Book Review: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, by Tim Keller

Review
08.28.2015

Timothy Keller. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism. Viking Press, 2015. 320 pp. $19.95.

 

Timothy Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism is thoughtful and thought-provoking book on that most fundamental task of the pastor-teacher. I gladly recommend it to anyone charged with preaching or teaching regularly.

SUMMARY OF THE BOOK

The book begins with a brief introduction on types of Word ministry (in which Keller states he will mostly focus on teaching and preaching) and a prologue. It is then divided into three parts that focus on 1) preaching the Word in a Christocentric way, 2) preaching to people, and 3) preaching in the Spirit.

In Part One: Serving the Word, Keller gives us three chapters focused on preaching the Word. It is expected, conventional, and handled well. In chapter 1 (27-46), he argues for expositional preaching as the normal practice of the church and then offers a few warnings about some of the dangers of a rigid understanding of expositional preaching. In chapter 2 (47-69), Keller contends for preaching the gospel in every sermon. Similarly, if a little redundantly (though if there is a point on which to be redundant, this is it), in chapter 3 (70-90), Keller argues for preaching Christ from every part of Scripture. Given the recent trendiness of biblical theology, most of his arguments of these three chapters will be familiar to pastors, conference-goers, and connoisseurs of preaching books. But because the relationship between the preacher and the text is so foundational, these chapters are welcomed and necessary.

In Part Two: Reaching the People, Keller presents three substantive chapters on contextualization and cultural engagement for the purpose of preaching to people well. This is the Keller of his reputation and his unique contribution to the literature on preaching. If you are going to buy the book, this section (which is captured in the subtitle and comprises roughly half of the main body of the book) is probably the reason why. Chapter 4 (93-120) outlines an incredibly helpful approach for thinking through how to preach to skeptical, unfamiliar, and unbelieving people, including: adapting in order to confront, contextual communication, using accessible or well-explained vocabulary, employing respected authorities as support, demonstrating an understanding of doubts and objections, affirming in order to challenge cultural narratives, and making gospel offers that push on the culture’s pressure points. Chapter 5 (121-156) unpacks Keller’s take on five “baseline cultural narratives.” It is a fascinating survey that gives us insight into how Keller thinks through culture. As with the previous chapter, it will be of great value for preachers to think through these cultural narratives, especially when working through application in preparing a sermon. Chapter 6 (157-187) consists of very practical advice on how to be homiletically effective, including recommendations on preaching affectionately, imaginatively, wondrously, memorably, Christocentrically, and practically.

Part Three: In Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power is comprised of a single chapter. Where the previous chapter addressed preaching to the heart of our people, chapter 7 (191-210) addresses preaching from the heart. Keller points to the inevitable connection between the integrity of the preachers and the efficacy of the sermon and encourages preaching in the power of the spirit. Chapter 7 is followed by an appendix on his suggested process for writing an expositional sermon and his extensive endnotes.

INTERACTING WITH THE BOOK

There is so much substance in this book (a good thing!), it would be easy to enter into discussion with Keller for several pages. For this review, I would like to focus on four points of interaction.

First, I highly recommend the book for preachers, especially Part Two’s wealth of observations on contextualization. It is somewhat strange that this book mostly bypasses discussion of exegesis in sermon preparation. Perhaps that is because Keller has published or lectured on this elsewhere? Or, perhaps, Keller does not intend this to be a book on how to preach from start to finish? Regardless, its real value is found in the advice he gives on simply thinking more and working harder on engaging with people. And his critique of how un-engaging some modern preaching can be is not without merit. If you are one charged with the responsibility of preaching or teaching God’s Word to God’s people, this second section alone makes the book worth reading. Of course, while Keller’s insight into culture is fascinatingly insightful, he is mainly addressing Western culture in urban contexts. It is unclear to me whether or how his advice will be applicable in rural or Eastern contexts (which may have somewhat different baseline cultural narratives or, at least, conceive of them differently). The book could not be about everything, so hopefully someone else will take up his approach in those contexts.

