Engaging with Keller

Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, eds., Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2013), 240pp.  paperback, £9.99/ $15.99

This fascinating volume is something of an in-house discussion into which, because of the nature of the debate, we are invited to peer. The contributors are, by and large, British Presbyterians (Scots and Welsh well represented!), though William Schweitzer (editor and contributor) is American by birth, and D. G. Hart (contributor) speaks from the other side of the pond (at least, from where I am sitting). This is significant for two reasons: first, most of them feel the impress of Keller's labours without necessarily being under his direct influence, and, second, they all hail from within the same doctrinal orbit - subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

It is this confession which forms the backdrop to this volume of essays, for this shared standard provides the rule against which the discussion is taking place. Recognising the sway that the gifted Keller holds over many Reformed and evangelical Christians, especially those of younger years, this volume aims to address a single basic issue: to "consider whether some specific aspects of Keller's teaching are biblically accurate ways of transmitting the Reformed faith" (p.17). (For those inclined to agitation about such matters, there is no requirement in public theological discussion for participants to deal with one another privately, as they are not dealing with personal sin in a church context. Nevertheless, the editors have communicated the full content in advance to Tim Keller.) In other words, is there any degree to which Keller's attempts to communicate the truth of Scripture (in a mode that the world deems relevant) have softened or blunted the edges of that truth?

The book is neatly and well put together in every sense. It is written in a fundamentally appreciative tone, albeit with one or two duff notes, as if the contributors were determined to err, if they must, on the side of love. While this is a healthy approach, there may be one or two points at which they have drawn their own teeth for the sake of an irenic spirit. They are very conscious that Keller has set out to communicate orthodox truth, but question whether or not he has always succeeded. In asking these questions, Engaging with Keller focuses on a fairly tight sequence of issues: sin (and, in measure, the atonement); judgment and hell; the Trinity; social justice; hermeneutics; evolution and creation; and, ecclesiology. Quotations from Keller's published writings are especially multiplied; in this, they seek to be scrupulously fair, not attributing to Keller anything that he has not stated and occasionally picking up on things that he has so far failed to state.

One matter that crops up repeatedly is Keller's debt to C. S. Lewis. While acknowledging Lewis's gift for communicating his opinions with clarity (which is often the principal point of contact and commendation when Keller is linked with him) and recognising his gifts both of the intellect and the imagination, I honestly cannot imagine many British Reformed evangelicals being happy with the tag of "the next C. S. Lewis." The fact that so many American evangelicals seem so indiscriminately enamoured of a man whose opinions were often significantly wrong is a matter of some bewilderment. Taking time specifically to track Keller's influences - especially that of Lewis - might have provided some interesting food for thought, but would probably have been outside the scope of a book confessionally constrained.

After a foreword by Ian Hamilton, and an introduction which both explains and sketches out the style and substance of the whole, we are plunged into the meat of the matter. Iain D. Campbell (also one of the editors) kicks us off by tackling Keller's redefinition of sin, making it to be an act of misplaced love (essentially an idolatrous self-centredness) rather than an act of law-breaking. This, of course, has implications for the nature of the atonement and for the fact of judgment. Campbell considers the confusion in Keller's writings between the symptoms of sin and the cause and nature of sin, looking too at how Keller's treatment of what we might call 'religious sin' sometimes skews his perspective. The great concern, with which Campbell concludes, is that a sub-biblical understanding of sin paves the way for a truncated gospel. He does not charge Keller with this, but is obviously aware of where such roads might lead.

William M. Schweitzer develops his theme along the same lines by asking whether or not Keller communicates an accurate and adequate notion of hell and judgment. He asks three questions: Who condemns people to hell? Who decides that the damned stay in hell? Who metes out the punishment of hell? In Keller's case, opines Schweitzer, we could be forgiven for thinking that the answer is a threefold, "Me." He shows Keller's debt to Lewis (and, through him, George MacDonald) at this point, and asks whether or not Keller might more profitably have taken a line through Jonathan Edwards. This chapter suggests that Keller has not so much found a new way of communicating old truths, as shifted in both manner and matter from orthodoxy.

The next essay looks at Keller's doctrine of the Trinity, most particularly his often-employed motif of the "divine dance." (For some reason this essay has a higher proportion of editing errors, including a couple of points of missing emphasis in the text that blur one or two points.) Kevin J. Bidwell considers the language and arguments Keller employs, questioning whether or not there is much in the way of scriptural support for this description of Trinitarian being and relating, assessing such arguments in the light of various historical figures. He proceeds to ask what is introduced, obscured or excluded (either potentially or by implication) by Keller's analogy. One distracting point in this essay is the query as to what kind of dance we are supposed to imagine. It is not wrong to ask whether or not this notion of dancing is a reverent way of describing the three persons of the Godhead (C. S. Lewis, who employs the same language, seems conscious that it might not be), but the phrasing Bidwell employs may offer anyone looking for a way to dismiss his argument with a point of contention which allows him or her to evade the central and significant thrust of his material. Again, the question is asked whether or not Keller might have found better guides than Lewis and Cornelius Plantinga, concluding that, while Keller clearly sets out to communicate an orthodox Trinitarianism, his favoured analogy simply fails to do it justice.

