Review of Walking with God

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

by Timothy Keller

‘This is a dark world. There are many ways we keep that darkness at bay, but we cannot do it forever. Eventually the lights of our lives – love, health, home, work – will begin to go out. And when that happens, we will need something more than our own understanding, competence, and power can give us.’  Taken from the book’s jacket, this quotation states the problem that Keller claims to address using ‘biblical wisdom and personal stories to bring a much-needed, fresh viewpoint to this important issue’.   Few would argue, even today, that we need more than our own understanding, competence, and power in dark times. This alone will attract readers as will the promise of ‘personal stories’. By our very nature, we think we need fresh viewpoints from an expert giving biblical wisdom.

In the introduction, Keller states that this is a book for sufferers, for ‘we are all sufferers, or will be… those who are not feeling it, but are seeing it in others, will have a host of philosophical, social, psychological and moral questions about it.’ (p7) The book wastes no time inviting a wide audience. It discusses philosophical approaches to suffering, ways various cultures have responded to suffering, and the so-called problem of evil. In addition, Keller claims to offer a variety of ‘individual ways or strategies that the Bible lays out walking through suffering. None of them is sufficient in itself, nor should we interpret them as a series of discrete “steps” that can be followed like a recipe’ (p240).

‘None of them is sufficient in itself, nor should we interpret them as a series of discrete ‘steps’ that can be followed like a recipe’ (p240). However, his ‘practical material’ is replete with words like ‘difficult assignment’ (255), ‘strategy’ (p258), ‘we must do the same thing’ (p263), ‘your strength comes from doing the responsibilities’ (p288), ‘get in touch with your feelings’ (p289), ‘we must listen to our hearts’ (p289), ‘processing their condition… doing this work’ (p291), and ‘you and I can learn this’. (p297) In spite of his denial, Keller’s book is a ‘doing’ recipe for self-improvement appealing to that insatiable desire in the heart of every man. Surely self-help is among the highest aspirations of the sensate culture in which we all live.

Upon Closer Inspection

However, this book should not be dismissed as just another Christian self-help book. Keller’s theology, flawed at the most fundamental level, becomes evident in this book more than in any of his previous writings. He truly presents ‘a God without wrath bringing men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’ (H. Richard Niebuhr commenting on American Christianity, The Kingdom of God in America, 1938). What follows is an expose of Keller’s deeply flawed theology.

Keller’s Concept of Christian Love

To really understand Walking with God, we need to recognize the influence of Catholic theology on Keller’s thinking. In this regard the work of Anders Nygren, a Lutheran theologian is extremely helpful. In his seminal book, Agape and Eros, A Study of the Christian Idea of Love, Anders Nygren, ‘describes two distinct forms of love. Both Greek words are appropriately translated love. For Nygren each names a significant form of love, and these forms are in fundamental opposition to one another.’[1] Indeed, Agape and Eros broaden out into two deeply opposed attitudes toward life. Eros is primarily developed in the dialogues of Plato, while Agape derives from apostle Paul and the New Testament.

Hellenistic philosophy had its own very specific understanding of the love of man for his gods; this was called Eros. The idea was most fully developed in Plato and his followers. ‘Eros is an appetite, a yearning desire, which is aroused by the attractive qualities of its object; and in Eros, man seeks God in order to satisfy his spiritual hunger by the possession and enjoyment of the Divine perfections’.[2] In contrast, the love brought by Christ also concerned man’s relationship with God but was termed Agape, a radically transformative concept. ‘It means a whole-hearted surrender to God whereby man becomes God’s willing slave, content to be at His disposal, having entire trust and confidence in Him, and desiring only that His will should be done. This love is not, like Eros, a longing and striving for something man lacks and needs, but a response of gratitude for something freely and bountifully given, namely, God’s own Agape’.[3] It is a love granted not ‘on the ground of merit and the works of the Law, but of free Grace, groundless and unmotivated’.[4]

This love of Christ is ‘indifferent to [the] value of its object – its worthiness or unworthiness; [it is] a love displayed in the redemption of lost and sinful men rather than man seeking God as a means to an end for the satisfaction of self, as man’s summum bonum (highest good) which happens to identify with God.’[5] Eros is a willful love directed by desire, acquisitive, a striving upward to God requiring man’s effort as it seeks a life divine.[6]

Eros has self-centered motives and strategies. Agape is sacrificial, coming down from God to man as a free unmerited gift; it is submissive, spontaneous, grateful, and without selfish motive. ‘Eros recognizes value in its object and loves it. Agape loves – and creates value in its object.’[7] ‘Eros is man’s way to God, Agape is God’s way to man.’[8]

