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PTS = Conservative?

Today an article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlight Dr. Sam Calian’s retirement as the President of Pittsburgh Seminary.  The article, on the whole is well-written and does highlight Dr. Calian’s role in the development of our present faculty (in the past praise of Dr. Calian has focused on the massive increase in our endowment).  

But one line in the article really stood out to me.  Arguing that PTS has taken a shift from the “left” to the “right” former theology professor George Kehm gives as evidence this statement:

“The student body has also changed. Even students from conservative schools such as Geneva College are represented there now,” he said.

I laughed when I read this.  I laughed really hard actually.  Let’s be honest – Mr. Kehm might have a point (in fact I would agree with him that PTS has shifted to the “right”), but I think some perspective is needed.

I am a graduate of Grove City College which I imagine Prof Kehm would include amongst the “conservative” schools now represented at Pittsburgh Seminary.  The problem is this: “conservatives” don’t really think Pittsburgh is all that conservative.  Seriously.  No lie.  When I was looking at seminaries I talked to some of my professors at Grove City (who I respect a great deal to this day) and they recommended that I consider schools such as Trinity Evangelical, Gordon-Conwell, Westminster, or Reformed Seminary.  When I talked to people in my home Presbytery (who I also respect a great deal), they often recommended schools such as McCormick or Columbia Seminaries.  Seldom mentioned was Pittsburgh.  When I would suggest it the response was usually “Well yeah, Pittsburgh is okay too…”  It was never included as one of the good conservative schools, or one of the good liberal schools.  

Want some evidence that Pittsburgh isn’t that conservative?  In “conservative” (not fundamentalist circles mind you) circles the ordination of women is a hot topic of debate.  At PTS?  The ordination of women is a foregone conclusion – it may be discussed occasionally, but there is at most one professor who would go on public record as opposing the ordination of women (in some form).  In fact, one of the “standard bearers of traditional Presbyterian theology” (to use Rodgers’ phrase) Andrew Purves has gone as far as to call the non-ordination of women a great sin of the church. (It’s in his most record book, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology.  I can’t give the exact reference because I’ve loaned my copy to someone for the term).  If one of the more “conservative” faculty members is calling the non-ordination of women as a “great sin” I don’t think that PTS is now considered a “conservative” institution.

What’s actually funnier is that there is a decent population of people who wouldn’t consider Grove City and Geneva all that conservative, honestly.  I remember talked to students at Grove City who were a little uncomfortable coming to Grove City because it wasn’t conservative enough.  Why?  1) We only had to go to chapel 16 times per semester 2) We didn’t have to sign a code of conduct or statement of faith 3) We could consume alcohol off campus 4) We could dance on campus 5) Girls were allowed in the guys dorms and vice-versa at limited times 6) We could listen to whatever music we wanted to.  We even had students who transferred to Grove City from other schools such as Bob Jones, Liberty, and Cedarville because Grove City was “more liberal”.  

Just some food for thought.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 31, 2006 at 8:48 am

    Brian — you make a very good point. I think the key piece of what you point out is “liberal” and “conservative” are always defined in relationship to the stance of the one making the statement.

    I’ll speak as something of an outsider — but again from my own perspective. In the circles I run in the PCUSA, PTS is generally considered more conservative than most of the PCUSA seminaries. But put PTS up against some of the other seminaries that you name and it looks liberal!

    As if more evidence is needed, I read the front page of the Layman that arrived yesterday at the church to learn that the venerated Presbyterian Outlook is a “liberal” publication. I doubt that this judgment is considered accurate among most who read the publication or follow PCUSA news, but from the perspective of Parker Williamson, I can understand why it might seem to be liberal.

    I guess if nothing else you’re showing us some of the deep flaws of defining ourselves on the liberal/conservative continuum: it’s personal, and it’s always changing. We toss these terms around all the time, but they’re not really helpful in learning who we really are — they just provide a shortcut to cutting off relationship with those with whom we would seem to disagree.

  2. January 31, 2006 at 11:11 am

    While I personally would never consider PTS “liberal”, I would not consider it “conservative” either, which is partly a reason I chose PTS over Augusta and TEDS. I have very little interest in going to a school that I will not be challenged at- especially a school where I will agree with all of my professors. You can never really learn when you are consistently presented with a side in which you already agree. Real learning comes from being challeneged to your core and being forced to come up with a defense of your positions. Oh and another thing I played soccer in college at a university that was in the same conference as Cedarville. They had the most unruly and ignorant fans of any of the colleges we played.

  3. January 31, 2006 at 11:49 am

    I find your post really interesting. I’m continually labeled as a conservative in the circles I run in now (academic science). And in those circles I would probably agree that I am more conservtive than my contemporaries. However, I agree with one of the other comments that these labels do nothing but cause the divide among people to grow even deeper. If you tell someone you’re a conservative they are instantly either a) inflamed with President Bush and blame it on me for electing him or b)need to tell you the inconsistancies of the church or c)some combination of the two. This has occurred on several occasions and has done nothing but spawn seemingly needless debates over unimportant topics.

    There are times when I feel we get caught up more in distinguishing conservativism from liberalism than discussing the ideas that underlie the titles.

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