Engaging Tim Keller’s Politically-Subtle, Seeker Sensitive Movement

coin telescope in a viewing deck

In November, Christ Over All published a series of article on evangelicalism and its history over the last century. If you didn’t see those articles, I would encourage you to check them out. They will give you a solid introduction to the key doctrines, debate, and debaters over the last one hundred years. This month, in an encore piece, we have just published a two-part consideration of Tim Keller and his impact on evangelicalism.

In many ways, I am thankful for Keller’s ministry, his heart for evangelism, and his faithfulness to the Lord. On occasion I have cited his works on this cite, and I recommended this evergreen article on church size dynamics to some men today. At the same time, Keller’s method of ministry bears careful observation. And in these two pieces, you get a sense of how Keller’s Third Way-ism has negatively impacted evangelicals. In what follows, I offer the concluding paragraphs of Mark DeVine’s analysis. Take a look and then go back and read his full argument here and here.

A Politically-Subtle, Seeker Sensitive Movement 

Between 1994 and 2006 Reformed theologian David Wells published four volumes that track and analyze how church growth movements, despite their formal assent to orthodox, evangelical doctrinal statements, have nevertheless compromised the faith. Unfortunately, Keller’s Third Way, despite its stated determination not to do so, has often done just this, producing terrible ethical fruit.

What most distinguishes the Keller-led Reformed resurgence from the other major church growth movements among evangelicals over the last half century? Is it theology, or something else? The “seeker,” “church growth,” and “purpose-driven life” movements targeted predominantly white suburban communities. Comparatively, the Keller movement aimed to reach the more ethnically diverse blue communities located in urban centers. Each movement labored to remove as many stumbling blocks to the gospel in order the reach their respective targeted communities.

Measured in buildings, bucks, and bodies, each movement was successful, at least for a time. Yet, looking over the last twenty years, it becomes clear that Keller-movement Evangelicals built platforms, brands, and messages in order to be found winsome by the blue communities they sought to reach. As with the old-line liberalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher, exquisite sensitivity to target audiences will shape the message delivered far more than its deliverers intended. Only in this case, winsomeness has elicited complaints and thoughtful retractions from Reformed evangelicals who once flew the Keller flag. All of this suggests that once again, the gospel once has suffered distortion in the otherwise laudable quest to avoid unnecessary violation of unbelievers’ sensibilities.

Such a result of Keller’s Third Way is disheartening, but not surprising. The message of the cross is foolishness to the world, and yet it is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18–25). Doctrinally sound evangelicals have too often been enticed to package the product of the gospel in cellophane for the consumer, yet wisdom, or its opposite, is proven by her children. Over the last decade, many children of Tim Keller’s Third Way have imagined that formal adherence to an orthodox confession is sufficient to protect the gospel message from distortion. But it’s not.

As the seeker-senstive and purpose-driven movements of the 1980s taught us, branding and ongoing messaging exert powerful influence on how that confession is received. And now the same is being seen with Keller’s politically-subtle, blue-community-sensitive seeker model. In each of these iterations, the fruit of these sincere efforts to advance the gospel have found themselves making friends with the world at the expense of the intrinsically offensive gospel that the world so desperately needs.

May the Lord help us to see this clearly, and to walk in his light accordingly.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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Picturing the Word without Caricaturing the Text: Fifteen Statements on Inerrancy and Interpretation

eduardo-pastor-pDAipmK6eRg-unsplashIn his six-volume opus, God, Revelation, and Authority, Carl F. H. Henry unpacks 15 Propositions about Revelation. These propositions include statements related to the source, nature, and purpose of God’s speech. And for anyone interested wrestling with the theological debates surrounding God’s Word and its inerrancy, this would be an excellent, if lengthy, place to begin. Henry was one of the chief architects of neo-evangelicalism and a defender of biblical inerrancy. He with 300 others authored the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978 and his enduring legacy includes not only his books on theology but his influence on other theologians. 

As noted by Kevin Vanhoozer, Henry was a part of evangelicalism’s “greatest generation,” a spin on the nickname given to the Post WWII generation (The Basics of the Faith). And in that generation, Henry and others argued against liberalism’s rejection of the Bible and for a view of the Bible that was infallibly true in “all matters upon which it touches.” This statement on inerrancy is part of the legacy that Henry and others passed on, but it also has been a legacy regularly contested.

