Tim Keller’s Book on Preaching

I was very pleasantly surprised to read Tim Keller’s book on preaching. I was afraid I would encounter a low view of preaching, an antinomian spirit, a denigration of exposition, and an exaltation of things that have no business being in the worship service. I encountered none of these things in this book. Although the book is not perfect, the good definitely outweighs the bad, and by a fair margin.

The good things: 1. He has a very helpful way of connecting the first use of the law to the third (though he does not use these terms). A general movement in the sermon that he recommends goes something like this: the law is what you are supposed to do, but you can’t do it. Jesus has done it, so if you are united to Him by faith, here is how you can do it, by growing in your faith.

2. In general, he uses excellent sources, and usually the best, to bolster his points. You see names like Ferguson, Lloyd-Jones, Clowney, Carson, Spurgeon, Old, Perkins, Dabney, Calvin, Edwards, and Packer.

3. In an age when preaching is falling on hard times, Keller is definitely going counter-cultural here. In fact, his thoughts on culture are very helpful at places. He has a balance between acknowledging what can be a point of contact, while using that same point of contact to confront the culture at various points, including both unconsciously held narratives as well as explicit idolatries.

4. He advocates a mostly responsible redemptive-historical understanding of Scripture (see my one caveat below) that sees Jesus in the Old Testament.

5. The gospel is for Christians and unbelievers. He has a robust view of the possible hearers, and a helpful taxonomy of various spiritual places that hearers could be.

6. There are many insights that are eminently quotable. Here are a few: “[Secular people]…won’t even consider real Christianity unless they see it is not identical to moralism” (p. 62). “We need not only the Bible’s prescription to our problems but also its diagnosis of them” (p. 97). “[I]magine that the Bible is not the product of any one human culture or set of authors but is a revelation from God himself. If that were the case, then it would have to offend every person’s cultural sensibilities somewhere. No matter who you are, you inhabit an imperfect culture that shapes your beliefs, and the Bible-if it were authoritative revelation from God-would then have to be outrageous to you at some place. Since that is the case, it is no argument against the Bible to say, ‘It offends me at this point.’ That is precisely what you should expect” (pp. 113-114). It should be pointed out that Keller is not advocating a low view of Scriptural authority here. Rather, he assumes a high view.

There are many other good things about this book. I have not been exhaustive, but only representative.

There are a few caveats that I feel are necessary to point out. First, although Keller does have what seems to me a responsible redemptive-historical hermeneutic that sees Christ in the Old Testament, he also tries to use a bit of the Christotelic hermeneutic, compliments of Tremper Longman (pp. 86-87). I used to think that a second Christotelic re-reading was fully compatible with Luke 24 and John 5. I no longer think that is true. Yes, the New Testament does help us understand the Old Testament. The question is whether the NT sheds light on what is actually there in the OT, or whether the NT changes the meaning of the OT. It is not entirely clear to me which of these positions Keller would ultimately assume, although the majority of his argumentation favors the former, more orthodox position.

Secondly, Keller references Krister Stendahl’s article “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” which was a seminal article in the formation of the New Perspective on Paul. While it is possible that there is some good in that article, it would have been nice to see Keller offer a caveat, so that people would not think that Keller is endorsing the NPP. He does the same with N.T. Wright in at least one place.

Thirdly, there are a few false dichotomies he uses that I do not think are terribly useful. On pages 157ff., he advocates (rightly) that the human being is a whole being, body and soul, mind and heart, and that we should not separate these things. The heart can think, biblically speaking. It is not just emotions (p. 158). He advocates preaching to the heart (again, how could one disagree?). The quibble I have has to do with how Keller sees truth, propositions, and the mind. It seems to me that Keller does not really see the truth by itself as carrying the weight of conviction that Scripture says it carries. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free. Jesus did not say “the truth dynamically spoken.” Keller agrees with Edwards that there is no opposition between mind and heart (p. 161). Well and good, except that he also advocates an essential element of making the truth “gripping and real to the heart” (p. 160). He is not excluding rational argument and doctrine (p. 162 makes this plain). Is there room in Keller’s theology for God using a dry-as-dust-but-orthodox sermon to transform someone’s life permanently? Another example of what I am asking is on page 169, where Keller (ironically) uses a proposition to denigrate propositions. He argues that the imagination is more affected by images than by propositions. Perhaps, if one has a low and narrow view of propositions. But why must propositions be dull and unimaginative? Why can’t propositions use imagery, metaphor, word-pictures? He brings in the example of Genesis 4:7, and the imagery of sin being like an animal crouching at the door. He argues that this imagery conveys more information “than a mere proposition could do.” But if you look at his own statement, it is a proposition. Furthermore, so is Genesis 4:7! It is a proposition that sin is like an animal crouching at the door. It seems to me that Keller simply has a narrow view of what propositions can do, as if they can only be premises or conclusions in a formal logical argument. Related to this is something that is simply false on page 287, footnote 4, where Keller agrees with Smith in critiquing what he calls “an approach to ministry that is too rationalistic and focused on information transfer and the transmission of right doctrine and beliefs. His response is that we change not by changing what we think as much as by changing what we worship-what we love and fill our imaginations with.” This is a false dichotomy. It is difficult to square this kind of thinking with Romans 12:1-2, where we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Is doctrine really this boring?

