Tim Keller’s pastorally inadequate responses to a skeptic’s questions

Posted by PeteEnns on December 28, 2016 in Christian faith and life doubt 136 Comments

Doubt, lack of certainty, skepticism. Call it what you will. The experience is inevitable in the Christian faith.

We all get to points inawaypoint-nativity-scene our lives where we just don’t “know what we believe anymore.”

When we enter that period, our first priority is not to get out of it, fix it, and bring it all back to the way it was.

Once the doubt hits, there is no going back to the way things were.

Our only choice is how to live, and for people of faith I see three choices:

  1. Make believe nothing happened and everything is OK. Stay in the game, bury your thoughts, and keep on as usual.
  2. Think of that period as a temporary bump in the road, and if handled properly, you will safely wind up back where you were, perhaps with even greater resolve.
  3. Accept that period as an opportunity for spiritual growth, an invitation to take a pilgrimage of faith without predetermined results.

In Evangelical and Fundamentalist circles, choices 1 and 2 reign: “Stop making waves and get with the program” or “My period of doubt was simply a momentary lack of faith on my part, but now I have clearer reasons for why my faith is just fine as it is.”

For me, choice 3 is far more intellectually appealing and spiritually satisfying:

“I’m not sure what has happened and I’d give anything to go back to the way things were. But I know that can’t be. Instead I choose to try and trust God even in this process, to see where the Spirit will lead, even if I don’t know where that is. I need to let go of thoughts and “positions” that gave me (false) confidence and begin the journey toward learning to rely on God rather than ‘my faith.’”

The trick, as many skeptical Christians have found out the hard way, is finding people to talk with about their doubts without being made to feel like they just “don’t get it.” As a college professor I deal with these types of inner struggles in my students on a regular basis.

What is triggering this post is Nicholas Kristof’s recent interview of Tim Keller in the New York Times, “Am I a Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller.”

Kristof is asking questions of Keller about the challenges to being a Christian the 21st century. You can read the brief interview for yourselves and draw your own conclusions (aren’t you glad I’m giving you permission?), but I would have answered the questions quite differently from Keller, ironically (perhaps) for pastoral reasons. 

I grant the constraints and artificiality of an interview (Kristof notes that the “conversation has been edited for space and clarity”). Even so, if I were genuinely struggling and skeptical about my standing in the Christian tradition, Keller’s answers would have sounded more dismissive than pastoral, more in quick “fix it” mode with ready “answers” than truly listening to the legitimacy of these recurring concerns.

Despite Keller’s protests, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus invite genuine intellectual skepticism, not simply because of the nature of these events, but precisely because of the Bible’s varied and even confusing reports of them. The resurrection accounts differ considerably from one another and cannot be merged—they were not meant to be. The virgin birth is known only to Luke and Matthew—Mark and John don’t mention it and Paul, though given ample opportunity, never even alludes to it.

Simply reading the Bible raises the concerns and, intellectually speaking, they are not easily solved.

All believers need to decide how to handle these things, and my point here is not to address that process. I only want to say that a truly pastoral response should begin, “Yes, I understand and respect the honest searching that has brought you to this point and I acknowledge the Bible’s ambiguities,” rather than (to cite the article) “if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”

Maybe it’s just me, but if given a few lines, that’s not what I want to say to someone raising these perennial questions. I want people to hear empathy and respect before getting into drawing lines. I know many will disagree with me—that I am putting the cart before the horse—but I disagree.

I want people to know that they are valued as people first and that the Christian faith (not to mention the long, honored, and diverse history of Judaism) has known that even (perhaps especially) the central pillars of faith wobble and that the community of faith is precisely where these things can and should be worked through.

Likewise, the challenge of science and modernity is a perennial one for many people of faith that I know of. To say as Keller does, “I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science,” is to not take seriously a major, if not the major source of cognitive dissonance for people today working through their faith (e.g., evolution, cultural anthropology, neuroscience).

This post is not “against Keller” but against what he represents here in this article: the inadequacy, evensin-of-certainty-peter-enns incapability, of mainstream Evangelicalism to address pressing questions of faith for our day; for giving answers that you have to be an Evangelical Christian to accept.

I have known people who have unnecessarily walked away from the Christian faith because of answers to legitimate struggles that sound dismissive and even disrespectful of the inner turmoil that generates the questions.

To be sure, interviews in newspapers lack the nuance of a personal exchange, and I would not want to assume that Keller’s face-to-face engagement with a genuine skeptic would mirror his answers here. Still, for pastoral reasons, I would have liked to have seen more of option 3 than defaulting to options 1 and 2.

I believe the Christian faith and those struggling with it deserve better. I also think the Christian faith is subtle and diverse enough to handle it.

[***I explore the challenges of the Bible and the role of doubt in the Christian life in The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So. Comments to this post are welcome, though please try to remember that the survival of the Christian faith does not depend on you. I check comments regularly though it may take me as much as 24 hours to get to them. Your patience is appreciated. ***]


  • At some point, you also have to quit caring what the gatekeepers think.

    This is tricky, because we know how easy it is to come up with crazy stuff in isolation, and the feedback and discussion we have growing spiritually in community is a good way to prevent this. But at the same time, we also can’t get too caught up on whether or not we conform to our group’s definition of orthodoxy. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s a mark of spiritual progress if you don’t give a rat’s whether Tim Keller thinks you’re a Christian or not.

  • Pete, I appreciate your comments above. My husband, now ex-husband, walked away from the faith and abandoned our 21 year marriage and at times I have been left questioning what happened. He fell into the first two catergories. He never discussed his doubts and when he finally did, it was too late. He even wrote a book on science and faith, I believe in an attempt to convince himself. Somehow it backfired. I have always believed we were in a community of faith where there was freedom to ask the hard questions without fear of judgement. Unfortunately, my ex-husband never gave anyone the opportunity to love him through his doubts. He closed himself off to the Body of Christ and became angry and resentful. He said things like, “He tried to live like a Christian, but God never did anything for him.” And with that, he was gone.
    After my experience, I really questioned whether fault lay with my pastors, with me, with God, or with other Christians. I think now that there were things that could have been said or done that would have been better, much like your remarks on brother Keller’s responses. But, I have come to believe that my ex-husband was not operating in what I see option three as being…humble. There was no humility. There was no wanting to “keep the faith” whether it satisfied his intellectual needs. There was no willingness to hear or perservere through the struggle. I think often of doubting Thomas and the way Jesus dealt with him. Jesus didn’t ridicule him or belittle him for having doubts, he held out His hands and said touch. I think Thomas’ saving grace was that he reached out and put his hands in the wounds. If someone experiencing doubt is not walking in an open and humble place, willing to reach out into the mysteries of the Christian faith, no one can convince them.
    Although I firmly believe that we as Christians are called to walk humbly, show love, compassion and empathy toward those struggling to believe, there is also an element of humility that must be shown on the part of the one struggling.
    This is still an issue of great pain for me. But interestingly enough, these huge hurts and loss has not made me question God or His goodness. In fact, it has landed me firmly into His loving arms. I cannot even pretend to understand what good will come of my loss but, I know God will use it. I KNOW He will. That might not be a satisfying answer to a skeptic but it is my reality. It was the very bottom line for me on the worst day. I pray someday, my ex-husband will come to a real and saving faith. One that holds him even through the unanswered questions and doubts. I don’t know that that day will ever come but I am learning to trust God in that too.
    I don’t think my comments here really add anything to this conversation but as one who has experienced the horrific and destructive nature of doubt and loss of faith, I just thought I would share. I pray for any person who has doubts…don’t run from the church. Press in. Build up your most holy faith by humbling yourself, seeking out the love and compassion that is there. Be willing to put your fingers in the wounds of Christ, to touch them and know that they are real. And for the Body of Christ, I pray that we would learn to be better hands and feet of Christ…loving one another with truth, grace and compassion. Love wins the day in the end.

    Katy Glover

  • Pete, you seem most concerned about Tim’s method that leads to answers only someone in his tradition of mainstream evangelicalism could accept. Are you most concerned with bridging gaps between the traditions out of which people live, think, and have their being?

