Before beginning my series of blog posts reviewing Engaging With Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical edited by Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, here is some background on my interaction with Tim Keller. I first heard of Keller in 2004-05 while a freshman in college. My RUF campus minister would quote Keller a lot. However, I never read Keller until my senior year when The Reason for God came out, and I also began listening to many of Keller’s sermons.
After enrolling at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte in the summer of 2008, I experienced three wonderful years learning what it means to be ‘winsomely Reformed’ and to appreciate both the unity and diversity in the Reformed tradition. I addition, RTS Charlotte seemed friendly to being confessional and to benefitting greatly from Keller. I was taught that we have a “fixed theology and a flexible methodology”. So I devoured more of Keller’s sermons, read all his articles and books, and began to pray about church planting.
While I do disagree with Keller on some things or question a line or two in his books, I believe his net effect is very positive and that wedding a confessional commitment with a missional mindset is not only coherent, but biblical.
So, with my background on the table, let’s look at this new book engaging Tim Keller’s thinking.
The publication of Engaging With Keller had me worried at first. Tim Keller is a divisive personality for many people, and it seemed that reactions would be cast in extreme forms such as, “This book nails it on the head, and Tim Keller is a bad influence on young pastors” or “These negative Reformed people are just trying to cast down Keller and those who admire him.”
Thankfully, neither reaction reflects the intention of this book. Iain Hamilton writes his Foreword with admiration of Keller, saying, “Dr. Tim Keller as done immense good for the kingdom of God as a theological teacher, innovative and imaginative pastor, and engaging apologist…So it is first as an admirer of Dr. Keller that I write the foreword to this collection of essays on Dr. Keller’s theology and methodology.” (p. 7) These words made me calm down after I had read someone on Facebook call Keller a liberal, unorthodox pastor when they heard this book was being published.
The General Introduction carried on the charitable tone of Hamilton. The book’s editors, Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer praise Keller’s ministry and church planting expertise (p. 15, 17). Yet, their concern is that though 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…Keller has consistently demonstrated his commitment to Reformed orthodoxy in numerous ways…These things all indicate to us that Keller is orthodox in his beliefs. The problem comes in the way he chooses to express his orthodox faith.” (p. 17, 20-21) Contributors of the book are supposed to demonstrate that “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 substantively different answers to the same questions. Demonstrating the reality of this difference is an important contribution of these essays.” (p. 24)
My main quibble is the comment on page 21, “Keller seems to have assigned himself a very demanding project: to package Christianity for the contemporary unchurched and largely postmodern audience.” I am confused as to whether the authors believe that Keller does a poor job ‘packaging’ Christianity, or is it wrong to ‘package’ Christianity altogether? Indeed, the work ‘package’ is not entirely helpful as Keller would say he ‘contextualizes’ Christian teaching. Yet, the debate over contextualization is not “if” but “how”. The very moment we dress up, talk in a particular language, and apply the Bible, we are contextualizing. Indeed, William Ames says this is what it means to do theology, which the application of God’s Word for all of life.
If the authors are critiquing Keller’s point on contextualization, then there should be a chapter on the topic. However, it seems that issue is approached in passing or in bite-size chunks and not as a full critique in a chapter.
The book is off to a healthy start. The charitable, brotherly tone is to be commended, which is often missing in these discussions.
Tomorrow I will look at Campbell’s chapter on Keller’s ‘rebranding’ of the doctrine of sin.