Engaging with Keller – A Review

Engaging with Keller

This is the first of several reviews – the links to the others are below:




Every now and then I read a book which has a profound impact upon me.  Engaging with Keller is one such book.  I read it just before going on holiday which was a big mistake because it made me really depressed and took some time to get over.   Why?  And why write about it here?  In St Peters we have used Tim Keller’s bible studies a lot, in fact the Kirk Session decided this week that we would be using his ‘Galatians for you’ – as the basis for all our home groups this year.  Perhaps we should rethink? This book suggests that Tim Keller is suspect on such important topics as creation, the Bible, the Trinity, sin and hell.   Hardly inconsequential!  As a minor shepherd of the Lords flock it is my responsibility to ensure that the Lords people are not being fed harmful food. Therefore when respected fellow ministers go to all the bother of writing a book in order to warn us about some dangers in another ministers teaching, it is quite significant.   In fact I regard this as so important that I have decided to write a series of articles, one on each chapter of this book. At the very least this will ensure that one aim of the editors of Engaging with Keller, to stimulate further theological discussion, will be partially fulfilled.

In this first article I want to give an overview of the book, interact with some of the introduction and then explain why I really struggled with this presentation.   In the interests of fairness I should point out that I know Tim Keller and regard him as a friend, and that he has been very helpful to me personally.   Unlike most of the writers in this book I have been able to actually engage with Keller and therefore some of this is written from that experience.  I should also point out that I know several of the authors of this book and in particular have a high regard for my friend Dr Iain D Campbell who is a gifted and highly valued theologian, writer and preacher.  On this occasion we are going to have to disagree, although I hope he will be persuaded that this was not the wisest project to get involved in!

The book is published by Evangelical Press who have provided some very interesting publicity along with it. It is edited by Iain D. Campbell and Bill Schweitzer.  The chapters are entitled as follows:

Keller on ‘Rebranding’ the Doctrine of Sin (Iain D. Campbell)

‘Brimstone-Free Hell’: a new way of saying the same old thing about judgment and hell? (William M. Schweitzer)

Losing the Dance: is the ‘divine dance’ a good explanation of the Trinity? (Kevin J. Bidwell)

The Church’s Mission: sent to ‘do justice’ in the world? (Peter J. Naylor)

Timothy Keller’s Hermeneutic: an example for the church to follow? (C. Richard H. Holst)

‘Not Quite’ Theistic Evolution: does Keller bridge the gap between creation and evolution? (William M. Schweitzer)

Looking for Communion in All the Wrong Places: Keller and the doctrine of the church (D. G. Hart)

I will engage with each of these chapters at an individual level in further articles but let me make some preliminary remarks about the whole book.  Overall the chapters are of mixed quality.  I have to say that by far the best chapter in terms of writing and content is the first by Dr Iain D Campbell.  But it is down hill from there with the last chapter being so bad that I am surprised it got through the editorial process.

1)            Why was it written? This for me is the most puzzling thing.  The authors are busy church planters/pastors.  They have clearly taken a great deal of time to read, write and discuss amongst themselves on this one mans work.  It is highly unusual to publish a book critiquing an authors work whilst that author is still alive, so they must have seen it as being something of great importance. As pastors they are rightly concerned for the well being of their congregations. Is Tim Keller really that important?  Or that dangerous?  Because make no mistake this week is written as a warning, not as a commendation.   If the authors had just wished to discuss the subjects raised then they could of course have written books or articles about those subjects.  Indeed Iain D. Campbell has done just that – an excellent book on the doctrine of sin.  But the truth is that it is controversy that sells, rather than theology.  I don’t mean to suggest that the authors wrote this for money, but I don’t believe that this was written to engage and interact with Keller (they must have known that was not going to happen).  It was written to critique and warn because the authors are concerned about the influence that Tim Keller is having on their constituencies and congregations.

By the way the book is inaccurately titled ‘engaging with Keller’.  This is not an engagement.  Despite thanking Keller for the cordial interaction, apart from a series of e-mails between Keller and Schweitzer there has been no engagement.  In fact Keller declined to engage – therefore to call the book ‘engaging with Keller’ is a little misleading.  I guess calling it by the more accurate title ‘a warning about the false teaching of Tim Keller’, whilst it would suit a 19th Century Church pamphlet, does not sound so irenic to modern ears!

This lack of engagement means that the book is full of innuendo and hinted warnings.  ‘it seems that’ and ‘it appears that’ are not really helpful phrases when trying to engage and discuss with another’s work, especially when the other is not able to clarify or answer.  Thus in the mind of the reader an impression is created by such vague phrases which is neither fair nor helpful.

2)   Is Engaging with Keller ‘irenic’?   Both the self publicity and the reviews which have been favourable make great play of how ‘respectful’, ‘gracious’ and ‘irenic’ the book is.  Is this a book about making peace?   The EP advert for example boasts, “irenic in spirit and presentation, this book is of great importance”.  Even allowing for the principles of modern advertising they would surely have been better in following the scriptural advice to ‘let another praise thee and not thine own mouth’!    In fact this desire to be ‘seen’ as gracious and irenic is disturbing at two levels.

Firstly I am always wary of the person who comes to talk to me and begins the conversation with ‘I want to tell you this in love’.  It usually means that there is a broadside to follow and very little love accompanying it.  The ‘I want to tell you in love’ is really a self-justification for the particular complaint they are about to offload on you.  I’m afraid it is much the same here.  The authors talk about their ‘respect’ for Keller and then accuse him of  wrong teaching and harm on some pretty important subjects.  I suspect that Tim Keller, like most of us, would rather do without that kind of irenic grace!   In this case actions speak louder than words.  I am reminded of those who came to Jesus and began by stating “teacher we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (Matthew 22:16), before they then went on to try and trap him.  Working on the principle of ‘do unto others’ perhaps each of the authors would like to reflect on how they would feel if fellow ministers were publishing books which accuse them of not teaching the full orbed Word of God?

