The Reason for God: A Review by William D. Dennison
The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism
By Timothy J. Keller
New York: Dutton, 2008
xxiii + 293 pages, hardcover, $24.95.
ISBN: 978 0 52595 049 3
John R. Muether’s fine biography entitled Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman suggests that Van Til was marginalized by Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) by the end of his life. Concerning WTS, in 1979 Van Til speculated whether its academic environment understood his apologetic.1 Van Til’s assessment in 1979 may have been skewed, but if he were alive today, his assumption may have been confirmed as he listened to Dr. Timothy Keller’s approach to apologetics on March 11, 2008 in the very hall that bears Van Til’s name.2 Specifically, if one truly understands Van Til, then one would know that Dr. Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism exists outside the bounds of Van Til’s own method. Countless pages of ink flowed from Van Til’s pen in opposition to the apologetic that Keller presents. Although Dr. Keller’s presentation at WTS did not indicate fidelity to Van Til’s apologetic method, hopefully a consistent attitude of commitment to Van Til will be advanced in the OPC when reviewing Keller’s volume.
Keller’s volume is divided into two parts: 1) ‘the leap of doubt’ and, 2) ‘the reasons for faith.’ In light of his ministry in the Manhattan borough of New York City, Keller addresses the ‘seven biggest objections about Christianity’ he has confronted over the years of his ministry (part one), and then he examines ‘the reasons underlying Christian beliefs’ (part two). The apologetic aspect of the volume addresses the urban sceptic who Keller describes as ‘sophisticated and yet ignorant of Christianity,’ meaning that the individual is highly educated in their field of specialization (vocation) and, yet, has many misconceptions of the Christian religion.3 The underlying thesis to the entire volume is that the requirements for proof that the sceptics apply to the Christian faith should be applied consistently to their own belief system. In this exercise, the sceptics should discover that their doubts are not as solid as they seem to be (xviii).
In part one, the reader is presented with the typical objections to Christianity: the claim of one true religion, a good God allowing suffering, Christianity as an enemy to freedom, the church as a source of injustice, a loving God sending people to hell, science proves Christianity false, and the Bible cannot be viewed literally. To each objection, Keller employs an argument that attempts to remain consistent to his thesis, but it needs to be noted that his argument employs an inductive method, i.e., evidence for Christianity is more rational and probable than any argument to the contrary. In the second part, Keller presents the essential biblical narrative of the Christian story. Herein, God is presented as a playwright whose ‘drama’ provides many ‘strong clues’ (‘divine fingerprints’) in the universe as evidence for the Christian religion. The analogy of ‘dance’ is also employed to depict the interrelationship between God and all he has created (213-226). Although Keller tells us more than once that ‘there cannot be [an] irrefutable proof for the existence of God’ (127), in the second part he argues that God’s play ‘has greater power to explain what we see and experience than does any other competing account’ (213). In fact, for Keller, ‘the gospel…is not just a moving fictional story about someone else [Jesus]. It is a true story about us‘ (200).
With this overview before us, I now turn to assess the volume’s two sections, making no apology for my commitment to Van Til and his importance for the OPC. My appraisal proceeds in two directions: 1) Keller’s apologetic method in relationship to Van Til’s method and, 2) Keller’s depiction of the Christian story.
