For the moment there is a pause in the saga at our sister school in Philadelphia (WTS/Phila). As you probably know, the board voted to suspend Peter Enns, and they will consider how and whether to proceed further. One element of the current situation in Philadelphia was the threatened student protest/strike. I haven’t heard whether such happened, but I see that the board is holding a meeting next Tuesday with the student body. This sort of meeting is fraught with possibilities, and not all of them are happy.
I do not profess to know all (or even many) of the details of the current situation, but as a former Academic Dean and having been through similar crises in a sister seminary I don’t think that I have to know all the particulars to make the comments that follow.
For a variety of reasons seminary is a very intense experience, but perhaps the chief reason for this intensity is that it is a compressed time of intense study of God’s Word. WTS (and WSC) students are required to work carefully and extensively through God’s Word. Frequently this is the first time students have encountered the Word of God this way. It is impossible that a spiritually aware, sensitive person would come away from such a study without strong feelings. Students often develop a particularly intense relationship with those faculty members who teach the Scriptures directly. After all, as Darryl Hart noted in his inaugural address here a few years ago, the principle reason students attend Westminster is to study God’s Word. The point of Darryl’s essay was to encourage students (and the seminary generally) to remember the value and importance of the human and the historical in the curriculum, but his observation about motivation of students is salient in this context.
Because of the special bond that exists between seminary students and their biblical studies faculty, one might expect that student reaction to the board’s decision might be particularly intense. Some of the reaction I have read since yesterday seems to support that supposition. As a historian I am aware that student unrest has always been with us. There have been student riots (not that whatever occurred in Phila was a “riot”) throughout history. Almost as soon as there were universities there were riots that had to be put down by civil and school authorities. In that respect student uprisings seem to be a part of the academic landscape.
Nevertheless, having been a member of a seminary faculty and having been a member of a seminary administration and having had to navigate choppy waters like these before and having had the sorts of discussions with students that I’m sure are happening in Philadelphia, let me urge upon WTS/P students (and students in other institutions) some caution. Over the years many students have said to me “Well I heard….” and then have proceeded to announce as fact things that were completely contrary to fact. The falsehood of the reports, however, did not prevent them from spreading among the students. Sometimes these reports can be quite damaging both to the students and to the institutions where they study and to the persons involved in whatever controversy exists.
The reality is, in situations such as these, that it is virtually impossible for students to know as much as they think they know. These situations may seem very clear cut to the students on either side of it, but for those in the midst of them, things are more complicated. I recall a situation in which some students demanded of me, “Why don’t you deal with this?” Well, as a matter of fact we (the faculty and administration) were dealing with it, but we couldn’t talk to the students about the particulars. The students wanted it resolved immediately, but our policies and charity required that we proceed slowly even if it made the seminary vulnerable to criticism (which it did). The truth is that even if students are privy to some aspects of this current controversy, they certainly don’t know the whole story.
As a historian I realize a little more each day how hard it is to know the truth, even when that is the goal. My vocation as a historian is to “tell the truth about the past as best I can.” That’s a lot harder than it sounds. Sometimes the truth about a given question doesn’t seem to want to be found. If that’s the case when documents are to hand, how much harder is it to tell the truth in the midst of conflict when emotions are running high and when there is hurt and frustration on all sides?
There is a good analogy for this situation: the church discipline process in the local congregation. Some of the students at WTS/P will one day be pastors. They will sit in session (consistory) and presbytery (classis) meetings where matters of church discipline will come before them. As pastors they will likely counsel with folk who, sadly, will reject their counsel and persist in sin and rebellion requiring the session (consistory) to begin disciplinary proceedings. The congregation may or may not know what is happening and things may look very different in the pew than they do in the session (consistory) meeting. There will be particulars that members of session (consistory) know that members of the congregation will never and should never know. Some members of the congregation may even regard the session (consistory) with suspicion for bringing “such a fine member of our congregation” under discipline. As a minister you will know a different story but you won’t be able to explain. You must simply stand there and “take it.” That member may never regard you the same way again and there’s nothing you can do about it. Your duty to Christ is greater than your reputation. Welcome to the ministry.
For the moment, in this situation, seminary students are like the congregation, but it will not always be so. Before students poke indignant fingers into the chest of faculty or administration members whom they perceive to be in the wrong, pause for a moment and consider that not too many years hence, the shoe will be on the other foot and that they too will be doing their prayerful and tearful best before God and His church. Then, when hair is gray (or gone) and they have been up late for yet another painful meeting, they will understand these sorts of processes in a way that they cannot now. Between now and Tuesday a lot of seminary students have an opportunity to save themselves an occasion for remorse in later years. Let us hope that the wisdom, self-restraint, and discretion which will be required of them very soon is sufficiently formed in them in time.