The authors must have been aware that they would encourage remarks such as this one that appeared on my Facebook page – “Thing is dare to even question the mighty Keller and you are branded a heretic. This guy is apparently above criticism and everything he does is always correct and his theology is perfect it would seem to his supporters.”  Sadly this book gives ammunition to those who wish to mock and decry what Tim Keller has been doing.  Perhaps the authors were aware of this and thought it was worth the risk, because I am sure they would not want to encourage it.  Perhaps they were just being naïve.

Secondly if Keller is guilty of misleading the church about hell, creation, the Bible, evangelism, apologetics, the social gospel, sin and the trinity, then why bother being ‘irenic’ about it?  Was Jesus irenic when he called the Pharisees ‘white washed tombs’?  Can you imagine Paul saying to the Galatian false teachers, ‘I say this to you in a spirit of irenic love and graciousness, if you insist on circumcision, I wish you would go the whole way and castrate yourselves!’  The trouble is that the authors of this book are playing the modern Christian game – as long as you say it nicely and appear to be nice (gracious,irenic, loving) etc then you can say what you want.   Personally I find this both somewhat disingenuous and pathetic.  If Keller is dangerous then just say so.  Don’t hide it in modern reformed christianspeak.  Which then brings us on to the third question I have.

3)   Is Tim Keller dangerous? Is he a Trojan horse leading the Reformed church away from its confessional and scriptural moorings?  Are the authors right to issue this warning to the wider church?  Lets be frank. They could be.  There are many false teachings threatening the evangelical church just now, whether it is Rob Bells universalism, or Steve Chalke’s denial of the atonement or the prosperity gospel, or theonomy.  Why not write about them? Is Tim Keller more of a danger to the flock?  Or maybe the concern is that Tim Keller poses a particular threat precisely because he is a reformed evangelical. As ‘one of us’ he could be very dangerous.  Worst still he is popular – and surely in this God-forsaken age a true prophet would not be popular?!   We are also reminded in the publicity for this book that the men who write these essays are respected pastor/theologians who have written these ‘insightful and timely essays’  to warn us that there are areas in “Dr Keller’s published writings which appear not to reflect, as they might, the full-orbed teaching of God’s word”.

 This is really the crux of the matter.  Last week I was approached by a fellow minister who told me that he was intending to use The Prodigal God with his home groups but was wondering whether this book would put people off.   In Reformed circles if you begin to suggest/hint that someone is not ‘sound’ it can do a great deal of harm.  Having been, to some small degree, the victim of this kind of innuendo and gossip I can only sympathise with Keller.  What saddens me is that Redeemer in New York produce some of the best bible study material available, and that this kind of book will put some people of using them.  Dare I suggest that each of the congregations represented in this book would really benefit from reading and studying ‘Galatians for you”.

I can accept that I might not have the intelligence or nous to identify the subtle dangers in Kellers teaching but then I have a great deal more difficulty in thinking that people like Don Carson and Ligon Duncan are incapable of recognising or unwilling to warn their constituencies of the dangers.  Carson for example encourages us to buy Centre Church by telling us, “In this important book, Tim Keller unpacks the gospel and gently but firmly reminds us that it is nonnegotiable. At the same time, he enables us to think through how we can responsibly interact with the culture, how we can – indeed, must – appreciate good things within it, and how we can firmly and faithfully apply the gospel to it.”.  Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller have often ‘engaged’ in warm and friendly discussions at the PCA General Assembly and in the Gospel Coalition.  Is it really the case that men such as this are encouraging the Lords people into accepting error?  Are the authors of Engaging with Keller really the equivalent of the small boy telling us all that the emperor has no clothes?

4)   Is Keller beyond criticism? Ian Hamilton states in his introduction “unadulterated admiration is never desirable nor appropriate, unless it is directed to our Triune God”.  Of course we agree.  But that is a truism.  And who is he referring to? Does anyone have ‘unadulterated admiration’ for Tim Keller? It really does not help, even in self-justification to set up such a strawman argument.  Hamilton gives the example of Calvin who disagreed with Augustine but neglects to mention that Calvin did not publish Arguing with Augustine!   Moreover I wonder why this group of largely British based Reformed Presbyterians have not written a book about the dangerous teachings of Martin Lloyd Jones – after all he is far more influential than Keller in British Reformed circles and surely his teachings about Holy Spirit Baptism and the Sabbath could be considered dangerous?! Yet I know that to even hint at criticism of ‘the doctor’ in some circles is enough to send you to Reformed purgatory until you repent!   I have heard Ian Hamilton give some excellent lectures on various historical figures, but never with the degree of warning and criticism that is both explicit and implicit in this book.

He points out that they are debating with Keller because he is a good man.  I hope then he won’t mind that I am debating with he and his colleagues precisely because they are good men!

There seems to be some confusion about what Engaging with Keller is trying to achieve.  At times it seems as though the authors are saying there is no problem with Keller’s theology, its just his presentation which could be open to misrepresentation.  On the other hand they want to warn about those who would ‘emulate his teachings’, which would suggest that it is a little more than just presentation.

The other criticism that comes across is a not so subtle accusation of ignorance.  The authors frequently declare that they do not question Kellers motives.   However they do suggest that, with the best of motives Keller ends up inadvertently watering down key doctrines in order to appeal to post-moderns.   Having read most of Kellers works and being aware that he was a Professer at Westminster Theological Seminary I would be somewhat hesitant to be quite so confident in accusing him of such ignorance.  And I know that he deliberately does not water down key doctrines in order to appeal to post-moderns.  In fact it is the very robustness of his presentation of biblical doctrines which carries the appeal.  I am reminded of a question I was once asked by a senior Free Church minister on a visit to St Peters.  We had grown from a handful of people to a massive congregation of about 40. “What gimmicks are you using?” was the almost serious question. Perhaps I should not have  answered “apart from the dancing girls, nothing”.  But it did disappoint me that in todays church any growth or popularity is associated with ‘gimmicks’ or ‘watering down’.  The implication that Keller must get his books on the New York Times Bestseller list and be feted as the ‘next CS Lewis’ because he is watering down is a bit of a cheap shot.

