Tim Keller’s Gospel

Pt. 6 of The Postmodern Logic Behind Emergent Calvinism

Homosexuality as Justice Litmus Test

This video of Tim Keller handling the question of homosexuality nicely illustrates both our postmodern context and how Tim Keller’s theological adjustment of Reformed theology differs from the traditional approach.

First the postmodern critique of inclusion, exclusion and sexual ethics.

The questioner here notes that he wrote a book on the gay rights movement because of the oppression of homosexuals in his America. What does the church have against homosexuals?

There is a logic behind the critique that the oppression of homosexuals has been fueled by the condemnation of gay and lesbian practice supported by Christian religious texts and tradition. That’s pretty hard to argue against. The Christian meta-narrative is suspect because it tilts the world in favor of the powerful heterosexual majority.

The questions get pointed as “is homosexual behavior a sin?” and “are homosexuals going to hell?”

Note how these questions line up with the Evangelism Explosion questions. Modernistic American evangelicalism has in fact trained its audience and communicated to its audience what its reduced narrative accomplishes. The religion is a strategy for hell avoidance.

The question also understands Christianity within the terms of what I call “common religion” which understands the purpose of religion to be moral human improvement and the purpose of moral human improvement to be to earn the reward of a divine judge towards an advantageous post-death existence, rather than a painful one.

The Usual Evangelical Response

Most evangelicals will wish to first challenge or attempt to correct the assumption of “common religion”. They will say something like “we are saved by grace, not by works”. This is usually simply dismissed by what is to follow partly because of how grace is understood in the “God of love” vs. “God of justice” exchange but I won’t go there now.

If you look at Evangelism Explosion approach and the “if you were to die tonight” approach the expected answer in the conversation with someone who possesses an assumption of common religion is “I’m pretty good. I haven’t killed anyone. etc.” The task of the evangelist is then to use the Sermon on the Mount or Romans 3 (leveraging an assumed shared authority of the Bible, assuming the person who opened the door is sufficiently Christ haunted to value “the good book”) to demonstrate that they are not good enough. God requires perfect obedience, perfect compliance, a flawless record and since all of us fail that the only way to enter into God’s heaven is to have your sins already paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. If you believe that Jesus died for you to forgive your sin and if you start to follow him (Jesus as Lord and Savior) then all of your sins are forgiven and you get to go to heaven when you die.

Now when an evangelical approaches the question of homosexuality the better standard response (there are worse ones you can find easily on youtube) homosexual behavior, just like sex out of marriage, is a sin. The adulterer and fornicator are no better than someone who practices homosexual lust or behavior, sin is sin. The church is being evenhanded.

“No it’s not the same…”

Many people are simply not buying the modernist evangelical treatment either of the narrative for sin forgiveness and especially not its application for a person who has persistent same sex attraction or can’t find their peace within traditional sexual norms.

A great example of “it isn’t fair” is on this youtube from Matthew Vines.  Within this system a heterosexual person can find an expression of their sex drive affirmed by the church and a homosexual cannot. It fails the fairness test. Christian sexual ethics should be about exclusivity in a committed relationship and the sex of the partners is irrelevant to the morality of the relationships.

Doubts About the Standard Evangelical Salvation Narrative

There is also a skepticism about the broader narrative of sinners and “salvation”. The critique usually goes like this. “Do you mean to tell me that just because someone prays the sinners prayer, starts going to church, starts calling himself a Christian, even though they continue in their bigotry (racial or sexual), even though they don’t really behave substantially like anyone else (or worse) that God gives them preferential treatment on judgment day? This smacks of tribalism. Any judge who operates this way is not a fair judge. What about Gandhi and lots of other moral people who live good lives but either didn’t have a chance to go to church or for whatever sociological reasons didn’t want to associate with Christians? Will they fry for ever? Such a God who would do this is a monster!” If you want to hear a sharp young man make this argument see this video which I’ve outlined.

The evangelical apologist will hear the common religion narrative reemerge and usually double down on the formula “all have sinned and fallen short…” and “Jesus’ sacrifice pays for sinners…”

Why doesn’t this work? Remember that the religious narrative is suspect because it is designed to favor the powerful (Christianity has been given preferential treatment in the West and via colonialism the world.) and this narrative smacks of a convenient tribalism that favors the church at the expense of her enemies. The narrative and the God imagined by it is unjust, an oppressor of those outside His tribe.

How Tim Keller talks to Postmoderns

Listen to the video at about 4:30. “What sends you to hell is self-righteousness, thinking that you can be your own Savior and Lord.”

Common religion says that your quality of moral performance earns you a preferential position in the afterlife if there is one. Christianity is heard by postmoderns as asserting that a tribalistic relationship grants an individual a preferential position in the afterlife. Keller here says “self-righteousness sends you to hell.”

Self-righteousness as self-evident evil

To the degree that a postmodern is willing to accept an afterlife, the quality of that afterlife evaluated by a judge needs to be based on a quality available in this present life. This is a point where there isn’t a dispute between many postmodern Americans and many Christians.

