Keller’s affinity with Rome

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate Dr Tim Keller’s affinity with the Roman Catholic Church from his best-selling book The Reason for God (2008), in which he sets out to defend the truth of the Christian Faith. Keller explains his spiritual journey to find ‘a group of Christians who had a concern for justice in the world but who grounded it in the nature of God rather than in their own subjective feelings. When I found that “band of brothers” – and sisters (just as important!) – things began to change for me… I became interested in shaping and initiating new Christian communities.’ So Keller’s mission is clear – to shape and initiate new Christian communities.

 Tim Keller is no ordinary Christian. As the pastor of a mega church in New York City, and leader of the Redeemer City to City church planting network, and as the founder of The Gospel Coalition, Keller is hugely influential in the Christian Church in general, and the New Calvinist movement in particular. So when he writes a book on The Reason for God (2008), Christian believers around the world are obliged to sit up and take notice. Keller is so popular in the Christian world that it is no surprise that his book was in the top 10 of the New York Times bestseller list. A Newsweek profile concluded: ‘Keller is a pastor for people who like their Christianity straight up.’

The blurb on the back page of The Reason for God says that ‘Keller uses literature, philosophy, real-life conversations, and reasoning to explain how faith in a Christian God is a soundly rational belief, held by thoughtful people of intellectual integrity who truly want to know the truth.’ The premise of Keller’s book is that literature, philosophy and reasoning are able to lead to faith in a Christian God.

In this article, dear reader, we shall examine the literature and philosophy that Keller uses in The Reason for God to accomplish his aim, with special reference to Keller’s beliefs about Roman Catholicism.

 Keller on theistic evolution

In a discussion on science and religion, Keller seeks to justify his support for the dogma of theistic evolution. He writes: ‘Evolutionary science assumes that more complex life-forms evolved from less complex forms though a process of natural selection. Many Christians believe that God brought about life this way. For example, the Catholic Church, the largest church in the world, has made official pronouncements supporting evolution as being compatible with Christian belief.’ [page 87]. By his statement: ‘the Catholic Church, the largest church in the world’, Keller is conferring on the Roman Catholic Church the accolade of being the largest Christian Church in the world.

In his definition of Christianity, Keller is clear that he includes all Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians who affirm the traditional creeds of the Faith. He writes: ‘Nevertheless, all Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians assent together to the great creeds of the first thousand years of church history, such as the Apostle’s, Nicene, Chalcedonian and Athanasian creeds. In these creeds the fundamental Christian view of reality is laid out… What is Christianity? For our purposes, I’ll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds… I am making a case in this book for the truth of Christianity in general – not for one particular strand of it.’ [p116-117].

From the above two statements we see that Keller makes no distinction between the Protestant faith and Roman Catholicism—he defends the whole Church, which includes the Roman Catholic Church, and not one particular strand. In Keller’s mind, a Christian believer is one who affirms belief in the ecumenical creeds of the Faith, and this includes Roman Catholics. But Keller’s definition of Christianity is contrary to Protestant doctrine laid out in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

 Alvin Plantinga – Christian philosopher

In his book Keller refers to the ideas of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga seven times, as he deals with issues such as the existence of God, wickedness, religious culture, and science and religion. Of significance is the fact that Professor Plantinga has enormous affinity with the Roman Catholic Church, having spent three decades as the Director of the Centre of Philosophy and Religion at Notre Dame University. During his time at Notre Dame, a Catholic University, Professor Plantinga published online, reflections on Pope John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical ‘On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason’. Plantinga wrote: ‘From any seriously Christian point of view – Protestant as well as Catholic – it [the encyclical] contains a great deal of solid good sense.’ He concluded his reflections with the comment that while some Protestants may be in less than enthusiastic agreement with all that the Pope has written, ‘they will (or should) regard both the Pope and Catholics generally as brothers and sisters in Christ—and as wonderful allies in precisely these areas of responding to contemporary non-Christian philosophy… we do not need to fight each other. We must make common cause with these fellow Christians…’

Keller’s favourite Christian philosopher sees no difference between Protestant believers and Roman Catholics, for in his eyes, both the Pope, and Catholics generally, are brothers and sisters in Christ. The fact that Keller quotes Plantinga so frequently must lead us to conclude that Keller is in agreement with the sentiments of Plantinga, namely, that Protestant believers should make common cause with their fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church.