5)            Why not invoke Matthew 18:15-17?  – The authors expect this objection.  Surely it would have been more biblical (aka Matthew 18:15-17) to have approached Tim Keller first and dealt with these concerns in a less public manner which could be open to the kind of ‘misinterpretation’ that I understood. They respond by saying that ‘Keller has not sinned against us”.  At best that is disingenuous.  Once when I was moderator of the Edinburgh and Perth Presbytery four different ministers turned up with four different ‘libels’ against a fellow minister.  I asked them if they had followed the Matthew 18:15-17 practice and they used the same reply.  He has not sinned against us but it is a matter of public scandal.  I disagreed with it then and I disagree with it now.

Ironically for men who rightly regard the Presbyterian government and discipline of the church as being important, they have been very un-presbyterian.  If Keller was teaching harmful doctrine, sufficient to write a whole book about, then there is a proper biblical procedure to follow.  Firstly you contact the man yourself because it is a sin which involves you and your church.  If he refuses to listen to you then you take others and then you finally involve the whole church.  We have church courts for these procedures.  As I sit at my desk today there is a copy of the Dundee Courier open in front of me at the letters page.  Amongst the letters is one accusing yours truly of ‘not having the courage to stand by Gods word’.  It is disappointing and sad that such public accusations are made by someone who I assume professes to be a Christian and is genuinely concerned about a watered down gospel.  What he should have done is write me personally, then contact my presbytery if he did not have a satisfactory answer.  They could then question and examine me and either encourage me to repent or inform the brother concerned that there was no reason for his concern.  That is called church discipline and that is how we deal with things.   Likewise I am just as disappointed that these men, who are all either members of Keller’s denomination, or sister Reformed denominations, have ignored basic biblical and Reformed church procedures and instead published a book accusing a brother of watering down Gods Word and not giving the full orbed biblical teaching that he has sworn to do through his ordination vows.  They have thus fed into the disease that is Christian gossip and encouraged the sense that Keller and those who use his writings are somehow not quite sound. I believe in the discipline of the Church, not the discipline of the blogosphere!  (those who are astute will immediately point out an apparent contradiction in my stance – am I now doing the very thing I am complaining about?  There is an enormous difference – I am suggesting that this book is unwise and unhelpful.  I am not suggesting that the authors are in breach of their ordination vows by going against the confessional and biblical teaching they have sworn to uphold. The latter is much more serious – which is why I won’t be writing a book about why we shouldn’t write books attacking our friends!).

6)   Where does this come from? Which brings me on to a fascinating fact about this book.  One which is cited as laudable but one which I fear is harmful.  This book does not come out of the context within which Tim Keller is mostly working – the Presbyterian Church of America and the Gospel Coalition.  There are those in the PCA who are very critical of what Keller teaches but so far their criticism have been confined to their own networks and have not been published in book form or produced through the church courts. Although Tim Keller has been the victim of a whispering/blogging campaign for many years.  I find it a little sad when in private conversations people speak in cynical and mocking tones of ‘Kellerites’.   It seems as though American church politics is almost as down and dirty as British church politics. It is sad that a group of largely British evangelicals have been suckered into getting involved with this very unpleasant business. Now that may be unfair and a bit paranoic and appear to suggest that the authors were put up to this by some kind of political conspiracy from the USA. I don’t think they were.  Although it really cannot be helpful to MTW, the missionary arm of the PCA, to have one of its missionaries, co-editing a book attacking one of the leading ministers in the PCA.  On a more spiritual level I know that the devil always seeks to undermine the Lords work, and frequently uses those of us who, Peter-like, have the best intentions, but so often get it so wrong.   This book is despite its best intentions something that I believe has the potential to be harmful to the Lords work.  In many ways.

Most of the authors are from the small Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales.  This is a small group of churches formed just over 25 years ago after a London Presbyterian Conference.  The key organiser of that was Rev Dr John Nicholls, the London Free Church minister and then the director of London City Mission. This conference argued for an open-minded, generous and biblical Presbyterianism which would appeal to the English, rather than the perceived narrowness of the Scots version.   The EPCEW has not been a success.  In 25 years, with the assistance of millions of dollars, only a handful of viable churches have been established.  The entire denomination has only 15 congregations and church plants (including two in Sweden).    We are of course thankful for each one and the good that they do.  But the trouble is that for many evangelicals in England who are looking for a home, the EPCEW is viewed with a degree of suspicion as being too narrow and too limited – the very opposite of what the London conference intended.   I have tried to encourage some of the many who go from here to get involved with the EPCEW.  But is has been difficult.  And this book now makes it even more so.  It makes the EPCEW come across as petty and small minded, caring more about a Reformed brother who has gone somewhat astray (in their eyes) than getting on with the task of evangelising England and Wales (and Sweden!).  I’m afraid that their criticism of Tim Keller’s evangelism would carry a little more weight if they were able to demonstrate the success of their own efforts.  It does remind me somewhat of the response of DL Moody who, when criticised for his methods of evangelism, replied ‘you may be right but I prefer the way I evangelise to the way you don’t’.

There is also the harm it does to the Reformed cause.  Tim Keller is one of the worlds most successful evangelists.  He is not a tele-evangelist, Arminian or health and wealth prosperity teacher.  He is one of our own.  A Westminster Confession man. In what kind of parallel universe would it be seen as ‘mature’ to write a book attacking such a man, his views and his church?  Sure – publish an article in your own church magazine, read by the few, even have a conference address which deals with what you perceive to be wrong.  But publishing a book, even in these days of internet communication, is a far more serious and harmful step.  The very publication and endorsement makes a statement.

