Truth Demands Truth—The History Behind The History Of Tim Keller: A Review Essay (Part 1)

Readers will need to keep their eyes on the moving ball when reading Collin Hansen’s winding intellectual portrait of Tim Keller, the New York City PCA pastor who conceded to R. C. Sproul half the world of doctrine in order for Keller to occupy cultural side of the Reformed brain. Readers should be careful not to be fooled by the cover which features the image of Keller on a bus stop bench that went viral as a meme with the phrase, “There’s nothing more relaxing than humility.” This book is about more than Keller. It is also about the author, Hansen, who was remarkably instrumental in creating the New Calvinist movement. Even here readers need to be on the ready and not confuse the New Calvinism of Keller with the Neo-Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper. Twenty years later that distinction may be harder to maintain since New Calvinism is blurring into Neo-Calvinism thanks to the recovery and current popularity of Herman Bavinck and his many tomes (recently translated into English and vetted by James Eglinton, University of Edinburgh theologian, biographer of Bavinck, and supervisor of many graduate students writing dissertations on the Dutch theologian).

For all of the layers of meaning in Hansen’s biography—the text as well as the subtext—the book packs a major surprise: Tim Keller is chiefly a New Life Presbyterian shaped by the ethos of Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1980s when both institutions sorted through their histories and reset their relationships to the broader evangelical world. Hansen puts a lot of moving parts—evangelical, mainline Protestant, British Protestantism, sociology, and philosophy—into the formation of Tim Keller’s mind (and ministry). But unintentionally the author shows that the Presbyterian mix of Edmund Clowney (biblical theological preaching), Harvie Conn (urban ministry), and Jack Miller (New Life Presbyterian cultural relevance) set the agenda for Keller’s ministry.

Collin Hansen arrived on the evangelical scene when architects were drafting plans for the New Calvinism. His 2008 book, Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Young Journalists Journey with the New Calvinists (Crossway) came three years after the creation of The Gospel Coalition, a parachurch endeavor imagined by Tim Keller and D. A. Carson. Hansen’s book emerged from an article on New Calvinists for Christianity Today magazine published just one year after TGC. The primary object of Hansen’s reporting on the resurgence of Calvinism was John Piper and the platform he had created through his Passion conferences. Piper’s frequent invocation of Jonathan Edwards was another piece in the Calvinistic identity of this convergence of evangelical pastors, seminary professors, and conference celebrities. George Marsden’s awarding-winning biography of Edwards, published by Yale University Press in 2003, was another sign of Calvinism’s growing popularity at the same time that it signaled academic respectability for pastors and publishers outside the evangelical or secular academies. Readers may not remember that the graphics on the cover of Hansen’s book was a cartoon figure wearing a T-shirt that read, “Jonathan Edwards is my Homeboy.”

Curiously, Hansen’s initial coverage of a movement among Baptists and Presbyterians to recover Puritan and conservative Presbyterian pastors and theologians (from Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones to Sproul and MacArthur) was much more dependent on Piper than Keller or Carson. Hansen’s book, published by Crossway, a chief outlet for many of Piper’s writings, mentioned Keller and Carson only twice. Keller himself seldom published with Crossway; he made his name with best-sellers publish by New York City trade presses. One indication of the success of these Reformed-ish cross-currents in the 2000s was Time magazine’s recognition of Calvinism in 2009 as one of “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” According to the article, Calvinism was evangelicalism’s “latest success story.” Even as late as 2009, the main figures responsible for Calvinism’s did not include Keller. Instead, the “passion and energy” in the evangelical world were coming from Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Al Mohler. If Hansen did not create New Calvinism, he almost single-handedly gave it an identity—Young, Restless, and Reformed. New Calvinism was not Neo-Calvinism. New Calvinism was Edwards and Piper. Neo-Calvinism was Kuyper, Dutch-Reformed denominations, Louis Berkhof, Geerhardus Vos, and Cornelius Van Til. No one knew it in 2009, but Keller was remarkably well situated to bridge the gap between British-inflected evangelicalism and Dutch Calvinism. Whether everyone benefitted from the merger and acquisitions is another question.