Peter J. Naylor examines Keller's championing of 'social justice'. It is a brief but pithy treatment of the matter, sketching out the notion of a dual mission of the church, and drawing distinctions between the corporate duties of the church, especially as she gathers, and the individual responsibilities of the saints, especially as they scatter, and between the appointed ministers of the church and the members of the church more generally (is there a hint of clericalism at this point?). Too, we need to ask just how we are to take Christ as our model in such matters. In a chapter notable for its pithy and pointed use of Scripture, not least in assessing Keller's own exegesis and applications, Naylor introduces some fairly weighty concerns against the sense of priority afforded by Keller to social justice.

In a shorter but significant contribution, C. Richard H. Holst considers Tim Keller's hermeneutical approach. Concisely and clearly, Holst first sketches out what he calls "the Westminster Hermeneutic" before comparing Keller's vision, in which he identifies three weaknesses: the use of parables to identify key doctrines; the reliance on secondary aspects of texts to make primary points; and, the apparent use of logical fallacies in exegesis. Measured and thoughtful, this essay underpins the points made in several others and also acts as a general call to all those who handle the word of truth, warning us away from any sleight of hand in our interpretation and application of the text.

Schweitzer returns to the arena to take up Keller's attempts to negotiate a middle way between creation and evolution. He suggests that if your "goal is not to adjudicate competing truth claims but to eliminate the tension between them" (p.197) then the outcome will invariably be one of accommodation. Distinguishing between 'science' as the objective data of nature and the consensus pronouncements of recognised scientific authorities, Schweitzer seeks to show how Keller has conflated these two senses in his efforts to resolve various questions and doubts. 
Finally, and most cogently, what is Keller's compromise solution, and where does it leave Adam? Again, we are standing in an overlap at this point, for this question touches on questions of human identity, sin, atonement, and so on. Schweitzer not only exposes some of the fundamental problems of any theory that involves an evolved Adam, but also tellingly quotes from the vitriolic rejection of Keller's position as untenable by a typically hard-line evolutionist, who dismisses any attempt to reconcile the incompatible. The issue is not so much, then, what the bridge between creation and evolution might look like, as whether or not it is even possible.

D. G. Hart draws attention to consider Keller's ecclesiology. Here we must remember again that we are in the realm of Presbyterianism, and - for some of us - watching interaction that is, perhaps in the minds of the authors and editors, essentially a family discussion. Hart's assertion that only the Presbyterian are truly Reformed might not, however, sit well with readers who might not be Presbyterian but consider themselves Reformed. More central is the claim that Tim Keller, as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (RPC) and part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), is bound by his oaths of office to certain notions of what Christ's church is and who he is in relation to it. Hart seems persuaded that only full-orbed Presbyterian churches deserve the name of church. 

While this is a legitimate perspective, he might have been on more solid ground had he addressed, for example, the two questions, "What is a church?" and "What is the Presbyterian church to which Keller is committed?" I say this because one of Hart's main points is that, "instead of explaining what distinguishes the church as a Presbyterian congregation, RPC's values reveal the church to be an urban institution with a burden to build community among city-dwellers" (p.216), and there are plenty of churchmen (though not necessarily Presbyterians) who would stand with Hart in asserting that the church is not simply an urban institution with a burden to build community among city-dwellers. Hart's second and further issue could then have been developed: whether or not - in his seemingly fluid sense of the nature of the Presbyterian Church in America (in its overarching structures and local, congregational identities) - Keller has moved away, not only from the basic notion of what a church must be, but also from his own avowed sense of what his church ought to be.

Hart circles back to this line of thought at the end of his chapter: "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" (p.236). Some of those are issues within and without Presbyterianism, though given particular edge by Keller's commitment to the PCA. Given Keller's influence within and without Presbyterianism, they are also matters of importance to the wider community of those who are or who would consider themselves Reformed.

A very brief postscript closes the whole, with a further clear statement of intent: "Tim Keller intends to teach the orthodox truth in a way that is relevant to contemporary culture. The problem is that some of his teachings seem to be better at being relevant than they are at conveying the fullness of Biblical truth" (p.239). The editors express very simply their desire that this conversation in which they have engaged will have the effect of promoting clarity, accuracy and unity in Christ's church, to the glory of his name and for the sake of the gospel.

In many ways, this is an eminently laudable book, a careful, fraternal and insightful compilation of legitimate and well-expressed concerns. It is respectful yet direct, bold yet gracious. I hope that anyone who reads the book with a Berean spirit will await Tim Keller's response with legitimate interest. However, this book involves a broader test. Criticism of the celebrity culture within evangelicalism has been widespread in some circles and widely resented in others. Responses to this book may well reveal more of the nature of that problem. In this mature, specific and substantial treatment of one of the more prominent men in the movement often called new Calvinism, there is no vindictive gloating because an alleged-idol has feet of clay, no gleeful attempt to destroy a gilded image. But how will it be received? I hope not with hyper-defensiveness and a principled determination to dismiss what might dare to identify matters of genuine concern in the teaching of a man appreciated by many, often including his critics. Here is a chance to demonstrate not enslavement to celebrity but esteem for a man without mindless endorsement of his every utterance. I am grateful that this book has been written - grateful for its spirit, its precision, its intention, and grateful in prospect for the effect that I trust it will have.

Rev. Jeremy Walker is the pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, West Sussex and regular contributor to reformation21.