When the Free Church was going through its own troubles in the 1990’s I remember being contacted by a journalist who was investigating the whole mess.  After a couple of weeks he returned to me and commented “the Reformed world is a very small world, isn’t it”.  I have never forgotten that.  Because he was right.  It is also a very closed world. We are often very good at circling the wagons, identifying the faults in others (the wackiness of tv evangelists, hypocrisy of Roman Catholic hierarchy, decline of liberal Protestants, etc) but turning a blind eye to what is wrong and wacky with us.  I can think of some really weird things that go on in Reformed circles which are just quietly ignored.  There are games that people play and things that people say, which really do cause despair.  Sometimes we are guilty of shooting our own wounded, in this case we are shooting our own winners!

I am a Reformed man – because reformed theology is biblical theology and I love its wonderful view of God and expansive view of Gods Church and World.  Sadly there are times when those who espouse the grand vision of Reformed theology, don’t live it and somehow manage to turn it into something narrow, petty, political and parochial. It is disappointing that Engaging with Keller falls into that category.  That was the reason for my depression on reading it.   It does not help the cause at all and perhaps it would be best for all if it just sank without trace.

In Scotland we don’t really do the Christian superstar thing.  Anyone who dares to show any intitiative/promise or is perceived as getting too big for their boots will soon be shot down with a withering ‘I kent his father!’  We are sometimes a cynical and discouraging lot.   In the US where the church scene is so much bigger there is a far larger emphasis on celebrity culture.  People may not be celebrities in the world out there, but it is very easy to create our own wee world in which we can be big fish in a small pond.  Our theology should prevent that, but sin is very pervasive. There are even those who have made themselves celebrities in their own wee world by complaining about celebrity culture!

There are those of course who regard Tim Keller as a Christian superstar – they want to use him and parade him for their conferences, books, agendas etc.  There is a double irony here.  I have met several people who would be regarded as stars in the evangelical sky.  Some have disappointed because they clearly saw themselves as such.  Tim Keller does not.  Like John Stott, Eric Alexander and others he is the antithesis of what the world (and the church) expects in a superstar.  He is self-effacing, realistic about his own weakness and embarrassed by those who think he can walk on water.


In the introduction we are told, “the degree to which people value the truth is the degree to which they are willing to engage in public debate over it.”   I agree with these words.   Which is why I have written this article.    Ironically I fear that those who have commended the appearance of this book as encouraging ‘public debate’ will not be so keen on what has been said here.  So be it.  Let me at least leave this review on a more positive note.

But the word of God continued to increase and spread. (Acts 6:7).  These were words I read whilst recovering from reading Engaging with Keller.  Of course.  Gods word will not return to him void.  I am thankful that the men who wrote this book teach Gods word and I pray them every success.   I am thankful that Tim Keller teaches Gods word and does so in a way which honours that word, connects with the culture and feeds my own soul.  Given that I read Galatians for You on my Kindle at the same time as I read Engaging with Keller I feel qualified to observe that they are chalk and cheese.  The former fed me Christ, made me think about him and enriched my soul, the latter made me think about others, become frustrated at the church and depressed at myself.

I am grateful to the Lord for the help that the teaching of Gods Word through Tim Keller has been to me, my congregation and my denomination.  I am glad that many Free Church congregations and the Free Church college use his material.  I hope that ‘Engaging with Keller’ will not discourage Tim Keller himself, and will not be used to discourage others from using what is in the words of Don Carson something which “helps us apply firmly and faithfully the gospel to the culture we live in”.

David Robertson – St Peters, Dundee.  August 2013


  1. Haven’t read this yet but will do so later. I have several Tim Keller books on my shelf (as yet unread) so will be interesting to read your thoughts. Thanks.

    The one thing I picked up on in my very brief read through is the danger of viewing any Christian teacher as beyond criticism. Surely the only person worthy of that accolade is Christ?

    Look forward to following your blog as well as Solas.

  2. No problem…look forward to reading your feedback. I agree that we should never regard any Christian teacher as beyond criticism, including TK. You will find in the blog that I state that. It should of course be obvious for any Christian. However I have noted that the minute anyone challenges a particular criticism the defence ‘you think they are beyond criticism’ is always wheeled out by those who like the original criticism. It is not honest nor fair to do so.

    1. On a personal note, I was a member of St George’s Tron for seven years while Eric Alexander was minister there. I have very fond memories of that time. He was (as far as I know still is) a very humble man indeed.

  3. Keller has come under fire for his discussion of Hell; specifically, the worry is that he follows CS Lewis more closely than he follows the Scriptures. I worry that the Reformed community has overlooked a few insights offered by CS Lewis in a rush to be Biblically Orthodox.
    We can outline two views of Hell
    (a) The (Old Fashioned? Turn or Burn?) Punishment Model,
    (b)The (More Respectable? Polite?) Choice Model.

    We can describe these in the following ways..

    The Punishment Model

    1. the purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives and behavior warrant it
    2. it is metaphysically impossible to get out of hell once one has been consigned there;
    3. some people will be consigned to hell
    4. Hell is a place of conscious existence.

    The “Choice Model”

    1a. Hell may be a place where some people are punished, but the fundamental purpose of hell is not to punish people, but to honour their choices.
    2. it is metaphysically impossible to get out of hell once one has been consigned there;
    3. some people will be consigned to hell
    4. Hell is a place of conscious existence.

    Note that the “Choice Model” is caricatured if we argue that it is a “natural consequence” view. Hell is created with a purpose. In any case, Lewis had a lot to say about the use of the word ‘natural’! One way of thinking about this might be as follows. If hell is the ‘natural consequence’ of living a certain way, then it is a ‘natural consequence’ because God has ordained things to be that way. Continued existence after death in either heaven or hell can hardly be described as ‘simply what we get’ or a ‘natural consequence’ of certain actions – as if God had very little to do with it.

    Now consider what Lewis says in “The Problem of Pain”:

    “To enter Hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into Hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’..”

