The Apostle Paul, Cleverness of Speech, and Tim Keller

New Warhorn Media post by Alex McNeilly:


There’s a possible contrast here with CS Lewis, who was very erudite; but his witness to the faith cost him an Oxford professorship, despite his tutoring there for nearly thirty years. Thoughts?

Excellent, Alex. And Ross, the diff tween Keller and Lewis is quotes people do of Lewis are helpful, whereas I’ve never heard anyone quote Keller saying anything that wasn’t anodyne. Often, I’ll respond to such quotes by asking, “Why on earth did you say it was Tim Keller who said that? It’s like quoting Tim Keller saying ‘salt is salty.’ Everyone says ‘Salt is salty!’” Love,


I don’t know very much about Lewis’s history. I would suggest the contrast between him and Keller has a lot to do with their different starting points. Lewis was an academic by trade (respectable in the world’s eyes) and often lowered himself in how and what he wrote. Keller, on the other hand, was a shepherd by calling (contemptible in the world’s eyes), but he elevated himself through his cleverness of speech.

I just came across an homage to Keller in The New York Times that bears this damning standfirst: “Shunning fire and brimstone, he became a best-selling author and founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which drew young New Yorkers.”

The world seems to have a perfect understanding of why Keller was so successful.


One or two of these reviews would be unsurprising, but that this was the dominant tenor of his ministry and one he boasted in publicly should be horrifying.

If this happened at Redeemer, I never heard about it.

Tim Keller once knew what it meant to shepherd Christ’s sheep, but somewhere in New York he lost sight of that purpose and became embarrassed of the shepherd’s rustic nature.

Perhaps I have only read a skewed and polemical history (although I doubt it), but regarding what he wanted to shepherd people toward, Pastor Keller seems to have always been what he was. He took socialist politics and social justice- oriented notion of the Church’s mission from seed form in college to fruition in InterVarsity before ever relocating to New York for his church plant. This article details Keller’s intellectual history, which seems to begin and end in Marxism and the politics of resentment.

While attending Bucknell University, in his home state of Pennsylvania, Keller learned the “reigning ideologies of the time” from radical professors, including the “neo-Marxist critical theory of the Frankfurt School.”2 He was attracted to this “critique of American bourgeoisie society,” as well as social activism. Keller described himself and fellow students as wanting to “change the world” by rejecting things like “the military-industrial complex” and “a society of inequities and materialism.” Instead, they promoted “peace and understanding,” attended peace and civil rights marches, and shut down the college to debate the morality of the Cambodian invasion in 1970.3 Though things like segregation and “systemic violence . . . against blacks” bothered Keller before college, they became an occasion for him to doubt Christianity itself after his arrival.4


Keller wrote that things began to change for him after finding a “band of brothers” who grounded their concern for justice in the character of God.10 He became part of a “campus fellowship” sponsored by InterVarsity which reflected the counterculture mindset of Bucknell by keeping their ministry non-traditional, “spontaneous,” and anti-institutional. It was there Keller first truly “came to Christ.”11 He also learned to navigate the cultural battle between people against “commie pinkos” “rabble-rousing in the street” and the radicals who protested on those streets.

In 1970, Keller heard a message which revolutionized his approach to political issues. Some of his friends attended InterVarsity’s Missions Conference called “Urbana 70″ where the Harlem evangelist, Tom Skinner, spoke about a “revolutionary” Jesus who was incompatible with “Americanism.”12 Skinner taught that the evangelical church had upheld slavery in the nation’s political, economic, and religious systems. While greedy landlords paid off corrupt building inspectors, police forces maintained the “interests of white society,” and the top one percent controlled the entire economy, evangelicals were silent and even supported the “industrial complex.”13 The 20-year-old Keller already resonated with the New Left critique, but Skinner’s way of incorporating it into Christianity was new for him.

His friends gave him a tape recording of Skinner’s talk and Keller “could not listen to this sermon enough.”14 Skinner claimed that a “gospel” that did not “speak to the issue of enslavement,” “injustice,” or “inequality” was “not the gospel.” Instead, he fused the incomplete gospels of both “fundamentalists” and “liberals” into a salvation which delivered from both personal and systemic evil. Jesus had come “to change the system” and Christians were to preach “liberation to oppressed people.”15 The sermon astounded Keller. It was just the kind of reconciliation he was waiting for and it left him unable to “think about politics the same way again” after hearing it.16 Tom Skinner, however, was not the only voice which helped Keller cultivate New Left ideas in Christian soil.

After graduating from Bucknell, Keller worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Boston, Massachusetts and attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he met fellow seminarian Elward Ellis. Ellis was a student leader for InterVarsity and had previously been a “key leader in recruiting black students to attend Urbana 70 through a film that he wrote and produced” entitled, “What Went Down at Urbana 67.”17 The film challenged the notion that missions was “Christian racism” and promoted the idea that those of non-European descent could “preach the gospel the way it should be,” instead of the “honkified way of preaching the gospel.”18 Carl Ellis, an InterVarsity leader who had “enlisted Tom Skinner as a speaker” for the event, narrated the video.19 Like Skinner, Elward Ellis also imported New Left thinking into Christianity.

