His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation
by collin hansen
zondervan, 320 pages, $26.99
I first met Tim Keller in April 2011 at a national conference for The Gospel Coalition (TGC), the evangelical, renewal-minded organization Keller and Don Carson founded in 2005. About a month before the conference, Rob Bell released Love Wins, a provocative, universalist-leaning book “About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” It is hard to believe now, but Bell—who left ministry to start “a spiritual talk show in Los Angeles” the same year Love Wins came out—used to be one of the most famous pastors in America. Hailed by some as “the next Billy Graham,” Bell pastored Mars Hill Bible Church in suburban Grand Rapids, just a few miles from where I grew up. With the church growing to more than 10,000 attendees and its innovative pastor in high demand as a speaker and author, Time named Bell one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World (yes, the world). His books, and especially his popular NOOMA videos, were staples in many evangelical churches. At the time, I was pastoring in East Lansing, Michigan, not far from where Bell, the son of a Reagan-appointed district judge, grew up. Virtually every person at my church had visited Mars Hill or knew someone who attended Mars Hill. When Rob Bell started pitching universalism to his mainstream evangelical audience, it was a big deal.
A few weeks before the TGC conference in 2011, I published a twenty-page review of Love Wins. I was slated to lead a panel at the conference with Keller (and others) on the theme “God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty.” I knew of Tim Keller, of course. Everyone in my Reformed circles knew of Keller’s thriving ministry in New York City and of his 2008 bestseller The Reason for God (and, soon after that, The Prodigal God). I had never met Keller before, but it was Keller who, thanks to some mutual friends, had helped me get an advance copy of Love Wins so that I could have a lengthy review ready for publication as soon as the book was released. I wasn’t sure, though, whether Tim was following the controversy carefully. Turns out he was. (I’ve since discovered that, as much as Keller likes to stay out of the fray, he stays attuned to online debates.) As Tim passed by me in the speaker’s room, he said with a wry grin, “Well, if it isn’t the mean Kevin DeYoung.” I said, also with a smile, something like, “And if it isn’t the very nice Tim Keller.”
I’ve often thought about that initial exchange with Keller, because it says something about our different approaches to ministry. Though I hope to be kind and careful, my public ministry has often involved correcting error, guarding the truth, and warning against creeping liberalism. By contrast, though Keller usually lands squarely on the traditional side of doctrinal matters, he has a public ministry focused on making the gospel attractive to outsiders, staying out of intramural theological disputes, and warning against extremes. You might say I specialize in building walls, and Keller specializes in building bridges. I’m sure Tim would affirm with me that both are necessary.
I trust that many others will properly summarize and evaluate Collin Hansen’s excellent book Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. It would be difficult for me to give a dispassionate analysis of a book written by a friend about a friend. What I can say by way of unbiased evaluation is that anyone remotely interested in Keller’s life and ministry will have a hard time putting this book down. Hansen, with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and more than ten years of experience working for TGC and directly with Keller, is ideally situated to write this book. The pace is quick, but with enough new information and personal anecdotes to repay the reader’s attention. The tone is appreciative and sympathetic, but not hagiographical. The biographical approach is unusual—it tells Keller’s story by relating him to his mentors and friends—but still basically chronological and easy to follow.
This book is not meant to be a traditional academic biography, replete with secondary sources and intent on evaluating Keller’s ideas, his strengths, his weaknesses, and his place in the larger cultural and ecclesiastical trends of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Instead, the book draws on interviews with its subject, and with his friends and family, to create a close-up portrait of Keller as an individual.
At times, I would have enjoyed hearing more of Hansen’s authorial voice, his evaluation and analysis of Keller’s remarkable story. Given Hansen’s reliance on Keller’s own recollections (especially for the last few decades), I wondered at times whether the depiction of Keller from the 1970s or 1980s was being reinterpreted through the lens of Keller from the 2020s. For example, it is fair to ask whether Keller’s explicit alignment in recent years with neo-Calvinism—the “orthodox yet modern” vision of Dutch theologians Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper—represents Keller’s intellectual vision from the very beginning of his ministry, or his mature thought layered atop earlier instincts.
