William M. Schweitzer convincingly criticizes Keller’s use of C. S. Lewis’s depiction of hell as a place chosen by people who want to be away from God’s presence. Keller says, “No one ever asks to leave hell,” and Schweitzer is right to bring Matthew 7:21–22 to the forefront (74). He also uses Revelation 14:9–11 persuasively: “… Keller thinks the most awful situation imaginable is to lose the presence of God. If that is the case, why should the beast worshipers receive more favorable treatment than other sinners?
The seven essays in Engaging with Keller: Thinking through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical are at their very best when they offer a positive account of what conservative Presbyterians ought to believe about various theological topics. They are at their weakest, though, when they try to show that Keller doesn’t believe those things. We’ll consider each chapter individually, and then I’ll offer an assessment of the work as a whole.
Chapter 1. Iain D. Campbell quotes Keller’s Center Church and says that “he sounds more like a life coach than a gospel preacher” (43). Campbell rejects Keller’s interpretation of Romans 1, saying that “the nature of sin is not idol-making but law-breaking, of which the manufacturing of idols is a specific example” (44). This accusation assumes that Keller’s understanding of idolatry is limited to the mere manufacture of statuary, but Keller uses the term more broadly, to include apostasy. In The Way of Life, Charles Hodge says, “It is in this sense that mankind are said to be totally depraved; they are entirely destitute of supreme love to God” (73). Keller uses the language of idolatry to help people see this depravity—though Keller also affirms that sin is law-breaking. Campbell objects to Keller’s “use of prodigality as an attribute of God” in his discussion of Luke 15, but Campbell himself speaks of the father’s “lavish bestowal of gifts on the wayward son” (45). Merriam-Webster treats prodigal and lavish as synonyms. Keller’s language is certainly provocative, but it’s meant to be. Finally, Campbell unfairly says that “[s]ome websites … have highlighted Keller’s ambiguity, wariness and discomfort over identifying homosexual practice as sinful” (60). But his footnote offers only one website, not many, and Keller wasn’t asked whether homosexual practice was sinful. Instead, he was asked how the church ought to be “proactive with regard to the issue of homosexuality” and how we can “speak to believers about this topic in truth and in love.” That’s a different kind of question, before a Christian audience, and it deserves a different answer.
Chapter 2. William M. Schweitzer convincingly criticizes Keller’s use of C. S. Lewis’s depiction of hell as a place chosen by people who want to be away from God’s presence. Keller says, “No one ever asks to leave hell,” and Schweitzer is right to bring Matthew 7:21–22 to the forefront (74). He also uses Revelation 14:9–11 persuasively: “… Keller thinks the most awful situation imaginable is to lose the presence of God. If that is the case, why should the beast worshipers receive more favorable treatment than other sinners? Rather, it seems clear that there is only one class of reprobate, all of whom are punished in the most awful situation that God can imagine—the wrathful presence of his Son” (83). WLC 29 says that hell brings not separation from God’s presence but separation from his comfortable presence (83). I found Schweitzer’s argument persuasive, and at times humorous, as when he says, “Imagine for a moment if Jonah had preached, ‘Yet 40 days, and you Ninevites will be left to your freely-chosen identities apart from God!’” (91).
Chapter 3. Kevin J. Bidwell says that “there is no scriptural evidence for a movement of dance within the inner life of the Trinity” (106). But it’s a metaphor! Keller’s point is that “[e]ach of the divine persons centers upon the others” (Reason for God, 215). Bidwell notes that WLC 139 condemns “lascivious dancings” and concludes thereby that Keller’s talk of a Trinitarian dance is morally suspect (116). Balderdash. If Bidwell’s right, then WLC 139 also makes the language of being clothed with Christ’s righteousness questionable, given that the catechism also speaks against “immodest apparel.” Surely that’s not what WLC 139 intends. It gets worse: “Whether Keller realizes it or not,” Bidwell says, “this account of the divine being constitutes a denial of ordering within the Godhead” (119). In a footnote, Bidwell writes, “One of the editors raised this issue with Keller after Reason for God was published, and he specifically affirmed order within the Godhead: ‘I do not subscribe to an egalitarian view of the Trinity at all’” (131n49). Keller deserves for these discussions to be placed in the body text, not a footnote.
Chapter 4. Peter J. Naylor is concerned about Keller’s account of mission. Naylor’s theoretical points are persuasive, but his practical recommendations are questionable. It’s true that we should not confuse “justice with generosity, two separate and distinct things in Scripture” (153–154), and that “the liberality taught in Scripture is not intended to equalize wealth but to meet needs, particularly the needs of the household of faith” (154). But Naylor also asks, “Should the church (as a corporate, organized body) work directly for social and cultural transformation?” (144) and answers the question in the negative (155). “Even modest social tasks,” Naylor writes, “can soak up the energies of a congregation” (163). But a practical objection should be evaluated by the details. Redeemer’s annual report [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.] says where the money is going, and it looks to me like they are spending money to spread the gospel and to do mercy ministries. The latter accounts for only about 5% of the budget, surely not an extravagant percentage. Money is needed so that the deacons—and those selected by the session to help them—can care “for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need” (BCO 9–7). Ironically, Naylor sounds like he’s giving a leftist critique of Keller: only a secular government can help the poor; we should keep God out of it.