Ellis introduced Keller to concepts now referred to as “systemic racism” and “white privilege” by showing him that “white folks did not have to be personally bigoted . . . in order to support social, educational, judicial, and economic systems and customs that automatically privileged whites over others.”20 On one occasion Ellis called Keller a “racist” even though he admitted that Keller didn’t “mean to be” or “want to be.” Ellis told Keller that he simply could not “really help it” since Keller was blind to his own “cultural biases” which he used to judge “people of other races.”21 White Christians, Ellis maintained, practiced discrimination by making their “cultural preferences,” such as singing and preaching styles, “normative for everyone.” White people, in general, were also ignorant of the hardships racial minorities underwent in navigating “Euro-white culture.”22 Keller gladly accepted Ellis’s “bare-knuckled mentoring about the realities of injustice in American culture.”23 He now understood, in greater detail, certain aspects of the New Left critique, but still needed to further develop a Christian response to the unjust status quo. But first, he needed a job.

The full lengthy article is well worth reading. It’s scandalous how this man, with his public history of praising and advocating for the people and theologies he did, was embraced by Christian leaders with open arms.

Further, this article from the Trinity Foundation documents how thoroughly Pastor Keller’s mature teaching was leavened with Marxist and liberationist ideology. He has been the same man the whole time – albeit he knew probably better than anyone how to present himself as a champion of conservative Christianity to launder these ideas into evangelical popularity.

(That’s the game, right? Look like a shepherd, get sheep to eat from your hand, and get them used to the taste of the new food. It doesn’t taste like Paul, exactly; or Luther or Calvin for that matter, but we have a new and improved formula, and you didn’t like that old stuff anyway, right? Didn’t it always kind of rub you the wrong way?)


I appreciate your take on this, and I agree with much that you’ve written. But I don’t think that’s incompatible with Keller once having had something of an understanding of what it meant to care for Christ’s sheep. In fact, I think some of what you’ve written/cited even demonstrates this.

Even though these analyses came from a Marxist perspective, are they incorrect? Shouldn’t even Reformed Christians be bothered by these things? Shouldn’t Reformed Christians be especially bothered by these things? True, the gospel does not depend on our toppling these injustices, but how many Reformed pastors can you think of in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s who were well known in our circles for having a biblical answer to these problems? And if Christianity doesn’t have any answer to the main problems of the day, can you fault a man for having doubts?

Isn’t that part of what made Joe Bayly so incisive, that he wasn’t afraid to tackle the issues that virtually everyone else ignored?

You are right that these influences proved very destructive in Keller’s ministry. I had to spend years working to undo the impact of Generous Justice in the church I served (and the same with almost every other book he wrote in recent years). His influence in the UK has been incredibly damaging (though few would recognise that yet), and I regularly had to confront the expectations of pastoral ministry Keller set. But I’ve also seen his material in the late 80s/early 90s on the Puritans and pastoral counselling (look it up; it’s well worth your time). His articles in the Journal of Biblical Counseling - which at the time of his early writing in it was called the Journal of Pastoral Practice (there’s something even in the name) - were solid. Maybe you can see something of the trends that would later prove so harmful in reformedish-evangelicalism, but they were by no means the only trajectory that could have followed.

Alex McNeilly’s piece is excellent, and it’s good for us to consider the legacy of a man who has had such an impact (for good and for ill) in our circles of Christianity. That Keller did have some excellent pastoral insights throughout his life, especially early on in his ministry, sobers me. It means the allure of the world is subtly seductive. It would be far easier if everyone were either a straightforward hero or villain like the in the old films. But the real world isn’t that simple. I don’t think I’m a villain today, but in time, and without godly men around me to discipline me, I could easily become one. I’ll never have Keller’s influence and recognition; I’m not nearly as likeable as he was. But I could follow a similar path, and I could do so thinking that’s the way I’m being led by scripture - just as he was. That’s why Keller terrifies me.


Agreed. He was in New York for a very long time, and perhaps things are simple as the realisation that in his time there, he “went native”.

Thanks for reminding me of Matthew 7:1, brother. I’ll check out the material you recommended.

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Thanks for the fruitful discussion, brothers.

I often find it tempting, when a high-profile leader fails in some significant way, to try and find a way to show that he was really that bad all along. Sometimes that’s the case, but it’s not always that simple. Read the Old Testament histories and you get quite a diverse array of men’s life trajectories: good to bad, bad to worse, and even a smattering of bad to good (see Manasseh in 2 Chron. 33:10–13). We must take to heart this warning from God’s Word:

Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Deuteronomy 8:11–14)


Or this from Ezekiel 18:

21 “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. 23 Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the Lord GOD, “rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?

24 “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die. 25 Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Hear now, O house of Israel! Is My way not right? Is it not your ways that are not right? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and dies because of it, for his iniquity which he has committed he will die. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29 But the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not right.’ Are My ways not right, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right?

30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord GOD. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. 31 Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord GOD. “Therefore, repent and live.”