    • Sometimes the perceived borders are the places where people ‘fall through the gaps’. I feel that Pete encourages us to see that the borders are only in our imaginations, and that faith is more complex than a statement of belief.

  • Great stuff Pete. I think this goes to show the importance of reading broadly and being aware that your particular tribe does not possess exclusive, total, and flawless apprehension of the whole truth. At some point however, I think it is important to state with clarity that the Christian faith does entail certain non-negotiable’s and if a doubter or skeptic ever dismisses with finality the view that Jesus came to save his people from their sins and deliver them from impending wrathful judgement, for example, then I think we have to grow some theological backbone and tell such a person that they cannot in good conscience be accepted as a Christian. It’s important not to delude others in this regard because despite differing interpretations, many interpretations simply won’t fly in the face of biblical revelation.

    • Hi Derek,

      I found your criterion interesting, because the idea that Jesus came to rescue Israel from her sins and see her safely through the destruction of Jerusalem is not a very popular understanding of Jesus’ mission in Christian circles. So, would you say people who see Jesus’ mission as extending past “his people” into the Gentiles and taking on a more cosmic or eternal dimension are not Christians?

      I mean, I agree with what you said about Jesus’ mission, but I wouldn’t assume that someone wasn’t a Christian because they have a more traditional view of Jesus’ mission.

      • I was referring to Jesus’ people as the elect or his sheep, who place their faith in him as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God. This includes both Jews and Gentiles, which comprise the “third humanity” or “the saved”.

        • I’m not sure what placing faith in someone as a Messiah, i.e. the restored heir to the throne of ancient Judah, has to do with salvation. I don’t see such faith having a role in standard Judaism, which is much more about living righteously and following the Mosaic law.

    • So the tens of thousands of young boys and girls butchered and burned alive in the Fall of Jerusalem received divine wrathful judgment?

  • Pete, I’m a big fan– have been for a while. Liturgists, RobCast, You Made It Weird… your interviews on all of those rocked my world.

    That being said, I feel like this was a bit harsh and possibly too directly targeted. It’s this whole “calling out” game that drives me insane with mainstream evangelicalism (when Bill Nye was called out, when Michael Ginger was called out, when Rob Bell was called out…). The thing about the mainstream is that they Tend to be completely ignorant of the ways in which these people can be hugely beneficial to people trying to hold on to faith when everything else (that the mainstream does) is pushing us away. They then, therefore, create an us-and-them groupthink. And that’s exactly what this article does as well.

    I’m not necessarily a huge fan of Tim Keller (particularly because I was gifted one of his books after being very open and vulnerable about my struggle with faith. And the last thing I wanted was some book claiming to have answers), but we know where he stands; we know what version of Christianity he adheres to. You can’t hold him to your pastoral standards when you know he doesn’t ascribe himself to those standards; you can offer helpful criticisms of the system of which he is a part, but not him directly. (And I do think your criticisms are very valid and fair; the three points are topics that should be talked about and scrutinized)

    The truth is, many people have turned to Keller’a work when their faith has been challenged; I think those people would also benefit MUCH more from your work, but they’re not there yet. But when articles like this go around, people who hold Keller on a pedestal as the savior of their faith could very easily and quickly become alienated from you and your (in my opinion, fantastic) work. Especially because many people will simply see the headline and not read the article. And therefore create a connection in their brain with your name and anti-Keller sentiments.

    I hope this makes sense. And I could be very wrong. But these were my initial thoughts, and my favorite part about keeping up with you and the Liturgists and Rob, etc., is that oppositional conversation is always welcomed.

    Thanks for what you do; keep it going!

    • While I understand your point, plenty of other people could “very quickly and easily” be turned away from any conversation about faith at all from reading that Keller interview. I thought this was a respectful response. It didn’t scream “Yeah for progressive Christians or enlightened evangelicals, we’re so much better than this Keller dude!” What it did was acknowledge weaknesses in Keller’s response. It said that a pause, an acknowledgement of a person’s questions and turmoil should come first. And it makes the incredibly important observation (as did Augustine, I think) that to even be asking the questions is a place along the road, and that God is asking for trust, not surety.

  • On what Keller says, it can help to follow the money. I am not trying to be cynical but just pointing out that IF Keller did not say something like he said, then he would not be being paid by the people that pay him. So your critique is right on.

    For myself, my doubt is a part of my faith; they are 2 sides of the same coin.

    Keller is quoted by Kristof as saying “The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12).” I do not think these verses mean what Keller thinks they mean. I agree that his is a common INTERPRETATION of what these verses mean, but I disagree with that interpretation. FWIIW, I think they mean that Jesus decides who is “saved” and we know Jesus is a just and merciful judge. This means that a better answer about Gandhi, etc. is “I do not know and it is not my place to decide. Let’s agree to ask Jesus when we see him.”

    Without it being explicit in the interview, Keller is known to think that science (meaning evolution) and faith are compatible, and I agree with him on this. In some circles he gets a lot of pushback on this position. But he just spoke in generalities in this article. In his own way, he is trying to enlarge the circle of who is inside the circle of faith, at least when compared to many of his fellow travelers. But you are very correct that he does not do it even further.

  • Great stuff, Pete! I did have one minor concern, though. Choice 3 says that it has no “predetermined results,” but it also characterizes itself as an “opportunity for spiritual growth” and a “pilgrimage of faith.” I think I understand the spirit of your remarks here, but I worry that framing Choice 3 in this way makes it look more like Choice 2 that you intended. Just to make sure I understand, is a person who opts for Choice 3 genuinely open to naturalism or atheism as possible “results”? I certainly think they should be, and that’s how I read your article, but I wanted to be sure.

  • I remember reading every response to Pete’s post “Why do I keep believing?” from a couple of years ago. In one the respondent said no one – not Hitchens not Dawkins not Ruse – did more to unhinge his faith than reading Pete’s posts and books. Be careful as the gate can swing both ways.

    • That may be true, but if Pete’s thoughtful, reasoned writing can unhinge one’s faith, then maybe the faith was misplaced in the first place. The goal should not be to maintain faith at all costs, but to discover what is true and follow it.

      • Taking me out of the picture entirely here, what you are saying her is so true, Mike, and I’ve seen it countless times: some traditions set their people up for theological crises, and then when they have them, it’s never the church’s fault but the “world.”

      • You could equally say the same thing for for the “opposite” side, couldn’t you? If Tim Keller’s thoughtful, reasoned response (depending on one’s opinion on what he said) can unhinge one’s approach to faith, perhaps their search or what faith they had was misplaced in the first place.

    • So what? Is God so petty that if a person leaves “team Jesus” he gets put in a permanent penalty box? Not all faith is equal. That person may be more of a Jesus follower now than he was when he proclaimed himself a Christian . . .

  • Why is it we feel we can use labels so freely? What’s with this “Evangelical” and “Fundamentalist” labeling here anyway? If we all took out a piece of paper and were told to write several paragraphs detailing our understandings of these two terms….would we even be close to one another with our answers? And, forgive me if this doesn’t set well here, but there also seems to be a bit of pride in the ‘attitude of’ author’s declaration of his better way, of course his more “intellectually appealing and spiritually satisfying way”… I’m a bit weary of those who would so easily and almost smuggly take shots at those who might simply be attempting to not be pulled away/enticed/lured away from their once heartfelt belief(s) due to “doubt”… After all, who is the author of our doubts? We will be attacked, as Christ said we would be. We will have doubts, as this is what Satan desires. But oh, if one should desire to not be lured away…if one should attempt to return from their doubting and walking away back to their prior place at the foot of the cross…shame on them. What intellectually numbed, spiritually boring folks they are… (?) Not necessarily…

    It’s not wrong to have a doubt. No, surely not, for we need to think through what we believe and why, but it could be wrong to take shots at those “Evangelicals”… at those “Fundamentalists”…who, shame on them, desire to remain steadfast and true under the pressures of the day, to not be pulled off the mark by every doubt or curiosity which besets them. Stand firm, says our Lord.