Second, in this book, Keller consistently draws on historical, intellectual, and cultural sources in support of arguments (he even commends this on pages 106-110). In doing that, however, there is always a risk of overstating the issues or misrepresenting sources. And when that happens, his arguments can be undermined by a loss of complexity and nuance.[1] For example, in his discussion of cultural narratives in chapter 5, he repeatedly refers to what ‘the ancient Greeks thought’ in order to distinguish between ancient paganism and biblical Christianity.[2] And to support his conclusions, he frequently cites Charles Taylor. The problem is that Taylor does not seem to be trying to represent what all of the ancient Greeks thought (as though they all thought the same thing), but is instead making a particular comparison between Platonism and patristic Christianity. Taylor even adds an important caveat on one of the particular points: “Other philosophies didn’t follow Plato here…”[3]

There are two negative consequences of referencing respected academic sources in overgeneralized ways. On the one hand, most readers will come away with a skewed view of the actual subject matter—because, in this case, diverse positions held by different ancient Greeks are being lumped together and presented as uniform thought. On the other hand, those who know the subject matter might become more skeptical because of the oversimplification (that is, in this case, Classicists, ancient historians, and their students would likely recognize the diversity of philosophical positions of ancient Greeks).[4]

More importantly, however, this issue of overstating or overreaching has even greater implications for the next generation taking up the task of preaching. As a preacher, it is too easy to cherry-pick historical or intellectual support that justifies or rhetorically advances our homiletical points. And this can ultimately undermine us as preachers. If our sermonic arguments always convey a need for historical and intellectual sources, then those in our congregation who are more expert than us on history, literature, sociology, philosophy, science, or in whatever field we are dabbling—those people will have reasons to mistrust our preaching when we expose our lack of expertise. And for those who take this approach to an extreme, it might also signal something deeper. That is, if our sermonic arguments always convey a need for historical and intellectual sources, we had better be certain that this does not also indicate a transfer of trust in the sufficiency of the Scriptures.

Third, Keller is right to highlight the dangers of unthinking and rigid understandings of expositional preaching that he does throughout the book (especially in chapter 1). That said, preachers should take Keller’s advice for what it is: his perspective (and not only as prescription). Like commentaries for sermon preparation, Keller is a good conversation partner here. For example, Keller strongly advises taking larger sections of Scripture or moving more quickly through Scripture with the intention that people will be exposed to a greater variety. But, is variety always necessarily virtuous? Arguments about preaching the whole counsel are important, but they are also more or less about not leaving bits out (as some lectionaries do) or not avoiding controversial sections. As a pastor, you will know your context better than anyone else. It might be that the Sunday morning sermon is not the only encounter your people have with God’s Word each week. Among small groups, one-to-one Bible reading, personal or family devotions, and even a second church service on Sunday evenings (I’m told the Baptists do this kind of thing), perhaps your people (including the non-Christians) will find the variety of the whole counsel in other ways? Perhaps the benefits of actually demonstrating and commending a close, careful, methodical reading and asking people to grapple not just with a text or cultural narrative, but the agenda of an entire book of the Bible as it is slowly uncovered, might outweigh the need for variety? As a result, we might actually help our people become better readers of and personally more engaged with God’s Word.

Finally, I join Christopher Ash in his review on Keller’s challenge to the notion that the main point of the text ought to be the main point of the sermon because individual texts of the Scripture do not have a single, demonstrable point (42-43). While Keller is right about the dangers of an extreme view of one text equals one sermon theme and only one sermon theme (what he calls “expository legalism” on page 250), he also helpfully anticipates the danger of assuming the Bible has no authorial meaning, but only reader-constructed meaning. There is an important discussion to be had here about how we select preaching texts (according to logical units, including plot arcs in narrative). But, one need not necessarily dispense with the notion of a single coherent theme of each biblical text if one understands how the texts divide. And even in passages where it is not easy, I think it is worth the effort of trying to find the author’s dominant point.[5] It will certainly make for stronger and clearer sermons.

