Is Tim Keller a Closet Niebuhrian? Post #2 on Center Church by David Fitch

images-4Warning Theological Post Ahead: This post is for theological readers. In other words, the post requires the reader to work through some background knowledge in theology to get the main points of the post. Proceed therefore at your own risk. 🙂

I greatly admire Tim Keller. And really admire his book Center Church. So please do not interpret the question that headlines this post as an attack on Dr Keller. Instead I want to parse two different ways of doing church: the Neo-Reformed (or Neo Puritan) approach of say The Gospel Coalition and Tim Keller, and the Neo-Anabaptist approach which I am seeking to articulate (with my co-author) in Prodigal Christianity. At issue is the manner in which the church engages culture and context. In distinguishing these two visions of church, I find it extremely helpful to distinguish the Niebuhrian posture versus an Anabaptist one (Yoderian) because I think it gets at the core differences between the ways many evangelicals understand church in the world (as well as progressive Christians but that’s a post for another day) and us Anabaptist types. So allow me do a little Niebuhrian analysis on Pastor Keller and his book on the church, Center Church.

Back in another post, I defined (this is a riff on Yoder’s famous article in this book) a Niebuhrian as someone:

1.) Who elevates Jesus to a principle so that now He is inapplicable to the political-social problems of organizing our life together in the world. Jesus is relegated to a personal aspiration, not socio cultural issues.

2.) Who defaults to the orders of creation/nature as the source of ethics, and in so doing elevates God the Creator over God the Son as the source of ethics. Over against this move, Yoder pleads that Jesus the Son cannot be separated from the Father. A true Trinitarian ethic starts with Jesus (ala Barth).

3.) Who sees (as a result of the above) culture as something inherently good, stable and monolithic (Vocation, orders of creation). The basic institutions of society are grounded (and set in stone) in creation. The church’s job is therefore to be the training ground for sending individuals into these institutions who already know what is best, bringing each order it to its true created intent. The church is NOT a dynamic culture-creating entity in itself in dialogue (and sometimes in subversion to) with surrounding culture by which culture is transformed.

Does Keller reflect Niebuhrian tendencies in Center Church? I offer two rather bold suggestions for consideration.

1.) Keller’s emphasis on the “the gospel” as justification by faith in his ecclesiology may produce the same effect as the Niebuhrian tendency to “elevate Jesus as a principle.” Of course Keller does not “elevate Jesus as a principle” in the same way as mainline liberal theology notoriously does. But I question whether Keller’s emphasis on salvation as justification does not produce a Niebuhrian effect by making Jesus a personal Savior separated from what He is doing socially in the world? (this is a contentious point I acknowledge). For Keller, the gospel begins with our sins being forgiven and then entering into a personal relation with God through Christ (bottom p. 35). Everything else extends out from here through every area of our lives. Every “element of ministry” into the world is the “result of the gospel.” Yet the social/material effects in society are not to be “mistaken for the gospel” (36-37). Nonetheless, “the gospel,” through its effectuation in the individual’s life spreads into very social area of our lives. This one gospel is “endlessly rich” in its application from the individual’s life to the world and so it can “handle being the one ‘main thing’ of a church.” (p.36).

I have argued here that evangelicalism has had a history of turning the individual’s justification in Christ into an idea and a ritual which makes Jesus into a principle for personal aspiration while detaching us and our salvation from what God is doing in the whole world.  Evangelicalism, for me, has too often defaulted into a version of Niebuhrianism in this way.

Keller I think is valiantly trying to deNiebuhrianize this version of the gospel (for which I applaud him!!). But I wonder if he is successful? I side with McKnight and NT Wright and others who proclaim that the gospel is the announcement that God in Christ has become King and is bringing in His Kingdom. When we as individuals enter into that Kingdom, we are truly justified (as Keller describes), but we cannot be justified separate from what God is doing to reconcile the whole world to Himself (the Kingdom). If the gospel is in effect announcing that “Jesus is Lord” of the whole world, it is hard to separate His person and work, and my personal participation in that, from the social realities He is ruling and bringing under His rule (1 Cor 15:25). For me, the Wright/McKnight explanations of the gospel are truer (in a more comprehensive sense) to the whole New Testament and more readily avoid the danger of Niebuhrianism. As such, I fear Keller’s Center Church can lead us into the same old mistakes of evangelicalism. What do you think?