 Catholic philosopher – Peter Kreeft

Keller deals with the question of how a good God can allow evil, pain and suffering in the world. Keller writes: ‘In response the philosopher Peter Kreef points out that the Christian God came to earth to deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering. In Jesus Christ, God experienced the greatest depths of pain.’ Here we should note that Keller has quoted another Catholic philosopher. Professor Kreef explains how as a theological student he investigated the claims of the Roman Catholic Church. He writes of his conversion: ‘I discovered in the early Church such Catholic elements as the centrality of the Eucharist, the Real Presence, prayers to saints, devotion to Mary, an insistence on visible unity, and apostolic succession. Furthermore, the Church Fathers just “smelled” more Catholic than Protestant.’[1] Professor Kreef is the author of numerous books and articles, which deal with Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics, written from a Roman Catholic perspective. Keller apparently believes that the those who read The Reason for God will benefit from the wisdom of a Catholic philospher.

Catholic author – Mary Flannery O’Conner

Keller writes that it’s important to give a concrete answer to those who want to become a Christian, for they need to be helped to understand God’s grace. Keller explains that he could show the way of grace ‘in a hundred famous spiritual biographies, such as those ofSt Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley… But my favourite example of the trauma of grace is the one depicted by Flannery O’Connor in her short story ‘Revelation’.’ [page 237]. But Keller does not let his readers know that O’Connor is a devout Roman Catholic.

Keller spends two pages summarising O’Connor’s short story, before concluding: ‘What a radical idea! The “freaks and lunatics” going to heaven before the morally upright tribe?’ [page240]. Keller mentions how O’Connor’s faith enabled her to face an early death due to lupus without complaint or fear.

In his chapter, ‘Religion and the Gospel’, Keller quotes from Mary Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood: Three (1952), to show that one way of being very bad is by being very good, keeping all the rules and becoming self-righteous. In his final chapter, ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’, Keller makes three further references to the writings of Mary Flannery O’Connor.

In view of Keller’s devotion to O’Connor’s writing we need to know something of what she believed. Here is a quote from the New World Encylopedia:

‘A life-long Roman Catholic, O’Connor’s writing was deeply informed by the sacramental, and by the Thomistic notion [from St Thomas Aquinas] that the created world is charged with God… She wrote ironic, subtly allegorical fiction about deceptively backward Southern characters, usually fundamentalist Protestants, who undergo transformations of character that, in O’Connor’s view, brought them closer to the Catholic mind. The transformation is often accomplished through pain and violence. However grotesque the setting, she tried to portray her characters as they might be touched by divine grace—not in the Protestant sense of total absolution of sins, but rather as an incremental growth of character.’[2]

The fact that Keller chose to use O’Connor’s writing to illustrate the meaning of grace tells us much about his theology. From the vast ocean of Reformed literature, which explains that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, Keller chose to use a Catholic novelist. He appears to have a real affinity with the Catholic thinking behind O’Connor’s novels. And it seems that he goes along with O’Connor’s approach of subtly undermining the Reformed faith through her caricatures of fundamentalist Protestant Christians.

Catholic mystic – Simone Weil

Keller seems to have a fascination with the mystic Simone Weil. In his chapter on ‘The Problem of Sin’, Keller quotes a sermon by a woman priest of the Episcopalian Church which includes Simone Weil’s quotation: ‘All sins are attempts to fill voids.’ [page 160].

Keller starts his chapter ‘The Dance of God’ [page213] with a lengthy quote for Simone Weil’s book, Waiting for God.  Weil was deeply drawn to the Catholic Church even though she never formally converted. While in Assisi in the spring of 1937, she experienced a religious ecstasy in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli—the same church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed. Weil wrote in Waiting for God: ‘There was a young English Catholic there from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. Chance – for I always prefer saying chance rather thanProvidence – made of him a messenger to me.’ The Lord’s Prayer and the Eucharist became increasingly important to Weil, and she said that during these times ‘Christ himself descended and took me’ [Weil, An Anthology, p. 35].

What is surprising is that Keller, a Reformed pastor, should give so much prominence to the mystical literature of Simone Weil. Yet perhaps we should not be suprised, for we have already documented his promotion of mystical Catholic meditation.

 Catholic activism

Keller refers to the influence of the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe that refused to die under Communism. He mentions the activism of a Polish priest that helped to establish a free trade union movement in Communist Poland in the early 1980s, and concludes: ‘The Christian underpinnings of the resistant movement were unmistakable’ [page 65].  Keller quotes Czesław Miłosz, the Catholic Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, as support for the idea that the loss of belief in a God of judgement can lead to brutality [page 75].

Catholic martyr – Archbishop Oscar Romero

In chapter four, Keller discusses the injustice and oppression caused by the Church, and finds a redeeming feature in those who have stood against oppression. He comments: ‘There is a long list of martyrs who stood up for the oppressed in Jesus’ name, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Romero was made archbishop for his conservative, orthodox, doctrinal views. In his new post he saw irrefutable evidence of chronic and violent human rights abuses by the government. He began to speak out fearlessly against it, and as a result he was shot to death in 1980 while saying Mass.’ [page 66] In 1997, a cause for beatification and canonization into sainthood was opened for Romero, and Pope John Paul II bestowed upon him the title of Servant of God. The canonization process continues.

