Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Tim Keller responds

Tim Challies is the Reformed blogger's blogger, and posts frequent and insightful book reviews on his website, which I've taken to checking on a regular basis. Here he offers a thoughtful and substantially positive review of Tim Keller's latest book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Tim Keller introduces the book here on the website of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Tim Keller's church in New York).

If you check Tim C's review by clicking the relevant link, you'll see I've left a comment in which I wonder aloud whether Tim K has allowed his undoubted deep desire for reaching the lost to overwhelm, at times, the shape of the gospel he presents.

Tim Keller has graciously responded in the comments section of this blog. He says:
Your question about the gospel outline in that article is understandable. You are assuming that outline is meant to stand alone as the full evangelistic presentation, but I said in the paper it isn't. Notice that in the article I say that this outline is only the introduction. Its a sandwich--first, you do a very brief presentation of the gospel that gets interest (it doesn't have to be that one, necessarily.) Then secondly, you really go at the 'defeater beliefs'--all the parts of the gospel people today hate, including (it's in the paper) God's anger and wrath. Thirdly, after you go through that and they are at least partially with you, then you go through a fuller gospel presentation.

As I said, I see why you would put the first part of the evangelistic presentation up against something like 2 Ways to Live and find it wanting, but that's a mistake. In the book The Reason for God I actually put that particular narrative in the last chapter, after defending the idea of God's wrath at length earlier.

I thought all this was clear in the paper. It was originally a handout for a training seminar. So it wasn't originally written to posted on a website. I'll look again. It may be easy to misread it. Sorry.

Tim Keller

Responding to Tim:

Tim, thankyou for a gracious and prompt response (and for readers who are curious, the article Tim refers to is here and is well worth reading for the many useful ideas in it).

I certainly don't want to go off half-cocked on this, and thanks also for your help in placing what you said in context. I read the paper through a number of times, and especially appreciated the suggestions you make for defeating 'defeater beliefs'. But one of the first questions that came to my mind as I was reading concerns your statement, early on in the paper, that:
The more positive aspect of sharing the gospel is to connect the story of Jesus to the base-line cultural narratives. In short, you have to show in line with the culture's own (best) aspirations, hopes, and convictions that its own cultural story won't be resolved or have 'a happy ending' outside of Christ.

I realize this is a very carefully and thoughtfully worded statement you've made here. My question is, however, whether the depiction of cultural aspirations is ever as positive as the picture you imply. My reading of Romans 1:18-32 suggests that even the very best of creation has become, under our hand, debased—and in particular, that all our aspirations concerning these very good things are, in fact, very evil.

Following on from this, what if my highest and best aspiration, upon analysis, turns out to be a veiled desire to dethrone Christ and place myself in his place? Is there any way that this aspiration—and really, it is fundamental to our sinful flesh—could find a 'happy ending', either inside or outside of Christ?

I will grant that you make a number of statements that are relevant to this question within the article, including on page one your statement that "at some point you must also challenge the sovereignty of individual consciousness. Jesus is Lord, not my personal consciousness."

So perhaps I'm being obtuse, but it seemed to me that there was, at the very least, a tension between this statement and what you subsequently went on to explain.

Enough from me. They are questions only, and possibly quite misguided. As an almost complete neophyte in my knowledge of your thoughts and work, I am only too happy for your correction. And thank you too for your faithful work in preaching the gospel in a difficult city.


Anonymous said...

Dear Gordon:

I'm afraid I'm just not in a position to do any more responding to your good questions after this one, as much as I'd like to--sorry. This will have to suffice.

1 Cor 1:22-25 is a good example of what I'm talking about. Your own Paul Barnett talks about it somewhat in his commentary on the text. Jews wanted a powerful Messiah, and the Greeks' ideal was the philosopher king. These were 'baseline cultural narratives.' For Jews--power, for Greeks--philosophy and wisdom. Paul preaches the cross to both challenge and appeal. He uses the weakness of the cross to show the Jews that they've made an idol of power, and the foolishness of the cross to show the Greeks they've made an idol of wisdom. And yet, he also is willing to preach Christ as the true power and the true wisdom. So on the one hand, he adapts and on the other hand he challenges. He is saying to Jews, 'You seek power? Well, here is the true power.' He says to Greeks, 'You seek wisdom? Well here is true wisdom.'

So your gospel presentation has to appeal to each culture's aspirations--and yet also challenge each culture's idols. That's my point in the article. It can't be all confrontation; it also must be an appeal. I'm not saying it's 50-50 or anything so abstract. I'm only saying you have to show them that the gospel does in some way speak to their concerns and hopes.

As I said before--I wish I could say more, but this is all I can do. Over and out. God bless you, Gordon.

Anonymous said...

sorry I forgot to sign the last comment.

Tim Keller

Gordon Cheng said...

I assumed it was you Tim! ;-) Thank you for taking the time.

Anonymous said...

"what if my highest and best aspiration, upon analysis, turns out to be a veiled desire to dethrone Christ and place myself in his place"

Hey I wonder if that's a slightly inaccurate way of describing it? After all the desire to dethrone Christ here is not actually a final goal but a proximate means to our real (legitimate human) desire which is to be powerful glorious secure etc. The sin part is that we (stupidly and wickedly) see Christ as a threat to that.

If that is right - and all I am arguing is the old Augustinian point that sin is always parasitic on the good – then maybe we can legitimately do what Keller is calling for. The key thing would be to carefully recast and de-gunk the "what we want" part in terms of Biblical theology which would always take us back to Jesus.

Andrew M

Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Andrew, I think it is one way of describing sin, just as Augustine's is another. I'm OK with describing sin as 'parasitic on the good', but it has to be more than that. Sometimes for example I just want a bad thing, even though I know it is bad and can see neither short nor long term advantage in having it.

It's all a bit of a mystery to me, which is to say that I think there are good ways of describing sin but I am not sure that it is possible for us to comprehend sin, that is, to describe it exhaustively.

Gordon Cheng said...

I have a few thoughts about Paul, cultural contextualization and Acts 17 here.