    Far too many ‘believers’ seem to be looking long and hard to find ways to make peace within…along side a world which morally crumbles around us. Many would seem to be attempting to reconcile their “belief in God and His Word” (or maybe not for some)…with their ability to fully accept social issues of the day, by either walking from sound doctrine which often brings social chastisement…or…by rewriting, if you will, the sound doctrine using “an interpretation for today’s society.” 2 Tim 4: 3-4… (??) May we be careful to wisely discern just exactly who is pulling who off the Biblical mark with fine sounding argument and justifications? As is said, “God only knows…”

    I agree with the heart of this article, but it might be shared in a more loving and humble manner.

  • Pete,

    You make a very good point. I come from secularized atheist (yet culturally Muslim) background and I know from personal experience that certainty borders with rigidity because I had been there before. Years ago one of the things that pulled me away from Islam (after I started to practice it and study it) was this certainty which is much more pronounced in Islam than in Christianity.

    I find ambiguity/uncertainty of the Bible refreshing and liberating because I see doubts that it may cause to be a tool to explore the faith, shape it, and keep us away from fundamentalism. Of course, there is some limit to this uncertainty/ambiguity and to its value as spiritual catalyst because taken to extreme uncertainty would keep people away from faith or making commitments that demand sacrifice.

    As to Tim Keller, he is an apologist too and his concerns or style of address needs some grace despite the fact that in this case pastoral emphasis is much less pronounced. I have been teaching in churches more than ten years and I believe that without significant preparation not many people are willing to handle issues of uncertainty in the Bible or in the faith or deal with cognitive dissonance directly. People often lack conceptual language and nuanced understanding of epistemology that would empower them to address these questions without settling them once and for all. So for many people his approach comes to the closest they would get without wrestling with philosophical issues.

    • “…this certainty which is much more pronounced in Islam than in Christianity.”

      It has always been Islam that was a religion of the Book — not Christianity. Though it seems to me, many Christians would certainly like for their religion to be more like Islam in that regard.

  • In my experience, it’s more difficult to discuss doubts with liberal Christians. There is no faith community outside of conservative churches in my area, since liberal Christians tend to be more introverted and uncomfortable discussing religious topics.

    Evangelicals will give a prepackaged answer, but they tend to stay on topic. Left-leaning Christians tend to use theological questions as sounding boards about politics.

    My theory is that there’s a self-conscious decision among liberal Christians to avoid religious topics because that’s what conservatives do, so the end result is only one side is willing to engage them.

  • I so totally agree with your way of looking at the subject. (I have to admit I haven’t read the Keller article so can’t comment on his views.) In my former church I set up a group called ‘Doubters Anonymous’ to allow people to work through their areas of difficulty in an atmosphere of acceptance and respect. One of the ground rules was ‘no pat answers’. The small group of people who attended told me they find it helpful.

  • I read, in Keller’s response, the same spirit in which a pastor said from the pulpit that people who are struggling with “hard times” need to “find the Bible verse that makes you feel better and pray it until it gets better.” It’s well-intentioned, for sure, but I can’t dismiss the impact of Keller’s blind spot for the sake of honoring his intent. This seems to be the modus operandi of evangelical communities and leaders, when faced with a person in spiritual crisis: coming up with simple solutions and answers to complex questions, marginalizing those who confess their doubts and, given the choice between the person who struggles with spiritual growth and the dogma on which we have come to rest, choosing to defend our dogma, as though a little breeze can knock it over. Such a response really shows our fragility in our faith, and I, for one, am tired of giving well-intentioned folks the benefit of the doubt when we do this. Christians should show greater humility, especially if the foundation of our faith is so firm.

  • As long as people are looking to Christian faith for a “get-out-of-going-to-hell (defined as eternal, conscious torment/suffering)” card, they will reject the idea that there are no settled fundamentals of Christian faith that guarantee that outcome. If you want to get rid of the kind of acceptance of doubt that will only grudgingly tolerate choices 1 and 2, and totally reject 3, as you’ve outlined above, then you have to get rid of hell (eternal, conscious torment) as the carrot for the attaining of which Christians are beat about the hindquarters and head with the stick of supposed doctrinal certainties. If churches continue to teach that hell is real, and that Jesus is our only way to avoid it, people will continue to insist on wanting teachings presented to them as certainties, and, if they are teachers of doctrine, they will continue to insist on presenting their teaching to others as certainties.

  • I watched a lot of Keller’s reasons to believe videos, and I think he comes off a little more nuanced in there than he does in the interview. It also doesn’t help that the line of questioning is kind of leading toward the boundary-drawing answers that Keller gives. That being said, Keller should have steered the questions in a more helpful direction. “Am I in or out based on what I believe or doubt” seems to be missing the point.

  • Some things we can and should be certain about. The virgin birth and the Resurrection being two of them. Believing the Bible to be God’s Word is another. Seeking to reconcile the supernatural with earthly wisdom and thus find certainty in that way is a sin.

    • You’ve just named the three main things that it is LITERALLY impossible to be certain of without deluding yourself. You can be confident. You can live your life as if they ARE true. You can BELIEVE they are true. You can have faith. But, it is disingenuous to suggest that you can be certain. That’s the whole reason faith is necessary.

    • How can you be certain about the virgin birth, resurrection, and inerrancy of the Bible? What is the basis of your certainty? And why is it important to be certain of these things?

      • Is there anyway to ” be intellectually certain” of the virgin birth? There is no independent way to arrive at this certainty, either scientifically, or philosophically, that I can see, without “belief” as a matter of faith, in some other part of
        the story of Jesus ( such as belief in the resurrection because of historical evidence or witness accounts)

    • I would add “historicity of Ehud” to that list. I’m tired of all these crazy liberals suggesting the Ehud event was not real history.

      • Good thing we’re not papists, so we’re spared from having to believe that an angel carried Habakkuk by his hair to bring Daniel some stew. (A popular motif in early Christian art, so I’ve heard.)

  • Belief in the supernatural is fundamental to the Christian faith. Creation ex-nihilo, the parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, and the resurrection of Christ are all supernatural events and they are presented that way in the biblical narrative. If someone is trying to reconcile the bible’s testimony regarding the supernatural by insisting that they find an explanation that conforms to the bare laws of nature as we currently understand them, then they, perhaps unknowingly, are denying a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith: that God is not confined by the rules of natural science. He is a supernatural being who transcends science and who has sovereign dominion over it.

    Simply put, the creation of something out of nothing is NOT SCIENCE and if someone cannot accept this testimony then they really don’t have any reason to believe anything they find in the bible, much less trying to make it conform to natural law. Those who reject the supernatural will never believe the testimony of the bible. Stranger still is why they would want to call themselves Christians when they do not believe the fundamentals of the Christian faith found in its primary document.

    • Possibly because not everyone agrees that the things you listed as fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.

      For instance, I believe the universe came about through completely naturally explainable processes. God was in those processes, just like Jesus can say that, “God sends the rain on the just and the unjust,” but we know rain is not some supernatural, science-defying phenomenon. I profess that Jesus is king and the kingdom of God in the world is a dominant focus for my life. But I am not a Christ-follower by your lights?

      I mean, not that I’m terribly bothered. I just find that curious.

    • Creation ex nihilio is not even in the Bible, it’s 3rd century Hellenistic educated interpretation. Your comment is why I still adhere to Christianity as an ethos/spiritual paradigm but not as a religion. Religion is a slave to its selective interpreters and is ultimately unable to be a tribal identifier/wall builder and thus divider of people.
      You are confusing the dogma/interpretation of the Bible with the document itself. Honest exploration into the history, influences, and cultural/theological underpinnings of the Bible frankly show this position to be laughable.