Here we should note that Keller, a Presbyterian minister, actually refers to the beliefs of a Roman Catholic archbishop as doctrinally orthodox. What does Keller mean? Here a definition is helpful—orthodox means ‘sound or correct in opinion or doctrine, especially theological or religious doctrine’. What message is Keller trying to impart to the reader? And so we must ask, does Keller believe that Roman Catholic dogma is doctrinally sound? Does Keller believe that Catholic dogma on Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is worshiped as the ‘Mother of God’ and the ‘Queen of Heaven’, is doctrinally sound? Is Catholic dogma on the papal authority doctrinally orthodox? Is Catholic dogma on the Eucharist orthodox? Are Catholic pilgrimages to Lourdes orthodox? And so we must ask is Keller’s theology orthodox?

 Catholic celebrities – Muggeridge, Chesterton and Tolkien

In a discussion of truth-claims [page 38], Keller quotes from Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith. Chesterton routinely referred to himself as an “orthodox” Christian, and came to identify such a position more and more with Catholicism, eventually converting to Roman Catholicism from High Church Anglicanism.  Keller quotes from Malcolm Muggeridge’s book, Jesus Rediscovered. [page 186]. Muggeridge is credited with popularising Mother Teresa and in his later years became a Catholic and morals campaigner. Keller quotes JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, twice. Tolkien’s devout Catholic faith was a significant factor in the conversion of CS Lewis from atheism to Christianity, although Tolkien was dismayed that Lewis chose to join the Church of England.

 Keller interviewed by Anthony Sacramone

Keller was interviewed on The Reason for God by Anthony Sacramone, a journalist with America’s premier Roman Catholic journal of religion and culture, ‘First Things’:

Anthony Sacramone: You talk about significant differences between Christian denominations. In the book [The Reason for God], you’re coy about your own affiliation, except to say that you’re a Protestant. Why didn’t you come out and say, “Look, I’m coming at this from a Reformed, Presbyterian, Calvinist perspective, because I think that best explains who Jesus is, what Jesus did for us, what the Church is.”

Keller: Because I’d like to be understood, Anthony. Now I know that the average reader in a Barnes & Noble, picking up the book and reading it, will know the difference between Catholic and Protestant, but I don’t think they’re going to know what a Reformed Presbyterian, Calvinist is. Unless I want to take a page or two to explain the differences between all the Protestant denominations, I don’t want to go there.

I think the most important sentence in the book on that subject was, ‘All Christians believe all these things, but no Christian believes just these things.’ So I said, ‘Here’s the Apostles Creed, and the Trinity, the deity of Christ, he died for our sins, saved by grace, you’ve got to be a part of the Church’—right? OK. I said, ‘All Christians believe all these things. If you don’t believe all these things, you’re not a Christian: You’re in a cult, you’re a member of another religion, or you’re a secular person.’

All Christians believe all these things, but no Christian believes just these things is my way of saying there’s no such thing as ‘mere Christianity’. There just isn’t. Because as soon as you ask, ‘How do I get the grace of God?’—you’re a Catholic or a Protestant. Is it the sacraments primarily, or are the sacraments just a symbol of how you get it? As soon as you start talking about how do we relate to the Church, you know, or how does God open your eyes—then you’re Arminian or a Calvinist.

This puts me in a position where I don’t want to defend just one kind of Christianity. I think I want to defend the Apostles Creed. And I want you, as a nonbeliever, to buy the Apostles’ Creed, and then after that figure out where you want to go. I really think I can do that. But, at the same time, I don’t believe I can possibly speak to a lot of these things without [doing so from] within my particularity. So I actually say that there are certain chapters in which I’m going to be speaking as a Protestant because there’s no way not to speak as a Protestant or a Catholic…

Here’s what so misleading. If I say I’m speaking as a Reformed Protestant and I’m just going to defend Reformed Protestantism, 80 percent of what I’m going to say in that book will be defending a Catholic Christian’s faith, too. So why not admit that?  It was a real dance. It was a real tightrope… there are certain places in which, if you’re a Catholic—I’ve got some really strong friends who are strong Catholics, and they love the book, but I’m sure when they get to certain places they say, ‘Yeah, there we go…’ But they don’t mind it, because they’re really happy to have a book that’s basically defending the whole Faith. And if I was just running up the flag saying, ‘I’m a Protestant, I’m Reformed, I’m Presbyterian, I’m Reformed, not Arminian’—I don’t know. This is my best guess, my best guess at how I can model the unity of the Church.

