Monday, September 16, 2013

Engaging with Keller edited by Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer

Engaging with Keller: Thinking through the theology of an influential evangelical,

I wouldn't lay claim to being a great Keller aficionado, having only read a few of his books, but what I've read so far has both captured my interest and set theological alarm bells ringing in my head. That somewhat conflicted response to the Minister of Redeemer Presbyterian Church New York's writings is reflected in my review of his A Reason for God. I admired Keller's attempt at engaging the culture with the gospel, but wondered whether he had given too much away in his eagerness to please trendy postmodern types. 

More specifically I had concerns with Keller's approach to the creation/evolution debate, his teaching on the judgement of God and his handling of Christ's atoning work. In the latter two cases I felt his treatment of those doctrines was more psychological than theological in tenor. With that in mind I was interested to get hold of Engaging with Keller and see what the authors had to say. Although necessarily polemical, the work is on the whole irenic in tone, but maybe one or two writers don't altogether avoid a little carping criticism. The authors share some of my own misgivings with Keller's teaching. Areas of concern of which I was not so aware are also highlighted. 

I question the 'batting order' of the chapters, which begins with Iain D. Campbell on 'Rebranding' the Doctrine of Sin' and ends with Keller and the doctrine of the church by D. G. Hart. I know that the title does not purport to be a work of systematic theology, but this critique of Keller's thought would have been more orderly and logical had it started with Bidwell's analysis of Keller on the Trinity and ended with Schweitzer on 'Brimstone Free Hell'. I'm at a loss to know why chapters 4 & 7, on the mission and doctrine of the church are separated by pieces on hermeneutics and creation and evolution. As it is the random chapter ordering gives the book a rather haphazard feel, which detracts from the coherence of its overall message.

Having said that, some of the contributions are really outstanding, subjecting Keller's views to fair but firm theological scrutiny. Iain D. Campbell's essay exposes the writer's tendency to make idolatry the pre-eminent feature of sin over and against the more salient biblical category of lawbreaking. Keller's skewing of the plight of man in sin has a distorting effect on his understanding of the gospel as God's solution to human rebellion against himself.

In a chapter that might have been entitled, Strictly Come Doctrine [of the Trinity]*, Bidwell highlights some real weaknesses in the Manhattan preacher's teaching on the Trinity.  Keller's 'divine dance' model of the intertrinitatian relations is shown to be etymologically suspect and theologically misleading. His contention that the patristic doctrine of the coinherence of the persons of the Trinity in the being of God, or perichoresis involves some kind of divine choreography is shown to be baseless. The link between perichoresis and choreography is about as tenuous as the link between the words 'soul' and 'soldier' in The Killers' lyric, 'I've got soul, but I'm not a soldier', which as one rock critic pointed out is about as meaningless as, 'I've got ham, but I'm not a hamster'. More seriously, Keller tends to so emphasise the co-equality of the persons of the Trinity that the the ordered relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not given sufficient weight. I didn't cotton on to these shortcomings with sufficient clarity on reading A Reason for God. I now stand corrected. 

Holst critiques Keller's hermeneutical approach. Schweitzer on creation and evolution exposes Keller's weakness on historicity of Adam. Peter Naylor's chapter on whether the church is sent to do justice in the world is excellent, making a clear distinction between what is appropriate for individual members of the church and the mission of the gathered church per se. He rightly argues that the mission of the church is to preach the gospel, not 'transform the culture'. While making some good points on Keller's ecclesiological pragmatism D. G. Hart's contribution on doctrine of the church had a tendency to carp on a bit, moaning about Redeemer's collaboration with Baptists and harping on about the 'divine right' of Presbyterianism. Schweitzer's 'Brimstone Free Hell' makes for a sobering read. The author rightly insists that hell is most accurately explained theologically as God's everlasting punishment of the wicked, rather than psychologically, as a self-inflicted wound.

As the book's subtitle suggests, Keller is an influential evangelical leader and his influence is certainly felt on this side of the Pond. While the quality of the contributions is a little uneven, this book none the less succeeds in engaging with problematic areas of Keller's teaching and subjecting them to thorough biblical and theological scrutiny. Whether the preacher himself, or his loyal fan base will take any notice remains to be seen. We can admire Keller's commendable concern to make the gospel appealing to 'the culture'. But we need to be ever watchful that we don't allow the culture to so set the agenda that culturally problematic aspects of our message are played down. Missional effectiveness cannot be allowed to override gospel faithfulness.

* Footnote for non-UK readers: this is a reference to the BBC TV programme Strictly Come Dancing


David Reimer said...

You might be interested to compare perspectives with David Robertson's review(s). The first two instalments are up; others are promised.

Ben said...

A very helpful review, thank you. David Robertson's prolix response is already of tldr proportions after reviewing only two chapters, and to judge from these outpourings and his comments posted on Amazon he has a Keller-shaped axe to grind.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks David. I did have a look, but as Ben commented Robertson's posts are certainly in the 'tldr' category. Admittedly I had to Google to find out that 'tldr' means 'too long didn't read'.

David Reimer said...

Goodness! I never expected to encounter endorsement of "tl;dr" (I prefer the punctuated version) in the land of Bavinck! :P

Does Robertson's prolixity (if such it is) (and it is long, there's no denying!) mean he's wrong, though? I found his identification of false dichotomies compelling.

FWIW! YMMV. yada yada...

Guy Davies said...

Robertson isn't wrong because he's long. But his prolixity meant that I didn't read all that he had to say.