Timothy Keller has pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan since 1989. In the course of twenty years in New York, Keller has encountered many skeptics who vocalized sincere concerns about the Christian faith. The Reason for Goddescribes Keller’s approach to handling the most pressing questions of our time, especially those of young people. The first half of the book deals with what Keller believes to be the seven biggest objective doubts about Christianity: exclusivity, suffering, absolute truth claims, injustice, judgment and hell, science in opposition to Scripture, and literal interpretation of the Bible. The second half of the book is devoted to examining the arguments underlying Christian beliefs.
Through use of personal conversations and careful reasoning, Keller not only provides helpful answers to good questions, he also demonstrates for us how to dialogue with those who have rejected biblical teachings. There is much to commend about The Reason for God. If the reader is looking for good responses to relativism, atheism, accusations about injustice perpetrated by the church, or solid apologetics on matters such as evidence for God and the fact of Jesus’ resurrection, this volume is quite helpful. Keller’s approach is gentle and clear. His answers will both encourage the heart of the believer and provide thoughtful meat for unbelievers to digest.
I also appreciated Keller’s understanding of life. He writes, “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy” (p. 78). Again, “Building our lives on something besides God not only hurts us if we don’t get the desire of our hearts, but also if we do” (p. 166). In addition to these fine statements, Keller provides numerous excellent quotes from other sources. That The Reason for God is being praised by many evangelicals is both understandable and deserved.
I would like to recommend giving this book to doubting Christians or interested skeptics, but unfortunately there are some major areas of concern:
1. It becomes apparent early that Keller’s understanding of who is a genuine Christian is very wide (pp. x, 6, 41, 87, 116). His summary statement is, “I’ll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds (Apostolic, Nicene, Calcadonian)” (p. 116). Of course, this broadens the definition of a Christian to include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and liberal Protestants. He realizes that these groups, along with conservative evangelicals, will not agree on doctrine absent from the creeds, such as how one is saved and the authority of Scripture (p. 117), but apparently he sees these things as relatively unimportant. And, even though he claims to believe in an evangelical gospel (more on this below), he nevertheless sees those who would reject his understanding of the gospel as true Christians. No place is this more evident than in his choice of people we should emulate. He speaks of Christian monks, G.K. Chesterton, Anne Rice, Malcolm Muggeridge and extensively of novelist Flannery O’Connor (pp. 230-239), who devoted much of her life (and subsequent estate) to Roman Catholicism. It remains a mystery as to how those in denial of sola fide can be recognized as excellent models for evangelical Christians.
2. A careful reading of The Reason for God reveals that Keller’s arguments are largely philosophical, not biblical. That is, in answering skeptics very little Scripture is used. This does not mean that all of his arguments lack a biblical foundation which would be largely an unfair accusation, but Keller seldom turns to Scripture for his responses, instead relying on the reasoning of others, most notably and admittedly C. S. Lewis, who shows up in virtually every chapter. In addition to Lewis, Keller turns to M. Scott Peck, G. K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anne Rice, Soren Kierkegaard, Malcolm Muggeridge, Bono and Flannery O’Connor. None of these is a true evangelical and while he also mentions Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and John Stott, the bulk of his material emerges from the above non-evangelical thinkers. This should bring up red-flags in the mind of discerning readers. Rather than turn to God’s Word (which is the biblical paradigm) to defend the faith, concepts are drawn from humans who do not take an authoritative view of Scripture. For example, Keller looks to Kierkegaard to solve the problem of sin (chapter 10), novelists such as Robert Lewis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, and O’Connor in dealing with religion and the gospel (chapter 11), Bonhoeffer and N.T. Wright to explain the (true?) story of the cross (chapter 12) and draws his concept of hell and judgment almost exclusively from C.S. Lewis (chapter 5). It is one thing to illustrate biblical truths by the thinking and stories of people; it is something altogether different to allow them to have the final word. In addition, in a book dedicated to the believer’s witness to skeptics, it sets a bad and unbiblical example. Are we to argue from the point of philosophy or from the authority of Scripture? I believe the latter is the model found in the Word.
3. Keller’s gospel message is both confusion and trendy.
In a book centered on apologetics one would expect a clear and biblical gospel message. The Reason for God does not deliver. We are confused throughout by Keller’s use of Roman Catholic role models, even though he promises to ultimately convey a Protestant message (p. 117). However, when he gets to the gospel invitation, without any direct support from Scripture he offers three steps: repentance, faith in Christ, and becoming part of the church: “Repentance and faith must be done both individually and communally. We do them when we personally approach God in prayer, and also when we publicly identify with Christ by becoming part of the church” (p. 235). Later Keller adds, “A person can be assured of belonging to Christ the very moment he or she makes that personal heart transaction with God, nevertheless, everything in the New Testament indicated that Christians should confirm and seal that personal commitment through public, communal action in baptism and becoming part of the church” (p. 236). While I am in total agreement that the Christian should be baptized and join the church, Keller’s steps are far too close to Rome’s theology of salvation found only through the church for my liking.
And there are further concerns. Drawing from N.T. Wright and the “missional” understanding of Christianity, Keller infuses a social dimension into his gospel definition. Keller’s gospel is more than the good news that Christ has come to reconcile us to God; it is also solving the world’s problems of injustice, poverty and healing the troubles of this earth. He quotes N. T. Wright, not Scripture, to support his view:
The message of the resurrection is that this world matters! That the injustices and pains of this present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won… If Easter means Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense—[then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my personal life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world—news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things—and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of Jesus over them all (p. 212).
Later Keller makes clear what he means: “The purpose of Jesus’ coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it. It is not just to bring personal forgiveness and peace, but also justice and shalom to the world…. The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world” (p. 223).
Scripture knows nothing of such a gospel message. Nowhere in the New Testament will you find such a commission given to the people of God. You will, however, find a similar message in the Emergent church, N.T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul and those reviving the old “Social Gospel” agenda.
4. While Keller makes some good arguments against atheistic evolution, unfortunately, he is a strong proponent of theistic evolution (pp. 87-88, 92-95, 128-129). This fact strips most of his creationist arguments of their power.
While The Reason for God provides some excellent answers for questions skeptics are asking today, I could only recommend this book to discerning believers due to the problems outlined above.