Redeemer Seminary, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, and the Parachurching of Reformed Theological Education

Redeemer Seminary in Dallas (formerly Westminster Seminary) will close at the end of the year; Reformed Seminary will open an extension campus there.

The impending closure of the Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas is now known to many. Responding to overtures from the Redeemer Board, Reformed Theological Seminary will, according to RTS Chancellor Ligon Duncan, implement “a two-step plan whereby Redeemer would ‘close with dignity’ and RTS would petition ATS and SACS to begin offering theological education in Dallas, while helping Redeemer and its students in all possible, prudent ways.”

 

[Full Disclosure: For well over twenty years I’ve taught at a denominationally affiliated College and Seminary.]

Readers of this blog are probably aware of my interest in theological education (e.g., here and here and here). Although I’ve spent much of my professional academic career teaching undergraduates, I’ve also taught on the seminary level at a number of institutions. I have friends and acquaintances teaching at many seminaries, and I keep my ear to the ground.

The impending closure of the Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas is now known to many. Responding to overtures from the Redeemer Board, Reformed Theological Seminary will, according to RTS Chancellor Ligon Duncan, implement “a two-step plan whereby Redeemer would ‘close with dignity’ and RTS would petition ATS and SACS to begin offering theological education in Dallas, while helping Redeemer and its students in all possible, prudent ways.”

Having taught systematic theology at Redeemer as an adjunct professor I’m sad for the students, whom I found to be both engaged and engaging, the faculty, and staff. According to reliable reports, all Redeemer faculty and staff will be terminated as of December 31, 2016.

Redeemer Seminary began in 2001 as the Dallas Campus of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and was spun off as in independent institution in 2009. The timing of that development was significant. As WTS in Philadelphia moved steadily to the right in the wake of the Peter Enns controversy (a trajectory I’ve chronicled here and here and here and here), the Redeemer faculty self-consciously sought to perpetuate what has come to be known as “Middle Westminster”—the Westminster ethos that prevailed from the second generation of faculty until the recent lurch to the right and is exemplified by the careful biblical scholarship of people like Moises Silva, Ray Dillard, and Richard Gaffin, and the generous Reformed orthodoxy of systematicians such as Sinclair B. Ferguson (who subsequently was part of the founding faculty at Redeemer). I took two degrees at WTS in the 1980s before going off to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D., so I think I have some background to speak to this.

Doubtless there are multiple backstories here—having to do with leadership, fundraising, and student-recruitment challenges at Redeemer. What I find more interesting is how this particular episode has played out within the larger scope of conservative Reformed theological education, and the way that context has been profoundly conditioned by successive iterations of what has been called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

As those with an interest in church history are aware, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy proper raged in earnest from about 1920 until 1930, with conflict especially prominent in the Northern Presbyterian and Northern Baptist churches, with the former especially important for our purposes (the best study of which is Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates [Oxford UP, 1991]). By 1926, conservative efforts to enforce creedal orthodoxy and biblical authority had failed and the PCUSA moved steadily in the direction of a more inclusive and diverse vision (a history ably chronicled in Lefferts Loetscher’s The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 [UPenn, 1954]). In 1929 Princeton Theological Seminary (until then a conservative bastion) was reorganized so as to reflect the theological diversity present in the church, and J. Gresham Machen and other conservatives promptly left Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. With the formation of Westminster a template was established—when conservatives lost control of denominational educational institutions they moved on to form independent, parachurch agencies to replace them. This template would be used repeatedly in subsequent decades.

By the 1950s, similar conflicts over doctrine and Scripture were raging in the Southern Presbyterian Church (then known as the PCUS), and these debates eventually led to the formation of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 and the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. RTS was even more explicitly parachurch in its organization—to this day its governing board is made up of laymen (primarily attorneys and businessmen) rather than ministers. Unencumbered by denominational constraints and enjoying both able leadership and considerable financial support, RTS has since expanded beyond its origins in Jackson to campuses in Orlando, Charlotte, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, New York City, RTS Virtual, and now Dallas. As an RTS executive said to me recently, RTS has figured out a financially viable model of professional theological education. He’s right, and RTS has been very aggressive in pursuing that model.

Fast forward to the 1970s through the 1990s as somewhat analogous conflicts emerged within the Dutch Reformed community in this country (though the ethnic character of the Christian Reformed Church meant that these debates would have a somewhat different character and result). Concerns about the denominational seminary (Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids), led to two more parachurch seminaries being formed—Mid-America Reformed Seminary (initially located in Iowa before moving to Dyer, Indiana) and Westminster Seminary in California.

