Westminster Theological Seminary – Can Institutions Respond to Controversy in Radical Love (Part Three)

There have been a number of previous controversies at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA). In the middle of the last decade there was one that many believe is linked (in some way) to the “retirement” issue of Doug Green. The Enns debate surrounded the teaching of Dr. Peter Enns, an Old Testament professor who left the faculty six years ago. It is widely believed that some of the issues regarding the teaching of Pete Enns, according to people on both sides of the current 2014 Douglas Green controversy, should be understood in the broader context of the seminary’s debate over hermeneutics. Dr. Enns resigned, under considerable duress, in 2008. The issue surrounding Enns’ teaching grew out of the publication of his book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Baker, 2005). Unknown This book was unfavorably reviewed in the magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A battle about what Enns wrote followed. Articles appeared in academic journals and many people beyond the school were hard pressed to understand the central issue. I recall reviewing the book myself and then reading the review published in the OPC magazine before I read several academic articles and reviews. I distinctly remember wondering if the reviewer in the magazine understood what Enns was actually saying. The more academic debate was sharply contested with Dr. Enns responding to the criticism in print. Right after Dr. Enns left Westminster the board adopted: “Affirmations and Denials.”

Dr. Douglas Green responded to this new document by seeking for clarity about some of the wording. A committee of the board examined Doug Green. He submitted a statement to the board. In December of 2009 the board affirmed Dr. Green as a teacher at WTS.

Another controversy later arose around the teaching/writing of Dr. Dan G. McCartney. McCartney taught at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for twenty-two years. At the time of the Enns controversy Dr. McCartney spoke favorably for Pete Enns. McCartney left WTS voluntarily. He is now on the faculty at Redeemer Seminary in Texas. The issue in the McCartney debate eventually came around to hermeneutics. You can read Dan McCartney’s particular views in an academic paper that he gave to the Evangelical Theological Society as far back as 2003. Dr. McCartney’s article did not become controversial at Westminster until another professor, Dr. Lane Tipton, published a critique of it in the summer of 2011: “The Gospel and Redemptive Historical Hermeneutics.” This article appeared in a volume celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of Westminster. I wonder, “Why did Dan McCartney’s article receive a negative critique by a faculty member in 2011 after he had left Westminster?”

McCartneyHighlight.7c03a56f7674The irony here is that Dr. McCartney now teaches at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, a school that was Westminster Seminary in Dallas until 2009. While I do not believe this debate was a major issue in the ultimate decision regarding the Dallas campus separating from Philadelphia the Dallas school left within the broad context of these ongoing debates. This separation of one seminary, located at that time in two places, into two totally separate institutions appears to have been amicable and mutually agreeable. The net result, however, was that Dan McCartney was no longer under the scrutiny of the faculty or trustees at Westminster in Philadelphia. It should be noted that he only moved to Texas after the had left WTS. This has prompted some to question the nature of this current debate even further. Why? Where there was once one institutionally connected faculty, following the same confessional standard, some at Westminster now seem to now think that McCartney’s approach was not acceptable. Yet Redeemer retains him without debate. In the light of this history you cannot help but ask: “What was put on the table at Westminster in their internal dealing with Professor Green when they gave him the option of accepting (early) retirement?” For me the question really comes down to this: “How could such a highly technical issue become the cause for the trustees to suggest the  retirement of a tenured Old Testament professor who was not involved in any scandal or serious doctrinal error?” Dr. Green, who is a ruling elder in a local PCA congregation (New Life Glenside, PA), faces no formal charges even though Westminster’s board deemed his teaching to be “out of bounds” according to the confessional tradition of the school. You can read how his church has addressed this issue online.

I have visited Redeemer Seminary in Dallas several times. (Redeemer has a main campus in Dallas with satellite campuses in Houston and Austin.) Some great things are happening in this new Texas seminary. I believe Redeemer has become a place that looks and feels like the older Westminster Seminary, the school that existed during the Clowney/Fuller/Logan era. For the life of me I do not understand why this controversy had to happen or how these disagreements in Philadelphia led to the decision to seek the retirement of Dr. Green. I have listened, read a lot and asked more than a few questions. I still shake my head in utter disbelief when I read and hear the explanation.

