Remembering Timothy Keller
N. Gray Sutanto
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.
The year was 2016, and Covenant City Church just had its first Sunday service in the center of the capital city of Indonesia. We began with a core team of about twenty locals, who had been regularly attending bible studies led by our pastoral team. If you asked anyone in that core team what led them to Reformed theology, most of them would respond with one voice: the writings and preaching of Timothy Keller.
Tim Keller was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on September 23rd, 1950. He became a Christian in 1970, while he was a student at Bucknell University. He was active in InterVarsity ministry, and immediately took up the work of evangelism to his fellow students. He enrolled in Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1972, where he studied under professors like Meredith Kline, Roger Nicole, and Richard Lovelace. By the time he graduated in 1975, he was married to Kathy Kristy, and accepted a pastoral call at West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia, where he would be a pastor for the next nine years. During this time, they had three sons, David in 1978, Michael in 1980, and Jonathan in 1983. Keller then completed a D. Min from Westminster Theological Seminary, focusing on the importance of the diaconate and ministries of mercy. Completing that work led him to teach practical theology in varying capacities at Westminster, synthesizing the culturally-engaged yet doctrinally grounded theology that he found there in the likes of Harvie Conn, Edmund Clowney, and Sinclair Ferguson, and, behind them, Cornelius Van Til and John Murray. He moved to New York City in 1989, where he then planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
When we had our first service back in 2016, I had not heard or read anything Keller had produced, but since April 2017, Tim Keller’s sermons and writings have become among the most influential for my own life and ministry. The turning point for me was Kuyper Conference 2017 at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Critics of Keller have picked out that conference as one of the indicators that Keller’s winsome approach to evangelism and apologetics was losing sway. That conference, however, was the moment that my pre-conceptions of Keller were challenged decisively. I was scheduled to deliver a paper for the conference, and, at the time, I still believed that Keller was a controversial figure, so I was merely curious about what he might say. Keller was to receive and deliver the Kuyper prize award lecture, but, famously, that award was rescinded due to a backlash from the Princeton seminary communities, due to Keller’s ecclesial standing and confessional views on gender and sexuality. Keller, due to my amazement, delivered the lecture anyway – an incisive theological reflection on Lesslie Newbigin, and without bitterness or defensiveness. It was also the most well-attended Kuyper prize lecture at Princeton Seminary, with a venue change and an overflow room to accommodate the many visitors. After the event, a line of questioners followed – admirers and critics alike – waiting to speak with Keller. Keller did not leave until he had spoken with and listened to every single one of those in line, late into the night. As I was observing this and hearing some of his responses to much difficult questioning, it hit me: this was not a celebrity or someone peddling watered down answers for itchy ears – this was a pastor.
That event turned me around. Over the next few years, I was leaving for church ministry in Jakarta, Indonesia, I finally picked up a Keller book for the first time. I read Preaching and found there some of the most helpful insights on penetrating to the hearts of listeners that remained uncompromisingly orthodox; his Making Sense of God was a powerful apologetic that shows how may modern ideals raised as alternatives to Christianity were really borrowing assumptions from the Christian faith, and I found Center Church very clear in its critique of transformationalism while invaluable on how best to engage global cities. He challenged misconceptions on Christianity’s relation to race and justice, while continued to hold on to traditioned understandings of sex and gender. He communicated key tenets of Reformed theology in an accessible, but not simplistic way that modeled for me to do the same in those years of pastoral ministry. He showed why the text was to be believed, and never merely asserted. I listened to his sermons regularly, and I concluded that many of the usual criticisms I had heard before were untrue. His winsome approach and accessible preaching modeled for me an evangelist’s heart and a robust apologetic.
Keller had been critiqued for offering a “third way”, as if he were merely negotiating between two pop extremes in a superficial manner. What he was really trying to get at was that the Christian faith – and its clear demands – are far too rich to be captured by our limited perspectives and ideologies. It was communicating that God’s revelation is too all-encompassing, and far too complex, to be reducible to any single culture or program. To use Johan Bavinck’s term, a full-orbed Christian worldview is not reducible to our limited world visions, or, to appeal to the older Herman Bavinck, our culturally-conditioned receptions of Christianity are not co-extensive with the transcendent kingdom of God.
Keller’s approach was invaluable for our work at Covenant City Church in Jakarta. The relationship between native-Indonesians and Chinese Indonesians is filled with racial strife due to the tumultuous history between these two groups. Native Indonesians and non-Chinese attendees that had attended one of the many Chinese evangelical churches in Jakarta were often punctured by the thought: why did so-called positions from the ‘Christian worldview’ conveniently line up with Chinese values? When I was eventually part of this plant within the City-to-City church planting network in Asia, we knew we needed to communicate a different approach: Christianity transcends every culture and can organically meet different points of contact from each culture – as such, the Christian faith is neither Chinese or native-Indonesian – it was an entirely different way of life altogether. Though each of these cultures might have some formal similarities with the Christian faith, the Bible challenges both in different ways as well. If the West is becoming more hostile to Christianity, then Indonesia is no man’s land with its predominantly Islamic population. There was no majority Christian culture in our history, and hardly any hope that Christian cultural engagement might change the tenor of our culture. Yet, I would not minister any differently there than offering this sort of revelation-centric approach to apologetics and ministry that Keller envisioned.
My last phone call conversation with Tim was on a late Sunday night – it was a rare occurrence, to be sure, so I had thought that perhaps he wanted to speak about something urgent. I was amazed that he wanted to talk about how to communicate a Christian theory of truth to a twelve-year old. He called from Bethesda, Maryland, where he was receiving treatment. He was always thinking about how to talk about Jesus well. Tim was an evangelist to the very end.