  • I am 84 years old and my faith has ebbed and flowed over the years. I am now retired after 30+ years in ministry (second career). I was fortunate to grow up in the church whose pastor was the Rev. Pat Ewing. He took us to a Jewish service and a Roman Catholic service and that wasn’t done in the 1940’s. He accepted every question and gave an honest response. I still remember one particular moment when I was in either my first or second year in high school. We had just observed something about the death of Jesus. It probably was during Lent. I remember where we were standing when a high school senior asked, “If Jesus was just God masquerading as human, what call does that have on my life?” Rev. Ewing stopped right there and answered. I don’t remember everything he said but these words are exact: “When I was younger I had no problem with the divinity of Jesus but I struggled with his humanity. Now I have no problem with his humanity but I struggle with his divinity.” If that isn’t an encouragement to us to live through our questions, I don’t know anything. I contrast that with something that happened when we attended to Catholic Mass. The scripture was the genealogy of Jesus which is through Joseph. When I asked the priest why that was, he replied, “We don’t question these things,” Those two statements/attitudes gave me a primary lesson in ministry. I hope and pray that my parishioners experienced me the way I experienced Pat Ewing. I sometimes say about myself that I am an agnostic who chooses to be Christian. I suspect that is where the majority of people in the pews would place themselves if they were honest about it. I saw that in my Dad. Both my sister and brother lost an infant who just didn’t wake up in the morning. I was working with my Dad when my Mom came to tell us about the second death. My Dad exclaimed, “How can anyone believe in a God who would let something like this happen.” But that Sunday, he was in church. We have to live through the questions.

  • I took a road trip several years ago with someone I care about very much. My son, 25 at the time, was restless. Not only physically, but spiritually as well. So restless that he decided to take a solo road trip from the Pacific Northwest to the country of Panama in an unreliable pick-up truck, try to find a route through the Darien Gap, and then who knows where he would have ended up. Not wanting to never see him again, I suggested that he and I drive to Mexico instead, and then drive the length of Baja. So we did. 4600 or so miles round trip. We saw lots of cacti, rocks, sand, interesting people, ate good food, had several close calls … everything you would expect on a trip through through 1000 miles of desert. I could tell it wasn’t as satisfying for him as he imagined his plan A would have been, but he was a good sport, and we had many conversations along the way. What I found out quickly, is that I did not have 4600 miles worth of pat answers. Not even enough for the length of Baja. Not even close. If you end up spending lots of time with a genuinely curious, questioning person, you will either, A) spend many hours listening and sitting silently looking at rocks and cacti, or B) frustrate the hell out of the person with your stupid answers to their really good questions. I appreciate that Enns and similar writers understand there is a whole generation of young people that just want to go on a drive – sometimes a long drive – and be listened to. They do want answers eventually, but not too soon.

  • Calling Pastor Keller inadiquite doesn’t make your position of understanding and listening sound very true. He is an amazing gift to our generation as are you. I consider him technically right on the answer while you are relationally intelligent. I hope to honor both of you and I hope you both can honor each other.

    • I said was that Tim’s RESPONSES were in adequate, not that he was, and that the manner in which he responded spoke deeper problems in Evangelicalism. Can’t Tim’s responses to something be inadequate?

  • Ginny, I think Tom’s handling of the resurrection in SBH is wonderful, though I also think that people are connected to God in different ways and for different reasons at different places on their spiritual journeys. For that reason, and I mean this . . . it doesn’t really matter too much what I think.

  • “Comments to this post are welcome, though please try to remember that the survival of the Christian faith does not depend on you.” (first favorite line)

    “Yes, I understand and respect the honest searching that has brought you to this point and I acknowledge the Bible’s ambiguities.” (second favorite line)

  • This is completely wrong. Nicholas Kristof is not approaching Keller as some struggling lost soul seeking sympathy and help with difficult matters of faith. He is an intellectually sophisticated journalist who has made up his mind on certain doctrines fundamental to the Christian faith and has put a direct question to Keller. As such, Keller’s response was completely appropriate. Anything less would have been condescending and insulting. Christian doctrine can be difficult, but it is not flawed, and as such, does not always a require an apology or some other pathetic qualification that we still value people as people (or whatever).

  • You seem to think that a Pastor’s job is to simply empathize with someone’s position, to validate them. Where does that leave them? I think your article reveals more about your own doubts than it does pointing out what you consider to be lacking in Tim Keller’s responses to the interview.

  • I’ll preface this comment by saying that I have no problem with doubt or questioning long-held beliefs.

    Having said that, I’m a bit confused by this response to Keller. For one, it seems to me that Keller doesn’t just drop the “believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection” line in a vacuum. His (possibly edited for length) answer was:

    “I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length. But, in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”

    That first line is pretty important, I’d say. It seems to me that Keller is actually quite concerned about pastoral sensitivity. However, he is constrained by the nature of the interview, which demands a direct answer. His answer both recognizes the need for pastoral sensitivity as well as the historical Christian approach to orthodoxy.

    (Perhaps Keller’s mistake was that the question was about doubting the resurrection, whereas his answer is about “not accepting” the resurrection? The two aren’t the same.)

    Also, I note that Keller acknowledges the existence of doubt, the need to not stifle it, and the fact that he struggles with doubts himself. Keller is far from dismissive of doubters and questioners. I don’t think he’s as dogmatic and hard-lined about things as this response suggests.

    I belong to a denomination that tries as much as possible to not make Christianity something marked by boundaries, but around the center point of Jesus. We can be moving towards him or away from him or a mix of both. I deeply appreciate this approach, as it makes ample room for questioners and doubters. However, it seems to me to not be unreasonable to say that at some point someone is technically outside the definition of Christianity, as they are either so far from the center that it’s out of sight or not moving towards it. That doesn’t mean that they are not welcome in church or aren’t on a journey that may bring them to Christ. It just means the term “Christian” doesn’t, at least for the moment, apply to just anyone who decides to take it on.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. Here is where I part company. Your critique would have more bite if Kristof was a Christian who was suffering from a crisis of faith. He is not. He is a secular columnist who professes to “admire Jesus” and wants to know “[w]hat does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century”, but there’s no indication that the inquiry was for the purpose of personal conversion (one might hope but you can’t assume it). And he was looking for very specific answers — and pressing hard to get them.

    To use the example you cite in your article, Keller gave an answer regarding the Resurrection that you view as insensitive because it was prematurely “drawing lines,” but that was exactly what Kristof was asking him to do. Kristof posed essentially the same question three times in a row, i.e., do I need to believe in the Resurrection to be a Christian? You can’t keep answering that question with “I respect your honest searching and acknowledge the ambiguities” (your proposed response, paraphrased) — it’s clear from the interview that Kristof wanted an answer and not just validation of his uncertainty. And it should be noted that Keller did go on to talk about the role of skepticism later in the interview and how it is not incompatible with faith.

    In sum, even examined from a “pastoral” point of view I think the answers that one provides to a non-Christian public intellectual for the New York Times — and in response to persistent and specific questions — are different than those that you would give to, say, a believing congregant that is experiencing doubts. In the context that Keller was working in I think he did just fine.

    • Did you read the interview as Kristof asking these things for himself? I suppose that’s a possible reading, but I simply took it as a journalist posing to the “pastor to the NYC skeptics” how he would address certain situations. I saw it as hypothetical, not personal.

  • Blessed are you (or perhaps not) if you’ve never had a crisis of faith, Phil, but I’m not clear from reading this whether you did or didn’t. You categorically deny it at the beginning and then acknowledge at least one at the end.

    • You’re not very discriminating about crises. Is every fear felt by a faithful man a crisis of faith?

      I think not. Your point seemed to be that everybody reaches the point where the central truth claims concerning the faith seem doubtful. I never questioned those. I had a real relationship with a real God from the beginning, and doubting His reality made as much sense to me as doubting the existence of my own mother (and for a similar reason: if either was not real, I would not be here.)

      A scientist in the lab is not having a crisis of faith if he begins to doubt that the experiment he’s constructed is safe to conduct (which is analogous to what I described in my last paragraph, above). That scientist may be being overly cautious, or he may be being reasonably diligent; but what he’s doubting is not the fundamental truths of physics, but simply the safety of his own approach to understanding them.