Nevertheless, Hansen’s method allows the book to pursue its central theme: that you can’t understand the later Keller—the pastor who arrives in New York City in 1989, becomes a renowned author, and sees his church grow to upwards of five thousand members—without understanding the preceding thirty-nine years of his life. In the first two-thirds of the book, we meet Tim Keller before New York City: Keller as a socially awkward boy growing up in a controlling and legalistic environment in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Keller as a newly converted student committed to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bucknell University; Keller as a newly formed Calvinist at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; Keller as a novice pastor in blue-collar Hopewell, Virginia; and Keller as a still-intellectually-developing professor at Westminster Theological Seminary.
It can be tempting to think that successful men and women burst on to the scene de novo with revolutionary ideas all their own. But, of course, that’s never the case. We are all shaped—for good or ill, in concert with or in reaction to—our parents, teachers, books, mentors, colleagues, friends, family members, and opponents. In Keller’s case, there have been a host of influences—Barbara Boyd, R. C. Sproul, Roger Nicole, Richard Lovelace, Elisabeth Elliot, Jonathan Edwards, Herman Bavinck, J. R. R. Tolkien, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Harvie Conn, Jack Miller, N. T. Wright, Charles Taylor—and three preeminent influences in particular: C. S. Lewis, Ed Clowney, and Tim’s wife, Kathy (Kristy) Keller.
Reading Hansen’s book helped me piece together why Tim and I get along so well, and why we respectfully differ on some important points. Tim and I are both Northerners—born, raised, and schooled in the Mid-Atlantic and in the Midwest, respectively—serving in a Presbyterian denomination with deep Southern roots. We’ve read almost all the same people and share some of the same heroes in ministry. For example, the Welsh pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who ministered during the middle part of the twentieth century in London’s Westminster Chapel, has been a formative preaching influence for both of us.
Crucially, both Tim and I attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on Boston’s North Shore. Although Keller graduated in 1975 and I graduated a generation later in 2002, we encountered more than a few of the same people. I remember hearing the formidable and no-nonsense Elisabeth Elliot—a key mentor who helped push Tim and Kathy in a more conservative direction on women’s ordination—speak in the seminary chapel toward the end of her life. (I was assisting in chapel that morning and had the harrowing experience of trying to free Elisabeth Elliot from behind a broken bathroom door, but that’s a story for another time.) I preached many times (at the Orthodox Presbyterian church I attended) in front of the family of Gwyn Walters, the homiletics professor who gave Keller a C in preaching but also instilled in him a Welsh emphasis on preaching to the heart. At the same church, I attended a class taught by Meredith Kline, the ground-breaking Old Testament professor with whom Keller took six classes—more than he took with any other professor. I also took a course with Richard Lovelace, the beloved and absent-minded professor whose book Dynamics of Spiritual Life proved hugely influential for Keller.
Like any public person, Keller has his share of detractors. Within our denomination, the conservative and Calvinistic Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Keller is widely respected for his winsome outreach to unbelievers, for his shrewdly contextual approach to ministry, and for talking about race, justice, and the poor (topics sometimes neglected in conservative circles). Keller has also been criticized for those same things, with some arguing that he avoids unpopular doctrines in an effort to appeal to secular elites, is overly insistent on a sophisticated cultural hermeneutic, and is too quick to offer third-way solutions for social and political matters that sometimes require Christians to take sides and enter the fray.
Keller is not always treated fairly. I’ve seen him face vitriol online for making ordinary Christian comments that shouldn’t be controversial. (He was recently called “spiritually abusive” for insisting that Christians should try to read through the Bible each year.) Tim Keller is not what’s wrong with the world or the Church! It is no small thing that one of the most widely respected pastors of the past twenty-five years is a Bible-believing five-point Calvinist who holds that abortion is wrong, that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that only qualified men should be ordained to church office. At the same time, Keller is probably center-left within the PCA, whereas I am center-right. As much as I give thanks for Keller, I often find myself sizing up our cultural moment and approaching ministry in a somewhat different way.
