Timothy Keller’s Apologetic Legacy —

By David F. Watson —

On May 19, Timothy Keller went home to his eternal reward. The church is richer for his ministry and poorer for his passing. Keller was a man of remarkable gifts. He was faithful to his calling, and he left an intellectual and spiritual legacy that will bear fruit for generations to come.

It seems like every week there is some new megachurch pastor or other Christian celebrity who has fallen into disgrace. Indeed it is almost surprising now to see someone as well-known as Keller who traversed a life of ministry with honor and humility. Yes, there were many who did not agree with him, even those who didn’t like him. Princeton Theological Seminary initially selected Keller to receive the Kuyper Prize but then reversed its decision when an uproar arose over Keller’s conservative theological positions. He responded with admirable Christian character, demonstrating dignity and grace, and he still gave the Kuyper lecture that year.

As a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Keller was shaped by and committed to the Reformed tradition. Put differently, he was a Calvinist. There are some significant differences between Calvinists and Methodists, including our doctrines of grace and election and our views on Christian perfection. One difference in practice is that the PCA does not ordain women. Generally speaking, Methodists do – even very conservative Methodists – and I fully support this practice. Nevertheless, the areas of agreement between Methodists and Calvinists far exceed those of disagreement. In fact John Wesley declared there was but a “hair’s breadth” between Calvinists and Methodists. Keller brought many people into a living, saving faith, and there is much that we Methodists can learn from his example.

Remarkably, Keller established a successful ministry right in the belly of the secular beast: New York City, Manhattan no less. Many of his congregants were young professionals. His preaching was straightforward, thoughtful, and engaging. He combined the gifts of an evangelist with the gifts of a teacher. Some might call Keller “winsome,” but he was more than that. He was compelling. He had that rare gift of making difficult concepts accessible and presenting hard truths with grace and gentleness. This is an age in which many confuse abrasiveness with truthfulness. A stereotyped hyper-masculinity is held up as the ideal of Christian manhood and family life, particularly in some Reformed circles, to the extent that one wonders whether Jesus’ teaching “blessed are the meek” has been excised from the canon. In a theological world where the loudest, most obnoxious voices often get the most attention, Keller showed restraint and maturity. He was a gentleman, one of a disappearing breed.

He was also prolific. Keller authored too many books to mention here, and I have not read all of them. I will, however, mention one: The Reason for God: Belief in An Age of Skepticism (Riverhead Books, 2008). In the first part of this book each chapter takes on a difficult question or contention he undoubtedly encountered in the work of pastoral ministry. Chapter one, for example, is called “There Can’t Be Just One True Religion.” In chapter two he addresses the question, “How could a good God allow suffering?” Later in chapter six he refutes the contention that science has disproved Christianity. In the second part, rather than addressing criticisms, Keller makes a positive case for the truth of Christianity. Chapters eight and nine look at evidence for and our ability to perceive God. Other chapters deal with sin, the meaning of the cross, the resurrection, and other topics. I have recommended this book on several occasions.

Since the earliest days of the faith, Christianity has had its cultured despisers. Many Christians have undertaken to confront the critics and demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. This type of literature is called “apologetic.” When used in this way, “apologetic” does not refer to an admission of wrongdoing but to an intellectual defense. We might think of the writings of Justin Martyr, the Letter of Athenagoras written to the co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, or Origen’s Against Celsus. In more recent years, C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, William Lane Craig, and Bishop Robert Barron, among others, have produced important work answering the critics of the Christian faith and providing a reasonable account of what we believe. Keller made fine contributions to this body of modern apologetic literature.

We Methodists do not have a strong apologetic track record. Yes, we have had our apologists, but who is our C. S. Lewis? Who is our Tim Keller? It’s hard to think of one of our own since Wesley who fits the bill. Let’s face it: apologetics is not our strong suit. One reason for this may be that Methodists have often relied on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to confirm the truth of the Gospel in the lives of the faithful. Why make rational arguments for God when God himself will confirm his own reality in our lives? This approach misses a crucial aspect of apologetics, however: people may never become receptive to the work of the Spirit if they are convinced beforehand that Christian beliefs are untenable. I suspect that another reason also lies behind our apologetic deficit: since at least the mid-nineteenth century, Methodists have been more likely to ape the surrounding culture than to confront it. Rather than transforming the world, too often we ourselves have been the ones transformed.

Apologetics, of course, can only take us so far. Generally speaking, we are not going to convince people to become Christians through argument. What arguments can do, however, is remove obstacles to belief. They can clear out the intellectual clutter that may prevent our embrace of the gospel. They can address our nagging doubts. They can help us to understand that there is no sacrifice of intellect in becoming a Christian, and even that our faith describes reality more truly and meaningfully than the alternatives. In my own faith journey, an important work was The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith: The Incarnational Narrative as History, by C. Stephen Evans (Oxford, 1996). In this book, Evans offers a powerful philosophical defense of the historicity of the church’s story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I read this book while I was a graduate student, when so much of what was being published in biblical studies argued exactly the opposite – that Jesus was not who the church said he was, that ancient myths would not suffice for modern people, that to believe what the church has always taught about Jesus was naive and intellectually deficient. Evans didn’t convince me that Christianity was true. Rather, he helped me to navigate the intellectual obstacle course that I had encountered in my scholarly vocation. I needed that. It deepened my faith.

We are going to miss Tim Keller. He was a person of remarkable skill and insight. He was much more than a Christian apologist, but his apologetic work was important. In each generation, we need people who can help to bridge the gap between the heart and the head. We need people to address our cultured despisers and offer an account of the hope that is within us. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that when we do offer our account, we should do so with gentleness and respect. No one is brought to the faith after a verbal beating on Twitter. We do not lead people to Christ by embarrassing them or insulting their intelligence. Rather, we engage them with gentleness and respect and ask God to be in the midst of our conversation. I pray that God will raise up for coming generations more people like Keller, whose considerable intellect was matched by the Christian character he demonstrated.

David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of  Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever and the editor of Firebrand Magazine. Dr. Watson is an elder in the Global Methodist Church. He blogs at www.davidfwatson.me. Photo: Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Photo: Nathan Troester/Icon Media Group.


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