Profile: Tim Keller

A reader asked me what I knew about Tim Keller, and I have to admit that up until now I knew little other than that he was attracting attention from unusual quarters. For example, I had read from Nick Peters that Robin Williams attended his services. I now regret not learning more of Keller sooner. Keller's books are excellent, and his church is a model for where we need to be: Solid teaching without gimmicks or skits. Had I my way, every book by most of our past Popular Pastors subjects-ranging from Osteen to Meyer, from Stanley to MacArthur-would be taken off Christian bookstore shelves and shoved into a furnace somewhere to power Pittsburgh for a week, and immediately replaced with works by Keller. If all Popular Pastors were like Keller, this series would never have happened in the first place.

I acquired three books by Keller for this study. I'll only need to comment briefly.

Generous Justice The general theme here is that God favors the poor and vulnerable, and there is a solid emphasis on social justice as a component of the Gospel. Among the teachings:

  • Even as I do, Keller notes the example of manna in 2 Cor. 8:13-15 as an illustration of how giving should be done today. [23]
  • Keller believes [30] that modern business owners should enact Old Testament principles of "gleaning" by being willing to pay workers more, and charge customers less. (I imagine an economist would have some input on how this would work, but the spirit of the teaching is both exciting and proper, in my view.)
  • Keller notes an example of a woman with bills who used money given to her by Keller's church. The spirit behind this giving reflects how, indeed, the church ought to help those in need. But he adds that the woman used the money not to pay her bills, but to do things like buy bicycles for her kids, to help make kids feel like normal family. [74] Keller forgave this indiscretion, which is fine; but part of me wanted to see him say more about balancing need with discernment-it would probably be best in these days to offer to pay such a person's bills directly…and if in fact they want something like bikes for the kids, for such purpose as stated, they can certainly discuss that with church leaders who can draw from a more appropriate fund than the one used to pay people's necessity bills. Generosity (as I expect Keller would agree) does not obviate a need for practicality and stewardship.
  • And here's something that really lit me up in a positive way: Unlike every other popular pastor we have seen so far, Keller knows about ancient contextual clues like patronage! [47] He doesn't always get it right entirely. For example, his discussion of how Jesus subverted the patronage system of his day by telling his followers to invite the poor to meals, does need the extra note that God was the believer's patron who would eventually reward them…but it's hard to not be excited about seeing this sort of thing discussed by a pastor.

    Counterfeit Gods This one is a general treatment of things like wealth and power as "idols." As such, it's the most pastoral of the trio, and I found little to nothing wrong with it. Keller here again shows broad awareness of cultural differences, but occasionally lapses into modern readings i.e., Jesus wanting a "personal relationship" with Zaccheus. [60] It is also good to see him note that both agonistic and modern societies have different flavors of faults. [130] I have had people ask me whether Biblical society was "better" than modern society because it was honor-based. My answer is the same as Keller's: Neither is better; both are open to their own forms of abuses.

    The Reason for God This one was the most exciting of all, because it is very close to being what I call a gateway apologetics book. It deals mostly with philosophical stuff like the problem of evil, but has one chapter on nuts and bolts of the sort that I regularly handle. Among Keller's sources are scholars like Richard Bauckham and N. T. Wright. It's nice to see them being used instead of thin soup like Arthur Pink. Among notes if interest here:

  • Keller notes the emergence of a type of Christianity that is more into social justice than some Republicans would like, and more into doctrine and truth than some Democrats would like. [xx-xxi] I appreciate that as exemplifying my own direction over the past few years.
  • Keller handily disposes of the "blind men and elephant" analogy, noting that it backfires because it is told from the perspective of someone who sees whole elephant, which is what is supposed to be impossible. [9]
  • Keller recounts [74-5] how he rightly responded to a woman offended by the concept of a judging God, noting that her response was conditioned by modern culture. In contrast, he told her, people in the 1st century actually found the concept of a forgiving God offensive.
  • Keller's view of hell is similar to mine (and in the same way similar to the view of hell found in C. S. Lewis' Great Divorce). [79]

    I've been pleased enough by what I have found in Keller that I'll be thinking of some way to make some connections with his work-would that all Popular Pastors were this enlightened.