    The words that I have emphasised show that Hell is a punishment in Lewis’ view, and not merely a “natural consequence”. “Separation” is not the best word to describe Lewis’ view of Hell. ‘Expulsion’ or ‘exile’ seems more appropriate. “Exile” is the appropriate punishment for sin in Scripture. Israel was expelled from God’s land – suffered a curse – because Israel wanted nothing to do with God. Israel’s punishment follows on quite directly from Israel’s choices.
    The “punishment” and “choice” models are two sides of the same coin for Lewis. The two aspects of Hell are inextricably linked in Lewis’s mind. And Lewis also draws in the theme of “destruction”, pointing out that whatever is conscious in Hell is “not a man:it is remains..a will utterly centred in itself and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will”.
    Now if we take Sin seriously we should realise that this is not a gentler, milder hell that Lewis is proposing. Scan Michael Burleigh’s moral history of World War Two, and you will see what human passion is capable of. Left uncontrolled and turned back on itself in everlasting self-destruction, these passions would take a terrible toll.
    So it seems to me that Lewis has successfully brought together three strands -punishment, separation, destruction – of Biblical teaching on Hell.

    So Hell is not simply a “natural consequence” of sin on Lewis’ view (nor is it on Keller’s) . God says “thy will be done” to the damned. God acts. And it is not that anyone in Hell wants to be there. It is just that everyone in Hell would not prefer to be in Heaven. And the cost of rejecting the God of heaven is expulsion from His kingdom.


  4. I also worry that the Reformed wing of evangelicalism is retreating into a ghetto – a Confessionalist subculture. Carl Trueman, for example, seems to have given up on the evangelical world. (He’s not even sure it exists anymore!)
    This might explain why Keller has been targeted – he is part of the evangelical world and he holds to the Westminster Confession at a time when some people (Hart for example) are saying you can’t have both.
    G Veale, Saints and Sceptics

    1. Perhaps. And there will always be critics. Nevertheless I thank God for Tim Keller and the Gospel-centred movement (if I may call it that) and rejoice in “it’s” growing impact. Change does take time and for some it’s almost a paradigm shift in their thinking but I pray it may continue.

  5. I was disturbed by reviews of the book and have no inclination to read it. Having read the Prodigal God with profit, and now your review, I will order Tim Keller’s book on Galatians. Thank you for your review. Very helpful.

  6. Tim’s take on hell is actually bigger than the discussion above. I was in a discussion recently with a very prominent atheist who thought that the idea of hell was obscene. I am thankful that I had just listened to Tim expounding the idea that if there were no hell then God would be a monster as wrongs would never be punished. The debate about hell being a choice and the question of punishment are two different questions.

    It raises the issue of double predestination and reprobation – surely we must stick with Packer’s classic use of antinomy, choice does come into it.

    My own experience is that Tim has helped me, along with other fine teachers, to go deeper into confessional Calvinism not further away from it.

    1. Yes, David, I should have mentioned that Keller’s thoughts on Hell are not constrained by the writings of CS Lewis. He’s been quite clear on this.
      My point was that Lewis might offer more insight into the Bible than the critics of “The Reason for God” allow (and Keller follows Lewis quite closely in that book).

      G Veale, Saints and Sceptics.

  7. That said, if Hell is a place that rebels are banished to, and if rebels want no place of the New Heavens and the New Earth (which is their natural home) then the “choice” and “punishment” models collapse into one another. To be sent away from the source of all love, and to be cast out of our ideal environment is a terrible punishment indeed; given our appetite for self-destruction, to be completely given over to our own sinful desires would be an awful fate

    So, God’s punishment in Romans 1 is to “give people up” to their own desires. Being “cast out” is a recurring theme in parables about the judgment of God – when being “cast out” simply confirms the unbeliever’s original choices.

    So I’m not at all sure that we need to debate “choice” or “punishment”.

  8. So thankful for this review David. I had just read the article ‘Engaging with Keller’ in Evangelical Times and was already depressed just reading the introduction. Now I know for sure I wont be reading it any further and will buy ‘Galatians for You’ instead.

  9. David,
    Thanks for this, it needed to be said. So depressed to see that some of our brothers could see this as a priority right now.

  10. Dear David,

    I appreciated your recent EN article on prayer and plan to put it up on our church noticeboard.

    As someone who has profited from reading Keller I am likewise not thrilled at the publication of this book.

    That said, whatever flaws it might have, the planting of 15 churches in 25 years in the EPCEW is actually rather encouraging. This is a better result than in any other European country where millions of American presbyterian dollars have been spent. There is a variety of churches in it so it should not be assumed that this book is the denominational line on Keller.

    On a polity point I don’t think the EPCEW is in a sister church relationship with the PCA so there aren’t formal routes to bring discipline. I disagree with you on Matthew 18 where public teaching is involved. You, and I, are fair game here.

    Yours in Christ,

    1. Dear James,

      Thanks for this. I don’t wish to disparage the work that has been going on – but 15 very small churches in three countries in 25 years is not really encouraging – especially considering that the ones in Sweden and Wales already existed. I agree that the book is not the denominational line but the fact is that in a tiny denomination 4 ministers is a significant amount.

      On the polity point Bill Schweitzer (and Kevin Bidwell) are PCA ministers so if they believed in Presbyterian policy and think Keller is teaching heresy or contrary to the confessional standards of the PCA, they should make proper formal complaints and not rely on networking and gossip…’seems to say that’ ‘maybe’ etc.

      You may be right about Matthew 18 – I’m not sure about that one…

      Thanks for your interaction.


