It is an irony of my life that I became the Keller-critic.
Just over a year ago, my article “How I Evolved on Tim Keller” set off a wave of online discussion, mainly among evangelicals, about the merits of a great man’s ministry. Despite my emphasis on all the strengths of Keller’s work, reiterated in a follow-up video, the horse had bolted somewhat. My name became synonymous with “anti-Kellerism” among both his critics and defenders. For anyone who read my article attentively, however, my admiration for and gratitude to Keller were plain. He shaped my life more than any other contemporary figure. As I made clear in another follow up, my point was never really about the man himself anyway, but about prompting a discussion regarding how times have changed since the height of his influence, and providing a very focused analysis of the limits and perils of his framework for cultural engagement—especially the ways it is perpetuated by his prominent disciples.
This piece, however, is about the man himself. Last week, Tim Keller went home to glory at the age of 72. This is the time for gratitude. I’d like to paint a picture of how his sermons and writings shaped me, and the aspects of his public ministry that I hope will last.
Let me begin by mentioning that I don’t have personal stories like many others who have written their tributes. My relationship was from a distance. I became a Christian at the end of my freshman year in 2004. Little did I know, the campus ministers who reached out to me were influenced by this Presbyterian pastor in NYC named Tim Keller. Soon, in Bible studies, his name started popping up—particularly when discussing the meaning of the “gospel.” The “two ditches” of religion and irreligion, of self-righteous moralism and righteousness-avoiding hedonism, were the predominant foils against which I understood the message of the cross in those early days. I don’t remember which sermon of his I heard first, but I am certain that one was an early exposition of his “prodigal God” thesis that would later turn into what I believe will be remembered as his most important book. And though this framing was central to his explanation of the gospel, he didn’t reduce it to that (see, for instance, his important essay “The Gospel in All Its Forms”).
My love for Christ came with love for the lost, and Keller helped me think through how to reach my friends. Here I need to pay tribute to a largely unsung hero in the Keller craze: Steve McCoy, whose “Reformissionary” website became the one-stop source for free Keller materials. Like many other “young, restless, and Reformed” millennials, I regularly scoured the site for essays and sermons, seeking to understand this Jesus I had come to love and how best to reach my neighbors for him in an increasingly post-Christian society. His essays “Evangelism Through Networking” and “Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs” primed me on the role of community in evangelism and presuppositional apologetics—on which Keller provided a unique spin (discussed below).
In 2008, The Reason for God was published, becoming a New York Times bestseller and introducing Keller to a whole new audience. Crucially, he took non-Christian concerns seriously, and was willing to admit those places where the Bible remains unclear. I was reading this while dating my future wife, and we largely fell in love over talking about a life of ministry, and a key talking point was Keller’s book. That summer I led an international missions team and packed two books: Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, about which I had learned from Keller, and the famous “Church Planter Manual” which Keller co-wrote. Both texts profoundly shaped my life, and led me to fall in love with the Church as God’s primary vehicle for mission in the world. Over the next decade I would help plant two churches in Austin inspired by Newbigin and Keller.
While I was leading a campus ministry at the University of Texas, it was Keller to whom I regularly turned for guidance. His study guides for Romans and Galatians set an unbelievably high bar of what to expect from small group Bible study, and his sermons provided the bones for many of my weekly meeting talks. Don’t worry: I paid for those and constantly gave him credit. In fact, students and fellow staff members would regularly roll their eyes with how often I began a sentence, “Well, as Tim Keller would say…” This only continued with my classmates in seminary.
Keller blended faithful exegesis and Reformed theology with keen sociological insights. His admirers regularly comment on his cultural analysis, but often neglect his sociological writings about ministry. One of his most well-read resources among pastors, for instance, is his essay “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics”, and an under-appreciated text is a section on “Supervising Volunteers” in his first book, Ministries of Mercy. These saved me from a lot of foolishness during my years as a campus minister and then pastor. I would also be remiss if I neglected to share how much marital foolishness I was protected from by the mp3s of his marriage series with Kathy that would lay the groundwork for Meaning of Marriage.
Now, I said this article would be about Keller, but perhaps thus far it’s been more about me. Many others have written similar testimonies these past few days. What then can be said about his lasting legacy–a legacy which will live on in many others apart from myself?.
Keller killed moralistic preaching for many evangelical pastors. We were all trained to sniff out whether or not Jesus was the hero of every sermon, imbibing a Christological hermeneutic and homiletics. “Jesus is the true and better…” was a key slogan. David and Goliath was not written so that we might take on our giants, but to see how Christ had already done so. Here we saw the influence of Edmund Clowney, with whom Keller taught a famous course titled “Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World.”
Keller, probably more than anyone (except maybe Mark Driscoll), introduced the theme of contextualization to contemporary evangelicals, influenced by Newbigin and others. Keller popularized Newbigin’s insight that we need to think seriously about what a missional encounter with the post-Christian West looks like. This will, and must, be different from mission in a pre-Christian context. Part of my critique of Keller centers on our differences as to what this will entail, but it was from Keller himself that I first learned these principles. Who would have predicted that a Calvinist Presbyterian would be at the cutting edge of missional renewal at the turn of the twenty-first century?
