This article is from the introduction to a new book co-authored by several Presbyterian evangelicals. Engaging with Keller: thinking through the theology of an influential Evangelical (Ed. Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer; EP Books, 240 pages, £9.99; ISBN: 978-085234–928–1) evaluates the teaching of prominent New York Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller. Although readers must read Engaging with Keller for the issues, they can note here its irenic yet gospel-centred approach.
Within a remarkably brief span of time, the contemporary church has been influenced widely and deeply by the distinctive thought of Timothy J. Keller. Evidence of this influence is not difficult to find on either side of the Atlantic.
The reach of his material is vast — his books are featured in venues of every description, whether Christian or secular — and it is clear that his message is being heard. Urban church planting has become a dominant theme in domestic and foreign missions.
Denominations that once regarded social activism as the poison of liberalism have been establishing cultural transformation projects ranging from art ministry to community business development.
Various elements of Keller’s distinctive teaching for postmodern people are increasingly becoming commonplace in the preaching of Reformed churches. In brief, Keller has become one of the most influential evangelical leaders of our time.
The contributors to this book are themselves examples of this influence. We have all benefited in various ways from Tim Keller’s extensive ministry. However, even the best of theological or methodological developments will benefit from critical reflection.
Thus far, the level of theological engagement accompanying this widespread influence has been anything but proportionate to its magnitude. There has been very limited discussion of objections to Keller’s wide-ranging programme.
Indeed, one might ask, what exactly are the potential objections to his teaching? Would these objections apply to the whole of Keller’s thought, or are there some particular areas of concern that might yet encourage appropriation of others? At the moment, these basic questions remain unanswered.
It is into this void that the contributors of this book speak. They speak as scholars, pastors and church planters. As scholars in the disciplines of systematic and historical theology, biblical studies and church history, they have the requisite competence to do this work in their particular topics.
However, they do not speak as ivory tower academics but, like Keller himself, as pastor-scholars. They are all ordained elders in confessional Presbyterian churches, shepherding the people of God. It is for the benefit of these flocks, as well as for the many others like them across our denominations, that the contributors explore these issues.
Finally, the contributors speak as those who have been engaged in the work of church planting. It is just because they care deeply about reaching the lost that they want to ensure that the church’s proclamation is a clear and faithful transmission of the ‘everlasting gospel’ (Revelation 14:6) … On the other hand, however, it should be made clear that this book is certainly not ‘personal’ in terms of Dr Keller …
Nor is this book seeking to make any statement about his personal orthodoxy. We gladly acknowledge that Keller intends to teach the orthodox truth; the question is whether or not he fully succeeds in this good intention in the specific cases considered below.
We think that the root of the difficulty arises from the very challenging task that Keller has assigned himself — to communicate the old orthodoxy in ‘relevant’ ways to a contemporary, postmodern audience.
Of course, the gospel must certainly be communicated to every generation and to every culture, for this is what obedience to the Great Commission entails. Yet in so doing, we must avoid the temptation to cut corners. We must ensure that all the elements of the truth — the highly offensive aspects as well as the ones that are more attractive — are reflected in our teaching. Simply put, the essays in this book consider whether some specific aspects of Keller’s teaching are biblically accurate ways of transmitting the Reformed faith…
Why do we need to debate over theology?
To answer that question adequately, we would probably need a separate book devoted to the nature and role of polemic theology. However, we could start by simply quoting Dr Keller. He writes: ‘To maintain a healthy movement over time, we have to engage in direct discussion about any doctrinal errors we perceive’, a statement which is followed by guidelines for engaging in ‘gospel polemics’.
We also might point out that the degree to which people value the truth is the degree to which they are willing to engage in public debate over it. This is the way any enterprise that depends upon truth for its success and continued existence is maintained.
One example would be medical science, in which fellow doctors challenge the findings and procedures of their peers in journals. Everyone understands that this public debate is not done out of idle curiosity or a vindictive spirit, but because lives depend upon getting it right … This is what happens when the truth is perceived as something not merely ‘nice to have’ but essential and crucial.
The reality is, however, that ours is not an age characterised by great appreciation of doctrinal purity … Argument itself is often conceived as something inherently negative, something to be done (if at all) with those you dislike or intend to dismiss.
From this perspective, the very idea that Christian brothers who love and genuinely appreciate one another would want to engage in rigorous theological debate seems hard to imagine…
We are like the man who professes great admiration for a beautiful garden but disdains the ‘unseemly’ work of weeding and pruning that is required to maintain it. Yet this is the way that the Christian church used to go about the business of upholding orthodoxy.
Truth was known to be critical to the enterprise at hand. Even minor departures might endanger eternal souls and would certainly derogate from the glory of God; theology was therefore something that was very much worth fighting over…
Why not just get on with the work of the gospel?
A related question is, why not simply get on with the work of the gospel? To answer, we refer to the case of Jonathan Edwards. There is no doubt that Edwards was a zealous evangelist; yet he devoted great amounts of his time towards treatises to correct what sometimes appeared to be inconsequential theological issues.
Why? Because, at least in Edwards’ mind, these pursuits were intimately related. He wrote: ‘And this increase of light shall be very much by means of ministers; God will make use of his own institution and bless them in order to bring about this increase of light … he will make use of them at that day to clear divine truths and to refute errors, and to reclaim and correct God’s people wherein in any respect they have been mistaken and have been going out of the way of duty.’
Why did Edwards not simply ‘get on with the business of the gospel’ rather than spend time writing against what some would consider minor doctrinal problems?
It is because he believed that the clarity and purity of the message were essential to its efficacy under God, and that this work was of no less importance than his preaching. From this perspective, clarifying the message is to get on with the business of the gospel.
Why debate with a good man like Tim Keller?
The simple answer is, precisely because Tim Keller is a good man. His work actually deserves such interaction. This is the sort of thing you do with important teachers who merit being taken seriously.
Not every man warrants such attention. If Keller were some dubious figure on the edge of the church, there would be little point to the exercise. No, it is just because Keller is a good man who is so widely admired that he has merited the sustained attention of our contributors.
What are you suggesting about Keller’s orthodoxy?
Keller has consistently demonstrated his commitment to Reformed orthodoxy in numerous ways. He is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America, a communion which is dedicated to biblical orthodoxy as understood by the Westminster standards.
He chooses to serve at seminaries such as Westminster Theological Seminary which are explicitly committed to confessional standards. He affirms catechetical instruction and has published a New city catechism that, for the most part, simply reiterates pre-existing Reformed confessions and catechisms.
Most recently, he has publicly critiqued the New Perspective on Paul. These things all indicate to us that Keller is orthodox in his beliefs. The problem comes in the way he chooses to express his orthodox faith.
Keller seems to have assigned himself a very demanding project: to package Christianity for the contemporary unchurched and largely postmodern audience. It almost goes without saying that such a project comes with a very real danger of overreach. Early drafts of such a project could easily outstrip the bounds of confessional teaching without realising it.
Some people think that critiquing someone’s theology implies that we must also be impugning the man’s character or his motivations. But this is hardly the case. Theology is a demanding business, and the best of us get it wrong sometimes.
For instance, John Calvin’s esteem for Augustine is not in any doubt. However, at various points in The Institutes Calvin was compelled to differ with him. In so doing, he did not call into question Augustine’s character, motivations, or indeed his usefulness as a teacher of the church in many other areas … Likewise, this book is concerned with ideas and their implications, not the man behind them.