Tim Keller: Private Calvinist, Public Arminian

, posted by drwayman

[Editor’s note: SEA does not necessarily agree with any comments by the author of this post to the effect that Tim Keller, John Piper, or any particular Calvinists are intentionally misleading or disingenuous in their comments on certain matters. We post this article on our site because the article makes some good points about Calvinists not always being consistent with their beliefs etc.]

I really like Tim Keller– I really do. He is a brilliant thinker, a passionate preacher and an articulate apologist. Unfortunately he is also suffers from a severe bout of Calvinism-Cognitive-Dissonance. Either that or he lacks the courage or will-power to say publicly what he holds privately in safe theological quarters, like his home church. Either way I am troubled by this increasing trend by Calvinists. I have tried to highlight in other posts how Calvinists are shockingly duplicitous in regards to their own theology. In public forums and public blogs that are “unsafe” for full Calvinistic disclosure they often choose to double-deal in Arminian theological terminology rather than unveil the nefarious and utterly horrific implications of their Calvinistic beliefs.

For example, John Piper insists that sovereignty means God decrees and wills every evil choice and event in human history–and does so irresistibly. That is to say man’s actions are irresistibly determined and rendered certain by God’s will, and he can no more avoid doing what God has decreed than he can sprout wings and fly to the moon. But later when Piper attempts to explain such a scenario for the mass consumption of his followers he obscures the most controversial element of his argument by dropping the language of decree and picking up the language of permission, saying “God has established a world in which sin will indeed come to pass by God’s permission.” [1] Given the fact that Piper believes that 1) God’s foreordaining mind is the author and origin of everything that occurs, and that 2) God has decreed every thought, desire and choice of man, it is quite silly and disingenuous for Piper to say God permits what he has decreed–as if he had to act as a middleman between His decree and the outworking of His decree. Does God need to get permission from himself? [2]

In returning to Tim Keller let me reiterate that I admire and appreciate Keller (and Piper’s pastoral heart for that matter) for much of what he writes and preaches, but it is concerning to see how consistent leading Calvinists are in being inconsistent! Is it a lack of courage or integrity? I don’t mean to insinuate moral integrity but a lack of theological integrity (unity) that invites the all too common temptation to speak out of both sides of one’s mouth.

In the first video Keller is in the safe confines of his reformed church and he has no qualms about spelling out his belief in Unconditional Election–a doctrine founded on the belief that multitudes are eternally lost because God does not desire their salvation in any genuine sense that would motivate him to extend grace and rescue them from sin. However in his explanation it was disturbing to hear him divorce Unconditional Election from the real implications of Irresistible Grace and try to “sanitize” the entire doctrine by trying to ground it in an analogy of God doing nothing more than “opening their eyes.” But that description falls woefully short of the coercive implications of Calvinism’s doctrine that God’s grace cannot be refused, rejected or resisted. Keller just isn’t being forthcoming or consistent as to what Calvinist theology entails.

The closest reference we have of the phrase “God opened their eyes” in a redemptive context is with Lydia in Acts 19 where it says God opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message. But the Bible makes clear that she was already a “worshipper of God”–and only subsequent to that fact did God open her eyes/heart to believe Paul’s message. In other words she was not some hardened, hostile person in open rebellion against God whereby God comes along and “ZAP” sovereignly overturns her hostile rebellion and opens her eyes. Not at all. The scriptures make plain that prior to hearing Paul’s message she was already a “worshiper of God” (Acts. 16:14) and only then did God open or draw her heart further to respond to Paul’s message. This accords succinctly with Arminianism! Arminianism teaches that God’s enabling, drawing grace is absolutely necessary for conversion. But we believe God’s grace brings us to a place where we can believe, but not to a place where we must believe–big difference. Because Lydia, “a worshiper of God” in a pagan land responded humbly and teachably to God’s prevenient, drawing grace before Paul came, He now faithfully opens her heart further to behold a fuller revelation of Himself through Paul’s message. So it is with all those that respond to God’s preceding grace and seek to know him in greater measure.

Even though Keller doesn’t use the term “Arminians” he seems to try and contrast his Calvinism with the “other side” by saying that sinners, if left to themselves and divorced from grace, will never choose Jesus–even if given a thousand chances. Granted! That is an essential feature of Arminianism–which majors on the necessity of preceding grace to enable a free response of faith. It is somewhat disturbing that Keller, a well informed theologian, would qualify his Calvinism in such a way as to imply it is the only theology that necessitates God’s grace for true conversion. Again– Arminians hold that God’s grace is necessary for salvation and draws us to a place where we can believe but not to a place where we must believe. In the end we believe God’s grace is resistible and un-coercive– as is the nature of all grace.

But I digress somewhat. I don’t mean to be unkind or uncharitable to Tim Keller, but in the second video Keller is on the hot seat in a public forum as to why not all can be saved, and he sounds more like a watered-down Arminian than the bold Calvinist he is unashamed to be in a Calvinist church. That being said I don’t actually disagree with Keller’s answer. It is an acceptable answer from an Arminian perspective– but only half the story from a Calvinist perspective.

