to me at all. I find room for both views in the most conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches. There are only two publicly published articles by Dr. Green that you can read online. Both provide a rather clear glimpse into his approach. One is written in a way that most readers should be able to follow easily enough. It applies his hermeneutical approach to Psalm 23. This article is available at the World Reformed Fellowship. A much more academic article by Dr. Green is also available online. I encourage you to read the seminary trustee’s explanation of the Green case as well as both of these fine articles by Dr. Green. This is the only way you can hope to honestly follow what has happened, at least based upon what both sides have written for public consumption. A lot more information is used by several sides in this debate but this material is off the record. I have chosen to say nothing about any of this based upon how I believe love should respond. Since the June 6 seminary post Doug Green’s “retirement” Westminster seems to feel that it needed to provide further clarification of its decision. This was done in a second published response on July 1. The seminary, in response to an earlier controversy in 2008, also published an article about its position on biblical authority and interpretation. You should also read “Affirmations and Denials.” This document Green agreed to abide by but was later told that he did not actually follow based upon his written work, which can be clearly seen in the links I have provided above. I believe it is important that both sides in such a controversy take a deep breath, listen to what is really being said (not what they think is being said) and then try to clearly state what the issue is and how they arrived at such a point of sharp disagreement. The seminary clearly believes that it has done this in the Green case. This is why Westminster gives its own explanation on two posts for why Doug Green was forced to “retire.” (I use my words carefully here lest there be any doubt about this fact – Doug Green may have “retired” but he was pushed to do so.) Reading the seminary’s own account makes very little sense to me. Maybe I miss something seriously vital to the confessional stance of the seminary. (I have admitted that I love Doug, and count him a dear friend, but this is of no importance to me in regard to understanding what the school has posted publicly.) What is important, to me as a friend to the seminary for nearly three decades, is what I am told, and not told, in these public documents. To question these statements and what they mean is neither gossip nor a specific lack of love. I believe William B. Evans has demonstrated good faith in what he says about his alma mater. Love should seek for the truth. But the truth is not always plain. Sometimes love must keep asking questions and seeking for light. I might be missing something here but I do not understand how a “christotelic” hermeneutic, as demonstrated in Doug Green’s work, is inconsistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith. And it is certainly not inconsistent with the tradition of the church (even the Reformed churches) or with the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. I still cannot see how Westminster came to make such a momentous decision. I understand that schools and faculty members can reach the place where it is time for them to go in different directions. I get that clearly. I have served on a seminary board myself. But what I do not get in the Westminster news is why this was seen the best way forward for Westminster Theological Seminary. I might be willing to let this drop out of sight entirely except that one gets the strong feeling that more change is yet to come on the Glenside (PA) campus. I hope that this feeling is proven wrong. Love believes and hopes for the best! Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and for Westminster Theological Seminary, an institution that has done such great good for Christ and his kingdom, I sincerely hope that this is the last such faculty issue that we will hear about for a long time. I desire that peace prevail at the seminary. I also pray that my dear friends, Doug and Rosemary, are allowed to serve Christ with freedom and great joy in the years ahead. I know this much – Doug Green, a genuine Old Testament scholar, is one of the finest Christian men I know. If you knew him as I do you would agree. He is transparent, courageous, faithful and humble. I wish him many blessed years ahead because he is clearly not ready to retire in any meaningful sense of the word. The church can still gain much from this servant of God. And Westminster Seminary surely needs to move forward by allowing peace to prevail within the faculty and staff. As great as the school has been if it is a contentious place then it will not know the great blessing of joy in Christ that should prevail across all who enter her gates.

Tomorrow: Part Three.

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