Another friendly critic of Westminster has been their former church history professor Dr. D. Clair Davis. Davis is the longest living tenured professor emeritus of the institution. Dr. Davis is also a treasure of historical insight and clarity. I have found him to be a gentleman who continues to learn and grow in wisdom and grace. He will ask hard questions but his desire is never to hurt or harm. I have always found him to be courteous and uniquely willing to listen to both sides in an argument. He can hold decided opinions that he has formed through careful interaction with both the past and present but he does so with grace and truth. He is a great historian and a beloved professor to many graduates of Westminster. I have enjoyed meals and conversations with Clair for three decades. He contributed an excellent essay to a book I edited on Roman Catholicism back in 1994. His son Erik formerly worked in administration at Westminster. Clair’s comments about the debates at the seminary have been challenged by former faculty members and the school. You can read his several posts about Westminster as blogs on the World Reformed Fellowship site.  I have provided this link to a number of Clair’s articles so that you can trace various pro and con pieces. You can also grasp some of the questions being raised by this controversy by reading the back-and-forth responses that have come from both sides. There is a lot of information online, more even than I have cited.

So far as I can tell no member of the faculty at Westminster has openly written against Dr. Green. There appear to be differing views about his teaching but it is very hard to tell what these views are from the published documents. The way in which his “retirement” has been presented leaves many people in doubt about what actually happened since the only thing we have to go on is an article on Psalm 23 that was linked earlier in my series.

The term christotelic, which I first heard after I had preached on Luke 24 at Westminster many years ago, would eventually become a wonderful way for me to express what I believe the fathers of the early church taught. It uses more specific biblical terminology to name what I think is nothing more or less than mainstream Christianity. (I had used the term christocentric previously. I found the term christotelic to be far more helpful.) There were several biblical exegetes at Westminster who used the term but I do not know who originally came up with the word. The opposition to the term, so far as I can tell, has generally come from the systematic and historical members of the faculty. Some of my reading suggests that systematic and historical theology have primacy over biblical theology at WTS but this is itself a technical discussion that remains somewhat baffling. At times it has seemed to me that these different parts of the faculty were divided without much evidence that they were able to have any meaningful dialogue about the issues.

The professors who came up with this helpful biblical terminology may not have originally known it at the time but the term they chose encapsulates what has been taught by the broader church down through the ages. This is especially true when you begin to study the patristic writers. This is essentially the method adopted and expanded by St. Augustine. The primary biblical text in which I saw this principle at work, which was the same text I had preached from at Westminster, was Luke 24:36-49. We read:

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (NRSV).

In the aforementioned blog by Dr. Evans there is a summary of what I have discovered concerning the opposition to Doug Green’s reading of Scripture. Evans, as you can see if you carefully read his entire blog, does not always agree with Green. He does understand that something happened which changed his alma mater in significant ways. Clair Davis has noted that Westminster came from the “old ” Princeton Seminary, which was the only Presbyterian seminary that reported directly to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Machen desired an independent seminary. When the OPC was formed a few years later things grew more narrow at Westminster yet some really good exegetical work was done by several members of the faculty for many decades. Within the first decade after Westminster was founded another school was formed in reaction to it – Faith Seminary.

One of the earliest controversies at Westminster surrounded different approaches to apologetics and philosophy. One view was promoted by Cornelius Van Til, who taught at Westminster for decades. The other view was taught by Gordon Clark, who was a professor at Wheaton and later at Butler University. The lesson I see here is that Westminster seems to have taken what I would call a “winner takes all” approach to theological issues from early in its history. In the case of Van Til’s approach to apologetics I once asked a leader at Westminster if Van Til’s thinking was so central to the school’s understanding and theology that all professors should hold to it. The answer of this leader was a resounding yes. I wonder if this is still true. I am not sure if it was true then but that was the answer I was given. My reason for mentioning this is that the school has navigated more than a few theological debates over the last 85-plus years. The seminary says it follows the Westminster Confession. Yet it seems to hold views of that confession that are not held by all (even most) conservative confessional Presbyterians. I think this is part of the social-cultural DNA that has been in the Westminster makeup from the beginning.

 

 

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