Truth Demands Truth—The History Behind The History Of Tim Keller: A Review Essay (Part 2)

Hansen oddly inserts the section on the Gospel Coalition’s founding at the tail end of over forty pages on Westminster Seminary and the Presbyterian world. In fact, the author covers the founding of the organization by starting with the deep and lasting influence of Jack Miller on Keller. This part of the book reads as if a course correction were needed. Readers have gone too far into the world of conservative Presbyterians and need to come back to the world of interdenominational, parachurch evangelicalism. To compensate (apparently), Hansen reminds readers, again, after writing about the profound impact Miller made on Keller, that the impulse behind the Gospel Coalition was to recover the broad British evangelicalism of John Stott, I. Howard Marshall, J. I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and C. S. Lewis. It is as if Hansen instructs readers not to be fooled by the detour just taken through the PCA and Westminster. Keller needs to return to the narrative of his youth when he was at IVP and dating a woman who had corresponded with C. S. Lewis.

Nevertheless, the influences of the Westminster/PCA world were very much present in the twenty-first-century Keller—the apologist who dissected the social and cultural contradictions of modernity with help from Roman Catholic philosophers (Taylor and MacIntyre). Between 2004 and 2008, Keller began to meet with a select group of businessmen, pastors, and academics in Charlottesville, Virginia. The group went by the name, Dogwood Fellowship, and came together through the efforts of James Davison Hunter, a prominent sociologist at the University of Virginia. The pastor in the group was Skip Ryan, a prodigy of Edmund Clowney who pastored Trinity PCA in Charlottesville. Through reading Taylor, MacIntyre, Philip Rieff, and Robert Bellah, the fellows reflected on “how the church should respond to their times and culture.” [239] The influence was important. Keller tried to re-write his highly successful The Reason for God (2008) in a way that exposed the “contradictions in Western efforts to find a viable alternative to the Enlightenment.” [243–44] The new book, Making Sense of God (2015) did not find “a broad audience.” [243] Keller’s most avid readers seemed to want the old Keller of Clowney, Conn, and Miller. Yet, Taylor and MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment allowed Keller to refresh his apologetics and turn back to Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositionalism, never a popular position among Anglo-American evangelicals.

This intellectual counter to the Enlightenment also opened a lane for Keller to turn to Lesslie Newbigin and N. T. Wright. Hansen uses Princeton Seminary’s refusal to grant the Kuyper Prize to Keller in 2017 and the ensuing lectures that the New York City pastor gave anyway to explain the influences of Newbigin and Wright on Keller. Under the heading of promoting “incisive public apologetics,” Keller discussed the “horizontal and vertical dimensions of the faith,” the best way to critique secularism, the church’s obligation to “disrupt the culture’s social categories,” the need to integrate faith and work, and the interdependence of the global church and local churches. [248–250] Readers will be hard pressed to keep up with all the moving parts of Keller’s explanation of and plea for a new mode of apologetics. Some of this owes to Hansen having to summarize difficult concepts. But some also owes to Keller trying to do too much. Is he a New York City pastor who does a better form of street preaching than Jack Miller, one aimed at an audience of urban sophisticates? Or is Keller C. S. Lewis 2.0, updated with Taylor and MacIntyre? To say you cannot do both is beyond this writer’s pay grade. But recognizing the challenge of doing even one of these jobs well might have helped Keller get in a lane and stay in it.

