Becoming Tim Keller

On Collin Hansen’s new biography

Tim Keller is one of the most influential evangelical leaders of our era. By any measure he’s been extremely successful. But other than small bits of autobiography sprinkled throughout his works, there’s been little written about his influences. What material I have seen on Keller’s intellectual pedigree has tended to be created by his critics.

Collin Hansen, a friend of Keller and editor-in-chief of the Gospel Coalition, looks to fill that gap with his new book Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. Although a friendly take, it’s very informative and well-written by someone with strong journalistic chops, who is honest in noting where Keller has received criticism. It is clear, information dense, but not overwhelming, and not too long. The biography focuses on Keller’s influences and is divided into four sections which cover five major phases of Keller’s formation and ministry.

The first phase is his undergraduate experience at Bucknell University. It was there that Keller was genuinely converted to Christianity (through InterVarsity Fellowship) and got enthusiastically involved with evangelism–a lifelong passion–via the group. There he was also influenced by the likes of John Stott, J. I. Packer, C. S. Lewis, and R. C. Sproul. It’s a surprisingly conventional story, one that could easily be told by people having a similar experience with InterVarsity a generation or two later. For example, though my wife was a Christian before attending a liberal arts college, her experience was very similar, right down to the older woman who taught her the inductive Bible study method in the way Barbara Boyd taught Keller. One important difference: Keller got to know Sproul personally, as Sproul’s ministry was in Pennsylvania during this time. Sproul even officiated the Kellers’ wedding. At Bucknell, Keller also experienced the Jesus Movement, the Christian expression of the counterculture.

The second phase is his seminary education at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which occurred shortly after the founding of that institution. Hansen stresses the diverse mix of theological influences there, as the institution was not a denominational or confessional seminary. It was Kathy, not yet his wife, who had put the school on his radar when she announced she was attending there. A large contingent of Pennsylvanians made the trek to Boston’s North Shore to graduate school there around the same time. Gordon-Conwell was a key influence for Keller, as his theology was largely formed there and remained mostly constant the rest of his life.

The third phase was his pastorate in the small industrial city of Hopewell, Virginia, about 30 minutes from Richmond. The church was desperate for a pastor, and he was in serious need of a job–he and Kathy, married while in seminary, were about to take jobs with the Post Office–which made for a match. Hopewell Presbyterian was the crucible in which Keller learned how to be a pastor. He learned to preach by preaching–over 1500 sermons worth. He had to learn the culture, how to counsel people, how to lead a church, etc., all by himself. This was his initiation into Presbyterianism, and the start of his institutional affiliation with the Presbyterian Church in American (PCA), recently formed at this time. He also had to learn to be a husband, and a father to the three young boys he and Kathy had while in Hopewell.  This was a difficult, but key, preparatory period.

The fourth phase was his time as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he accumulated a number of influences on his future ministry strategy. Here he found his closest mentor, Edmund Clowney, president of the seminary. He also met key people such as Harvie Conn, from whom Keller received his initial perspectives on urban ministry; David Powlison, an expert on counseling; Michael Green, from whom Keller learned the importance of marrying mercy ministry and evangelism; and Jack Miller, pastor of the church the Kellers attended in Philadelphia.

The fifth phase covers his pastorate at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York through to the present day. Keller was involved in the planning for a Manhattan church startup, but uninterested in being the person to lead it. However, after every other candidate declined, he felt called to take it on, and moved to New York City in 1989 to make it happen. NYC was a byword for urban decline and dysfunction at that time, making Keller’s move there courageous in ways today younger people cannot comprehend. However, he arrived at just the right moment. NYC was already on the way up from the rock bottom it had hit in the 1970s. Just as one symbolic example, the last graffiti train on the subway was also eliminated in 1989. Just five years later, Rudolph Giuliani would be elected mayor, crime rates would collapse, and New York City would enter a boom phase as the world’s premier, gentrified, global city. Keller benefitted from pre-existing Manhattan ministries run by wealthy widow Nancy Moss and Cru, whose participants didn’t have a church to attend, and which Keller was able to quickly absorb into Redeemer. Hansen notes the significant financial support Redeemer received, a response to one of the lessons learned from a failed attempt to start a Manhattan church a decade before (something Hansen only alludes to).

The Redeemer story is more about Keller integrating all of his previous influences into a unique and powerful combination, than about new influences received. As in Hopewell, he had to learn the culture of the city. Kathy played a key role in this as a full partner in this new endeavor. Keller also had to learn to become a manager–which he never became especially good at, instead seeking to hire strong managers as his lieutenants. He had to respond to 9/11, as well as a series of family health challenges. It was also during this period that his brother died of AIDS, something he’s mentioned before, but has previously not wanted to discuss to avoid seeming to exploit the situation.

However, later in his Redeemer ministry, Keller encountered a new set of influences, primarily sociologist James Davison Hunter, who created a sort of mastermind group for Keller called Dogwood. Hunter introduced Keller to thinkers like Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), Alasdair MacIntrye (After Virtue), Philip Rieff (The Triumph of the Therapeutic), and Robert Bellah (Habits of the Heart). These are the last major intellectual influences on Keller in the book, and inform his contemporary cultural diagnostics. The vast majority of people know Keller only after he encountered these thinkers, but they were relatively late to the party as influences.

