Tim Keller’s Idea of Apologetics and Gospel Presentation


According to Tim Keller of Christ Redeemer PCA in NY, Christians need to be able to give a rational justification for faith. Presumably, merely giving the gospel is not enough. Unbelievers apparently need to be able to assess these reasons for faith so that they can find in them a compelling case for becoming a Christian. Keller says the “just believe” statement isn’t going to cut it, especially today. Secondly, says Keller, the Christian story must be presented “in a way that addresses the things that people most want for their lives.” I must confess that I have no idea what is happening in the PCA church, especially now that I have left it, but I can say that Keller’s remarks are far from being consistent with reformed thinking on both the cause of faith and the manner in which the gospel is framed up to the unbelieving world. The statements are more than a little disturbing.

As long as I can remember, I have always had an intellectual proclivity to be fascinated with the complex. As a believer, this proclivity has produced a keen interest in philosophy and apologetics. While my doctorate is in systematics, with a project in hermeneutics, I have logged several hours in apologetics. However, a few years ago I began to question my behavior in this area and to reevaluate my views. As a result, I have changed my views on philosophy and apologetics a great deal. I still believe it is good to challenge unbelieving thinking when it comes up. However, that challenge must remain faithful to the text of Scripture. In other words, faith can never be surrendered for the sake of making Christian belief make sense to a mind that the bible says is darkened, without understanding, held captive by Satan to do his desires, and that is naturally hostile to God. The question that Keller’s article raises immediately concerns the possibility of making the Christian faith actually make rational sense to an unbeliever. Is such an endeavor even possible? Secondly, is this what Scripture teaches? Moreover, is this approach the model we have in Scripture of Jesus and the Apostles? The next question concerns Keller’s idea of how we should give the gospel. Should we give the gospel in such a way that it appeals to the wants and desires of an unbelieving heart? Is that how conversion and regeneration work? I have thought for some time that Tim Keller’s views on an old earth should have him removed from the PCA as an ordained elder. Having read his views on apologetics and gospel presentation, I am quite sure he is out of step with the WCF on both issues. The text of all texts on the Christian’s duty is 1 Peter 3:15, which says,

 
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. [1]
The term “make a defense” is the Greek word ἀπολογία, which can be translated “defend, make a defense, or give an answer or answer.” Many apologists, so-called, contend that the picture here is one of a court room where a defense attorney defends his client before a court. Some aver that Peter had Socrates’ great defense in mind when he wrote his letter. These views are very problematic give Peter’s audience. It is clear, based on the context that Peter is concerned with how these believers reply or answer or respond to their opponents. The Christian group was under severe pressure to defect from its values and beliefs and return to those of the greater culture. The tactics were so great that actual physical threat may very well have been imminent. Peter’s goal was to shore up the courage and faith of the group by providing them with encouragement and giving them clear instructions on how to deal with the pressure. Remain focused on Christ as the center of your purpose. Set Him apart in your heart and recall who you are in Him. This was the first bit of encouragement.


