A Continued Appreciation for Tim Keller

James Wood’s First Things article, “How I Evolved on Tim Keller” has prompted a significant response from a variety of quarters. He struck a nerve and resonated with a number of people. James and I were in the same graduating class at Redeemer Seminary and shared similar church backgrounds at the time, as he detailed in his essay. Our school also prominently advertised that we were the first to teach a class built around Keller’s then-recently published Center Church – one of the few gimmicky moments in my education. So I have an appreciation for where James is coming from.

But I think he misread Keller in the neutral world and Keller now. I have my differences with Keller, but he is still a man to be appreciated for this season.

Published nearly 13 years ago, the now forgotten Manhattan Declaration was not an example of James’ caricature of Kellerite winsomeness. Keller, an initial signatory to the Declaration, among other things i) affirmed that Roe v. Wade needed to be overturned and that legal abortion was evil, ii) rejected the propriety of civil recognition of same-sex unions, iii) called for better legal protections for religious liberty in the non-profit and corporate world, and iv) asserted a duty for civil disobedience if the government would coerce institutions on these points.

This is not “third-wayism” or a spineless approach to culture. Keller is a pastor, not a social scientist or political theorist. He signed the declaration, but is unwilling to make as a test for Christian fellowship in the church specific policy proposals to achieve those ends. In fact, Keller is the one who has been shunned for not endorsing specific political approaches as necessary, as when Grace to You compared him to Satan for rejecting the 2018 Statement on Social Justice.

It has been observed ad nauseam in Reformed circles that Keller is slavishly imitated without any substance or understanding. That’s what James is describing pre-2016: a portion of the PCA-world that copied Keller’s style (winsomeness) without understanding the way his approach to contextualization was informed by his context – hey, maybe that course on Center Church wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

The surprising thing about James’ essay was the timing. He relied on Aaron Renn’s framework, but failed to mention that Renn himself has acknowledged that Keller is adjusting his approach to the negative world. I expect that long-term the point of a piece reducible to “I have outgrown this outdated pastor” will age worse than the work of that pastor, still seeking to adjust and be faithful in an increasingly hostile context.