This is a book about theological nuance. For some that might be immediately off putting; others may think that the authors have wasted their time in pursuit of an overly rigorous theological standard; some will no doubt cast doubt on the authors' intentions implying that Keller haters are going to hate and yet a few others will be greatly vexed that Mr Keller is the subject of such, any, debate. Me, I really enjoyed it! And I hope to demonstrate why if you fall into any of the above categories this book is still well worth a read.
Engaging with Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical is written by half a dozen British Presbyterian ministers criticising Mr Keller's expression of his views on sin, Hell, the Trinity, social justice, hermeneutic, creation and Presbyterianism. As the authors are careful to point out they are not doubting Mr Keller's intentions or his profession to hold to reformed orthodoxy. As they consistently maintain: Mr Keller is a godly man seeking the glory of Christ. What they are calling into question is whether Mr Keller achieves his goal of teaching orthodox truth to post modern society without compromising on the message.
As should be fairly clear, the authors disagree with Mr Keller on the issues mentioned. Yet what is good about the book is that they do not allow their disagreement to become personal. They confine themselves to discussing the theological problems rather than straying into any form of personal attack. It is a mature, sensible, adult conversation they are having - would all such discussion be conducted so! Engaging with Keller typifies the irenic spirit so easily lost in theological debate and a graciousness that befits godly men. I found it a needed challenge to my own writing style to match the authors' graciousness.
Onwards then to the actual content. The introduction is well worth a read (if you're the type of person to skip introductions!) because the editors provide a defence for their book explaining why they are writing a critique of Mr Keller's work. In an age of anti-intellectual, anti-theology, anti-debate church the introduction is a refreshing reminder that it beholds godly ministers to engage in theological discussion and criticism where necessary. For the truth is important and as they point out: "the degree to which people value the truth is the degree to which they are willing to engage in public debate over it."
The first chapter is on Mr Keller's depiction of sin. In Counterfeit Gods and The Reason for God then Mr Keller presents an idolatry-centric view of sin where sin is the replacing of a relationship with God with another relationship that becomes our supreme good. But as Mr Campbell points out idolatry is a symptom of sin not its root cause: the real problem is objective law breaking rather than subjective relational replacement. Like I said, this is a book of theological nuance but the consequences of such a mis-emphasis is that rather than sin being us robbing God of his glory then it becomes us robbing ourselves of our wholeness. Sin becomes too horizontal, too much about man and not enough about the cosmic treason of breaking God's law.
The next chapter is on Hell and Mr Schwitizer criticises Mr Keller's view that Hell is where man sends himself, man keeps himself and man punishes himself. Instead, as it aptly proven, Hell is where God sends unrepentant sinners, God keeps sinners there for eternity and God punishes. This is, I think, the worst mistake Mr Keller makes. It stinks too much of trying to make the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell more palatable to post modern sensibilities rather than sticking to the plain truth of Scripture. God as Judge is too important a part of the Christian faith to wrongly express.
Mr Bidwell picks up the next chapter on Mr Keller's dance image of the Trinity. His basic point is that the dance image doesn't do an adequate job of describing the Trinity - it doesn't emphasis the one-ness of the three persons of the Trinity enough and it has no room for the order of the Trinity (The Father begets the Son and they both send the Spirit). I am torn between viewing this as a niggle too far or accepting that we do have to be so careful in how we explain the Trinity. Certainly Mr Keller's dance image is inadequate but so are all analogies and it might be a trifle unfair to demand that an analogy does everything. However, weighed against this is the pertinent point that is better to stick solely to how the Scripture describes the Trinity.
Social justice becomes the next topic of consideration. In this chapter Mr Naylor argues that while Christians have a duty to do social justice is their relevant spheres of operation the church's duty is to preach the gospel and adding the burden of social justice is asking too much of the church. Mr Keller is wrong in Generous Justice to argue that the church should be about the social transformation of culture. While church members should, obviously, help the poor the church should focus on preaching and teaching. The argument is best read and I would need a whole blog post to do it, well, justice. It strikes at the heart of the modern trend for the church being a social action centre and is worth a read by anyone interested in the church's role in society.
Tying a lot of themes together Mr Holst follows with a chapter critiquing Mr Keller's hermeneutic. There are three Reformed principles under discussion: 1) Scripture is its own interpreter: "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself;" 2) We use clearer parts of Scripture to shed light on the unclear parts and 3) We use good and necessary inference when there is no direct text. Mr Holst's criticism of Mr Keller mainly lies on the last two points. In particular, Mr Keller reads too much into parables rather than sticking to clearer parts of Scripture; he is too quick to focus on the secondary aspects of a text rather than the primary and some of his exegesis is illogical which transgresses point 3. This was a helpful chapter in explaining why Mr Keller's emphasis, as discussed in the other chapters, can be off the mark.
Mr Schweitzer writes his second chapter on the matter of creation. I found this to be more a debate to be had with the wider church than Keller in particular. The evolution of man and the Genesis account are incompatible - Adam must be a historical figure and Adam was created from the dust of the ground, he had no parents. This chapter as a whole is an excellent apologetic for Six Day creation; why we can affirm science and not be "evolutionists" and why we shouldn't be surprised so many in the world fight us. I'd highly recommend reading this chapter if the question of creation is one you find difficult.
Finally, Mr Hart writes a chapter on Presbyterianism which as a Baptist I struggled to appreciate. Basically, Mr Keller does not make a very good Presbyterian, or so it seemed to be argued. Maybe he doesn't but I can't really hold it against him!
To conclude, this book is well worth reading, a mature discussion of theological nuance which is of vital importance to the expression of Reformed truth. In a time when many churches seem to operate a theology light approach to the Christian faith then it is nice to see a group of ministers standing up and saying: "No, this is too important to let slide." If you've never been comfortable with Mr Keller's teaching this book is worth reading to help clarify your thoughts. And if you're a huge fan of Mr Keller then this book is worth reading to make sure that his influence is tempered by thoughtful consideration.
The main problem with Mr Keller's teaching is nicely summed up in the conclusion:
"Tim Keller intends to teach the orthodox truth in a way that is relevant to contemporary culture. The problem is that some of his teachings seem to be better at being relevant than they are at conveying the fullness of biblical truth. Our goal has been to discuss these tensions openly," (emphasis not mine)
In many ways, this book is a criticism not just of Mr Keller but of a wider movement to try and express the Christian faith in a way that the secular Western world will find less derisory. I saw this same regrettable trend again and again in UCCF, CU and wider church circles. Ultimately, all attempts to be "relevant" to contemporary culture can succeed only at the expense of faithfulness for unbelieving man will always find biblical truth unpalatable.
Mr William Schweitzer, who wrote two chapters of this book and helped edit it, is also speaking on the Ten Commandments at the Edinburgh Conference on November 9th. So if you want to get a copy of the book signed or just hear the man himself please do come along!