The Reason for God by Timothy Keller: A Review

Book Reviews

The Reason for God is not a book about Apologetics; The Reason for God is Apologetics.  Pastor Timothy Keller has not written a book primarily to teach other Christians how to defend the Christian faith to unbelievers; he has written a book which actually is a direct interaction with our non-Christian culture.  This fact must be understood and it must be remembered if the book is to be rightly evaluated.  Drawing off his years of experience interacting with “skeptics, critics, and cynics (p. xiii)” through his pastorate in the heart of Manhattan, Keller seeks to present a sort of conversation, a distillation of thousands of interactions wherein he has sought to both defend and advance the Christian faith of which he has been entrusted a minister.[1]  The result is a book which is on the one hand incredibly valuable to any Christian concerned with faithfulness to 1 Peter 3:15, yet which on the other hand can be enormously frustrating to any Christian concerned with faithfulness to Jude 3.  Needless to say, all Christians should be committed to both of these texts, and so The Reason for God is at the same time a very valuable and very frustrating book.[2]

The book is divided into two parts.  These two parts can be compared to two phases in a war (a comparison the always respectful and gentle Pastor Keller would perhaps bristle at).  Part one is a frontal assault on the strongholds of skepticism and unbelief, while part two is a battle for hearts and minds.  Part one tears down and part two builds up.  These two parts are separated by a brief intermission which actually contains some of most interesting material in the book for the student of Apologetics.  This review will first summarize the content of the book and then offer a number of perceived strengths and weaknesses.

The title of each of the seven chapters in part one takes the form of an objection.  These seven objections are familiar ground, as they are the most common expressions of doubt one is likely to hear from non-Christians.  Keller interacts with doubts ranging from the exclusive truth claims of Christianity to the perceived challenges of modern Science against the Biblical record and the historical responsibility of the church for vast amounts of injustice.  A clear empathy and pastoral care permeates this section, as each objection is presented in a manner which is never patronizing and which deals honestly with the substance of the concerns raised.  One section of particular value is Keller’s defense of Biblical passages which cut against the grain of modern sensibilities in chapter seven, entitled “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally.”  After pointing out that many parts of the Bible which initially shock our modern sense of justice and morality may actually be a simple misreading which ignores the historical and cultural distance between our world and the ancient settings of the Bible, Keller makes a crucial challenge about subjecting God to our judgments and standards:

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will?  If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?  You won’t!  You’ll have a Stepford God!  A God, essentially, of you own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.  Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.  So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God.  It is the precondition for it (p. 114).

As previously stated, the intermission of the book contains some of the most interesting information for the student of Apologetics.  Keller includes a fascinating discussion of “strong rationalism” and the way that misleading conceptions of “proof” and “evidence” have built up a false edifice of confident atheism in the minds of certain skeptics like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.  By drawing a comparison to God as a play write and us as characters in His play, Keller gently but effectively brings the reader out of a strictly empirical stance as judge and jury over the existence of God to a place of realizing that God is he in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  We are but characters in the great Writers play, how very mad it would be for Hamlet to strike off on a hunt for Shakespeare (see page 122)!  Although Keller will make much use of what he elects to call “clues” for the existence of God, he has essentially set the stage for the Transcendental Argument to undergird his presentation of the reasons for faith.

These “reasons for faith” are presented in part two, which is made up of the last seven chapters of the book.  As these reasons unfold the reader is at various times tempted to label Keller an Old Princeton Probabilist[3] and at other times a Van Til Presuppositionalist.[4]  The methods and arguments he uses skip like stones across these various Apologetic disciplines without ever sinking too deep into any one in particular.  This is occasionally frustrating to the student of Apologetics, yet it is also a good reminder that this book is not written for the student of Apologetics.  Sometimes Apologetics in the real world, like any ministry undertaken by sinners for sinners, gets a bit messy.  Standout chapters in this section include the very helpful chapter ten on “The Knowledge of God” and chapter thirteen on “The Reality of the Resurrection.”

This review began by stating that The Reason for God is both an incredibly valuable and enormously frustrating book.  That statement will now be explained.  First, three areas of value will be highlighted, and then three areas of frustration and concern will be presented as well.  The first strength is the consistent compassion and empathy with which Keller interacts with his skeptical readers.  Clearly the command to defend the hope that lies within you with “gentleness and respect” has not been taken lightly (1 Peter 3:15).  Keller speaks often in the book of his “non-Christian friends” and one gets the impression that these are not merely token friendships.  For this Christ-like affection for the lost, he is to be commended.