      A physicist who comes to imagine that the laws of physics don’t apply, or maybe even don’t exist, is having what you are calling a crisis of faith. If a physicist comes to imagine that the apparent contradiction in his results is not due to his not understanding the principles involved, but to the fact that the universe does not obey laws at all, THEN he is having a real crisis of faith like you described.

      And here’s the crucial point, Pete: it’s entirely telling that you DO NOT posit the inevitability of physicists facing crises of faith like this.

      See, the reason THE FAITHFUL (and ONLY the faithful) have inevitable crises of faith, in the minds of folks like you, is because the presuppositions of naturalism are so obviously true that one cannot help but to see, eventually, that one might be having a relationship with a mere, invented construct, not a real God.

      It’s those of us who have recognized that the presuppositions of naturalism are not only false, but ridiculous, who never have crises of faith like you’re describing. We have actually experienced the reality of the spiritual world; we interact with it all the time, and see its impact all around us. Any good physicist can question his experiments, his results, his inferences… but the fact that the universe obeys laws and makes sense is beyond question. And in the same vein, those of us who recognize that it’s simply a fact that God exists and that He has revealed Himself can constantly question and adjust our understanding of that revelation, but not the fact that revelation has occurred.

      Short version, Pete: the reason Keller seems insensitive to you is that you take naturalism too seriously, and he doesn’t. And what you’re insisting is that he ought to take Naturalism more seriously. That is the one thing that he, and I, cannot do… not because we’re cruel, but because naturalism is nonsense. But you’re never going to get past your crisis until you recognize that naturalism is simply false, and not just false, but laughable.

      • “I had a real relationship with a real God from the beginning, and doubting His reality made as much sense to me as doubting the existence of my own mother (and for a similar reason: if either was not real, I would not be here.)”

        I get what you are saying and that this is a profound reality for you (and has been at times for me as well), but at the end of the day, what I’ve come to recognize is that this “experience of’ and “interaction with” the spiritual world is all still a mental exercise (or at least has the appearance of such). When you say that you “interact with” the spiritual world, what you are really describing is not that God tangibly appears to you the way your mother appears to you, or that you had a real conversation in observed time and space. (Or are you claiming that you had a “burning bush/10 commandments” type experience?) What you are describing is something you experience in your thoughts and feelings. And I am not denying that it is spiritual. But as someone once said there is a difference between knowledge and the “feeling of knowing that knowledge” and I think there is a price when we fail to acknowledge the inherent limitations of the “feeling” of knowing something, be it spiritual or otherwise.

  • I know a lot of non-half-educated Christians–like professional, trained scientists and theologians–who see quite a bit tension between the Bible and science. Human origins for example. You may not, which is fine.

    • I know we have touched on these points in your posts before, but doesnt the existence of this tension depend entirely on what information one believes they Bible is trying to convey? (Physical vs spiritual reality)

    • The fact that it’s a professional, trained theologian who’s having the crisis does not in any way rebut the claim I made, which is that the crisis exists solely for the half-educated.

      If a math student has a crisis of confidence in algebra because he does not know how to do it, “I understand your frustration” merely softens the coming blow, which is “You need to study further.” Softening the blow is optional, and in fact may be counterproductive, since the student ought not to feel sorry for himself just because learning is difficult.

      The correct answer, “Get educated,” does not become less cogent if the person having the crisis is a professional mathematician who really ought to know how algebra works. Quite the contrary, in fact: the answer becomes more urgent, and “softening the blow” becomes ridiculous. A trained mathematician ought to know better.

      And so should a trained theologian. In fact, a theologian having such a crisis ought seriously to consider a different profession. If that seems harsh, it’s probably because you don’t consider the role of a theologian important. If theology is important, then a theologian who is still bothered by the claim that a real God exists ought to get that settled before teaching another word of theology.

      Meanwhile, your example of an area of tension illustrates my point. While there are strict fundamentalists who have been forced by their tendentious readings of cryptic, ancient passages to insist on a conflict, the majority of Christians have no difficulty at all with the possibility that God might have designed a biosphere in which change occurs. It’s actually naturalists, not Christians, who need for the outcome of the scientific investigation to be a certain way…

      …which raises the question, why is it that you think BELIEVERS should be having crises of faith but not NATURALISTS? It’s the Naturalists whose entire structure crumbles if the science turns out not to support Darwinian gradualism; if science does support gradualism, though, Christians simply absorb the new information and make appropriate adjustments.

      As in your response to my other comment, so here: the real problem seems to be that at your core, you’re still 2/3 an atheist, yourself. And, no, we’re not doing wrong by refusing to accept atheism’s presuppositions. Why let the other guy determine the outcome by choosing the ground on which to fight?

      • No disrespect intended, but I am beginning to wonder if the “half-educated” claim you made above shouldn’t be turned inward to yourself? You have some very strong (and idiosyncratic) ideas here and you might benefit by conversing with those of reputation who think differently and have earned to write to say so. These are complex issues that I feel you are boiling down far too simply.

      • Hi Phil . . .but faith is not just a matter of deciding whether something is true or untrue, that’s a mental process and quite likely to be subject to disintegration at some point. If someone doesn’t have faith in God, that’s it they are unable to believe, they are blind unable to see and I think what a lot of christians experience is this move from believing with their head to realising that what they believe in their mind doesn’t really matter, they are kept safe by their father who always has hold of them and despite scary times (and yes it can be very scary) in their own way and at their own pace they begin to find peace and begin to see.

  • NK was asking a hypothetical. He isn’t the one doubting but asking a pastor known to be the orthodox pastor to NYC skeptics where he drew the line about someone calling him/herself a Xian.

  • What if you’re someone is trying to believe it, wanting to believe it, but are struggling? Should they be told “you’re outside of the gate”?

    • What’s the alternative? Telling them they’re Christians when they don’t believe in their hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead? You try to help them believe, but if they’re not believers, they’re outside the gate, until they believe. It is a gross sin to give someone the impression that they’re a believer when they don’t confess Jesus is Lord or believe in the resurrection. The reason that it’s so bad is that many people will then continue in unbelief, thinking they’re OK with God and end up in hell.

      At it’s heart, unbelief is sin, it’s rebellion against God and God’s truth as revealed in His Word. Unbelief must be repented of and a choice made to believe.

      • Dan at the end of the day this is all just dogma. And what is convenient about this dogma, especially for evangelical leaders, is it essentially makes them the independent gate-keepers and mediators between God and people, with “eternal conscious torment” as the ultimate consequence. This can lead to all kinds of pride, disillusionment, cognitive dissonance, and abuse of authority. “You try to help them believe”. Yep, I had this mindset for all those years. As an evangelical, I later realized I was way too confident in my narrow and shallow interpretations, my dogma. Because the Bible is so overly systematized, makes it hard to realize this. Now I’m not so certain and am more open to learn and grow and see the merit in other perspectives and possibilities. My guess is that we know far less than we think we do and are less able to truly “know”. I believe this attitude will help keep us humble and more sensitive to seeing the different ways in which God is at work in the world.

      • Can somebody please tell me where Jesus said that we would have a book of writings which would be our guide and reference for our journey with Him? If writings were to be so important why didn’t he write anything down so the truth would be crystal clear, why choose unlearned men who couldn’t write to delver His message? and why not ensure that the original writings were preserved so that we would be in no doubt about their authenticity? Even with the new testament as we have it unless you are a very proficient koine Greek scholar the best that you have is a translation and necessarily a biased one at that, so to say that God is going to accept or reject people based on any verse in the new testament seems to me to be very misguided.

      • Think harder, Dan. There are other options besides the either/or binary you project here. I also would never equate the following three terms: skepticism, doubt, and unbelief.

        • Help us “think harder” Pete. What are the other options? I feel like you are Socrates and we are sitting chained in the cave.

    • Maybe it would be helpful if you suggest what you think Keller should have said. I am unclear as to what your point is. I am struggling to understand how you would engage someone AFTER you validate them and their doubts.