  11. Thank you David for articulating the response to this book of many who thank God for insights we received from Keller. I think there are 3 questions that are worth discussing, quite apart from TK, which his ministry, and the reaction from the conservative end of the Reformed movement, are raising. They surface to a greater or lesser extent in this book:
    1. Transformationalism (neo-Calvinism a la Kuyper or Bavinck or Schaeffer) or the 2 kingdoms, ie. holistic ministry or just preaching the gospel ie ministries of mercy (by the church to non-church people) or not.
    2. How far should contextualisation go? Just how much is or is not laid down (explicitly or by implication, to be drawn out by just and necessary consequence) in Scripture about how we should run the church and do ministry of the gospel?
    3. Tradition and new light: are virtually all questions now solved in the Westminster standards and writings deriving from them, with only a few small gaps to be filled in nowadays? or do we need to be open to new light that will lead us not only to fill in some major gaps in the true Reformed tradition, but also to change our minds about some of the things that the tradition thought were sorted? Clearly TK is open to more new light than these authors. Who is right and why?

  12. Great essay. Great conversation.

    Perhaps in Keller-fashion I’m opting for a third way (even as I prepare to read the book). Here’s what I think. In interacting with this book, do we really have to choose between two extremes?

    Can’t we take a position that a) neither flatly rejects the consciences of men who “dare” to take issue with a prominent teacher’s public views…engaging doesn’t have to mean having a coffee chat together, nor does it mean “formal charges” have to be filed in an ecclesiastical court; and b) nor assumes that appreciation, emulation, or affection means a man has lost his capacity for discernment, or selectivity?

    I suggest that we can avoid both extremes, and as some have said on the amazon.com review where David originally posted, we can be both humbly critical (constructive critique) as well as grateful when deciding how best to benefit/profit from another man’s efforts to build Christ’s ekklesia.

    At the end of the day, engaging with Keller even in this limited forum or fashion (a printed book) will help push the cause of Christ forward in the world.

    And the book doesn’t need to be perfect in order to be useful. Any more than Tim does. Or this commenter!

  13. David R., you say of Keller, “He is one of our own. A Westminster Confession man.” What do you think Chalmers would have said in response to such an affirmation of the Strathbogie Seven? Have you not heard, Presbyterians have long contended with each other and sometimes Presbyterians who subscribe have different meanings of what subscription means.

    You prove nothing here about Keller’s soundness. You assume it and then question anyone who disagrees. And you don’t necessarily follow your own advice for those who critique Keller, suggesting that Keller is above critique.

    And here I thought Brits might not be as gullible about celebrity culture. Go figure.

    1. You think the Strathbogie Seven were Westminster COnfession Evangelicals?

      I am not the one attacking Keller’s soundness. And I don’t suggest that Keller is above critique.

      And I have no interest in celebrity culture. In fact I loath it. But does that mean that every Christian who is well known is to be despised as being part of celebrity culture?

      Strange how in one post you managed to post so many accusations and insinuations without a hint of evidence or truth.

      1. TWF, so you can read hearts? How can you tell that Keller’s subscription to WCF is better than Tullian’s? I mean, why so critical of Tullian and the authors of this book and why no criticism of Keller? If you looked simply at celebrity, Keller’s is bigger than any of the others. That could be one explanation.

        Another could be that Tullian stresses grace too much. But Keller does just as much. In fact he has made a catchphrase out of “You are far worse off than you every imagined but far more loved than you ever dared dream at the same time!” In case you haven’t noticed it, Keller doesn’t talk a lot about the law.

        So you seem to be selective in your criticisms, and you don’t seem to criticize the bigger name. Looks like some kind of celebrity thing to me.

        The evidence that you demand, btw, you did not apply to the book. All you do is say basically, how dare anyone question Keller. Why not actually engage the points made in the book?

        In fact, most of what you write here as a fault of these authors applies equally to you. How presbyterian is this blog as a way of engaging officers in Reformed churches? (I actually don’t think you need to follow Presbyterian procedures and am closer to Keller on this who doesn’t pay much heed to presbyterian polity – hence the Gospel Coalition). But again, if you’re going to stick someone else with a flaw, you best think about whether you have committed a similar violation.

      2. I think it is usually helpful when discussing with someone to reply to what they have actually said. And not just make it up.

        I never said I could read hearts and would of course repudiate such a ridiculous suggestion.

        I never said anything about Keller’s subscription to the WCF being better than Tullians.

        I wrote a review of Tullians book – One Way Love. It was not a personal attack on him nor an assessment of his ministry. I wrote a review of “Engaging Keller’ because I know the writers and they asked for engagement. It is also very unusual to see a whole book devoted to attacking one person (who is still alive).

        I never said nor implied ‘how dare anyone question Keller’?

        I do find it a wee bit distressing that you can write in such a manner, making up arguments and points that I do not make. For me it is always better than a Christian does not behave in such a manner. Please stick to what I have actually said. I am sure there is plenty enough wrong with that without the need to invent what I have not said!

      3. TWF, the same could be said about you in response to Tullian and Engaging Keller. But surely good communication also requires thinking about the implications of your statements. So why is it that you upbraid Tullian for ideas that Keller holds and has popularized? I get that you can’t read hearts. So please explain why Tullian gains your disapproval, as do those who disapprove of Keller.

        Coherence is almost as valuable as charity.

      4. Again I notice that you do not actually answer my points? Why make up what I did not write? If you are going to argue against something – make sure what you argue against is something I have actually said.

        I don’t accept at all that I upbraid Tullian for ideas that Keller holds. Does Keller teach that grace makes no demands? Does Keller endorse Steve Brown? Does Keller teach that Gods Love is just one way? Does Keller teach that Gods love has nothing to do with the beloved? I have read most of Keller and have not come across this so far but maybe you have – so please feel free to let us know. And I don’t disapporve of Tullian – I don’t know him and know very little of what he has written…in fact I expressly state I what I do know of his work is good. So why again do you feel the need to break the 9th commandment by misrepresenting me?

        And I don’t ‘disapprove’ of those who disapprove of Keller. He is not my standard. I have noticed this rather strange way that some in the US Reformed world have of personalising everything. So apparently I am pr0-Keller and anti-Tullian. What if I was just trying to apply the Bible to both?

