How to Fail at Being the “Prophetic Opposition,” or, How to Be a False Prophet

Perhaps the reader will already be aware of the controversy that arose because of Princeton Seminary’s decision to invite Tim Keller to deliver the annual Abraham Kuyper Lectures, and also to award him the “Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Life,” an award that is made annually to someone who is a contributor to the “Neo-Calvinist vision of religious engagement.” Certain constituencies of the seminary were quite disappointed by this decision because Keller, as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and as a founder of, and leader in, the Gospel Coalition, is (1) a complementarian with regard to the role of women in the home and in ministry, and therefore opposed to the ordination of women; and is also (2) against the affirmation and ordination of LGBTQ-practicing individuals.

In response to these protests, seminary president, Craig Barnes, issued a press release in which he affirmed that even though Princeton Seminary was affirming of the ordination of women and of LGBTQ+ individuals, the school was nevertheless also committed to interacting with a diversity of theological thought. That did not, however, sit well with the very vocal opposition to both the invitation and the award. Therefore, just a few days later, Barnes issued another release in which he said that a “compromise” had been reached in which Keller would still deliver the lectures, but would not be awarded the prize.

Tim Keller, who will be delivering the lectures later on today (April 6), has displayed extraordinary, yes, “amazing,” grace in this process; he is indeed an honorable man. He has demonstrated that he is truly deserving of the Abraham Kuyper Prize. The seminary, on the other hand, has not displayed grace in this particular situation. The decision to revoke the awarding of the prize has been nothing but shameful. And they have demonstrated that they are no longer credible as awarders of a prize named after the great Dutch, Calvinist theologian.

There has been a huge reaction and denunciation of this reversal decision from conservatives and liberals alike. I am not going to rehash any of that here. My concern in this blog post is with one phrase in President Barnes’s original press release, when the seminary was still committed to the awarding of the prize to Keller. The phrase occurs in this paragraph:

Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations.

“Prophetic opposition”? It would be hard for me to give full expression as to how incredibly arrogant the use of this phrase is in the context of this cited paragraph. Of course, there are two issues here.

(1) One issue is the role of women in ministry. The complementarian position has been that a fairly straightforward reading of the relevant passages in the New Testament leads to the view that women should not be in authoritative positions in the church. I myself am a complementarian, and I basically hold to this same position. And I believe that the straightforward surface reading of the text, upon an exegetical analysis of the relevant passages, is confirmed to be the right reading. On the other hand, I also acknowledge that there is a measure of ambiguity on this topic in the New Testament. I cannot go into all the argumentation for the positions here, but in short, I have decided that this is not a hill I am going to die on. The seminary where I teach makes no gender distinction in their ministerial preparation of students. I have several female former students, friends, and good sisters in Christ, who now serve as ministers, lead pastors, rectors, priests, etc.  And during this Lenten season I have been singing the praises of Fleming Rutledge, one of the first women priests to be ordained in the US Episcopal Church, especially with regard to her absolutely wonderful and theologically rich volume, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

So I definitely appreciate the argumentation that can be put forward by both sides in this debate. At the same time, I have to ask the question: In light of this ambiguity in Scripture, how can one seminary stand in “prophetic opposition” to the PCA, and not only to the PCA, but many other denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Roman Catholic Church, the various groups of Orthodox churches in the world, etc.? Is the word of God so clear on this topic that they can take their stand as a prophetic voice on this issue.

(2) Whatever ambiguity may be attached to the first issue, it absolutely evaporates with respect to the second issue. There is no ambiguity at all in Scripture with regard to homosexual practice. None whatsoever. Again, I am not going to go into all the biblical argumentation against homosexual behavior, nor the complete and utter lack of any biblical argumentation for homosexual behavior. Rather, again, my question is this: How can one seminary stand in “prophetic opposition” to the PCA, and not only to the PCA, but against what the church of Jesus Christ has believed at every time and in every place for nearly two thousand years?  And how can they stand in this “prophetic opposition” when the relevant biblical texts are completely unambiguous on this issue?

Two things in the past week prompted me to write on this issue, though I had already been considering doing so. The first is that I was reading yesterday in Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, The Drama of Doctrine, when I came across these statements:

Prophets speak for and about God.

The purpose of prophecy is to remind us of God’s perspective on things.

The church has a prophetic ministry of forth-telling, forth-showing, and forth-doing the gospel, thus projecting the world of the biblical text into the public square and onto the stage of world history.

Theology is prophetic, then, when it confronts particular situations with the word of God.

“Theology is prophetic, then, when it confronts particular situations with the word of God.” So, when the president of Princeton Seminary says that the school is standing in “prophetic opposition,” this only serves as a mockery of the word “prophetic.” If it could be demonstrated that this “prophetic opposition” was in conformity with the word of God, it could stand. But since it cannot be demonstrated, then it cannot stand. You can capitulate to the spirit of the age on a particular social issue; and you can declare yourself to be on the right side of history. But you are not at the same time entitled to throw the mantle around your head and shoulders and call yourself a prophet.

The second thing is that, this Lenten season, one of the scenes on which I have been particularly meditating is the one where the temple guards blindfold Jesus, slap him, beat him, spit on him, and demand that he prophesy for them. They mock him for claiming to be a prophet, when, in actuality, at the very same time they are mocking him, his prophecy about how Peter would deny him three times is being fulfilled. Furthermore, all the things that happen to Jesus the night of his betrayal and the day of his crucifixion, actually constitute an event that Jesus himself carries out in fulfillment of the word of God, “as it is written.”  In other words, even as the guards mock him for his claim of being a prophet, and demand of him that he prophesy, he is bringing to fulfillment the Old Testament prophecies about the sufferings and death of the Messiah.

To claim that one is standing in “prophetic opposition” against a denomination (the PCA) and against an individual (Keller), when in fact it is the PCA and Keller who have the far more legitimate claim to the prophetic mantle, is to engage in a mockery of prophecy and true prophets. If Vanhoozer is right, that “theology is prophetic, then, when it confronts particular situations with the word of God,” then it is Keller who turns out to be the true prophet in this modern-day scenario. Princeton Seminary, on the other hand, is demonstrating “how to fail at being the prophetic opposition,” indeed, demonstrating ” how to be a false prophet.”

It may be that President Barnes’s words that Princeton Seminary “clearly stands in prophetic opposition to the PCA,” was a bit of hyperbole, an overstatement, an over-speak, and perhaps one that does not necessarily reflect the position of every member of the faculty. Perhaps it was simply a not-quite-thought-through and ill-advised use of the word “prophetic.”  Indeed, I hope that is the case.  But even if that is the case, it nevertheless constitutes a trivializing use of the word, “prophetic.”  A true prophet, one who truly constitutes the prophetic opposition, is one whose prophecies are firmly rooted in the word of God.

Jerry Shepherd
April 6, 2017

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