This past Thursday morning, with Kathy, his partner in ministry and wife of 48 years by his side, Timothy James Keller, 72, the most influential evangelical of that last quarter century, died at his home on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Following his diagnosis of stage-four pancreatic cancer just under three years ago, Keller said, “There is no downside in me leaving, not in the slightest.” One year ago, now deep into the challenges treatment brought, Keller tweeted, “If the resurrection is true, then everything is going to be alright.”
Timothy Keller, the first-born child of William B. and Louise A. Clemente Keller was born and grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He was educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He served as the pastor of West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia and as Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, and Director of Mercy Ministries for the Presbyterian Church in America.
Keller rose from humble beginnings to become the model pastor, church planter, and Christian apologist for a generation of evangelicals and Christian ministers of many stripes across North America and beyond. Two of his many books, The Reason For God (2008), and The Prodigal God (2008) have sold over 2 million copies.
Never one to seek recognition or fame, his books, podcasts, conference talks, interviews, debates, panel discussions, and on-the-ground leadership as founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, brought international notoriety those closest to Keller say he never grew comfortable with. Along with biblical scholar D. A. Carson, Keller founded the popular website and Christian resource The Gospel Coalition. After stepping down as pastor in 2017, Keller gave his full attention to Redeemer City to City, a ministry resource for urban pastors. Keller became not so much a celebrity preacher as a unique phenomenon of Christian missional accomplishment and Christian apologetics.
The substance and shape of seminary curricula and branding across denominations and the methods taught by evangelical church-planting networks of many and no denominational ties, now bear the unmistakable stamp of Keller’s influence. A wide swath of the evangelical world has embraced Keller’s quest to find winsome ways to reach populations notoriously and increasingly resistant to Christian faith — the blue communities of the nation’s cities.
Though an ordained member in good standing of the conservative PCA, Keller identified as a conservative Protestant and an evangelical in the broadest sense first and only then as reformed or Calvinist. Having been “baptized as a Roman Catholic, confirmed as a Lutheran, enrolled in a seminary as a Wesleyan . . . and ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Keller came by his ecumenical spirit and generous theological posture honestly. In addition to the great 16th century Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, Keller frequently acknowledged as influential in his ministerial formation Anglicans John R. W. Stott and C.S. Lewis, Roman Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien, and numerous Puritan authors together with their theological heirs on both sides of the Atlantic, especially Jonathan Edwards.
Did anything in Keller’s background really suggest that this large and lanky, cerebral and conservative would-be church planter could make a go of it in the Big Apple? Surely not. So he was advised by many who knew and loved him. But between his 1989 founding of Redeemer and his departure in 2017, Keller saw the congregation grow from 50 to 5000. For Keller, one key component that partly accounts for the flourishing of Redeemer was the Q&A sessions offered to seekers following Sunday sermons.
Despite Keller’s winsome approach, his conservative views periodically evoked push-back from progressives. Keller’s selection to receive Princeton Theological Seminary’s prestigious Abraham Kuyper Prize for 2017 drew howls from liberal alumni owing to Keller’s support for the PCA’s denial of ordination to women and LBGT persons. Within a week Princeton rescinded the award. Keller’s reception among evangelicals has been mixed. Conservatives welcomed his signing of the Manhattan Declaration crafted by Princeton’s Robert P. George, Beeson Divinity School’s Timothy George, and Chuck Colson Founder of Prison Fellowship that affirmed the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty in 2009.
Un-woke evangelicals regret that the 2018 Statement on Social Justice designed to reject secular notions of justice in favor of a Biblical understanding does not bear his signature. Since 2016, some have questioned the doctrinal faithfulness of his methods and ministry. Some saw his “third way” attempt to protect the gospel from captivation by either political party resulting in a “punch right, coddle left” responsiveness to blue communities. Others contend that if Keller’s model for ministering in the “secular age” was once viable, the rising hostility of mainstream culture to Christianity has rendered it obsolete.
Given Keller’s long labor in the quest for deep cultural exegesis in service to the gospel, his voice will be missed as evangelicals face increasingly hostile terrain in which to bear witness to Jesus Christ and to plant churches committed to the authority of the Bible. Only time will tell how durable Keller’s “winsomeness” model will turn out to be. What is certain is that Keller stands apart in his decades-long commitment to spreading the gospel and planting churches in the increasingly urban and blue America we all inhabit.
Critics with whom Keller engaged testify that where winsomeness is concerned, he did not just talk the talk, he walked the walk. They found Keller to be as appealing to them as he was with the many secular, progressive, unbelievers he engaged. Keller’s reputation as a great listener and thoughtful conversation partner remains impressive and untarnished. Amid an evangelical world that so often has been represented in the press and caricatured as a loud, slick, shallow, and bombastically led movement, Keller set before the nation a calm, learned, open, sincere, and alluring way of engagement with those he so longed to introduce to his savior. Defender of the gospel, servant of the church, gentle teacher, follower of Jesus Christ — Rest in Peace.