These are important days for our brothers and sisters at WTS/Philadelphia. The board faces serious questions about the nature, mission, and future of the seminary. Faculty members shall have to decide how to respond to whatever the board decides and the students must decide how to conduct themselves today and tomorrow (and thereafter). Having been through some meetings like these I know that they can be a trial. There is greater opportunity for sin than usual and greater need for the graces of self-restraint and patience.
By my lights WTS/P faces the question that all Reformed institutions have faced in the modern period (and before): shall they be confessional or shall they become just another broadly evangelical, latitudinarian institution? It is for the latter option that some students plan to protest on the Philadelphia campus this week. I, for one, will be praying that the board decides that the seminary should be what Machen intended it to be.
Whatever happens today and tomorrow, some will be disappointed and it’s likely that some will leave campus. Such is the fallout from these sorts of conflicts. I hope that the board will not be swayed by the protests and the noise. If students (or anyone else) wants to study or teach at a broadly evangelical institution with roots in the Reformed tradition I say, “Let them come to Pasadena.”
Fuller Seminary was founded as an attempt to have elements of the Princeton tradition (intellectual seriousness, Reformed soteriology) without the confessions and without the doctrine of the church. Within thirty years the wheels had come off. The intellectual seriousness remained but without the governance of the confessions and without a doctrine of the church, Fuller became the vanguard of the progressive wing of the neo-evangelicals. Of course, in many ways, Princeton is already what some want WTS/P to become, a progressive, latitudinarian school with vestiges of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Semper reformanda without the ecclesia reformata.
The pressure is immense to conform to the theology, piety, and practice of the evangelicals. There is not a great “market” in North America for Reformed confessionalism. There are at least 60 million American evangelicals. There are probably no more than one half million confessional Reformed folk. Put another way, the evangelicals are at least 120 times larger than NAPARC. Implicitly it has been promised to confessional Reformed institutions that if they will only give a little on Reformed distinctives (e.g. the regulative principle, the sabbath, Word and sacrament) they will be allowed to retain what is “really important” (e.g. predestination) and we will be made “influential” and even wealthy with larger students bodies and more donations.
Of course it’s a Faustian bargain. By making such a bargain Reformed folk have allowed others to define them. What is there about the Reformed confession to make one think that it can be reduced to a single doctrine or two? We’re not just conservative predestinarians with a high view of Scripture! As to questions of politics and markets, those tempted to cut such a covenant with the broadly evangelical world should ask themselves some hard questions: what do the evangelicals really need with yet another institution? Why would students and donors be attracted to yet another latitudinarian evangelical institution? Aren’t there enough of those already? Does the market really demand another? Is there any evidence that Reformed institutions who make this deal really become more influential and if they look and sound like 60 million eclectic, pluralist evangelicals, who is influencing whom?
Is it the job of historically Reformed schools to provide a little gravitas to the broad evangelical enterprise? Asked another way: What do the honored pictures of Machen, Murray, Van Til, Kuiper, Stonehouse, Young, and Wooley mean? Are they quaint reminders of an honored but discarded past, something to show to prospective students and donors or do they actually something about the current self-understanding of the institution? Isn’t it the role of confessional Reformed institutions to speak to the evangelicals from a confessional standpoint? If a lighthouse gets swept away in the tide, what good is it?