Eros and Agape obviously ‘belong to two entirely separate spiritual worlds, between which no direct communication is possible’.[9] Throughout the history of Christianity the Eros concept, so attractive to natural man, has at times almost completely supplanted Agape. Ironically, this occurred when St. Augustine became widely known for his forceful and clear refutation of the Pelagian view of grace. But this same worthy saint failed to separate Eros from Agape. In his world still permeated with Hellenistic thinking, he chose to express Christian love in Platonic terms. In this blending of revelation with Greek philosophy, he wove together the rival concepts of Eros and Agape into a synthesis he called Caritas. Augustine chose to accept that ‘all love is acquisitive love’.[10] He rightly observed that mankind was always seeking after its own happiness. He concluded that the search must be ‘right’ when it is directed outside of self and ‘upward’ towards God the Creator. Thus Augustine remained in Plato seeing God as man’s summum bonum, the ultimate satisfaction of all his longings.[11] This blend of Greek philosophy and Christianity is the source of his famous quote: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.’[12]

Augustine’s Caritas synthesis ‘rests substantially on the foundation of Eros and has very little in common with Agape-love’.[13] It is acquisitive egocentric love, the seeking after one’s highest good, and thus ‘the theocentric character of the Christian Commandment of Love is undoubtedly lost’.[14] Seeing God as the highest good does not alter the fact that ‘He is degraded to the level of a means for the satisfaction of human desire’.[15] The adoption of Augustine’s understanding of Christian love by the Roman Catholic Church serves to this day as the foundation for its doctrine of grace as ‘infused love which makes our ascent to God possible’.[16] For the Roman Catholic Church, ‘it is not by faith, but by love that man is justified and comes into fellowship with God’.[17] It is only by this infusion that man, by his own efforts, can ascend the three-fold ladder of virtue, speculation, and mysticism to acquire the holiness necessary for fellowship with God.[18] The separation of Agape from Eros in the teaching of church leadership waited until Martin Luther more than one thousand years after Augustine.

‘Luther’s decisive struggle in the monastery, which eventually led to a complete break with the Catholic Way of salvation, was centered upon the question of Caritas and the possibility of perfect penitence based upon it.’[19] He realized from Scripture that ‘Man is justified not by ascending to God in Caritas, but solely by receiving in faith God’s love, which has descended to us in Christ. Because of this, Luther rejected the Catholic view that man is justified by faith and love thus restoring the biblical understanding that justification takes place ‘sola fide’, through faith alone, outside of us and coming down to us as a gift of God. Accordingly, the false promise that man can ascend a ladder of holiness to God’s level was exposed as a fallacy. No works of merit, reason, or mystical experiences of purification, illumination and union with God could accomplish the feat.

Five hundred years after the Reformation, the Protestant church seems eager to undo Luther’s scriptural understanding as it once again advocates and manifests the Augustinian concept of Christian love. In Walking with God, Keller exemplifies this as he emphasizes reason and speculation over faith, presents God as man’s summum bonum, extols the sanctifying effect of suffering, downplays the wrath of God on sin, advocates counseling psychology as a pathway to happiness, and finally offers a recipe for turning suffering into an opportunity for self-improvement.

 Man’s Problem: Lack of Intelligence

Acceptance of human wisdom and experience as the primary source of truth is evident throughout the book. Keller uses Scripture as a secondary prop to man’s wisdom. Keller does this in spite of Paul’s statement that ‘the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’ (I Corinthians 1:18). God has ‘made foolish the wisdom of the world’ (v20), but Keller makes the wise men, scholars, and philosophers of this age the very foundation of his wisdom. He then tries to show how Christianity confirms the wisdom of these worldly wise men.

He spends the first 109 pages of the 322 page book quoting a gaggle of supposed intellectuals of every stripe as the base for what he calls ‘understanding the furnace’.

In agreement with Rick Warren, he opens this first section with: ‘It is necessary only to understand this: Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity’ (p13).

His quotes from Simone Weil, agreeing with the Christian psychologists in seeing ‘all sins’ as attempts to fill voids.

He admires Max Scheler, a German Jewish philosopher who became Roman Catholic because of its conception of love but then disassociated himself from the Judeo-Christian God saying that traditions must be studied and deconstructed in order to really gain freedom from the Christian God.