CONCLUSION

Notwithstanding these points of interaction, I highly recommend this volume for its clear and convincing exhortations to be more culturally literate in our preaching and teaching ministries. Keller offers practical guidance along the way that, if followed, will help us to make progress in preaching the Christian gospel to the hearts of a tired, confused, and even skeptical generation.

*****

[1] My primary example is stated in the text, but another example is found in Keller’s comment on didaskalia in the introduction (2). Again, the biblical use of that word is quite a bit more complex than how it is treated by Keller. He states that it is the “normal word for” teaching in the New Testament and that ‘all Christians should be able give it.’ The phrase “normal word for” conceals complexity that might point the reader in a very different direction than Keller’s conclusion. The Greek word didaskalia is most often translated as doctrine in the New Testament and 15 of the 21 uses of it are in the Pastoral Epistles. It is generally described as the activity of the Elders of the church (e.g., 1 Tim 5:17, Titus 1:9) and the only times it appears to be commended to an individual, it is commended to Timothy (God’s ordained man, 1 Tim 4:11-16). While I agree that all Christian should adhere to and, in some form, be able to articulate sound doctrine in a broad sense (1 Pet 3:5), it would seem there is a strong New Testament case for giving (doctrinal) teaching in this sense to be the responsibility of, or even restricted to, those in the ordained ministry of the word.

[2] Keller makes several generalizations, including references to the “Greek philosophers’ view of the material world” (127), “the differences between Christianity and paganism” (127), what the “Greeks believed” (128), what the “Greek philosophers saw” (129), what the “ancients saw” (130), what the “ancients believed” (131), what “ancient cultures believed” (132), and what the “thinkers of classical antiquity” regarded (134). It is conspicuous, however, that he never actually references or cites specific ancient Greek writers.

[3] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 275. Again, however generalized some of Taylor’s phrasing is, it is clear that he is primarily concerned with the forms of Platonism and Neo-Platonism (specifically in the writings of Plotinus, affirmed by Aristotle, and sometimes contrasted with that of the Stoics) that are appropriated by Philo to reformulate Judaism and by Clement, Origen, and Augustine to reformulate Christianity. His references to Plotinus and the ideas of the Platonists are maintained throughout the chapter.

[4] Among Classicists and historians, there is some debate on those points raised by Taylor and Keller—the importance in ancient Greek philosophy of the body, the individual, the individual’s choices, the individual’s emotions, and the linearity of history. Concerning individualism, for example, it is worth noting that one of the most frequently cited Delphic oracles in ancient Greek literature is typically translated as “know thyself.” Plato refers to this oracle at least six times and seems to take it, on one occasion, as a reason to distinguish oneself from the masses. See Plato, Phaedr. 227a-230c. For additional discussion on the value of individualism among the aristocracy, see Christian Meier, A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 127-149. Concerning emotions, for another example, David Konstan offers a much more complex understanding of emotions in ancient Greece, including the notion that emotions should be explored and not merely overcome. See David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

[5] Interestingly, Keller seems to recognize that finding the singular dominant theme (or “one clear central idea” on page 43), by way of something like exegesis, is the way to preach expositionally most of the time. This is made clear when he shares his brief manual on writing an expositional sermon (213-214). Likewise, his comments on page 44 (“often the biblical author does have one main theme”) and his lengthy footnotes 15-17 (247-250) from chapter 1 abundantly affirm this approach as well. Indeed, we must use all the exegetical tools of literary and rhetorical analysis and respect the nuances of literary genre. But, the disagreement here—which seems to be about always versus most of the time—is really about the importance and size of the role of exegesis in sermon preparation. A robust commitment to exegesis will generally encourage the preacher to find the author’s one central idea. What Keller suggests as an alternative (e.g., see page 43: “Multiple valid inferences can be drawn from such narratives, from which a wise preacher can select one or two to fit the capacities and needs of the listeners.”) reduces the importance of exegesis and puts the agenda of the sermon in the hands of the listener rather than the hands of the biblical author.