As hard as it is to imagine, had Hansen decided to write a book like this ten years ago, he might have had trouble convincing a publisher that Keller was worthy of an intellectual biography. When journalists started to pay attention to New Calvinism—around the time of the Time magazine article—most of the attention was shifting from Piper to Driscoll. Stories in the New York Times and elsewhere tried to figure out the appeal not only of Reformed doctrine but also of Driscoll’s swashbuckling, color-outside-the-lines manner. But around 2012, when the Seattle pastor resigned from leadership in the Acts 29 network, the first indication of the “fall” of Mars Hill after its “rise,” the safer bet for a celebrity pastor was the moderate, well-spoken, and best-selling author, Keller. His location in New York City—“if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”—also raised Keller’s standing over Piper’s equally urban but not so hip mid-western Minneapolis setting. (Also, what do you do with Piper’s southern accent?) For that reason, in 2013 when Brad Vermurlen started the research that led to his book, Reformed Resurgence: The New Calvinist Movement and the Battle over American Evangelicalism (2020), he decided to go to New York City and observe Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Vermurlen also spent time at Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota. But the difference in time devoted to each church is telling. Vermurlen spent five months in New York before visiting Minneapolis for two months. Piper may have been the initial inspiration for the New Calvinism but by the early 2010s, Keller had both outperformed other Gospel Coalition founders, and had become a safer spokesperson thanks to his habitual search for a third-way between extremes.

The back story of New Calvinism and The Gospel Coalition is largely absent from Hansen’s book, which is an odd omission if only because celebrity pastors rely on mass media and social networks to gain followings beyond a local congregation or denomination. Instead, the book presents Keller as a constellation of ideas and thinkers, a pastor who reads a lot, synthesizes many sources, and packages Christian notions in ways accessible to people living in big cities in the United States and around the world. The narrative begins with some obscure evangelical figures from the 1970s when Keller was a student at Bucknell University. While working for InterVarsity on campus, Keller organized a concert that featured John Guest and the Exkursions. An Anglican priest who had converted at a Billy Graham revival, Guest went on to found the Trinity Episcopal School of Ministry. Few readers born after 1970 will recognized Guest’s name, but the most popular pastor among evangelical Bucknell students, Dick Merritt of the local First Presbyterian Church, is even more obscure. Some who knew Keller and Merritt see in the former’s ministry telltale signs of the latter, who was a graduate of Princeton Seminary. According to one contemporary, Merritt “was a very sophisticated person” who “read widely.” An “unknown in this little college town in central Pennsylvania,” Merritt was so good he “could’ve been a national figure.” [27] From those early influences, Hansen moves on to prominent figures, from Jonathan Edwards, John Stott, C. S. Lewis, and Francis Schaeffer to R. C. Sproul, Cornelius Van Til, Addison Leitch, and Elizabeth Elliott.

Hansen tries to make these influences personal as much as possible. In the case of Lewis, Kathy Keller had corresponded with the British scholar as a twelve-year old, a direct connection that allows Hansen to devote a short chapter to the ways in which Keller quotes stories by and imitates Lewis’ apologetics. In the case of Elisabeth Elliot, the Kellers both took her course, “Christian Expression in Speech, Writing, and Behavior,” at Gordon-Conwell. [77] Obviously, a direct tie to Jonathan Edwards, who died in 1756, is a hard connection to make. Here, Gordon-Conwell’s church history professor, Richard Lovelace enables dot connecting. The PCUSA professor’s lectures on revivalism “introduced Keller to the cultural dynamics” of awakenings. Lovelace also taught Keller about the precise origins of the First (Pretty Good) Great Awakening—namely, Edwards’ two sermons in 1734 on justification by faith. [96] Readers will be hard pressed to miss that Hansen’s narrative for Keller is to build forward better.

