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