Review: Collin Hansen’s Timothy Keller

John R. Muether

Tim Keller, who passed away in May after a long battle with cancer, was a best-selling author, cofounder of The Gospel Coalition, and most well-known for his nearly thirty-year tenure as the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan. Collin Hansen’s biography focuses on the theological formation of this remarkable ministry. It comes as no surprise to encounter key evangelical institutions in the story, including Young Life, InterVarsity Fellowship, Urbana Missions Conference, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Valley Study Center.

Keller’s Mentors

Keller bio

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is not in the index, but it should be. What is striking about the narrative is the extent to which Keller is the product of OPC mentors. His introduction to covenant theology came from six courses under Meredith Kline (more than any other instructor) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS). Edmund Clowney’s Staley lectures that he delivered at GCTS in 1973 so reoriented Keller’s views on preaching that he formed the “Edmund P. Clowney Fan Club” with classmates. It was also as a seminary student that Keller embraced the counseling approach of Jay Adams, though later he grew to appreciate the nuances of Adams’s successors at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (295).

When Keller came to Westminster Theological Seminary—first as a Doctor of Ministry student while in his first pastorate in Virginia and later to join the practical theology faculty—he fell under the influence of two more Orthodox Presbyterians: Harvie Conn, professor of apologetics and missions, and Jack Miller, pastor of (then OPC) New Life Presbyterian Church in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Granted, Miller and his church would reaffiliate into the PCA, and Clowney himself would enjoy a long ministry in the PCA after his retirement from Westminster. Still, these were all mentors of Keller while OPC ministers.

Keller’s approach to ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church was a combination especially of the influence of Clowney, Conn, and Miller. Keller appreciated the shift at Westminster under Clowney’s presidency from “a clenched fist to a bowed head” (149). Conn furnished him with the tools for urban ministry, and Miller demonstrated how “gospel renewal applied to social justice, worship, evangelism, and missions” (165). This intellectual formation shaped his appreciation for the pietist, doctrinalist, and culturalist dimensions of the Reformed faith (a taxonomy he was fond of employing to explain the makeup of the PCA). But later in his ministry, Keller leaned on the culturalist, to the point of identifying himself as a Neo-Calvinist. Hansen unhelpfully employs that expression so elastically as to include Louis Berkhof, Francis Schaeffer, and Cornelius Van Til, none of whom were spokesmen for that school. Keller commended presuppositional apologetics as especially effective for ministry after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (235), though he deemed Van Til too antithetical and preferred the greater stress on common grace in Herman Bavinck.

A Gifted Synthesizer

Hansen asserts, rightly I believe, that in the “theological smorgasbord” of GCTS, Keller graduated with his theological convictions fairly established. But he understates matters when he adds, “Keller didn’t do anything more than tweak some of these views after 1975” (103). He goes on to describe the insatiable reading habits of a lifelong learner, through which Keller’s views were refined and deepened, from Hopewell, Virginia, to Westminster, and then Manhattan. Hansen particularly appears to underestimate the effect of Keller’s “Dogwood Fellowship” gatherings with sociologist James Hunter, whose “faithful witness” approach to Christian social engagement seemed to temper Keller’s rhetoric of cultural influence. This may explain why the biography conveys less emphasis on themes prominent in the early years of Keller’s ministry, such as kingdom-building and transformationalism.

If Keller was correct in his self-assessment that he was not an original thinker (121), Hansen counters that he was an uncommonly gifted “synthesizer” (85). He excelled in distilling ideas and communicating effectively to his congregation, his readers, and to religious skeptics (265). That is reason enough to commend this book, especially to ministers and ministerial candidates.

The author is OPC historian and professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Photos courtesy of Westminster Bookstore.

Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation, by Collin Hansen. Zondervan, 2023. Hardcover, 320 pages, $17.99 (Amazon).