The following are yet more of Keller’s scholars quoted in this book supposedly to help the reader understand the problem of evil:

Charles Taylor: a Canadian Roman Catholic philosopher winning the Templeton Prize, who sees Islamophobia as a major problem in the West.

Martha Nussbaum: a ‘wasp’ convert to Judaism; feminist, pro-gay, global justice proponent.

Richard Shweder: an American cultural anthropologist and a figure in cultural psychology. He believes that culture determines what is good.

John Gray: taught that the belief history makes sense or is moving toward something is merely a Christian prejudice.

Robert Bellah: American sociologist of religion at University of California, Berkeley who sees religion as evolving. He was a member of the Communist Party USA, fleeing to Canada when the FBI investigated him.

Luc Ferry: a notable proponent of Secular Humanism who writes, ‘We are on the brink of a truly enlightened humanism. The shift from marriage for convenience has enabled us to transcend biology with gay marriage being the endpoint.’ This autonomy in love means we no longer die for abstractions such as God, country, or Revolution but only for people ‘made sacred by love’.

David Bentley Hart: an Eastern Orthodox philosopher who calls himself an ‘anarchist monarchist’ defending the doctrine of divine apathy.

Jonathan Haidt: social psychologist at New York University, who is promoting ‘positive psychology’

Robert Emmons: University of California, Davis, received $905,000 grant from Templeton Foundation for his thesis that ‘gratitude is the forgotten factor in happiness research’ promoting a 21 day program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. His book is titled Gratitude Works.

John Hick: held by some to be the most significant philosopher of religion in the twentieth century. He is best known for his advocacy of religious pluralism. He was twice the subject of heresy proceedings for questioning several things in the Westminster Confession. He has been called the greatest philosopher of global religion. He has argued against Christian exclusivism, against salvation being only in Christ, teaching that with maturity mankind would see that all theistic religions take different paths to the same god. He ended life as a Quaker with commitment to universalism.

Andrew Solomon: is a writer on politics, culture and psychology. He is an activist and philanthropist in LGBT rights, and he married journalist John Habich in 2009 in Connecticut after a civil partnership ceremony in 2007 at the Althorp, the childhood home of Princess Diana. In 2007, Andrew and a long time friend decided to have a child together. In 2011, Andrew was appointed Special Advisor to LGBT Mental Health at Yale.

Keller believes that ‘all of these cultures of suffering have an element of truth’. Thus he can agree with Max Scheler when he writes: ‘It is not the glowing prospect of a happy afterlife, but the experienced happiness of being in a state of grace… that released the wonderful powers in the martyrs’ (p30). Adopting a Roman Catholic (Eros) view of suffering throughout the book, Keller comments on the above as follows: ‘Indeed, suffering not only is made bearable by these joys, but suffering can even enhance these joys, in the midst of sorrow’ (p30). Keller’s version of Christianity blends with the wisdom of the world and even seems dependent on it.

Christianity as a Better Philosophy

He describes Christianity [not Christ] as being ‘widely recognized as having superior resources for facing evil, suffering, and death’ (p58). But the ‘superior resources’ he describes are in each case erroneous examples of his reliance upon worldly wisdom over Scripture. He emphasizes repeatedly that ‘God came to earth and suffered with and for us’, thus promoting Abelard’s heretical Moral Influence Theory where the cross is viewed as an example of love and suffering without demand for propitiation of sin. Keller states this view with much less eloquence than did medieval scholasticism: ‘The cross proves that God is for us.’ (p58) To him, the resurrection means that ‘we get our bodies back in a state of beauty and power… we get it all back – the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties.’ (p59)

He readily joins medieval Christendom in the belief that ‘suffering is at the heart of the Christian story’ (p77).   He is convinced that ‘it is how we suffer that comprises one of the main ways we become great’ (p78) and that our ‘suffering can be redemptive’ (p79). Keller’s Roman Catholic doctrine is blatant when he describes the Syrian Army Commander Naaman (II Kings 5) as ‘infused with grace’ and ‘called to the soul work of humility’. The reader is asked to believe that just as suffering led to Naaman’s salvation, so did Christ’s ‘suffering, thus faced’ lead to ‘resurrection power, so can ours’ (p80). (The poor grammar and sentence structure in this book can be almost as misleading as his view of God and man.)