Of course, there are still denominational seminaries in the conservative Reformed orbit—Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA) and Erskine Theological Seminary (ARPC) come to mind—but one fact is abundantly clear: the conservative Reformed community has in large measure outsourced theological education to parachurch agencies. For all the blather in such circles about “connectionalism,” when it comes to theological education at least, conservative Presbyterians don’t seem to have much of an ecclesiology!

It’s worth noting that conservative Lutherans and Southern Baptists don’t do things this way. There the emphasis is on church-affiliated seminaries, and those denominational schools are doing quite well.   In fact, efforts to form more moderate-liberal schools in the wake of conservative victories in the SBC (e.g., the Cooperative Baptist schools) and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (SEMINEX) have not been particularly successful.

The difference here is both obvious and crucial—theological conservatives in both the LCMS and the SBC were able to gain and maintain control of their seminaries, while the Presbyterians lost Princeton, and Union in Virginia, and so on, and thus felt compelled to adopt the parachurch model.

In retrospect, the Presbyterian trajectory was probably inevitable, though should be viewed as a concession to weakness and failure rather than a mark of strength. But has there been a price to be paid for this outsourcing to parachurch groups? Indeed, some (perhaps many) would say that the current system is working rather well. But I see a number of potential downsides to this Reformed parachurching of theological education.

First, decision making, especially in a context dominated by lay leadership, is going to be driven by financial, market, and other practical considerations rather than by churchly concerns. No matter the pious rhetoric of “service to the church” that one may encounter, this is the reality. Or, to phrase it somewhat differently, institutional agendas will often transcend churchly agendas.

Second, this practical bent has been accompanied by the increasing dominance of the “school-for-pastors” model and the “pastor-scholar” as a primary faculty profile (for my take on different models of seminary education, go here). After all, that’s where the market is. As I wrote in a post a number of years back:

Concurrent with this we see the rise of the “scholar-pastor” model in Presbyterian circles (i.e., a well-known and popular pastor who happens to have a Ph.D. from somewhere). A problem here is that first-rate scholarship is a full-time job, and some of these (there are, to be sure, some blessed exceptions) are not really equipped to drive the theological discussion forward. And where are such people publishing? I see lots of popular-level books but fewer and fewer volumes coming from university presses, or from traditional Evangelical academic publishers like Eerdmans, Baker, IVP, Paternoster, etc.

And this emphasis has, not surprisingly, been accompanied by a decline in Reformed intellectual leadership within the broader evangelical world. In fact, when we think of schools now setting the intellectual and theological agenda for evangelicalism we tend to think of schools like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Gordon-Conwell, Fuller, and Southern Baptist—some of them denominationally affiliated, some not, but none of them explicitly Reformed.

And this scholarly eclipse is not perplexing. When faculty are viewed as commodities and there is often a price to be paid for even thoroughly orthodox theological creativity, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of scholarly contributions.

Third, there is the matter of theological influence on the churches. Seminaries have a tremendous role in molding the sensibilities of the clergy, and do we really want the theology of ministers to be shaped by the well-heeled supporters of parachurch seminaries rather than by the church? The increasing dominance of literal six-day young-earth creationism (LSDYEC) within the conservative Reformed community, as I see it, has rather little to do with careful theology and exegesis and a lot to do with reaction against a secular culture and the way that reactionary impulse has been embraced by certain seminaries.

Fourth, there is the related question of market domination. We are not too far from a situation in which one particular school is dominant within the American conservative Reformed context. Is this healthy for the church? The Presbyterians of old were right, it seems to me, in establishing multiple denominational seminaries, and the cross-talk between various schools in the nineteenth-century was incredibly productive theologically (Princeton vs. Union, Princeton vs. Yale, Princeton vs. Mercersburg, Princeton vs. Danville, and so on).

The repeated references to Old Princeton in this post lead to this last point. Awhile back I noted that the comprehensive theological vision of Old Princeton is now pretty much dead. I wrote:

To be sure, elements of the Old Princeton legacy persist at a number of evangelical seminaries, but the total package—that breathtaking combination of wide-ranging scholarly attainment, healthy confessionalism, and a balanced view of the nature and authority of Scripture—is hard to find. Two prominent evangelical seminaries—Westminster and Fuller—were founded with the express intention of continuing the Old Princeton tradition, but both have moved away from it (albeit in very different ways).   Perhaps the death of the Old Princeton approach was inevitable, but I can say with confidence that the life of the church has not been enriched by its demise.

That eulogy notwithstanding, I continue to think that Old Princeton continues to provide a compelling model for theological education, and, moreover, that a denominational setting is probably the best way to achieve something analogous to Old Princeton for our own twenty-first century context. The question is whether conservative Reformed churches are willing to commit to such an endeavor.

William B. Evans is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and serves as the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in theology, American religion, and religion and culture.  This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.