Tag Archives: Tim Keller

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

Keller Prayer

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.


Tim Keller on Prayer Directly to Jesus

Tim Keller

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a Tim Keller “fanboy.”  He has his devotees — those for whom the man can say and do no wrong.  I have been critical about Keller’s approach to apologetics and his views on creation, especially his openness to theistic evolution.  However, I recognize that Keller is helpful in some areas.  I recently started reading his book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.  I’m about half-way through and, so far, I am impressed.  As an example, in chapter 9, he deals with the question:  “Are we to pray only to the Father and not to the Son or to the Spirit?”  Here’s his answer:

Jesus invites his disciples to pray to him (John 14:13-14, Matt. 11:28).  Nevertheless, Jesus also taught his disciples to pray to our Father, and while we are not bound to the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer, that initial direction must be taken seriously.  Only three times after Jesus’ ascension — in the rest of the New Testament — is prayer addressed directly to Jesus.  In the vast majority of cases, prayer is addressed to the Father.  While it is not at all improper to address the Son or the Spirit, ordinarily prayer will be addressed to the Father with gratitude to the Son and dependence on the Spirit.  Packer uses an interesting rule of thumb.  “I pray to the Father through the mediation of the Son and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.  I may speak also to the Son and the Spirit directly when this is appropriate: that is, when I am praying about something that Scripture specified as the direct concern of either.” (125-126)

In other words, our normal practice will be to pray to God as Father, but we have the freedom to address each of the persons of the Trinity as well.  To forbid such a thing goes beyond what Scripture teaches.  I fully agree — you can read more here.


New Article Added

Last year, I was asked to write a critique of Tim Keller’s apologetical method for a Dutch magazine.  I’d been reflecting on this for a number of years, but for various reasons didn’t write much about it, except on my blog.  But since I was asked and there was an interest, I decided to do it.  The article was written in English and then later translated into Dutch.  Unfortunately, it was never published in the magazine for which it was originally written.  The editors did not agree with my evaluation.  However, Reformed Perspective decided to publish the original English version and, after being badgered by a couple of people, I’m now making it available here.   If you’d like to learn more about Reformed, presuppositional apologetics, you should find this book helpful.  


Neue Ressource in Deutsch — New Resource in German

Thanks to some friends in Europe, my article on Tim Keller’s apologetical method has been translated into German.  You can find it here.