Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

The Reason for God: Belief in an age of scepticism,
Timothy Keller, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, 293pp

OK, let's face it, Westbury isn't exactly Manhattan. No Wall Street, no skyscrapers, no yellow taxi cabs. And no New Yorkers either. Not that I know of, anyway. So, why read this book by Manhattan pastor, Tim Keller? After all, it's designed to give trendy New York postmodern types a reason to believe in God. Like that's going to help with my ministry and witness in this small Wiltshire town. Knowing that, why did I bother? 

To be honest, one reason for reading The Reason for God is that I've heard a fair bit about Tim Keller and his influential ministry and I wanted to get acquainted with his writings. I don't know whether this book is a good place to start, but there we are. I was going through a bit of an apologetics phase in my reading when I bought it last summer, so this one kind of fitted the bill for me personally. 

More substantially, you don't have to be a metropolitan sophisticate to voice some of the doubts and objections to the Christian faith that Keller attempts to deal with here. Almost every time I engage a non-believer in conversation one or more of of the issues discussed in Part I of this book comes to the surface. Here are some of the chapter headings, There Can't Be Just One True Religion, How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?, How Can a  Loving God Send People to Hell? etc. If you haven't heard questions like that lately, could be that you are lacking somewhat on the personal witness front.

Now, I'm not going to offer an in-depth chapter-by-chapter review here. Life's too short, as is the attention span of the average blog reader. I'll maybe say some stuff about Keller's general approach and make one or two more pointed and specific points and then wrap it up. Still with me?

Right then, the book begins as I say with Keller having a go at responding to six common objections to the Christian faith. I can't be bothered to list them all. The book has a "Click to LOOK INSIDE!" thing on Amazon. If you are that interested you can look 'em up for yourself. Anyway, beginning as he does, by allowing the sceptic to set the agenda, you might have thought that Keller is a card carrying evidentialist, who thinks he can argue people into the kingdom. Nah. You'd be wrong about that. The apologist is aware that the existence of God can't be proven in such a way that all nagging doubts are satisfied. Indeed, God has no need to prove himself to us. Even the most sceptical of sceptics know full well that he exists. The complex beauty of the universe and the voice of human conscience bear witness to the fact that God is there and he is not silent.

In terms of apologetic methodology, then Keller is a presuppositionalist rather than an evidentialist. That much becomes evident in Part II. His starting point is that only with faith in the living, triune God revealed in Holy Scripture can make sense of reality with all its wonder and absurdity. But that doesn't mean he is adverse to giving reasons for faith. The title of this book says it all. In fact it says too much, because Keller nowhere suggests that there is such a thing as THE reason for God, simply a number of telling clues that point to his existence. Nevertheless, the presuppositionalist still has to meet people where they are with all their doubts and questions and try to respond as best he can. As John Frame wrote in his entry on PRESUPPOSITIONAL APOLOGETICS in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics (IVP, 2006. p. 575-578), 'presuppositionalists, like all apologists, have to answer objections." Keller attempts to do that in the opening six chapters. Also in Part II the preacher gives a reasoned defence of belief in God and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Keller writes in an easy, conversational style. He eschews any head-on confrontation that would spook the easily frightened postmodern enquirer. This can sometimes lead him to soft peddle on areas where he might have taken a firmer stand, such as on creation and evolution, or gender roles in the Bible. His argument is, if people accept the basic truths of the Christian faith, then acceptance of these other issues will prove less problematic. Fair enough I suppose, but he might have done a little more to show that there is a good case to be made in favour of biblical creation and to explain what the Bible means by male headship in family and church life. 

Now for the pointed points bit. The thing that bothered me most about the book is Keller's treatment of hell and his handling of substitutionary atonement. He believes in both aright, but tends to over-psycologize these biblical doctrines. Hell is described as a 'prison of self-centredness' (p. 79). I'm sure he's right there, but more needed to be said about God's just wrath upon the wicked in hell. That said, Keller clearly shows that it is not inconsistent for a loving God to punish sinners in hell.