The main consideration for how to understand Peter pertains to his audience. Peter is writing to the everyday common believer. He is not writing to philosophers or even theologians. He is writing to mostly converted Gentiles throughout what is known as modern day Turkey. It is true that biblical apologetics is about defending one’s personal faith in, and commitment to Christ. First, Peter is concerned about the state of the believers. They are clearly tempted to fear. Perhaps some are tempted to defect. Peter encourages his audience by telling them if they suffer for righteousness sake, they are blessed, which we should understand as honored. It is an honorable thing for the Christian group to suffer for the sake of God. These outsiders are making demands of the Christian group because the group has abandoned the values of the larger group, the culture in exchange for the values of Christianity. The values of Christianity are always set over against those of the world. The world feels threatened by Christian values. This holds true even in modern American culture where Christianity is often categorized with radical Islamic terrorists. It is very important for the believer and especially the elder and pastors to keep this in mind.
Peter instructs the believers to always be in a state of readiness to answer anyone who demands a reason for the hope that is you. Some apologists mistakenly think Peter has rationality, or logic in mind when he uses the word λόγος here. That view has little to commend it since this word is used in other places to merely convey the idea of cause. In Acts 10:29 Luke uses it in Peter’s question to Cornelius concern the ‘reason’ he sent for him. Jesus uses it to say that for this reason a man may divorce his wife in Mt. 5:32. It would be a grave exegetical error to argue that Peter is thinking of formal logic and reason in the philosophical sense in his instructions to these believers. These individuals spend their entire day, six days a week working to survive. They have little time to consult large volumes of philosophy in order to understand the sophisticated complexities of human reason. This could not possibly have been what Peter was thinking when he penned these words. On the one hand Peter wanted to remind the Christian group of their honor involved in suffering for righteousness sake. Honor was extremely important in the Greco-Roman culture. Secondly, he also wanted to ensure the believer did not respond with evil motivations, getting even for the attacks. Often times, when our faith is challenged, we tend to respond with harshness. We may be tempted to return insult for insult. This is not in keeping with the values of honorable behavior within the Christian group. Peter was right to be concerned with this because this is precisely how the challenge-riposte game of Greco-Roman culture worked. A challenge must be put down, so to speak or you lose honor. However, the Christian version of challenge-riposte was remarkably different as is so often the case with Christian versions of cultural practice. To maintain honor in the Christian group, one had to provide a very specific kind of response. It has to be a response of gentleness and respect. Secondly, your life had to support the idea that you were committed to the values of the Christian group. If you did these things, your riposte, your reply, your answer, your defense, you apologetic would be honorable before God and you would leave your accusers without any valid criticism to make of you. Finally, this response really puts to shame those who accuse you, or make demands of you. Remember, it is no accident that Peter points to the honor involved in suffering for righteousness sake, or to the shame coming on the accusers when your response to these attacks and demands is in accord with the values of the Christian group.

With this in mind, we can evaluate Keller’s ideas on the Christian duty to provide a justification for faith and his thought on how we should share the gospel with unbelievers. The first problem is that of justification. What justifies one thing to a believer does not ipso fact justify it to an unbeliever. For example, I am justified in believing in miracles because the Bible records lots of them. The unbeliever would say just because the Bible records lots of miracles does not mean they literally took place. In order for the unbeliever to justify belief in miracles, they require something more than the Bible. It is precisely here that we depart from the idea of justification. Any attempt on our part to go along with this “type” of reasoning would be an act of disloyalty to God and to the Christian group. We bring dishonor on ourselves when we engage in such behavior. The challenge from the unbeliever is even greater here. The unbeliever will demand that you justify your faith in Scripture without referring to Scripture. The unbeliever refuses to admit they have faith in anything. To them, convictions about science and history are not convictions based on faith. When it comes to justification for faith itself, the unbeliever and believer have no common ground upon which to dialogue. The only common ground believers have with unbelievers is the internal revelation of God upon the unbelieving conscience. They know God exists. They refuse to admit that the kind of God Scripture reveals exists. They hate that God because He convicts them of their sin. He demands things of them and threatens their autonomy.

Finally, should we try to figure out the needs, desires, and goals of unbelievers so that we can present the gospel to them in a way that it appears to meet those needs, desires, and goals? Are the needs, desires, and goals of unbelievers already sanctified? Do their goals exists to glorify God? When Paul said I must die, be crucified with Christ, mortify these very needs, goals, and desires, what did he mean? Yet Keller says we use them as part of our gospel presentation? This sounds much like the gospel that Jesus is your life coach, He will make you a better husband, father, son, daughter, mother, employee, and hence more successful and therefore life will be so much more fulfilling. Is this the gospel? Isn’t this the very thing reformed thinkers have been repulsed by and concerned to rebuke for the last several years?The simple gospel of Christ crucified is what changes the world. Clifford McManis writes,
“Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most potent, lasting, penetrating, life-changing, liberating thing a Christian can articulate to any unbeliever, under any circumstances.”[2]
God chose the base of this world to use a foolish method to deliver a foolish and offensive message to redeem humans so that no one could boast. If you don’t believe that, read 1 Cor. 1:18-31 very slowly several times. Let Paul’s words in that periscope sink in. Then read Romans 1 and 3 again so that you may understand that justification for faith to someone who hates God and is opposed to the faith by nature is impossible. The only way for a person to truly justify faith in Christ is through the miracle of regeneration. Unbelievers will never reason their way to faith in Christ. It is a miraculous and gracious gift of God that is beyond their reach.



[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Pe 3:15.
[2] Clifford McManis, Biblical Apologetics (n.p.: Xlibris Corporation, 2012), 91.

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