First, Keller has stated that he is interested in how consistent his work is with Van Tilian apologetics.4 In terms of the holistic method of Van Tilian apologetics, no resemblance exists. No matter what percentage one gives to the strength of an evidential argument for God’s existence, Van Til would not give credibility to any probability argument. This criticism dominated Van Til’s analysis of any apologetic method that applied the inductive method to apologetics, a method that he found embodied in Bishop Butler and those whom he called the ‘less-than-consistent Calvinists’ (Old Princeton). Ironically, Keller jumps on the current bandwagon of criticizing Enlightenment Cartesian foundationalism (rationalism; 118, 268n6), and yet he employs the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment use of the inductive method (empiricism) as embodied in Bacon’s New Organon (1620) to encounter modern scepticism. Again, Van Til would claim this is a flaw in Keller’s approach. Keller is attempting to meet the sceptic on his own ground. (In fact, in Descartes’s Meditations , he attempted to meet the revival of Pyrrhonian scepticism on the sceptic’s ground as he constructed his foundational rationalism. Keller seems to be telling us that he prefers meeting the sceptics on their own turf with a method that incorporates Enlightenment inductivism [empiricism] rather than Enlightenment deductivism [rationalism]).5 If one attempts to meet the sceptic on his own ground, Van Til says that the Christian apologist has already given away the merchandise since the apologist is allowing the sceptic to define the epistemological ground of the discussion (the probability of truth). Perhaps it would be helpful to think about the issue this way: as you stand in the presence of God, do you think God would affirm that there cannot be any irrefutable proof for his existence? In fact, on the basis of the Word of God and God’s providential sovereign activity in history, can we not hear the Lord’s response: the triune God of the Bible irrefutably exists! According to Scripture, God’s existence is indubitable, and all of humanity is without excuse because the irrefutable proof of his existence is clearly seen in his activity (Rom. 1:18-25). Paul does not teach in Romans 1 that humanity is without excuse because God provides more rational and probable evidences than the argument to the contrary. Van Til echoes Paul’s sentiment, but Keller does not. In fact, the modern sceptic’s questions, to which Keller wishes to give so much sympathy, fairness, and credence, are nonsense before the presence of God.6
The directive of Keller’s argumentation relies heavily upon the cultural milieu. His argument on each subject follows a basic pattern. The sceptical question is raised in its cultural context, and then a statement or argument of response from a prominent cultural figure is placed before the reader (e.g., Stephen L. Carter, Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, David L. Chappell, Robert Bellah, Ian Barbour, Jan Vansina, Alvin Plantinga, and foremost, C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright). The response is used to turn the question of the sceptic on its head so that Keller can proceed to demonstrate that it is more reasonable to believe the Christian position. For this reason, one will strain to find any example of Keller confronting the sceptic with the absolute authority of the triune God and his Word. One may wish to counter my observation by arguing that the content of biblical revelation is presupposed in the initial part of the volume, but I found it to be an afterthought at best. Specifically, the apologetic directive found clearly in Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 1.4 and 1.5, which was employed so masterfully by Van Til, is clearly missing in Keller. WCF 1.4 tells us that the Holy Scripture is to be believed because it is the Word of God (God is truth). The absolute authoritative claim that Scripture makes about itself precedes the evidence that it is the Word of God (WCF 1.5). Van Til applied the same principle to any discussion about God’s existence. Van Til grounds his epistemology in a philosophy of history: this means that he begins with the self-attesting and self-authenticating activity of the triune God in history as declared in Holy Scripture. The evidences for God’s existence are constitutive of this covenantal/redemptive historical paradigm as the trinity discloses himself in his revelation. In the scope of biblical historical revelation, God, history, facts, and God’s interpretation of those facts are inseparable. Keller never uses this biblical paradigm in order to respond to the modern sceptic. Rather, Keller exchanges the irrefutable proof that God provides in revelational history for a probability argument of God’s existence in the relative cultural context of his own era. From God’s perspective, however, the argument is over; redemptive and covenantal history is fulfilled. On the authority of God’s work in Christ, all men everywhere stand presently before God and need to repent and believe (Acts 17:30-31). God’s providential history is not a ‘play’ in which humans are the spectators trying to rationally comprehend, understand, and put together the ‘clues’ that God has left for us (127). Rather, from God’s perspective, the play, if you wish, portrays facts that must be believed without reservation since today is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2).
Furthermore, one should not be surprised about the popularity of Keller’s volume. Christians are enamoured with being relevant about culture. For the most part, however, the same popular questions of scepticism arise in every age since the sceptics of each era think that they are reinventing the wheel. In reality, they are not thinkers; they just drift through history espousing the ‘same old, same old,’ yet updated, versions of their popular notions – repeating the self-whimsical pompous criticisms of academicians; supposed intelligent inquiries from friends and blogs; amoral discussions in locker rooms, dorm rooms, chat rooms, bars and the work place; the recurring themes in music, film, and stage; and the continual therapies of psychological anxiety and alienation. The products of culture always demand a cultural response. Keller capitulates to that culture. In contrast, the genius of Van Til’s apologetic is to engage the culture by beginning with the God of the Bible who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow – demanding that the culture conform its existence to the eternal and constant truth of the gospel.
So what about the story of the gospel, which is Keller’s focus in the second part of the volume? Does he present the story found in the Bible as summarized in the historic Reformed confessions? Interestingly, Keller defends the content of the historic ecumenical creeds from the early church, but the Reformed confessions are mysteriously missing. This omission is important. Van Til maintained that the starting point for the defence of the Christian faith is the self-attesting Christ of Scripture and that the best summary of the message of Scripture is found in the ecumenical creeds as well as the Reformed confessions. In other words, the true defence of the Christian faith is the defence of the Reformed faith! Van Til’s position has not been popular within evangelical and Reformed circles. Obviously, his position did not find sentiment in Keller’s volume. So what view of Christianity is Keller defending? I found it difficult to come to a precise response to that question, but it was apparent that certain eclectic nuances emerged, e.g., there is a Reformed element (salvation by grace), an evangelical element (experiential and relational emphasis on community without any depth of covenant consciousness or a doctrine of the church), and a liberal element (social restoration).