Keller says, “All I can ever say about this is God gives me, even as a minister with scripture, a lot of information on a need to know basis…here’s all I can tell you. Unless you get Jesus Christ, who created you to start with, unless you are reunited with him sometime, there is no eternal future of thriving. If Jesus is who he says he is you gotta have him. If right now someone doesn’t have him, he or she needs to get him. If someone dies and they don’t have Jesus– I don’t know. In other words I’m on a need-to-know basis. This is all I know–you need Jesus.”

Here Keller is simply pretending he “doesn’t know” and pretending he lacks certainty. Why is he pretending? Because in his private, Calvinist chambers he does know and is not at all on a “need to know basis” as to what happens to people who don’t “have Jesus.” As a Calvinist he thinks he has ample, more than sufficient information to warrant a definitive answer– God unconditionally predestined them to perish eternally!

So I must say Keller is being thoroughly inconsistent with his definitive, unambiguous Calvinist beliefs as to why people are not ultimately saved. But Keller simply couldn’t bring himself to say what Calvinists believe privately and tend to utter only in safe quarters–which is: According to the scriptures God didn’t atone for the sins of all people and didn’t love multitudes of people enough to unconditionally elect them to ‘get Jesus.’ God could have elected all to salvation–because what his irresistible grace can do for some, it can do for all. Yes–God created them, but he created them to be apart from him eternally. So before they were born God decreed they would ‘not get Christ and God.’ That is the principal reason why not all can be saved.

Such is the unembellished truth of Keller’s privately professed Calvinism. However Keller intuitively knew that if he answered the interviewer’s question in a straight-forward, Calvinist manner he would have immediately lost all intellectual and moral credibility in the eyes of the audience. The point is– if it can’t be preached in public it shouldn’t be believed in private.

This brings to mind something I once heard: “If it can’t be preached at the gates of Auschwitz it ought not to be preached from the pulpit!” It’s no easy answer for any theological viewpoint, but I would wager a bet that if Tim Keller were to visit Auschwitz and were to be asked, “Where was God?” Calvinist Keller would suddenly be retired and Arminian Keller would quickly pop to the forefront and adopt Arminian language of “free-will being abused.” Why do I think this? Because I think Keller is too good of a man not to retire his Calvinist theology in such a setting– a theology that requires him to believe every Nazi thought, evil desire and action committed at Auschwitz was irresistibly decreed by God in eternity past for his glory.

As alluded to before if a belief system can’t publicly answer the most difficult, painful questions about life and loss, without the very holy and righteous character of God being besmirched beyond recognition (God conceived and decreed all evil), then we ought to toss it in the waste bin of history and go back to the drawing board.

In returning to the public interview above on why some people can’t be saved, I would like to think the real reason Keller chose not to un-sheath his Calvinist sword was because he had too much integrity to actually be fully integrous and consistent to his privately held Calvinist beliefs. In other words I think Keller intuitively knows something is woefully amiss with Calvinist soteriology and sovereignty, but he can’t bring himself to admit it in his private Calvinist chambers.

As such my principal problem with Keller is that he conveniently double-deals in Arminianism phraseology and theology when pressed in public, but disavows and disclaims Arminianism in private when safe. This is epidemic in Calvinism today!

Articulate speakers do create followers and I am concerned that many young people are becoming attracted to Reformed/Calvinist theology without a clue as to the darker, sinister aspects of Calvinism (i.e. God sovereignly and irresistibly decreed all your God-dishonoring, destructive sin).

Most initiates eventually become so enamored with their “Calvinist heroes” that they end up becoming assimilated into doctrinal teaching that they probably would have “spat out” had they not become so smitten with their Calvinist heroes: “Well, gosh…it’s hard to swallow the doctrine that Jesus didn’t die for all humanity, that he doesn’t redemptively love all humanity, and that God decreed all my sinful and evil choices, but if a smart guy like Keller believes it– it must be true!”

In that sense Keller is a great “poster boy” for contemporary Calvinism because he can represent it in name while simultaneously refusing to be upfront and forthright with Calvinism’s horrific logical and theological implications. Bad theology always survives by clothing itself in the garb of good theology whenever convenient in order to keep the controversial dissimilarities as hidden as possible from public view.

Because I really do appreciate so much of what Keller writes and shares, and believe his voice is credible and needful in so many ways, I long for the day Keller sees his Calvinism as both a liability to the gospel and a libel against the character of God.

[1] http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/is-god-less-glorious-because-he-ordained-that-evil-be

[2] For a thorough rebuttal of Piper’s attempt to justify all sin and evil being authored and grounded in God’s will of decree I would highly recommend: http://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/john-piper-on-god-ordaining-all-sin-and-evil-part-1-an-arminian-response-to-pipers-first-question/

[This post was written by StriderMTB. For the original post with comments, video clips and references, go to: http://atheologyintension.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/2352/. The video clips seem to have gone dead.]