As we should expect, the Word of God will always be questioned. “Did God really say?” is not a query left in the Garden of Eden. It is a question that persists at all times and in all fallen hearts. Thus, it is not surprising that today, those within evangelicalism and those without have raised questions about biblical inerrancy. In fact, to get a good lay of the land, just consider the book, Five Views on Biblical InerrancyIn that volume, you find two voices championing inerrancy, albeit with different terms (Albert Mohler and Kevin Vanhoozer), two voices denying inerrancy (John Franke and Peter Enns), and one voice basically affirming the contents of the Chicago Statement without giving it his international endorsement (Michael Bird).

From that volume, it is clear that the doctrine of inerrancy is not clearly understood today. That is, many who reject it fail to appreciate the nuance offered in the 1978 statement. And those who affirm it seek to provide clarity on what inerrancy is and is not. To that end, I think Kevin Vanhoozer is the most helpful. And in another of his books, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, he lists—although by authorial intent, as far as I can tell—15 Propositions on Scripture that clarify what biblical inerrancy is and is not. Continue reading

For His Name’s Sake: Why the Church Must Do More Than Local Evangelism

worldThere is a popular argument that persists among American evangelicals that prioritizes domestic evangelism over against international missions. Often it is put in the form of a handful of questions:

  • “Why should we spend our time reaching the lost overseas when there are so many lost in our community?”
  • Or, “Why spend our money on foreign missions when there are millions nearby who need to hear the gospel?”
  • Or, “Wouldn’t it be more effective to focus on the lost here?”

On the surface such an argument may sound plausible, even effectively evangelistic. It certainly appeals to the pragmatic. But examined by the Scriptures, it will not hold. For Scripture does not simply speak of evangelism in commercial terms—finding the fastest way to sell the gospel to the most number of people. Regularly, it speaks of the advance of the kingdom crossing boundaries, reaching nations, and extending the glory of God to the ends of the earth. In fact, the glory of God depends not only on the vastness of redemption, but its variety. Therefore, for those who care about God’s glory should also care deeply about reaching the nations.

Continue reading

Postmodernism and Evangelical Thought (4): A Wise and Selective Appropriation

After surveying many of the key figures and concepts that make up postmodern thought, the question becomes: Is postmodernism salubrious or toxic for evangelical theology?

The answer, not surprisingly, differs depending on who is speaking.  In what follows, I will list three postures to take towards postmodernism.  In today’s evangelicalism, some like Stanley Grenz, John Franke, and Roger Olson have gladly appropriated postmodern thought, others like Douglas Geivett and Scott Smith have rejected it. Still others, most sensibly, have selectively and wisely incorporated some but not all aspects of postmodernism.  We will consider these in turn as they explain how postmodernism has impacted evangelical theology. Continue reading

Who Is Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher?

Who is Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher? (a) A nineteenth century German theologian?  (b) A pietistic pastor with a funny name?  (c) The father of liberal theology? (d) Or the unknown philosopher whose views on religious experience have shaped much of evangelical theology?

How about (e) All of the above?  Amazingly, Schleiermacher’s approach to theology has both influenced two hundred years of liberal theology and is still influencing evangelical thought more than two-centuries later.  While most who know his name associate him with liberalism, many who do not know him are unaware at how much his brand of Christianity is being reproduced in Christendom today. For that reason, the question “Who is Friedrich Schleiermacher?” is of vital importance today.

The influence of this nineteenth-century German theologian on contemporary theology can hardly be overestimated.  Although most Christians have never heard of Schleiermacher, his ideas about religion in general and Christianity in particular have trickled down to them through the theological education of their pastors, denomination leaders, favorite religious authors and college teachers.  His influence is subtle but persuasive in Western Christianity.  He is to Christian theology what Newton is to physics, what Freud is to psychology and what Darwin is to biology.  That is to say, he may be the absolute authority, but he was the trailblazer and trendsetter, the one thinker subsequent theologians cannot ignore (Roger Olson and Stanley Grenz, 20th-Century Theology: God & The World in a Transitional Age [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992], 39).

Olson and Grenz’s appraisal needs qualification but is broadly correct.  Just as Freud and Darwin have set the pace for certain kinds of (secular) psychology and biology, so Schleiermacher has blazed a trail for liberal theology–the theology usually associated with mainline denominations.  However, as in the case of psychology and biology, the conservative world has not been unaffected.  Where Christian psychologists and biologists must interact with the secular or evolutionary theories of the day, so conservative theologians must interact with the liberal views that arose from Schleiermacher.