Secondly, Keller demonstrates an overall effective use of “clues” (that is, evidences or testimonies) without surrendering the solid ground of a Presuppositional framework.  For the novice student of Apologetics (this present reviewer included) it is very valuable to be invited into the head of a like minded believer who is committed to defending the faith, loves and respects non-Christians, and has seasoned experience getting his hands dirty in real life inner city ministry.  There are many elements of his method with are very instructive and helpful.

Thirdly, this book includes several specific arguments and Apologetic methods which are very well-constructed and Biblically grounded.  Among these are the central import of the resurrection, the apologetic value of God’s triune existence, and the argument that a God of justice actually resonates with us rather than repels us when rightly understood.  His discussion of human rights as evidence of intrinsic knowledge of God is outstanding (p. 150-3).  Keller is a master communicator, and each of these arguments confronts the skeptical mind with the validity of the Christian faith over and against the folly of truth suppression (Romans 1:18).

With so much real value, why is The Reason for God also such a frustrating book?  First, for a book written to defend the faith and present reasons for believing in God there is a jarring lack of Scripture.  For example, Keller writes in chapter eleven about the enormously important distinction between religion and the gospel.  His point is that religion is “salvation through moral effort” and gospel is “salvation through grace.”  An entire chapter is given to this all-important distinction without a single quotation from the Bible.  To be sure, biblical themes are dealt with in the text, but it would seem appropriate to quote from the Word at least once when speaking about salvation “by grace… through faith… not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9).”  This reviewer would have happily exchanged a few Bonhoeffer and Plantinga quotes for some quotes from John and Paul (no offense intended to Bonhoeffer or Plantinga).

The second frustrating element of the book is Keller’s minimalism in regards to the faith he is defending.  Jude 3 commands us to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”  The faith in view here is not a minimal set of basics; it is the systematic and exhaustive understanding of Biblical revelation.[5]  Yet Keller makes clear that the “faith” he is presenting is essentially the lowest common denominator of the beliefs of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches.  While he is careful to state that the differences between these traditions are very significant, he notes that all Christian churches “assent together to the great creeds of the first thousand years of church history (p. 116)” and therefore hold in common their understanding of the triune creator God, the fall and sin, salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ by grace, the establishment of the church, and an eschatological hope (p. 117).  These are of course the issues at the heart of the Christian faith, but the issues Keller highlights as being diverse within this community are hardly tertiary.  They include the questions “How does the church act as vehicle for Jesus’s work in the world,’ and ‘How does Jesus’s death accomplish our salvation’ and ‘How are we received by grace (p. 117).”  The following paragraph from page 117 explains and qualifies this minimalism:

It is important for readers to understand this.  I am making a case in this book for Christianity in general- not for one particular strand of it.  Some sharp-eyed Presbyterian readers will notice that I am staying quiet about some of my particular theological beliefs in the interest of doing everything I can to represent all Christians.  Yet when I come to describe the Christian gospel of sin and grace, I will necessarily be doing it as a Protestant Christian, and I won’t be sounding notes that a Catholic author would sound.

This big tent minimalism comes through in Keller’s writing.  He has no hesitation including Liberal Anglican and Catholic clergymen such as Desmond Tutu and Jerzy Popieluszko[6] in his list of Christians who have done “Justice in Jesus’s Name (p. 65).”  It also comes through in his plea to put aside controversial issues that Christians disagree on (such as Evolution , see page 94) for later until the central issues of the gospel are dealt with.  While this is an enormously tempting methodology it cannot be easily reconciled with the meaning of logos, tupos, paradosis, pistis, and didachei.[7]  These are not simple issues, nor are all these lines clear, but the path Keller charts seems difficult to defend.[8]

The last and most troubling element of frustration with The Reason for God is the way in which key doctrines seem to be over adapted and contextualized to our culture’s sensibilities.  The doctrines of hell, sin, and the nature of what Christ endured on the cross are some of the least palatable teachings in the Bible to modern ears, but they are also some of the most important.  Dealing inappropriately with these issues is a serious charge, and it must be made carefully.  To be clear, if Keller was truly in error on any of these issues, this review would be using much stronger language than “frustration.”  That being said, his treatment of hell, sin, and the cross are all deeply frustrating for various reasons.  Keller speaks of hell in terms of being self-centered and out of relationship with God.  One page 77 he writes “Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”  And on page 78 he adds “…hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.”  While there is truth in this, the reader hardly gets a sense of the just wrath of God being against sinners eternally in the sense of Isaiah 66.

