December 14, 2017

Engaging with Keller, Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (A Review)

By Matt Recker

Engaging with Keller, Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical
Iain D. Campbell, William M. Schweitzer, eds.

Engaging with Keller is edited by Iain D. Campbell and William M Schweitzer. Each chapter deals with major points of concern in a unique fashion regarding a wide array of the theological missteps of Keller. Each thoughtful essay is written by a Presbyterian of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) tradition, generally admirers of Keller. The authors extol his communication skills and agree that he has “done immense good for the kingdom of God.” (p. 7) They represent Keller accurately throughout. While the authors seek to balance kindness with boldness, their work is a strong reproof of Keller as they summarize his teachings as seemingly “better at being relevant than … conveying the fullness of biblical truth.” (p. 239) Their serious rebuke of Keller’s errors are thus all the more scathing and surprising.

It would do all fundamentalists well to pay close attention to the theology of Tim Keller and read this accurate representation of his doctrine. Many may glean helpful material from Keller’s writings and commentaries in their sermon preparation as well as ministry outreach. It is vital to know how to read Keller with discernment so as to not fall into the theological traps that are ever before us.

Ian D. Campbell writes fearlessly on Keller’s “Rebranding the Doctrine of sin.” This chapter exposes Keller’s subtle shifting of the essence of sin from rebellion or disobedience to idolatry. According to Keller, “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to … get an identity, apart from him.” (p. 36) Keller shifts away from teaching that sin is merely “breaking divine rules,” to the “making of good things into ultimate things.” (p. 36-37) This motif of identifying sin as idolatry is a recurring theme throughout his writing and sermons. While this emphasis has validity, and it is true that the heart, in the words of Calvin, is a “perpetual factory of idols,” Campbell reminds us that the foundational “nature of sin is not idol-making but law-breaking.” (p. 44) Isn’t making an idol breaking one of God’s laws? While Keller is often helpful in his exegesis in The Prodigal God, he is also cited as “less than helpful, and, indeed, misleading … in his over-spiritualizing of other details.” (p. 48) Keller is also chastised for his “ambiguity, wariness, and discomfort over identifying homosexual practice as sinful.” (p. 60) This first chapter concludes with Campbell warning the reader that Keller’s rebranding of sin “leads to … a truncating of the gospel.” (p. 61)

In Chapter 2, William M. Schweitzer writes in strong language about Keller’s erroneous views on hell in a chapter entitled, “Brimstone-Free Hell: A new way of saying the same old thing about judgment and hell?” It seems that Keller stands more upon C.S. Lewis’ view of hell rather than the Scripture. Three questions are asked and answered in this chapter: “Who condemns people to hell? Who decides that the damned stay in hell? Who metes out the punishment of hell?” (p. 68, 74, 75). Relying on C.S. Lewis, Keller teaches that hell is the result of those who refuse to let go of sin. (p. 75) It seems Keller emphasizes “exegeting Lewis” rather than the Scripture and the plain teaching of God’s Word is not as important as “C.S. Lewis’ depictions of hell.” Schweitzer also points out Keller’s mistake of justifying his taking the fire out of hell by saying that Jonathan Edwards (of all preachers!) evidently also “pointed out that the Biblical language of hell was symbolic.” This is explained and well refuted. The chapter concludes with this: “Keller’s teaching for postmoderns … gives a different set of answers” to the opening three questions. “Man sends himself to hell, man never asked to leave hell, and man inflicts upon himself the punishments of hell.” (p. 90) We are warned against embracing his “postmodern teaching” regarding hell. (p. 91)

Kevin Bidwell writes in chapter 3 on “Losing the Dance: Is the divine dance a good explanation of the Trinity?” While Keller has not shied away from attempting to teach an orthodox view of the Trinity, his repeated use of the divine dance imagery is not rooted in a faithful interpretation of Scripture, the Nicene Creed, or the WCF. The divine dance motif emphasizes God’s love above all His attributes, where the members of the Godhead are supposedly in a “dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love,” and “voluntarily circling each other” in a “dance of love.” (p. 103, 106) Keller tells us the Bible teaches this and the early church fathers also used this motif. In these statements he makes it sound that he is rediscovering the unanimous teaching of the early church, but such is not the case. Bidwell takes apart Keller’s view using both Biblical and historical theology. Keller’s precarious ground on this teaching is underscored when his real authority for such teaching is found from C.S. Lewis and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Platinga endorses women in ministry, and C.S. Lewis, clearly helpful in certain areas, is dangerous in others. There is a subtle hint that Keller may be using this view of the Trinity to appeal to feminists, for “by eliminating divine ordering of the persons it provides a consistent theological basis for egalitarianism in the church” (p. 110). This favorite analogy simply fails to do justice to the oneness of God’s essence and the distinction of His Three Persons, and is a failed attempt to compromise with a postmodern culture.

