John Piper has a new book on thinking that I wonder if Tim Keller has read. (Do the celebrity figures of organizations like the Gospel Coalition have enough time, apart from their own writing, speaking, and travel to read the work of each other?) The reason for wondering is a tendency that Keller exhibits in many of the pieces I have read â€“ namely, to avoid extremes in favor of a middle way. You donâ€™t need to be Barry Goldwater, the guy who said â€œextremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,â€ to know that both-and solutions are often impossible. To keep the Lordâ€™s Day holy you need to avoid work on Sunday (for starters). You donâ€™t work a little, rest some, and work a bit. And to honor your Reformed convictions, you donâ€™t cooperate in ministries with Arminians. You canâ€™t have the five points of Dort and the four points of the Remonstrants. You canâ€™t ordain men only and have deaconesses. Sometimes the truths you profess require a choice.
But Keller does not seem to like being confined to either-orâ€™s and he also apparently thinks that many of the errors in church history stem precisely from binary situations. His foreword to a new book by former Bush administration staffers on Christianity and politics (posted at the Gospel Coalition blog) exhibits precisely the tendency to identify extremism and run to the other side â€“ but only so far, of course.
Here is Kellerâ€™s take on H. Richard Niebuhr:
In the mid-twentieth-century, H. Richard Niebuhr wrote his classic Christ and Culture, which helped mainline Christian churches think through ways to relate faith to politics. In the end, Niebuhr came down on the side of universalism, the view that ultimately God is working to improve things through all kinds of religions and political movements. The result of his work was to lead mainline Protestant churches to become uncritical supporters of a liberal political agenda (though Niebuhr himself opposed such a move).
Now, as the recent Pew Forum poll indicated, most Americans do not know their nationâ€™s church history that well and Keller should not be faulted for getting Niebuhr wrong. At the time that the older brother of Reinhold wrote Christ and Culture, mainline Protestants were firmly in the Republican fold and also very bullish on maintaining a Christian America and a Christian world order. After all, H. Richardâ€™s brother was a prominent supporter of the Cold War and one of the architects of anti-communist foreign policy in the Eisenhower administration was the Presbyterian, John Foster Dulles. In fact, the folks in the orbit of Union Seminary (NYC) were so bullish on a Christian America that their rhetoric foreshadowed that of Jerry Fallwell some thirty years later.
In which case, if Keller is going to use history to avoid its mistakes, he should try to avoid mistaken readings of history.
But this is not Kellerâ€™s only appeal to history. He goes on in the foreword to answer the objections of evangelicals who say that politics is â€œa distraction, that we should concentrate fully on the only important thingsâ€”the defense of orthodox doctrine and the evangelism of the world.â€ I wish I knew of such evangelicals. I doubt Keller comes across many of them in New York and you canâ€™t even find them at Bob Jones University these days where Kellerâ€™s rhetoric of transformationalism has more appeal that the schoolâ€™s former fundamentalist denunciations of worldliness. Still, to counter the fundamentalist argument, Keller appeals to the errors of history:
. . . as the authors point out, in 1930s Germany, a faulty understanding of how Christianity relates to the political contributed to the disaster of Nazism, which in turn meant the loss of the German Lutheran Churchâ€™s credibility, evangelistic witness, and even orthodoxy. Something similar happened in South Africa, where an orthodox Reformed theology, invoking the views of Abraham Kuyper, created a civil religion that supported apartheid, and as a consequence has suffered incalculable loss to its standing in the eyes of the people. Ironically, the Lutherans followed a two-kingdom approach to Christ and culture, in which Christians are not to bring their faith into politics, while Reformed Christianity has been characterized by a view that Christians are supposed to transform culture. Both approaches, when not applied thoughtfully and wisely, have led to cultural, political, and ultimately spiritual disaster.
Several oddities stand out in this historical judgment. Just how many Americans after fighting a war against Germany twenty years earlier were sitting by their wireless, waiting to hear what the Lutheran Churches in Germany were saying about anything, let alone National Socialism? Lutherans never had a lot of credibility with Anglo-American Protestants, not even the American Lutheran communions.
But even odder about the assessment of Lutherans is the juxtaposition with Kuyperians. Keller does well to remember that the political failings of Protestants have been not simply on the Lutheran side. Reformed Protestants have to answer for their own performance.
And yet, Kellerâ€™s conclusion does not follow. He says that Lutherans lost their credibility for National Socialism and Dutch-African Reformed for apartheid. And yet, where has Kuyper lost any credibility with American Protestants â€“ even Keller himself â€“ who still rally under the banner of â€œevery square inchâ€? In other words, if the German churchesâ€™ acquiescence to Hitler makes 2k theology suspect, why doesnâ€™t neo-Calvinist support for apartheid make Kuyperianism suspect? And yet, it is the Kuyperian-flavored transformationalism that Keller himself consumes and that also accounts for some of the more vigorous critiques of 2k.
So instead of trying to avoid the errors of the past, perhaps Keller and others who appeal to history for directions in the present should understand that the past is complicated, its actors flawed, and that bad things happen to good causes. 2k theology did not create Hitler any more than neo-Calvinism is responsible for apartheid. History has no single causes. History also yields no consequences that disprove ideas. If Keller wants to argue against 2k theology or fundamentalist otherworldliness, fine. But guilt-by-association is not a good form of thinking. I suspect that even Piper agrees.