Monergism Interview with Dr. Tim Keller

March, 2008

Dr. Tim Keller recently came through our city (Portland) while on his tour around the country promoting his new book on apologetics, The Reason for God (this week #7 on the NYT bestsellers list). I was delighted to meet Dr. Keller in person for the first time and especially thankful that he agreed to take a short interview. By way of introduction, Dr. Keller is the is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and is best known as having a big heart for city dwellers as well as secular skeptics. He and his church have personally been involved in planting over 100 churches in cities around the world. Keller is a first class apologist who loves Jesus Christ and the gospel of grace. His presentation of historic Reformed theology goes to a depth of understanding rarely seen in this age and he is characterized by kindness and respect for his opponents, which are qualities often missing among us. His emphasis on "the gospel" as a unifying principle has many affirming a common ground, even if we disagree on some other things.

I especially appreciate Dr. Keller's dedication to researching and answering hard questions in a respectful way. While Keller may be accused by some as contextualizing, having listened to many of his sermons myself, it is clear he does this with the appropriate biblical balance as he does not over-contextualize. In fact, I have not heard a more clear articulation of the gospel anywhere. He preaches the law, hell and God's wrath in light of the good news of the gospel more often and more consistently than most modern preachers I have encountered. Yet does so in a way that disarms opponents. He does this by challenging skeptics to test their own presuppositions. In this I believe he makes a great contribution to apologetic method and the (often overlooked) apologetic of godliness (1 Pet 3:15). Specifically Keller's patience with skeptics in in the midst of hostility bears witness to our hope since it demonstrates union with our Savior who alone truly suffered for righteousness' sake with perfect patience.

I asked Dr. Keller a few questions about his ministry and understanding of communicating the gospel, and then a few questions from a skeptics' perspective to see how he would answer. Dr. Keller has been very busy on his tour promoting his new book around the United States so we are very thankful and honored that he would take the time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Dr. Keller, thank you for setting aside some of your valuable time on your tour to take an interview.

1) Having listened to your sermons, you have a robust biblical understanding of grace as expressed in the Reformed tradition, especially as you contrast the moralist and the true Christian? What, in your understanding, does it mean to herald the gospel to someone? What essential truths do you hope to communicate at Redeemer each week? Do you call people to believe? How do you evangelize to people in such a way that leads them to respond to the Spirit’s calling, and not coming to Christ presumptuously?

To preach the gospel is to show people their need for salvation against a backdrop of God’s nature and the character of sin, and then present Jesus as the only remedy for what ails them and the world. In my weekly preaching in the worship services I always call people to believe in Christ.

However, in various evangelistic venues, I don’t always give people the ‘whole gospel’. You can take your time. Multiple exposures are usually needed for very secular and skeptical people to grasp and be persuaded by the gospel. For example, you may spend most of your presentation on the nature of God and say fairly little about Jesus. That’s what Paul did in Acts 17. He laid a foundation and barely mentioned Christ. When I recently went around to speak evangelistically on college campuses my presentation I did not lay out very much about the cross and resurrection. Instead I worked on the problems of secularism and the nature of God. I have found that if you don’t do that, people aren’t ready to understand the concepts of sin and grace and atonement.

I’m not sure what you mean by ‘presumptuously.’ Classically, ‘presumption’ meant ‘false assurance’—usually based on a works-righteousness based on a faulty understanding of the gospel. If you are clear about the distinction between law and gospel, that shouldn’t usually be a problem.

2) What is your view of sanctification? How does one avoid antinomianism and legalism as we grow in grace?

I believe the classical Reformed view—that on the one hand, sanctification is not by ‘works’ but by a continuous re-orienting ourselves to our justification. So sanctification is not moralistic. Yet it takes enormous effort (so it is not quietistic.) When we feed on, remember, and live in accordance with our justification, it mortifies our idols and fills us with an inner joy and desire to please and resemble our Lord through obedience. But the feeding on, remembering, and living in accordance—takes all our effort.

3) Although the "presuppositional approach" to apologetics not mentioned by name in your book, it seems that this is the central approach you are using as you engage skeptical friends. You seem to have mastered this approach by bringing it out of the realm of the theoretical and bringing it to practical discussion. In doing this you have done a great service to the Christian community. This is especially true as you ask your hearers to "doubt their doubts". What books, authors or thought patterns might we employ for help so we can learn to respectfully engage doubters in this way? ... Who have you read that has helped you the most?

I don’t have one book that puts it all together, but I’d recommend the books by John Frame on apologetics and theology for giving somebody the basic framework for what I do in my book.

4) When you field questions from skeptics what is the first thing you are looking for in their question?

I want to be able to understand it well enough that, when I articulate it back to them, they feel I have said it better and more persuasively than they could have.

5) How do you disarm a skeptic? i.e. We know that the gospel is naturally offensive and a stumbling block to human pride, yet how do we respectfully engage in a way that won’t add to that.

See the answer to the question above. If I do that, they usually feel I understand and sympathize with their concern to a great degree, even if I don’t agree with it.

