Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical

Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, is, perhaps, one of the best known figures in the Reformed world. He has written many books and has spoken at numerous conferences for many different groups and organizations. He is frequently interviewed and quoted by the secular media on a number of different topics. It is because of his influence on such a wide audience that a group of pastors have taken up the task of writing a book considering whether specific aspects of Keller’s teaching are biblically accurate ways of transmitting the Reformed faith.

Dr. Iain Campbell, minister of Point Free Church on the Isle of Lewis, and Dr. William Schweitzer, church-planting minister of Gateshead Presbyterian Church, have put together a collection of essays which discuss certain well-known aspects of Dr. Keller’s teaching. The book, Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical, was recently published and is available both in print and e-book. Dr. Campbell describes the purpose of the book this way:

It should not surprise us that in developing new lines of thought Dr. Keller has provoked a measure of controversy, mainly within the Reformed churches. It is therefore right that there should be an open and frank engagement among brothers in Christ in order to discern just how faithful to God’s word Dr. Keller’s “new lines of thought” really are (9).

The authors are quick to point out that Dr. Keller’s personal orthodoxy is not in question:

Nor is this book seeking to make any statement about his personal orthodoxy. We gladly acknowledge that Keller intends to teach the orthodox truth; the question is whether or not he fully succeeds in this good intention in the specific cases considered below (15).

These teachings include the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of the Trinity, the mission of the Church, Scriptural interpretation, theistic evolution, and ecclesiology.

The authors believe that the problem with certain aspects of Dr. Keller’s teaching arises from his attempts to explain biblical doctrines to a post-modern audience:

Keller adopts a twofold answer to many questions. He wants to present doctrine to the “moderns” (usually older, more rural and less educated) one way, and to the “postmoderns” (usually younger, more urban and educated) in a different way. Keller’s presentations to the moderns is essentially old-fashioned orthodoxy, whereas his answer to the postmoderns include some of his most well-known – and often most controversial – teachings. This books is almost exclusively concerned with this latter group of teachings. As well shall see, it is not merely a case of using some new language to offer the same answer to the same question. In several cases, Keller’s teaching for postmoderns seems to end up offering substantially different answers to the same questions (21).

The first essay, “Keller on “Rebranding” the Doctrine of Sin”, by Dr. Iain D. Campbell looks at Dr. Keller’s attempt to reinterpret the doctrine of sin:

The idea of “rebranding” a biblical doctrine such as sin is an interesting proposition. To do this successfully would mean that the presentation is altered but the content remains the same. Is Keller’s attempt to “rebrand” sin a success? (28).

Dr. Campbell looks at Dr. Keller’s redefinition of sin as idolatry, lostness, and self-centeredness. Dr. Keller’s rebranding of sin as idolatry is well-known:

Keller concludes that “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him” (29).

The problem, as Dr. Campbell sees it, is that sin as idolatry confuses a symptom of sin with the cause of sin:

But the nature of sin is not idol-making but law-breaking, of which the manufacturing of idols is a specific example. The truth of the human condition is not merely that we make idols, but that we are, by nature, enslaved to law-breaking (34-35).

Dr. Keller redefines sin as “lostness” in his book The Prodigal God. He explains that in the parable from Luke 15 both the younger son and the older son are lost: one by way of immoral living, and the other by way of moralism (36).

According to Dr. Campbell, the problem here is that there aren’t two different ways of failing: one by keeping the rules and one by breaking them:

To place oneself in the place of God is breaking the rules; the sin of the elder brother is a violation of the law. It is an over-simplification to suggest that “There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good” (39).

Both immoral living and moralism are breaking God’s law. (39)

Dr. Keller as also rebranded sin as “self-centeredness”:

The problem which the gospel of Christ is the solution is the problem of self-centeredness; that Keller suggests, is the essence of the story of the fall and the disintegration of man in Genesis 3 … (40).

The problem here is not that we aren’t self-centered. But, again, our self-centeredness is a symptom of our much deeper sin nature:

Sin as self-centeredness is a symptom of, not a reason for, our condition. The paradigm of Scripture is that we are fallen by nature, and lie under the curse of a broken covenant and the penalty of a broken law. This, however, is not a theme prominent in Keller’s writings (45).