Deep within the suspicion of meta-narratives designed to advantage the powerful authors at the expense of others is an acknowledgment that self-righteousness is unseemly and dangerous. Those who construct systems of power for their own preservation and back them by moral assertions are commonly self-righteous. The wrongness of self-righteousness seems self evident in our context.

Keller here in this piece, commonly in his work, most clearly in his hallmark sermon on Luke 15 sharply critiques moralistic Christianity. Keller sides with critics of the church on condemning this behavior.

If you scroll down to the bottom of this post you’ll see how much of Keller’s approach I’ve internalized. I find it cohesive, coherent, attractive and compelling.

The Ego in Affluent, Cosmopolitan Urbanites

People sometimes confused postmodernity with relativism. It is hardly the case. Affluent, educated, cosmopolitan urbanites have a highly developed if not fully explored system of moral justice. There is evil in the world and many are activists ready to oppose the evils they see. For many the ego is the source of evil in the world and they have a high regard for religions that attempt to address the ego.

There is an irony with this group. Even though they have a highly tuned sense of justice and fairness and are suspicious of those who wield power, this class of people have incredible power. This class of people are in many ways the elite of the West and the masters of many of the institutions and thought landscape of our culture. These are the movers and shakers.

If you have a lot of power in your life, if you can solve problems in your life with money, medicine, influence, knowledge you begin to realize that in some ways your chief adversary to your own thriving and future is yourself. If there are few things around you that constrain you, you will begin to see that you are the greatest threat to your own existence.

If your own out of control appetites, blindspots, ego are your problem, where can you find relief?

A lot of affluent, educated, cosmopolitan urbanites are looking to westernized quasi ascetic eastern religious practices for help in curbing their egos. Those who are viewed with esteem of being “spiritual” are often those who display a certain zen-like quality of tolerance, acceptance, semi-detachment often gained through some combination of gentrified modernized diverse spiritual pursuits.

Keller and CS Lewis

Tim Keller is an unabashed disciples of CS Lewis. When he talks about self-righteousness sending you to hell he is following Lewis in his classic “The Great Divorce”. A sin left unchecked over the course of everlastingness will change us into monsters. A grumbler in time will become a mere grumble. With the help of Lewis Keller can target the ego and communicate a narrative that is intelligible to affluent, educated, cosmopolitan urbanites. The ego if left unchecked is their most felt serious threat to their envisioned preferred future. If you listen to Tim Keller talk about Hell he takes a page right from CS Lewis.

Keller and Kierkegaard

Keller noted early on that if you define sin as law breaking to postmoderns you get lost in a morass of pluralistic cosmopolitanism. Since different cultures have different laws, and all historical religious moral codes are simply human codes imagined to be divine (postmodern assumption) appealing to a specific law is an invitation to tribalism. Keller saw that explaining law breaking as violating identity got traction.

If all meta-narratives are suspect all we are left with is the self and its identity. Postmoderns are free to construct their identity in any way they chose because there are no impinging meta-narratives besides their own. Keller asserts that identity constructed on any other foundation other than God creates idolatry which is a form or subtle or overt addiction. He appeals to Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness Unto Death”.

This makes real sense to affluent, educated, cosmopolitan urbanites who are trying to self-construct. Self-constructing an identity at first seems like a fun project but in time becomes a burden. More on Keller, Lewis and Identity

Is Keller Reformed?

I believe if you asked Tim Keller to affirm the modernistic gospel I articulated above he easily would do so. He’s part of the “trinity” of the Gospel Coalition (Keller, Piper, Carson) which is pushing substitutionary atonement as hard as anyone today. He would also assert that it is essentially the same as understanding self-righteousness as taking you to hell. Is this fair? I think so.

What’s fascinating is that you can easily read a document like the Heidelberg Catechism and articulate it in a modernistic way. The catechism lays this out pretty clearly. The catechism also, I think, can be read along the lines of what Keller is doing with it. Here is is epigenetic move.

The Heidelberg Catechism begins by talking about the fact that humanity is under the judgment of God for failure to keep God’s law. Sounds modernistic and moralistic. If you read how the catechism explains the law however, using Jesus’ summary of the law, loving God and loving your neighbor, the catechism can also be understood as addressing the ego. The Ten Commandments isn’t treated in the Catechism until the Gratitude section, not the Misery section.

Keller will also repeatedly appeal to the Puritans who did a considerable amount of work on the will (close to what we call the ego) and how it needs to be mastered by Christ otherwise it will become subject to the things of this world through the idolatries of our hearts.

The contribution Tim Keller is making is that he is able to translate the resources of the Reformed tradition in a way that is accessible to affluent, educated, cosmopolitan urbanites in a way for them to see how it can be moral and attractive. Tim Keller has managed to re-tune his epigenetic layer above his Reformed DNA to address his context.


Affluent, educated, cosmopolitan urbanites have more Christianity embedded in their culture than they wish to admit and more than their evangelical critics wish to concede. Deep in the postmodern critique of meta-narratives is an acknowledgment of “love your neighbor” and “the strong should protect the weak”. Even while postmodernity critiques traditional Christianity it often embodies its most cherished value.