Fourthly, I do not share his view of the inadvisability of preaching through entire books to a mobile city church. Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia has just as mobile a congregation as Redeemer does, and yet they preach straight through book after book of the Bible. It doesn’t seem to have hurt Tenth very much, to put it mildly.

I am not sure what I think of his three tiers of communication related to the gospel (the introduction, pp. 1-7). Initially when I read it, I thought that it makes sense on one level. However, what Keller did not make clear is what impact this would have on his view of, say, women in ministry. Keller is in favor of the dictum that a woman can do anything in worship that a non-ordained man can do. But if this is true, and a non-ordained man can preach, then may a woman do so? This certainly would seem to fall foul of 1 Timothy 2.

Although I have had to explain at somewhat greater length my quibbles with Keller’s book, I do not want the readers to get the impression that the quibbles outweigh the good things. Quibbles always take longer to explain. Furthermore, my list of good things is only representative, whereas the quibbles are pretty much exhaustive. This is still an excellent book on preaching, and I would recommend it to anyone who is committed (as everyone should be with any theologian, including this blogger!) to eating the meat and spitting out the bones.

14 Comments

  1. Ron said,

    August 5, 2015 at 11:12 am

    “5. The gospel is for Christians and unbelievers. He has a robust view of the possible hearers, and a helpful taxonomy of various spiritual places that hearers could be.”

    Lane,

    My problem is when this gives ways to addressing unbelievers directly in a worship service. After that’s done, any statement like “Jesus died for us” or even the benediction ends up denying sound theology. Even the warning passages in Hebrews include that we should expect better things for those who have eternal life… I’m not straining out gnats here. The only thing more irksome is the modalistic prayers that address the Father and then immediately turn to thanking Him for dying on the cross. That’s just one example.

  2. rfwhite said,

    August 5, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    On his view of the inadvisability of preaching through entire books to a mobile city church, I wonder if Tenth Pres would qualify as a “mobile city church.” Speaking for myself, while I was trained to do lectio continua preaching and have benefited from it, I’ve become convinced that we’d all do well to examine the assumptions built into adopting that model.

  3. Ron said,

    August 5, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    Don’t know, but the preaching at Tenth is as good as it gets in my opinion.

    I’m missing why preaching through books would not be advisable. Don’t city churches have steady attendance? And wouldn’t the transiant visitors have home churches? If not, I’m still not sure why the unconverted would be less fortunate to hear a sermon from a series.

  4. rfwhite said,

    August 5, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    3 Ron: I’m with you about the preaching at Tenth and I’d agree that preaching through books is advisable above other approaches. My main interest is to highlight the reality that congregations who haven’t experienced it have to be trained to value it, and it can take significant time and effort for them to adjust, particularly if their previous diet has been different.

  5. Ron said,

    August 5, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    Oh, I agree. Also, I think there is greater liberty in preaching than what is in vogue in many Reformed circles.

  6. August 5, 2015 at 9:44 pm

    I saw this book in Westminster Seminary’s (California) bookstore. I almost bought it, but then thought, “Eh…Keller” and put it back. Looks like I’ll have to change my mind about that.

    As to preaching consecutively through books: that is, of course, a perfectly legitimate way to preach. But I think the church in our time could use some good explicitly theological sermons and good rigorous topical sermons (a la Spurgeon?). Christians should have a spiritual diet made up of more than one kind of sermon.

  7. August 6, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    I am currently reading the reasons for God by Timothy Keller. It’s a good read! I’ll have to check this one out when I’m done!
    clothethepopulation.wordpress.com

  8. Alexander said,

    August 7, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    What would a “second Christotelic reading” of Luke 24 and John 5 be, out of curiosity?

  9. greenbaggins said,

    August 7, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Alexander, my experience with the Christotelic folks is that they do not interpret those passages to be saying that the OT is all about Jesus, but that it is selectively about Jesus, and that it is only about Jesus when you have the key. The point in Luke 24, however, is that Jesus is gently remonstrating with the disciples in that they should have known from their OT’s that Jesus was going to die and be raised from the dead.

  10. tominaz said,

    August 10, 2015 at 11:24 am

    This book and his one on prayer are part of my vacation summer reading.Your review is, as usual, helpful.

  11. August 11, 2015 at 12:01 am

    […] Read another review here. […]

  12. August 11, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    […] Tim Keller’s Book on Preaching […]

  13. August 11, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    […] Tim Keller’s Book on Preaching […]

  14. August 18, 2015 at 2:01 am

    There is another positive review of Keller’s new book in the Themelios journal at Gospel Coalition’s website.


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