In Praise of Tim Keller: On Princeton’s Decision

Keller’s greatest reward, and ours, is yet to come.

Tim Keller was just about to receive the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness from Princeton Theological Seminary. Now, due to public pressure, the seminary has just announced that Keller will not receive the Kuyper Prize. According to sources cited by Religion News Service, the fact that Keller holds complementarian views discredits him from the honor:

“In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genitalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear,” author Carol Howard Merritt wrote in a post at the website of the Christian Century, the flagship magazine for mainline Protestantism. “Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”

How deeply saddening and upsetting this is. Tim Keller is a complementarian, yes. He has taught what the Bible teaches regarding male leadership in the home and church, and he does not believe homosexual practice is faithful to Scripture. Many evangelical egalitarians have made it a point to still work with Keller despite disagreement on this matter; we are thankful for them. But now, Keller’s views on complementarity and homosexuality render him a target from illiberal voices. Do not miss this: Tim Keller, a gracious man if there ever was one, is being publicly shamed for holding what Scripture teaches, which is now “toxic theology.”

Tim Keller is a winsome voice for biblical truth. He has served as a model for many of us with his elegant prose, his incredible ability to turn skepticism on its head, his breathtaking Christocentric preaching, his graciousness, his zeal for a transformative gospel, his rugged endurance in one of the toughest ministry contexts on the planet, his refusal to trade biblical orthodoxy on numerous contested points for a bowl of cultural approval. (He also catalyzed interest in Lord of the Rings among evangelicals, an underrated but important aspect of his legacy.) As many have heard, Keller has just announced his retirement from Redeemer Presbyterian Church, just as John Piper stepped down from Bethlehem Baptist Church not long ago. It is bittersweet to see such lions of the faith stepping down, though God willing they have many years of fruitful work ahead of them.

How odd that this fracas has happened at Princeton. Princeton Seminary is the ancestral home of Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen. For a good long while, Princeton was one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in all its gleaming brilliance, turning out thousands of Bible-loving, gospel-preaching pastors in days past. Princeton has long had ties to Abraham Kuyper, who delivered his famous “every square inch” Stone Lectures at the school in 1898. The Princeton-Kuyper-evangelical connection is alive and thriving at schools like Westminster Seminary, which produced sterling graduates like Harold John Ockenga.

Beyond thriving Westminster, as just one humble example, I will be teaching a July PhD seminar with my colleague John Mark Yeats at Midwestern Seminary on “Biblical Theology and Culture.” We will be discussing Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. Baptists like me are thankful for our brother Abraham and his insights. Over 115 years later, the Kuyperian tree yet blooms, and on numerous campuses, the “Princeton Theology” yet lives.

But mark the irony: today, Kuyper could not receive his own award, as Michael Guyer noted. Nor could Hodge or Warfield or Machen—strong complementarians all—win such an honor, or perhaps even teach at the school they did so much to establish and strengthen. Those who promote tolerance in our time show so little of it; those who call for charitable dialogue do so little to extend it. Biblical sexual ethics is where this take-no-prisoners battle is the fiercest. The scandal of the cross now extends to our vision of the sexes.

Princeton Seminary president Craig Barnes was placed in a very tough spot by the unjust outcry over Keller’s award. He has announced that Keller will still lecture at Princeton, but will not receive the Kuyper Prize. This is a fearsome time to be a university or seminary president. But Barnes, a gracious presence in fractured times, has made an unfortunate decision to withdraw Keller’s award.

The Scripture calls us to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10). So, Kuyper Prize or no, we honor Tim Keller. He raised a banner for Christ in the supposedly impenetrable global city, and has in God’s mysterious kindness led a reverse exodus into such difficult places. He has promoted and defended the Christian faith, with the atoning death of Christ at the burning core, for decades. He has held fast to Kathy, his very gifted and godly wife, and raised his sons to know the Lord.

The blogosphere can tear Keller to shreds. So it may, and so it will for many of us, gracious or not, winsome or not, nuanced or not. Don’t be confused: this world hates the gospel, hates God, and hates Christ (Romans 8:7). It calls faithful men and women of God to sit down and fall silent. But, in love for fellow sinners, we graciously refuse to do so. We will preach the whole counsel of God, including biblical sexual ethics, which glisten with divine craftmanship. We will rise to praise Tim Keller, a man who received a weighty charge from God, a man entrusted with much, a man who did not drop the baton.

Keller has finished the race of pastoral ministry. He kept the charge. So, the world can do its work. It can take away the prize; withdraw the plaudits; run his name through the mud. It matters not.

Keller’s greatest reward, and ours, is yet to come.