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Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller. New York: Viking, 2015, 309 pages, $19.95.

Keller’s introduction begins with a discussion of three levels of the ministry of the Word. This made me wonder what I was in for, since I do have a few problems with some aspects of Keller’s ecclesiology. Level one is one-on-one, every member Word ministry. Level two includes various teaching ministries in the church. Level three is the formal matter of “public preaching” (2). Immediately after this brief section Keller expands on “The Irreplaceability of Preaching,” and this is what the vast majority of the book is really about. He clearly understands that the authority inherent in preaching is offensive to modern sensibilities and wisely states:

We live in a time when many are resistant to any hint of authority in pronouncements; so the culture’s allergy to truth and the great skill that is required mean the church loses its grasp on the crucial nature of preaching for the ministry of the gospel. (5–6)

I was enthusiastic about reading the book due to the promise in the subtitle, “Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism,” of adding something to the homiletical conversation. I was not disappointed.

The book is divided into three parts: 1) “Serving the Word,” 2) “Reaching the People,” 3) “In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power.”

Keller does not pick up on Duane Litfin’s distinction in first-century rhetoric between persuasion and proclamation (the latter is Paul’s choice in opposition to the Corinthian church’s worldly expectations), but makes it clear that the use of the rhetorical arts will only result in spiritual eloquence if that use arises “out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death” (14). His plea for preaching Christ as the “main theme and substance of the Bible’s message” (15) is rooted in the main pericope for Litfin’s thesis, 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5. This emphasis in turn is the impetus for preaching to the “cultural heart” (18–20), by identifying idolatrous aspirations and demonstrating how all good aspirations rooted in the imago dei are fulfilled in Christ. Relevance is not the aim of preaching because preaching must lay “bare the listener’s life foundations” (21).

Keller makes a case for both topical and expository preaching, but recommends expository preaching as the best regular practice. But he also warns us that spending too much time on a particular book in a mobile society may actually rob people of the Bible’s rich variety. Thus, he advocates using shorter books from a wider variety of genres (39–41). However, this is not the case in more rural settings where the population is far less transient than in Keller’s New York City environment.

One of Keller’s strongest and most helpful themes in this book is the centrality of preaching the gospel in every sermon. Chapter Two, “Preaching the Gospel Every Time,” is eloquent on this topic. He makes a careful and important distinction between law and gospel, and pleads for understanding their proper relationship so as to avoid both legalism and antinomianism (48–52). Both are enemies of God and undermine God’s grace and its holy purposes. “God’s costly love in Jesus Christ—who fulfilled God’s righteous law in his life and death—must be lifted up and grasped in order to combat the toxic untruths of our souls” (55). Keller is skilled at showing how redemptive history centered on Christ avoids moralism (61).

Chapter Three continues to unpack the theme “Preaching Christ from All of Scripture,” picking up on several contemporary works of biblical theology from Motyer, Dillard and Longman, and Clowney (71). There is a lot of very helpful advice here, illustrated with many specific examples, to show how we must preach Christ from every genre, theme, figure, image, and deliverance story. The book is very helpful in describing how to develop sermons. The appendix, “Writing an Expository Message,” is exemplary in this regard. Keller hearkens back to many excellent traditional sources of homiletical wisdom, such as William Perkins (The Art of Prophesying, 1592), John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Robert Murray McCheyne, as well as a host of modern luminaries.

One area where Keller clearly adds to the homiletical conversation is in addressing modern urbanites. This is homiletics for contemporary urban ministry with a strong flavor of apologetics for postmodern (what Keller prefers to call “late” moderns) people. The first two chapters of Part Two address preaching Christ to the culture and the late modern mind. Keller contends that, due to the “new situation” of secularism (94), the preacher must not assume much knowledge of Christianity. While the form of the sermon is not dead, the content must change to accommodate the late modern mind (95). We must confront the world in terms that it understands. Here Keller relies on P. T. Forsyth’s superb book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (1907). Forsyth insists that the church

did not lead the world, nor echo it; she confronted it… . The Christian preacher is not the successor to the Greek orator, but of the Hebrew prophet… . The orator stirs men to [action], the preacher invites them to be redeemed. (96)

The early church confronted a radically secular culture through expository preaching because the Bible diagnoses human problems and needs. The preacher needs to adapt to the culture by addressing it with concepts and language that it understands as John did with his use of logos, “a philosophically and culturally freighted word in that society” (97).