One of the things that non-Christians hate about us is how much we don’t like each other. How am I going to overcome their prejudices unless I show a certain breadth of spirit and generosity toward people with different views? And the best way to do that is not to be always talking about the fact that I’m Reformed.[3]

In this interview Keller is clear that his intention is to defend the whole Faith, and that, in his mind, includes defending the Church of Rome. In effect, Keller has publicly repudiated the Reformation and the blood of the martyrs, such as Cranmer, Ridley, Lattimer, who gave their lives for the truth of the Reformed Faith of Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers.

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In this article, dear reader, we have seen that Tim Keller has a profound affinity with Roman Catholicism. Here we need to understand some of the more important doctrinal errors within the Catholic system.

The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (1995)

This book by William Webster, published by The Banner of Truth, documents the doctrinal errors of the Catholic Church over the centuries. The following quotes are helpful to our understanding:

‘Through long centuries the Church of Rome has arrogated to itself a false authority and has subjected the Church of Jesus Christ to false teaching. The Roman Catholic teaching of authority in its exaltation of tradition, the papacy and the Church, is a depreciation of the authority of Scripture and the supreme authority of Jesus Christ. It supplants divine authority with human authority.’[4]

‘The Roman Catholic Church has allowed the cult of Mary to develop into Mariology which it openly promotes in its art, its festivals, its liturgy, its teaching and its worship. The veneration of Mary promoted by Roman Catholicism is pure idolatry, for God alone is worth of such devotion, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, submission and entreaty.’[5]

‘The Roman Catholic Church has distorted the truth by elevating man and man’s authority and works to the central place which belongs to Christ and God alone in the crucial issues of authority and salvation. Through its legalistic teachings it has invalidated the work of Christ in salvation. By elevating Mary to the position of mediatrix and queen, and the Pope as visible head of the Church, it has set aside the biblical teaching that Christ is the only head and sovereign over the church. By encouraging worship of Mary it has promoted idolatry. By its teachings on the sacraments and the priesthood it has undermined the sufficiency of the atonement of Jesus Christ, and his unique and exclusive role as mediator and priest. In its teaching on grace and justification it has shifted the foundation for salvation from the imputed righteousness of Christ to imparted grace which enables a man to merit heaven by his own works, thereby perverting the biblical meaning of grace and centring salvation in a work of man.’[6]

To understand how far Keller has moved from the Reformed Faith, let us contrast Keller’s view of Roman Catholicism with that of Charles Spurgeon.

Charles Spurgeon on Roman Catholicism

Charles Spurgeon (1834 – 1892), the prince of Protestant preachers, had no doubt about the dangers of Roman Catholicism. Based on the verse, ‘Cursed be the man before the Lord, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho’ (Joshua 6:26), Spurgeon wrote:

‘Since he was cursed who rebuilt Jericho, much more the man who labours to restore Popery among us. In our fathers’ days the gigantic walls of Popery fell by the power of their faith, the perseverance of their efforts, and the blast of their gospel trumpets; and now there are some who would rebuild that accursed system upon its old foundations… We must warn with judicious boldness those who are inclined towards the errors of Rome; we must instruct the young in gospel truth, and tell them of the black doings of Popery in the olden times. We must aid in spreading the light more thoroughly through the land, for priests, like owls, hate daylight. Are we doing all we can for Jesus and the gospel? If not, our negligence plays into the hands of priest-craft.’[7]

 Conclusion

The difference between Spurgeon’s view of Roman Catholicism, and Keller’s view, is like the difference between day and night. While Spurgeon says cursed ‘is the man who labours to restore Popery among us’, Keller does all he can to defend Catholicism, with its papal system, as just another version of Christianity. By his flawed teaching Keller is subtly seeking to restore Popery among the evangelical fold. Perhaps now we know what Keller means when he says he wants to shape and initiate new Christian communities.

In this head on clash we see the difference between the true Reformed Faith, taught by Spurgeon (sometimes referred to as Calvinism), and a fake version of the Reformed Faith, taught by Keller (sometimes referred to as New Calvinism). What is so alarming is that Keller is freely propagating his false teaching through The Gospel Coalition, the Redeemer City to City church planting network and the New Calvinist movement.

You can learn more about Dr Tim Keller, Pastor Mark Driscoll’s and Pastor John Piper in the book, The New Calvinists (2014), published by The Wakeman Trust and Belmont House Publishing. The book is available from belmonthousebooks.com/

 


 

[3] http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2008/02/an-interview-with-timothy-kell

[4] William Webster, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, The Banner of Truth, 1995, p71

[5] Ibid. p88

[6] Ibid. p149-150

[7] From “Evening By Evening” by Charles Spurgeon, Uhrichsville, Barbour and Company, 1991.