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A Catholic Appreciation of Tim Keller

By Jonathan Mitchican

In 2010, I was the rector of an Episcopal parish just outside of Philadelphia and I was frustrated. I loved the parish and the people, but I could not figure out how to cut through the noise of the surrounding culture and help my parishioners to see what really mattered about the Christian faith. I shared this over lunch one day with an evangelical colleague who pointed me to Tim Keller and a series of sermons he had given called The Trouble with Christianity: Why it’s so Hard to Believe it which later inspired his book The Reason for God. I sat in rapt attention through his sermons, devouring them in just a couple of days. It changed my whole approach to preaching and evangelism, allowing me to bring front and center the things people struggle with believing, instead of trying to work around them. It led to many blessings and much spiritual growth for both me and my parish.

Thirteen years later, I am a Catholic priest, and when I heard the news that Tim Keller had died, my first reaction was to pray for him. There is an irony to this in that Keller would have found such a gesture unnecessary, if not offensive. Keller was a convinced Calvinist, a Protestant through and through, and there are many important ways in which our understandings of the Christian faith are fundamentally different. Nonetheless, prayer for the dead is a great example of both the historicity and compassion that Keller championed. If Keller’s work has taught me anything, it is that for Christians history is not just a recitation of facts but an ever present reality that continues to shape who we are.

Keller loved Jesus, sincerely and deeply, and because he loved Jesus he also loved people. It should be obvious that these two things are meant to go together, but it is not always. A lot of modern apologetics is mean-spirited, set upon showing not only why belief in the Christian faith is reasonable but why anyone who does not believe is just being stupid or obtuse. Keller never operated that way. He was a first-order apologist, but he had a pastor’s heart. For Keller, it was never about being right. It was always about opening for people a window into the love and mercy of Christ.

Keller showed that the choice to lead with love does not require a retreat from reason or intellectual engagement. He insisted, for instance, on not only the theological importance of the resurrection of Jesus but also its historicity. “If you are looking at Christianity, start by looking at Jesus’s life as it is shown to us in the gospels, and especially at the resurrection,” he wrote in his 2021 book Hope in Times of Fear. “Don’t begin, as modern people do, by asking yourself if Christianity fits who you are. If the resurrection happened, then there is a God who created you for himself and ultimately, yes, Christianity fits you whether you can see it now or not.”

This cuts to the heart of the matter, and it is the reason I often cite for my belief when pressed. If the resurrection really happened, it changes everything. It nullifies the thesis that Jesus was just some sort of great teacher or spiritual guru. It provides the only credible evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be, the Messiah and the Son of God. If the resurrection really happened, it becomes the only meaningful lens through which we can process our experiences of both life and death. Belief in the resurrection rests on faith, but it comes neither from blind acceptance of dogma nor wishful thinking. As Keller demonstrated, relying heavily on the scholarship of N.T. Wright, there is a mountain of evidence to support the historic resurrection of Jesus, if we are willing to approach the question as honestly and rigorously as we would any other question of history.

Keller operated from a place of compassion, but never sentimentality. His insistence that the historical underpinning of the faith is not only defensible but directly applicable to who we are today helped me to evolve in a direction that ultimately led to the Catholic Church. Again, there is an irony here, and a tension. Keller’s theology was deeply rooted in the Reformation, particularly in the Reformed understanding of grace. He tried not to get lost in sectarian debates, preferring to focus on the broad swath of the Christian faith that Catholics and most Protestants share in common. But as he said in a 2008 interview about The Reason for God, “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.”

The sacraments, the saints, the role of the church in our salvation — even the very meaning of the word salvation — all create tension between Christians precisely because they are historic in nature, part of the ongoing story of how God has led his people through time. Keller and I would disagree about all of those things, but his historical approach pushed me to see that I needed to embrace the Catholic understanding, not as a way of taking sides in a debate but as a logical unfolding of an approach to the Christian faith that sees it as an ongoing narrative.

My experience of the faith need not look exactly like what was experienced by St. Peter, or the early Church Fathers, or my great-grandmother working her way through her rosary in the back of the room during Mass. Nevertheless, if my faith is not connected to theirs as part of the same narrative, something has gone horribly awry. I cannot claim as my foundation the historical resurrection if I am not also willing to claim the story that continues to unfold of how the risen, living Jesus leads his people. This, it seems to me, is the real content behind St. John Henry Newman’s assertion, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” It is not that classical Protestants lack a historical perspective, but that the stories that various forms of Protestantism tell are not always large enough to hold all that our shared history implies.

I am grateful for the life, work, and witness of Tim Keller, and I continue to learn from it. He helped a generation of people who had not been able to hear the gospel before to come to know the living Christ. I believe that if we take his approach seriously and follow it to its natural conclusions — some of which even Keller could not see in his lifetime — that we will find a source of healing and conversion not only for those outside of the faith but for Christians as well. History divides us, but history is also what will reunite us in the end. When, in God’s time, we finally see all baptized believers as participants in the same narrative of Christ’s redeeming work, then we will be able to tell a story that the whole world will find irresistible.

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