2.) Keller, in a Niebuhrian way, sees the church primarily as a place where individuals are nurtured in their faith and then trained/sent out to out into the structures of society. This reveals, it seems, a Niebuhrian posture of cultural engagement. As Keller states:

“Using the concept of sphere sovereignty, it is best to think of the organized church’s primary function as evangelizing and equipping people to be disciples and then sending the “organic church”  – Christians at work in the world – to engage culture, do justice, and restore God’s shalom.”p. 268.

In distinguishing organized church from organic, Keller is following the Kuyperian logic that sees sectors of society as under the rule of sphere sovereignty, God’s created orders (separate from the church). Therefore individuals can go out into the world to bring shalom to the orders of government, education, art, family, neighborhood separate from the church (see p. 240 where Keller talks about Kuyper’s construal of organic versus organized church). This does not have to be, but it appears to be a default habit that we often fall into (again see my post here for explanation).

This combination, of the church sending individuals into culture and sphere sovereignty, leads to Niebuhrian issues no. 2 and 3 listed above. Because of these 2 processes, Niebuhrians have often minimalized how culture institutions can be in rebellion against God (Wink and Yoder  would talk about this in terms of “the powers and principalities”). We send individuals into society missing how we might be sending them into participating in evil. We presume vocations and structures can all be redeemed as are. By mis-recognizing the times when gov’t, education, culture have turned evil, by not having the option to withdraw entirely as an act of resistance, we mis-send individuals to be complicit with the evil structures. This is the danger implicit, if not explicit, in Kuyperian forms of church/culture relation.  My question is, does Keller’s Center Church commitment to the organization versus organic church differentiation, leave his church open to these errors?

These two ideas  – sphere sovereignty and the church as a training institution for sending individuals into culture– also encourage the church to take a posture of presumption over society.  In essence, the Center Church, due to its presumption to read off creation what society’s institutions should look like, subliminally presumes to know what is best for society. It is a posture of presumption. But is this the way God works? I suggest “no.” God is sovereign yes, and through Jesus by the Spirit He is bringing in the Kingdom for the whole world. But the current education institutions may not be what God has in mind (or then again they might be!). God might indeed be at work bringing in something completely new (through the church this has certainly happened in the past, including hospitals, community education, town hall meeting local democracy etc etc). We cannot tell ahead of time what God is doing to renew society. Instead we are to live as communities of the King humbly, incarnationally giving birth to what he would do in and among us giving witness to what God is doing by His work in and among us and then into the world. To me it seems Pastor Keller’s Center Church errs on being too presumptive as to what the redeemed world might look like. And so his extensive plan for the cities entitled “the gospel ecosystem” (371-377) seems a bit ambitious for a humble Anabaptist like me. What do you think? Am I too worried here about the church and its power?

Often (not always) creation and sphere sovereignty (we appeal to creation/inherent logic of society to work for justice) have been the terms by which evangelicals have sought to change in the world. We end up negating that Jesus is Lord bringing in His Kingdom via the Spirit in and through the church as a social entity. But the gospel is Jesus is Lord and He is the one bringing in renewal of all things.

In Summary

In summary, I admire Tim Keller’s book. He has written a comprehensive ecclesiology for the Neo-Reformed/NeoPuritian evangelical movement. It is a significant accomplishment and an advancement for the cause of evangelical ecclesiology. It is compelling in that he tries valiantly to de-Niebuhrianize the evangelical ecclesiology/culture relation. My questions are:

  • Does Keller avoid sequestering Jesus into a personal Savior secluding him from what He is doing in the world?
  • Does Keller avoid the Niebuhrian posture of presumption over the world?
  • The Niebuhrian approach to church/culture is an approach decidedly comfortable in Christendom where the church can presume upon the respect and authority given it in a given culture. The Yoderian approach is decidedly more comfortable in post-Christendom where we can no longer presume upon such respect and authority,. The Yoderian posture is inherently the posture of a church in Mission. Does Keller’s vision of Center Church sufficiently de-Niebuhrianized evangelical church  for the challenges we face?

What do you think?

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