Princeton, Fuller, and WTS: Breaking the Pattern

Carl Trueman has a thoughtful essay on the struggle of confessional seminaries to fulfill the vocation to to serve the church faithfully , to meet the highest academic standards, and to avoid the pattern of decline into broad evangelicalism.In the note too distant past WSC had some of these same difficult and painful discussions and not everyone was happy with how they were resolved. As I see it, we decided that the world doesn’t need any more broadly evangelical seminaries with predestinarian leanings. The world does need institutions committed to the original mission of old Princeton. We decided that we still believe in the original mission that J. Gresham Machen gave to Westminster Seminary: to produce pastor-scholars who are committed to serving the church by doing outstanding scholarship. We reject the assumption, apparently shared by fundamentalists and progressive evangelical types alike, that being confessional requires doing sub-par scholarship or lower academic standards. If we learned anything from W. H. Green, Warfield, and Machen it was that the old liberals weren’t doing the best scholarship. That’s why it’s shocking to see some ostensibly Reformed folks promoting subjectivist nonsense such as the documentary hypothesis, as if it’s never been addressed or dispatched. It puts one in mind of the black knight (not to be confused with the Dark Knight). We agree with Machen that one must choose between Christianity and Liberalism. We agree with Machen that the Reformed confession is the most consistently biblical expression of Christianity. 

Carl makes some very important points. Perhaps one of the most important was his implicit call to prayer for those of us engaged in the spiritual warfare of living between two worlds, mediating the church to the academy and mediating the academy to the church. It’s not as easy as it looks. Do pray for Carl, WTS, and for us at WSC as you think of it. We’re confident in the sovereign power and grace of God but we’re chastened by history and by the knowledge of our own sinfulness.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Although the term “broad evangelicalism” was used to describe that of which Carl Trueman spoke, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the slide that he and others would like to see arrested is really a slide into heterodoxy/liberalism? I guess I am still sympathetic to the label of “evangelical” being understood in its older sense of one holding to the doctrines of evangelical Protestantism, which would include the historic (catholic, really) position on the nature of God’s written word.

    I know that you and others have made a distinction in the past between being “evangelical” and being “an Evangelical”, but it seems to me that it brings unfortunate discredit upon the term to shame what is really nothing less than theological liberalism by designating it as broad evangelicalism. Would it not be better to call a spade a spade and to say that some of Enns’ positions were just regurgitated liberal views of inspiration/inerrancy (although incorporating elements of 20th century scholarship) than to say that they were broadly evangelical? And to clarify that point further, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that we are speaking of a current day form of theological liberalism, rather than to dignify the movement with the term “broad evangelicalism”?

    What are your thoughts on this distinction, and the possibility of using a more accurate label (if you would think it actually to be more accurate) when discussing these theologies in future discourse? I guess that I still have a place in my heart for the term evangelical, wherever it may be employed, and just hate seeing its reputation soiled by tying it to those who have sub-evangelical theological commitments.


  2. Scott,

    Thank you for the link.

    I appreciate Dr. Trueman’s desire to hire truly academically excellent faculty, but I wonder a bit whether the current trend toward hyper-specialization in Ph.D. programs is the best way to prepare seminary professors. It is difficult for a non-specialist like myself to understand how spending three years on 5 verses in 2 Corinthians prepares someone to teach New Testament let alone to prepare men to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Do we need to develop Doctoral programs that require greater breadth as well as meaningful depth in a student’s studies – or should that simply be left up to the schools that may hire him or her after graduation?

    I have spoken with faculty members at evangelical seminaries where the OT professors lack a basic understanding in Systematic Theology and one of the Theology professors confessed to me that he is no longer able to read the BHS in Hebrew. Personally, I find this discouraging.

    How do schools like WSC ensure that, for example, New Testament Professors are actually moderately competent in Systematic Theology?

    Thank you for your consideration!


  3. Hi David,

    It’s really a question of whether the school expects their faculty to be well-rounded. Specialization is unavoidable. Yes, sometimes it can be a little ridiculous but, on the other hand, in my field, there is a real need for professional, vocational specialization. There are too many amateurs writing history. There was a recent piece published in the Times of London arguing this case.

    We look for faculty candidates who demonstrate genuine academic ability and pastoral vocation. We don’t think the two are mutually exclusive (and neither does Carl).

    Our bib studies faculty are good theologians. They regard systematic theology has necessary and helpful for their work and our ST guys regard bib studies as essential for their work. In other words, we believe in and practice inter-disciplinary study and research. We talk with one another weekly and we try not to become unduly isolated.

