Public Intellectuals, Public Protestants

This piece is making the rounds, one about the sorts of public intellectuals that now sound off at TED talks and other such progressive forums. And it got me thinking about differences between Presbyterians and Princeton Seminary:

Early on, [Drezner] he makes a crucial distinction between old-fashioned “public intellectuals” and the now-trendy “thought leaders.” The latter model is one that sells itself less to an identifiable “public”—something that has become increasingly difficult to define in a society continually segmenting itself according to ever-more-narrow criteria—than to plutocratic patrons. Once upon a time, we relied on intellectuals to “speak truth to power,” as the saying goes. Of course, real life was never so simple. But the adversary culture that arose in the bohemia of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century and among the (mostly) Jewish intellectuals who founded the independent Partisan Review in the 1930s offered at least a basis from which both to critique capitalism and to imagine alternative systems that might one day replace it.

Today, our most famous purveyors of ideas sell themselves to the wealthy much like the courtiers of the Middle Ages. Drezner notes that these ideas are therefore shaped by the “aversion” that plutocrats share toward addressing the problems we face. Inequality? Global warming? Populist nihilism? An explosion of global refugees? From a Silicon Valley perspective, Drezner notes, such things are not a failure of our system but rather “a piece of faulty code that need[s] to be hacked.” Examining data from a survey of Silicon Valley corporate founders, Drezner notes their shared belief that “there’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).”

So is Machen more like the old Jewish intellectuals who spoke truth to power, while Keller is more like the “famous purveyors of ideas”? Does that explain why Princeton repudiated Machen altogether but still made a place for Keller who still went there to speak about planting churches?

Just an obsession.


33 thoughts on “Public Intellectuals, Public Protestants

  1. D.G.,
    So you are still obsessed with Keller. Tell me you with your 2KT, what truth to power are you speaking?

    And btw, from the left’s perspective, most intellectuals have been the courtiers of those with power since at least the 1920s. While those intellectuals who do speak truth to power have taken the role of the OT Prophets, in part that is, in challenging power. That division between the intellectuals would make them parallel the prophets during Old Testament times because the false prophets were the courtiers for the evil kings of Israel and Judah while the true prophets actually spoke truth to power as well as to everyone else.


  2. D.G.,
    As if inspiration and idealism have nothing to contribute to us? As if Tim Keller never preaches the Gospel and has nothing to contribute to 2Kers? Is that your truth or, like the Pharisees, is it from your favorite traditions?

    You do know that to answer the questions above, you will have to mention specific sources of inspiration and ideals?


  3. DGH – he avoided the PCUSA by not becoming an ordained minister in the PCUSA, thus not submitting to their power. I admire Machen, but using him as a foil to criticize Keller is ridiculous.

    And I play poker and blackjack, not slots. My wife plays slots, which I love, because they comp better than anything else.


  4. D.G.,
    You kind of shortlisted my sources of inspiration. But with your sources, you believe that you have everything to teach Keller and nothing to learn from him?


  5. vae vic, ridiculous or uncomfortable. Keller did teach at WTS and the PCA is one of those sectarian Presbyterian churches that PTS opposes. I see lots of connections and I study such connections for a living.


  6. DGH – oh, I get it. John the Baptist spoke truth to power (Herod) and was beheaded for it, while Jesus was the “famous purveyor of ideas,” who, so far as we know, did not criticize Herod’s marriage.

    Seriously though, when you leave a seminary and effectively establish a rival seminary, you can’t expect an invitation to speak, much less an award. Keller never had such baggage. Besides, perhaps Keller’s purpose for going there was evangelistic – he cares for the lost. Had he lived long enough for things to settle down, who’s to say Machen wouldn’t have accepted a similar invitation later in life?


  7. DGH – well, for the Kuyper Center wouldn’t Newbigin be more appropriate? Wouldn’t he be a bit more thoroughly Neo-Calvinist than Conn? (Seriously asking, not trying to make a point.)

    cw – I haven’t listened to his talk, but Keller always preaches the Gospel. Besides, this wasn’t a sermon, so I don’t know if “preach” is the right word anyway. I don’t know if Machen would have told them they have a different gospel, but so what if he would have? They are two different people with two different styles. By the way, I enjoyed our little Twitter discussion Sunday morning….


  8. vae vic, Conn is more neo-Calvinist. Direct connection right through Van Til to Kuyper. Newbigin? Do you go through the Boer Wars?

    Plus, imagine the missed opportunity to educate one side about the other. But Keller — as always — goes third way, the Keller Way.


