A Response to Tim Keller’s ‘Third Way of Winsomeness’ and James Wood’s Critique

My friend, James Wood, wrote what became a controversial essay for First Things (of which he serves as an editor) entitled: How I Evolved on Tim Keller. As was predictable Twitter took up the baton of James’ essay, and ran in equal and opposing takes. My summary of James’ essay is this, in nuce: Tim Keller has attempted to offer a ‘third way’ to an engagement with the culture writ large. His third way operates in such a way that ‘winsomeness’ or ‘being extra nice’ to the culture will eventually draw the culture into the way of the Church, the ‘third way.’ This way might have worked a decade ago, to an extent, but given the shifts in the culture, particularly as so-called post-modern ideation took hold, or what we might call a ‘normative relativism,’ being winsome no longer works. The culture, instead of being open to the ‘nice people’ is now wholly ‘negative’ towards the third way, as such winsomeness no longer serves as the best way to engage with the culture. Indeed, as I read Wood, winsomeness for Keller really has become a symbol for capitulation to the mainstream winds of the culture; indeed, while this critique could be pinpointed on Keller, it is really one, more broadly focused on the whole of BigEva (‘Big Evangelicalism’). Insofar as I have understood James’ thesis I can only say, amen.

Conversely, while I stand in fellowship with Wood’s critique, in regard to a Kellerian engagement with the culture, I think my alternative approach is at an impasse with James’ own more ‘De Lubacian’ approach, which still maintains some sense of a given ‘natural order’ inherent to the world, even while given to it by the grace of God. I wrote the following as a thread on Twitter and Facebook, as an expression, off the top, of how I see the ‘third way,’ and the alternative to that as understood through a radically Christologically construed lens:

There is no “third way,” such a way always already presupposes the “binary,” and thus becomes predicated by it. In other words, to say that the Christian way in the world, vis-à-vis politics etc., ought to represent a third way (per Keller) presupposes that there is a “natural order” suffused by an abstract notion of common grace that purportedly funds the entirety of the created order. But this simply is not the Christian case. The created order is sustained by and for the living Word who is the Christ. The order is always already contingent upon that Word. As such its life is one of ec-static existence, one that is always already given to it, afresh anew, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, as He speaks God’s Word to us from moment to moment. It is this “hovering Word,” this in-breaking invasive Word whereby the Christian lives their respective lives from. There is nothing stable in this world order, except the Word for whom it was created. So, the Christian looks to and bears witness to Jesus Christ and His disruptive Word of Grace. A Word that contradicts the “common order,” with the otherworldly order of Kingdom come and coming. The common Grace of this world, is God’s disruptive Grace for the world as given in His own enfleshment in the Son. Thus, the Christian doesn’t operate from a “third way,” the Christian operates from the ONLY WAY, Jesus Christ.

I don’t think Wood’s and I conclude at disparate places, per se, but we arrive at the destination differently. Either way, Keller’s third way ends up looking thisworldly in a very abstract sense. In other words, his purported winsomeness ends up being a capitulation to the winds of the progressive culture rather than a witness that contradicts it. Is the culture good, inherently so? No, the cross says so. Is there a way to be in the world that stands back and looks critically at the ways of the world, and says: ‘there is a better way, a third way, and I am here to tell you about it.’ No, the resurrection says so. The reality is that the Christian Way is not a thing, or a mode, it is not a posture we have possession over. Thus, the Christian Way ends up being something that the Christian waits upon, and bears witness to as the Way comes afresh anew into the life of the Christian as the Christian bears witness to their lived reality, to their Christian existence for them in Jesus Christ. When the Christian lives in and from this Way it ends up being a way that is not informed as a third way, as an alternative to the other ways of the world, but the Only Way as the Lord of lords imposes Himself upon our ways, and thus the world’s way. In other words, rather than living from a ‘holy-huddle’ (third wayism), from a static worldview known as the Christian third way, the Christian lives under the Way of God for the world that not only contradicts the ways of the world, but the ways of the Church, insofar that the Church ends up looking more like the culture it inhabits (by way of values, morality so on and so forth) rather than the culture of heaven whence it receives its life as gift moment-by-moment from Jesus Christ. The third way, as I read it, forecloses on the Way of God for the world in Jesus Christ in such a way that it leaves its proponents in the same lurch it is supposedly attempting to redeem. In other words, ironically, the third way ends up collapsing the Kingdom into its own perception of what that looks like, and in so doing its way ends up looking like the cultures of this world rather than the culture of the King. And this, once again, because the third way ends up really being a worldview constructed from the supposition that the world has an inherently natural order to it, one funded by the neo-Calvinist, or Dutch Reformed notion of ‘common grace.’ But this isn’t the way, for as David Fergusson has written: “the world was made so that Christ might be born.”

6 thoughts on “A Response to Tim Keller’s ‘Third Way of Winsomeness’ and James Wood’s Critique

  1. A keenly insightful and well-stated demonstration of “the Spirit’s lamp…” “…with its light giving light…” to those who are His. It is the world that is bankrupt and upon which the way of God, fully funded in Jesus Christ, stands to foreclose. A good word, Brother.

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  2. Amen. Both the Cross and the Resurrection have stamped both the No and Yes on the “Way” forward. The Church bears witness to the world of this way “forward” only as it reminds itself and the world of the events that have already proclaimed this “Way.” Unfortunately when the Church has no Word to proclaim, it will and does come up with “other ways” which, like false gods and idols, have not power to correct those ways. It is not through capitulation to cultural accommodations that a “breath of the Spirit” will arrive. It has already been hovering and creating it’s own response which always bears witness to the Way forward through Jesus who suffered, died and rose again. That way is never accommodation, but judgement, renewal and promise.

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  3. Amen, Paul! The vacuum created without Christ, or displacing Christ with our own vacuous humanity, only can lead to idolatry and the demonic heights. Glad the Lord remembers our frames our but dust.

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  4. “Churches must not maintain unity at the expense of the gospel. Churches should not destroy unity or fellowship over political differences.” – Tim Keller. The gospel is prior to unity in churches. It is prior to political differences. This is Keller’s ‘third way’. Do you find this, the principle underlying the ‘third way’, problematic?

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