A friend has asked me, “John, can you market a seminary today without suggesting that we are the really faithful heirs of our particular tradition?” He added, “Could a school market itself as a loving, caring, and biblical community and still succeed?” My answer is that this is the only way in which I think a school will survive, and thrive, in the next two decades. I am persuaded that the next generation of young students will not buy the old way of selling a school’s uniquely distinctive views as over against other similar institutions that are not that remarkably different from each other. In the conservative Reformed world there has been a vast expansion of total seminaries since 1970, including at least eight new schools opening in the last forty years or so. But of the thirteen schools that come to mind in this part of the church ten of these seminaries are non-aligned in terms of church affiliation; the three aligned schools are Calvin (CRC), Erskine (ARPC) and Covenant (PCA). Does this independence lead toward another evidence of the function of American culture at work within the conservative Reformed way of doing church? I feel sure that the conservative Reformed movement has some incredibly important contributions to make but I fear that it also tends to breed suspicion and reaction. Thus these thirteen seminaries are now vying for a shrinking number of students. I believe that fewer and fewer students are going to move to Philadelphia to attend Westminster Seminary. (I will write more about seminaries, and their future, in other posts down the road.) The denominations and groups that support these schools are also in decline but very few want to talk about this problem openly. The schools seem to live inside a bubble but this bubble is about to burst if present trends continue. I believe the schools that will thrive, maybe not in their number of students but in their delivery of the right kind of preparation for ministry and mission, will retain important standards but they will also open up their community, spiritually and academically, to think much more broadly within their own unique context. They will market, if we can use this term, “community.” They will do this in love, not simply within their narrow distinctive’s which separate them from other similar schools.
Bill Evans, in his blog about Westminster, astutely says:
Given the dual authorship of Scripture and the vast gulf between the creator and the creature, why is it impossible or unlikely that God intended levels of meaning that were unknown to the original human author? Of course, the Catholic interpretive tradition has a long history of such notions of sensus plenior or a “fuller sense” of Scripture. For example, the late Raymond Brown wrote in his famous 1955 book The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture,
The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation (p. 92).
But for reasons probably having to do with their Protestant ecclesial location the critics of christotelic interpretation have apparently chosen not to explore such options.
I do not mean any of my questions over the last four days to be understood in an unfriendly way. I do not rely on either deception or personal innuendo. The leadership at Westminster is entitled to adopt an approach to hermeneutics as they see fit. This is, after all, an independent (and non-denominational) institution. The faculty is accountable only to the board through a strong faculty-centric institutionalism that has prevailed since Machen’s time. Personally, I see this way of operating as a profound problem but that is my opinion about seminaries and ecclesiology. I thus believe Dr. Bill Evans offers an incredibly wise insight when he concludes:
Despite the serious institutional turn this discussion has taken, I still can’t help but be struck by the amount of agreement shared by the two parties in this most recent iteration of the debate. Both groups agree that the Bible is inspired by God and that it is fully reliable. Both agree that the divine author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, intended and inspired all the messianic prophecies of the OT. Both agree that biblical interpretation must be informed and conditioned by redemptive history. Finally, both agree that grammatical-historical interpretation as it is often practiced is a product of modernity and that its exclusion of God is a great problem. That’s pretty significant!
Dr. Evans’ comments can help you understand the true heartbreak of this long-drawn-out controversy. What baffles me is really quite simple – I cannot, for the life of me, explain why a mainstream Christian perspective (one which allows for several different views about biblical interpretation) is no longer allowed at Westminster Seminary. In almost every other Reformed seminary in America the breadth of such approaches regarding hermeneutics is welcomed. In fact, this issue is not even a matter for serious debate at Redeemer Seminary as the McCartney matter demonstrates. Yet this breadth of perspectives (on this and several other issues) is now strongly opposed at Westminster. I have my own hunches about some of the specifics regarding this new controversy. I am not writing, however, about my hunches. I write rather about what can be gleaned from the public record. I am asking honest questions. In this case they are my questions. But it should be obvious to many that my questions are some of the same ones being asked by many friends of the seminary. I think these questions may go away over time but I am persuaded that the older Westminster Seminary will be no more. I pray for the new Westminster. I honestly wish it well but I grieve the loss of the older school, a school which thrived under the leadership of Presidents Clowney/Fuller/Logan. I have marvelous memories of that esteemed seminary. I will continue to share these memories with my friends. And I will pray for the faculty and trustees at the new Westminster. They need God’s grace and wisdom to lead the school into a not-so-certain future. Most seminaries in America struggle to maintain enrollment, much less to meet their budgets. These are hard times for most seminaries. Westminster remains important to many of Christ’s people. I want it to fulfill its mission in the days ahead. This could still happen if God is pleased to bless Westminster afresh. We should all desire this to happen if we know and love the faculty and trustees of this esteemed institution.
My next post (Monday, July 14) will offer what I believe to be a better way forward for Westminster. If the way of radical love is followed as a better approach to controversy then new experiential grace must be known in the future. I will add at least three more posts in this series next week. My goal will be to spell out what this new way would look like if Westminster chose to pursue healing and rich, open and loving dialogue.