My family's beloved thirteen-year-old dog is named Keller. Every day he serves as a reminder of the ways that a certain Presbyterian pastor in New York City influenced me in the early stages of my faith. I continue to admire him, even if I have turned elsewhere for guidance in our contemporary political moment.
If you were an evangelical in America during the 2000s, Tim Keller was a name you couldn’t avoid. After completing theological studies at Gordon-Conwell in 1975, Keller accepted a senior pastor position in rural Virginia. There he honed his preaching craft, delivering multiple sermons a week for nine years. In the late 1980s he decided to plant a church in New York City, which became Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Starting in 1989 with only fifty members, Redeemer eventually drew upward of 5,000 people on Sundays and launched a church planting network that has led to over 800 new churches in cities throughout the world. The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus noted in these pages that impressive work was happening in Keller’s church. The city-focused church-planting movement as we know it today simply would not exist without Tim Keller.
More generally, Keller has helped many young people embrace orthodox Christianity in a culture that made the faith seem strange. Keller has served as a C. S. Lewis for a postmodern world, through his public ministry—which began in the 1990s as ministers began circulating his essays on culture and ministry, but which really picked up steam in the mid-2000s when he helped launch The Gospel Coalition and began publishing a steady stream of books. For years, he provided sociological and theological analyses of the late-modern city and the “secular age,” supplying insightful conceptual tools for ministering in these contexts.
In his writings and sermons, Keller modeled competence, compassion, and conviction that helped render the claims of the faith more plausible in the eyes of Christianity’s cultured skeptics. This was manifest most clearly in his blockbuster book: The Reason for God. And he provided a compelling vision of the core message of the gospel, which he argues avoids legalism on the one hand and egoistic relativism on the other. This is encapsulated in his signature phrase: “The gospel says that you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared believe and more accepted and loved than you ever dared hope.”
Keller’s winsome approach led him to great success as an evangelist. But he also, maybe subconsciously, thinks about politics through the lens of evangelism, in the sense of making sure that political judgments do not prevent people in today's world from coming to Christ. His approach to evangelism informs his political writings and his views on how Christians should engage politics.
For years, Keller's approach informed my views of both evangelism and politics. When I became a Christian in college, both my campus ministry and my church were heavily influenced by Keller’s “winsome,” missional, “gospel-centered” views. I liked Keller's approach to engaging the culture—his message that, though the gospel is unavoidably offensive, we must work hard to make sure people are offended by the gospel itself rather than our personal, cultural, and political derivations. We must, Keller convinced me, constantly explain how Christianity is not tied to any particular culture or political party, instead showing how the gospel critiques all sides. He has famously emphasized that Christianity is “neither left nor right,” instead promoting a “third way” approach that attempts to avoid tribal partisanship and the toxic culture wars in hopes that more people will give the gospel a fair hearing. If we are to “do politics,” it should be in apologetic mode.
I met my wife in 2007, and we fell in love while discussing Reason for God and thinking about how to minister to our non-Christian neighbors. We were married the following year, and I gave all of my groomsmen a copy of Keller's The Prodigal God. It was a no-brainer that we would name our dog after this great man whose ministry had meant so much to us. And for the next few years we followed Keller's lead by helping plant multiple churches in Austin, Texas, until I decided to pursue a doctorate in political theology after the 2016 election.
At that point, I began to observe that our politics and culture had changed. I began to feel differently about our surrounding secular culture, and noticed that its attitude toward Christianity was not what it once had been. Aaron Renn’s account represents well my thinking and the thinking of many: There was a “neutral world” roughly between 1994–2014 in which traditional Christianity was neither broadly supported nor opposed by the surrounding culture, but rather was viewed as an eccentric lifestyle option among many. However, that time is over. Now we live in the “negative world,” in which, according to Renn, Christian morality is expressly repudiated and traditional Christian views are perceived as undermining the social good. As I observed the attitude of our surrounding culture change, I was no longer so confident that the evangelistic framework I had gleaned from Keller would provide sufficient guidance for the cultural and political moment. A lot of former fanboys like me are coming to similar conclusions. The evangelistic desire to minimize offense to gain a hearing for the gospel can obscure what our political moment requires.
Keller’s apologetic model for politics was perfectly suited for the “neutral world.” But the “negative world” is a different place. Tough choices are increasingly before us, offense is unavoidable, and sides will need to be taken on very important issues. Recent events have proven that being winsome in this moment will not guarantee a favorable hearing. One important example came in 2017. When the Kuyper Center for Public Theology selected Keller as the recipient of the “Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness,” many students, faculty, and alumni of Princeton Theological Seminary (which is where the Kuyper Center holds its annual conference) protested. Though Keller had spent decades cultivating a thoughtful and compassionate approach to public witness, many simply could not abide Princeton honoring someone who transgresses progressive orthodoxies on sex and gender. The award was rescinded.
During the 2016 election cycle, I still approached politics through the winsome model, and I realized that it was hardening me toward fellow believers. I was too concerned with how one’s vote might harm the “public witness” of the church, and I looked down upon those who voted differently than me—usually in a rightward direction. “Public witness” most often translates into appeasing those to one’s left, and distancing oneself from the deplorables. I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.
And I started to recognize another danger to this approach: If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem. If winsomeness is met with hostility, it is easy to wonder, “Are we in the wrong?” Thus the slide toward secular culture’s reasoning is greased. A “secular-friendly” politics has problems similar to “seeker-friendly” worship. An excessive concern to appeal to the unchurched is plagued by the accommodationist temptation. This is all the more a problem in the “negative world.”
Keller's “third way” philosophy has serious limitations as a framework for moral reasoning as well. Too often it encourages in its adherents a pietistic impulse to keep one’s hands clean, stay above the fray, and at a distance from imperfect options for addressing complex social and political issues. It can also produce conflict-aversion, and thus it is instinctively accommodating. By always giving equal airtime to the flaws in every option, the third way posture can also give the impression that the options are equally bad, failing to sufficiently recognize ethical asymmetry. This was on display, for example, in Keller's recent tweet thread on Christian division and politics.
Keller was extremely effective as a minister and public theologian in the neutral world. At the beginning of his time in New York, he spent years conducting sociological research by not only reading the best literature of the day, but also surveying residents in the city and hosting Q&A sessions after his sermons. The insights he gleaned from this work were foundational to his ministry. And partly as a result, he enjoyed years of extremely fruitful parish ministry and public writing. Is it too much to expect someone to conduct that same sort of research to adjust to a new moment at a late stage in life—especially when one has experienced as much success as Keller has?
Keller was the right man for a moment. To many, like me, it appears that moment has passed. That does not diminish my admiration for the important service Keller provided to the church in America for many years. My family and I wouldn’t be the same without him.
James R. Wood is associate editor at First Things.
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