Dr. Campbell concludes by summarizing his concerns with Dr. Keller’s rebranding of sin:

This, ultimately, is where Keller’s rebranding leads – to an attempt to define sin not in terms of what it does to God, in robbing him of his glory, but of what it does to us, in robbing us of our wholeness. … Ultimately, the gospel is not all about me at all. It is certainly for me; but it is about God whom I have offended, and about the Christ whom he punished in my place. The offense? That I have broken his holy law, and break it constantly, of which my idolatry, and lostness and self-centeredness are symptoms. The remedy? That it is possible for the perfect law-keeping life and penalty-bearing death of another to restore my relationship with God (46-47).

The second essay by Dr. William Schweitzer is on the doctrine of hell, ““Brimstone-Free” Hell: a new way of saying the same old thing about judgment and hell?” Dr. Schweitzer commends the importance that Dr. Keller places on the topic of hell. However, he believes that this is another example of Dr. Keller’s attempt to speak in a new way to a post-modern audience:

Keller has two different ways of communicating the doctrine of hell, on for “traditionalists” and the other for “postmoderns”. … Keller’s teaching for the traditionalists seems consistent with the traditional doctrine. The real questions come regarding the message for postmoderns (52).

Dr. Schweitzer lists three basic questions that need to be answered in regards to hell: who sends people to hell, who keeps people in hell, and who metes out punishment for those in hell:

Who condemns people to hell? The Bible would seem to be clear on this matter: God does, through Christ (53).

In a sermon, “Isn’t the God of Christianity an Angry Judge?” Dr. Keller gives his answer to the question:

Summary: hell is just a freely chosen identity based on something else besides God going on forever (55).

Dr. Schweitzer explains:

Returning to Keller’s doctrine for postmoderns, we move on to ask, who sends people to hell if not God? The answer seems to be, no one sends anyone else to hell per se; people send themselves to hell (54).

Who decides that the damned stay in hell? According to Dr. Schweitzer:

God is the One who decides that the damned remain forever in hell, and his edict is known at the very outset of condemnation (58).

What does Dr. Keller say? In Reason for God, he writes:

“No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.” (58).

Who metes out the punishment in hell? Dr. Schweitzer considers various examples from Scripture to give his answer:

These prototypes of judgment (the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues) very greatly in detail, but in each case it is made explicitly clear that God himself metes out the punishment associated with judgment (59).

Dr. Keller, on the other hand, “suggests in The Reason for God that the punishment in hell is just the inevitable outworking of our own refusal to let go of sin” (62).

In conclusion, Dr. Schweitzer considers whether Dr. Keller’s answers to post-moderns on these three questions is fundamentally the same as the traditional answers:

Keller’s teaching for postmoderns, on the other hand, gives a rather different set of answers. Man sends himself to hell, man never asks to leave hell, and man inflicts upon himself the punishment of hell (69).

Next, Dr. Kevin Bidwell, church-planting minister of Sheffield Presbyterian Church, discusses Dr. Keller’s teaching on the Trinity in his essay, “Losing the Dance: is the “divine dance” a good explanation of the Trinity?”

There is no question as to whether Keller intends to teach the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He certainly has this intention. The question before us is whether his most prominent and distinctive method of communicating the Trinity – the “divine dance” imagery – is altogether faithful to Scripture, the Nicene Creed and the orthodox Reformed tradition (77).

Dr. Keller uses imagery of a “divine dance” to explain aspects of the Trinity:

In the beginning, according to Keller, was the “dance of Creation”; the Fall was mankind apparently “losing the dance”, the fruit of which was becoming self-centered; salvation supposedly becomes the way back of “returning to the dance” and getting out of self-centeredness; the eschatological conclusion in the new heaven and new earth is summarized as the “future of the dance” (79).

Dr. Bidwell sees several problems with the use of this imagery:

Problem 1: the “divine dance does not uphold the unity of the Godhead based on essence.

God’s essence is redefined as being “love” instead of “the same substance”; thus love replaces substance as the premise for divine unity (88).

Problem 2: the “divine dance” movements portray the wrong kind of motion within the Trinity.

This is the act of the Father eternally begetting the Son, and then sending him as the God-man, along with the actions of the procession of the Holy Spirit. … These divine movements are not captured by “voluntary circles or orbits; but the clear pattern of order is: from the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit (89).

Problem 3: the “divine dance” does not promote a balanced presentation of the Trinity as found in the Nicene Creed.

