Gospel Theology: Center Church juxtaposted with The Soul of Ministry [covenant theologies in disparity]

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. gospeltheologyMuch 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.

soulUnfortunately, 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.


15 thoughts on “Gospel Theology: Center Church juxtaposted with The Soul of Ministry [covenant theologies in disparity]

  1. Hi Bobby,
    Good post of yours! I fully understand your worries about Keller’s position on the basis of the quotation you give. However in his book The Reason for God Keller explains the way God deals with us in Christ on the cross (ch.12). He emphasizes that it is crucial to remember that the christian faith always saw Christ as God Himself! So, it is God who paid our debts. But if that is the case, how could we ‘explain’ that God is willing to do so, unless it is out of pure love?
    Perhaps Keller might, after all, be an Evangelical Calvinist…? Or, the other option, we touch here upon a unresolved tension in his theology?


  2. Hi Arjen,

    I am getting the same kind of push back on Keller, and his apparent imprecision of language by friends on FB (where this post has linked through). But Keller’s “order” or taxonomy of things is very clear (… creation, fall, promise and prefigurement, Israel, Christ’s redemption, and restoration” (p. 27-8), and coupled with the quote and emboldening above, I have a hard time believing that Keller is as aloof as you and those defending on my FB wall propose; in fact I think that Keller is very intentional and very careful in what he writes … which makes Keller who he is.


  3. Hi Bobby,
    I have to agree with you here. I’ve been reading Center Church too and, while i find Keller’s pastoral and organizational style very attractive, his explanation of the gospel consistently hiccups over the person of Christ in favor of his work. Jesus’ obedience and the Father-Son relation are almost completely absent from his explanation of what is the gospel. He emphasizes again and again Jesus as our substitute, but never speaks of Jesus as our representative as well. I haven’t yet finished the book, but i am very interested to see how this significance difference (deficiency) in theology will affect the way he understands culture and mission.


  4. Hi Bobby,
    I see what you mean. As far as I’m acquainted with Keller, I can very well imagine that you are on the right track with this comment. But it seems to me that we arrive then at my second option. Though willing to confirm God’s love (like in The Reason for God), in the end he seems to endorse the belief that for God the cross was a necessary condition before being able to love us, sinners that we are. That seems to me a real tension and a real problem, indeed typically for calvinists. Though not, of course, for evangelical calvinists 😉


  5. Hey Bobby,

    Thanks for your reflections. I realize you have a problem with how traditional covenant theology relates the doctrine of God to the redemptive-historical timeline, but how do you deal with YHWH’s relationship to Israel’s covenant history of blessing/ cursing and exile/return? Aren’t the realities of curse/blessing and exile/return to be coordinated with God’s judgment/love? I find that Keller is simply relating Jesus to Israel’s history and seeking to show how the cross is the event of God’s eschatological judgment. So the rub is, how do you relate God’s love with the cross-event of judgment? I guess one way is to sidestep those realities and boil the problem down to how covenant is construed in protology, but then I think you would be accused of not taking serious the weight of biblical covenants and how they themselves are revelatory of who God is.

    Btw, I think all Reformed stripes would say you are way off base in saying God could not love until the penalty was paid. God’s love is what sent the Son.


  6. I should clarify my last sentence. I didn’t mean that you thought this way about God (i.e., God could not love….), but that you see traditional covenant Reformed guys articulating the gospel this way. Hence I was defending the traditional covenant view.


  7. Geordie,

    Exactly, My reading, so far, while just in the beginning stages, is right in line with your observations. There is an attractiveness about Keller’s style, but when it comes the articulating the very core definition of what serves as the title of his book Gosepl Theology I find it terribly concerning; especially insofar as the work of Christ is abstracted from the person of Christ—the dualism the “Latin heresy” that Torrance was fundamentally so opposed to!


  8. Yes, but Casey, God’s love may be what sent the Son, but that’s not the point I am making; I am not saying that God is not love (is rightfully clarify in your last comment), I am saying that in classic Covenant theology, God’s ability to love is contingent and subordinate to meeting the conditions set out by the Law. If this is true, then God’s capacity to love the elect is contingent upon (by way of ordo) Him meeting the conditions of the Law, which climax (penultimately) at the cross, where satisfaction is made for the elect. At this point the goodness of God is ratified on behalf of the elect, and God is able to fully love them, based upon the Law being met. And this also points out that, indeed, the protology of God is one that is based upon a relation of Law, and that this protology ends up defining who God is, and so Law and Love in God become univocal; but if this is so, then I find it very hard to understand how a rupture is not placed into God’s life between the consubtantiality that coinheres between the Father and the Son; insofar as the Son subordinates Himself to meeting the conditions of the Law which are predicated upon the contingencies of creation, and not ulitmately upon the contingency of relation that is eternally present in God’s Triune life and freedom.

    No, I don’t think I have a problem dealing with blessing/cursing; it is just that the way I go about that is by understanding all of that framed, protologically, by God’s life of grace, and thus not as an issue of law-keeping as the sine qua non of how creation relates to God. I thought Paul makes clear in Romans 4–5 that Law was given after the Fall in order to serve as a school master to point to Christ (which would be a function of God’s grace), but in Covenant theology (classic), God’s grace is only an exemplification of God’s Law; which is the original ground upon which God chose to relate to humanity in the Covenant of Works.

