The Temptation of Influence

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?

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Good post.

    Without saying where I went to school (RSC, you probably know already), part of the reason some institutions started up, even in recent memory, has to do with the same impulses that created WTS/P in the first place, and a sense that even within the past generation there was something that was being lost, and might already be irretrievably post at the venerable alma mater. “OK, then if it is to be preserved, we will have to start again.”

    I would like to think that with such statements, and founding of new institutions, it became clearer at places like WTS/C (and now, perhaps at the ‘P’ as well), that they needed to turn the ship about–or ‘major course correction’ at the very least, or they risked being eclipsed as the “flagship” institutions of confessional orthodoxy. Identity is a precious commodity, and if it is lost, is hard to recover in the old form.

    I’d rather be arguing (strenuously?) about the meaning and nuances of phrases like “in the space of 6 days” with people who are passionate about a shared confessional identity, than whether or not we should be committed to “old, dusty, doctrinal relics of dead, white Euros.”

    If WTS/P faculty can’t be agreed on Scripture inspiration and preservation (ch1 of the WCF), what can they agree on?

  2. With all due respect to Dr. Clark and others, we have lost the true focus. What concern God is the unity of the body, as long as the issues at hand are not heretical, which I do not think it’s the case here. In this ugly debate, we lost our love, humility, and unity. We are playing right into the hand of Satan. Shame on us!


  3. As a 2007 graduate of WTS East, I deeply disagree. The situation is exactly the opposite of how you portray it. It is reasonable to assume that they want to fire Enns, because he is hurting them financially. There would be little financial benefit in keeping him, so your “Temptation of Influence” works the other direction.

    Also this has nothing to do with Reformed distinctives. The doctrine of inerrancy is not an exclusively Reformed doctrine. This same battle could be going on at a fundamentalist Bible college.

    For the record, Dr. Enns is a fine man and brilliant scholar, and his dismissal would be a huge loss for the seminary.

  4. By the way, I didn’t mean to imply that Enns denies inerrancy. He clearly affirms inerrancy, but the debate is over the propriety of his use of the incarnational analogy.

  5. Scott
    John Muether had P&R send me a copy of his biography of VanTil, which I will be reviewing in three installments on Lane Keister’s GreenBaggins blog very shortly. This book is very timely. If VT is any guide to the issues now swirling around WTS then the only thing the board can do is take immediate action to enforce the school’s historical stance on confessional fidelity-otherwise it will go the way of Fuller.

  6. Dear John 17,

    Two things:

    1. On this reading of John 17 when could we ever disagree? Could Paul have rebuked Peter for his choice of dinner companions? Should we be more holy than Paul?

    2. Arminianism isn’t heresy. Would you allow a prof to teach it at WTS?

    3. What is the point of having a confessional institution if folks are allowed to disregard it or to marginalize it at will?

    4. You haven’t really addressed the main question of the piece: why do we need yet another broadly evangelical institution with Reformed roots?

  7. Jonathan,

    I am not making a brief directly for dismissing Pete Enns. I’m arguing bigger issues. For example see this earlier post on Three Ways of Relating to American Religion.

    The current discussions at WTS reflect questions that have persisted since the 1960s. Ed Clowney, who was a dear friend, believed that Reformed folk could make common cause with the broader evangelical movement. The seminary changed direction in the 1960s and 70s on the basis of that belief. Its no coincidence that the seminary grew much larger during those years. That numerical growth is not necessarily a bad thing and the seminary did influence many evangelicals for the Reformed faith but there has been a broadening and a sort of doctrinal pluralism at WTS that did not exist in earlier years. Further, the cleavage between evangelicals and Reformed confessionalism have become much more obvious since the 1960s. Remember, CVT was warning us in the 1930s already against becoming too intertwined with the evangelicals.

    It’s not possible and not desirable to “go back to the old days” but it is possible and necessary to think critically about our relations to the broader evangelical movement. To do this we need to think about the role of our confessional standards in our institutions. At places such as WTS (and we have faced this here) it is possible to marginalize them, to downplay confessional views and practices in order to become more attractive to American evangelicals.

    Frankly, I have no problem with a judicious use of the incarnational analogy per se for Scripture. It is truly human and it is truly divine. Pete Enns is hardly the first to use this analogy. The difficulty comes in the conclusions that Pete draws and the way he uses the analogy. Second, I have as much problem with Pete’s open support of the Federal Vision as I do with is view of Scripture. In the long run that may do more damage to a Reformed institution as Pete’s view of Scripture.

    That said, Gary Johnson has found strong affinities between Pete’s use of the incarnational analogy and Briggs’ approach to Scripture. One issue anyway is how we account for the humanity of Scripture and what conclusions we draw from that observation.

  8. Dr. Clark, would it be considered an immediate concern if Reformed folk were pursuing common cause with the Roman Catholic Church – the Jesuits? If the wheels fell off at Fuller in less than thirty years, I wonder how long it would take for WTS to return to Rome if pro-Jesuit faculty continues to increase. What steps are being taken, if any, at Escondido, regarding the potential Jesuit infiltration through the back door?

  9. Drew,

    What are you talking about?

    I took my BA from a secular university. I took my DPhil from from a secular university? Does that make me a secularist?

    Yes, we have two faculty members who took their PhD’s from Roman Catholic schools. Nothing “back door” about it. Indeed, we’ve had other faculty with degrees from RC institutions including Mark Futato. So what? Do you think that earning a PhD in at an RC institution makes one Roman Catholic?

    It’s not a concern to pursue CIVIL (as opposed to religious) common causes with pagans, Mormons, Muslims, or Hindus. Indeed, if you’re going to live in the actual world such cooperation is pretty hard to avoid.

    Those of us who hold to the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms can do that coherently, since we understand that the visible institutional church represents the kingdom of God on earth. The civil kingdom, in the providence of God, is a common kingdom including Christians and non-Christians.

    If you’ll read this blog you’ll see that I’ve argued against improper cooperation with Roman Catholics, such as ECT, which is the result of the failure to distinguish the two kingdoms. Because the evangelicals and Roman Catholics failed to make that distinction they believed that they had to find common ground on justification where it doesn’t exist.

Comments are closed.