Keller is taken to task by Peter J. Naylor in chapter four on misapplying the purpose of the church in a chapter entitled “The Church’s Mission: sent to ‘do justice’ in the world?” “Keller teaches that the church has a twofold mission in this world: to preach the gospel and to do justice.” (p. 136) For Keller, justice “involves social and cultural transformation and renewal” (p. 137). The crucial question in this chapter is: “should the church (as a corporate, organized body) work directly for social and cultural transformation?” (p. 144) Keller makes a number of missteps. He teaches that the laws of jubilee support the redistribution of wealth, a key ingredient of liberal social justice. Naylor states that Keller completely misunderstands the laws of jubilee, “for that law was actually designed to preserve property rights, not relativize them.” (p. 152) Naylor says unequivocally that “the church and its ministers did not seek to transform the culture by direct social action.” The church is commissioned with preaching the Gospel not social activism. (p. 160) Social concerns only become popular when the Word of God and the power of the Gospel is abandoned. (p. 161) In his conclusion, Naylor charges Keller with a defective handling of Scripture, of focusing too narrowly on the social problems, and failing to maintain distinctions between the spheres of church and state. (p. 162)

C. Richard Holst writes briefly about some of the exegetical weaknesses of Keller’s work in “Timothy Keller’s Hermeneutic: an example for the church to follow?” Keller is carefully critiqued for not following faithful exegetical principles in the use of parables, for overemphasizing secondary aspects of the text while disregarding what is principally intended in the text. He concludes that Keller is “not consistent in adhering” to sound hermeneutical methods of interpretation.

“Not Quite: Theistic Evolution: does Keller bridge the gap between creation and evolution?” is the theme of chapter 6 written by William Schweitzer. Keller has joined forces with Biologos Foundation, whose purpose is to reconcile evolution with the Bible and to turn evangelical Christians into evolutionists. Finding no opposition between Christianity and evolution, Keller goes so far as to believe that Adam evolved from a sub-human ancestor, or hominid. Schweitzer rightly says such a view is “theologically unacceptable.” (p. 204) Keller’s position is equally untenable to hard-line evolutionists, who dismiss with derision any attempt to reconcile the Bible with Darwin with “all sorts of crazy apologetics.” (p. 207)

Finally, in chapter 7, D. G. Hart points to Keller’s loyalty to Presbyterianism in “Looking for Communion in All the Wrong Places: Keller and the doctrine of the church.” This essay chides Keller for taking visible roles in parachurch activities and interdenominational partnerships while having a diminished influence among conservative, Old School Presbyterianism. He may be known by all as a pastor of a Presbyterian church, but according to Hart, Keller’s Presbyterian ecclesiology, in actual practice, is “impoverished.” The issue at stake is one of integrity. Keller has been ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America but has not been faithful to his ordination and Hart goes so far as to charge Keller with breaking his ordination vows. It would be difficult to understate the strength of this attack as Hart bluntly challenges the honor of Keller’s word he gave at his ordination. (p. 235)

Overall, the accumulation of evidence against Tim Keller provides a powerful warning to exercise much caution regarding his ministry. Keller’s rebranding of sin leads to the “foundational truths of the Gospel” being obscured. (p. 61) His teaching on hell is deemed “postmodern.” (pp. 89, 91). The divine dance motif of the Trinity sets the church on a dangerous trajectory. (p. 128-129) Keller’s social emphasis is founded on a defective handling of Scripture. (p. 162) Keller does not consistently adhere to proper hermeneutical methods. (p. 189) As he promotes his evolutionary views he partners with those “outside the biblical faith” (p. 208). His involvement with non-Presbyterians “betrays is profession.” (p. 235) In nearly each of Keller’s deficiencies he attempts to be relevant but he ends up compromising Scripture in order to appeal to contemporary culture.

Finally, on a note that might be of concern to some readers, the editors of the volume point out that they endeavored to give Dr. Keller equal time. While Engaging with Keller was being written, the editors were in contact with Dr. Keller privately about their concerns, and they invited Keller to respond to their charges within the pages of the book itself. They wanted to assure that they met the requirement of Matthew 18. However, they write, “due to the demands on his time, he was compelled to decline the invitation.” They add, “He was presented with the full manuscript in 2013 prior to publication.” (p. 21, 22).[1]

Matt Recker is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in New York City.

  1. Personal note from our author, Matt Recker: I also emailed Dr. Keller a copy of my review and asked if he has made any written statements answering the concerns brought forth. []

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