Real faith requires thinking and gathering knowledge, says one of the most famous preachers in the world

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He’s one of the most famous preachers in the world today, someone whom very few people would know if they saw him walking down a street or on a subway platform.

He’s also been called one of the most gifted theological minds of the modern day.

Dr. Timothy Keller is known for deep dives into the most challenging objections to religion and Christianity, with lines like this from one of his sermons: “Your understanding of hell is crucial for understanding your own heart, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God.”

Keller has influenced millions with his preaching. 

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Now, a new biography on Keller, who founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, takes a look at those who influenced him.  

Author Collin Hansen had a unique, all-access pass to Keller’s inner circle to write the book, “Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation.”  

Hansen says, “Keller’s unique brand of teaching ministry is a holistic approach that one could almost say is divinely ordained for this time in history, as his specialty is engaging skeptics, atheists, agnostics and the ‘spiritual, not religious.’ He says that Keller combines “the head and the heart at the same time. That’s how he’s wired.”

Hansen says, “You might see somebody who’s really strong in the intellect, somebody who really likes to debate the historical evidences of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then you turn right around and there’s somebody else who wants to talk to you about the powerful transformation of the heart that comes when we believe and accept by grace through faith.”

Keller’s specialty was, and is, tackling the hard questions. 

Keller does both.

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But even geniuses need nurturing. People who say the right thing at the right time to a developing mind — that stimulates the brain’s synaptic connections, ordering them in a specific way, inspiring insight that a different mind would not grasp. 

Like a Beethoven or Einstein, the raw materials are ready and just waiting to be set on their journey.

Lauren Green, chief religion correspondent of Fox News Channel, recently interviewed author Collin Hansen about his new book on Dr. Timothy Keller, "one of the most well-known Christian pastors and authors in the country." 

Lauren Green, chief religion correspondent of Fox News Channel, recently interviewed author Collin Hansen about his new book on Dr. Timothy Keller, “one of the most well-known Christian pastors and authors in the country.”  (Fox News)

So it is with the theological wisdom and intellect of Keller, one of the most well-known Christian pastors and authors in the country. 

He retired from being senior pastor of Redeemer, a congregation he founded in the late 1980s when the Big Apple was known as the most secular, even pagan, cities in America. Under his guidance the church grew to mega-church size, with four locations in Manhattan. 

Keller’s specialty was, and is, tackling the hard questions.

Keller’s specialty was, and is, tackling the hard questions. So it’s fitting that the first real biography of Keller focuses mainly on the people who created him: the theologians, Bible scholars, teachers, pastors.

On an episode of “Lighthouse Faith podcast,” Hansen talks about his book and Keller. The two are good friends. 

Debate skills came in handy later on

Hansen is editor-in-chief of The Gospel Coalition, a fellowship of evangelical churches in ministry that Keller founded.

Hansen says that during Keller’s early upbringing, he honed his debate skills.

He also says, “Most people don’t realize how big he is, how tall he is, but also always been very highly intelligent, which made him quite a target. But he wasn’t allowed by his mother to fight back. And so he developed an ability to try to argue himself out of these situations.”

But his mother, whom Hansen describes as “overbearing,” was also the source of honing those debate skills.

Hansen says, “Sharon (Keller’s sister) said to me, ‘We never would have been able to watch ’Star Trek’ if it weren’t for my brother arguing with our mom.'”

During the 1970s at Bucknell University, Hansen says, Keller was the one arguing with these members of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, challenging them to defend their Christian doctrine. And they did. And Keller believed. 

“He’s sharing the gospel with them, sharing the good news, shining that light of Christ with them.”

Hansen says, “And as soon as he becomes a Christian at the end of his sophomore year, it really flips. And all of a sudden, this is the time of the pinnacle of Vietnam protest.”

He continues, “He’s out there at the student sit-ins, and he’s arguing with people about Jesus. He’s reading the books. He’s talking to them. And not just arguing. I mean, he’s sharing the gospel with them, sharing the good news, shining that light of Christ with them.”

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He goes on, “All the spiritual polemics brought him to see, believe and preach to thousands that ‘the resurrection of Jesus Christ is intellectually credible and existentially satisfying.’”

Most people know one of the greatest influences in Keller’s life is C.S. Lewis, whom he never met but quotes often. 

Keller has said he reads Lewis’ classic, “Mere Christianity,” every year to gather more insight.

One of the greatest influences in Keller's life has been C.S. Lewis (shown here), whom he never met but quotes often. Keller has said he reads Lewis' classic, "Mere Christianity," every year to gather more insight.

One of the greatest influences in Keller’s life has been C.S. Lewis (shown here), whom he never met but quotes often. Keller has said he reads Lewis’ classic, “Mere Christianity,” every year to gather more insight. (John Chillingworth via Getty Images)

His other great influence is his wife Cathy Keller. He says she is much smarter than he is and as a young girl corresponded with Lewis. Tim and Cathy met at Gordon Conwell College, a Christian School founded in part by the evangelist Billy Graham.  

But there are several people who helped Keller on his spiritual journey, most of whom are not famous. One of the most influential women is Barbara Boyd. 

She’s the Bible teacher who taught him about “the Lordship of Jesus” with this quote about the reality of the universe, which Keller has used in his sermons.

