Tag Archives: Tim Keller

Contextualization in Scripture

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Whenever I read a book, I usually make notes afterwards for future reference.  I finished reading Keller’s Center Church a couple of months ago, but I’m only finally getting around to writing my notes on it today.  As I’m doing so, I’ve across something worth sharing about contextualization.  Keller defines contextualization like this:  “…it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them” (page 89).  A little further in that chapter, he gives this helpful sidebar:

Craig Blomberg points out that in Matthew’s parable of the mustard seed, the sower sows his seed in a “field” (agros, Matt. 13:31), while in Luke the sowing is in a “garden” (kepos, Luke 13:19).  Jews never grew mustard plants in gardens, but always out on farms, while Greeks in the Mediterranean basin did the opposite.  It appears that each gospel writer was changing the word that Jesus used in Mark — the word for “earth” or “ground” (ge, Mark 4:31) — for the sake of his hearers.  There is a technical contradiction between the Matthean and Lukan terms, states Blomberg, “but not a material one.  Luke changes the wording precisely so that his audience is not distracted from…the lesson by puzzling over an…improbable practice.”  The result is that Luke’s audience “receives his teaching with the same impact as the original audience.”  (page 95)

I looked into this a little bit and it seems to check out as correct.  Just one small point:  I would prefer “apparent discrepancy” to “technical contradiction” (after all, fields and gardens are not exactly polar opposites).  The main point is that contextualization is evident in Scripture — therefore, we need to take it seriously too.  For myself, as a Canadian living and ministering in Australia, I try to use the right words for my audience.  I try to avoid Canadian idioms and use Aussie ones.  However, I’m quite sure that I still have a long way to go in minimizing linguistic distractions when I preach and teach.


Predestination in Mission

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For Reformed people who care about sharing the gospel (which should be all of us!), it is probably a given that election/predestination is not something we incorporate into our gospel message.  We do not go around telling unbelievers about the doctrine of unconditional election.  Instead, we generally recognize that this doctrine is revealed in Scripture for the comfort and edification of believers.  The common way of thinking is that this doctrine is for those already in the church, not for those we are trying to draw into the church.

That way of thinking can be partially credited to 1.14 of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons of Dort say that the doctrine of divine election “should be taught in the church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place…”  For a long time, I have understood this to mean that election/predestination would never have a real place in our missionary message.  By “missionary message,” I mean everything connected to the good news as we communicate it to the unregenerated.

My thinking on this has been upended by Tim Keller.  In his book Center Church, he stirs up a lot of thought in the area of contextualization (see here for some of my work in this area).  This has to do with the communication of the gospel in cross-cultural ministry.  In chapter 10, he discusses “active contextualization”:  entering the culture, challenging the culture, and then appealing to the listeners.

When it comes to challenging and confronting the culture, Keller relates a discussion he once had with a Presbyterian missionary to Korea.  This missionary was working amongst Korean prostitutes and was not connecting with them.  He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners.  Nothing he said engaged them.  He decided to try something radically different.  He would begin with the doctrine of predestination.  Keller rightly notes that this doctrine is a challenging one for Western hearts and minds.  Westerners value democratic and egalitarian notions.  Many in the West do not want to hear about a sovereign God who chooses some and passes by others.  But what is true for Westerners is not necessarily true for Asian prostitutes in the mid-twentieth century.  Keller writes:

So he told the prostitutes about a God who is a King.  Kings, he said, have a sovereign right to act as they saw fit.  They rule — that’s just what kings do.  And this great divine King chooses to select people out of the human race to serve him, simply because it is his sovereign will to do so.  Therefore, his people are saved because of his royal will, not because of the quality of their lives or anything they have done.

This made sense to the women.  They had no problem with the idea of authority figures acting in this way — it seemed natural and right to them.  But this also meant that when people were saved, it was not because of pedigree or effort, but because of the will of God (cf. John 1:13).  Their acceptance of this belief opened up the possibility of understanding and accepting the belief in salvation by grace.  They asked my missionary friend a question that a non-Christian in the West would never ask:  “How can I know if I am chosen?”  He answered that if as they heard the gospel they wanted to accept and believe it, this was a sign that the Holy Spirit was working on their hearts and that God was seeking them.  And some of them responded. (Center Church, 126)

So there are times, places, and cultures where it might be effective to use the doctrine of predestination as a missionary starting point.  It’s not that this doctrine is the complete message.  Rather, it’s a starting point to bring unbelievers onward to the full gospel of salvation in Christ.

But then what about the Canons of Dort?  Does this approach contradict 1.14?  No, it doesn’t, because 1.14 doesn’t say that this doctrine should only be taught in the church and that it may never be used elsewhere.  There’s indeed room in the Canons for a wise and creative adaptation of this doctrine to the missionary calling of the church.  Because of the pervasive influence of Western culture, perhaps the contexts where this could be done are increasingly few and far between, but missionaries should definitely be open-minded to the possibility that this Presbyterian missionary’s approach could work elsewhere.


