Erskine Theological Seminary Irrelevant to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church


In case there are two or three in the land of ARPdom who have not heard the news, Dr. H. Neely Gaston, Executive Vice President of Erskine Theological Seminary (ETS) resigned on Thursday, January 18, 2011. According to various open communications from Dr. David Norman, President of Erskine College and Seminary, Dr. Gaston’s duties as the administrative head of ETS ceased immediately. Obviously, there are severance considerations.

Dr. Gaston’s resignation is another sad episode in the continuing troubled story of ETS that has seen a decline in enrollment, a growing financial crisis that is unfixable apart from drastic measures, division and disillusionment among faculty members, and a widespread loss of trust in the seminary by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP Church). A few years ago, ETS was seen by many to be an up-and-coming place for theological training in the community of conservative and confessional Presbyterians. Today, the prestige of ETS has plummeted so far that many within and without the ARP Church are asking whether ETS is in any meaningful sense a confessional Presbyterian institution. In the ARP Church, many are asking whether ETS has a future in the ARP Church. The last 2½ years have been the equivalent of a train wreck for ETS.

The following are some observations:

Observation 1:

President Norman has appointed Dr. Steve Lowe as the interim Executive Vice President. This appointment clearly demonstrates how dysfunctional ETS has become. Dr. Lowe is a minister in the United Methodist Church (UMC). Other than ETS, is there another supposedly conservative and confessional Presbyterian seminary in the world where a United Methodist minister would be appointed the administrative head? If this story were not true, it would make for hilarious fiction. Indeed, the rest of the evangelical world must be laughing at ETS and the ARP Church!

Now, please do not think that the Editor is criticizing President Norman for his choice. If the Editor had been in Dr. Norman’s place, he would have made the same decision. The sad reality is that President Norman did not have an option. The situation is so unstable at ETS that Dr. Lowe is the only one who is politically acceptable enough in the ETS community and administratively capable enough to do the job.

Dr. Lowe is a good man. Dr. Lowe is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. This means that he affirms both the doctrine of the Trinity and the inerrancy of the Bible in the original autographs. As a UMC minister, Dr. Lowe is also an advocate of the ordination of women. That is troubling for those of us in the ARP Church. However, given the overall strangeness of the current situation at ETS, the Editor chooses to overlook that peculiarity. In fact, the Editor applauds Dr. Lowe for his willingness to take on a thorny and thankless task. What has ETS and the ARP Church come to that there is not a Presbyterian minister of theological integrity and administrative gifts to lead the seminary of the ARP Church? This makes a joke of our claim to be confessional in the ARP Church! Dr. Lowe’s Methodism would disqualify him as a minister in the ARP Church. This does not mean that Dr. Lowe is “bad”; it means that he is different. Notwithstanding, he is presently the head of the seminary of the ARP Church. This means that there is something terribly amiss with us; not with Dr. Lowe. Dr. Lowe is simply attempting to help us get out of our mess.

Many of the Facebook (FB) alums have complained that United Methodists are not welcome in the Erskine academic community by conservatives such as the Editor. Three things should be noted here:

  1. the relationship between the UMC and ETS was severed by the UMC and NOT by ETS or the ARP Church;
  2. a United Methodist minister has been appointed as the interim Executive Vice President of the seminary of the ARP Church, and
  3. the Editor of ARPTalk has stated above that he reluctantly agrees with President Norman’s decision.

The saddest thing about this matter is this: some in the ARP Church are NOT going to find this absurdity odd! Good grief! For the first time in the history of ETS and the ARP Church, not only is the head of ETS not an ARP, he is not even a Presbyterian! And as far as the Editor recollects, this is the first time that such a thing has taken place in a supposedly conservative and confessional Presbyterian seminary in the history of American Presbyterianism. Like a basketball team that loses by 150 points, we have made history!

Observation 2:

Many of us look at the ARP Church and wonder why the ARP Church has declined in the last 40 years. Many of us look at Erskine College and Seminary and wonder why our educational institutions have not prospered in the last 40 years. How is it that we have failed to understand that the two are connected? Has not the struggle in the last 40 years been over theological and confessional integrity? Did not many of us buy into the idea that our hope was to become like the mainline Presbyterians? Well, we did become like the mainline Presbyterians in many ways! We went out to do education and be the church according to the template of Protestant and Presbyterian liberalism and, in so doing, we knew not that God had left us to our own devices of failure and decline! Can any of us claim with a straight face that the ARP Church is experiencing God’s blessing? How is it we ARPs have such trouble in putting 2 and 2 together and coming up with 4? Has God blinded our eyes in our disobedience and unfaithfulness? Has God, in a Romans 1 judgment, simply handed us over to our own devices?

