“Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 1 “Keller on ‘Rebranding’ the Doctrine of Sin”

Iain D. Campbell is first up to bat as he examines Tim Keller’s popular presentation on sin.  Harmatiology (the study of the doctrine of sin) is one of Campbell’s research interests as seen in his book The Doctrine of Sin where he interacts with various 20th century liberal and neo-orthodox theologians.

buddha keller

Before getting into the meat of Campbell’s chapter, I want to briefly mention a couple of quibbles which might benefit any republication of this work.  First, Campbell is disappointed that Keller mentions little Scripture in his chapter on sin in The Reason for God (p. 38), but Campbell admits later that Keller’s book on the topic of idolatry, Counterfeit Gods, is loaded with biblical narratives (p. 40).  It seems strange to require some quota on Scripture references in an apologetic book for secular people when Keller’s main work on the topic (which is written for Christians) more than meets such a quota.

Second, Campbell critiques the title of Keller’s well-loved book, The Prodigal God, because ‘prodigality’ is not an attribute of God (p. 45).  Yet, I don’t recall Keller ever arguing for ‘prodigality’ as an attribute of God in the technical or systematic sense.  Third, on p. 54 Campbell critiques Keller’s handing of Mark 2:27-28 in The King’s Cross where Keller sees Jesus ‘abolishing religion’.  Campbell takes issue with Keller’s point and says that Jesus actually came to mark religion’s (or institutional religion’s) true beginning.  However, Campbell misunderstand Keller’s well-known dialectic of religion-irreligion with the gospel as the third way.  Keller is not dismissing institutional religion or what we might think as religious practice within the Christian tradition.  He is actually differentiating Christianity from all other religions.  However, unless one has read Center Church  or Keller’s earlier articles and sermons on this, one might misconstrue Keller as Campbell does.  (Campbell also suggests that Keller is abandoning the ‘Christian Sabbath’ position.  But King’s Cross doesn’t address that issue at all.  I don’t actually know Keller’s position on the Sabbath.)

Finally, at the end of the chapter, Campbell cites a review of Center Church where the reviewer positively assesses Keller’s notion of ‘theological vision’, but Campbell says such a notion is dangerously close to the so-called ’emergent church’. (p. 60) I don’t know if Campbell is familiar with the different between the Emergent Church and the emerging church with all its different streams.  Even if he meant the former, it is grossly inaccurate to call Keller’s notion of ‘theological vision’ being anywhere close to the beliefs of the more unorthodox Emergent Church.  A careful reading of the first several pages of Center Church will define theological vision as “a vision for what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.”  But again, Campbell might not be familiar with much of the content in Center Church  (much less the first chapter).

With those quibbles out of the way, we dive into the meat of Campbell’s argument.  Campbell is concerned with Keller’s presentation of sin which downplays, or in Campbell’s words ‘dismisses’, the notion that sin is the breaking of God’s law.  Here is Campbell in his own words, “Keller wants to move his readers away from the idea that sin can be defined merely in terms of breaking divine rules; that is, in breaking the commandments of God” (p.36) and that Keller is “so quick to dismiss a definition of sin as a breaking of God’s rules.” (p.38) Campbell goes on to say, “Keller does not deny this; yet having dismissed defining sin as disobedience, he then absolutizes the prohibition of idolatry in the first commandment and defines sin through the lens of that particular proscription.” (p. 39) Campbell finds this problematic in that without a strong notion of sin as breaking God’s law and deserving a penalty, there is little basis for ‘penal’ substitutionary atonement. (p. 40)

So, the first problem Campbell sees is that Keller is, at least practically, dismissing the definition of sin as the breaking of God’s law.  Obviously, Keller is not denying this perspective on sin (and Campbell is careful to point this out), but I would point out a few things in response to Campbell.  First, Keller does speak and teach elsewhere on sin as the breaking of God’s law.  In question 16 of the New City Catechism  (which Tim Keller had a major role in formulating, and I assume he uses the NCC at Redeemer Presbyterian Church), in response to the question “What is Sin?” the catechism answers, “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.”