Yet, another qualification is needed.  Schleiermacher’s theology is not just “out there.”  His feelings-based, experiential form of religion has permeated conservative evangelicalism.  Even in churches that confessionally affirm the inerrancy of the Bible and the objective work of salvation, many live by their feelings.  They look for the next word from God to them, the next experience.  Instead of walking by faith that is grounded in God’s specific promises, they walk with an ambiguous God conscience and God dependence.

Just listen to the banter of Christian radio.  What Matt Papa has recently critiqued in his thoughtful series of posts on CCM is nothing but Schleiermacherianism (I know, that is mouthful). But it is true.  On the other side of the “Battle for the Bible”– a battle that continues today–most evangelicals are uninformed about the pernicious battle for the Christian mind.

Instead of thinking diligently about matters of faith (2 Tim 2:7) and loving God with all their mind (Mark 12:29-30), too many simply imbibe a kind of Christianity that is replete with appeals for emotion, ethical living, imitations of Christ, and God-dependence.  Because ‘God,’ ‘Scripture,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘faith,’ and other buzz words are employed, many evangelicals think they are being biblical and growing in grace.  And praise God, many are; but many more may be influenced by the spirit of Schleiermacher more than the Spirit of Christ. Over the next few days we will consider who this man is, and how an awareness of his theology may serve evangelicals by

The goal is not to commend his theology or his method, but to show how his theological method is similar to what passes as standard fare among many evangelicals today.  My hope is to introduce this man and his theology, so that we will be better able to see the way his kind rationalistic Romanticism has infected the church today.  I fear that unless we learn to see this hyper-subjective brand of Christianity, there will be many for whom the gospel will implode–theology will become anthropology.  This happened in the past with classical liberalism, and it could again happen among evangelicals–especially among those who are emphasizing the personal, subjective experience over the sovereign act of God in salvation.

Of course, we need both, but in our day, the pendulum needs to swing back toward the objective work of Christ.  I believe getting to know Friedrich Schleiermacher may be the historical figure to help us see the far-reaching dangers of experience-based Christianity.  And hopefully, it will bring us back towards the unmistakably God-centered gospel where the Triune God is the Lord of salvation (Jonah 2:9).

This week, I will be running a series of posts on Schleiermacher–his life, theology, and its impact on evangelicals today.  Hope you will tune in.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Where Do Leaders Come From?

Russell Moore, dean of Southern Seminary, provides an encouraging and evangelistic reminder that the most energetic saints may not even be saved today.  He writes,

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.

Moore’s essay points to the larger state of things in Christianity, and the way we can easily get discouraged when we evaluate “how things are going.”  His response is salutary.  When we feel discouraged our nation, our city, or our college, we should remember what Carl F. H. Henry said to him when he asked the late evangelical leader if he had hope for the future. Henry replied, ““Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”

The same is true for local churches and their pastors. While we may often think that we need to find the next nursery director, Sunday School superintendent, or missions director from within the pews, it is just as likely that this Sunday they will be shuffling home after waking up in a Hooter’s parking lot.

This is a great reminder to begin the year.  God is at work all around us, and that we ought to trust less in the men we know, and more in the God who knows all. God makes leaders, and we ought to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send many into his harvest field.

Read the rest of “The Next Billy Graham Might Be Drunk Right Now.”

Sola Dei Gloria, dss

What Martyn Lloyd-Jones has to say to Emergents and the Evangelical Left

Reading books from earlier generations is helpful in evaluating the proclivities and overemphases of our own generation.  Reading Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Preaching and Preachershas reminded me of that truth this week.  For in his classic work on preaching, the good doctor reflects on the condition of preaching and its primacy within the Christian church.  Informed by the timeless wisdom of the Scriptures, he speaks to many cultural trends sweeping through evangelicalism today.  In particular, he addresses emergent tendencies to exchange preaching for dialogue and the evangelical left’s push to advance social justice, environmental care, economic revision, and other secondary matters to the forefront.

