What Hath Amsterdam to do with Princeton?

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In 1898 B.B. Warfield invited the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper to deliver six lectures at Princeton Seminary for the inaugural Stone Lectures. These lectures were eventually bound and printed as Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism. In these lectures, Kuyper discussed what he believed to be the manner by which a Calvinist and Reformed worldview ought to be applied to quite a number of spheres of life. The inaugural Stone Lectures forever linked the theology of Dr. Kuyper with Princeton Seminary. This connection was further solidified in the creation of the Kuyper Prize, awarded by the Kuyper Center for Public Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life "is awarded each year to a scholar or community leader whose outstanding contribution to their chosen sphere reflects the ideas and values characteristic of the Neo-Calvinist vision of religion engagement in matters of social, political and cultural significance in one or more of the 'sphere' of society."1

The recent controversy surrounding the reversal of the decision to award the 2017 Kuyper Prize to Dr. Timothy Keller, while disappointing, is not surprising. The history of Princeton Seminary, as a microcosm of the mainline Presbyterian denomination, would seem to lead to no other conclusion than one where a man would be deemed unworthy of an award because he too closely holds to the views of the award's namesake.

The reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929 put it on a course where the supposed form of Kuyper, Reformed Theology, and the even the Scriptures is upheld, but the actual material of them is rejected. Old Princeton (prior to 1929) was marked by an unrelenting commitment to the Westminster Standards, the Reformed Faith, and historic orthodox Christianity. With the appointment of Dr. J. Ross Stevenson in 1914 and the passing of Warfield in 1921, Old Princeton had effectively died. In its place was a Princeton that emerged out of the Barthian and liberal theologies of the early 20th century.

The difference between Old and New Princeton could be summarized in two matters: the authority of the Bible, and the conception of history.2 Old Princeton insisted on the infallibility of the Scriptures. Charles Hodge wrote:

On this subject the common doctrine of the Church is, and ever has been, that inspiration was an influence of the Holy Spirit on the minds of certain select men, which rendered them the organs of God for the infallible communication of his mind and will. They were in such a sense the organs of God, that what they said God said.3

The Barthian school, however, promoted a neo-orthodox view of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not infallible. Emil Brunner, Guest Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton (1938-39), wrote that the Word of God is in the Bible, but that it is accompanied with error and imperfections. Using a phonograph as an illustration, he argued that one can hear the voice of Master Caruso on the record. It is really and truly his voice. But also heard is the scratching of the needle on the disk. "So, too, is it with the Bible. It makes the real Master's voice audible, - really his voice, his words, what he wants to say. But there are incidental noises accompanying, just because God speaks His Word through the voice of man"4 (emphasis mine). Brunner argues that God's Word is in the Bible, but so is human error.

The difference in the conception of history also gave cause for divergence between Old and New Princeton. Old Princeton held to the historicity of the various events in the Scriptures, for example the virgin birth and the resurrection. In 1937-38 the Rev. L.R. Farmer was made Visiting Professor of Homiletics at Princeton. Farmer was a signer of the Auburn Affirmation. The Auburn Affirmation denied the necessity that ministers believe in the historicity of the virgin birth, the resurrection, or the miracles of Jesus. Those who signed the Affirmation did not necessarily deny these events, but rather they desired freedom and unity in the church. They were moving away from seeing biblical events as historical but rather as, using Barthian language, "supra-historical" (Geschichte). They actual historicity of these events was irrelevant to the faith.

Dr. Keller, as an ordained minister in the PCA, is much more aligned theologically with Old Princeton. His doctrine of Scripture would be more in-line with Old Princeton. His views on women and LGBTQ+ persons in ordained ministry would be affirmed by Old Princeton (and probably New Princeton until, obviously, more recent times). As such, he is not in alignment with today's Princeton Theological Seminary on a number of issues. But what about Abraham Kuyper?

Some modern progressive Reformed Theologians would argue that Abraham Kuyper would fit in the mold of New Princeton. Drs. Jack Rogers and Donald McKim argue that Kuyper's doctrine of Scripture is more in line with Barth and Brunner than with Hodge and Warfield. Rogers argues that while Hodge and Warfield were rejecting biblical criticism, Kuyper was embracing it. Rogers quotes Kuyper:

In in the four Gospels, words are put in the mouth of Jesus on the same occasion which are dissimilar in form of expression, Jesus naturally cannot have used four forms at the same time, but the Holy Spirit only intended to create an impression for the church which perfectly answers to what went out from Jesus.5

Rogers cites this passage to support his view that the authority of Scripture is located in the divine content not in the human form. Kuyper, like Brunner, would see that the Bible as a human product is fallible.

