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Reviewed by Anthony Sacramone


21st-Century Apologetics

Pastor Timothy Keller makes the case for faith.

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In a chapter titled "Intermission," Keller addresses concretely the stark differences between Christian denominations, admitting that someone who was not a Presbyterian minister would write a book with similar apologetic intentions in a different way. While he is attempting to defend "Apostles' Creed" Christianity, he nevertheless rejects the idea of a mere Christianity: "All Christians believe all this," Keller states, "but no Christian believes believe just this. As soon as you ask 'how does the church act as vehicle for Jesus' work in the world?' and 'how does Jesus' death accomplish our salvation?' and 'how are we received by grace?' Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians will give you different answers. Despite the claims of many to be such, there are no truly 'generic' non–denominational Christians. Everyone has to answer these 'how' questions in order to live a Christian life and those answers immediately put you into one traditional and denomination or another."

He is also emphatic that once someone has come to faith in Christ, joining a church is not optional: "The church of Jesus Christ is therefore like the ocean. It is enormous and diverse. Like the ocean there are warm and clear spots and deadly cold spots, places you can enter easily without danger and places where it will immediately whisk you away and kill you. I realize how risky it is to tell my readers that they should seek out a church. I don't do it lightly, and I urge them to do so with utmost care. But there is no alternative."

It is here, I feel, that Keller falters. While he admits the risk in emphasizing church membership, in a recent interview with me he also admitted the risk in not emphasizing a specific church in the way that, say, a Roman Catholic would have. He had concluded that particularities of that sort would have caused more problems than they would have solved, and so was willing to throw the new Christian into that "enormous and diverse" ocean that is denominationalism. The question is: Who will teach the newbie to swim? Who will lead the baby Christian to his or her mother (as Calvin called the Church)? Is it enough to say simply, "Be careful"? This criticism was also leveled at Lewis. But Lewis was already settled in a communion that housed high church and low, liberal and conservative, Calvinist and Arminian, with the Book of Common Prayer the glue that held them together.

Despite not wanting to make a great show of his Presbyterian credentials, Keller nevertheless makes plain in the introduction of The Reason for God that he is ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is, in fact, beholden to Reformer thinkers, and membership classes for Redeemer teach and affirm the Westminster Confession of Faith (although members need not sign on to all its tenets). In short, Keller is a Calvinist, someone who believes that Christ died for the elect only and that the wrath of God abides on everyone else. Should his readers, floundering in the chilly waters of church choice, pick up a volume of Jonathan Edwards or Cornelius Van Til or any of a number of Puritan authors for ballast, they are in for a big surprise: They must now turn inward for signs of election, for evidence that their faith isn't false or temporary—a self–scrutiny that can be agonizing. Keller's revolt against self–absorption and subjectivism is suddenly put down by the forces of religious scrupulosity. If this is why Keller refuses to wave the flag of Calvinism in The Reason for God, is the alternative then a denominational relativism? Again, who will help the uninitiated negotiate those endless variations on the Christian ecclesiastical theme?

But this is an argument to continue at a later date. As it stands, The Reason for God succeeds given the limits Keller has set for it—to bring the unbeliever to faith in Christ and to affirm the Apostles' Creed. Keller dismisses favorable comparisons between his book and Mere Christianity, insisting that Lewis' work is far better, even if not as accessible. He doth protest too much, I think. While I find it mind–boggling that college–educated twentysomethings today can't make their way through Lewis (as Keller remarked in the interview), I would not hesitate to give skeptics Keller's tome instead, even if that were not the case. His supposedly inferior book is a superior achievement for the age in which we live, and I found even my own faith strengthened by it.

Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of First Things.

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