Characteristic of pagan thought is his frequent mention of ‘balancing truths’ (p139) as he tells the reader ‘there is an absolute promise that we cannot ultimately mess up our lives’ (p143).  Having no base in Scripture for such, he says that ‘the main reason that Christians insist that God can be trusted… is that God himself has firsthand experience of suffering’ (p147) [italics his]. ‘If God has not suffered, then how can we trust him’? (p153) ‘We should trust him because he earned our trust on the cross’ (p154). Keller continually emphasizes that “the suffering of Jesus has ended suffering” and will bring us ‘the life we always wanted’ and that ‘the joy will be even greater for all that evil’ (p159).

As if suddenly remembering that he is Presbyterian, he says that ‘according to all branches of Christian theology, the ultimate purpose of life is to glorify God’ (p167) Even then, he tries to blend pagan philosophy with something that sounds Christian: ‘[It] is only by doing this that we will ever find… satisfaction’ because ‘we need it’ and ‘it fits us as nothing else does’ (p168). [Italics his] Keller appears determined to show that all God does is primarily for our benefit. ‘Only if you make God matter the most… will you have a safe life’ (p169).

God as Man’s Summum Bonum

Keller sees mankind as having an intellectual problem due to the environment; in contrast, Scripture presents man as having a sin problem due to internal rebellion in the line of Adam. This unbiblical view of man’s problem necessitates a search for answers outside Scripture. He seems to assume (perhaps accurately) that his readers will know nothing of the Roman Catholic doctrine of ‘faith formed by love’ and therefore, says that ‘for Christians, salvation was through humility, faith, and love’. In line with Eros, ‘The answer… was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else’ (p44). He adds a few pages (48-52) about Martin Luther as if again remembering he is supposed to be Protestant. Since Keller’s theological base is clearly the Greek philosophy of Augustine’s caritas, he gives no hint of Luther’s agonizing attempts to love God more than anything else nor does he mention Luther’s biblical conclusion that Christian love cannot be produced by us but has come down to us from heaven.

Clearly based in Eros, Keller says that ‘to see God as glorious…is to work your heart so it finds him the most pleasurable and beautiful thing you know.’ (p170) [italics mine] He uses even the words of Wesley’s beautiful Christmas carol ‘Mild he lays his glory by’ to conclude that ‘Jesus lost all his glory so that we could be clothed in it.’(p180) Therefore, ‘all suffering that comes into your life will only make you great… turns you into somebody gorgeous.’ (p181) For Keller, God is man’s highest good, a state, a place, a person that when properly loved (Eros) provides happiness.

Suffering as Salvific

Keller writes, ‘The great theme of the Bible itself is how God brings fullness of joy not just despite but through suffering, just as Jesus saved us not in spite of but because of what he endured on the cross. And so there is a peculiar, rich, and poignant joy that seem to come to us only through and in suffering.’ (p6). [italics his] ‘Almost no one grows into greatness or finds God without suffering.’ (p80) ‘The suffering of a person in Christ only turns you into somebody gorgeous’ (p181). Concerning the suffering of Job, Keller says, ‘This makes the suffering – or more accurately, the results of suffering – a very great gift indeed, and it is doubtful that this level of reliance on the grace of God can ever be gotten any other way’ (p284). In these and other similar statements, Keller approximates the theology of Mother Theresa and the Vatican leading the reader to believe that suffering can actually be salvific.

Again and again, Keller directly refutes soli Gloria by saying that ‘the unfathomable counsels… behind the course of history… are motivated by… absolute commitment to our joy and glory.’ (p163) [italics mine] He uses psychologist Jonathan Haidt to convince us that ‘people need adversity… to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development’ (p164).   Keller obviously sees personal development and fulfillment as acceptable goals for the Christian. He admires Robert Emmons four goals for life: personal achievement and happiness, relationships and intimacy, religion and spirituality, and generativity (contributing something to society). (p165) Keller concludes that ‘God is so committed to defeating evil that he is ready to help us use it for good.’ (p166) [Italics mine] He sees no problem with making us the worker for the good as long as we acknowledge God as ready to help. The contrast with Romans 8:28 seem to concern Keller not at all.

Since 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 speaks so directly to suffering, Keller urges us to ‘see the dynamics at work.’ He describes this passage as the apostle Paul sharing his ‘self-knowledge and growth [and] insights into life and human nature.’ (p193) He twists Paul’s teaching into methods for self-improvement. He teaches ‘how to walk through pain and suffering’ [italics his] and how ‘to apply the specific strategies.’ (196) Christian conversion is not the issue for Keller; instead, he points to a ladder of virtues that will supposedly enable the reader to climb to the beatific vision. He transforms the Scriptural doctrine of sanctification by the Holy Spirit into a doctrine of works by man.