        I just wrote a review of a couple of books…Engaging Keller was dreadful. One Way Love much better, but actually quite boring and caused me to reflect on the whole ‘grace- lit’ genre.

        If you are going to engage at least do me the courtesy of engaging with what I have written and stop trying to make me part of some kind of US church politics tribalism. I have no interest in it at all.

      5. TWF, so where have you applied the Bible to Keller?

        And for that matter, why are you so uncharitable about “US church politics tribalism”? Is it really fair to attribute this to motivation of which you know nothing since you have admitted you can’t discern the heart?

        When you wrote “The current trend for Grace-Lit seems to operate that way – each new book on grace promises to be the most life-changing, radical book which will lead to a new Reformation if only we grasp its insights. Each one offers ever more extreme examples of how radical grace is. This one tells us that the Gospel is two hundred proof grace which drives men blind staggeringly drunk. I just wonder what image in the next grace-lit book will use to show us how shocking, disturbing, radical, uncomfortable grace is.”

        How exactly do you exempt Keller from that?

      6. Again – I note you do not deal with any of the points I make and again refuse to answer any of my questions. Is this an honourable way to behave? You instead just make more accusations. ‘I do not apply the Bible to Keller’. ‘I am uncharitable about ‘US Church politics tribalism’. ‘And I exempt Keller from criticism about Grace-lit books’. The only one of those that is remotely true is about being uncharitable about US Church politics tribalism. Mea Culpa. I think its generally a good idea to be against sin – and tribalism in the church is sinful. You seem to suggest that tribalism can only be discerned in the heart. That is not actually the case. It can be seen in the words, writings and actions of those involved. All I did was write a book review, with no intention of getting involved in any kind of slanging match and lo and behold, the tribal wars of one section of the US church are poured out upon my head. It is actually very disheartening. I would be grateful by the way if you could answer my questions in my earlier response. Or is it solely your function to come on here and make new accusations each time. If so I hope you will understand if I stop answering them. It does become kind of a boring waste of time.

      7. TWF, well, are you sorry for making accusations about tribalism or are you not? First you apologize and then you sling more invective. “Poured on your head”? Chill. It’s only the interweb.

        Again, what I’m trying to discern is why some folks are tribalistic to criticize Keller but you are Job-like in criticizing Tullian. Or when have you applied the Bible to Keller? In other words, you could easily show how you are fair in your criticisms if you were as tough on Keller as on Keller’s critics.

      8. Ok this is my last reply and unless you can come up with something a bit more constructive…it will be yours.

        No – I made it clear. I loathe all the church politics and tribalism.
        No – I never said people were tribalistic for criticising Keller or that I was Job -like, And no I don’t have a go at Tullian – I just wrote a review of one of his books. The trouble is that you give a great example of that tribalism by stating I am for one and against another. I really have no interest in that kind of personalisation.
        I always try to apply the Bible to everything I read. Including TK.
        Now when you are ready to actually answer the questions you were asked, feel free to do so. And if you return just with another series of accusations I think you will find that they will not be posted here. Its not really edifying to anyone is it?

      9. David, I asked you to reconcile why you criticize Tullian and you don’t criticize Keller on similar grounds. You never answered. You read tribalism into that. You can make the call about edification. I didn’t find your review edifying, nor the one of Engaging Keller, nor the swipes you take at U.S. church politics. I’m no fan of U.S. hegemony either. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to exalt the Scottish church.

      10. Ok – I did warn you but I can’t resist letting you back. You still don’t answer any of the questions and you still continue to shout accusations. But I think it is only fair to point out to you that I criticised Tullians book – not him personally. The reason I did not criticise Keller for the same thing is that he did not write the book. If Keller had written One Way Love or that grace makes no demands or had Steve Brown endorsing it, I would have said exactly the same thing. I am an equal opportunity offender. The fact that he didn’t maybe why I didn’t! As I said your post exemplifies the kind of tribalism and immature personalisation of every issue that seems to occur in the US church – and sadly not just there – but also here are well. Why do you have to make it pro Tullian or anti Tullian, pro-Keller or anti-Keller, pro US or pro Scottish. Such a mindset reflects an immaturity which we need to grow out of. Now unless you actually have something positive or sensible to say, you will forgive me saying that this conversation is over. I will leave you to show grace and forgive me!

  14. Hi David
    Your thoughts expressed thus far (in this and your two other posts) are largely in line with what I thought I would end up saying, once I had read the book! Only a couple of questions/reflections: It is absolutely the case that communication is as much about what other people hear as what you say and therefore faithful preaching must be “packaged” appropriately, whilst remaining biblical. However, I think that there is a question to be asked about emphasis in TK’s writings. e.g. it is legitimate to speak of hell as self-chosen (see e.g. Psalm 1) but this is surely a minor key in the Bible. That hell is imposed by God (and bitterly regretted – in some sense – by us) receives much greater attention. Does not faithful gospel communication also demand that we reflect biblical emphases as well as speak truth rather than error?
    Second – TK’s recent book on Galatians is surprisingly disappointing. I recently preached through Galatians and read lots off things in TK’s book that I would have liked to have said but could not convince myself they were natural applications of the Biblical text. I wondered if it was just me but was then somewhat relieved to find the following comment in D.A.Carson’s latest commentary survey (2013): ‘… on many fronts [this book is] an accessible and popular commentary… but on some points it is hard to defend the exegesis. For instance, the focus of 2:11-21 really isn’t on racism and nationalism and how the gospel combats them.’ (p.106). Tom Schreiner’s outstanding commentary was much more helpful and is by far the best commentary on Galatians available in English.
    In Christ

    1. Agreed that Keller is not mainly an exegete. Also that he may be too muffled on God’s imposition of punishment – however, there is no mucking about on this in the New City Catechism, is there? I came across the review of Center Church by Jonathan Sleeman of Capitol Hill Baptist Church today; I don’t really agree with the points he makes, but I think the spirit of his critique is excellent. It’s on The Briefing part of the Matthiasmedia. com website.