Observation 3:

Over the years, the Editor has struggled with and vacillated over the following question: why not separate the college and seminary? Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come!

Historically, either the seminary has lived off the college or the college has lived off the seminary. Years ago, in a multi-party conversation “under the trees” at Synod, Dr. Stanyard Bell, then President, said that he would like to take a bulldozer and push down the seminary building. The statement echoed a deep sense of financial and administrative frustration. The seminary was being supported by the college at that time. When the Editor was on the Board of Trustees (BOT), the situation had reversed and the seminary was supporting the college’s deficit. Today, both the college and the seminary are swimming in the same bottle of red ink.

Let us separate the college and the seminary. Let us close ETS-Due West and move ETS to the Columbia campus. As far as is legally possible, let us give the endowment to the college and place the seminary under the direction and support of the ARP Church. A denominational seminary such as ETS does not need an independent endowment to exist apart from the largess and oversight of its sponsoring denomination. This does not mean that there is no room for an endowment or endowed chairs; however, these should not exist apart from the denomination’s watchful eye. A denominational seminary exists primarily to provide the ministerial life of the denomination. If a denomination is not willing to or cannot support and direct its seminary, the seminary needs to be independent or closed. The denomination then needs to rethink how ministerial candidates will be trained. A denominational seminary that lives off the generosity of the dead and off the support of outside interests is going to ignore the wishes and life of its denomination. Have we not seen this in large letters at ETS?

Observation 4:

One wonders how the next administrative head of ETS is going to be chosen. The Editor does not remember how Dr. Randy Ruble was chosen. He is told that it was by a board committee. Dr. R. J. Gore was chosen by a committee of the BOT. If the Editor’s memory is not too cloudy, a committee of the BOT, following ad hoc measures, chose Dr. Gaston.

If memory serves the Editor, the bylaws do not state that a search committee is necessary in choosing the administrative head of the seminary; however, the BOT has to confirm the choice. These are extreme times, and Dr. Norman needs to take this responsibility on himself. He knows the mess. He knows what is needed. With well informed advice, he needs to make the choice. The BOT, as currently constituted, needs to back his choice.

The Editor has just re-read the above paragraph. He cannot believe that he wrote what he wrote. However, these are extraordinary times. President Norman has written that he may take up to 18 months to make a choice. The Editor fears that President Norman does not have that much time!

Eighteen months is too much time for the ETS to be in limbo. The seminary needs purposeful, visionary direction immediately.

Observation 5:

Finally, looming large like the proverbial elephant-in-the-room is the problem of the “Barth Brothers,” Drs. Richard Burnett and Michael Bush. Thanks to Dr. Gaston, Dr. Burnett (a PC(USA) minister) is now a tenured professor of systematic theology and Dr. Bush (a PC(USA) minister) is the VP for Development at ETS. None of this bodes well for ETS. Their neo-Barthian views of the Bible and denial of the inerrancy of the Bible are a matter of public record. That is what ignited this conflagration that has spread from seminary to college and throughout the General Synod and that has made the ARP Church a byword for theological and ecclesiastical ineptness and lassitude among conservative Presbyterians and other evangelicals. Does the reader think that there is going to be any scenario of healing and reconciliation between ETS and the ARP Church that fails to address the bewildering and controversial and inflammatory decisions of Dr. Gaston in embracing and defending such heterodoxy? Are we in the ARP Church going to abandon our position on the Bible? Are we going to adopt a definition of Biblical authority that rejects inerrancy and accommodates the heterodoxy of neo-Barthianism and Protestant secularism that permeates the mainline Presbyterians? Indeed, for the past half-century, ETS has always been more liberal than the ARP Church. This must stop. This must stop now! If it does not, it may see the demise of both ETS and the ARP Church. Does the ARP Church need ETS if ETS is going to be as irrelevant to the ARP Church as ETS has been and is? Do ARP candidates for the ministry want to attend ETS for any reason other than the fact that they can attend virtually tuition free? Even under these circumstances, many of our brightest and best have chosen other seminaries. Rightly so!

These are my thoughts,

Charles W. Wilson

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