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Tim Keller and Gospel Graciousness

I have enjoyed reading Tim Keller’s Center Church recently. I will publish a full review shortly. In the meantime I have always been struck by the gracious manner that Keller conducts himself. As a conservative evangelical he shares a lot of core beliefs with people like Mark Driscoll and John Piper, but the way he engages with those he disagrees with is often very different. Some of it will be due to temparement and personality i am sure, but towards the end of Center Church. Keller relates 4 guiding principles he has when engaging with other people’s views. I’d like to adopt them myself as New Year’s blogging resolutions- so feel free to hold me to account on this.

All Christian movements must be characterized by a willingness to unite around commonly held central truths and to accept differences on secondary matters that —in the view of the partners —do not negate our common belief in the biblical gospel. To maintain a healthy movement over time, we have to engage in direct discussion about any doctrinal errors we perceive. Yet in doing so, we must show respect for the other party and aim to persuade them, not punish them.

In a section marked “Gospel Polemics” Keller presents his rules of engagement:

  1. Never attribute an opinion to your opponents that they themselves do not hold.
  2. Take your opponents’ views in their entirety, not selectively.
  3. Represent your opponents’ position in its strongest form, not in a weak ‘straw man’ form.
  4. Seek to persuade, not antagonize–but watch your motives!
  5. Remember the gospel and stick to criticizing theology–because only God sees the heart.

It is number one that I am most interested in:

Attribute to antagonist no opinion that he does not own, though it be a necessary consequence. In other words, even if you believe that Mr A’s belief X could lead others who hold belief X to hold belief Y, do not accuse Mr A of holding belief Y if he disowns it. You may consider him inconsistent but this is not the same as insisting that he holds belief Y when he does not….A similar move happens when we imply or argue that if Mr A quotes a particular author favourably at any point then Mr A must hold all the views held by the author. If through guilt by association we hint or insist that he must hold other beliefs of that particular author then we are both alienating and misrepresenting our opponent.

This is a great piece of advice – even if I am not sure about the language of “opponent” think I would have liked to talk about familial terms like “brother or sister.”

But the demonisation and guilt by association that Keller talks about here is a big problem in the world that I live.

I have been told that to quote Rob Bell positively makes me a heretic, (indeed someone threatened to ban one of my books because I included a reference to Rob’s fine work on the sabbath. Others have said that to quote NT Wright means that I “have gone liberal.” Similarly to be positive about John Piper’s work makes me a chauvinist. Keller models in this book a willingness to quote from lots of authors that he doesn’t agree with on every point: Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch etc. To be fair – these are acceptable “non-conservatives” to quote almost as acceptable as CS Lewis. Keller himself doesn’t quote positively from many of the “emergent” church thinkers nor from many/any? non western world thinkers (and very few women) – but that’s a point for another blog or two. In the mean time I love these proposed ways of gracious engagement, lets hope we can make good use of them.

10 thoughts on “Tim Keller and Gospel Graciousness”

  1. Hi Krish
    I’d be interested to hear more on your comments on quoting – you’ve made reference to it in a number of posts. Who gets quoted and who doesn’t.

    It would be perhaps interesting if you post about it with regard to Center Church, who you think Keller could have quoted from that he didn’t ie…non-western voices, women authors.

    Is it a blindspot that these authors aren’t quoted, a bias (perceived or not) or is that these authors aren’t known, or there aren’t relevant books that stand out on the subjects or not available in English (in the case of non-western authors)?

    1. Gary Yeah, and I find that many Christians are unfamiliar with the way that the Old Testament retaels to the New Testament. Jesus told the disciples that the whole OT pointed to Him, yet very few Christians read the OT in this way.

  2. Some interesting points here. This is one of my worries about 10 of Those — the books are almost exclusively Calvinist and Reformed, almost as though anything that isn’t in that tradition is not worth reading. Of course, I am sure there are other sections of the church which would only read their particular ‘certified’ books, but there is so much to be gained from a wider reading, albeit with an ounce of caution. Of course, the danger of quoting someone whom you don’t completely agree with, is that a less mature reader (and let’s face it, many of us could fall into this trap) could quite easily believe that you think a book you’ve quoted is, in a way, recommended reading, and once read, could adopt a stance which compromises their belief in our Lord. Thanks for your post, peace, Michael

  3. Michael,

    Thanks for raising your thoughts on this. It is always good to be challenged about what we do and why. If I may respond, not in a detailed way but hopefully in a way that will give you a rough guide to why we do what we do.

    10ofThose was started (and continues) with a passion to help people out by selling resources that have been handpicked so people can purchase with confidence knowing that they hold to the Bible – by using a basis of faith (very similar to that of the EA’s). As you rightly imply, many readers don’t have the discernment to know what to read. Therefore 10ofThose are seeking to help by saying – if you want books that hold to the bible – read these. We are not saying there are not other books that people could and perhaps should read, but we are seeking to offer a place of ‘trusted resources’.

    Many in the church only read between 2-5 books a year. We would argue for the vast majority of people (reading this qty a year) that they would be best off reading books that will teach them well from the Bible. Sure, for others who read more widely a broader selection of writers and views can be really good and of benefit. For those people, we are confident that they can source these wider books elsewhere.

    You raise a good point however, and we take it on board, as best we can. We do try to offer a spectrum of books, across (secondary) views, traditions and denominations (Ie: In defense of your objection above – this book: https://www.10ofthose.com/products/13955/Against-Calvinism/), and sometimes we make a wrong decision but under God we do our best with good conscious before God to sell books that hold firmly to the Bible.

    Hope that helps. If ever you wanted to chat this through with me directly, please don’t hesitate to give the office a call. We are keen to learn from others, as well as hold firmly to what we believe.

    Best wishes,

  4. Many thanks for your response Jon. In hindsight, I feel as though I was a little harsh and regret not saying anything positive of a ministry that I think has many strengths. I had been hoping to make a general point about the dangers of being too ‘ghettoised’ as conservative ‘Reformed’ evangelicals (of whom I would align with myself!), and had ended up using a specific example, which was not very helpful – and is clearly, not completely true.

    Any Christian bookseller that vets material before selling it, in order to ensure that it edifies the reader, is stronger as a result – and that you make a simple confession of the gospel your basis for this is first-rate. Not only that, but re-investing all profits into the ministry in order to keep prices low is rare and should be commended: the focus is clearly on getting people stuck into God’s word and books that help us to understand it more, and as a result to love God and others more. Thank you for this ministry.

    Jon, thanks for taking the time to write back, and apologies again for not thinking about this a bit more clearly – giving feedback to a ministry is always better sent TO the ministry rather than posted in the comments section of a blog! I’m still getting used to blog etiquette, but you exemplify it!

    [Rushes off to buy some Martyn Lloyd-Jones from 10ofThose …]
    Best wishes for 2013,
    Michael

  5. Things are bad when association with Wright makes one liberal. Tom Wright a liberal? Again Keller is good in that he is quick to recommend Wright on issues of historicity (I wonder what kind of conversations Keller and Piper have on this?)

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