When it comes to the Cross, Keller turns to the the human act of forgiveness to help explain why God requires atonement for sin to be forgiven. Forgiveness on a human level involves costly suffering, and so it is with God. That works fine as a sermon illustration, but it lacks the necessary theological clout for developing a biblically rigorous account of substitutionary atonement. Don't get me wrong. Keller is no Steve Chalke, who infamously said that penal substitutionary atonement is tantamount to 'cosmic child abuse'. In fact, the writer distances himself from any such notion and is clear that Christ died bearing the penalty of our sin upon the cross. He helpfully quotes John Stott, "The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us." (Author's italics. p. 195). But still, too much weight is placed on the human psychological model of forgiveness for my liking. 

But the book ends on a high note. There is a beautiful chapter on the Trinity, The Dance of God, followed by an epilogue pondering the question, Where Do We Go From Here. Often that's where we get to the 'sinners' prayer' bit. You know, 'pray this prayer and you'll get saved'. But Keller adopts a more thoughtful and challenging stance, urging his readers to examine their motives and count the cost of following Jesus. He also makes it plain that becoming a Christian involves committing to a church community. 

In The Reason for God, Keller has endeavoured to engage the culture with the gospel. This is only right. We have to try and understand the times, speak to people where they are and show how the good news of Jesus relates to them. Calvin wanted to be a culturally engaged preacher. He complained, "Many people would like me to preach with my eyes closed, not considering where I live, in  what locale, or in what time." (Cited in Engaging with Calvin, Edited by Mark D. Thompson, IVP, 2009, p. 15). The danger is that aspects of the gospel that are regarded as culturally untenable are downplayed in order to make the faith appealing. Keller has largely avoided this danger, but not altogether. His psychological rather than theological approach to the doctrines of hell and penal substitution are perhaps cases in point. Nevertheless, there is certainly enough here to make the sceptic think again about the Christian faith. For as Keller shows, it is the Christian message that best makes sense of the grandeur and grime of reality. Only the Christian gospel has an answer to the problem of sin. Christ was crucified in the place of sinners. He rose again from the dead. Jesus brings human beings into the perichoretic dance that is fellowship and communion with the triune God. The people of Westbury just as much as Manhattan need to hear of that. 


Gojira said...

Excellent review

PlatinumBeetle said...

Yes this is a very good review. I own this book and love it. Mr. Davies thoughts on the book mirror my own almost exactly, although he articulates them far better than I would (perhaps because I am not familiar with presuppositionalist versus evidentialist apologetics). The one thing he said that I didn't think of before reading his review is that it's not really "The" Reason for God. This is odd because I usually quibble about titles. Still awesome book, great review.

L said...

Great review. I haven't read the book, but your comments on Keller's 'psychologizing' tendencies was helpful. I'm sure that such psychologizing is fairly common. At any rate, I have enjoyed many sermons by Keller, but I have always found his apologetics to be incredibly weak. To be honest, I have never encountered a Christian apologist who had even minimal competence in philosophy. I wish that Keller and others would simply refrain from apologetics. Smart skeptics see through the shoddy stuff pretty easily, and then conclude (wrongly) that Christians can do no better. Anyway, that's quite off the mark. It's also quite negative. I would do well to learn from your gracious reviews. Cheers.

a guy said...

Dear Leslie, 'negative' isn't always a bad thing; just read letters by a little nobody we call Paul; or the words of a certain someone we call Jesus; or the warnings and shouts and cutting-off-ears of others we call the prophets...vs. Paul's wishing some emasculate themselves: it ain't right to talk in even and "gracious" tones when men in the office of a pastor are rather foregoing their responsibilities and even harming sheep.

Unfortunately he (Keller) ain't just 'weak' or infirm on matters of sexual distinctions, he's outright in revolt: something other PCA pastors have documented and, seemingly swimming against the tide within the organization, continue to contend for. One source I know that you can check out on this is the Baylyblog (.com): Keller's church and session have capitulated to modern American sexuality, even going so far at times as stating things like we aren't arguing for deaconnesses, but women deacons. To the unbeliever in our times this makes sense, why should there be any difference?*; to he who holds to the word it's simply faithlessness and rebellion.

* To he who holds to the word and is also a thinker, one must also ask you need to specify the kind of difference: substance, essence/nature, form, function, role, psychology...because the modern unbeliever's protestive rhetorical question has 'presuppositionally' already obliterated such considerations.