Tim Keller – Pastoral Evangelist. A conversation with Collin Hansen

Author, preacher, pastor and evangelist Timothy J. Keller has been a significant voice and helpful guide for Christians engaged in evangelism in the contemporary secular West. Keller’s friend and colleague Collin Hansen has written an illuminating new book exploring the influences that shaped Tim Keller. Gavin Matthews spoke to Collin for Solas.

GJM: I’m delighted to be joined by Collin Hansen, author of this exciting new book, “Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation”. Hi Collin, what you’ve written here isn’t a standard, traditional or formulaic biography – but something rather different! Tell us what this is about and what you set about to achieve.

Collin Hansen: Hi Gavin! Well, yes, it is an unusual book. What I set about to achieve here was what Tim Keller would agree to, which was to talk about other people! If you speak to Tim Keller, he loves to tell you at any given point, who he is learning from and the origins of his ideas. That’s the kind of person he is, so that’s the kind of book that I wrote. It wouldn’t have worked to try and write something that was deeply introspective, based on his journal entries and feelings about everything because that’s not the kind of relationship that I have with him. I’m not even sure if he does those kinds of things!! So, I set out with a few objectives in mind. Firstly, I wanted people to know about Tim Keller’s life because he’s interesting as a public figure.

Then I also wanted to help church leaders learn about some authors and thinkers they might not have come across and whose books they might chase down and benefit from. Readers will also learn a lot about the times in which Keller lived, and continues to live, and the different experiences he underwent. Then there’s plenty to learn from the methods Keller has used – his actual plans. I’m not sure how many people know how deliberate Tim has been across several different fronts. In fact, I didn’t know this until doing the research for this book. This is especially the case in evangelism – and the relationship between evangelism, revival, and the church. I don’t know whether to describe him as an innovator or not; but he is a contemporary of ‘the church growth movement’ as well as the ’seeker-friendly churches’. He’s the same age as the leaders of those movements, but offered a different approach to them in terms of ecclesial revivalism. Keller deliberately sought more of a connection to the broader tradition of Reformed Evangelicalism, especially to that led by people like Jonathan Edwards and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

GJM: Tim Keller will have first come to the attention of a lot of people in the UK through his book, “The Reason for God” – and he was known here initially as an apologist. That’s quite interesting because in the context of Reformed theology where Keller is working, there is something of a tension around the extent to which apologetics is useful. Famously Schaeffer had a disagreement with Lloyd-Jones about the role of apologetics. Lloyd-Jones emphasised expounding the scriptures and relying on the Spirit, but Schaeffer emphasised that you have to take people part of the way by “taking the roof off“  their worldview too. So where does Keller sit within that tension, and what can he teach us about both the importance and limitations of apologetics?

Collin Hansen: Wonderful question! Of course, Tim as usual is both, he refuses to choose one side or the other. However, Tim is more directly influenced by Lloyd-Jones than he is by Schaeffer; because Schaeffer’s influence on him was relatively indirect. Schaeffer’s influence came to Keller largely via R.C. Sproul. But, interestingly Keller doesn’t follow Sproul in apologetics because Sproul was much more of an evidentialist, whereas Tim Keller takes much more of a Westminster/Van Til presuppositionalist approach. But Keller adapts the presuppositionalist approach with a neo-Calvinism which assumes more common-grace in the listener. So essentially, if you look at Keller’s Oxford University missions, you can see that Tim has done things both ways. He’s come in the traditional way by expounding scripture, especially in the gospels which address Jesus himself. But later he also preferred to take the approach which you describe as “taking the roof off” first.  That was to begin by doing some pre-evangelism; addressing questions of identity especially and really trying to meet people where they are.  But Keller does that in an odd way, by refusing to answer people’s questions “as they were asked”. What I mean by that is, for instance if someone said to him, “why do Christians have a problem with homosexuality?”, he could just say “because the scriptures say that we should” – and that would be true. But actually Tim would try and turn the question on the questioner and interrogate their presuppositions to help them see that they are not the “rational ones” objecting to an “irrational Bible”, but that both of us depend on certain presuppositions. We both depend on certain assumptions about how the world works that cannot be defended empirically.

So, he will use both methods.