Let me mention four differences that became clearer to me as I read Hansen’s book. First, Keller is attuned to the dangers of legalism, whereas I am more attuned to the perils of liberalism. This difference likely has something to do with how we each grew up—Tim in a familial and ecclesiastical environment that seemed effort-driven and graceless, and I (before switching to the PCA) in a mainline denomination that has been drifting toward doctrinal latitudinarianism for more than fifty years. I don’t think there are quite as many fighting fundamentalists out there as Keller thinks (not that he always deals with fundamentalism fairly), and he probably thinks I underappreciate how dangerous overly conservative churches can be. That may explain why Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life, with its focus on the history of revivals and the need for the Church to be constantly renewed, has been one of Keller’s most recommended resources. I enjoyed my one course with Lovelace, but I didn’t find his book “seminal to my thinking and way of doing ministry,” and I wouldn’t say, with Keller, that Lovelace’s class “changed [my] life.”
Second, because Keller’s initial conversion and growth as a Christian came through parachurch ministry (most notably InterVarsity at Bucknell), Keller often sees the church as—however unintentionally—getting in the way of dynamic outreach, and as in need of systemic reform. In Hansen’s words, Keller “brought InterVarsity’s instincts with him” into the local church. Since InterVarsity’s ministry—though broadly evangelical—was intended for college students from all backgrounds, it “taught him to value what Christians hold in common over the doctrines that divide them.” While teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary, Keller was an elder at New Life Presbyterian Church, where pastor Jack Miller stressed grace, acceptance, and freedom from calcified church patterns and status-quo structures. Keller made Miller’s Outgrowing the Ingrown Church required reading for every original core group member at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the congregation he founded in New York City in 1989. I’ve benefited from that book, too, but in 2023 even the most outward-facing church is going to face hostility not of its own making. I fear that anxious evangelicals hope that if they can just be grace-centered enough, contextualized enough, do enough to serve the community, and make clear that they are not Republicans, then unbelievers will turn to Christ. Of course, Keller never makes such an outlandish claim, but when we emphasize (sometimes necessarily) the Church’s failure to adapt to a changing world, we can miss the biblical truth that those who hated Jesus will hate his followers (John 15:18), and that the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4).
Third, Keller has often made use of George Marsden’s observation that the Reformed tradition in America comprises three different priorities or “impulses”: the doctrinalist impulse, which emphasizes the confessions of the church and correct theology; the pietist impulse, which emphasizes right behavior and the internal affections of the heart; and the culturalist impulse, which emphasizes collective action and the external work of the Church to transform society. Keller has acknowledged before that he is a culturalist first, then a pietist, then a doctrinalist. I would say that my order is just the opposite. In fact, if it’s not too doctrinalist of me, I think that sound doctrine is more than an impulse; it is foundational and indispensable for the other two emphases. While I’m at it, I might as well say that I’m not convinced that the culture-transforming agenda belongs to the Church qua Church, nor that it won’t end up being co-opted by an ever-expanding list of “social justice” causes.
