Turning to the book's third chapter, readers will find Keller’s attempt to deal with objections to "absolute truth." (Is the question about the existence of "absolute truth," or about the ability of finite humans to possess truth absolutely?) Keller helpfully points out that a belief in the truth of certain theological doctrines does not rule out "cultural adaptation," which his own congregation has had to practice in order to achieve its impressive numerical growth in the "urban, pluralistic" context of New York City (p. 42). Here again, however, he falls into sloppy theological reasoning that reveals what he is offering to be little more than a repackaging of the evangelicalism of modernity. He writes, "Redeemer's basic doctrines—the deity of Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, the necessity of spiritual rebirth through faith in Christ's atoning death—are in unity with the orthodox, supernatural beliefs of the evangelical and Pentecostal churches of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the U.S. South and Midwest" (p. 42). This way of articulating salvation communicates (among other things) that people need to trust in a particular theory of the atonement rather than in Jesus himself. If one trusts in an atonement theory that focuses exclusively on Christ's death (Anselm's satisfaction theory or Calvin's penal substitutionary theory—not the earlier Christus Victor theory, which emphasizes Christ’s resurrection, or the moral influence theory, which emphasizes his life), then one will be reborn (presumably by the Holy Spirit, about which Keller says little). This understanding of salvation as mental assent to precisely-defined propositions is a holdover from modernity.
Keller suggests that "the shadow of fanaticism" requires coming to understand that "the essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us" (p. 57). This recurring theme in Keller's work reflects a traditional emphasis that finds its strongest biblical basis in Paul's teaching, especially Ephesians 2:8-9. For Keller, though, this teaching seems to be an interpretive key for all of Scripture—perhaps even all of life. So, he interprets the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) not as a kingdom ethic taught by Jesus to his followers with the expectation that they would strive to live it as a missional witness to God's in-breaking reign, but instead as "a major critique of religion"—or, more specifically, of "fanatics" (p. 58). The biblical text, however, makes clear that Jesus is addressing his disciples—not the Pharisees. Keller would have his readers believe that the focus of Jesus is to criticize persons outside his community of followers—persons who might not have even been present to be convicted by his words. This interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount may reflect a desire to steer clear of anything remotely like works-righteousness; but whatever its intent, it works to the detriment of discipleship.
To his credit, Keller does lift up examples of discipleship (in this case, Christians who have worked for justice) in this chapter's last section. However, his presentation is far from balanced. He starts this section with just two sentences confessing Christian complicity in the African slave trade; he then devotes five pages to celebrating Christians who worked to end slavery and other injustices. He seems to forget that before some Christians became abolitionists, other Christians were slave-traders and slave-owners. (Most people in Christendom were baptized Christians, after all.)
Keller moves from the hell of slavery to the question of how a loving God can send people to a place called hell. Even on this subject, he expresses few if any doubts. Instead, he writes, "As a minister and preacher I often find myself speaking on Biblical texts that teach the wrath of God, the final judgment, and the doctrine of hell" (p. 69). Keller has a habit of telling the reader what the Bible says without quoting and exegeting specific passages of Scripture. A few pages later, Keller does quote Psalm 145:17-20, which concludes, "[A]ll the wicked he will destroy." Despite the fact that this passage belongs to the genre of poetry, and despite the fact that it does not expressly mention "hell," Keller nonetheless interprets it as an affirmation of a literal hell. A consistently literal interpretation would lead logically to the conclusion that evil persons are destroyed rather than imprisoned—destined for permanent destruction (sometimes called annihilation) rather than for endless torment. Keller seems not to recognize as much. He observes: "A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire disintegrates" (p. 76). (He fails to mention that fire also refines.) Does Keller then logically conclude for a position of annihilationism? No. Instead, he writes, "Hell...is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever" (p. 77). Which is it? Does hell destroy and disintegrate, or does hell allow life to continue "on and on forever"? (In fairness to Keller, he does include an endnote that says, "All descriptions and depictions of heaven and hell in the Bible are symbolic and metaphorical" [p. 259]; yet he is unwilling to take the short step from this helpful observation to the possibility that hell is more of a state than a place.)
The confusion continues as the chapter concludes. Keller notes that "the Bible tells us that the God of love is also a God of judgment" (pp. 82-3). This way of putting the matter makes judgment love's equal. The Bible, however, does not seek to strike such a balance. James 2:13 reads, "[M]ercy triumphs over judgment." 1 John 4:8ff establishes that God is not only "the God of love," but "is love"—"God is love." Does Scripture anywhere say, "God is wrath"? While God is free to display wrath (God is sovereign), God's nature is loving, not wrathful (that is, full of wrath, which would leave no room for love). Keller persists: "The belief in a God of pure love—who accepts everyone and judges no one—is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity. The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears" (p. 83). Keller asserts that there is little evidence for "a God of pure love...outside of Christianity"—an assertion that implies there is evidence for this God inside of Christianity; yet he then claims belief in this God is unjustified. Confusion reigns.
to be continued