Ultimately though, what he wants to do is use apologetics to clear the air, so that people can encounter the scriptures. He’s trying to lift the blinders off so that they can see Jesus as he emerges in the word. So, he is always doing both.  But it’s important to remember that among the apologists, he has firstly been a preacher and pastor – that’s been his day job. He’s not primarily been an itinerant evangelist/apologist travelling from place-to-place presenting arguments for the Christian faith, or repeatedly defending the resurrection accounts (for example). Usually, week by week he’s been in church preaching through the scriptures and that is important to remember too, I think.

GJM: That’s interesting. One of the things I’ve noticed as a real hallmark of Keller’s sermons online and in print, is that he preaches “grace from every text”. Whether he’s in the Old Testament law, or Proverbs, or the New Testament Gospels or Epistles it’s always in a framework of grace. Now I remember seeing a video Keller made for the anniversary of New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside, PA – where Keller attributed this “preaching grace from every text” to something he learnt from Jack Miller there. Tell us more about this, because when I think of Tim Keller, I think of him as a preacher of God’s grace; someone who again and again brings us the gospel as good news, not just good advice.

Collin Hansen: Yes, that’s perfect! And it’s because discovering God’s ‘grace’ is really Tim Keller’s autobiography. In fact, his book “The Prodigal God” is about as close as he will ever come to writing an autobiography and that is a book all about grace! Essentially Tim’s upbringing made him very Luther-esque in terms of having a very, very active conscience which he very much struggled to figure out how to reconcile. That meant that when he experienced God’s grace it was so radical, so refreshing, so transformative that it became the grounds for everything he ever did. I think when you combine that theologically with a ‘covenantal’ approach which sees that while God’s ways of dealing with us do change at different times; it’s the same God, always. It means that everything is of grace from God! Creation itself is grace; his choosing of Israel is by grace, everywhere you look…. His rescue of Noah, (which is about judgement) but also about grace towards Noah and his family. So, you see all these consistent patterns where God is always the same God, the God of grace.

It was not only Jack Miller that Keller drew that from but also others in that broader tradition such as Ed Clowney who hired Miller at Westminster Seminary, and previous to that Geerhardus Vos, in the broader Dutch Reformed tradition. When you put those things together you realise that we are preaching the same God from all of scripture. I think instinctively Christians really, really struggle with that: dichotomising between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. But it’s not consistent with biblical or historical understanding of how to handle the scriptures. So, if you understand that God is the God of grace then you are going to be sure to preach that God from every text! So yes, that theological heritage has made grace-filled exposition of scripture one of Keller’s hallmarks.

GJM: And, of course Tim Keller has had quite an influence on the UK. He has drawn from some influences in the UK and has also sought to sow back into the UK too, hasn’t he?

Collin Hansen: Well, I can talk more about the former than the latter, because that’s the focus of the book. And it’s really as simple as this, Tim Keller was nurtured by British mid-20th Century evangelicalism. That was his spiritual nourishment. So, for a start he was connected institutionally to Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, rooted in the UK. His relationship there has a very clear lineage, Barbara Boyd taught him inductive Bible study, she was mentored by C. Stacey Woods, who was mentored by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. That’s the connection because that’s who was teaching him how to read the Bible. Then, at the time, if you were a young intellectually orientated evangelical you were probably going to be heavily influenced by Inter Varsity Press (IVP), and they were publishing British evangelical authors, especially Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer and John Stott. At that time there were no Americans doing that same kind of work, not to mention Lloyd-Jones’ influence in expository preaching. So as Keller learnt apologetics and expository preaching, he learnt it from British evangelicals. Then when you fast forward, even when Tim Keller started The Gospel Coalition, he modelled that on British evangelicalism. Tim Keller met Don Carson, who is a Canadian theologian married to an Englishwoman at EMA (A UK-based gathering of evangelical leaders). They realised that they didn’t have anything like EMA back in the United States. One of the key differences here really is that a very large number of American Evangelicals are largely shaped by the “fundamentalist – modernist” debates of the early twentieth century, especially so Presbyterians. But that’s just not Tim because his orientation is much more British.

And the only area of Tim Keller’s influence in the UK that I focused on were two things. The first was that when he got word that his friend was pulling out from leading what became Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Tim was in the middle of one of his long speaking trips in the UK, that was one thing. The UK was one of the two favourite places of the Kellers to ever travel to. Another of course was his Oxford missions. In the book I mostly focussed on those Oxford missions, not necessarily because I understood his influence on the UK; but because it was the space in which he fundamentally worked out his shift in apologetics in the last decade… more towards social criticism and getting underneath the questions.