Critiquing Keller on Evolution/Creation

As most readers know, I’m also involved in another blog, a cooperative venture entitled Creation Without Compromise.  That blog was the brainchild of Dr. Ted Van Raalte — together with Rev. Jim Witteveen and Jon Dykstra, we seek to “promote a biblical understanding of origins.”  Since its inception, Creation Without Compromise has published several significant pieces addressing the challenges we face in upholding the biblical doctrine of creation.  Some of the best ones, in my view, are collected on this page.  Last week, Dr. Van Raalte began a series that has long been in the works, one that likely contains the most important material we’ve published so far.  A number of years ago, Tim Keller wrote his “White Paper” for BioLogos.  In case you’re not familiar with it, BioLogos is one of the foremost promoters of a synthesis between creation and evolution.  Keller’s paper has been influential and is therefore worthy of a closer look.  Does it stand up to biblical scrutiny?  Does Keller present a good model for reconciling Scripture with the conclusions of so many scientists regarding origins?

Part One of Dr. Van Raalte’s critique can be found here.

Part Two is found by clicking here.

 


Does Every Text Have One Main Point?

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Timothy Keller continues to publish thought-provoking and (mostly) worthwhile books.  While I’ve had my concerns about some of his positions, I can also appreciate some of the good contributions he makes.  This book on preaching covers a lot of familiar ground, but it also makes a few insightful observations that I haven’t encountered elsewhere.  Rather than review the entire book, let me just share one of the points I found to stir up the grey matter.

The first chapter includes a discussion about expository preaching.  Keller notes that oftentimes such preaching is conceived of in such a way that every biblical text must have one main point and that one main point must become the theme of the sermon.  However, “this assumes that every biblical text has only one big idea or main point to it” (42).  This rule, while generally helpful, can be taken too far.  Because, as Keller rightly observes, “In some Bible passages it is not easy to discern one central idea” (43).  He then gives several examples, mostly drawn from biblical narratives.  Here’s one of them:

Then there is the strange account of the the seven sons of Sceva (Acts 19:11-20) who tried to cast a demon out of a man “in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches.”  In the comical result, the demon talked back through the man to the would-be exorcisers:  “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” before leaping upon and beating all seven of the sons.  What was Luke trying to get across to us by including this incident in his book of Acts?  I’ve heard a number of great expositions of this passage, and all of them were grounded in the text and not contradictory of one another.  Nevertheless, they were not the same.  Multiple valid inferences can be drawn from such narratives, from which a wise preacher can select one or two to fit the capacities and needs of his listeners.  (43)

I think Keller is correct, I’ve seen it several times in my own sermon preparation over the years, although I would also add this:  what is the Holy Spirit trying to get across to us?  Cannot the Holy Spirit have multiple purposes in a text of Scripture?  Why not?

The book is richly footnoted — nearly 50 pages of footnotes!  Some of the footnotes take things a bit further in terms of discussion.  This is also true with the matter above.  In footnote 16 in chapter 1, Keller points out that this idea of one central proposition in a text (and therefore in a sermon) is drawn from classical rhetoric.  The problem is that the Bible is not, by and large, a work of classical rhetoric.  Thus, “identifying what the theme is can be fairly subjective” writes Keller.  The concept of a big idea can become somewhat forced, although Keller grants again that there are some passages where the concept definitely works.  His summary (summarizing a footnote!):  “We must be careful of a kind of ‘expository legalism’ — in which it is assumed that there can be only one exegetically accurate sermon and sermon theme on any one passage” (250).  In the next footnote, he also adds that this should not be misunderstood as saying that “the biblical text itself has multiple or indeterminate meanings.”  The Bible is not a wax nose which can be turned which ever way you please.

I want to add one other element to this discussion, something which Keller unfortunately doesn’t touch on:  what exactly is a text?  Some of this discussion really depends on how you define a text for preaching.  Consider this comment of Keller:  “…there are places like Proverbs, in which it is notoriously difficult to see unifying themes in the chapters and in which often every verse provides a new ‘big idea.’ ” (250).  But who would argue that a chapter in Proverbs (well, most of the chapters anyway — there are exceptions like chapters 7-9) provide a text for expository preaching?  Having preached on Proverbs a few times, I think most of those verses are self-contained texts for preaching, either individually or in connection with one or more neighbouring verses.  This is all the more true when you consider that chapter divisions were added to the text long after it was originally written.  Many times chapter divisions are helpful in seeing some flow of thought in Scripture, but many other times they are just arbitrary and artificial additions, sometimes more a hindrance than a help.  In other words, the chapters don’t necessarily define a “passage” or “text.”  Because he doesn’t tackle this, there is a lack of clarity in Keller’s discussion on the definition of a “Bible passage” versus “a text.”

 


Book Review: Prayer

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Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Timothy Keller, New York: Dutton, 2014. Hardcover, 336 pages, $31.00.