      Chris Bennett

  15. I think the reviewer may be reacting in an emotional way to the book as Keller is his friend and he has learned a lot from him. I think it is fair and right for authors and preachers, past and present, to be critiqued. None of us is perfect in what we say, and what we say needs to be debated and discussed. Keller is far too much of an influential author not be critically evaluated. I think it is fair to take the contributors at their word, that they admire and respect Keller, but they also have concerns about some aspects of his teaching. The book is of a totally different spirit from some web sites I have seen bitterly attacking Keller.

    I personally think that the book raises some important issues, not just about Keller, but about the whole question of contextualisation, and how much we can / should alter our presentation of the Gospel according to whom we are addressing. It also raises some important issues on the extent to which the church, as the church, should engage in social action, and also on “theistic evolution”. I am not familiar enough with Keller himself to say definitively how valid or otherwise the criticisms are, but from the little of Keller that I have read some of the criticisms have rung true. The worst chapter is the last one, which criticises Keller for allegedly not adhering to Presbyterian ecclesiology, which, if true, does not worry me (as a Baptist) in the slightest! But overall I think the book is worth reading and thinking about carefully.

    Henry Dixon

  16. I personally think people here that are too dismissive of this review because of the blogger’s “friendship” and “emotions” are not careful readers. I have no “personal feelings” nor “emotions” towards Keller, but I find none of what he has written so far raised alarm bells. I agree with the blogger that these writers are just finding fault where they don’t exist, and unfortunately because none existed they resort to strawman arguments. These writers evaluate Keller based on the entire discourse of Systematics Theology, but like the blogger repeatedly remind the readers here Keller is not a professor in a classroom (even then I can recall all my seminary training how each professor has their own “unbalanced” and “incomplete” emphasis towards clearly their favor or expertised topics and that if I wanted to I can pick each course apart if I can throw the entire discourse of Systematics Theology at them, and of course purposely misuse strawman arguments for each course I’ve took). Keller’s writings are towards specific ministry or issues that have arisen out of his context. To criticize Keller is like the criticism of the book of James, we don’t like the way he talks about righteousness therefore he must be wrong (or must be sub-canon within the canon), but thankfully as Church history moves on the church has begun to realized it was Luther that is wrong, James is just reflecting on righteousness based on his ministry and context.

    This is sad because the writers of such book are some of the brighter minds in the Reformed world, for whatever reason, they completely deny themselves of the proper intellectual honesty that I expect them to have. The book to me is a very flaw book that does not take context into account at all. Rather, they take a few statements out of context, magnified in against the discourse of Systematics Theology, and finds fault. I have nothing but sadness towards the book, not because of Keller (I have zero relationship with him), but sad that a bunch of supposed brighter minds of Reformed theologians sunk down to this level of intellectual dishonesty.

    Ironically, if there are “emotional” or “friendship” issues at stake the first thing that came up on my mind after I read the book is this: “Wow, Keller must have done something to these gentlemen for them to really go after him like this in such an embarrassing matter”

    HEY OWNER OF THIS BLOG: are you ever going to finish reviewing or have you been scared off and pressured by “friends” around you to stop? I’m pretty disappointed you made a promise to review the whole book and it’s been almost six months.

    Of course with charity I’m just going to assumed you’re too busy with everything else to keep the course, I certainty hope you weren’t scared off by political pressure to speak the truth about this book.

  17. Dear Mr Wee Flea,

    As to your point five, above, re: Mt. 18:15ff,

    1. Certainly, if Keller is a danger, then those so convinced among his PCA compadres are duty-bound to go to their courts.

    And 2. Calvin well answers the question of public rebuke in his sermon on Gal. 2:11-14 ~

    Notice also the way in which our sins ought to be rebuked; that is to say publicly, and not only in secret. This is worthy of our attention. Many people do scandalous things, and when they have upset everything and everyone, wish to be told that they have done wrong simply by a whisper in the ear. This is the common theology of the day. One asks: “Does it not say that we should rebuke one another secretly? (Matthew 18:15). It cannot be right for a man to be publicly disgraced if he falls.” Yes, this is so, if his offence will not cause strife in the church. Our Lord Jesus Christ made that distinction when he said that if someone sins, and I know about it, I must rebuke him privately: but that if his sin is blatant and open, and would set a bad example if it were not dealt with, then we are no longer under an obligation to whisper secretly in the offender’s ear. The rebuke must reflect the magnitude of the sin, so that others may learn from it. This not only applies to the congregation at large, but also to those in positions of the highest dignity, for they ought to set a good example to others. Indeed, Paul says in that other passage to Timothy, that those who have sinned, though they be pastors who are responsible for teaching and guiding the flock, should be rebuked before all (1 Timothy 5:20). He put this into practice himself here in the case of Peter! This was a grave and serious error which could have been a cause of great turmoil in the church, since it was undermining the Gospel, and many were still very weak. Paul knew that Peter needed to be scolded, and did so. Let us remember all these points.

    From “Armed for the Fight Against Grave and Serious Error,” found at the Trinity Foundation website.

    Hugh McCann

  18. Thank you for this series on Keller. I sincerely trust you will have a critique on his theistic evolutionary view of creation as well. Please.

  19. I was drawn to this article by sad events elsewhere. But having read it thought it might be helpful to comment.

    Some of Keller’s books are very helpful, some contain some significant problems. I would give some to what I loosely and carelessly term ‘uneducated Christian people’, but not others. This book, and its criticisms are not exactly ‘arcane’, but not terribly relevant to the many people who don’t and can’t read Keller with the same minutiae of theological questioning. Would such a book be written about the ever-popular C.S.Lewis. Probably not.What he was trying to do was not present deep theological constructs, but rather simple Christian truths.

    What would be far more helpful would be a similar book entitled ‘Disengaging from Rick Warren’. That would really be of help to the many who have been drawn astray by his adulation of man.

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