Until this point of the book, with Keller in seminary—about two-fifths of the way through—readers may sense Tim Keller’s brain is like a notebook in which he (or Hansen) keeps adding new sets of notes. But only with the future pastor’s awareness and interaction with Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia does a measure of coherence emerge. The seminary’s president, Edmund P. Clowney, first met Keller at Bucknell University through common involvement in campus ministry. Clowney also spent time with Keller at Gordon-Conwell when lecturing on preaching. A decisive encounter came in 1973 at the Pinebrook Bible Conference in the Poconos—a campground and conference center established by Percy Crawford, the founder of the original King’s College in Westchester County, NY (Crawford had also studied for a year at Westminster Seminary). At Pinebrook, Clowney singled Keller out and the two took a walk to discuss a calling to the ministry. For Hansen (and supposedly for Keller), that meeting was so decisive that the biographer can write the following: “Clowney is the only close personal influence [other than Kathy Keller] who knew Tim Keller from his awkward Bucknell years in Lewisburg through the Redeemer megachurch church years in New York.” Clowney was the “only mentor to go out of his way” to advise Keller during transitions in his career. In fact, “much of what the world knows best about Keller”—preaching—“he first learned from Clowney.” [128–129] Hansen does not write that way about Lewis, Stott, Schaeffer, or Sproul. Keller dedicated his book, The Prodigal God (2008), to Clowney and used the Westminster president’s interpretation of the Prodigal Son parable as the volume’s central theme. [141] (The chapter on Clowney is the second longest in the book.)

Hansen does not draw attention to the influence of Westminster, but readers will be hard pressed to avoid the conclusion that the Philadelphia seminary’s 1980s theological profile was more decisive in Keller’s development as a pastor than any other source. Keller himself became part of the seminary’s reputation and identity in 1984 when he joined the faculty. This was the Westminster of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in its progressive phase. The p-word may sound odd in relation to the OPC, but Jack Miller (Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, 1986) and Harvie Conn (Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace, 1982) were important Orthodox Presbyterian voices at Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s when the bulk of the denomination’s pastors still trained at the Philadelphia seminary. Neither professor may have been active in the General Assembly’s standing committees, but Conn’s notions about contextualization for urban ministry among the poor and marginalized and Miller’s New Life ministry—reaching people beyond the traditional suburban church—were cutting-edge perspectives among OPC, PCA, and even CRC communions which had held out against mainline Protestant versions of similar impulses during the 1960s and 1970s. With Clowney’s welcome to Keller at Westminster, the new professor quickly aligned with both Conn and Miller.

Not only did Keller, as Hansen shows, dig deeply (at a D.Min. level) into Conn’s biblical theology of the city, but Keller also became active at Miller’s New Life Presbyterian congregation in Glenside, Pennsylvania (near the seminary). These moves took Keller from his PCA congregation in Hopewell, Virginia, into the world of OPC thought-leaders—not to the point of moving his credentials from the PCA to the OPC, but in shaping his, as Hansen’s sub-title has it, “spiritual and intellectual formation.” Let the reader understand. Clowney, Conn, and Miller were all OPC in the 1980s. Keller’s trajectory was so OPC that when relocating to Westminster that his wife, Kathy, took a part-time job at Great Commission Publications, which at the time was the Sunday school curriculum publisher of the OPC’s Committee on Christian Education and headquartered in Philadelphia.

