Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation, Collin Hansen. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023. Paperback, 306 pages.
With Tim Keller’s death on May 19, many tributes have been written. Remarkably, even the New York Times noted his passing in an article. There’s always been an unofficial Tim Keller fan club, but I haven’t part of it. Sure, I appreciate a lot of what he’s written. I’ve positively reviewed some of his books, including, most recently, Forgive. He was a gifted communicator and usually had good gospel instincts. But that said, I’ve also read enough of Keller to know there are a couple of areas where he isn’t at his best. He was a fascinating figure, always interesting to read, but not without his issues.
Unlike me, Collin Hansen does seem to be part of that fan club. This book is an adulating look back at Keller’s career and who made him who he was. Keller participated in the writing of the book, so it’s not impartial or critical in the scholarly sense. Hansen is an admiring friend and his book has that tone.
The book is biographical, but with a twist. While telling his life story, its emphasis is on those who influenced him along the way. Hansen essentially tells us that Tim Keller was one of the most unoriginal theologians of all time. His influences have included his mother, his wife Kathy, C.S. Lewis, Edmund Clowney, David Powlison, John Stott, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Elisabeth Elliot, and Roger Nicole. What made Keller unique is how he blended these influences together in his preaching, teaching, and writing.
Keller was well-known as the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Hansen explains how Keller went from being a relatively unknown church planter in the Presbyterian Church in America to being one of the “New Calvinist” celebrity pastors. Apart from briefly mentioning how Keller never became an effective manager (p.213), you won’t find much critical analysis of Keller’s ministry at Redeemer. However, if you want to understand who or what was behind his approach, chapter 13 will certainly fill you in.
Chapter 15 will introduce you to another surprising influence in Keller’s life: his younger brother Billy, who died from AIDS in 1998. While he had spent much of his life identifying as gay, in his last few months he was brought to confess saving faith in Christ. At his funeral, Tim Keller preached on the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:23-32. It’s a passage that Keller first heard preached by Edmund Clowney and it formed the basis of his 2008 book, The Prodigal God. Hansen shows us how this passage and those in his life connected with it powerfully shaped Keller’s gospel instincts.
I’ve mentioned it before, but it needs to be mentioned again: Tim Keller was a theistic evolutionist. He believed that God created using billions of years of biological macro-evolution, also known as Darwinism. Hansen mentions this once, briefly (p.103). I would have been interested in hearing what influenced Keller to believe this, but Hansen doesn’t say. He just drops this one sentence where he says this is what Keller believes.
Keller’s best-selling The Reason for God was published in 2008. I and other writers critiqued his apologetical method as not being sufficiently Reformed, which is to say, biblical. This is an area where Hansen is murky. He writes:
Keller gravitated instead toward the neo-Calvinist approach typified by Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Theological Seminary. Keller also departed from Van Til, however, by emphasizing the doctrine of common grace. (p.65)
It’s especially that last sentence that makes me go “Hmmm….” Van Til was actually known and criticized (!) for emphasizing common grace. He wrote a booklet entitled Common Grace and Witness-Bearing in which he argued for a balanced view which would challenge the wisdom of this world. Chapter 8 of Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith is all about the proper place of common grace in Reformed apologetics. So, making the Keller the one who emphasizes common grace as compared to Van Til? Really?
Yet it gets stranger. Hansen writes that in The Reason for God, “Keller employed a version of the presuppositional apologetics of Cornelius Van Til” (p.235). There is a footnote for this claim, but it isn’t to anything that refers to Keller and Van Til, but to a book by Ted Turnau (Popologetics) explicitly using Van Til’s Reformed apologetics in analysing culture. In his Acknowledgements in The Reason for God, Keller explicitly wrote that his two biggest influences were C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards. He never mentioned Van Til and never used presuppositional apologetics. That’s why people like me critiqued it. But then on page 245, Hansen writes that The Reason for God used a more classical apologetical approach, whereas the later book Making Sense of God used presuppositional apologetics. I haven’t read Making Sense of God, so I can’t assess that last claim. Whatever the case may be, if he is a presuppositionalist at all, Tim Keller certainly was not a consistently principled one. The concern remains.
Don’t get me wrong, overall I quite enjoyed this book. Whether you’re a big fan or have just benefited from a Keller book here or there, you might enjoy it as well. It’s an easy reading, popular level book about one of the most significant Christian figures of our day.
Originally published in Clarion 72.10 (July 21, 2023)