Considering the manner in which we speak about God, Lloyd-Jones recalls Moses encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6), and he says, “our attitude [in how we approach God] is more important than anything we do in detail as we are reminded in the Epistle to the Hebrews, God is always to be approached ‘with reverence and with godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire’ (47).   The eminent pastor goes on to explain:

To me this is a very vital matter.  To discuss the being of God in a casual manner, lounging in an armchair, smoking a pipe or a cigarette or a cigar, is to me something that we should never allow, because God, as I say, is not a kind of philosophic X or a concept (47).

While surely not denying the place of Christian conversation about the things of God, Lloyd-Jones admonition to preach the Word with fear and trembling is forceful.   He challenges preachers seeking to rightly divide the Word to also faithfully present the Word as a divinely authorized message from God himself.   The manner is as important as the means.  Explication of the Scriptures devoid of proper gravity minimizes divine authority.  In Lloyd-Jones estimation, this kind of preaching fails to convey the seriousness of the message we preach.  This raises a series of questions for budding preachers to consider:

What kind of message does it send  when a sanctuary is converted into living room?  Or what is the effect on the church when pulpits are replaced with bar stools?   Or how is the message of God perceived when the preacher dons a pair of sandles and a hawaiian shirt?  Surely, these things have little bearing on the content of the message, but might they distort the seriousness of the Scriptures?  The good doctor thinks that such mishandling of God’s Word is a case of malpractice.

Lloyd-Jones book also confronts another modern issue, namely the promotion of a socialized gospel.  In an age where evangelicalism sees to be splintering and the evangelical left calls for renewed attention to matters of society and culture, Lloyd-Jones words remind us of Christ’s central mission and the church’s singular purpose–to proclaim the gospel of salvation.  Lloyd Jones writes:

Take all this new interest in the social application of the Gospel, and the idea of going to live amongst the people and to talk politics and to enter into their social affairs and so on [Read: incarnational ministry and missional church]…The argument was that the old evangelical preaching of the Gospel was too personal [i.e. individual], too simple, that it did not deal with the social problems and conditions.  It was a part, of course, of the liberal, modernit, higher-critical view of the Scriptures and of our Lord….The very thing that is regarded as so new today, and what is regarded as the primary task of the Church, is something that has already been tried, and tried with great thoroughness in the early part of the century (33).

Lloyd-Jones reminds us that a socially-minded gospel, fueled by liberalism, has “already been tried.”  Not surprisingly, the idea of socializing the gospel, incarnating the church into the clothes of the culture, is not new.  Though emerging churches and leftist evangelicals may think of themselves as cutting edge, Lloyd-Jones replies in the words of Solomon “there is nothing new under the sun.”  He continues:

I have not hesitation in asserting that was largely responsible for emptying the churches in Great Britain was the ‘social gospel’ preaching and the institutional church. [Why?]  The people rightly argued in this way, that if the business of the Church was really just to preach a form of political and social reform and pacifism then the Church was not really necessary, for all the could be done throught the political agencies (34).

Lloyd-Jones’ warning here is that when Christians fail to uphold the central message of the Bible, the message of forgiveness and eternal life purchased on the cross of Christ, the church is undone.  When emphases are on this world only, and fail to consider the eternal realities of heaven and hell; or when the exclusive message of Jesus salvation is broaden to some kind of pluralism or universal inclusivism, as are growing among even evangelicals today, then the long-term result will ultimately be empty churches.  He offers a better, more biblical way.

My objection to the substitution of a socio-political interest for the preaching of the Gospel can be stated more positively.  This concern about the social and political conditions, and about the happiness of the individual and so on, has always been dealt with most effectively when you have had reformation and revival and true preaching in the Christian church.  I would go further and suggest that it is the Christian Church that has made the greatest contribution throughout the centuries to the solution of these very problems.  The modern man is very ignorant of history; he does not know that the hospitals originally came through the church… The same thing is true of education…The same is true of Poor Law Relief and the mitigation of the sufferings of people who were enduring poverty (35-36).

My argument is that when the Church performs her primary task these other things invariably result from it…The other people talk a great deal about the political and social conditions but do little about them.  It is the activity of the Church that reallys deals with the situation and produces enduring and permanent results.  So I argue that even from the pragmatic standpoint it can be demonstrated that you must keep preaching [the gospel:God, man, Christ, response] in the primary and cental position (36).

May we hear the words of this faithful preacher, evaluate our own commitment to gospel proclamation by them, and go forth preaching with greater boldness and clarity.