Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation
By Collin Hansen
Zondervan, 2023. 320 pp.
Though I have never met him, through his writing and preaching, Tim Keller has been a friend to me. He has helped me to better see and understand the Gospel and church ministry.
It has been years ago now, but I believe I first encountered Keller at my home church, Cedar Springs Presbyterian. He would have been a guest speaker there, though I cannot remember exactly when. He was also a guest speaker at Gordon-Conwell during my time there (2003-2006). But I really began to read and follow him during my first years of full time ministry after seminary.
I remember attending one of the early Gospel Coalition conferences in Chicago (2009), and then a couple more, a few years later, in Orlando (2013, 2015). Keller was a favorite teacher at each. Then, his many books began to make their way into my head and onto my shelf. The Reason for God, Prodigal God, Counterfeit Gods, Generous Justice, The Meaning of Marriage, Every Good Endeavor, King’s Cross, Making Sense of God, Encounters with Jesus, Prayer, Preaching, Center Church, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and Hope in Times of Fear… They are all rattling around in my mind somewhere and are now a part of the stew that is my current Gospel and ministry thinking.
No doubt Keller is a sinner. He is the fallible man.1 But I am very grateful for him and the grace God has given him and his ministry to me (ex opere operato).
So, all of that is to say I picked up Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation with alacrity.
Someone like me is probably the ideal reader of this book. Hansen carefully traces Keller’s various influences, whether dead authors or personal friends, from childhood through 2022. Enjoying such a detailed cataloging depends on a prior interest in Keller. And I did find it enjoyable. Hansen, for his part, with his Northwestern journalism roots, kept the tale moving and the prose light and quick.
Because the book is about Keller’s spiritual and intellectual formation, it often feels like Keller is just offstage. He occasionally claims the spotlight with a quote or a specific reference to an interaction between him and one of these influences, and his presence in the narrative does grow as Hansen approaches Redeemer and more recent years. But oftentimes, at center stage, is the influence, not Keller himself. For example, we get a long explanation of “eucatastrophe” (p. 57), paragraphs worth, with Keller out of sight.
Of course, as Hansen notes, this book is not a biography (and we will have to look forward to a future biography…maybe Hansen can write it as the sequel to this one?), but the little biographical tidbits along the way were great. Like the description of Keller walking down the sidewalk in New York City reading a book…priceless. Little details like that were also a comment on his formation but in a highly personal and unique way.2
This book may also appeal to someone who wants to better understand the roots of evangelicalism as it has been passed down by the generation Keller represents. Many aspects of church life today that I would take as a given, find their genesis in Keller’s generation, as this book documents. In fact, while reading about what was happening in the 1970s, the thought struck me that much of what I know (e.g., youth ministry, campus ministries, Passion Conferences) may actually just be domesticated copies and echoes (for the Christian children of Keller’s generation, like me) of the original revival and renewal movements of the 1970s, which were reaching and converting unbelievers, not just rallying believers.
Hansen has researched and written well, and he has given us a great resource, for which I am thankful. This book was a fun and interesting read, and it will be a helpful tool to Keller scholars for years to come. It is a fitting tribute to Tim Keller.
For anyone who is a Kellerite or who wants to trace the trajectory of evangelicalism, give it a read!
Additional resources for the book (e.g., cited sermons, lectures, books, etc.)
1. Watkin, C. (2022). Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture. Zondervan Academic.
2. Personally, I was also delighted to learn of some points of overlap at Gordon-Conwell. (I suppose I would compare it to taking a history tour, where you’re excited to know you’re standing where someone famous once stood.) At Gordon-Conwell, I took Systematic I with Richard Lints and read his The Fabric of Theology, a formational work for Keller. I also had the opportunity to take a class with Richard Lovelace on Jonathan Edwards, another noted influencer of Keller. I worked in the cafeteria my first semester there, and apparently, Keller also worked in the cafeteria at some point. As newlyweds, my wife and I lived in Ipswich on High Street. I was always glad to know, living there, we were in the company of the Bradstreets and John Updike, but I was happy to find out the Kellers also lived in Ipswich as newlyweds. But I digress…
[…] on several occasions. I have listened to interviews and watched panel discussions. I have read and reviewed his intellectual biography. Yes, I am so indebted to him as a thinker and practitioner. So many […]