The early Christian communicators knew the culture intimately and spoke in terms that were never incomprehensible, no matter how startling. They reframed the culture’s questions, reshaped its concerns, and redirected its hopes.

The concept of contextualizing always raises concerns for Reformed preachers. Keller seeks to put our concerns to rest:

It means to resonate with yet defy the culture around you. It means to antagonize a society’s idols while showing respect for its people and many of its hopes and aspirations. (99)

Paul’s ministry in Athens is a model of this method. In order to implement this Keller offers six practices: 1) Use accessible or well explained vocabulary; 2) Employ respected authorities to strengthen your theses; 3) Demonstrate an understanding of doubts and objections; 4) Affirm in order to challenge baseline cultural narratives; 5) Make gospel offers that push on the culture’s pressure points; 6) Call for gospel motivation. On this latter point Keller responds to the objection that he is giving too much attention to the nonbeliever by asserting: “It is a mistake to think that faithful believers in our time are not profoundly shaped by the narratives of modernity” (118). The gospel is always essential to the Christian life.

When preachers solve Christians’ problems with the gospel—not by calling them to try harder but by pointing them to deeper faith in Christ’s salvation—then believers are being edified and nonbelievers are hearing the gospel all at the same time. (120)

Keller comes to the heart of his subtitle in Chapter Five, “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind.” Keller has clearly thought deeply about this topic. He understands that modernity in its late modern manifestation is not to be sharply distinguished from postmodernity, “which is less reversal of modernity than an intensification of its deepest patterns” (123). Both modernity and its later expressions have human autonomy in common.

The entire chapter is a great summary of what constitutes the late modern mind. Keller relies heavily on the works of philosopher Charles Taylor, whose monumental analysis of modernity, A Secular Age (2007), along with Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989), and The Malaise of Modernity (1991), offers some profound insight.

“In order to preach to the secular person, we must resist secularity’s own self-understanding” (126). Keller then analyzes the narratives of late modernity. The “rationality narrative” claims that “the natural world is the only reality” (129–30). The “history narrative” claims that humanity is making progress, and thus the “new is automatically better” (130). The “society narrative” encourages radical individualism in which “choice becomes the only sacred value and discrimination the only moral evil” (131). The “morality or justice narrative” believes in universal benevolence based on humanly determined norms (131–32). The “identity narrative” seeks worth in self-created and self-evaluated identity (132–33).

The rest of the chapter explains how to engage the “sovereign self” in each of these narratives (133–56). The question of identity must be altered to ask not “ ‘who am I?’ but ‘whose am I?’ ” (138). The idea of unbridled freedom leads to raw selfishness, but is in itself an illusion (143). The aspiration of love is contrary to this secular sacred notion and makes marriage and all human relations impossible (145). Rebellion against God is the ultimate bondage, and only Jesus Christ can liberate us from such bondage and sin itself (145).

Modernity’s quest for social justice should be engaged with a question: if we cannot ground morality in some external, objective source, why should we seek to reform the world? (146). Three problems arise in the areas of: moral motivation, obligation, and foundation. Unlike the Christian who is motivated by love for God and neighbor, the secularist is motivated by feelings of “satisfaction and superiority” and anger (147). While there are clearly moral nonbelievers, locating moral obligation without God is impossible (148–49). Which brings Keller to the third problem of asserting moral standards without reason. What Taylor calls “the extraordinary inarticulacy … of modern culture” (150) is simply suppression of the source of many of our culture’s better moral instincts: Christianity (151).

Keller engages the history and rationality narratives in terms of “science as the secular hope” (153). The presence of unfounded optimism in the progress of science and technology together with numerous dystopian cultural expressions show that the world is in desperate need of the hope that only the resurrection can offer (154).

The final chapter in this section deals with preaching to the heart. Keller relies on a biblical understanding of the heart that thinks and wills, “fundamentally, the heart puts its trust in things” (158). He launches into several sections based on Jonathan Edwards’s understanding of the affections. Rejecting the opposition of head and heart, Keller opts for “logic on fire” (163, 165). He goes on to show preachers how to preach to the heart: affectionately, imaginatively, wondrously, memorably, Christocentrically, and practically.

Finally, Keller suggests tools for the preacher to stay fresh in his preaching. First, converse with a diverse group of people so that you are challenged to read beyond those with whom you agree (180–82). Second, consider the variety of possible hearers as exemplified in the parable of the soils in Mark 4 (182–83). Here Keller offers an invaluable extended footnote (183n20, which should have been placed in the text in my opinion). Third, “weave application throughout the sermon” (183–85). Fourth, use variety in application, asking direct questions, suggesting tests for self-examination, and using a biblical variety of applications (185–86). Fifth, “be emotionally aware” by taking advantage of teachable moments and being “affectionate as well as forceful” (187).