The Trinitarian order is distinct, clear, unmistakable and without confounding the persons. Contrast this with Keller’s portrayal of the three persons in a pulsating dance of voluntary orbits where it is impossible to distinguish “who is who” among them. It is baffling to imagine how the “divine dance” teaching could be encapsulated in a creedal statement (91).

Problem 4: the “divine dance” undermines the divine order between the persons of the Godhead.

The “divine dance” teaching that lacks the doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the distinguishing relational properties of the persons of the Trinity thereby introduces theological weakness into the doctrine of the Trinity, with implications for Christology (92).

Problem 5: the “divine dance” has the danger of tritheism (92).

Problem 6: the “divine dance” undermines the authority structure that is directly related to redemption.

A changed theology leads to theological implications in other parts of our doctrine, and neglecting to teach the ordering of the persons of the Trinity has real consequences for our understanding of Christ as the mediator, his obedience to the Father as the God-man, and redemption (93).

Considering the fundamental importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, Dr. Bidwell believes that these problems are not minor (81).

The fourth essay, “The Church’s Mission: sent to ‘do justice’in the world?” is by Dr. Peter J. Naylor, founding minister of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff. Dr. Naylor’s essay focuses on Dr. Keller’s teaching on the mission of the church:

Keller’s main thesis is that the church has a twofold mission in this world: (1) to preach the gospel and (2) to do justice, which involves social and cultural transformation and renewal (105).

Dr. Naylor believes that there are several principles that should be considered in determining the mission of the church:

As we consider the church’s mission, we must bear these five principles in mind. (1) The church cannot act without a mandate from God. (2) The God-given boundaries between the three spheres of family, nation, and church must be respected. (3) The distinction between the body and its members must be carefully observed. (4) The distinction between the office bearers and the members must be respected. (5) Jesus’ commission from his Father was unique and the church cannot assume that Jesus’ commission is its own mission (110).

Given those principles, Dr. Naylor considers whether the church is called, as a body, to work for social and cultural transformation. He distinguishes between what individual Christians might have as a calling and what the formal mission of the church is. Any Christian, as a citizen of a country, is free to pursue social and political change (110). Dr. Naylor also points out:

No one is suggesting that “the church is not to do justice at all.” That is a straw man. The church’s elders and deacons serve the interests of justice and mercy (119).

After considering several Scriptures that Dr. Keller uses to support his teaching on the mission of the church, Dr. Naylor concludes:

How shall we respond to Keller’s doctrine of the church’s mission? We must reject it for several reasons:

(1) He fails to establish his case on the basis of Scripture.
(2) He focuses too narrowly on the problem of material poverty and thereby takes away from a concentration on the deeper spiritual plight of man, which is what the church is really to address.
(3) He has misunderstood the Mosaic Law and has taught an unbiblical concept of wealth redistribution.
(4) He has failed to observe proper distinctions between the spheres of church and state and between the Christian and the church (members and the body) (125).

Dr. Naylor is especially concerned that the work of social and cultural transformation can and will divert the resources that a church should use to preach the gospel (125). He goes on to summarize his conclusions:

[W]e deny that the church has a dual mission; we affirm that the Christian should exercise love and mercy in all his relationships; we distinguish between the commission given to the body and the commission given to the member; and we distinguish between the church’s role and the state’s (126).

Rev. Richard Holst, retired church planter and chairman of the International Conference of Reformed Churches, considers Dr. Keller’s methods of Scriptural interpretation in his essay, “Timothy Keller’s Hermeneutic: an example for the church to follow?”

Rev. Holst uses three basic questions to consider Dr. Keller’s hermeneutical approach:

Do the interpretations represent the truth that is chiefly taught in that place? Are the clearer parts of Scripture used to interpret the less clear? And finally, are the deductions from Scripture good and necessary consequences? (138).

Given Dr. Keller’s influence, Rev. Holst seeks to determine if Dr. Keller is a good example of Reformed methodology for others to follow. (138) There are three concerns with Dr. Keller’s hermeneutics, according to Rev. Holst: the use of parables, the use of secondary aspects of passages, and logical fallacies in exegesis.

First, the use of parables:

[P]arables are intended to be ambiguous. Thus, the only safe way to understand a parable is to pay close attention to the inspired interpretation that is usually given in the passage itself, and then by clearer texts elsewhere (138)

Rev. Holst gives the example of how Dr. Keller uses the parable of the prodigal son:

The problem is in the very design of the book (The Prodigal God), which is to use this parable as a lens to understand everything else (139).