Chapter 5. C. Richard H. Holst criticizes Keller’s use of the Bible. Some of his objections hit their mark: Keller says that Miriam was punished by God for racism, but Holst says that her punishment in Numbers 12 came about “because she disregarded the divinely-ordained authority of Moses” (183). Keller uses Acts 6 to argue that helping the needy furthered the spread of the gospel, but Holst objects. God used a “single-minded focus on the means of grace” to spread the gospel (184). Some objections miss their mark: Holst says it’s “not self-evident in the context of Luke 15” that “the elder brother is intended to be seen as lost” (187). Calvin equates the older brother with the scribes, whose murmuring in Luke 15:2 served as the occasion for the parable. Keller says, “Neither son loved the father for himself” (Prodigal God, 36). Does Holst disagree? Finally, Holst criticizes Keller’s logic, but it’s unsuccessful. He formalizes one of Keller’s arguments and offers a counterexample (187). Remember that counterexamples must have the same logical form as the original. Unfortunately for Holst, his counterexample is different, so it flops. (Holst treats claiming to do something as the same thing as doing something.)
Chapter 6. William M. Schweitzer offers the following dilemma: either evolution produced Adam or it did not. If Keller affirms that it did, he denies the faith (195). (There are other problems: would Abel “have regarded Adam’s pre-human progenitor as his grandfather? Or, as a mere animal, was his status something more akin to a beloved family pet?” ). If Keller says evolution did not produce Adam—and Schweitzer takes this position to be close to Keller’s own (206)—then the tension between faith and science is still not resolved, because “explaining human origins is the capstone claim of evolutionary science” (195). The problem: Keller mistakenly frames the issue as one of conflict (194) and so makes accommodation inevitable (195). Schweitzer thinks that we should “courageously hold to the truth of Scripture,” instead (197). “Rather than calling into question the pronouncements of fallible scientists,” Schweitzer writes, “[Keller] calls into question a literal reading of Scripture” (202). But that’s unfair to Keller’s position: he says that his interpretation of Genesis arises from literary features in the text itself and from a comparison of Genesis 1 and 2 with Judges 4 and 5 and Exodus 14 and 15 (Reason for God, 93). Schweitzer can reasonably disagree with Keller’s interpretation, but he should still take him at his word. Anyway, Schweitzer himself affirms environmental adaptation under the name microevolution (200) and distinguishes between science as objective data and science as consensus pronouncements in order to affirm the one and deny the other in the case of macroevolution (200–201). Presumably he does so because he doesn’t want unnecessary obstacles keeping people from embracing the gospel. But if Schweitzer’s not pursuing a cowardly accommodationist strategy in doing so, then neither is Keller.
Chapter 7. D. G. Hart—whose refreshing prose at Old Life I regularly devour—faults Keller’s interpretation of Presbyterian history. Old and New Side/School controversies were not about doctrine versus piety but a high view of the church versus a low (229–230). These mistakes encourage Keller to betray his calling as a Presbyterian minister (235), indeed as “the most popular contemporary Presbyterian pastor for whom the markers of Presbyterianism appear to matter very little” (237). Keller’s not the only problem: “His fellow officers in the PCA also bear responsibility for Keller’s extra-ecclesiastical involvements” (235). Indeed! Though Hart questions Keller’s involvement in the Gospel Coalition (222), Keller joins the likes of Ligon Duncan and Bryan Chapell there. Hart questions how Redeemer City to City fits with denominational work (224), but the PCA’s Mission to the World apparently embraces it. One key question is whether one must equate denomination with “Presbyterian procedure and governance,” as Hart seems to do (228). So, e.g., Reformed University Fellowship is part of the PCA, but is it part of jure divino Presbyterianism? I’m doubtful, so I don’t view Keller’s advice about denominations as an attack on Presbyterian polity, the way that Hart does (228–229). I’m also glad that the PCA has a global influence not simply through its agencies but also through individual men whom God has appointed to the task of gospel work. One last note: Hart greets Keller’s “countless novel practices” with suspicion. “In fact,” he writes, “Keller’s constant honing … reflects the mentality of a church-planter more than a settled pastor” (225). But surely that’s great! I hope ministers of successful church plants never become “settled.”
Three concluding remarks. First, I wish there had been a chapter on women’s (nonordained) roles in church life and work; that’s a pressing issue, and its absence is noticeable. Second, Schweitzer does something I wish all the contributors had done: he offers an example of what he thinks Keller should have said (202). That’s enormously helpful, and it makes the criticisms constructive. I wish there had been more of it, and I found myself transforming the authors’ criticisms into developments of Keller’s positions. Campbell, for example, could have connected Keller-style idolatry with law-breaking; Bidwell could have explained the hierarchy of the Trinitarian dance, etc.
All in all, Engaging with Keller brings clarity to a variety of contemporary issues by considering the theology of one man. Having engaged with Keller in this book, I found myself even more comfortable with his theology, even more supportive of his work, and even more grateful to God for his ministry. Perhaps not what the authors intended, but true nevertheless.
Dr. James E. Bruce is an assistant professor of philosophy at John Brown University. Dr. Bruce is a licentiate of Covenant Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America and is a member of Redeemer PCA in Siloam Springs, Ark. Copyright © 2013