    I am not making this up, at all, Casey. I am working on a post, a long long long quote from Richard Muller who describes and defends exactly what I just tried to sketch above in regard to the primacy of Law and its univocity with Grace, such that to speak of either becomes equivocal in classic Covenant theology, with the obvious reality being that Law rues the day, and that God becomes subservient to his absolute decrees, insofar as those decrees are embedded in creation and not prior to it grounded in God’s life. That’s why it is so important to follow Barth’s inversion of Covenant theology by going: 1) Covenant, 2) Creation, 3) Fall etc etc. , instead of classic Covenant theology of: 2) Creation, 1) Covenant, 3) Fall etc etc.


  9. Hey Bobby,

    It seems the issue is how we both are understanding law. You rightly highlight one use of the law (i.e., law as pedagogue), but as you know, Reformed theology emphasizes another use, which Calvin would call its highest use, namely to reveal what is pleasing to God. Law in this sense is not antithetical to grace. Bavinck, for example, sees grace as restoring nature (don’t confuse this with Aquinas’ grace supplementing nature). In other words, grace (Jesus) restores us to do what the law requires (Rom. 8:4;13:8-10), that is love God and neighbor. So in one sense, creation should relate to God on the basis of law-keeping, that is, if you understand law as love.


  10. Casey,

    I think the difference between us is more fundamental that just Law; I would suggest that our difference–not really knowing your position, so just presumptively–has more to do with our understanding of how covenant functions as both an ontological and interpretive reality. Not only that, but my guess is that you are not following the way Barth reorders Covenant theology in the kind of Christ concentrated way that he does–as my long new post above highlights; and so I would think that our point of departure is more significant than just how we understand Law.

    I am aware of Calvin’s 3 uses of the Law, indeed. I’d be curious to see how you materially differentiate Bavinck’s view of grace from Thomas’s. I would imagine there is a bit of Ramist method involved in order to get this distinction between Bavinck and Thomas on this, but I would need to understand better how Bavinck parses things to conclude anything.

    What do you think of Barth and Torrance, Casey?


  11. Hi Bobby and Casey (Bedell),

    Casey, based on your previous comment, it seems you would say that, rather than having fulfilled the law, Jesus is the “means” through which we fulfill the law. In this case He would be the beginning of the law for those who believe and not the end. Did I misunderstood your comment?


  12. Casey,

    So to be consistent with your logic, you would have to hold that God, who is love, relates in his inner life by law. Or you would have to hold that there is a human love, which is different ontologically from the Triune love that God is.

    I see other issues, but I’m on my phone :-).


  13. KC,

    I don’t think of Christ as simply the means. Though I would say that our sharing in his life, death and resurrection results in our fulfilling the law and that is a consequence of his fulfilling (πληρῶσαι) the law (Matt. 5:17). Rom. 8 situates our fulfilling the law in relation to Christ’s work and our sharing in the same eschatological Spirit that raised him from the dead. And of course Christ is the telos of the law (Rom. 10:4). All in all, I would want to relate our fulfilling (consequence of faith) and Christ’s fulfilling (grounds of our faith) to our union with him.


    I would be okay with your last comment. I have no problem saying God relates in his inner life by law, but it depends on how you are defining law. Sadly most think of law as only having legal and forensic aspects, but I see existential and corporate aspects too. I have been heavily influenced by John Frame on this, and I have come to believe, contra classic Lutheranism and Dispensationalism, there is no reason to pit love against law. Also, I have been shaped by Stephen Westerholm, who ironically is a Lutheran, and his excellent work called “Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith”, more recently published as, “Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and his Critics”.

    As for Bavinck and Aquinas, I have notes on this, but it would take me too long to dig them out. But as I recall, Aquinas sees nature as sufficient on its own to know God (i.e., proofs, natural theology, etc.), but grace lifts us beyond to a salvific knowledge. Bavinck on the other hand sees nature as entirely incapable of any true knowledge, thus grace is absolutely necessary for their to be any knowledge, though he does leave room for common grace, which some see as identical to natural law/theology. I guess that is where some see similarities between Bavinck and Aquinas. I am honestly not versed enough on this to be able to say much more.

    Interestingly, John Vissers pointed out that whenever Barth quotes Bavinck in his Dogmatics, it is almost always positive.


  14. Casey,

    If you read my long post on Muller and Covenant Theology it is clear that classical Covenant Theology [which apparently you reject] does believe that forensicism shapes the Covenant of works; even if it wants to conflate Law as Grace or vice versa. Clearly there are existential aspects of the Mosaic Law Code for the society of Israel, but the problem–I think–with suggesting that God relates in His inner life by Law, is that the method used to arrive at such a conclusion predicates God’s relating upon a social analogy derived from our reading of how torah functions in salvation-history (and salvation-history is contingent on something prior, namely God’s life). And so to me this is the wrong way, because even if we want to assert that God still has priority in shaping what Law is, or that it is an exemplification of His attributes of holiness; the realm that it is happening in, in classical theology (whether Lutheran or Reformed) is a kind of ‘pure nature’ (even for Bavinck, as I understand him). A realm where we think from an analogy of being, one that is not first predicated by the grace of God’s life as Covenant. So I can appreciate your points, Casey; but in the end I think I finally disagree with them (that long post on Muller above explains more).

    I once wrote a paper for seminary on Aquinas’ view of nature and grace, and have engaged with him since. I think you are right in your characterization of his view. And I have not read enough of Bavinck to come to any conclusion about his view (but he does, I know riff, in his own way on Kuyper’s ‘sphere’ theology and common grace—actually in contradistinction to Kuyper as I recall).

    I’ve read a paper on Barth and Bavinck; and Barth does not appropriate Bavinck’s view of nature and grace–clearly–but Bavinck’s theology of the Word, Deus Dixit.


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