GJM: Another thing that many of us are keen to learn from Keller is about contextualising the gospel faithfully. There is a quote in your book from Keller’s “Center Church” which says, “The great missionary task is to express the gospel to a new culture in a way which avoids making the message unnecessarily alien to that culture – yet without removing or obscuring the scandal of biblical truth”. I thought that was a killer-quote in the book which summarises so much that we need to learn. We can under or over contextualise, either answering yesterday’s questions (or not answering any) on one hand, or disappearing into culture wars and the issues of the day on the other and losing the gospel.  What can Tim Keller teach us here about contextualising the gospel faithfully today? 

Collin Hansen: So, here’s another UK connection, because Leslie Newbigin was a huge influence on Tim Keller in terms of his missiology; mediated to him through Harvie Conn at Westminster Seminary and part of the Lausanne Movement at the time. They were looking at the ways that indigenizing the gospel to the culture in India or China or Korea were not just for those places anymore; but that we have to do the same thing back home now too. We haven’t realised how culturally captive we are. The other major influence on Keller’s contextualisation was Richard Lovelace, and his ideas around inculturisation – that when we disinculture the gospel from its cultural trappings and let it roam free, that is when we see it start to transform entire cultures and peoples.

Another important point you’ll understand Gavin is that Tim Keller was a convert of the Jesus movement. An essential part of the Jesus movement (which is the subject of a new movie right now starring Kelsey Grammar) was around the question being asked by the church at the time: “Will we force all of these new hippie converts coming into our church to put on suits, and sing the old hymns – or will we try and meet them where they are? With their hair-length, songs, and informal prayers?” That was the essential question. Tim was converted right in the middle of that in 1970. And that question was largely settled in favour of contextualising the gospel for that generation.

Though other thing to add is that contextualisation is not about removing the offence of the gospel. In many cases it is about clarifying the true offence! So what Keller helps us to see is that many times what people object to in Christianity are actually things they have misunderstood – or that Christians have actually mislead them about because it wasn’t well contextualised. Sometimes people were sold the cultural trappings of “this is what you must do” to become a Christian which are not biblical, not necessary or could even be wrong. Faithful contextualisation is about removing certain offences that don’t need to be there, so that people can confront the true offences of the gospel of which there are many, as we know if we are paying attention to Jesus!

GJM: So how has that informed the way in which Keller has handled issues in culture? Especially, I suppose politics. Because he doesn’t want to either ignore contemporary issues, nor to become a culture warrior, but to take an approach which keeps the gospel central. Tell us a little about how he has navigated that!

Collin Hansen: For a start we need to acknowledge the differences between the UK and American church here. The UK in my understanding, does not have a heavy politically partisan tilt in terms of the way that evangelicals relate to one another. You could have a Liberal a Labour and a Tory in the same congregation, and they are not going to tear one another apart. That is not the case in the United States. We are heavily partisan here, and White Evangelicals and Black Evangelicals are predominantly on different sides of that political spectrum. So Tim Keller’s position was to say “We need to look at this from a more elevated position and see the broader context and keep focussed on the gospel so that we don’t get dragged down into that partisanship. On the negative side of that it means that he has not been more outspoken on certain moral issues. It’s not a question of what he believes himself – it’s more as I see it, the way in which he interprets his calling as an evangelist. As an evangelist he is simply not wanting to put any stumbling block in the way of somebody encountering the message and calling of Jesus. What is being debated right now is the question, ‘how possible is that?’ in a context where our moral issues become more and more stark. Speaking as a historian I’d want to say that this is nothing new, there have always been contentious moral issues! So, I’m not wanting to render a verdict there, just to say that he is an evangelist who is wanting to help people to encounter Jesus without obstacles. And partisanship is one of the most difficult obstacles for somebody to address in the American context.

GJM: And contextualisation in New York is going to look different than in some other parts of the States, isn’t it?

Collin Hansen: Yes New York is overwhelmingly liberal, – and it would have been different again, if Keller had been working this out in London where there is far greater political diversity.

GJM: Going back to something you mentioned about Keller’s approach to apologetics. I was struck by a comment you made in the book, that by the time Keller had finished writing “The Reason for God, he thought that it was almost already out of date! And that he then changed his apologetic approach by the time he wrote “Making Sense of God”. Could you tell us how he changed his approach, and more significantly why he did so?