  • Perhaps. I appreciate your point, Scott. For what it’s worth, I’ve know Keller for over 30 years. I have a very good feel of where he is coming from, which is often from multiple angles. My disagreement is that Keller helps people “put together pieces” but within a narrow theological framework that will not long satisfy skeptics.

  • I hear you, Tim, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but are you saying you can’t be a Christian if you are skeptical about the resurrection?

    • Not to answer for Tim, but for myself, I would say that you are not a Christian if, as a result of your skepticism, you come to the conclusion that Jesus is not powerfully present to you, and powerfully alive-beyond-death in the Church and the world. Faith that Jesus is alive now, and a powerful and conscious agent of change in the present, is at the center of Christian faith, thought and experience. Do you disagree, Pete?

    • It’s one thing to question the mode of Jesus’ risenness in the present, or to be skeptical about the historicity of some of the Gospel accounts of Easter; there is much room for questions and doubts when it comes to the specifics of the Church’s original experience of Jesus alive-and-present-beyond-death, and the nature of his ongoing presence to us. But if in working through one’s skepticism one has reached the conclusion that Jesus’ life came to the end 2000 years ago, and that he is not consciously and powerfully alive now in some mode of being, then one has lost faith in the Jesus, who for Christianity is God. You may continue to have faith in God as defined in some other way, but it’s not Christian faith, which is is inextricably linked to God as present in Jesus, two thousand years ago, today, and always.

      • But what if someone is in a state of “I’m not sure. Some days I believe, some days I find it hard. I’m doing my best.”

        • Well, I would say that such a person, which I myself have been and still sometimes am, has not reached a conclusion, even a provisional one. But if I ever reach the point where I’ve concluded, “You know, there’s nothing to any of this. Jesus died two thousand years ago and that’s all there is to it. He’s no more alive than Plato or Wittgenstein,” and I’ve effectively stopped struggling with my questions and doubts, that is a qualitatively different matter.

          • Now how about someone who is 90% convinced some days, 75% most days, 25% some other days, and every now and then 100%?

            • That sounds like a struggle with questions, not reaching a settled conclusion (of course I recognize that for an open-minded person, few if any conclusions are ever more than provisionally settled; but there comes a time when one has moved on…)

  • Respectfully, Dan, the proof-texting that you’ve done here is very much at the core of what I think many of us “doubters” take issue with. I used to do exactly what you do here: pluck a verse here and a verse there and cite that as evidence of the “truth” to believe. I’m simply no longer “certain” that this is how God intended the Scripture to be used and I think there are a lot of self-proclaimed “truth gate-keepers” out there. I was a firmly grounded Evangelical for 20+ years. Now I’m starting to deconstruct and rethink some of those views. Does that all of a sudden put me in a state of “sin”? Was I just faking it? Is God really up there checking us each day to see whether or not we hold to a particular set of beliefs?

  • Pete,

    This journey for intellectual growth prompted by doubt…and I really mean this sincerely and not meaning to be offensive here, but does it have to involve begging the question?

    “I’m not sure what has happened and I’d give anything to go back to the
    way things were. But I know that can’t be. Instead I choose to try and
    trust God even in this process, to see where the Spirit will lead, even
    if I don’t know where that is. I need to let go of thoughts and
    “positions” that gave me (false) confidence and begin the journey toward
    learning to rely on God rather than ‘my faith.’”

    If you read this in any other context, say if a student submitted it to you on a topic of creationism, etc., you’d notice the smuggled assumptions immediately. Notably missing from this are the questions as to the veracity of the assumptions. Which should be present in any context set off by doubt. Is there a God I can trust in? If there is, is it the triune God I’ve believed in my whole life, to even have a “Holy Spirit” aspect to guide me? Or something else?

  • There’s always a certain “us vs them” mentality that seems to reside just below the surface for many fundamentalists, especially those who align themselves with a neo-Calvinist worldview. Keller is extremely influential in evangelical circles right now, so I think a lot of folks are going to follow his comments and defend them vigorously without much criticism. I’ve read your work and have grown to appreciate it as a former fundamentalist who also suffers from OCD and cyclical thought patterns. Dealing with doubts and questions of faith are common to me on an almost daily basis. Part of my therapy was to learn how to allow the thoughts to come, without feeling the urgency to rid myself of them and trying to ensure they would never come back. In other words, embrace the uncertainty of the thought and then so choose how to proceed with it. “Is it possible that God doesn’t exist?” Yes. Rather than fighting that thought or allowing it to unsettle me or shake the foundations of faith itself, I let the thought come and then decide how I will live in light of the uncertainty. Isn’t that the essence of faith? It’s an approach that I wish all believers would consider, especially those in a position of influence that shepherd the flock. Teaching people that it’s OK to experience questions and doubts relieves many of this anxiety that can be very unsettling. It encourages people to embrace some fair amount of uncertainty while learning how to research and discuss elements of the faith that they may have merely accepted at face value during their formative years in the faith. Before becoming a school teacher I worked briefly as a youth pastor at an SBC church. Those kids who did ask questions typically only did so in private and with tremendous shame and even fear. Some sensed the taboo prevalent in many fundamentalist circles that looks down on any sort of authentic discussion of doubt or questioning why something is a certain way. So the discouragement to allowing or encouraging that sort of healthy dialogue drives many students to simply abandon the faith when they head out into the world. They’ve been taught not to question, or at least not to question the “important” doctrines. Rather than seizing on an opportunity for genuine growth in the faith, the alternative seems to be to take doubts and questions as a lack of faith completely, which can lead to abandonment altogether. All of this is to say that questions and doubts will inevitably, and arguably should arise as a part of making the faith your own. What if you arrive at a different conclusion or your doubts persist? Does that automatically disqualify you as a Christian? Are you now outside the boundaries? Boy, I sure hope not. There’s a big part of me that tends to think God is big enough for your doubts and your questions. This isn’t Zeus looking for an opportunity to strike you with lightning when you experience genuine doubts. Rather, I think the journey of faith must include the doubts and the questions if any real growth is to happen. What if you never settle your doubts? Does that mean you’re lost forever? No, it means your human brain cannot fully comprehend or harmonize incredibly difficult questions of faith, and that must be OK. You may end up learning how to embrace uncertainty. You may discover that the way you proceed in light of doubts is a reflection of faith. Perhaps “certainty” is overrated or even idolized when it comes to living the life of faith. Question. Doubt. Read. Discuss. Pray. Trust that God’s not looking for an opportunity to push you outside of the “circle”, but that we’re ALL together working things out with grace as our lead. Give yourself permission to ask questions and to doubt. Encourage discussion if you’re a shepherd, no matter the “doctrine”.

    • Interesting to hear from another Christian who has OCD issues. I struggled with thoughts like “Did I say the prayer right? Did I exercise faith when I asked Jesus into my heart?” etc etc. Double check, double check. I can’t tell you how many times I prayed the sinner’s prayer. I also have ADHD and a kind of mild to moderate long term depression. All of these have played into my own personal faith story. I’m encouraged when I stop to think that God has me in His hands and is doing His work.

      • We needn’t go so far as to invoke OCD or other genuine psychiatric disorders. I’m sure many—perhaps most—of us raised evangelical have agonized over questions like whether we have said the salvation prayer correctly, whether our invitation for Jesus to enter our hearts was sincere and not a self-preservation gambit, whether we have inadvertently committed the “unforgiveable sin”, and so on. Most of this is rooted in unhealthy ideas about “biblical Christianity”, along with the discouragement of thinking outside narrow-yet-poorly-defined theological paradigms.

  • For me the issue here, put across by Keller, is that Salvation seems to be based on an intellectual understanding and assertion in favour of the existence of Jesus as Messiah and more than this, that he was also God, born of a virgin and died and resurrected. Possibly with other assertions towards dogma and doctrines which only came into being, well after the death of Jesus.

    I am fairly wary of the idea that salvation is purely based on “what you believe”. I think how you act is at least as important, although some parts of the bible do seem to say the opposite.