Second, Keller actually speaks of sin as ‘breaking God’s law’ in a deeper way than Campbell realizes.  Often, Keller quotes Luther on how the breaking of the any commandment is also a breaking of the first commandment, which is idolatry.  So, all sins are a breaking of the first commandment, and all these sins are acts of idolatry.  Now, even if one disagrees with Luther (and Keller) on this point, you still have Keller claiming that all sin is a breaking of God’s law, and he does connect it to idolatry.  Thus, rather than dismissing the notion of sin as law-breaking, Keller deepens and widens that notion.

Third, I don’t find Keller’s discussion of sin as idolatry problematic since he is essentially saying the same thing as G.K. Beale in We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.  Beale sees the ‘sin as idolatry’ motif as one of the most dominating themes in biblical theology.  He begins in Genesis 3 and goes to the book of Revelation showing how idolatry is a pervasive theme of God’s creatures.  Now, even if Keller is trying to contextualize the doctrine of sin to a postmodern, secular culture, he isn’t pulling his material out of the eisegetical magician’s hat.  He is using a major biblical thread and preaching it to his audience. (Perhaps Beale is wrong, too.  Campbell is free to make that argument.)

Fourth, I think Keller appreciates the nuance and mosaic the Bible gives concerning sin more than Campbell does (or at least in what Campbell presents in this chapter).  Keller would agree with Cornelis Plantinga Jr.’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin that sin is “lawlessness and faithlessness, expressed in an array of images.” (p. 5)   All sin is lawlessness, yet all sin is idolatry (i.e. expressing faith/dependence in something else besides the Creator).  And there are many ways to communicate these truths to people today.  While the Bible gives one ‘doctrine of sin’ there are many little subheadings and perspectives to this doctrine that could fill all the books in the world.  This means that no pastor or theologian can exhaust it all in one chapter of an apologetics book or a small book on counterfeit gods.

Besides Campbell’s concern that Keller dismisses the notion that sin is lawlessness, Campbell is just as concerned with Keller’s presentation that sin and idolatry are subjectivistic.  Campbell writes, “Part of the problem with this approach is its subjectivity…The primary focus of the gospel is to restore our relationship with God, not our personal wellbeing.” (p.43) I find this sentence confusing.  Regarding subjectivity, how is focusing on the existential nature of sin unbiblical?  While many non-evangelicals look at cosmic or structural dimensions of sin, Keller is focusing on the aspect of sin that requires a personal response to the gospel!  Subjectivity is not a bad thing (but subjectivism is).  Keller is certainly not a subjectivist when it comes to sin since he also writes/teaches about the cosmic dimension of sin. It is also uncharitable to Keller to imply that he underemphasizes the sinner’s relationship to God and focuses mainly on personal wellbeing.  Technically, both aspects are connected, but Keller is well-known for his Christ-centered model of preaching and his emphasis on forensic justification and imputation.  I would actually part ways with Keller on that point in that I think union with Christ is the more dominant soteriological motif  (as do John Calvin, Richard Gaffin, Sinclair Ferguson, and William B. Evans).

The following sentence from Campbell is also confusing.  “But the nature of sin is not idol-making but law-breaking, of which the manufacturing of idols is a specific example.” (p.44) What does Campbell mean by the ‘nature of sin’?  Does he mean a definition of sin, source of sin, predominant theme of sin in the Bible?  The Reformed tradition might qualify Campbell and place at least some emphasis on our bondage to sin (both in guilt and corruption), even before we ourselves break God’s law due to our solidarity with Adam.

In conclusion, I think Campbell has not read Keller carefully, and I also think he doesn’t grasp the nuance and mosaic portrait of sin the Bible gives us.  Perhaps Keller could emphasize more perspectives of the mosaic, but I don’t think Campbell can fault Keller for being unbiblical in what he does teach (though perhaps Campbell’s critique of Keller’s use of certain narratives in Counterfeit Gods is on point).

I would have also appreciated Campbell citing more confessional documents to show if Keller is somehow outside the bounds of his Reformed confessional tradition.  If Keller is teaching within the bounds of the PCA’s standards, then Campbell’s concerns seem unfounded.


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