Finally, Keller and I differ in that I consider myself Reformed and then evangelical, whereas he seems to be evangelical and then Reformed. This difference of emphasis should not be exaggerated (after all, many Reformed Christians don’t want the label evangelical at all, and many evangelicals wouldn’t dare call themselves Reformed), but it matters. I think of myself as a Reformed Christian who can appreciate what is good about broader evangelicalism, rather than an evangelical with Reformed theology. I asked Hansen while he was writing the book, “Is Keller basically a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian who is willing to bend and nuance things because he wants to reach the lost, or is he basically a big-tent evangelical with enough Reformed sensibilities to keep him tethered to good theology?” Hansen replied, “Oh, definitely the second.” Hansen suggests that, for Keller, the Old Princeton tradition of Charles Hodge and J. Gresham Machen “emphasized the closed fist of theological orthodoxy.” I’m more appreciative of the Princeton tradition and their early Westminster successors than Tim is, and he’s more appreciative of Kuyper and neo-Calvinism. I take my cues from Calvin, Turretin, Machen, and Murray first, then add twentieth-century British evangelicals to keep me from being too narrow. I think Tim takes his cues from those British evangelicals first, but reads enough Calvin, Turretin, Machen, and Murray to keep him well grounded.
Keller and I both went to Gordon-Conwell, one of many post-war institutions that came together thanks to Billy Graham’s convening power and with his uniquely weighty endorsement. As a result, Gordon-Conwell also embodied Graham’s neo-Evangelical approach: a somewhat Reformed theology, standing apart from fundamentalism and against liberalism. Keller attended Gordon-Conwell from 1972 to 1975, when the seminary was on the rise; by the time I arrived in 1999, the school was still strong, but just about to start losing money and students, as the neo-Evangelical consensus fell apart. This fact may speak to why Tim and I are wired differently.
The conservative critics of Keller—and, by the way, there are many liberals who strongly disagree with Keller's conservative views on issues of gender and sexuality (just ask Princeton Theological Seminary, which revoked Keller’s Kuyper Prize)—might wish that he were clearer on certain cultural issues, less friendly toward evolutionary theory, and less dismissive of conservatism as a moral philosophy. For my part, I’m grateful that one of the most influential Christians in the English-speaking world is an orthodox, evangelical, confessional Presbyterian. Tim and I served on the PCA’s sexuality study committee, where we were tasked with writing a first draft of the main section of the report. It wasn’t hard for Tim and me to land on the same theology—sometimes pulling in different directions and sensitive to different concerns, but always coming to the same conclusions.
I’m also thankful for the personal Tim Keller, who comes through in the book. As long as I’ve known Tim, he has always been kind, considerate, and candid with me. As with the gospel he preaches, I’ve found Keller consistently gracious and generous. He continues to battle cancer (he would say the fight is against sin more than against cancer) with honesty, with faith, and with good cheer. In an age of pastoral prima donnas and celebrity preachers who get worse the closer you look, Keller is refreshingly down-to-earth and unpretentious. In some ways, I imagine he’s the same drum-major, loves-to-talk-about-what-he’s-reading Tolkien nerd he was in his early adulthood. This is surely one of the secrets to his success: Self-aware and comfortable in his own skin, Keller shows no need to clamor for attention, to defend himself against every critic, or to require fans and sycophants to stroke his ego. If you’ve seen Keller preach or teach or speak on a panel, you’ve seen the real person. Tim Keller is what you think he is (except taller).
In one sense, not everyone can do what Keller does. He has a special knack for synthesizing what he reads (which is a lot) and using that knowledge to present the claims of Christ in a compelling way to secular people. There is much about Keller—his gifts, his success, his context—that is unique. But, in the end, I believe his legacy will be found in those areas and in those ideas that are least unique. I believe Keller’s best books—the books that will help the most people over the longest period of time—are not those on apologetics or ministry methodology, but those dealing with evergreen issues of the Christian life: prayer, suffering, forgiveness, marriage, reading the Psalms, the idols of the human heart, the dangers of license and legalism.
If Tim Keller’s ministry is to have lasting influence—if more biographies are to be written in the years ahead—it will be because he has done the ordinary things extraordinarily well: He has extolled the gospel of God’s free grace, lived a faithful Christian life, and taught people the Bible in a way they can understand. Those are the things Keller learned in his spiritual and intellectual formation, and those are the most important things we can learn from him.
Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church, in Matthews, North Carolina, and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte.
Image by Frank Licorice via Creative Commons. Image cropped.