From a historic Reformed perspective, the reader should be surprised to learn that Martin Luther King had a ‘deeper and truer’ view of Christianity with respect to justice,7 that the existential philosopher SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard provides the launching point for the truth about sin, and in perhaps the strangest chapter, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is ‘the marvellous example of human forgiveness to understand the divine’ (191). After all, according to Keller, ‘no one embodied the costliness of forgiveness any better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ (190). In terms of Christ’s death on the cross, Keller comments, ‘As Bonhoeffer says, 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’ (192). Personally, I find Keller’s endorsement of Bonhoeffer’s notion of human forgiveness as a bearer of another’s sin perplexing. How can such a position be reconciled with the Bible’s teaching that Christ’s sacrificial atonement is a once and for all expiatory and propitiatory event on behalf of sinners (Rom. 6:10, Heb. 10:8-18)? Christians forgive each other not as bearers of sin but because Christ forgave us. Even so, Keller’s puzzling language about the cross of Christ continues: ‘This is a God who becomes human and offers his own lifeblood in order to honor moral justice and merciful love so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us’ (192). Although one will find the terminology of the satisfaction view of atonement scattered throughout Keller’s presentation, it would seem that Keller is advocating more directly the moral theory of the atonement. Hence, the reader should not be surprised that the justice achieved by Christ on the cross is a restoration of the social order of human activity (196-197). Ironically, I am sceptical whether the reader will find an exposition of the penal substitutionary work of Christ’s atonement as taught in the Reformed confessions in Keller’s presentation of the ‘true’ story of the cross. In my estimation, Keller’s exposition appears dangerously close to Horace Bushnell’s moral theory on the atonement, which was assessed and critiqued correctly by Charles Hodge.8
Since a biblical and confessional view of the atonement is in question in Keller’s presentation, what can be said about the grand narrative of the biblical story? Herein, Keller adopts the popular neo-Calvinist scheme: ‘creation, fall, redemption, and consummation’ (214). This ‘story line’ has its roots in nineteenth century Dutch neo-Calvinism, which eventually evolved into a paradigm that teaches the ‘absolute harmony of humanity with nature’ (222). Moreover, Keller endorses the neo-Calvinist’s canon when he writes: ‘The purpose of Jesus’ coming is to put the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it’ (223). Herein, justice and shalom finally embrace. Keller continues: ‘The work of the Spirit of God is not only to save souls but also to care for and cultivate the face of the earth, the material world’ (223). Keller’s approval of the neo-Calvinist horizontal scheme of the biblical story is quite distant from Calvin’s pastoral gem regarding the believer’s pilgrimage in this creation: ‘If heaven is our homeland, what else is the earth but a place of exile?’9 Furthermore, with respect to the WCF, a serious revisionist view of the biblical narrative is put in place by the scheme and content of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Although one can infer this pattern as a subordinate scheme in the WCF, that blueprint is not the self-conscious model of the authors of the Confession. Rather, the paradigm of the WCF is the ‘fourfold state of man.’ The ninth chapter reveals the broad outline of the Confession: state of innocency (9.2), state of sin (9.3), state of grace (9.4), and state of glory (9.5). For the authors of the WCF, the focus of God’s activity in the creation is anthropology (God in covenant with man, i.e., from the covenant of works to the covenant of grace in Christ). But during the nineteenth century a paradigm shift occurred, mainly in continental Reformed thought. This shift emphasized God’s activity in the creation. Herein, man is called as a servant and instrument in God’s teleological plan to restore and secure the creation. This post-Enlightenment paradigm shift from anthropology to creation reached its high point in the famous quip by Herman Bavinck, ‘grace restores nature.’ For many, Bavinck’s phrase has come to define the canon of neo-Calvinist dogma for the twentieth century and beyond as the content of that quip has evolved.10 Perhaps a simple way to state the difference between the two paradigms is this: the WCF understands that the believer’s end (Christ’s bride) is the inheritance of God himself, through Christ, in the glorious transcendence of heaven (WSC Q#1), whereas neo-Calvinism understands the end as a restored creation in which believers ‘labor’ in ‘deeds of justice and service’ with the ‘expectation of a perfect world’ (225). I would suggest that the neo-Calvinist needs to reread Romans 8:18-25. Paul teaches in Romans 8:18-25 that creation serves redemption, nature serves glory, the universe serves eschatology – specifically, creation serves the ‘sons of God’ (the church: see also Matt. 6:24-34, Eph. 1:15-23, Phil. 3:20-2, 2 Cor. 4:16-5:8, Heb. 3:14, Rev. 21:22-22:5). In my judgment, the neo-Calvinist’s scheme is guilty of deconstructing the vertical realm of eschatology taught clearly in Holy Scripture and our Reformed standards. More importantly, however, it is deconstructing the entire biblical narrative and replacing it with a post-Enlightenment gospel of cultural and social relevance.