Christians have long espoused the law of love but failed to live it out both as individuals and in their structures. The current debate does not center on whether or not we should love our neighbor, but rather how can we truly love our neighbor? Love is a far more complex thing than niceness or blanket acceptance of the expressed desire of your neighbor.

If you hear the conclusion of Keller’s response to the question of the church’s approach to homosexuality you’ll hear that love must take priority over condemnation and the church has failed at this.

The question then becomes, where can we find the resources to truly love and how will it be expressed in community? For a Heidelberg Catechism Christian this is part of the joy of the grateful life, not the burden of a project of moral qualification.

Buying Keller’s Approach?

Not everyone will buy Keller’s approach. If someone is already settled on a checklist of shibbolethic outcomes you may find Keller wanting. The irony of this is that a long term and not unfounded critique of conservative Christians have been their shibboleths. We all have them.

He may be criticized both for being soft on homosexuality or injustice against women or he may be criticized for being exclusivistic on those matters. His central questions regarding the stewardship of the self and the path to love I think are questions that people on different sides of many divides have to face.

Emergent Calvinism

The central thesis of this series has been that the brands of Calvinism making headlines today have been shaped by our postmodern context and are attempts to appeal to it. In time, just as we later began to question how the modernist/fundamentalist fight changed both groups, we’ll have to evaluate how the changes to the Reformed tradition by this latest cultural movement have changed it. Is Piper’s “Christian Hedonism” a legitimate contribution? Is the Driscoll cussing preacher adding something besides colorful language? Can CS Lewis so easily be employed in traditional Reformed theology? Will these movements bring a long term impact to the North American religious landscape?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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6 Responses to Tim Keller’s Gospel

  1. Pingback: The Post-modern Logic behind Emergent Calvinism | Leadingchurch.com

  2. Sean Meade says:

    great series, Paul. thanks.

    ‘Those who are viewed with esteem of being “spiritual” are often those who display a certain zen-like quality of tolerance, acceptance, semi-detachment often gained through some combination of gentrified modernized diverse spiritual pursuits.’

    right: there is a real esteem for the Dalai Lama among this group.

    i wonder if there’d be any value in putting Tim’s argument in this video in some sort of shorthand, logical order…

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks Sean. Yes, the Dalai Lama has a high reputation, clearly higher than the pope. Westernized Buddhism and Hinduism is interesting to watch. How are these religions changed when impacted by secularism.

      I sometimes do transcripts of videos like these. His one is pretty off the cuff though, unlike a sermon. I’ve got some really interesting CBC interviews called “After Atheism” that I really want to work through if I can find the time. I’ve also got a few other Keller sermons I want to transcribe a bit.

      thanks for hanging out. pvk

  3. Leonard Vander Zee says:

    Paul, I like a lot of what Keller stands for and articulates, but, as I mentioned when you first posted this video on Facebook, I think he’s somewhat evasive here. He equates homosexual behavior with adultery or promiscuity as an “ordinary” sin,yes, but I suspect that if a married gay Christian couple wanted to be members of his church, he would demur. They believe in Jesus too, but there’s something about their sin that still sets it apart for him, And if they can’t be members of his church, then what? Are they outside the faith, or does his church have certain standards that are distinctive? That he did not mention. So he loves homosexual persons, and doesn’t think that sends them to Hell, but. The “but” is left unsaid.
    This, by the way, is and will be an crucial issue as the church more and more deals with its stance toward homosexuals. What about those who love the Lord and live chaste (in their terms) and in committed relationships? I wish that Keller was asked that question.
    As to the salvation by faith in Christ alone, I, of course, agree. But he, like many other Reformed and evangelical folks, tend to ignore the troubling emphasis on works in the NT by Jesus (Matthew 25 for example), and Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:10 and elsewhere. Jesus was an enemy of self-righteousness, but also of unrighteousness, It’s more like salvation by grace through faith, and judgment by works. The HC, by the way, nicely articulates this in Q and A 86-91.
    If we’re going to emphasis Jesus’ substitutionary atonement and salvation by grace alone, then we have to also deal with this issue of the works proper to the Christian life.

    • Sean Meade says:

      ‘I suspect that if a married gay Christian couple wanted to be members of his church, he would demur. They believe in Jesus too, but there’s something about their sin that still sets it apart for him, And if they can’t be members of his church, then what? Are they outside the faith, or does his church have certain standards that are distinctive?’

      at that point, Leonard, it’s not the sin so much as the view of Scripture. presumably this hypothetical couple doesn’t believe they’re ‘living in sin’. the analog here is: would couples known to be having sex outside of marriage and not thinking it was a sin be allowed to join? i think the answer would be ‘no’ and would be consistent.

  4. PaulVK says:

    Thanks for your comment Len.

    On your first point I won’t speculate how Redeemer has approached this issue. I’d be surprised if individuals haven’t attempted to test the church on this.

    On your second point Keller in many sermons can also hold very high behavioral standards. He’s currently preaching through the Sermon on the Mount and he can be quite convicting. As with the Heidelberg Catechism he’s probably open to the charge of trying to have it both ways. Salvation is by grace, but not by faith that is alone. pvk

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