What is clear is that Keller is a voracious reader and supremely intellectually curious. Whether pastors should range as far beyond Scripture, the history of exegesis, or the vast literature of theological reflection is one question. But even if you grant that some pastors will have the time, the staff, and the resources to read as widely and write as much as Keller has, the question is still how are you going to put it all together. Hansen does not answer that question well perhaps because Keller himself has been a work in progress. Typically, though, someone with a particular insight will deepen it, continue to work out its implications, protect that idea or set of arguments from rivals or from those who would abuse it. What Hansen presents is a pastor who has gone through a set of intellectual phases. If one theme gives Keller’s reading history coherence it is an effort to make Christianity relevant in New York City. Engaging with secular, highly successful professionals living and working in the most affluent and influential city in the West did seem to give Keller a vision. The initial tool kit of Clowney, Conn, and Miller gave him credibility among the Protestants who wanted a church planting pastor to lead their Bible studies. Over time, those Westminster and Presbyterian voices receded. No one in New York City was reading Harvie Conn. Plenty of people at certain sectors of New York society were talking about Charles Taylor. Hansen explains this phenomenon by summarizing Keller’s achievement as “the guide to the gurus.” Hansen adds, “he’s not an original thinker.” “Rarely will you find an idea in Keller than you can’t trace back to someone else.” His “originality comes in his synthesis.” [266] What Hansen fails to notice is that the Bible (or particular book of the Bible) does not emerge as one of the major influences on a pastor with obligations to preach the whole counsel of God. That might come across as a pietistic gotcha. But is it actually wrong to wonder how a person responsible for weekly preaching, leading worship, pastoral oversight, and responsibilities in the courts of the church has time to keep up with the reading list of a graduate course in sociology?

Here is the irony of Tim Keller. His reading in sources outside the normal confines of Presbyterian and Reformed pastors was fairly impressive (though also faddish), but for all of his reflection on cities and the social context for ministry, he did not seem to visit the shelf in the library that holds books on institutions. Keller sometimes wrote about social capital and the work of churches in creating and sustaining communities. That kind of observation is close to the point that Yuval Levin has made about the significance of institutions in modern society. According to Yuval Levin, editor of National Interest, and author of A Time to Build (2020), institutions are “the durable forms of our common life, the shapes, the structures of the things we do together.” They fight against an American individualism. More importantly, they build trust in those very institutions. Levin argues that “each institution forms the people within it” to do their work with integrity. It follows then that institutions foster “an internal ethic that makes the people trustworthy.”

If you are thinking about the church, you might add that the ministry of Word and sacrament, not to mention church polity, are mechanisms that sustain the institutional church, give it trustworthiness, and encourage its members and officers to function in ways worthy of the institution (not to mention a desire to follow God). Levin does acknowledge the decline of the church as one mark of the decline of American institutions. He specifically cites the problem of celebrity pastors and the potential for specific star ministers to set up their own churches or ministries as a way to capitalize on their unique gifts and following. Levin does not but could include the rise of megachurches and affinity networks of congregations that have supplanted the institutional forms that denominations used to represent. Instead of building a sense of belonging around a denomination’s creed and polity, since at least the rise of Willow Creek in the early 1990s, the energy in American Protestantism has been in those gatherings and fellowships that form around the vision and charisma of a celebrity pastor (or alliance of celebrity pastors).

Of course, most observers, if they are thinking about Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and Bill Hybels, will be quick to distinguish the first from the next two because of Keller’s personal integrity. That is true. One could add that Keller’s New Life Presbyterians (downstream from New School Presbyterianism) is also a better brand of Protestantism from Hybels’ or Driscoll’s. But if someone is paying attention to cities the way Keller said he was, and if he considered the importance of institutions among large numbers of people from very diverse backgrounds living in such close proximity, he might have wondered about the kind of institutional influence he might have had if he had worked more with existing institutions—Westminster and the PCA—than he did. What kind of churches might Keller have started and sustained in New York had he used the resources and skills of others within his own Presbyterian networks? And on the other side, what kind of help might he have given to the seminary and denomination that gave him his start in ministry had he also worked on the behalf of Westminster and the PCA? What would it have meant for Keller, Westminster, and the PCA to coordinate their efforts around a New Life Presbyterian, urban-friendly ministry instead of letting Keller and Redeemer NYC experiment on their own only to attract imitators from across the spectrum of American evangelicalism? If you care about institutions and sustainability, you might cultivate synergy among institutions rather than, as is typical of entrepreneurial parachurch American Protestantism, going it alone and reinventing the wheel.