Even if the result of such an approach was free from error, Rev. Holst explains that the method is itself problematic:

[O]ne can hardly conceive of a concept more contrary to good hermeneutical procedure than to use a parable to define the Christian faith and, thereafter, to understand the rest of Scripture in this light (139-140).

Second, Rev. Holst finds Dr. Keller’s use of secondary aspects of Scriptural passages to be concerning. The example he gives is Dr. Keller’s use of the parable of the good Samaritan and the discussion with the rich young ruler to say that Jesus is explaining a key part of what it means to be a Christian:

“It appears that Jesus sees care for the poor as part of the essence of being a Christian” (144).

Rev. Holst points out that care for the poor is not the focus of either passage but is, instead, a secondary aspect that Dr. Keller has chosen to highlight.

Lastly, Rev. Holst is concerned with logical fallacies in Dr. Keller’s exegesis of certain passages. He uses an example from Dr. Keller’s Ministries of Mercy where Dr. Keller writes:

“The kingdom of God is the means for the renewal of the entire world and all of the dimensions of life. … If this is the ministry of the Kingdom – to heal all the results of sin in all areas of life, then the church must intentionally use its resources to minster to every ‘circle’” (146).

Rev. Holst explains his concern:

The main problem, however, is with the logic of Keller’s “if, then” transition between the future state and his conclusion regarding the church’s mission. Christ will certainly return on the last day to make a new heavens and a new earth in which no trace of the curse remains. … Just because we are promised that there will be no curse in the New Heavens and New Earth, this does not mean that the church’s mission is to try to get their now, in contradiction of Scriptures that speak clearly on the matter (146).

Rev. Holst concludes:

I think the answer would have to be that Keller is not consistent in adhering to these principles [explained above]. … For this reason, we must conclude that his work does not provide us with the best example to follow (147).

Dr. Schweitzer also wrote the next essay on theistic evolution: “Not Quite” Theistic Evolution: does Tim Keller bridge the gap between creation and evolution? The title is drawn from an answer that Dr. Keller gave in an interview where he was asked if his views were theistic evolution. He replied, “Not quite” (161).

One of the major obstacles to faith that Keller identifies is the conflict between the doctrine of creation and the theory of evolution. … Keller suggests that there is a via media wherein we can affirm both the reality of evolution and also the biblical teaching of God’s creation. But what sort of evolution does Keller think is consistent with Christian faith? An evolution that produced Adam? … Or does he mean an evolution that had nothing to do with Adam? 150-151.

Dr. Schweitzer does not share Dr. Keller’s belief that a via media must be found:

There is no particular reason why the conflict of Christianity with evolutionary science is a problem demanding a solution any more than the conflict of Christianity with Islam (an ideology which, much like evolutionary theory, was conceived in self-conscious rejection of Christianity) (154).

In his writings and interviews on the subject of evolution, Dr. Keller explains that belief in some type of evolution can be consistent with Christianity. Dr. Schweitzer explains that this leaves Dr. Keller with two options: evolution that includes the origin of Adam or evolution that excludes Adam. There are problems with both options.

If Adam is the result of evolution, then damage is done to the biblical understanding of Adam and all the doctrines that go with it:

The culpability of the human race, the justice of God, the basis of redemption, the identity of Christ, and the gospel itself are all predicated upon a first man, Adam, who was the biological and spiritual father of every human being. Without this biblical Adam we do not have a biblical Christianity (158).

Dr. Schweitzer notes that some theistic evolutionists attempt to reconcile an evolutionary origin of Adam with special creation:

However, belief in a “literal” Adam – a single human being from whom we all descended – does not necessarily preclude believing that this literal Adam had some form of sub-human ancestor. This would seem to be what the language in Keller’s white paper is designed to allow for; the idea that evolution was involved in the generation of Adam (158).

This approach raises as many questions as it answers, though (158).

Given that Dr. Keller has indicated that he does not share approach to a literal Adam, Dr. Schweitzer considers the second option:

Perhaps he is only talking about evolution somehow being used in various other aspects of creation, but having no role in God’s immediate creation of Adam. This seems closer to Keller’s personal position, which he distinguishes from theistic evolution as “a bit more intervention, more God in there” (159).