  9. VV, me too. You brought up “preaching” — I never considered it a sermon. Not telling apostates they have no gospel versus honoring them with your presence and saying thoughtful, mildly corrective things about evangelicals AND mainliners is more than a stylistic difference, don’t you think? You should listen, it’s easy:


  10. The difference between Machen’s view of the PCUSA and Keller’s would seem to be radically different. If Keller agrees with the take of Machen (who he claims to admire) he is doing a masterful job of hiding that fact.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. If you’ve already adopted the meaning of the postmodern vocabulary and tried to shoehorn that meaning into traditional theological terms, categories and ecclesiastical structures(what church is for-see diaconal responsibilities) and efforts(local and foreign missions) how is that not the same thing as ceding the ‘high ground’ to the culture you are supposed to be confronting and then converting? You’re missing on both efforts and on the last, you’ve merely agreed with the progressives about which new idols(hate this category)should replace the old ones and you’ve converted them to it? Ummm, so, you’ve reheated prot liberalism. Congrats?


  12. CW,
    Of course you are correct, but (as Curt will tell you) Keller is learning oh sooo much from the folks who embrace a false and “a different Gospel”, it is admitted to be such, but you see Keller sees great nuggets. You should too. So in that paradigm Keller’s approach is good, while yours is bad. This is the highest order of things. Oh, that and sharing society with others. Come on man, get with the program. Read Curt’s blog more , you will get up to speed.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The key to understanding Keller is the Third Way. It doesn’t always split the difference between two things, is not always a little of this and a little of that. It is often a wholly different approach. EB is probably onto something with the higher/highest concept. Comes off a bit gnostic now that I think about it.


  14. E. Burns,
    Is there much we can learn from a medical doctor who is not even a Christian?

    One of the problems I’ve cited is this all-or-nothing thinking that has rooted itself in many a religiously conservative Christian–even the reformed kind. And believing that one or one’s group has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is evidence of such thinking.

    But if you are going criticize Keller for learning from those outside the faith, you might want to ask D.G. about what on can learn from H.L. Mencken. That is if you are consistent.


  15. CW, EB, and DGH – isn’t the Keller Way also the Most Effective Way? Or at least the most effective way of anyone else at the moment?

    E. Burns – Keller’s approach is basically the approach Paul takes at the Areopagus. He tells the pagan Greeks their religiosity is great, their monuments and sculptures are great, and even quotes multiple Greek poets in defense of God. Then he tells them their error and leaps into the Gospel.


  16. Vae vic,

    Not to hate on Keller, but when has Keller ever been as bold in a non-Christian setting as Paul was? “Homosexuality isn’t good for human flourishing” and “the Mainline is too focused on the horizontal” aren’t necessarily barn-burning, repent or receive God’s judgment kind of sentiments.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Vae Vic,

    I will grant you that is indeed part of Keller’s approach. I will think the best of his heart and I have heard him offer some good stuff, though generally speaking I too have issues with him. But this idea of overall “Effective way” should be fleshed out. I guess we need to define what that means and what exactly the results are that he’s getting from that so called more “effective” way. Many have rightly said here that the approach Keller and many others have is essentially a reheated version of protestant liberalism. I think that is an accurate criticism.

    Vic states…..”””Then he tells them their error and leaps into the Gospel.””” This is the point Vic. Did he do that at his much touted speaking engagement Princton scenario ? Does he really do it elswhere? I’m not so sure. But hey in fairness I don’t always either, I don’t stand for Christ the way I should, etc etc. The Lord is growing me as no doubt He is Keller. Difference is (as Dr. Hart rightly points out) Keller is not just on the national stage, but he’s look to as a ideal model to emulate in ministry for many.

    I think CW has a point when he says……
    “”But VV, Keller did not preach much gospel at PTS and, more importantly, did not flat-out tell them they have a different gospel. Machen could never, ever have gone there without doing that.”””

    But if Keller is just there to learn a lot from those who have “a different” and false gospel. That is the bigger thing here (in the paradigm of Curt and many others ), the more equitable thing. Where he then takes what he learned incorporating (smuggling/ synchronizing) so much into what the gospel (from these acknowledged false gospel leaders) is of no concern I guess. Again, social gospel folks have their higher order of things.
    Dr. Hart and many others would view that as synchronizing and watering down the gospel. Curt and many others would see this as a beautiful thing! We are learning a lot from one another and sharing society with others, so we got that going for us. **Although it is glaring how one sided the “learning from one another” is for social gospel types. **

    At its core defining the gospel is still The Paramount issue of our times and seems to still be what the struggle and challenge is on church and theological fronts. I can very much see and understand why guys like Curt defend Keller. They love this idea that we can “do or be the gospel”. They take a living and breathing, the definitions of it are influx (it is kind of gnostic) approach to what the gospel is. Call me the “gospel curmudgeon ” the “theological nit picker”, if one likes. However, that really is not what it is going on here, a bunch of nicpickers who won’t learn from others. It is not that I or others think we have it all figured out or have nothing to learn, rather it is the simple fact that in matters of the Gospel this all has already been figured out and already defined by God. We (me or anybody else) don’t need (in fact we don’t get) to reinvent the wheel on this one. Warnings against it are dark, Galatians 1.