A Disavowal of Sin and Wrath

In 322 pages of text in which are discussed many varieties of suffering and pain, a total of two pages are devoted to ‘suffering caused by our own failures’ (p207). In all other cases the causes are ‘betrayal’, ‘loss’, and ‘the mysterious, unlooked for, and horrendous suffering that people most often call “senseless”’ (p211). It is to this last category that Keller devotes most of his attention. He admits in a footnote to the Epilogue that he ‘did not, however, look at two spiritual skills that are in some cases, very necessary. The first skill is receiving forgiveness from God through repentance and reconciliation with him. Often suffering reveals our own personal failures and we are filled with shame. It is critical to relieve that guilt and shame by receiving grace from God.’ (p352) The second skill is ‘granting forgiveness to others. Many instances of adversity come from betrayals by others. In those instances, the danger is not to be eaten with guilt but with anger. It is critical to relieve anger by giving grace [by] forgiving’ (p353). Little attention is devoted to ‘personal failure’ which was once called sin. One can only wonder how ‘receiving forgiveness’ became a ‘spiritual skill’ and when the purpose of repentance and granting forgiveness became the avoidance of being ‘eaten’ by guilt and anger! Chastisement (Hebrews 12) simply does not fit with climbing the ladder to our summum bonum. The disavowal of personal sin is typical of Christian self-help literature today in which God is re-branded as a therapist unconcerned about justice with man re-branded as a victim of the sins of another. Keller’s view of God as therapist and man as a victim with intellectual conflict contradicts the words of Jesus:

‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed’ (John 3:19,20).

Since the wrath of God on sin is generally absent from Keller’s books, so is any distinction between believer and unbeliever. Instead of sinful behavior, Keller writes of ‘negative qualities’; instead of the fruits of the Spirit, he writes of ‘the positive qualities we need.’ (p194) Nygren comments on this lack of distinction: ‘If participation in the eternal life of God is possible for man, the possibility is not based on any natural quality or endowment of man, but simply and solely on a mighty act of God. Just as it is God who makes the sinner righteous, so it is God who makes the dead to live. Eros-religion treats eternal life as a natural product dependent on the inborn quality of the soul, instead of seeing in it the personal operation of God’s omnipotence and love. What awakens love in man is nothing else but the Agape shown to him by God.’ (Nygren, 225)

Instead, Keller teaches ‘the discipline of reordering our loves’ via the Eros motif with the goal being Augustine’s summum bonum which Keller calls ‘the calm, the tranquillity, the peace. It is to love him supremely’. (p305)[Italics his] It was the recognition of this error that brought Luther before the Diet of Worms. He recognized this so-called discipline as the love of self, not of God, and therefore would not recant. If the PCA and the Gospel Coalition remembered this history, would not Keller be confronted with wrong beliefs at the most basic level of the Reformation?

Conclusion

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is a self-help book that offers ten ways to ‘be made into people great and beautiful’ through pain and suffering. (p10) The book purports to be Christian but offers a false god to be used as a means to the acquisition of happiness, to be loved only for the sake of pleasing one’s self. The benefits are to be acquired by ascending a ladder of meritorious works with suffering as chief. The religion of this divinity is presented as a superior philosophy derived principally from the ideas of a cast of worldly characters. The reader need not fear being confronted with personal sin or its consequences; rather he will be cosseted as a victim. What Keller offers is a false god, a false philosophy, and a false promise. In this book, Keller shows himself to be at the forefront of the supposedly subtle ecumenical movement toward Rome.

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/

Endnotes 

[1] Google books, Relationship Morality, James Kellenberger, p96

[2] Nygren, Anders, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson, Harper Torchbooks, N.Y., 1969, (Nygren xvi)  Nygren’s Study and History of the Christian Idea of Love, now out of print, is the authoritative source on the subject and provided the information all-too-briefly summarized in the these paragraphs.

[3] (Nygren xvii)

[4] (Nygren 251)

[5] (Nygren xx)

[6] Nygren, Anders, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson, Harper Torchbooks, N.Y., 1969

[7] (Nygren 210)

[8] (Nygren 708)

[9] (Nygren 31)

[10] (Nygren 476)

[11] (Nygren479-487)

[12] (Confessions, Book 1, Chapter1)

[13] (Nygren 499)

[14] (Nygren 500)

[15] (Nygren 500)

[16] (Nygren 531)

[17] (Nygren 656)

[18] (Nygren 513)

[19] (Nygren 694)