Boyd said, “If the 96 million miles between the earth and the sun was the thickness of a piece of paper, do you realize the distance from the earth to the nearest star would be a stack of papers 70 feet high? Just the diameter of our little galaxy would be a stack of papers 310 miles high. And our little galaxy is just a speck of the universe.”

She went on, “And the Bible says in Hebrews one, ‘Jesus Christ holds the universe together with the word of his power.’ She said, ‘Jesus Christ holds the universe together with his pinkie.’ Then she looked and smiled and said, ‘Do you ask somebody like that into your life to be your assistant?'”

Keller is a master at presenting the gospel in a non-confrontational way, tackling objections to Christianity in sermons that instead of beating unbelievers over the head with a verbal cudgel.

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Sermon titles from his series on overcoming objections reveal a mind eager to engage with disbelievers: 

  • “Literalism: Isn’t the Bible historically unreliable and regressive?”
  • “Hell: Isn’t the God of Christianity an angry judge?”
  • “Injustice: Hasn’t Christianity been an instrument for oppression?”
  • “Absolutism: Don’t we all have to find truth for ourselves?”
  • “Suffering: If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?”
  • And one for our post-modern world — “Exclusivity: How can there be just one true religion?”

That’s a sermon worth exploring further, as it shows Keller’s unique approach.  

In the sermon, he brings up the East Indian parable of the blind men who come to an elephant. 

"The need for something to worship is an indelible, unavoidable part of human nature," said Dr. Timothy Keller. 

“The need for something to worship is an indelible, unavoidable part of human nature,” said Dr. Timothy Keller.  (iStock)

It’s the example secular people employ a lot when arguing that all religions are equally valid paths to God. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., comes to mind as one who has expressed such a view.

The blind men all have access to only one part of the elephant — and they each explain what they believe the elephant to be.

Keller tells the story: “One grabs hold of the trunk and says, ‘Elephants are long and flexible creatures.’ Another has a hold of the leg and says, ‘No! Elephants are very short and thick and stiff creatures.’ Another blind man has a hold of the side and says, ‘You’re not right at all. It’s huge and flat.'”

He goes on, “And they begin to argue. And each says, ‘No, your view of the elephant isn’t right.’ And as they argue, we realize that every one of them is right and every one of them is wrong. They all have part of the reality of the elephant. But nobody can see the whole picture, and therefore none of them should say they see the whole picture. They all see part of the reality, not the whole reality. They’re all partly right and partly wrong.”

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And so, the illustration concludes, “‘Religions are the same.’ All the religions see part of the spiritual truth — nobody can see the whole thing. No one should insist they have the entire truth. And that’s how we ought to understand religions.”

But Keller, instead of inserting his own knowledge to make his climactic point, now turns to another source. 

For this, it’s Lesslie Newbiggin, a British theologian and author who died in 1998 at the age of 89. He was a missionary to India for many years. For people sitting in pews today, he’s an unknown, obscure man of the cloth. 

"When you say no one has a superior take on spiritual reality, that is a take on spiritual reality, which you say is superior to everyone else's," said Timothy Keller.

“When you say no one has a superior take on spiritual reality, that is a take on spiritual reality, which you say is superior to everyone else’s,” said Timothy Keller. (iStock)

But Keller bows to this man’s insight. Newbiggin, in his book, “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society,” wrote about how he got that illustration thrown at him over and over again.  

Keller says, “One day he was listening to it and it suddenly hit him: ‘The only way you could know that none of the blind men had a grip on the entire reality of the elephant was if YOU could see the whole elephant … And that means, he realized, the only way you could possibly know that every religion only sees part of the truth is if you assume YOU see all of the truth. It’s the only way you could know that religions only see part of the truth is if you assume you have the whole truth, which is the very thing you say nobody’s got.”  

And now Keller puts his own spin on the conclusion.

“When you say no one has a superior take on spiritual reality, that is a take on spiritual reality, which you say is superior to everyone else’s. And when you say no one should convert you to their take on spiritual reality, that is a view on spiritual reality that you want the listener to convert to.”

Keller preaches there’s no such thing as “blind faith,” that real faith requires thinking and gathering knowledge.

Central to Keller’s preaching is the fact that worship is key to human existence.

He says, “The need for something to worship is an indelible, unavoidable part of human nature. And if you just try to stamp it out you’re only going to create more strife.”

Intellectually speaking, this is the narrow spiritual space of being between a rock and a hard place. 

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Keller preaches there’s no such thing as “blind faith,” that real faith requires thinking and gathering knowledge, something that he has done all his life, and over the last three decades has inspired others to do well.  

“I’m just glad that he agreed to great to do the interviews and to encourage others to talk with me as well.”

Now that Keller is battling pancreatic cancer, Hansen said there is an urgency to understanding how this great intellect was nurtured in mind, body and spirit.

Hansen said, “When Tim got that pancreatic cancer diagnosis back in 2020, we had to hear from him directly. We had to have a project where we could ask him those questions. We could say, ‘Hmm, tell me what the thought process was. Why were you excited to start that church in New York City? What did you learn in Hopewell, Virginia? What was Cathy’s influence on your life?'”

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Added Hansen, “And so that was why we decided to do it at that time. And I’m just glad that he agreed to great to do the interviews and to encourage others to talk with me as well.”

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