Hansen’s book confirms several of my perspectives on Keller. The first is that he is primarily a digester, synthesizer, and systematizer of other people’s thoughts, rather than an original scholar or thinker himself. This is an uncommon and vitally important skill. Keller, a voracious reader, studied and learned from a vast array of very different people. It’s not obvious how they all fit together, but he was able to combine them into a coherent and elegant whole, rounded out with his own contributions. As Hansen notes, “Keller’s originality comes in his synthesis, how he pulls the sources together for unexpected insights… He’s the guide to the gurus. You get their best conclusions, with Keller’s unique twist.”

When I first learned of Keller, it was via his views on urban ministry. I was a professional writer on cities at the time, and was extremely impressed with his accurate knowledge of urbanism and global cities. He had clearly read and correctly understood thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Ed Glaeser, Richard Florida, and Saskia Sassen. (Hansen only mentions Jacobs as an urbanist influence, but he clearly had some others beyond that. While the book discusses a constellation of Keller influences, it’s still at some level only the highlights). And urbanism was just one of his many areas of reading.

There’s a media principle known as the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. We open the newspaper and read a story on a topic about which we are personally an expert or have direct first-hand knowledge and say to ourselves, “They got that completely wrong!” Then we turn the page, read articles in other areas of which we are ignorant, and take them in as if they were 100% accurate. My experience with Keller was the inverse of this. In my personal vocational area he did know what he was talking about. So that did credential him enormously in other areas. He was the first evangelical I encountered who actually seemed to know something about the world. I’m sure I’m far from the only person to have this experience with him.

Secondly, Keller is a world-class rhetorician. Not only did he create an integrated, substantive model of the faith and the world, he has been able to articulate it in a very compelling manner. He was obviously a great communicator well before launching Redeemer. Third, Keller is a very hard worker, even a workaholic. One reason that he succeeded is that he, as they say, did the work. And fourth, Kathy has been a full intellectual and ministry partner in his work.

The book also shows that Keller’s formation has been personal and idiosyncratic rather than systematic. Even when he undertook formal training in seminary, it was at one noted for its diversity of positions. Although he learned from many others, he is essentially an autodidact. Consider urban ministry. Although that’s what he is best known for, he doesn’t appear to have studied it systematically. For example, he never appears to engage with the work of renowned urban missiologist Ray Bakke (A Theology as Big as the City and other works) and had extremely limited interactions with Bakke over the years. He seems to confidently rely on his own personally curated influences.

We also see in the book a shift, in which Keller at some point begins to stand apart from the rest of the Christian world, operating through his own institutions and his own personal paradigms. For example, he was very involved with InterVarsity early in life, but seems to have moved away from it over time. I was not even aware he had been involved with it until reading this book. He created his own church accelerator (Redeemer City to City), his own mercy ministry (Hope for New York), and established his own parachurch network that was built under his paradigms and with him as a dominant personality (The Gospel Coalition). And although his denomination has catechisms as parts of its confessional documents, he even wrote his own here, too (New City Catechism). The PCA appears to be the primary institution he has remained extensively involved in that he did not essentially control or have a major shaping influence over (although he is influential within it, of course).

He also seems to have had little to no interaction with other key churches or evangelistic figures in New York. David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade was an early influence on Kathy, but Wilkerson returned to New York to start Times Square Church in 1987, about the same time as Keller. The book never mentions any connections between them at all. Despite Keller’s concerns about racial justice, he also did not appear to collaborate or engage with black churches in New York such as Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem and its influential pastor Calvin Butts. A few years ago I attempted to find whether Keller or Hillsong’s Carl Lentz had ever commented on each other, and only found one small mention when a reporter specifically asked Lentz about Keller.

The general impression is that since starting Redeemer, Keller has preferred not to collaborate with others outside of contexts where his vision predominates and he has institutional control. He built his own empire. This is likely in part a consequence of his idiosyncratic formation, in which, compared to him, no one else has it quite right, or else no one else’s context is quite like his.

I also did not note any post-Boomer influences on Keller in the book. Only a few such figures are mentioned, and he appears to have used their work because it illustrated what he already believed rather than as a source of influence. For example, he cites the work of historian Tom Holland (Dominion) and the novelist David Foster Wallace (born in 1962, so close enough), but they seem to recapitulate elements of his thinking rather than having shaped it. Even his very late influences are all Boomers or pre-Boomers.

This helps explain why his cultural diagnostics are not as compelling in the market now as they were in the past, and why he is receiving criticism of a variety and intensity that he did not previously receive. His views have been almost exclusively shaped by legacy cultural influences of yesteryear, and he has not been able to absorb influences from newer and younger thinkers more attuned to today’s conditions. Additionally, Hansen’s book recounts how Redeemer grew into a megachurch (with layers of middle management), and how Keller became famous (with people wanting autographs rather than intense conversations at a nearby diner), both of which in essence detached him from regular interaction with the man on the street that had previously kept him in direct touch with cultural currents and contemporary concerns. These factors have limited  his ability to respond to the new conditions of the negative world. He does not understand today’s culture as well as he understood that of the 1990s or 2000s.

Regardless of any present ministry challenges, Tim Keller’s accomplishments are immense and his influence pervasive. Hansen’s Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation is a great survey of the development of Keller’s mind and heart. It shows how he absorbed and integrated a vast array of sources into a unique skill set and approach that proved successful in multiple, radically different, environments. There’s a lot to learn here, both about Keller and how to pursue self-development. Highly recommended.

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Aaron Renn

Aaron Renn is Cofounder and Senior Fellow at American Reformer. He also writes on cultural topics at Renn was previously an urban policy researcher, writer, and consultant. He was a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research for five years. His work has been featured in leading publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.