How Westminster Theological Seminary Came to Define Fundamentalism for Me

Would you be surprised to learn that a tenured professor of the Old Testament is the center of controversy at a Christian seminary? What if I said he's "retiring" by action of the school's board--another way of saying "terminated," according to a former department chair? No? I didn't think so.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Would you be surprised to learn that a tenured professor of the Old Testament is the center of controversy at a Christian seminary? What if I said he's "retiring" by action of the school's board -- another way of saying "terminated," according to a former department chair?

No? I didn't think so.

Every year there are multiple stories in the news about conservative Christian schools -- Bryan College, Calvin College or Cedarville University, for example -- who are terminating faculty over beliefs. In the case above, the professor is Douglas Green. He is not the first to be forced out of his position at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; he's also not likely to be the last.

The newest controversy at Westminster is a reminder that the old definition of the fundamentalist -- someone who not only knows what's right for himself or herself, but also what's right for everyone else -- remains true. It is also a reminder that fundamentalist tidal changes bring with them a constant stream of negative consequences.

By way of full-disclosure: my experience with Westminster was as a student, entering near the beginning of a decade of upheaval. Those days -- which represent a world I no longer belong to -- helped to change the way I view religion and the way I approach my profession (more here). In fact, it partly led me to write a book on academic freedom in religious higher education.

As you would expect, Westminster is in my book, and right before it even had a chance to go to press, they managed to push out another faculty member. In other words, the making of the fundamentalist sausage isn't over. And if you want to understand what makes fundamentalists tick, Westminster is a good place to start.

First, Some Bible-y Stuff
Westminster is a conservative, Calvinist-Reformed school and it is currently obsessed with an error-less Bible. Any idea that asserts a limited knowledge by the human authors is seen as relinquishing that belief. This is where Green comes in.

Green says that the Bible -- and books in it like Genesis, for example -- should be read in two ways: Firstly, read "Genesis on its own terms," as an "unfolding story," meaning, "as an Israelite book, and not (yet) a Christian book!" The second way means letting "the Jesus-ending of Israel's story reshape the way you interpret" Genesis, which "is the way you read Genesis as a Christian book."

So what's the problem?

His way of reading the Bible, says Westminster, "creates a disunity between the human and divine authors," and is "inconsistent" with their doctrinal standards. They think he should only read the Bible as a Christian book, never resulting in a disagreement between the Old and New Testaments.

Okay, that's enough of the details, because I'm certain your eyes might have sunk to the back of your head in boredom and you really need them functioning to read the rest of this piece and express outrage in the comments below.

What you really need to know is that Westminster is so serious about how precisely their faculty approach the Bible that they really don't bother to pretend to listen to other perspectives. In fact, they glory in their rightness and it is this, and how they enforce it among faculty, that is the core of fundamentalism, even if they wouldn't accept that label.

Fundamentalists Know Best
In a recent interview with Kelly James Clark here on The Huffington Post, Peter Enns (who likewise "resigned" in 2008) said that Westminster's seventeenth-century theological tradition "is perceived by its adherents to enjoy an unassailable permanence," without a need for "serious adjustments, let alone critical reflection..."

For example, at the eve of a decade of controversy, one of its most-revered professors, Richard Gaffin, wrote in the school's journal that the Calvinist-Reformed faith is the only "true religion." Other traditions of Christianity are "less perfectly or defectively developed" when compared to Westminster's Reformed Calvinism.

As if that isn't enough to infuriate most Christians, he continues on to say that Reformed theology "is not so much working together with those traditions out of a common theological orientation, as it is seeking to correct them." This perspective epitomizes the theological alpha-male culture I saw develop as a student at Westminster and which quickly engulfed the school.

Fundamentalists Take-Over Fast
Westminster's history has not been without controversy; it was founded as a break-away school from Princeton Seminary over theology in 1929. Despite this background, dismissing tenured faculty over disagreements was a rare thing. These are scholars from schools like Harvard, Yale and Emory University, so who would expect them to be on the exact same page?

Only one tenured faculty member was terminated under its first president and none were removed under the next two. But it is hard to dismiss the current change of direction as nothing new. Under its current president, Peter A. Lillback, three tenured faculty members -- Samuel T. Logan, Peter Enns and Douglas Green -- have been removed with severance agreements in just under ten years. Lillback's administration is heavily connected to conservative Right Wing Evangelicalism. For example, his self-published book on George Washington was praised by Glenn Beck and Westminster recently contributed a brief in the Hobby Lobby case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

When I arrived as a student, Westminster had a growing, more diverse student body and was known for academic rigor. It had even invited guests to speak who were involved in ecumenical dialogue, like Charles Colson. Going from that to what it is today is a testament to the fundamentalist tour de force.

In the height of the controversy over Samuel T. Logan and Peter Enns, eight board members resigned and another faculty member, Steve Taylor, left on his own because Enns was not given a hearing and he no longer saw room for progressive scholarship at the school.

But removing people is the cost of doing God's business when you are a fundamentalist school. Carl R. Trueman, academic dean when both Enns and Logan were pushed out, bragged about their strategy, saying they "organized and prepared for every eventuality, putting into place safety nets and multiple 'Plan Bs', they identified the places where influence could be wielded, mastered procedure, fought like the blazes when they had to, stood strong and immovable in the face of violent opposition and outmanoeuvred their opponents by continual attention to meeting agendas, points of order, procedural matters and long-term coordinated strategy."

Students like myself showed concern, but, says Trueman, they "did not waste time and energy on irrelevant sideshows like rhetorical petitions" from students, since "angry but sincere petitioners generally lose, while sincere but canny parliamentarians generally win." And with Douglas Green leaving, Westminster apparently continues to win in their move to purify their ranks.

Heroes of Our Own Stories
And there you have it; fundamentalists have absolute "truth," or as Westminster's mission states it, a commitment to "the systematic exposition of biblical truth known as the Reformed faith." Nothing can change their minds, leaving the "less perfectly or defectively developed" Christians stranded in their wake.

We are all the heroes of our own stories, so it is easy to justify almost anything, including how we treat people. At some point, however, Westminster's story became a rampant institutional narcissism. And like Narcissus, it may eventually die in trying to possess itself.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community