Collin Hansen: Yes, we’ve all been operating under a basic Enlightenment paradigm (and thanks be to the Enlightenment that means we can have technology and conversations like this on Zoom!), and medicine and all kinds of wonderful things. But at the same time the Enlightenment in a post-Christian context has left us with a fundamental problem. We are supposed be relativistic, you can do what you want with no Christianity to tell you what to do. But at the same time, we are supposed to be very moralistic in ways that are not empirically based. And that is a major problem. Instead of operating within the Enlightenment’s constraints, of operating within the constraints of empirical values, and make logical defences of our conclusions. We now must recognise that people are not consistently thinking like that or applying those sorts of considerations to their own lives. They are not thinking logically through everything. Rather, as Charles Taylor has described, people are piecing everything together, in a hotch-potch spirituality, grabbing some New-Age beliefs, alongside some Christian notions of justice, some empiricism, and a faith in science – essentially grabbing all sorts of things. So the apologist has to have a full tool kit. You have to know when to pick out the logical defence of the scriptures, and the resurrection. You have got to be able to know when to appeal to the beauty of Christianity, or when to challenge somebody’s assumptions. So, in a time when the Enlightenment is losing its sway, and we are facing an eclectic mix of competing ideas, Tim is trying to help people look “underneath” their initial questions. Keller puts it like this, people used to have things in place such as (i) belief in a God (ii) their accountability to God, (iii) need for redemption and (iv) hope for eternal life. You could then show these people that the gospel was the only thing that made these dots connect. But now, people don’t have those things in place, so you have to work through everything: Theistic construal, moral obligation, the essence of faith, and the desirability of the afterlife. You have to work through all of those things with people today, so you have to start from much further back, especially those in highly secular environments. So that’s the territory he moves into by the time of Making Sense of God.

One other point to observe, (and this is actually kind of gobsmacking) is that Reason for God does not have a chapter on sexuality. And that is just astounding. In 2008 it did not occur to Tim Keller that sexuality was worthy of chapter in his book on apologetics. Because by 2012 sexuality was almost the only thing anybody wanted to talk about! Now there are a far wider range of concerns. But it just goes to show you how fast the apologetic situation can change.

GJM: And if Tim Keller was on this call with us, where do you think he would anticipate the apologetic challenges and conversations will go to next?

Collin Hansen: Well, I’m not sure that he knows! I’m not sure that any of us know. But I think that now we are still in that basic paradigm I described. I also think that Keller is inclined towards the approach that Chris Watkin is working out in Biblical Critical Theory. Because that combines two things that are at the core of Tim Keller. One is social criticism, and the other is biblical theology. So he’d urge us to continue to work in those areas and keep bringing them together. Then on the other side, Tim would refer us to another Englishman, Tom Holland. Holland tells the story of Western culture and its values through the lens of Christianity as the only way of explaining it. So I think you have to combine those two approaches. One is positive and constructive using biblical theology and social criticism to advance the gospel, and then pair that with Holland’s work in the public square in Dominion, to say that you can’t adequately understand anything about what you love without Christianity. Combining those two things is probably what Keller would tell us we need to keep doing today and going forward.

I guess I should say one last thing so that I don’t sell him short. He would want to emphasise that while all kinds of apologetic approaches are helpful and good; but probably the kind of apologetics we need for today is of the order of Augustine’s City of God. That means civilisational-level exploration and defences of Christianity; showing how our society’s hopes can only be fulfilled in Christ himself. It’s that magnificent Augustinian tradition which includes Calvin, and Luther and Pascal too which you can combine together. Luther’s appeal to grace, Calvin’s systematic biblical approach, Pascal’s cultural apologetics; with Augustine’s elite-level rhetorically-trained exploration of the entire civilisation (which is more Holland)! Sorry, that’s a long, convoluted answer…

GJM: But it’s a good answer, so thank you!

Collin Hansen: Well, I got there eventually!!

GJM: Well, our time has gone. Thankyou so much for speaking to me, I enjoyed that a lot – and there is much here for us to think about.

Collin Hansen: Thankyou, it’s been a delight and stay in touch!

Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation by Collin Hansen is available here. A Zondervan Paperback priced £13.