August 2017, book review
My wife and I were on a short vacation this past summer when I came across the above book at Books A Million: Timothy Keller, The Reason for God. It was discounted considerably, and I had heard of him but did not know much about him. I bought it and read it.
In the front of the book, it said that he had started several thousand churches (not all directly but Keller began many church through those he trained). He was told not to go to Manhattan because it was a very hard culture and just being there would put his small children and wife in danger. His church there now has 6,000 members, and many, if not the majority, had been prostitutes, drug users and drug sellers, and so forth. It is an unusual ministry. Often after the church service, he would take questions from skeptics, atheists, and just those interested or not interested. His niche is to plant churches in large cities throughout the world, a huge need, for sure.
He is reformed Presbyterian, well read in both Christian and secular works, and studied at such seminal evangelical seminaries as Gordon-Conwell and Westminster. Like Keller, I’ve made it a habit not to limit my reading to Christians authors, reading such men as atheist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, a silly hoot of a book without any logic), atheist Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought (good survey of positions), Anders Nygren, Meaning and Method (his chapter Logical Analysis of Presuppositions is a gem), yada, yada. I read Arminians, Calvinists, dispensationalists, amils, postmills, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholics, John MacArthur, Sproul, Gerald Bray (my favorite modern Anglican), Baptists, Presbyterians, N. T. Wright, who frustrates me because he is often ambiguous, arrogant (whole church is wrong), and wants to redefine Christianity from the beginning; yet he is often insightful and always thorough. He seems to have the motto, “Why say something in 500 words when you say it in 5,000 words.” I still read some Puritans, though rare these days since I became Anglican in 1991. I’ve read heretics like John Spong, the Anglican bishop who delights in denying virtually everything in the three creeds. May he never rest in peace. I say all that to make a point: I’m not afraid to read anything, and it helps my ministry to know what others think, even those who hate the Lord Jesus.
Thus, when I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner, and someone asked me what I was reading these days, I mentioned Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. You would have thought that I had blasphemed the Holy Trinity. There was yelling, saying the man was a blasphemer, a heretic, and most likely an unbeliever. When I asked for documentation, there was none, only more arrogant opinions and increasing of decibels. As I finished the book later, I was sensitized to look for heresies. I found none, though I did find areas of disagreement, which is normal. I disagree with myself.
Then recently one of the men at the dinner sent me an Internet link to a “liturgical” dance at Keller’s church, saying or implying that it was heretical. I grant you it was weird, three men in tight dance suits with bulging between the legs dancing some kind of ballet is not conducive to worship. I don’t understand such artsy stuff, and I would not allow that at my Anglican church. Or, was it actually a worship service? I could not tell, but there were many statements that such was heretical. But the first question I had was whether it was actually a worship service or some other entertainment service. At a Puritan type church in the town where I live, once a large Presbyterian type church had a ballet where a Christian lady danced beautifully. It was not a worship service. Unlike David who danced before the Lord with only a linen ephod (2 Sam. 6:14), she was very tastefully dressed, elegant, and expressive. No one accused her or the church of heresy. But if the dance were part of the main service of worship, and if I were Presbyterian again, and if Keller were in my presbytery doing that, I would oppose him.
But Heretical? First, an individual should not assume the authority to say something or someone is heretical, which, it seems to me, is a statement that someone is going to hell. Second, heresy has been defined by the three creeds, Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian, especially the Nicene. If the church has spoken, such as in the creeds, then one can say what is heretical. Once a young man and his family were attending Anglican church where I was rector, and after a few Sundays I invited them to lunch. He asked me if he and his family could join the church if he was preterist. I said, “Define pretereist. Do you mean that many of the things in the Gospels were fulfilled in AD 70 but there is still a Second Coming, or that all things were fulfilled in AD 70 so there is no Second Coming.” He said no Second Coming. I said you cannot join, and he objected that he could prove his position from the New Testament. I responded, “No you can’t. The Church over the centuries in her creeds has rejected your position and has said there is a Second Coming with the Last Day.” He said, “What happened to sola scriptura?” I explained that the Reformation did not mean just the Bible and me, and that Holy Scripture was the final and only infallible authority, but the Church was an authority also. Church councils have erred, but the Creeds have stood the test of time, and that virtually all bodies hold to them formally (Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and even Pentecostals base their doctrinal statements on the Apostles’ Creed, either formally or informally). He re-studied the issue, and about a month to six weeks later returned, apologized, joined my parish, and was a faithful member.
Yet, I’m not endorsing Tim Keller across the board or this book I’m reviewing without some reservations.
Here are some interesting points in Keller’s book:
- He understands we are a divided culture, and encourages us to learn from our culture (pp. xv, xix). Part of the division is between agnostics, atheists, and Christians of all brands.
- As much as we in the West hate to admit it, there has been explosive Christian growth in other parts of the world. One hundred years ago, 70 of 100 Christians were in the West. Now the number has reversed: 70 of 100 Christians are outside the West. Not only does Keller cite similar stats, but also works by Mark Noll and Philip Jenkins, both modern day conservative church historians, say the same. I love reading current church history, for it is not only very challenging, it broadens one’s perspective on what the Lord is doing with His Church throughout the world.
