Save Our Seminary: What’s Wrong with WTS Philly?

The natural question that follows the statement Save Our Seminary, is: “From What?” The two most common responses are: (1) The school is facing a financial crisis and an urgent letter appealing to alumni and friends goes out asking them to save the seminary from having to close its doors. (2) Concerned alumni notice that the school is starting to slide down the slippery slope of Liberalism. Recent graduates are starting to proclaim the views of their professors that core doctrines like the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ and the inerrancy of Scripture are out-dated myths. A letter alerting the seminary’s constituency to this sad state of affairs goes out with the hope that pressure can be put on the administration to address these concerns.

As an alum of WTS (ThM, class of 1987) I was greatly relieved to learn that neither of these two concerns were presently applicable to my alma mater. Well then, exactly what is the nature of the peril confronting WTS? A recent graduate of the seminary took the initiative (on his own?) to put up a website, announcing that the seminary is in danger of being lost, and falling into the hands of some very unsavory characters. Two particular threats were highlighted. One, this group is upset with Peter Lillback, the president of WTS for being the keynote speaker at an event hosted by Vision Forum, which, we are told, is “an extremely dubious organization” that has, among other things, an extremely right-wing political agenda. Second, and given the nature of the fifty-plus responses, the really big concern centers around the Biblical Studies department at the seminary, especially the future status of Peter Enns, Doug Green and Michael Kelly. The recent departure of Steve Taylor appears to signal that additional purges are forthcoming.

As a result, the faculty, we are told most assuredly, is deeply divided and as such an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust pollutes the entire campus. The gravity of this situation, we are warned, cannot be ignored, and so we are told,

Many of us have tried repeatedly to address these problems, to little avail. Private conversations with faculty and administrators, verbal and written statements at our WTS exit interviews, letters and emails to board members and administrators, etc., have produced no publicly discernible change in the school’s atmosphere. While the faculty works out its theological disagreements, we alumni continue to receive only cheery letters from the seminary president that downplay the problems (while asking for our donations), while the current students have been told publicly not to concern themselves with the faculty’s internal debates (an attitude both impossible and undesirable, since teachers—and their firings—deeply affect the quality of one’s education).

If WTS continues on its present course, it may well end up as a tiny, ineffective institution talking to itself and hiding from the world. It may cut itself off from the living tradition that has nourished it, and from the larger church and world that need its unique contributions. If the decision-makers there continue to dismantle the Westminster that has meant so much to us, how will we be able to donate to the seminary, to endorse it, or to recommend it to potential students? We hope it does not come to that! We plead with the administration, faculty, and board of WTS to show a watching world how Christians behave when they disagree: not pretending that theological differences are unimportant, but not needlessly ripping the school to pieces, either. Surely Reformed orthodoxy can foster both stability and vitality.

It turns out, according to SOS, that the turd in the punch bowl was put there by the sad sacks in the departments of theology, church history and apologetics. These black-hatted villains are guilty of a vast array of crimes against humanity. They are charged with being unscholarly, avoiding the hard questions, conducting a witch-hunt, sowing division and most serious of all, demanding that the school fall in line with their ultra-strict and exceedingly narrow interpretation of the Westminster Standards.

What are we to make of this? A number of things come to mind. First in importance is that a course on the history of Westminster Seminary should be mandatory for all incoming students. The people behind this website and the majority of those who posted comments are terribly misinformed when it comes to the seminary’s history.

WTS was NOT founded to represent the broad “Reformed tradition” that the SOS crowd is advocating. It was founded to carry on the tradition of Old Princeton, which was lost when the seminary was reorganized in 1929. J. Ross Stevenson, who succeeded Francis Patton in 1914 as president of Princeton, sought to do with Old Princeton exactly what this misguided bunch wants to do to Westminster! The events that led to the changes at Old Princeton has been well documented by, among others, B. J. Longfield, who wrote, “The controversy at Princeton, Stevenson declared, stemmed not from doctrinal disagreement but rather from conflicting attitudes toward Princeton’s mission. What was at stake was whether Princeton would teach Old School scholasticism alone or tolerate divergent theological views. ‘We are the agency of the combined old school and new school,’ he argued, ‘and my ambition as President of the seminary is to have it represent the whole Presbyterian Church and not any particular faction of it.’” (‘The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderator,’ Oxford, 1991, p. 163.) Longfield also cites Stevenson claims that the doctrinal distinctives of Old Princeton would not change…immediately. But change they did and in short order as evidence by Emil Brunner being invited to be a visiting professor in 1938-39. Another recognized historian on the subject concurred and noted that the strife in the faculty centered around Machen’s insistence on Princeton maintaining Confessional Orthodoxy.

But Stevenson and Erdman placed the unity of the church above strict doctrinal orthodoxy and promoted peace and tolerance in the interest of the church’s mission. Machen stood for strict adherence to Christian orthodoxy as set forth in the Confession of Faith. Whereas Stevenson and Erdman reflected ‘the non-confessional character of American evangelicalism and the Victorian tendency to sentimentalize faith,’ Machen stood in the Old Princeton doctrinal tradition of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. Without an uncompromising belief in the true gospel, Machen insisted, the Presbyterian church would have no message to preach and could offer no hope to a lost world. (David C. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929, Banner of Truth, 1996.)

SOS complains about how much internal dissention this has created amongst the faculty and the larger seminary community and of course, the blame is placed exclusively on the previously mentioned sad sacks outside the department of Biblical Studies. This too has a very interesting parallel with Old Princeton. Longfield documented this.

