Book Review: Tim Keller’s Reason for God

Tim Keller’s recent book The Reason for God has received much critical and popular acclaim, landing on several bestseller lists (including Amazon and the New York Times). It’s not hard to see why: Keller is a great communicator who writes with an engaging style that is personal and accessible yet still culturally, philosophically, and academically informed. Keller is also effective because he doesn’t come across as writing “from above” but is writing from the trenches of spiritual and intellectual struggles prevalent in New York City. I had a difficult time writing this review because while I really enjoyed the book, I found it to be lacking in some areas. Is it a good book? Absolutely. Is it a great book? I might have to read it again to answer that accurately. For Keller’s audience and purposes, I do think that it is a very good, solid book.

The first half of the book is devoted to answering some of the most frequent questions of skeptics of Christianity, including topics like science, exclusivity, suffering, judgment, injustice, and human freedom. The second half is devoted to reasons for the Christian faith. I thought Keller is most effective in the first half, especially the chapters on suffering and injustice. He does a great job engaging the postmodern reader, and I especially appreciated Keller’s critique against the prevalent fallacies of “strong rationalism.” He argues that skeptics’ logic and reasoning against Christianity should also be applied to their own belief system (often their reasoning against Christianity is through “strong rationalism”). By doing so, the skeptics should discover that their system is not as solid as it seems.

Some aspects of Keller’s work seemed incomplete – not that I expected it to be perfect of course. However, I don’t think these are “make or break” issues, and for what I believe Keller’s intent to be, are not major concerns for me. But I would like to attempt to flesh them out a little bit here. I do so mindful of Keller’s encouragement to “major on the majors” of faith first and foremost, agreeing with him loosely that only after the foundations of the faith are wrestled with and accepted do the “minors” take on larger significance.Keller argues using a “probability” perspective (mainly in Chapter 8, “The Clues of God”) – while the Christian God cannot be absolutely proven, Keller says, He is the most probable answer to many of life’s questions. While Keller presents good arguments for the existence of a god, he does not make the leap to reason from a god to the one true God. Thus, I found the name of the book to be inaccurate – Keller does not really give “The Reason” for God, but provides a roundabout argument to why God is the best probable answer.

Another of these issues was Keller’s approach to defining sin, as he does not discuss sin in legal or covenental terms, but instead in relationship terms. For example, contrast the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s explanation of sin with Keller’s (based on Kierkegaard’s):

WSC question 14: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

Keller: “Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him.” (p 162)

1 John 3:4: Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.

While Keller isn’t explicitly wrong here, and I agree with his subsequent discussion of the first commandment, I’m not totally on board with his discussion of sin. While Keller does not necessarily present explicitly wrong ideas regarding this and other crucial Christian truths, he seems to present incomplete ideas. For example, he focuses on the atonement as primarily a loving act of God – which is true, but incomplete without explaining the need for sinners to be justified and reconciled before a Holy Judge (i.e. penal substitution).

I also found Keller’s discussion about forgiveness (primarily using Bonhoeffer’s perspective on forgiveness) to be generally unhelpful (p 191ff). Keller writes that “everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sins. On the Cross we see God doing visibly and cosmically what every human being must do to forgive someone, though on an infinitely greater scale” (p 192). But isn’t Christ the only sin-bearer, the once-for-all, sufficient, perfect, atoning sacrifice? We forgive because Christ forgave us, not because we are fellow sin bearers. I agree with Keller when he says that “it is divine forgiveness that is the ultimate ground and resource for the human” (p. 193). But without delving into this perspective on forgiveness more, Keller leaves the reader without a full explanation of the relation of human forgiveness to divine.

Finally, Keller hints at a non-literal or poetic interpretation of the Genesis 1-2 creation narrative, but doesn’t really come out and say which he holds to. While I don’t think it’s necessary for him to do so in the book, he does comes across as uncomfortably accommodating to evolution (theistic evolution, not naturalist evolution).

That said, my overall point here is that though Keller’s work might raise questions for some believers, I think it raises more and better questions (i.e. those of eternal significance) for skeptics. Further, Keller has a large, thriving church where he preaches the Gospel clearly and where he does not try to lure “seekers” in with gimmicks and flashiness, but is instead faithful to the Word of God and the Gospel of Christ – and this Word has not returned void.I realize that my review is weighted toward the negative. Am I being overly critical or nit-picky? Perhaps, though my intentions are by no means malicious. Am I in a place to criticize a widely popular pastor laboring for the Gospel in one of the most anti-Gospel areas of the country? Maybe not, but I also don’t want to quietly or even blindly endorse Keller’s work just because of his immense popularity. It is a good book, and my biggest reason for it not being a great book is because of Keller’s incomplete explanations. I did enjoy the book and admit that I have been struggling with this review for several weeks.The Reason for God is a timely and widely needed book, and I pray the Gospel is spread through its wide reading. I also pray that I will take the many helpful aspects of it and use them in bearing witness, and in strengthening my ability to always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Tim Keller’s Reason for God

  1. Do you think that the Westminster Shorter Catechism is likewise incomplete (on the def of sin)?I appreciate your critique. I haven’t read each chapter of Keller’s book, but I’ve read some large sections. Overall I think it’s very helpful; that doesn’t mean it’s comprehensive.

  2. Wow, just realized this comment was left – the email was in my Yahoo! spam folder. Yikes!I would say that the Shorter Catechism’s definition is not comprehensive, but not necessarily incomplete. I think that Keller’s definition isn’t really the true, full definition. The biblical picture is that a broken relationship is a result of sin, and not the definition of sin. The Bible’s definition of sin is breaking God’s law. A broken relationship with God is the result of sin.

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