Connected to this is the way Keller speaks of sin.  Again, identity issues are supreme.  Keller writes that “Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God.  Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him (p. 162).”  While it is very true that we ought to have found great joy and contentment in our “identity” as image bearers of God without feeling the need to rebel against him, and it is also true that wonderful insights can be gained into our salvation by understanding the Christian’s identity in Christ, identity issues are a result, rather than the definition of sin.[9]  This is an unfortunate muddying of the waters where clarity is needed.  One comes away with the sense that sin is “me failing myself” rather than “me failing God.”

It follows that if hell and sin are handled in a frustrating way that the cross will be handled in a frustrating way as well.  The cross is, after all, Christ taking the hell that our sins deserved.  Keller explains the reasons for the cross under two headings.  The first is that “real forgiveness is costly suffering (p. 187).”  His point is that when we forgive someone without requiring restitution, there is suffering on our part.  Therefore, when God purposed to forgive men, he suffered in the person of Jesus on the cross.  But the problem with this is that God did not purpose to forgive without restitution.  Propitiation was necessary in order to satisfy the wrath of God.  A redemption was paid.  Jesus did not suffer because it’s hard to forgive people without requiring payment, he suffered because he was offered up as payment so that people could be forgiven.  Keller of course believes all this, but the way he presents the cross and suffering in this section only make his later statements about debt being paid and penalty being born (p. 193) confusing to the reader.  Again, waters which must be clear are needlessly muddied.  The second reason given for the cross is that “real love is a personal exchange (p. 193).”  While Keller says makes many true and important points, the way in which sin and hell have been handled cause this “exchange” to come up short of the Biblical picture.  In fact, some Biblical pictures would be helpful, as the only verse in the entire chapter on the cross is Luke 1:52, referring to God as the one who has “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the poor.”  Keller has spent almost two hundred pages laying the groundwork for explaining the heart of the gospel in the cross of Christ, and unfortunately his explanation of forgiveness through suffering and love as exchange fail to capture the forgiveness, suffering, love, and exchange Paul magnified when he wrote that “he who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5:21).”  This is the single greatest frustration in The Reason for God, and it is significant.

What then, is the verdict?  It is difficult to critique Keller without feeling like the proverbial armchair general or Monday morning quarterback.  There is much in this book which engages non-Christians in a compelling, winsome, and Biblically faithful manner.  There is also much value to be gained for a Christian in reading this book, as he gets a chance to climb into the head of a seasoned pastor attempting to be faithful to Scripture yet fruitful in engaging the culture in which God has placed him with the gospel of Christ.  Yet the frustrating elements of the book are a constant nagging presence.   In the end, The Reason for God is a conflicted book which this reviewer would not recommend without significant qualifications.  As the book has already enjoyed a very wide reception both inside and outside Christian circles, it is hoped that his frustrations are overreactions and that the God who is mighty to save will use The Reason for God mightily in the defense of the faith and the salvation of the lost.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

Notes
[1] This “conversational” tone is clearly intentional, as each chapter in his section dealing with objections to the Christian faith begins with quotes from various New Yorkers explaining their doubts in regards to Christianity.  See Chapter One, note one, p. 244.
[2] The writer of this review does not wish to insinuate that Pastor Keller is unconcerned with Jude 3.  Rather he is attempting to express his own sense of conflict over a book he wanted to love but ultimately could not.
[3] 127-28
[4] 142-158
[5] See Sam Waldron’s lecture notes for ST 501 Apologetics, pp. 48-9.
[6] While these men may of course be true saints, and the writer is not wishing to belittle the legitimate common grace at work in and through them,  it would seem wise to avoid putting forth Romanists and Liberal Anglicans as Christian exemplars.
[7] Waldron, ibid, p. 48-9.
[8] This is a challenging issue.  Paul certainly focused on the main things first in his ministry, endeavoring to know nothing among the Corinthians but “Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).”  Often issues like evolution and homosexuality can be smokescreens thrown up to obscure dealing personally with the claims the gospel makes on an individual.  In these cases this reviewer has often personally encouraged non-Christians to deal with issues such as the character of God, their own sin, and the person and work of Christ before getting to other matters.  It’s possible this method would have been commended rather than criticized had it been executed differently, and especially if Keller’s treatment of “Christ crucified” was more clear.  That issue is taken up in the third point of frustration above.
[9] Keller’s “Cosmic Consequences of Sin” on pages 169-70 get closer the heart of the issue than his definition of sin itself.

(This review appeared in slightly modified form on the Reformed Baptist Seminary blog)

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