How would you respond to the following statements from skeptics:

6) Religious people are not interested in trying to protect their religious values, but rather, their religious power.

I daresay that this is a problem with human beings across the board—both believers and non-believers. Christian Smith has shown in The Secular Revolution that there have been times when secular people have resisted religion in the name of freedom and yet did so to secure power over educational institutions that were once under the control of the church. So you can find lots of examples of people in all states of belief and non-belief accruing power in the name of their values.

7) Jesus lived in a time when slavery existed. I don’t think the Bible reads as a major abolitionist tract, right?....Did Jesus ever explicitly condemn the practice of slavery? My point here is that people’s values are inherently influenced by the times in which they live, right?

The ‘slavery’ mentioned in the Old Testament was really indentured servant hood and was a very different kind of institution than the New World slavery that developed in modern times. For example, Exodus 21:27 says that if you knock a slave’s tooth out, the slave has to go free. That doesn’t sound like the same institution you are thinking of, does it? Slavery in the Greco-Roman world was harsher than the indentured servant hood of Israel, but it was almost never for life (average 10-15 years in length) and slaves were paid and lived about the same as other working people. So be careful when you equate the African slave trade to the forms of slavery and servant hood you hear about in the Bible.

8) I've never understood how those who adhere to a particular religion can hold onto their faith without seemingly opening themselves up to the charge of what might be called 'socialized ethnocentrism'. In other words, almost everyone who believes in a major religion does so because they were brought up in that religion. as a born-again, I wonder how you get around the fact that what seems to you to be true would probably not if you were born in Mecca, Bombay, or Tibet. The vast majority of the world's Christians, Muslims, Jews are born to parents who raise their children in communities that are organized around reinforcing that faith, not in challenging it, testing it against reality, and choosing the one religion that gives the best match.…

If you say, “All beliefs are socially conditioned. If you were raised in Mecca, you wouldn’t have your Christian view of things,” you are probably right. But if you (the questioner) were raised in Mecca, you wouldn’t have your view that religious beliefs are socially conditioned. Does that mean your beliefs aren’t right? If all views are completely socially conditioned then so is yours, and then why should I believe it? A better approach would be to say that all beliefs are to a great degree socially conditioned, and therefore we should take great pains to think things out and avoid bias as we come to our conclusions. This should be true no less for you than for me as a religious believer.

9) There are no absolutes. My view of values is that they emerge from lessons widely drawn from human experience and around which consensus has emerged. Human rights as a language and as a normative construct came out of the horror of WWII. Such ideas emerge through consensus-building and eventually take on axiomatic existence for most people. Slavery IS bad. Torture IS wrong. Racism IS repugnant. These ideas emerged socially and became axiomatic socially.

…. There are a lot of problems with this view.

First, you seem to be saying that slavery wasn’t wrong until there was a consensus that it was wrong. Or that torture wasn’t wrong until we came to a consensus that it was wrong. Do you really want to say that--that slavery and torture wasn’t wrong in 1750, because then the consensus was that both were OK? If you fall back on saying that slavery was wrong in 1750 even though most people didn’t feel that way—then you do believe in absolutes, I think.

Second, what if you saw the consensus about slavery and torture eroding? What if you saw that half the world was moving toward a new consensus that slavery and torture were OK in many circumstances? (There are a surprising number of people who do think torture is OK if it might stop a nuclear attack, etc. It could easily happen.) On what basis, then, could you argue that the emerging new consensus is wrong, since, in your view, something is only wrong if there is a consensus that it is wrong? It seems that the only way you could say “reverse the new consensus” would be if you grant that torture is wrong even if the consensus changes.

Third, this is an elitist argument, because the fact is that there are plenty of cultures and places in the world that don’t agree with your ‘consensus.’ You are saying, then, that the part of the world that believes in human rights is the enlightened, correct part. When you say these beliefs take on axiomatic existence for ‘most people’ you mean ‘most people I know, the ones who are thinking properly.’

Fourth, if you don’t believe in absolutes, you can only offer at best a pragmatic argument against these evils. If you were living in 1750 and you came to believe slavery was wrong when few others did, you could not argue from consensus. You would have to argue that slavery is impractical for us, that it makes for a society in which we are all unhappy. You could only appeal to people’s self-interest. Only if you agree that there are moral absolutes could you say that “Slavery is wrong regardless of whether you feel it benefits you and society or not. It is simply wrong to treat people that way. Period.”

10 ) What secular books, magazines or other media, if any, would you encourage Christians to read as to understand and engage skeptics intelligently and with respect?

I am a Christian resident of New York City. I simply read things the other Manhattanites read (NY Times, New Yorker magazine, Wall Street Journal, and many of the books they read) plus all my Christian reading. I don’t do anything special to understand skeptics. I also talk to a lot of skeptics and read things they point to.

Thank you again Dr. Keller for taking the time to answer my questions. I pray many Christians would learn to respectfully engage skeptics from your book and that the Lord would use this approach to advance the gospel through our cities and the world.

Related Resources
The Reason for God by Dr. Tim Keller