- There has been explosive growth in Africa, spearheaded by Anglicans and Pentecostals. Likewise, in the USA Pentecostalism (read charismatic movement), got its beginning on Azusa Street among black ministers around 1907 in California. It has moved south of the border with huge growth. It has moved into Brazil very strongly. In the past I’ve discounted the Christianity of charismatics, but when they are embracing the Holy Trinity, and basically the theology of the Apostles’ Creed, I must take notice. This is what Keller is telling us to do. Jenkins and Noll say that Pentecostals (read charismatics) now compose about one fourth of the Church world-wide, which is substantively changing Christianity throughout the world; and if Christianity keeps growing at the present rate in China, it may be the next Christian nation. Already Presbyterians dominate and have changed the culture of South Korea.
- There is one flaw that bothered me greatly as I read this book. Though he presented many interesting arguments for the existence of God, he left it open, actually he denied, that we can present compelling arguments for His existence. Here are some quotes with page numbers:
. . . all arguments [for the existence of God] are rationally avoidable in the end. That is, you can always find reason to except it that is not sheer bias or stubbornness. [In other words, contra Romans 1:18, we have moral neutrality. He continues] Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that we can’t evaluate beliefs, only that we should not expect conclusive proof, and to demand it is unfair. Not even scientists proceed that way. (p. 125) [And that is why scientists are often wrong and cannot evaluate evidence and arguments well; their assumptions are built on sand. They show that we cannot infer an infinite being from a finite creation. They are right, but the Bible does not reason that way; rather, it reasons from the stated existence of God to the fallen creation. That, it seems to me, is a deductive argument with a certain conclusion, rather than an inductive argument from a finite creation to the infinite God.]
No view of God can be proven, but that does not mean that we cannot sift and weigh the grounds for various religious beliefs and find that some or even one is the most reasonable. (p. 126) [Now I shall remove the contradiction: “No view of God can be proved, but we can find a view that approximates Him.” That is just plain silly. Give with one hand and take back with the other. Recall Hebrews 11:6: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6 NKJ)]
Though there cannot be irrefutable proof for the existence of God, many people have found strong clues for his reality. . . . (p. 131) [Our Clue who may be in heaven, hallowed be some name, somewhere. . . .”]
I find these quotes remarkably destructive of much of what he is saying. They destroy one of the main points of the book. Take this last quote. Can you imagine going to the Triune God in prayer and saying, “O Lord, somewhere you may exist, and I hope you get this message, if you are really there.” Scripture begins with the assumption of God’s existence (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .” Gen. 1:1). I had a seminary professor who said, “If you can get past the first verse of the Bible, the rest is all downhill.” Indeed, sir. We cannot cover presuppositional apologetics in a book review, but if he had used that along with his evidence, it would have been, in my humble opinion, a much better and tighter argument. But it is always easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize. Let me qualify myself. The Bible presents the absolute sovereignty of God, and He saves whom He has chosen. Thus, he may use any approach He chooses. The book by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, is a book arguing for the existence of the Triune God. The overall argument is fallacious, reasoning from the finite to the infinite, but there are many facts he presents that might weaken an unbeliever’s armor, Keller reasons. But God the Holy Spirit can blast through an unbeliever’s defenses any way and any time He so chooses. To be fair, I think that is what Keller means, using weak arguments to bring one to confrontation with God. Sounds weird.
An example of such is the true story of a young lady taking a course in college in which biological evolution was presented as fact. She went to the professor after class to ask questions. (See this link: Atheist professor becomes Christian.)
Back in 1979 -81 in Memphis I managed a Christian bookstore. About every two weeks this young man would come in and purchase theologies and other heavy reading, like Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til. So I asked him what he did, and he said that he was a traveling salesman. I asked if he attended seminary because he always chose heavy topics. He said that he had been a philosophy major in a secular university where the professors were atheists to a man (or woman), and that he had earned a B.A. and M.A. in philosophy. He was going to enter the PhD program but had changed his mind. When I asked what changed his mind, he said, “You better hold on to your seat. About two years ago I was on a drug trip, and I heard the gospel on the radio for the first time ever. I heard and I believed, and I’ve never looked back.” Talk about a conversion!
Another high point of the book was that we must not be quick to condemn other Christians who are different from us. That is why I fall back on the objective Three Creeds. For example, I keep reading modern church historians who say that there are many conversions of Muslims who are seeing visions of Jesus who tells them Islam is wrong, and often directs them to someone who can tell them about Jesus. I hope that it is true, but I hear from those who are knowledgeable of such things that Syria is having revival. I surely hope so: “Thy kingdom come.” In the past, I would immediately discount that, and I still wonder about visions. I don’t want to do anything to distract from the centrality of the written Word. BUT, when these converts are coming into the Trinitarian faith, what can you say? How difficult would it be to teach them that the means for their conversion was wrong but their conversion was real?
BOTTOM LINE: This is a very helpful book. It is sound theologically, challenging in ministry, but this is the only Keller book that I’ve read. He does not say much about his style of ministry. My reading schedule does not include any more of his works for the foreseeable future. At least look it up on Amazon and read the Table of Contents. Recommended. Amen. Ω.