The final part of the book has only one chapter, and it discusses the importance of the presence of the Spirit in preaching. This is an excellent corrective in the “age of technique” (195). Keller also focuses on the importance of the preacher’s own spiritual life, locating it in terms of three texts: the biblical text, the context of the worshippers, and the subtext of his own heart (200). He analyzes the latter in terms of several categories of preacher motivation, concluding with the only one that should count: the wonder of Christ. “[T]he temptation will be to let the pulpit drive you to the Word, but instead you must let the Word drive you to the pulpit. Prepare the preacher more than you prepare the sermon” (205).

Keller has been dealing with what he calls “late modern” people in the intensely secular urban environment of New York City for a quarter of a century. He has sought to answer the question: How do we engage late moderns with the gospel without compromising Scripture? He points to Paul’s approach in Athens, where he notices that they have a religious instinct, but it is misdirected (Acts 17:22–31). He quotes the Greek philosophers Epimenides and Aratus who say, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28). He proposes the pattern of looking for the reflection of God’s image in the idolater’s thinking, then showing how Christianity challenges that thinking, and finally bringing the good news of the gospel as the perfect answer. We might summarize this so: Yes / No / Good News.

Here is a simple example: You believe that humanity can be perfected with artificial intelligence and/or robotics. I could agree with you that, yes, humanity is imperfect and in need of perfecting. However, the Bible shows that your solution will fail, since it is not according to the image of God. Robots at best cannot replace humans and will only reflect our imperfections. We need a model of true humanity from outside of the human condition. You fail to take into account that the historic fall of mankind in Adam and Eve is the reason for our imperfection. Jesus Christ is the perfect model of a new humanity. The good news is that Jesus Christ came to save us from our imperfection. His substitutionary death pleases our perfect Creator and thus, when we turn from our sins, our imperfections, and trust Christ’s righteous substitutionary sacrifice, which enables us to have a living relationship with him, we can know true perfection.

This book is full of enormously helpful advice. A recent book critiquing Keller’s theology has contended that there is a lack of the doctrine of sin as lawlessness that offends God in Keller’s published works.[1] Iain Campbell maintains that Keller’s use of idolatry as the root of all sin is inadequate because idolatry is only one way in which sin is expressed. I would contend that Keller is correct when he says that idolatry is the root of all sin. I would also insist that we preach about specific sins and show how they relate to idolatry. I cannot comment on what Keller says on this topic in his other works. But, at least in this book, Preaching, while the offense that idolatry, and the specific sins that emanate from it, cause God, is not explicitly mentioned, Keller does speak of the importance of the “examination of inner motivations and desires” (134); putting off the old self and putting on the new self in Christ (139); and quotes D. A. Carson favorably when he says:

The ultimate bondage is … rebellion against the God who has made us. The despotic master is not Caesar, but shameful self-centeredness, an evil and enslaving devotion to created things at the expense of worship of the creator. (145)

Keller goes on to refer to biblical passages that deal with freedom from sin. Elsewhere Keller emphasizes the moral importance of Judgment Day “when all wrongs will be put right” (152). Finally Keller points to Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to show that our good works cannot keep us out of hell (170).

I have one major formatting complaint: there are seventy pages of end notes. This is excessive, especially when they are located so inaccessibly—at the end and without page ranges. At least some of this material should have been part of the main text, but at least making it accessible at the bottom of each page would help immensely. To make matters worse, there is no index, so Keller’s numerous references, and extended bibliographical notes, lie buried in the end notes. Penguin should know better.

There are many traditional emphases in this book, such as preaching to the heart and the Holy Spirit in preaching. But they are all aimed at ministry to late modern urbanites. Keller emphasizes faithfulness to the Word, preaching Christ from all of Scripture, and intelligent compassion for urban late modern people. This does not mean that the book will not be helpful to those in smaller rural and suburban settings, since the electronic media have spread the secular mindset everywhere.

One need not agree with Keller at every point either here or in his other books to benefit greatly from this book. I highly recommend it.

Endnote

[1] Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, Engaging with Keller: Thinking through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (Welwyn Garden City, UK: Evangelical Press, 2013).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, January 2016..

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