    Being a confessional seminary helps. Having a faculty with a strong pastoral background helps. Our congregations, presbyteries, classes, and synods require us to be churchly and that helps to balance our academic specialization.

  4. Hi Adam,

    We could speak of progressive neo-evangelicals. As I’ve been saying, and as you noted, the adjective “evangelical” is an important adjective to preserve. I don’t think “liberal” is entirely accurate in all cases. I think it may work for some of the extreme elements of the emerging movement (e.g. Brian MacLaren) but there are many more who are not genuinely liberal, who reject the old modernism, but who aren’t confessional either.

    Sometimes they call themselves post-conservatives but even that’s problematic since both Kevin Vanhoozer and Roger Olson use that label but mean different things by it.

  5. I for one am very encouraged by Dr. Trueman’s article. I think his point on being a confessionally bound seminary will go a long way to solving both the problems raised and addressed above. If a professor at Westminster (or seminaries like WSC, Mid-America, etc.) desires to teach there, he will have to subscribe to their confessional standards, which requires a systematic understanding of those standards. To be both intellectually honest and have a clean conscience before the Lord, requires such an understanding: Lying to one’s neighbors (board of trustees, faculty, students, donors, etc.) is a sin. Moreover, it will require one to be able to defend those doctrines (which I believe is required in the WSC and WTS pledges?), meaning that any professor at Westminster will also be conscience bound-if he take his vows seriously–to have such a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures that, no matter his specialization, he can articulate some form of defense for those doctrines which he has sworn to believe, confess, and teach.

    Moreover, even if one wishes to keep Reformed theology under the big tent of Evangelicalism, and thus seminaries such as Westminster, it will protect it from the strong minimalistic tendencies of Evangelicalism (as Dr. Trueman noted so well). I think Westminster has taken a strong step in that direction and I applaud them for it.

    In both cases the seminary has acted in accord with the documents it confesses, something which takes courage and which has resulted in many tears. It is a lesson in courage from which should all learn, and the great love and charity which they have shown throughout this process should likewise be emulated by those us in confessional Reformed denominations.

    As an aside: My hope is that this results in a re-evaluation of Evangelicalism by self-professed Evangelicals. Will Evangelicalism actually allow confessional theologies to come in to their tent while maintaining the entirety of their theological and ecclesiastical identity? Perhaps equally important will be the question that Reformed Christians who want to use the label Evangelical must face: Do we really want to live under a big tent with those who not only deny or belittle our distinctives, but which houses groups which seem opposed to orthodox Christianity altogether (e.g. Federal Vision, Emergent Church, Trinity-denying forms of Pentecostalism, etc.)?

  6. Hi Carl,

    I don’t know that it’s entirely accurate to link Ed with Harvie and Ray that way. Ed would never have supported Pete Enn’s views as expressed in the book. Ed was probably a little softer toward broad evangelicalism than I am and CVT was never entirely comfortable with Ed’s views of or approach toward broad evangelicalism.

    Otoh, I’m not sure to what extent Ed really faced the post-con evangelicalism that we’re facing now. He was aware of it and troubled by it, at least as I recall our conversations. He completely rejected Open Theism for example. He didn’t set BT against ST and despite his handling of the Shepherd crisis, Ed was completely unambiguous about what the gospel is. Did Ed broaden WTS? Yes. Did he count the cost of that broadening? I don’t know.

    I’m not entirely sure it’s completely fair to link Ray and Harvie. I realize that Harvie is now read as one of the “progressives” at WTS and I don’t doubt that’s true in some ways. I didn’t know Harvie well (we only met and talked once) but as frustrated as he was with the hardnosed “TR” types he had a lot of affection for them. That’s plain in his intro to Inerrancy and Hermeneutic. Harvie still cared about the issues that animated the TRs. He wanted them to be more intelligent and less fundamentalist. I know he had what one might call a socially progressive agenda about which I don’t know much.

    I think Ray’s hermeneutic is probably more closely linked to what Pete is doing than Ed’s and perhaps more so than Harvie’s hermeneutic. My sense of Ray’s work on Chronicles is that it was probably more conservative of the tradition than Pete’s work. We could talk about trajectories or a continuum. Maybe Ray and Pete are on the same continuum. I see and hear Pete’s students promoting documentary hypothesis nonsense. I never heard that Ray was promoting that stuff.

    Is WTS tacking back toward a more confessionalist trajectory? It seems so and it’s a good thing too. Why does there need to be a Fuller on the E. Coast? What’s the use of that? What the E. Coast needs is a Westminster! It’s not like the WCF is in Latin and that no one can read it or that no one knows what it says or that the theology, piety, and practice of the NAPARC churches that WTS serves is invisible.

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