Due to his passion to reach our late-modern, post-Christian context, Keller read deeply and widely, even up to the days of his death. How many first heard about the likes of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Bellah, Philip Rieff, Christian Smith, et al. through Keller? He disseminated their key insights to help us live faithfully and minister effectively to our lost neighbors. Keller inspired ministers to read well, to be intellectually curious, to be unafraid of cutting-edge scholarship, to see that this was important if we wish to reach the piece of the world in which we find ourselves.
I mentioned above that Keller provided a unique spin on presuppositional apologetics. Presuppositionalism seeks to show the internal incoherence and self-defeating nature of non-Christian worldviews, often seeking to destroy arguments. Keller, however, sought to connect and confront, to show how the underlying baseline narratives upon which persons order their lives find their ultimate fulfillment only in Christ and His kingdom. This is a version of the missiological principle of “subversive fulfillment” that Keller helped popularize. He sought to show supposed “seculars” how Christianity is plausible and desirable. “Make them wish it were true” was one of his apologetic slogans. To properly contextualize, Keller called us to connect with our neighbors’ deepest hopes, longings, and struggles and show them how they will only be resolved in Jesus.
It is impossible to tell the story of the church-planting renaissance at the turn of the twenty-first century without mentioning Keller. His passion for church planting was always closely tied to his passion for mission: he believed that church planting was the most effective way to reach the lost. But he also believed, inspired by Newbigin (and Scripture!), that the community is central to the mission, that the congregation is the “hermeneutic of the gospel,” to use Newbigin’s phrase. Those apart from Christ will judge our claims about Christ through the quality of the community bearing witness to him. And when the community is properly formed by the gospel, it defies all worldly categorizations and serves as a major contributor to the conversion of the lost. Thus, according to Keller’s church-centered vision, we need to plant more churches and ensure our churches are primarily shaped by the gospel.
Keller also inspired a fairly major shift in thinking about the relationship between worship and evangelism. He rejected the common dichotomy between either converting seekers or edifying believers. He promoted “evangelistic worship” that was “seeker-comprehensible,” aiming to both instruct Christians and welcome non-Christians. Service leaders should speak as if non-Christians are present, even if they aren’t, inspiring Christians to invite their non-Christian friends, family members, and neighbors. Those visitors should then encounter “doxological evangelism,” a term attributed to Clowney. I have my quibbles about Keller’s particular way of framing this, and I would primarily conceive of worship quite differently, but it is to the Church’s good that Keller prompted many to realize that non-Christians should experience gathered worship and that gathered worship is itself a powerful form of witness.
Here I don’t mean existentialist as in the style of Sartre and Camus. Rather, I am referring to the influence of John Frame, and his “tri-perspectivalism,” which emphasizes the normative, situational, and existential aspects of knowing and living. The normative deals with what is generally true and good, the situational with the particulars of our lives and contexts, and the existential with the exigences of our nature and the places in which we seek our joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Keller is famous for retrieving the category of “idolatry” to explain sin. Idols are not merely statues of false gods, but any created good to which we relate as an ultimate good, thus worshiping something other than our Creator. We need to purge idols, but we cannot purge the need to worship something. Keller was largely inspired by biblical counselor David Powlison here, but he also often referred to Thomas Chalmers’s promotion of the “expulsive power of a new affection.”
Keller not only read cutting-edge contemporary scholarship, he also embodied a generous orthodoxy. He remained a faithful Presbyterian, but never restricted his reading to Reformed writers, nor did his impact remain within Presbyterian circles. He read widely in the Christian tradition and he collaborated across ecclesial lines–something manifest in his role in founding The Gospel Coalition, his participation in Lausanne, and the various types of churches that City to City helped plant and resource. Displayed in Keller’s life was a practical, on-the-ground ecumenism that did not abandon confessional commitments, but did relativize denominational divisions to some degree in the pursuit of mission.
Charles Taylor refers to the “sanctification of all of life” promoted by the Reformers. Few contributed more to this in our present day than Keller in his constant promotion of the dignity and value of all types of work. This has helped many pastors encourage their congregants to honor Christ, seek his kingdom, and serve their neighbors in “every good endeavor.” Keller also promoted vocational networks in which persons from similar fields could collaborate for the kingdom work uniquely related to their labor, thus declericalizing important aspects of the mission of the church in the world.
I mentioned above that I don’t have personal stories like many of the other tributes. Well, actually, we did meet once, though I doubt he would have remembered it. Early in my career he spoke at a Cru staff conference. I hate doing this to celebrities, but I knew I had to go meet him and thank him for his ministry and the impact it had on me. So, I walked up to him and shared those sentiments. It was a somewhat funny encounter because he seemed uncomfortable with the whole thing.
I think this is because he was uncomfortable with his celebrity. He was one of the few big name pastors who, throughout his life, actively sought to curb his own fame, to make people not dependent on him. One way he did this was by not disclosing which Redeemer campus he would preach at each Sunday. That way people would not just flock to his preaching, but become accustomed to sitting under the Word preached by other faithful ministers and to commit to their local congregation. In many ways, Keller was the anti-celebrity celebrity pastor. Many stories have flooded in over the past few days documenting how he aggressively sought to encourage others behind the scenes. This type of ministry is not what image-obsessed, fame-hungry posers pursue.
Keller was a public pastor who remained humble to the end. If we must have famous pastors, may they follow his lead. And with regard to those aspects of his ministry mentioned above, may his tribe increase.
James R. Wood is Assistant Professor of Ministry at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. He is also a teaching elder in the the PCA and former associate editor at First Things.
*Image Credit: The Gospel Coalition