I just started reading the book (in my spare time 😉 ): Gospel Theology: Center Church, Part 1, by Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Much of what he writes sounds quite wonderful and orthodox (indeed it is: post-Reformed orthodox), and is edifying stuff. But there is something fundamentally awry in his thinking—at least in comparison with our Evangelical Calvinist approach, and unilateral understanding of Covenant Theology V. the bilateral understanding that funds Keller’s thinking). Keller writes:
So, in response to the great question “Are the covenant blessings of God conditional or unconditional?” — the answer is yes. Jesus, as the obedient and faithful covenant servant, absolutely fulfilled the conditions of the covenant through his life and his suffering in our place, making it possible for him, as our faithful covenant Lord, to love us unconditionally. At the cross, both the law of God and the love of God were fulfilled and satisfied. In the city of God, there is no more curse (Rev 22:3) because the Passover Lamb of God bore the sins of his people. We will be his people — his bride —and he will be our God (Rev 21:2-3). History is consummated in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). The ultimate love relationship we were built for will be fulfilled. [Keller, 30-1. Nook edition]
I have emboldened the most troubling and revealing aspect of what is informing Keller’s thinking; the idea being that the Law and consequences of the Law-breaking had to be met by Jesus as the organ of salvation so that God, a holy and just God could THEN and only then, love his ‘elect’ covenant people.
Unfortunately, this is directly at odds with an Evangelical Calvinist conception of Covenant theology. I say unfortunately, because Tim Keller is certainly, by predisposition and communication, a warm hearted brother, who genuinely loves God, and loves God’s people. What is unfortunate, to me, about Keller’s espousal of his underlying theology, is that it does not start with God as Triune love, in method (even if his piety asserts such, and it does!). What Keller is communicating is nothing more than classic Federal or Covenant theology communicated in such a way that it sounds warm and loving. But upon further examination what is going on is that God, because he is holy and just, cannot love an unholy and unjust people, until the penalty of their law-breaking, or sins, has been paid for (which the emboldening in the quote substantiates). For Keller’s theology, Jesus becomes the instrument for meeting these law-conditions (making Jesus unnecessary to God’s life, other than being the one who intended to meet these conditions—which subordinates Jesus to the Father, and places a rupture between the Father’s and the Son’s consubstantial life of love).
Evangelical Calvinism offers a different way in contrast to Keller’s taxonomy of things—”… creation, fall, promise and prefigurement, Israel, Christ’s redemption, and restoration” (p. 27-8″—along with Barth, Torrance, Ray Anderson, et. al., we see an inversion of this order, primarily relative to Keller’s order, we would order it this way: “covenant (his promise and prefigurement), creation, fall, Israel, redemption, restoration.” The ‘EC’ order shifts (if you didn’t notice we shift covenant/promise and creation; we place covenant or God’s life before creation, Keller’s approach places God’s life in redemption after creation and after the fall and after Israel) things quite drastically. Now when God comes in Christ, he initially comes for the same reason He initially created, that is because He is love, and he loves each and every person from the get go because of who He is, and who He has chosen to be for us in Christ. The cross, then becomes a demonstration of his love, and not the source by which he is able to love the elect. There is no condition that God has to meet before he can love humanity, because he has already chosen to be humanity for us in Christ (whose image we have been created and recreated in).
I would love to see Tim Keller abandon the Westminster Covenant theology that funds his pastoral theology, and instead embrace a view (like EC offers) that actually does on the ground what he desires. That is articulates a pastoral theology that is truly Christ conditioned and grounded from God’s Triune life of love and gracious action.
An alternative read that fits with the heart of Keller’s vision, but from an Evangelical Calvinist orientation is offered by Ray S. Anderson in his book: The Soul of Ministry: Forming Leaders For God’s People. I would highly recommend this work as an alternative resource to Keller’s offering in his book that I have been highlighting here.