Well, in light of this analysis, is there something positive to glean from Keller’s book? Yes. Although the holistic character of Keller’s apologetic method is antithetical to Van Til’s method, he does provide certain particular (common grace) perceptions into the sceptic that can be used by a perceptive Van Tilian reasoning from the ‘impossibility of the contrary.’11
Members of the OPC need to seriously adopt a discerning spirit with respect to Keller’s volume. We must remain steadfast to the directive that Van Til placed before us. We must not turn the question of God’s existence over to Keller’s method of ‘critical rationality’ (120-121). ‘Critical rationality’ assumes that ‘belief in God offers a better empirical fit, it explains and accounts for what we see better than the alternative account of things. No view of God can be proven, but that does not mean that we cannot sift and weigh the grounds for various religious beliefs and find that some or even one is the most reasonable’ (121). Keller’s position does not provide ‘the’ reason for God; rather, his empirical method puts its trust in human rationality to bow before the most rational and probable argument for a certain religion. In contrast, one would be better served by bowing before the method of God’s infallible self-witness of his own activity in covenant and redemptive history. After all, the Bible is God’s own infallible commentary on his own activity. In his Word, his testimony is self-authenticating. No unbeliever stands presently or in the future before the God of biblical history with justified scepticism. Furthermore, it is imperative for the OPC to remain faithful to our Confessional standards as the true summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must not cave in to a revisionist view of biblical history in order to be socially and culturally relevant in our era. Such a revisionist position ends up altering the core of the gospel from Genesis to Revelation.
John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 224.
Westminster Theological Seminary Media Center: Video.
A digest of the fine works of Richard H. Popkin on scepticism during the Enlightenment can be very instructive concerning the problems that both deductive and inductive reasoning faced encountering the sceptics, e.g., Popkin’s, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979). Also incredibly challenging to anyone putting confidence in deductive and inductive arguments for God’s existence is Alan Charles Kors’s volume, Atheism in France, 1650-1729: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
At this point I need to be fair to Dr. Keller. Of course, in his pastoral role he needs to be gracious and loving to the questions of the modern sceptic; he needs to listen well and make every attempt to respond to their concerns. His book clearly indicates that this is his honourable passion. My point is this: although the gospel demands that we be pastorally gracious to the sceptic’s questions, the believer must also realize that the sceptic’s questions come from a heart of unbelief. Thus, those questions against God are unfair because they are against the authority and the fulfilled eschatological work of our Godhead. One may wish to consult an instructive article by B. B. Warfield (see “Doubt,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield-II, ed. John E. Meeter [Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973], 655-659).
As I point out in my classroom discussion of King’s famous ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail,’ his key paragraph in presenting his view of justice is an eclectic synthesis of Aquinas, Martin Buber’s ‘I-thou’ concept, and Paul Tillich’s view of sin. These three men are not pillars of Reformed orthodoxy, and thus a serious employment of the transcendental critique is needed of King’s view of justice before it is affirmed as a ‘deeper and truer’ view.
I recommend the reading of Keller, Bushnell, and Hodge alongside of each other. See Horace Bushnell, The Vicarious Sacrifice: Grounded in Principles Interpreted by Human Analogies (1877; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, n.d.), 1:449-552, and Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), 2:566-573. Hodge refers to Bushnell’s Vicarious Sacrifice Grounded in Principles of Universal Obligation, published in 1866.
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967) III.9.4:716.
An introductory survey of the neo-Calvinist movement appears in an article by William D. Dennison entitled, ‘Dutch neo-Calvinism and the Roots for Transformation,’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42 (June 1999): 271-291. This same article can be retrieved here. A succinct counter to the neo-Calvinist horizontal view of eschatology is found in the superb sermon by Geerhardus Vos, ‘Heavenly-Mindedness (Hebrews 11:9-10),’ Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (1922; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1994) 103-123.
To look into Van Til’s notion, see Van Til’s ‘My Credo,’ #5, which appears in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, ed. E. R. Geehan (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1971), 21; Gregory Bahnsen, Van Til (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1998), 4-6, 113, 485-487.
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