In 1989 when Keller went to New York City to consider a church plant among a Presbyterian-leaning fellowship of Christians, he arrived with a sense of ministry shaped by Westminster’s most innovative faculty. From Conn, who was the chairman of the practical theology department in which Keller taught, the future New York City pastor learned contextualization. Hansen quotes from Keller’s Center Church: “The great missionary task is to express the gospel message to a new culture in a way that avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture, yet without removing or obscuring the scandal and offense of biblical truth.” [153] Hansen adds that with Conn’s missionary perspective, Western culture loses “its privileged position.” (The author fails to wonder about Keller’s embrace of twenty-first-century megacities as the cutting edge of church work when those very same cities are the product of the West’s most pronounced expressions of modernization.) Hansen also credits Conn’s biblical theology of cities and contextualization with Keller’s unusual success in New York City. Keller, appropriating Conn, planted a church “that would stand apart from the city, from within the city, while loving the city.” [156–57]

In the case of Miller, Hansen also unearths an influence that has been obscure in assessments of Keller thanks to so many comparisons with C. S. Lewis or infatuation with the New Yorker’s use of the philosophers and critics of modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. Jack Miller is not in the intellectual league with those writers, but Hansen writes that the Glenside pastor’s “influence runs so deep in Keller that readers have sometimes struggled to differentiate between the two.” Miller was the one who came up with the bumper-sticker phrase that has become a Keller classic: “you’re a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you’re more loved than you ever dared hope.” [168] At the same time, while worshiping at New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside, the Kellers experienced the power of authentic piety, not restricted by convention or institutional forms. Hansen relates one episode in which, after Keller had preached at New Life, an elder came forward to repent publicly in front of the congregation. (Details are sketchy. Was it at the end of the service? During coffee hour?) Incidents like that, according to Hansen, led Kathy Keller’s sister to observe, “I’m not sure I can attend this church. The Christianity is too real.” (Throughout the book, Hansen relates episodes that redound to Keller’s value and success, a pattern that borders on hagiography.)

Until the formation of The Gospel Coalition and the publication of his first New York Times bestseller, Keller was a figure of prominence mainly in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. The PCA, the New Life OPC congregations that migrated into the PCA, and Westminster Seminary were all platforms on which the New York City pastor performed. Hansen admits as much: “At the time of TGC’s founding [2005], Keller had not yet become a household name among evangelicals.” Keller had yet to publish any best-sellers and “TGC’s first national conference didn’t convene until . . . May 2007.” [170] With the Gospel Coalition, Keller’s New Life Presbyterianism reached a broader Baptist and evangelical audience.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for part two.

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 3, 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.

7 comments

  1. Fascinating read, and I will be waiting for the two sequels. Still, it’s difficult to discern if Hansen’s accounting of Keller’s early influences, both men and institutions, is being commended as even handed and reliable or no. As is often proffered in such instances: more will be revealed.

  2. Thanks for this review. Looking forward to the rest. Great Commission Publications was already operating from 1975 (even to the present day) as a joint PCA-OPC venture. Working there in the 80’s would not in itself reflect a movement toward one over the other.

  3. As someone who knew the Kellers pretty well in the 1980’s (we lived in their basement for several months then bought a house down the street from them, babysat for them, was in his prayer group, sat in his livingroom while plans for this new and improbable work in New York City was being discussed), this part of the article rings self-evidently true. The proposition that in the 1980’s Keller’s biggest influences were Clowney, Conn, and Miller, with a strong dash of Richard Lovelace’s “Dynamics of the Spiritual Life” seems to me entirely uncontroversial, though I might add John Newton’s Select Letters, especially his ability to present the Reformed faith graciously without the buzzwords.

  4. “New Life Presbyterian Church”

    Hadn’t heard of it. Looking forward to hearing more…

    “ the New Life OPC congregations that migrated into the PCA… “

  5. My wife and I were classmates at Gordon Conwell with Tim and Kathy. They stayed with us in January of 1981 in our Hermon United Presbyterian manse in Frankford section of Philly. Tim was doing more of his D. Min. work at Westminster. I attended the Kuyper Lecture that Tim gave at Princeton Seminary sitting in the thrid row from the front. I watched the body language of his detractors go from tightly folded arms to applause. Linda and I knew so many of the people mentioned in Hansen’s biography. Grateful for it! Ken Macari

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