There is a disturbing phenomenon we’ve seen in the last few years. It involves celebrity pastors and their fans. It seems these pastors can teach, write and do anything they want and their fans (let’s call them “fanboys”) will defend them come what may. Certainly Tim Keller is a celebrity pastor with a “fanboy” following as well – there are some for whom the man can do no wrong. This is a dangerous way to regard sinful and fallible fellow human beings. However, one can also react wrongly in a different direction. Seeing a few significant problems with a popular writer, one might be inclined to write off everything he says. It’s true that some “Christian” celebrities are so far gone that they should be written off – they are false teachers with a false gospel and believers need to be warned to stay clear, lest they be deceived and led astray. However, I am not convinced that Tim Keller falls into that category. Keller does have significant problems in some areas – I’m thinking especially of his openness to theistic evolution and his approach to apologetics – but he has also made helpful contributions in other areas.

This book on prayer is the best Keller book I’ve read so far. Prayer is a very easy thing to talk about (“I’ll pray for you”), but an incredibly challenging thing to practice, particularly to practice biblically. Keller breaks down the topic in an easily understandable fashion. Undoubtedly one of his greatest strengths is a clear writing style and Prayer fully capitalizes on that strength.

Keller wrote this book to help people understand and practice Christian prayer. His aim was to explain the theological, experiential, and methodological aspects of prayer and, for the most part, he succeeds. He draws from the Scriptures and especially from the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms (“the prayer book of the Bible”). However, he also builds on what previous generations have taught on prayer. This book is notable for its extensive use of Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Owen. Keller persuasively shows how these godly men of the past can still teach us today a lot about “experiencing awe and intimacy with God.”

I especially appreciated Keller’s emphasis on prayer as a response to God. In fact, he defines prayer as “personal communicative response to the knowledge of God” (45). Christians should listen to God speaking in his Word and then prayer is the appropriate response. One’s devotional life is therefore a two-way street. Though Keller himself doesn’t say this, I would compare it to the covenantal dialogue we experience in public worship: God speaks through his Word and his people respond. It’s the same with our private worship or devotions – it should have a conversational nature reflecting the relationship between you and your God.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is Keller’s critique of contemplative spirituality and mystical prayer practices. He is rather vocal in criticizing those who would teach that prayer involves emptying the mind and escaping rationality. So, for example, he spends several paragraphs explaining how Roman Catholic author Thomas Merton contradicts biblical teaching on prayer (see pages 56-59). Practices like mantras, centering prayer, the Jesus prayer, and lectio divina are all censured to varying degrees by Keller. That does leave one a bit baffled, however, by the fact that the church that Keller pastors, Redeemer PCA in New York City, promotes lectio divina on its website. In the past, Redeemer has also offered classes in some of the practices that Keller warns readers about in this book.

Somewhat related to the foregoing, I also want to express some concern about a quote from Martin Luther. Luther wrote a little booklet entitled “A Simple Way to Pray” and Keller makes extensive use of it. Near the end of chapter 6, he mentions that Luther taught that one should always be alert and ready to hear the preaching of the Holy Spirit within. While in prayer, a believer can suddenly be overcome by good and edifying thoughts and then he or she should sit still and listen. Says Luther, “The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.” This is one of the most abused quotes of Luther. Authors like Sarah Young (in Jesus Calling) appeal to this quote to justify their belief that God has spoken directly to them. Luther was often given to very expressive and over-the-top language and I doubt that he wished to provide support to the modern-day descendants of those Anabaptists who claimed to receive direct revelation from God. Instead, Luther’s intent was to remind Christians of how we may sometimes receive illumination from the Spirit – he can sometimes enlighten our hearts and bring us to breakthroughs in our understanding of spiritual truths found in God’s Word. I’m convinced Keller knows this too: “Luther is talking about the eyes of our hearts being enlightened (Eph. 1:18) so that things we know with the mind become more fully rooted in our beings’ core” (96). Yet, because this quote is so easily misunderstood with its use of the word “preach,” I wish that Keller had explained more clearly that this is not speaking of extra-biblical revelation and gives no support to those, like Sarah Young, who claim that the Lord spoke to them in their quiet time.

This volume will answer a lot of the common questions that believers have about prayer. For instance, there is a solid biblical answer for the oft-discussed question of whether we have the freedom to pray to our Lord Jesus or to the Holy Spirit (see pages 125-126).  Another question: does prayer change things? If so, how does that relate to God’s sovereignty? (see pages 223-225). Unfortunately, there are other questions that are left unanswered. I would have liked to see some discussion of the mechanics of corporate prayer. How exactly do we pray together in a group, such as in public worship? This is not often given much thought.

Keller’s book on prayer is both readable and practical. Readers will come away with a good grasp of how to improve this aspect of their personal devotions so that they grow in their relationship with God through our Saviour Jesus. Remarkably, I found this book at my local Chapters bookstore – not at a Christian outlet. Though I’m still not a big fan of the author, I’m thankful that Keller’s celebrity status helps books like this get out to a wider audience and I do hope that it will bless many readers with a better and more biblical understanding of this vitally important topic.