An American Evangelist

April 25, 2023

I first met Tim Keller in April 2011 at a national conference for The Gospel Coalition (TGC), the evangelical, renewal-minded organization Keller and Don Carson founded in 2005. About a month before the conference, Rob Bell released Love Wins, a provocative, universalist-leaning book “About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” It is hard to believe now, but Bell—who left ministry to start “a spiritual talk show in Los Angeles” the same year Love Wins came out—used to be one of the most famous pastors in America. Hailed by some as “the next Billy Graham,” Bell pastored Mars Hill Bible Church in suburban Grand Rapids, just a few miles from where I grew up. With the church growing to more than 10,000 attendees and its innovative pastor in high demand as a speaker and author, Time named Bell one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World (yes, the world). His books, and especially his popular NOOMA videos, were staples in many evangelical churches. At the time, I was pastoring in East Lansing, Michigan, not far from where Bell, the son of a Reagan-appointed district judge, grew up. Virtually every person at my church had visited Mars Hill or knew someone who attended Mars Hill. When Rob Bell started pitching universalism to his mainstream evangelical audience, it was a big deal.

A few weeks before the TGC conference in 2011, I published a twenty-page review of Love Wins. I was slated to lead a panel at the conference with Keller (and others) on the theme “God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty.” I knew of Tim Keller, of course. Everyone in my Reformed circles knew of Keller’s thriving ministry in New York City and of his 2008 bestseller The Reason for God (and, soon ­after that, The Prodigal God). I had never met Keller before, but it was Keller who, thanks to some ­mutual friends, had helped me get an ­advance copy of Love Wins so that I could have a lengthy review ready for publication as soon as the book was released. I wasn’t sure, though, whether Tim was following the controversy carefully. Turns out he was. (I’ve since discovered that, as much as Keller likes to stay out of the fray, he stays attuned to online debates.) As Tim passed by me in the speaker’s room, he said with a wry grin, “Well, if it isn’t the mean Kevin DeYoung.” I said, also with a smile, something like, “And if it isn’t the very nice Tim Keller.”

I’ve often thought about that initial exchange with Keller, because it says something about our different approaches to ministry. Though I hope to be kind and careful, my public ministry has often involved correcting error, guarding the truth, and warning against creeping liberalism. By contrast, though Keller usually lands squarely on the traditional side of doctrinal matters, he has a public ministry focused on making the gospel attractive to outsiders, staying out of intramural theological disputes, and warning against extremes. You might say I specialize in building walls, and Keller specializes in building bridges. I’m sure Tim would affirm with me that both are necessary.

I trust that many others will properly summarize and evaluate Collin Hansen’s excellent book Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation. It would be difficult for me to give a dispassionate analysis of a book written by a friend about a friend. What I can say by way of unbiased evaluation is that anyone remotely interested in Keller’s life and ministry will have a hard time putting this book down. Hansen, with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and more than ten years of ­experience working for TGC and directly with Keller, is ideally situated to write this book. The pace is quick, but with enough new information and personal anecdotes to repay the reader’s attention. The tone is appreciative and sympathetic, but not hagiographical. The biographical approach is unusual—it tells Keller’s story by relating him to his mentors and friends—but still basically chronological and easy to follow.

This book is not meant to be a traditional academic biography, replete with secondary sources and intent on evaluating Keller’s ideas, his strengths, his weaknesses, and his place in the larger cultural and ecclesiastical trends of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Instead, the book draws on interviews with its subject, and with his friends and family, to create a close-up portrait of Keller as an individual.

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