As unlikely as it may seem to Keller’s biggest defenders, he has, perhaps without intention, imitated those academics, politicians, journalists and other elites who have promoted themselves at the expense of building the institutions where they work. Levin observes that many politicians now regard the major political parties or the institution of Congress or the presidency merely as vehicles to increase a person’s reputation and fame. As Levin said in a recent interview, “you see it in a lot of our institutions where people who ought to be functioning like insiders are actually functioning like outsiders, and that makes those institutions very hard to trust and take seriously.” The parallel with Keller is not hard to imagine. Here is a Presbyterian pastor who functioned in much of his institutional life (e.g., Gospel Coalition and City-to-City) like he was an independent minster. Some may object that this line of critique questions Keller’s motives. Nothing so insidious is in view.

Keller was a product of his time. He began his most visibly successful pastorate in an age of the megachurch. He also was part of a wing of evangelicalism (the Gospel Coalition) that was worried about the drift of the old evangelical establishment. In addition, the city loomed rightfully in his imagination as a place for missions and evangelism. So, what do you do? Do you double down on your own Presbyterian denomination, or do you create other institutions? That has been a dynamic of American Protestantism going all the way back to the Second Not-So-Good Awakening. What made Keller’s situation different, however, was the rise of social media and the potential for internet celebrity and internet fellowship. Parachurch ministries were already a drain on Reformed and Presbyterian denominations. Internet fame and social networks only made it even more possible to minister and have influence free from denominational constraints. Through it all, however, Keller, at least as Hansen shows, for all of his reading in sociological literature about cities did not seem to think about social forces that were weakening the institutions that gave him his professional start.

The problem of institutions and internet celebrity is not simply one for the PCA or WTS. It is also a reality for the institutions that Keller started. What will become of The Gospel Coalition or City-To-City now that Keller is unable to lead them? The lures of charisma and personality seldom transfer to the successor in an institution started by a famous pastor. For that reason, the thinking about church and culture or ministry in modern society that made Keller a “guide to the gurus” has not solved the problem of celebrity ministry and the institutions that follow it. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association still exists but it is a shell of what it once was. Moody Bible Institute also exists but the school is hardly following in the path that D. L. Moody blazed for zealous Christians who wanted basic Bible training before working on the mission field or urban evangelism. Jerry Falwell and Liberty University is just one more example of institutional succession within the realm of celebrity ministry but outside the structures of church polity.

Of course, none of this detracts from the following that Keller had and will continue to have through his books and sermons. Francis Schaeffer also continues to attract readers and sustains many of those who grew up reading him. But how hard is it to imagine a prominent pastor or theologian investing his gifts and influence in an existing Protestant communion? J. Gresham Machen comes to mind. In his case, a denomination and two seminaries remember him and continue his legacy (for better and worse). It could have been that way for Tim Keller, Westminster, and the PCA. Chances are, however, that the institution to continue Keller’s legacy will not be a Presbyterian school or denomination but The Gospel Coalition. The reason for that has a lot to do with a pastor who read a lot, wrote a lot, and imagined on a metropolitan scale, but did so as a well-funded independent contractor. If Keller had done all that within the bounds and ties of a Presbyterian denomination, his influence and legacy would not be as big, but likely much more coherent.

Collin Hansen, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023. 320 pp. $26.99 (cloth).

©Darryl Hart. All Rights Reserved.

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Posted by Darryl Hart | Thursday, August 10, 2023 | Categorized PCA, Reviews | Tagged Bookmark the permalink.

About Darryl Hart

Just in: D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College.  He is has written biographies of J. Gresham Machen, John Williamson Nevin, H. L. Mencken, and Benjamin Franklin. He is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and lives in Michigan with his wife, Ann.

One comment

  1. If City-to-City or TGC represent a paradigm shift in the way American evangelicalism responds to the demands of contemporary culture (“community” activism, ambiguous sexual identities, alternative views of history) where does that leave either the megachurches or even the run-of-the-mill independent congregations, not to mention its influence on vertically structured denominations? Will the para-church organizations be around to pick up the pieces when local congregations implode under the pressures of the secular culture?

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