It’s hard to underestimate Tim Keller's influence on American evangelicalism—even though he preferred to call himself a “conservative Protestant.” The Rev. Timothy J. Keller, who died this morning at age 72, was a towering figure who never wavered in his dedication to Scripture and the Reformed vision of the Christian life. He combined firm theological convictions with an equally firm commitment to generosity and gentleness. Ultimately, his warm and embracing approach helped him lead a church from 50 members to 5000 in the harsh environment of New York City.
Keller was a late bloomer by evangelical standards. He didn’t pen his first popular work (The Reason for God) until he was approaching his sixth decade of life. By all accounts, he had been headed in a different direction when, in 1989, the Presbyterian Church in America called him to plant Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. At the time, he was firmly ensconced as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and seemed destined to train individuals for ministry. Yet Keller concluded that not to go to New York—even in the midst of the city's crime wave, with its famous “needle park”—would be cowardly. By February, the Kellers were driving to the city, where they began their ministry by leading a small Bible study.
Within a few short years, Redeemer Presbyterian was averaging over 700 attendees each Sunday. Keller learned from the early version of R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries in Pennsylvania that it was better to engage people’s intellectual questions than pepper them with biblical texts. He organized Q&A sessions after his sermons to allow room for skeptics to probe. He intentionally targeted professionals and tried to build a multiethnic community. By the early 2000s, Christianity Today had taken notice, referring to Redeemer as one of New York’s most vital congregations. Keller was in his fifties.
The first decade of the twenty-first century was Keller’s “coming out” party. He became a co-founder of The Gospel Coalition (2005) with Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote the New York Times bestseller The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (2008), and debated Ligon Duncan (who now serves as chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary) over women's role in the church at the PCA’s General Assembly (2009). Keller argued that women should be commissioned to the diaconate, not receive the rite of ordination, and proceeded to commission them at Redeemer. By 2010, Keller had become a major voice in evangelicalism.
Keller was winsome in his approach, but uncompromising on doctrine. He focused on grace because he believed that most people understand how broken they are. Keller’s approach of emphasizing grace and love in the context of offering the gospel to skeptics became the hallmark of his life.
Keller wanted evangelicals to recognize the difference between sound doctrinal convictions and what he called the “sociological location” of churches—the cultural attitudes and practices that are merely social characteristics of Christians in particular places, not theological doctrines. Keller was no fundamentalist. He saw the return of fundamentalism in the form of the Moral Majority as part of the problem. In 2022, he began speaking of the six social marks of evangelicalism, which he essentially equated with fundamentalism. These were moralism over gracious engagement, individualism over social reform, dualism over a comprehensive vision of life, anti-intellectualism over scholarship, anti-institutionalism over accountability, and enculturation over cultural reflection.
At the same time, Keller had no problem signing the Manhattan Declaration in 2009 in solidarity with its drafters—Robert George, Chuck Colson, and Timothy George—to affirm the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty. Evangelicals who accused Keller of compromising on the gospel did not understand his criticisms of the social location of evangelicalism. As he saw it, the embrace of moralism, individualism, and other aspects of evangelicalism’s location within American culture was a denial of conservative Protestantism as rooted in the Reformation. He wanted a new culture of the church—not a regurgitation of the very Enlightenment ideas he worked against at Redeemer. He saw those Enlightenment ideas in the return of fundamentalism.
As a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando), I have always had an appreciation for Reformed theology. But I also learned the difference between Reformed scholars who raged against the night and those who calmly yet firmly offered up their convictions as the expression of their love. Keller was a lover of God and of people. He relished the conversation, was unafraid of pushback from skeptics, and courageously launched out into broken spaces that others had abandoned. God bring us more Tim Kellers.
Dale M. Coulter is professor of historical theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Image by Frank Licorice licensed via Creative Commons. Images combined and cropped.