Dutch Inspiration for Tim Keller
By James Eglinton
Translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman
Monday, 11 July 2011
. . . New York City clergyman Tim Keller gleans much from British and American authors. . . . But when it comes to his church’s niche in New York City, we hear the sounds of Dutch names: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.
The Presbyterian clergyman Tim Keller is attracting worldwide attention through his work with Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. In his sermons and books, Keller makes frequent use of the British author C. S. Lewis and the American Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards. “From Lewis especially I have learned a lot about communicating with others, especially with skeptics. And theologically my thinking has indeed been shaped by Edwards.”
But anyone who listens to Keller talk about the wider role of Redeemer within the culture of New York City will hear other names: those of the church father Augustine and of the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper.
Central to the work of Redeemer in New York City is the Center for Faith and Work, a center where Christians are trained to live out of their faith in their work or in their public function. Keller’s vision for this, as he indicates, would be unthinkable without Kuyper. “Kuyper said many helpful things. Especially his idea of sphere sovereignty has helped me. That idea assumes that various social relationships—among persons, families, volunteers, associations, and churches—each has its own responsibility. According to a well-known aphorism, Kuyper discovered that ‘there is not a thumb’s-width in life about which Christ does not say: ”Mine!”’ But that authority of Jesus is carried out through various social connections. Christ’s absolute claim upon human existence does not mean, for example, that the church as church may control the state.”
Keller discovered the Dutch neo-Calvinists in the 1970s during his study in Boston at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. There the Swiss theologian Roger Nicole gave his students Herman Bavinck’s Doctrine of God to read. “I also had to work through a translation of a small portion of Bavink’s dogmatics. I became deeply impressed by the balance and thoroughness of Bavinck’s theology. He was very nuanced. He displayed a healthy piety, but nevertheless was no pietist. And his orientation to the Bible occasionally kept him from adopting traditional positions.”
Keller narrates how one of Bavinck’s basic insights has become foundational for his own theology and vision for Redeemer. “Bavinck’s fundamental idea that grace restores nature was truly a revelation for me. In my opinion, this has enormous consequences for how you look at the church and the world.”
“Many Christian traditions view sanctification as a journey out of the natural world to a spiritual world that has nothing to do with ordinary life and your calling in that life. For that reason, we at Redeemer ask the question: ‘How does your faith affect your work?’ That is really crucial for following Christ. Most evangelical churches in America make believers into disciples of Christ by removing them from the world and bringing them into the church. Discipleship supposedly involves how we study the Bible, how we lead Bible studies, how we pray, evangelize, overcome temptation, forgive, and seek relationships with others, practice fellowship with other believers, how you can work in the congregation. And that is also important. But at the same time, this doesn’t help people lead a recognizably Christian life in society, at work, in art, in media, in the marketplace, etc.”
At the same time, Keller is not uncritical regarding the Kuyperian tradition. He points out that many churches in this tradition place heavy emphasis on living according to a Christian worldview while neglecting spiritual piety and evangelism. On the other hand, he realizes as well that some churches move to the other extreme: “They place all the emphasis on piety and evangelism, but neglect the integration of faith and work.” So he is seeking a middle way with the help of Bavinck and Kuyper. “With Kuyper I believe in an antithesis, an opposition between belief and unbelief. Ultimately there is no neutrality. Thinking proceeds from belief in God or from belief in an idol. But at the same time, unbelievers are often inconsistent. Despite their mistaken presuppositions and ideals, they display their goodness and possess many insights, by virtue of God’s common grace.”
It is that balance that has led, in the case of Keller and Redeemer, to a flourishing church in a city that for the most part is secular.
Why are Kuyper and Bavinck at this moment more popular in America than in the Netherlands? To this question Keller supplies a philosophical answer. “C. S. Lewis is much more widely known and read in the United States than in Great Britain. The same pertains to other well-known British Christian authors, like J. I. Packer and John Stott. Lewis, Packer, and Stott are not neo-Calvinists. So I don’t think that the reason lies with the content of the thought of Kuyper and Bavinck. For various reasons, America possesses a far more flourishing religious institutional life and an enormous evangelical subculture. European Christian authors and thinkers simply have more readers in America than in their own countries.”
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The Scotsman James Eglinton obtained his doctorate with a dissertation on Herman Bavinck, and is doing research at the Theological University in Kampen on how Calvinism in the Netherlands and in Scotland have influenced each other.