    I am not trying to overly bust on Keller, and I think it is more his followers than him as the problem, the many copy cats pervasive in the PCA. However, as I look at his approach to things, best my mind is seeing through a glass dimly lit can see, Keller seems to really present a “we need to do, we need to be the gospel” kind of approach and central message. It is absolutely no surprise in that paradigm social gospel and liberation theology folks will rise to his defense. And they do, without question they do! Why? It’s not a stretch to connect the dots on this one.
    Of course if one thinks the PCA is in good shape, that it has been in a good trajectory for the last 30 years and currently still is, then of course one will read my comments and view me as a Pharisee, a nit picker, someone unwilling to hear new ideas, etc. etc.

    Sorry, but Keller’s approach ( as well as those like minded) in many ways is the complete opposite of the idea in this video (which I believe is the more Biblical) of what the gospel is.

    ” What we win the with, we win them to. ”

    All the moral outrage social gospel troops and those on the Keller side have it easy. They have it easy because they claim ( like chameleons changing) Machen and orthodoxy, but then at the end of the day have a general ethos in ministry philosophy that is the complete opposite. Cake and eat it too, so it seems. At least CW, Dr. Hart and folks in that camp have the stones to be both intellectually and theologically honest, don’t you think?


  18. Robert – could Keller be a bit bolder on some issues? Sure, I think even he has said as much. But I do believe Keller wants to be viewed (and by extension, Redeemer to be viewed) as Gospel-centered, not social issue-centered. Look, to some degree we all want our pastors to confront the world like Darth Vader in the last scene in Rogue One, but that’s rarely the best approach. Most times we need to approach the lost in a way they will hear us. Not hiding or softening the truth, but approaching it in a way that doesn’t make them recoil and tune us out before we tell them of the hope we have in Christ.

    Let’s be real: if Tim Keller railed against homosexuality and abortion every week he would earn a lot of applause in conservative Christian circles, but the typical New York liberal would immediately write him off and never take him seriously. By primarily criticizing behavior they can relate to (idolatry, greed, selfishness, etc) he gains their attention and he can preach the truth of the Gospel. Going back to the Areopagus example, Paul doesn’t go in guns blazing against idolatry. He tells the Greeks their religiosity and their search for the “unknown god” are admirable, but that the truth ultimately lies in the Resurrected Christ.

    At the end of the day, would you rather have a pastor who delivers hell fire and brimstone sermons on social issues but gain no converts, or a pastor who doesn’t speak often on social issues but has a massive impact for the Kingdom? The choice is obvious, is it not?


  19. E. Burns – I was writing my last post at the same time you were writing yours, it seems. I don’t have time to respond in full now, but I agree with much of what you say. I’ll get back to you with a better response later.


  20. vae vic, “massive impact”? I get that Keller is a celebrity. Joel Osteen is a bigger celebrity. Is Osteen’s influence “massive”? Or is this special pleading for New Life Presbyterians because he’s their celebrity?


  21. Vae Vic,

    I look forward to your feedback. “Impact”, what kind are we talking about? Just numbers? Or perceived influence? Yeah, he is pretty impactful there I guess. However, If it is true that what we win them with we win them to, then one sees Dr. Hart’s criticisms of Keller in a different light. Not as nitpicking but as incredibly important to get a handle on. The church growth movement of the 1980’s and 90’s gave us the mega churches, influence and the numbers. It did not give us gospel or doctrinal fidelity. Not to mention a whole lot of false converts.

    How different is the liberal, hipster, downtown city church? In many ways can’t we see it’s just the same problem re- packaged with a bit different window dressing? Now it’s not the conservative glitzy businessman,TBN style mega church preacher, fire brimstone in the Cadillac. Now it is the City church hipster with Birkenstocks, supporter of the arts and the environment (New York liberals) talking about how to live and be the gospel and get behind this social cause or the next. Broad and perhaps a bit of an over simplification, but probably not by much. I say both get it wrong, very wrong. Curt, wants us to “learn” a lot from the Birkenstock crowd. (What he really wants is full adherence to the social gospel) I am not sure at times what Keller wants, but I know he dresses better than Curt.


  22. I still haven’t figured out how urbanism became the gospel. Have you been to your gentrified downtown? Modern Beatnik is the Christ like character God is working in us, really? Who knew gospel centered, property taxes and foodie culture would equal postmodern christianity. You don’t have to step back very far to see the ridiculousness of it all.


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