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Book review: Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation

Wednesday, 25 October 2023  | Graham Cole

Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation

Collin Hansen

(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2023)


Over the years you pick up pithy bits of wisdom here and there. One of my favorites is, ‘Have many teachers, but only one master’. Timothy Keller exemplified that wisdom as Collin Hansen’s very fine book shows. Hansen’s book is not a standard biography, although you learn much about Keller’s life. Hansen studies the influences that formed Keller as a Christian, pastor, preacher, teacher and thinker, rather than the influence he has had, although that does come into the text at various points. A fresh approach.

The book is divided into four parts that follow the chronology of Keller’s life: Honest to God (1950-1972; Professors and Peers (1972-1975); Trial by Fire (1975-1989), and From Gotham to Globe (1989 to Present). Gotham is Manhattan. In this respect, it reads like a conventional biography. However, a conventional biography would include the influence he exerted as well as in-depth analysis of the subject’s strengths and weaknesses. Hansen does reveal some of Keller’s vulnerabilities. For example, Keller found conflict very difficult, and his vision at times required a capacity in others and himself that could not be realised. This is not a fault in the book with its stated angle of vision, but it does mean that a more conventional biography of Keller per se still awaits. The story of how, under God, the man who began as the pastor of a congregation of a hundred in Hopewell, Virginia, became the founding pastor of a church that grew to over five thousand in Manhattan is worth the telling in detail.

Keller’s great strength was his principled eclecticism. Hansen uses the analogy of the rings of a tree to make this point. As a tree matures it adds more rings. It does not subtract them. Keller added a host of rings over time as he gained insights from John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Herman Bavinck, Jack Miller, R. C. Sproul, Richard Lovelace, James Davison Hunter and especially Edward Clowney. Interestingly, three women were very influential in shaping his development and thinking. From Barbara Boyd, an IVF worker, he learned how to read the Bible for personal profit; from Elizabeth Elliot he learned his complementarianism but without her polemical edge; and above all from Kathy his wife who was his equal in coworking. According to Hansen, she was in truth the cofounder of Redeemer Church in Manhattan. I have not exhausted the list of influences on Keller covered by Hansen.

Borrowing from others is one thing, but what did Keller do with these insights? He created a synthesis that he was able to deftly apply to his changing cultural context. He was characterised by an astute cultural intelligence and a profound curiosity. Significantly, he was wise enough to know that what he did in Manhattan had to be adapted in other places to different cultural contexts, but always with the gracious God who in Christ welcomes the prodigal home at the centre. Indeed, the story of the two sons in Luke 15 was his lodestar. Both needed grace: the younger son for his licentiousness and the elder son for his self-righteous legalism. The Father wants both sons to be home and reconciled. Although this parable was at the heart of his spirituality, theology and ministerial practice, he acknowledged that other passages of Scripture may serve that purpose for others. He prized community and sought to foster it, whether in Hopewell or Manhattan. Keller believed that ‘The real secret of fruitful and effective mission in the world is the quality of our community’. He was not a soloist.

Keller emerges from this study as an impressive pastor, preacher, strategist, apologist and leader who was wise in his eclecticism and humble in character. He had no interest in celebrity. He knew suffering and sorrow. He had two bouts of cancer (thyroid then much later pancreatic). Kathy Keller endured multiple bouts of Crohn’s disease with attendant operations, and he lost his younger brother Billy to AIDS. Hansen offers a sensitive account of Billy’s passing and Keller’s loving pastoral care of him. Keller’s originality lay in his ability to synthesise and apply a diversity of sources to the urban context without losing touch with Scripture, intentionally informed by a robust doctrinal framework with its roots in Calvin. He never lost sight of the gospel of grace, the gift of the prodigal God. A fascinating read. Highly recommended.


Graham Cole is a theologian who is Emeritus Dean and Professor Emeritus, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, and Emeritus Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne.

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