Stevenson’s diagnosis of the conflict painted a radically different picture. ‘There has been in the faculty,’ he argued, ‘suspicion, distrust, dissension and division, and as I stated before the Assembly, in this Dr. Machen is involved.’ A censorious spirit among the faculty had given birth to a ‘divisive spirit among the students and . . . a departure from the historic position of the institution.’ In a statement Machen later contested, Stevenson condemned the League of Evangelical Students because it connected Princeton with ‘small institutions and sects which are committed to separation and secession.’ The solution to the controversy engulfing the seminary, he concluded, would be the triumph of a spirit of inclusivism, which, while not tolerating modernism, would make the seminary representative of the theology of the entire Presbyterian Church.” (Longfield, p. 166)

Another historian, and one not kindly disposed to Old School theology that Old Princeton stood for, described Machen and his followers as “extreme conservatives” and “ultra-strict confessionalists” (cf. Lefferts A. Loetscher, ‘The Broadening Church: A Study of theological issues in the Presbyterian church since 1869,’ University of Pennsylvania Press, 1954). Note the similarities in describing Machen and Co. and the language used by SOS to describe the threat posed by the meanies at WTS.

It does appear, judged by the stunning parallels between Old Princeton and today’s WTS, that the SOS crowd is actually advocating that WTS become what Princeton became after Machen and company left!

Wait! I am not done. There is another historical scenario that provides us with some instructive parallels. In 1936, J. Oliver Buswell and Carl McIntire had a similar complaint about WTS strict confessional stance.

“Buswell and McIntire hoped to build a fundamentalist separatist movement with a broader base than the strict Calvinism at Westminster Seminary. In the fall of 1936 they fell into intense fighting with Machen and his closest Old School confessionalist followers. These Old School Presbyterian traditionalists differed with the new-style fundamentalists on a number of the distinctives of fundamentalism. Old School Presbyterians believed in the ‘Christian liberty’ to drink alcoholic beverages and, contrary to almost all other American evangelicals, would not condemn their use. A more substantial rift was the intensification of the Westminster faculty’s opposition to dispensationalism.

These issues split the Independent Board. McIntire and his more purely fundamentalist group wrested control from Machen and his Westminster allies. In the midst of this painful internal struggle, Machen, only fifty-five, died suddenly on January 1, 1937. The more fundamentalistic group, though in control of the Independent Board, was in the minority in the new Presbyterian Church of America; so they soon split off to found the Bible Presbyterian Church. In the meantime, Allan MacRae, who had taught at Westminster since its beginning, had resigned shortly after Machen’s death and in the fall of 1937 became president of the new Faith Theological Seminary organized by the McIntire group.” (George Marsden, ‘Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism,’ Eerdmans, 1987, p. 43.)

For an informative recent analysis cf. Scott Clark’s post ‘Three Ways of Relating to American Religion.’ I have some personal perspectives on this. In addition to being a graduate of WTS, I am also an alum of the now defunct Faith Theological Seminary. Interestingly enough, Faith did require all faculty members to subscribe to the Westminster Standard (amended so as to shoe-horn in a distinctive form of premillennialism). When MacRae and McIntire had a falling out in the early 70’s, MacRae and most of the faculty left and founded what is now called Biblical Theological seminary in Hatfield, PA., which up and until MacRae’s death still required its faculty to adhere to the Westminster Standards. But it no longer does. By the way, there is a website that hosted by the alumni of BTS who are none to happy about what has happened to their seminary when a coup similar to that which occurred at Old Princeton took place stealthily at BTS.

Second, the complaint about Peter Lillback’s speaking itinerary. In addition to his work as a theologian, Lillback has written a very well received book on George Washington and has been asked to speak on the subject in all sorts of venues, including Doug Wilson’s Trinity Fest and rallies organized by the late D. James Kennedy. I personally don’t have a problem with this. It’s not as if Lillback is going over to Syria like Rick Warren and making statements on foreign policy!

Finally, among the fifty-plus people who signed on, a large number did so anonymously for fear of reprisal from the goon squads that do the bidding of the evil forces in the other departments of the seminary that have already been identified. The only thing worse than these rhabdophobic folk were the ones, like John Armstrong who have no direct connection to WTS whatsoever. Despite the claims that he has spent near fifteen years ministering at Westminster, Armstrong has never served the seminary in any official capacity – either as a adjunct or visiting professor or even guest lecturer. Yet he felt compelled to chime in and amen the concerns expressed by this website. Over the last few years, Armstrong has gone out of his way to lecture everyone about the dangers of the TR’s (the Truly Reformed, which he also calls the Angry Reformed or the Vicious Reformed). He did this with the PCA and the recent actions taken by this years GA. He disapproved and let everybody know it. He took umbrage with the action of the PCA SJC in the Steve Wilkins case. He has publicly reprimanded the Southern Baptists and individuals associated with A.C.E. It is well known that Armstrong underwent a theological paradigm shift a while back and has burned his bridges with his past associates, but feels the constant need to return and stand on the charred remains and scream at us over the chasm. Even though he likes to claim that he is a irenic peace-loving soul, he comes across as militant in his views as any old time fire-breathing fundamentalist. WTS does not need any advice from Armstrong on what direction the school determines is most faithful to that envisioned by Machen and the men who founded the seminary.

So here is my proposal to the individuals up in arms about WTS being lost to the Machen type Neanderthals in the departments of Theology, Church History and Apologetics – go over to Biblical Theological Seminary (where, interestingly enough, John Armstrong serves on the board). Chances are, you will never run into anyone on the faculty who has an agenda to enforce an ultra-strict interpretation of the Westminster Standards on the rest of the faculty. Or simply go back to Princeton.

Posted by Gary Johnson