    Whatever the “facts” are, are important. The death and resurrection or reality of God lovingly saving people is the agency through which salvation occurs, however our understanding of that is not what makes it happen.

    I would like to believe that God will act in people’s lives and deliver them for his own reasons and purposes, through his own means. I also hope that he will “forgive” the doubts many will have, particularly those who have never read the bible or those who doubt much of what is written in it.

    So I’d have to agree with Peter’s arguments on this article, that it appears that Keller, in a “pastoral” role, may alienate those with shaky or questioning faith, if he carried much of the sentiment of the article into a pastoral context. I have no way of knowing if he would, but the article seems to state that it is the intellectual understanding of the individual which is important, particularly asserting that disbelief of the resurrection puts you “outside the boundary”. Maybe Keller missed the point and was defensively offering up an apologetic argument in the interview rather than seeing it as a way of expressing how he would deal with a real situation, maybe the interviewer was not wholly impartial and was in some way attacking the belief system rather than representing the views of a doubter.

    From my own experience I would have to say that there is too much emphasis in certain circles, on having to have the correct beliefs, the academically trained, middle class Evangelical one in particular. Maybe we should be a lot less scared about what we believe and “being right” and maybe a bit more concerned about whether we are following Jesus’ injunctions towards loving our enemies, the poor and downcast etc and “doing right”.

    Maybe we need to separate “the Christian Faith” from the God who the “faith” believes in, recognising that we can only see him as through a glass darkly, therefore far from perfectly. If no-one in the World believed in the resurrection, dare we hope that he may still be deciding to save those who do what he would have them do?

    • Hi Ross. . But why would God need to forgive our doubts? If we doubt, we doubt. We can try and push the doubts away but they are still there under the surface, they are part of who we are for that period of time that we are experiencing them. So, I don’t see that doubts are anything that needs forgiving. God loves us just as we are in whatever state we may be in, we don’t have to meet a particular standard to be loved by Him, that’s His nature and we are encompassed by Him whether we believe or doubt. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound strident it’s just that some people are more “genetically” predisposed to enjoy church life, helping others etc. Others like me feel like a square peg in a round hole but honestly, I don’t think it matters at all.

      • Thanks Teresa, I was probably being more sloppy than usual when writing that. You have put this very well and I agree with you. My comment was more my own way of thinking about the situation and not expressing a “theology”. I think I was trying to say that a lot of things called “doubt” really don’t and won’t matter even if some people seem to think they do.

        • Thanks Ross, I think my reply was more of a comment on my feelings of being a square peg for lots of years in the church I went to but boy did I try hard to make myself fit :-)

  • Mr. Enns:

    I notice in one or two of your replies to replies your challenging the replier as to whether or not the replier read the Kristof-Keller exchange. But as I read this exchange after reading your post and the comments threads, I wondered if you had read Keller’s responses. :-)

    I found Keller’s responses extraordinarily pastoral, as well as eristically sophisticated and thoughtful. Keller alluded to real debates in the historiography and philosophy of science, in textual and historical criticism of the NT Scriptures, to epistemology, the conflicts between Enlightenment-Modernism and “miracle” (including resurrection), and to the problems of doubt and certitude.

    Did you miss this?

    Finally, I am mindful that far more than most Tim Keller is all too aware of the pastoral challenges that inhere churchly ministry in what may be the world’s leading city of culture as well as finance. I am thankful that Tim Keller was speaking to Kristof of the New York Times!

  • Citing a Bible passage to affirm your certainty about the Bible isn’t really a convincing answer. This is the same Paul who encouraged Christians to remain celibate and not marry because Jesus’s return was imminent. Not to mention what Paul means by “raised up” (he never uses the word “resurrection”) is highly debatable.

  • I suppose Keller could have responded by refusing to draw any lines at all. He could have said, “In the end, it’s up to God. We’re all just doing our best according to our understanding, lead by the Spirit.” But the Reformed life thrives on line drawing … it’s Chalcedonia or we’ll cut you dead. Not a “big tent”, unlike somebody I read about.

    • I think an answer like the one you suggest would be come across as non-responsive and evasive by someone like Kristof, especially given that he was pressing for something specific. This is particularly true given that Keller actually does hold an opinion on the question of the Resurrection, which he is obviously entitled to do.

      It’s also worth noting that there’s no such thing as “refusing to draw any lines.” Your answer draws lines as well, i.e., acknowledging that there is a God, and that he actually leads through his Spirit – propositions that not everyone agrees with. And I don’t think even Pete would argue that Keller would try to “cut you dead” if you disagreed with him — I’ve found him to be quite gracious to those that he disagrees with.

        • No disrespect intended — apologies that it came across that way. Since you penned the piece that we were discussing and because it was an argument for why Keller’s response was inadequate I thought it would be relevant that you did not hold as sharp a view on Keller as Marshall seemed to hold (hopefully that was a safe assumption to make).

      • I take personal offense at Keller and Roger Olson and those like him who state directly that I am not a Christian because I don’t bend the knee to Reformed/Catholic theories of Atonement and related Bible-interpreting themes. I don’t know that Kristof has any notion of being a Christian, so where does he get off insisting on knowing The Line?

        There’s no evidence that God thinks in terms of drawing boundaries, let alone the Keller’s particular boundaries, or mine, or yours. Keller could state, as one of my Christian teachers (a Church of God Overseer) did: “I know what is necessary for me to believe.” (Not me; I’m still confused. And perpetually ignorant.)

  • Hmm, different paths for different people. To me, the issue of divergences in the Gospel accounts that Kristof and Enns are so fixated on seems silly and trivial. Have you gathered the ancient accounts of the Battle of Salamis, collated them, and catalogues the discrepancies? Did you conclude that the Battle of Salamis never happened? Have you examined the discordant accounts of Socrates by his contemporaries Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes? Did you conclude from the divergences that Socrates never existed, or that he wasn’t executed? What would you expect eyewitness accounts of a strange and novel event to look like?

    But I admit, that’s just me. Augustine was apparently besieged by people who were troubled by the question of whether John said he was unworthy to carry Jesus’s sandals or to unlace them, and the beat goes on. But Tim Keller doesn’t focus on these questions.

    • Thanks for your comment. It possible you’re not familiar with any of my writings, but I am certainly nor “fixated” on differences in Gospel accounts, but that is because I am not an inerrantist and contradictions (not “divergences”) are expected in multiple accounts. The reason why I talk about it is because some Evangelical and Protestant traditions minimize those differences and Christians suffer spiritually as a result.

  • Some more thoughts I have here are about how this belief/doubt thing may be a modern issue, fuelled by semantic issues over what is meant by “belief”. My view is that nowadays “belief” is a concept based around an intellectual understanding of something and an assertion that this is “correct”.

    Does the original term translated as “belief” in the English bible have the same sort of meaning at all? I feel it is a bit different and is more active and not solely intellectual. So to “Believe in Jesus Name” did not originally mean ‘intellectually agree that he existed and was whatever our doctrine means he was”. Probably more about actively following him and trying to do what he said to do.

    I dare say a fair bit of the “argument” that is happening in relation to this post is around our own enculturated understanding of what was written nearly 2000 years ago. I can see that there could be a great mistake in thinking that we are called to “believe in Jesus”, meaning intellectually agree on his existence and fight off any “doubt” about this, which is a predominantly modern/current issue. When in fact we are called to “believe in Jesus”, meaning that we trust as best we can that he is with us as we carry out what he has called us to do, through the doubts and terrors of intellectual and psychological wrestling with day to day life.

    The biggest mistake fuelling this may be where we think we can comprehensively understand something written a long time ago in a thought process far far away.