*     *     *

Danny E. Olinger

Presbyterian Church in America pastor Timothy Keller’s death on May 19 has brought a wave of remembrances in publications that typically do not note the passing of a Bible-believing Calvinist. In The Wall Street Journal, Kate Odell argued that Keller built a congregation of orthodox Christians in New York City by speaking plainly of sin and grace. In The New York Times, David Brooks, who testified that Keller taught him the joy of the gospel, called Keller one of the most important theologians and greatest preachers of our times. While living, Keller lamented that his fame following the publication of Reason for God in 2008 had taken away opportunities for interaction with people, which was an aspect of pastoring that he had truly enjoyed. I tried a time or two as editor to have Keller write for New Horizons, but I could never break through his office staff even to get a personal rejection. Perhaps that is why I haven’t become an avid reader of Keller, but Forgive—his final book, which he wrote during COVID while suffering from Stage 4 pancreatic cancer—is a timely and thought-provoking book that also happens to be refreshingly biblical.

Forgive cover

Keller opens the book acknowledging that many believe today that granting forgiveness to others translates into an inability to hold perpetrators of injustice accountable for their behavior. That is, forgiveness is seen as a way that abusive people maintain power over others. Even when forgiveness is extended, Keller notes it is often exercised according to deficient approaches. There is pressure to nonconditionally forgive, a “cheap grace” approach whereby the relationship between abusers and the abused remains unchanged; there is pressure to forgive transactionally, a “little grace” approach whereby forgiveness must be earned; there is pressure to forgive not at all, a “no grace” approach. 

What Keller advocates is the “costly grace” approach of the Bible that is grounded in Jesus’s costly sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. It reminds us that we are sinners in need of mercy, and yet it fills our hearts with love and makes it possible for us to bear the cost of forgiving others. At the same time, the cross makes it possible for God to forgive us without compromising his justice. God is wrathful, God is loving, and both are fulfilled at once on the cross.

Keller argues that America’s “shame-and-honor” culture (“its new secular religion”) has greatly impoverished the practice of forgiveness. Individuals are encouraged to demand respect and affirmation of their identity, which means they must break free from the oppression that comes from the structure, roles, and expectations of society. Greater honor and moral virtue are granted to those deemed to be the lowest on the existing social ladder. Consequently, “shame-and-honor” or “cancel culture” thinking creates a mindset in society where forgiveness is seen as radically unjust and impractical; it short-circuits the ability of victims to gain honor and virtue as others rise to defend them.

Keller turns to a literary example from the past, Franz Kafka, to illustrate the emptiness and despair of such a mindset, and a real-life example from the present, Rachael Denhollander, to show that justice and forgiveness can go together. In Kafka’s 1915 book, The Trial, the main character, Josef K., is indicted, arrested, interrogated, and finally killed without ever knowing his crime. For the reader, there seems to be no point. But, according to Keller (following John Updike), Kakfa’s goal is to expose modern thinking: a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated. Keller explained,

Modern culture has done everything to say: “We don’t believe in God. We don’t believe in heaven. We don’t believe in hell. We don’t believe in moral categories.” Kakfa says it hasn’t helped. If anything, it has made it worse—because our guilt now can’t be eradicated. (124)

In her 2019 book, What Is a Girl Worth? Rachael Denhollander recounts her mental wrestling in light of the abuse she suffered from physician Larry Nassar. As a Christian, she wanted to forgive, but she did not want her forgiveness to be used to say something terrible hadn’t happened. Keller cites Denhollander’s words in the courtroom to Nassar:

I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so that you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me, though I extend that to you as well. (99)

In Keller’s judgment, there is no future without forgiveness. Both forgiveness and reconciliation are essential to foster and maintain community. But, particularly, both are essential in the church. The church is a foretaste of the heavenly world of love and community under the lordship of Jesus. Believers must forgive others even when suffering. Such strength doesn’t come from within us; it comes only from being joined to Jesus Christ by faith. According to Keller, the enduring lesson of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18:21–35 is this: “it is only when we see a King acting as a servant voluntarily for our sake that we servants will stop acting like little kings and judges” (196).

The author is editor of New Horizons.

Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? by Timothy Keller. Viking, 2022. Hardcover, 272 pages, $24.30 (Amazon).