Pastor Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God helped shore up my wife’s faith when she scrutinized Christianity in high school. The Meaning of Marriage, another well-known book by the late Tim Keller, sits well-worn on my shelf. His teaching affected me and millions of others. A humble, acute, well-spoken, prodigious thinker and pastor, Tim Keller left behind a shining legacy to God’s glory.
Dr. Jim Denison writes, “Dr. Keller ended his earthly life as he lived it: with quiet dignity, deep and abiding faith, and generous compassion for those around him. From the time he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in 2020, he was forthright about the challenges he faced and his desire to serve Christ in this season of his life.”
Glowing obituaries about this influential, orthodox pastor who taught biblical sexuality and strongly critiqued secular society were written in none other than the New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, among others.
How did Tim Keller establish such a presence?
Keller was brilliant by any account, but he did not start as a superstar pastor, unlike some megachurch leaders. Instead, he pastored a small church of mostly uneducated members for nearly a decade, preaching three unique sermons weekly. By the time he took over at Redeemer Presbyterian, he was well-versed in the gift of pastoring and preaching.
He was forty years old when he planted Redeemer in the heart of Manhattan, New York. His first book, The Reason for God, became a New York Times bestseller.
Keller broke the mold of most pastors by citing his sources and pointing to books, authors, and movies as inspiration in sermons. How did God form such a man, so faithful to biblical truth yet so widely read as to be considered cultured and modern? Who were his greatest influences?
Collin Hansen’s account Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation attempts to answer that. The book spans Keller’s lifetime, but, at the start, Hansen tells us that in honor of Keller’s unfailing meekness, he would focus less on Keller’s life story and more on whom he drew inspiration from.
Timothy Keller is a unique biography
Hansen takes great detail in exploring the formation of Keller’s ideas and approach to ministry. Hansen leaves no stone unturned, looking to commentary series, preachers, professors, fiction, nonfiction, art, friendships, experience, and everything in between. He cites R. C. Sproul, C. S. Lewis, Søren Kierkegaard, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, all manner of Puritans and reformers, Kathy Keller (Tim’s wife), and many more voices.
Keller put it best: “If you cut a person—a good minister, for example—like a tree, there should be a lot of rings. That gives his minister his own distinctive voice and perhaps really helps him listen to what God is calling him to be as a minister.” Hansen confirms that “Keller’s originality comes in his synthesis, how he pulls the sources together for unexpected insights.”
A warning and a recommendation
Hansen’s unique biographical approach allows spirituality and ideas to come into focus, but it can also make for choppy reading. Sometimes, I had a hard time following the thread of Keller’s life. The chapters would progress semi-linearly but also focus on a subject, like preaching or Keller’s love of J. R. R. Tolkien. Hansen sometimes organizes by ideas, sometimes by thinkers, and other times chronologically.
This unique approach to a biography has the strength of imbuing us with Keller’s thinking but runs the risk of losing the man: What were his dreams? His temptations? His struggles with his family? Hansen mentions some of these things, but they’re in the background. That’s the point, but readers need to know they’re not getting into a traditional biography.
Hansen’s book will be particularly uplifting to young pastors and ministers. Timothy Keller dives into the basis of Keller’s urban yet orthodox teaching and the gospel-centered success of Redeemer. It will greatly aid any Christian leader wrestling with evangelism strategies, missiology, and good preaching practices.
As our culture becomes more secular and divided, Keller’s life and thought will become more important as an example to emulate. Keller’s adoption of the “middle church”—carving out a place in theology and teaching between fundamentalism and liberalism—has set the foundation for evangelism. His ability to navigate politics and orthodox biblical interpretation while engaging the secular world will leave a resounding example for the modern Christian.
Tim Keller’s legacy and leadership
A New York Times bestselling author, a megachurch pastor, a prolific preacher, and a world-renowned speaker, Keller did not lose sight of his own weakness and God’s greatness.
Hansen outlines Keller’s struggle to manage and say no, as well as his “sixty to seventy-hour work week” while having small children at home. While his spiritual and intellectual life is a key part of understanding a great and humble hero of the faith, it feels like half the story. I found myself wanting to know more about the life of one like Keller. What were his flaws? What drove him?
It’s clear to me that good influences are not enough. Plenty of leaders, like Mark Driscoll and Ravi Zacharius, were well-read, well-spoken, and likely even had similar sources of inspiration. Yet this did not prevent their egregious breaches of character.
So how did Keller remain so true to Christ in spite of his relative fame and success?
The answer is Christ himself, of course.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation and would highly recommend it, I also look forward to the book that will tell his full story, replete with God’s glorification, so that I can, in some small way through print, learn to follow Keller as he followed Christ.
Notable quotes from Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation
“Horizontal and vertical dimensions of the faith must be integrated. The mainline can’t just care about social problems. And evangelicals can’t just care about spiritual problems. Justification must lead to justice.”
“Keller learned from Lloyd-Jones never to assume everyone is a Christian, and never assume Christians no longer need the gospel.”
“You’re not a Christian because you obey the will of God, Keller explained. You’re a Christian because you obey the will of God for the right reasons. You love God because he loved you first. The influence of Jonathan Edwards helped Keller escape a mode of preaching that simply explained the text, gave an application, and exhorted Christians to live a certain way with God’s help. The influence of Edwards, combined with [Edmund] Clowney, taught Keller to hold up Jesus as faithful where we have failed.”
“Coming from the eclectic theological environments of InterVarsity and Gorden-Conwell, Keller marveled at his little church’s theological unity around the Westminster Confession of Faith.”
“Keller needed to unlearn much of his academic training to succeed at this cross-cultural experience. His InterVaristy Buble studies flopped because many of the members didn’t feel comfortable reading aloud.”
“Tim Keller didn’t take any courses in systematic theology until his second year. But he had already begun to warm toward Reformed theology in conversations with his friend Kathy Kristy [later Tim’s wife]. . . . At one point she said to Tim, ‘If I wasn’t a Calvinist, I would be afraid to get out of bed in the morning’ As he observed Kathy’s outlook and life, he began to move toward embracing Calvinism.”