Would this option be an acceptable solution to the problem of reconciling evolutionary science with Christianity? Dr. Schweitzer doesn’t think so:

An account that included evolution at some places but left out this capstone of the project would seem to do very little to help Christians live in intellectual peace with the secular elite who regard the evolution of mankind from animals as an inviolable dogma (159).

Dr. Schweitzer concludes:

Not every obstacle to faith is a false dichotomy waiting to be bridged. Some “problems” are quite real and admit of no legitimate resolution. The intellectual conflict over the origins of life on earth is a prime example (160).

The final essay, “Looking for Communion in All the Wrong Places: Tim Keller and Presbyterian Ecclesiology,” was written by Dr. D.G. Hart, Adjunct Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary, California. Dr. Hart considers whether Dr. Keller’s work, especially through his church planting network, is consistent with a Presbyterian ecclesiology:

Tim Keller is the most famous Presbyterian pastor in the United States today; but whether he identifies his ministry self-consciously with Presbyterianism is another question (164).

Dr. Hart explains:

Keller’s twin commitments to word and deed and to urban ministry have led him into cooperative projects with non-Presbyterians, a further indication of the degree to which his Presbyterianism defines his ministry (172).

One of the examples of Dr. Keller’s work with non-Presbyterians is his Redeemer City to City church planting network:

Redeemer City to City is a church-planting network that started with RPC’s initial efforts to plant churches throughout the New York metropolitan area. It now extend to churches around the world, particularly to congregations in large urban centers, and its aim is to sustain a movement of churches not with a Presbyterian model but with Redeemer’s vision for ministry (172).

What is remarkable about this work is, according to Dr. Hart, that Dr. Keller sees a closer relationship with those who share his ministry goals than with those who share his denominational vows:

In fact, the communion that he has through belonging to the PCA does not seem to be as important or as valuable as the kind of community he hopes to establish through a network of urban churches committed to word and deed ministries and social justice. … What stands out in Keller and RPC’s commitments is not adherence to Reformed theology, worship, and Presbyterian church government, but the priority of mercy ministries, urban sensibilities, and evangelistic strategy for transforming cities and the wider culture (180-181).

Because of this, Dr. Hart concludes:

These contradictions make Keller the most popular contemporary Presbyterian pastor for whom the markers of Presbyterianism appear to matter very little (182).

Having considered these specific concerns with certain aspects of Dr. Keller’s teaching, the authors conclude with their hope for continued conversation and engagement on these issues:

[W]e look forward to the process of clarification which will follow. What is important is not that our own objections be confirmed but that Keller’s own Reformed theology, reflective as it is of the biblical truth, be transmitted in ways that are completely clear (184).

9 thoughts on “Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical

  1. Rick Maddy says:

    Excellent overview, Rachel. I just got the book on Kindle. The very things that troubled us when we read The Prodigal God are some of the very things that these men address. Their analysis is right on target.


  2. Lead Soldier (@DocPencil) says:

    Tim Keller in no way Reformed, although it may suit him to at times receive that tag. He has been publicly equivocal about sin, death and judgment. He held contemplative “monkish” prayer workshops at his home church led by a female RC mystic. He has actively participated in the work of the evolutionist BioLogos organization, for whom he has written a paper on how to get the laity comfortable with evolution. The latter is most alarming; the theistic evolutionists cannot and do not identify with the historic doctrines of atonement and judgment.

    Thanks for the excellent article


  3. Lou G. says:

    The title says “Engaging with Keller”. I certainly hope that you will make every effort to reach out to him for his response to these complaints about his theology. Personally, I believe he is very effective in explaining things to people who are unchurched and wouldn’t have a clue what the WCF is talking about, if quoted at them.

    I believe that Dr. Keller has ample and adequate backing for his approach, even though many of his peers have misunderstood him. I also believe that it would be important for him to do so, in order to avoid misleading others or leaving charges such as these to go on unrefuted.


    • Rachel Miller says:

      Lou~ if you read the book, you’ll see that the authors have been in communication with Dr. Keller before writing this book. Also, they invited him to respond so that they could include his response in the book. He declined, citing his schedule. The authors also made the whole of the book available to Dr. Keller before publication.


    • Pastor Lamb says:

      I don’t get the impression Dr. Keller is “misunderstood”, but that his words and presentation are clear and that there are problems with both. There have been several occassion – especially in the last couple of years – that Dr. Keller’s presentation (and their attendant foci) have come across to me as inherently antithetical to Christianity, in general, and Reformed theology specifically.


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