But this view of Kuyper can only succeed if one ignores the vast majority of Kuyper's writings on the doctrine of Scripture. In his 1982 Westminster Theological Journal article "Old Amsterdam and Inerrancy," Richard Gaffin carefully explains that to make Kuyper's view on Scripture reflect that of New Princeton, Rogers must "turn that quotation on its head, giving it a sense almost diametrically opposite to what Kuyper intended. This is not putting it too strongly."6 Kuyper's views regarding biblical criticism would more accurately be explained by his rectoral address at the founding the Free University of Amsterdam in 1881, "Present Day Biblical Criticism in Its Questionable Tendency for the Church of the Living God." In this address Kuyper laid out three main points about contemporary biblical criticism, 1) it has destroyed theology, replacing it with the science of religion, 2) it has robbed the church of the Bible by denying inspiration and substituting philosophical hypotheses, and 3) it threatens the church with the loss of freedom in Christ.7 Rogers fails to mention this address in his essay.

Gaffin further argues that the view held by Rogers and McKim, that post-Reformation Protestant orthodoxy is a departure and decline from historic Reformed thought, would have been totally foreign to Kuyper.8 Rather, Kuyper was right in step with post-Reformation orthodoxy. His doctrine of Scripture saw both the form and content of Scripture as truly divine and truly human. The Holy Spirit was the primary author of Scripture and is accountable for the form as well as the content. Kuyper rejected attempts to place the form of Scripture as a human operation while the content was divine. Using the Incarnation as a guide, Kuyper argued that the incarnation gives rise the inscripturation. The Scriptures must come in human form, but this does not mean that error enters in any more than the Incarnation means that Jesus was sinful. While Kuyper did argue for an impressionistic accuracy, as opposed to a mechanical exactness, this was to further demonstrate the unique divine inspiration of Scripture. He clearly believed that the Bible was without errors and infallible.9

With a view of Scripture that is much more in line with Old Princeton, it's reasonable that Abraham Kuyper would hold biblical views on ordination, the roles of men and women, and sex and sexuality that would be rejected by Princeton Theological Seminary today. It seems unlikely that Abraham Kuyper would be deemed worthy of the honor that bears his name. The award seems to be a vestige of a history that Princeton rejected long ago.

The Kuyper Center is certainly welcome to award whatever prize in whoever's name to whomever they choose. And Princeton Theological Seminary is certainly within its rights to decide who it will honor with a prize. But alignment with Kuyper does not seem to be an actual criterion for receiving the prize. In 2010 they honored Rabbi Jonathan Sacks with the Kuyper Prize. There are probably a few points of divergence between Rabbi Sacks' beliefs and Abraham Kuyper's. Incidentally, Sacks' views on women and LGBTQ+ persons in ordained ministry don't appear to be all that different from Dr. Keller's. Nonetheless, if Dr. Keller's views women and LGBTQ+ persons with respect ordination excludes him from this prize, so be it. The irony here isn't that Tim Keller, being the popular pastor/theologian most in the mold of Abraham Kuyper, is deemed unworthy to receive the Kuyper Prize from Princeton Theological Seminary. The irony is that Princeton Theological Seminary even awards a Kuyper Prize.

1. An excerpt taken from the The Abraham Kuyper Center for Reformed Theology (accessed 3/23/2017). 

2. Edwin H Rian, The Presbyterian Conflict, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1940), 82. 

3. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (vol. 1; Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 154. 

4. Emil Brunner and John W. (John William) Rilling, Our Faith [Microform] (New York : Scribner, 1936), 10. 

5. Jack Rogers, Biblical Authority (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1977), 42. 


7. Ibid., 565. 8. Ibid., 549. 9. Ibid., 554.

Donny Friederichsen is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando (MDiv, '11) and of The University of Tennessee (B.A., '99). He is the current moderator for the Metro New York Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Posted March 23, 2017 @ 5:21 PM by Donny Friederichsen
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