Originally posted at the Wall Street Journal.
Princeton Theological Seminary announced earlier this month that it would award the Rev. Tim Keller its Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness. The seminary lauded Mr. Keller for his commitment to spreading Christianity in cities, his bestselling books on religion, and his work helping to launch hundreds of churches. But thanks to some of his conservative views, Mr. Keller’s warm welcome didn’t last long.
In 1989 Mr. Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which is part of the Presbyterian Church in America. The church now has a weekly attendance of around 5,000, and it is particularly popular among young professionals. It also maintains orthodox positions: opposing the ordination of women and practicing LGBT individuals while supporting traditional marriage. This made theologically progressive students, alumni and faculty furious over the decision to honor Mr. Keller. They wrote letters, signed petitions and planned demonstrations to pressure the seminary to rescind the award.
On March 10 seminary president Craig Barnes responded that while “we clearly stand in prophetic opposition” to some of Mr. Keller’s views, “my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom.” By Wednesday Mr. Barnes relented: No one will receive the award this year, he announced, although Mr. Keller will still deliver what would have been his acceptance lecture.
This unfortunate outcome was not surprising to anyone who has watched seminaries throughout the country embrace and elevate radical “identity theology.” Identity politics have been dividing Americans for decades. Now identity theologies are splitting Christian denominations, colleges and seminaries in similar fashion.
Entire theologies have developed from one’s self-orientation in an attempt to denounce patriarchy, sexism, racism and homophobia. Feminist theology and black-liberation theology produced womanist theology. Now queer theology asks, in the words of Marcella Althaus-Reid, “What can sexual stories from fetishism and sadomasochism tell us about our relationship with God, Jesus and Mary?”
Identity theology breaks down the communal cohesion and deep unity that Jesus and the apostle Paul sought to establish. In the Gospels, Jesus points to himself through his many “I am” statements. Paul writes in Romans 15:17: “I glory in Christ.” Paul highlights the significance of an identity “in the Lord” or “in Christ” some 160 times in his letters to Roman believers. Jesus was seeking a unified community, while Paul built stable fellowships in the multiethnic Roman urban centers. This was not only a theological move rooted in the incarnation, but smart community-building, from which today’s Christianity benefits.
Identity theology perpetuates the Enlightenment’s failed promise in which true meaning rests within someone’s understanding of himself. Those who cling to this mode of thinking leave behind a God-centered study for a radical focus on humanity. That amounts to anthropology, not theology.
Today’s identity theology merely replaces northern European, male, cisgendered theology with another set of adjectives seeking to exercise power over others in the name of justice. But this is a false justice, because it lacks the divine righteousness that gives meaning to all lesser forms of justice. Call it retribution theology, a form of tribalism at its worst.
Christians need a theology that prophetically denounces sexism, homophobia and racism—in the past and in the present—without the divisiveness inherent to identity theology. This sort of inclusive theology is central to Mr. Keller’s preaching and ministry, which is done in one of the most diverse places in the world, New York City. Theologians like Mr. Keller focus on God, scripture, loving others, and missionary work. They’re not very concerned about their own navels.
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools,” Martin Luther King said in 1964. Is Mr. Keller not our brother? I am sad that my alma mater chose to undermine King’s vision and succumb to the demands of identity theology. When Mr. Keller stands before the seminary community next month, he will not deliver an acceptance lecture for the Kuyper Prize. Instead, he’ll demonstrate grace and magnanimity, for Mr. Keller’s unity with his detractors will truly be in Christ.
Mr. Thorp is senior associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.
Appeared in the Mar. 24, 2017, print edition.
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