    • Mr. Enns, doubting is not a new behavior and is not restricted to any particular generation. I think your experience of working in a college has narrowed your perspective. I live in the NY Metro area and I know I am influenced by my circumstances as well. The beauty of God’s revelation is that it is timeless and transcultural. The Bible meets us where we are at and the content ought to challenge us, it presents a moral imperative. There is no soft way to express that we are born sinners, we are in active (whether conscious or unconscious) rebellion against God. Certainly, when we encounter a person who is genuinely asking questions about God and His revelation to us, we need to make them feel that we hear them and understand their feelings. What I don’t understand is how you can use Keller’s interview as an example and write that he was somehow doing a disservice? What I also don’t understand is why you don’t answer my direct questions regarding your “certainty” about the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. Would your position invalidate the feelings of those who doubt so you remain neutral? Why can’t you express genuine empathy while being certain? I guess I would need to understand your epistemological view of “knowing”.

      • To the contrary, my college teaching experience has broadened my perspective, as has my own experiences and those of others I know.

        We were born sinners? That’s not a helpful or biblical starting point.

        • I can see this is pointless. You offer me nothing and avoid my question regarding your position? I guess I will have to buy your book. Was that the reason for your article? I am disappointed. I was hoping to engage in a dialogue. Just to be sure you understand where I am coming from, I was in no way suggesting you simply point out we are all born sinners. My point was there is no way pretty way to package that critical bit of information. Help me understand how you present this information to one of your doubting students?

  • “if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.” This does represent mainstream Evangelicalism. To be blunt, does mainstream Evangelicalism define what will happen to each and everyone of us after death? No it does not. With over 40 years of outreach and street ministry , and being with the dying, especially those who are the least among us, there is a very different story going on than what is defined in Evangelical circles. Talking to people from almost all of the other faiths who have done similar service as I have, their experiences are the same and so are their conclusions. Evangelical Theology lives in bubble [purposefully] that is more isolated from the lives of everyday individuals than even the most advanced science. Keller had to answer the way he did.

    • Yes, part of the issue is is the presumption that evangelicalism is, given its varieties, mere and unadulterated Xty.

      • Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation, … Can my Sikh brothers and sisters experience this Godly sorrow? Can my Buddhist brothers and sisters experience this Godly sorrow ? Can my native american brothers and sisters experience Godly sorrow? Is it only Godly sorrow when it is done in the context of strict and literal Evangelical Theology? I have served shoulder to shoulder with each of these fellow travelers and see something very different. Mr. Enns I absolutely love that you called doubt a Scared condition. For me the Gospel story puts hope to that doubt and understanding to the sorrow. That is the real Truth of it.

  • Dr. Enns,

    I’ve long been a huge fan of your and Dr. Keller’s contributions to public discussions of biblical faith.

    My comment goes to the process of a respectful dialogue between a devout Christian (here Dr. Keller) and an honest skeptic (Mr. Kristoff), more than to the substance of Dr. Keller’s views and yours.

    As an example, Kristoff’s first question was this: “Is that [the Virgin Birth] an essential belief, or can I mix and match?”

    It seems to me that Mr. Kristoff confronted Dr. Keller with a choice between only two responses to Mr. Kristoff’s blunt doctrinal question that would have been both pastoral (concerned for the questioner’s emotional or spiritual wellbeing) and respectful of his status as an intellectually serious interlocutor:

    1. Out of pastoral motivations to avoid harm by a blunt statement of the truth as Dr. Keller understands it, tell Mr. Kristoff something like this: “I don’t wish to answer the question you’ve asked”. As an example of this approach, a parent tells this to a 5-year-old whose young age renders him/her vulnerable to the damage that a straight answer to a question might cause at that tender stage of development.

    2. Answer Mr. Kristoff’s questions on the terms in which he asked them (a doctrinal statement) and on the terms which Dr. Keller believes to state the truth (also a doctrinal statement). Pastoral sensitivity would require that Dr. Keller have decided that Mr. Kristoff “can handle the truth” (as Dr. Keller sincerely understands it).

    My take is that Dr. Keller was forced to pick one of the two — or else elide the doctrinal substance of Kristoff’s question without candidly owning up to what he was doing.

    Could you comment?


    Joel Webber

    • I would have immediately have deconstructed the question if I felt I was being forced into a false either/or. If someone doesn’t like the premise of their question being questioned and calls that evasive, that is fine with me, but I won’t let badly formulated questions push me into a dichotomy. But having said all that, I don’t see NK “confronting” TK as much as positing a scenario.

  • Dr. Enns,

    Thanks for an approach that would, I suppose, provide a real chance at pastoral interaction rather than solely the “right answer” (as the person on Dr. Keller’s end understands that answer).

    Perhaps I’ve (wrongly) reacted to 4 years as a (Wheaton College) philosophy major and 3 at a law school down the road from you by assuming a default mode of argumentation alone. Hence words like “confront” and “force” in my query.

    Your construction of the dialogue would allow for BOTH pastoral concern and intellectual honesty.

    Much better.


    Joel Webber

  • Hello, Yevgeniy. I’m not sure I fully understand where you are coming from in your question, but I most certainly do not think “intellect” should have the “greatest role in terms of making decisions regarding our Christian living.”

    • Best,Yevgeniy Safronov
      NYC Teaching Fellow
      linkedin.com/in/yeSorry, didn’t mean to be confusing. What I meant is that when I read that you prefer the more intellectually satisfying approach, I hear you say that intellect in general is part of that decision making process. Now, in many situations in the day-to-day, and in many matters of faith, intellect is necessary. But I tried to show that if the intellectually satisfying approach is the one always taken, then it might lead a Christian to accept things that are obviously contrary to faith and our ethics. Sometimes, the “fervent faith” approach is the right one. For example, I’ve heard good arguments that the Bible has contradictions. While I haven’t closely examined Scripture for contradictions, I have faith that it is inerrant. And that, I think, as a Christian, is often satisfactory, even if it offends people. In the same way, I believe the human life is inherently sacred, and so don’t agree with abortion, even though the intellectually satisfying approach might lead me to approve of it. Sorry for the wordiness again, I’m trying to be pithy but it’s tough. vgeniysafronov

    • Sorry, didn’t mean to be confusing. What I meant is that when I read that you prefer the more intellectually satisfying approach, I hear you say that intellect in general is part of that decision making process. Now, in many situations in the day-to-day, and in many matters of faith, intellect is necessary. But I tried to show that if the intellectually satisfying approach is the one always taken, then it might lead a Christian to accept things that are obviously contrary to faith and our ethics. Sometimes, the “fervent faith” approach is the right one. For example, I’ve heard good arguments that the Bible has contradictions. While I haven’t closely examined Scripture for contradictions, I have faith that it is inerrant. And that, I think, as a Christian, is often satisfactory, even if it offends people. In the same way, I believe the human life is inherently sacred, and so don’t agree with abortion, even though the intellectually satisfying approach might lead me to approve of it.

      Sorry for the wordiness again, I’m trying to be pithy but it’s tough.

  • Great post. Thanks. What really surprises me is how extremely frequently and thoroughly you engage with individuals who comment. In light of that . . . :-) On Facebook in a thread about Mark Wood’s article in Christian Today regarding your reaction to the Nicholas Kristoff interview of Tim Keller I tried to ask you a direct question. I’ll repeat it here in case it gets your attention and a response. “If you could give a more specific explanation of the ways the Mark Woods article so completely missed you point I would really appreciate it. I really liked your post about the Kristoff-Keller piece. I have no gripe with it at all in, not in tone or substance. But seeing your prefacing words here had me thinking I would hate the Woods article. I didn’t agree with it, but I also did not see where/how he misunderstood you. That makes me think I may be misunderstanding you in the same way. Thanks.”

  • “I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science.” — I’d go further:
    “It is tragic that what has come to be called ‘science’ is often seen as inconsistent with God’s divine plan”
    (fyi, my PhD is in the physical sciences and my career has been in cognitive science).
    The escape from any cognitive dissonance on that front is simply the ability to distinguish between fact and speculation. Peddling speculation as “science” is lucrative. But ask a few honest, unperturbed questions on any topic (yes, including evolution, cultural anthropology and neuroscience), and if you encounter insult, appeals to authority, or sarcasm rather than evidence, you know that you’ve hit a speculation vein.

    Here’s another (occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious) response to NK’s questions…

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