Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Racism and the Sins of the Fathers

“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” — Ezekiel 18:19-20.

“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.” — Numbers 14:18


Few are unaware that race relations and their generational aspects have been a prime part of public discourse in recent times, and it is of particular contemporary interest to Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and its home state of South Carolina.

Apart from a rash of riots across the nation following the deaths of black criminal suspects at the hands of police, two recent events have brought the subject close to home for GPTS and South Carolina: 1) the massacre of Christian worshipers in Charleston by a self-avowed racist and subsequent controversy over a Confederate battle flag displayed on the State Capitol grounds; and 2) the heated debate at the Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly a few days earlier over a resolution calling on that denomination to repent of sins alleged to have been committed by some of its churches and churchmen during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s.

Two Mississippi clergymen, Dr. Sean Lucas and Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, introduced the resolution at the PCA General Assembly calling for racial reconciliation.

Although Greenville Seminary has no official tie to the PCA, GPTS, with a heritage in Southern Presbyterianism, has in recent years been subjected to questioning and innuendo in correspondence and Internet blogs over its supposed understanding of racial relations due in part to the fact that 50 years ago another of its co-founders, Dr. Morton Smith, wrote a controversial article in a Presbyterian publication during the height of the hot national struggles of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. In that article, Dr. Smith expressed his belief that some types of racial segregation might be pragmatically wise for peacekeeping in light of the sometimes violent animosities of the time. In the same article, however, he wrote eloquently against racial hatred and called for reconciliation. Students and colleagues of now emeritus Professor Smith, 91, unanimously report that they never detected a shred of racism in his teachings or conversations.

Dr. Morton H. Smith
"Those who have labored with Dr. Smith at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary since he helped found it in the late 1980s state that they never at any time perceived him to be a racist in any respect," GPTS spokesman Garry Moes wrote in reply to one critic. "The seminary has had and continues today to have many students from a wide variety of races and cultures. We have had, and currently do have, students who are Africans, African-Americans, Chinese, Koreans, Indians and other Asians, as well as a mix of other nationalities and ethnicities. We have had and currently do have students with mixed-race families. Dr. Smith taught and interacted with all of these students with great love and respect, and all who studied under him have praised him for his humble love and care for them. (Hear "A Good Man," a tribute to Dr. Smith by Dr. O. Palmer Robertson.)

"I can assure you that Greenville Seminary was not founded on any racist principles, harbors no racist beliefs or tendencies whatsoever, and has an official non-discrimination policy for admissions. We regard racial hatred, like any form of hatred, as sin," Mr. Moes wrote.

"Our trustees’ decision to establish a Morton H. Smith Chair in Systematic Theology was based entirely on recognition of his exemplary body of work in the discipline of systematic theology and his long service to the seminary and the Presbyterian Church, as well as his commitment to biblical orthodoxy in all of his academic and ecclesiastical endeavors," said GPTS President Dr. Joseph A. Pipa, Jr.

Dr. Pipa was heavily involved with the black community while he was a student and pastor in Mississippi during the 1960s and '70s. While pastoring in Houston, Tex., he hosted a conference on race with John Perkins, the now 84-year-old Christian civil rights leader, author and founder of the Christian Community Development Association.

Dr. Pipa in Nigeria
Greenville Seminary currently offers a Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Wycliffe Theological College in South Africa, with black students from South Africa and Zambia and students from India. Dr. Pipa and missions professor Dr. Anthony Curto regularly minister elsewhere in Africa.

African-American pastor Dr. Robert Cameron previously served on the GPTS Board of Trustees.

Concerning the Lucas/Duncan resolution, Dr. Timothy LeCroy reported in the PCA's online publication byFaith:
The resolution was debated in committee for over nine hours. Those against adopting the resolution argued that the PCA didn’t exist during the Civil Rights era, that individual presbyters themselves did not do these things and therefore could not confess, that the resolution seemed to cave to political correctness and white guilt, and that if prominent PCA churchmen were racists perhaps they have repented of it, thus we shouldn’t call them out. Others argued that this was new information, and thus they needed more time to digest it. 
Arguments for adopting the resolution were that corporate confession is biblical, we as a denomination have already delayed this for far too long, and that there are members of our denomination, including pastors and elders, who greatly desire this confession. Others also argued that we must stop hiding the past and be honest about what we did.
The resolution was referred to the 2016 General Assembly for further revision with an action plan for addressing racial reconciliation.

Efforts to tag GPTS with "guilt by association" have not been limited to its connection with Dr. Smith.

J.H. Thornwell
Greenville Seminary was originally chartered as the James Henley Thornwell Theological Seminary in recognition of this prominent antebellum Southern Presbyterian theologian, scholar and pastor's theological achievements and reputation as a highly effective preacher.

"Many who heard this 19th century preacher and professor praised his uncommon ability to communicate knowledge with glowing zeal. Our goal is to train men whose Gospel preaching is a blend of logic and rhetoric like Thornwell's — logic on fire," the school has noted.

Critics of GPTS's confessional orthodoxy and conservative theology have sought, however, to discredit the school by linking it to Thornwell's unbiblical defenses of slavery, along with those of Robert L. Dabney, another 19th-century Southern Presbyterian scholar whose theological perspectives are often espoused by the seminary. The seminary strongly rejects such attempts to link it to these men's racial views and repudiates any similar defense of slavery or racial disparity.

Charles Hodge
Southern Presbyterianism was not the only locus of 19th -century controversy about slavery — venerable institutions in the North also wrestled with that issue in the context of the times. GPTS, from its beginning, has modeled its approach to theological education after that of Old Princeton Seminary, clearly a Northern institution. Again, some may find this troublesome in that one of Princeton's stalwarts, Charles Hodge, was known for his defense of some forms of slavery and his opposition to the abolition movement of his time.

GPTS Librarian Andy Wortman notes a critique of Princeton in the pre-civil war era by James Moorhead "may perhaps also be applied to the present situation as we seek to discern where we and our forebears may have failed, but also where they (and Lord willing) we, have made some modicum of progress as we seek to discern God’s mind revealed to us in the Scriptures in the midst of a world in upheaval," Wortman says. He cites this statement by Moorhead as worthy of consideration:
“In viewing these aspects of Princeton Seminary’s past and depending upon our own theological views, we in the twenty-first century will have differing responses to our nineteenth-century forebears. ... If well-meaning people in a previous age adhered to views that many of us now find patently wrong, we well may ask, What deficiencies and injustices will posterity find in our theologies and in our ethics?” 
(Moorhead, James H. “Slavery, Race, and Gender at Princeton Seminary: The Pre-Civil War Era.” Theology Today 69, no. 3 [October 2012]: p. 288).
Further reading:

William H. Smith, The Christian Curmudgeon: "Heaven's PCA Hounds: The Chase in On – The Pursuit of Dr. Morton H. Smith"

Dr. D. G. Hart, Old Life: Reformed Faith and Practice, "Where Do We Stop?"