Tim Keller has made the history of Presbyterianism obsolete. Look at the way Jake Meador describes the challenges facing young pastors in the PCA:
… young Presbyterian pastors, many of whom are on university campuses with RUF or working in gentrifying urban neighborhoods, face enormous class-based pressure to conform to certain progressive cultural norms. These pressures make themselves felt in a variety of ways.
First, there is a strong and classic American pull toward being dismissive of the past, toward what is established, and to embrace what is new. This temptation exerts an even stronger pull than normal on many young PCA pastors because many younger pastors and RUF guys have strong entrepreneurial tendencies. While this is often a very good thing—indeed, it’s what makes it possible for them to succeed as church planters and RUF pastors—this same trait can make them naturally inclined to be dismissive toward established norms, policies, and beliefs, especially when they are surrounded by other young people with the same entrepreneurial sensibilities. It is probably not a coincidence, in other words, that the most famous “Kellerite” to go progressive is pastoring in San Francisco, the capital of Silicon Valley.
In addition to the disregard for things that are older, established, etc. there is also strong cultural pressure to embrace a kind of bourgeois bohemian lifestyle—buy a cute house in the gentrifying neighborhood, embrace the careerism, food and exercise regimen, lifestyle trends, and broadly progressive ethos of your neighbors. You can even say you’re just being outreach-focused as you do it. While none of these things are bad in isolation, taken together they’re all steps that involve embracing the norms of a younger bobo sub-culture. And if you’re embracing those norms out of a desire to be liked rather than a pure desire to make the Gospel sensible, it will be disastrous.
But, of course, it is all very complicated: Essentially, these are young pastors being handed different cultural scripts and asked to choose which ones to follow. But these clashing scripts cannot be simplistically labeled “good” and “bad” such that we can tell young pastors to follow the “good” script and avoid the “bad.” It is more complicated than that.
This is similar to the point that Ron Belgau made in his response to Rod Dreher earlier this week: It’s not that we have a legacy PCA script that is unambiguously good that we need to cling to. That script has problems—it’s awful on race issues, for starters. So figuring out the cultural scripts question in the PCA is challenging: The young white bobo script you’re pushed toward culturally and according to class is bad, but then you don’t necessarily have a good alternative script, particularly if you’re trying to plant a church or RUF in a more hostile environment. There simply aren’t good evangelical templates for how to do that because we have for the most part been really bad at it.
In such a situation, the draw toward Keller and the ham-handed attempts to mimic him are quite understandable. What other models do these pastors have? Driscollism? Straight-up progressive Episcopalianism?
Certainly, you can argue that there actually are other models out there—Calvin basically turned Geneva into a booming intellectual hub. Someone like Richard Sibbes was a very successful preacher in Cambridge at the university in the 17th century. Richard Baxter could be helpful in that we know more about his routines as a pastor than any other minister of his era. Bucer and his colleagues in Strasbourg did good and faithful work in a major intellectual, cultural, and scholastic hub. But these examples are all either from radically different cultural contexts, much more obscure, or both.
It isn’t unreasonable that these pastors would look to Keller and, being young and failing to understand their context, fail to mimic him well. But that isn’t Keller’s fault and it isn’t entirely the young pastor’s fault either. It’s a predictable outcome given all the factors I have mentioned already.
Whatever happened to vanilla Presbyterianism? A pastor ministers the word, administers the sacraments, catechizes the youth, shepherds the flock, and goes to presbytery. What does all this worry about culture have to do with it? Meador doesn’t think Keller is responsible for leading the PCA down a misguided path of Kellerism. That is mostly true. What happened it seems to meeeeEEEE, is that Keller fulfilled the aspirations of some PCA leaders who wanted to “engage” the culture — marriage is still up for grabs.
What is happening in the PCA is what always happens to denominations that Americanize and try to adapt to the culture. The Presbyterian version of this is not whether to be Baptist or Episcopalian — though why don’t the boho’s seem to notice that Keller’s urban ways draw him to Baptists at TGC and other urban pastors like John Piper and Mark Dever? The Presbyterian version of assimilation is New School and New Life. In the 19th century, those who wanted to Christianize the culture were the New Schoolers (Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney), and their opponents were Old School Presbyterians who tried to maintain creedal theology and presbyterian governance. In the twentieth century (let’s leave aside the modernists for now), the assimilationists were New Lifers (in the OPC mind you) who wanted Orthodox Presbyterians to join with the wider evangelical world and also reach the young people with long hair. In case no one noticed, Tim Keller’s origins are in the New Life wing of the OPC, with Harvie Conn supplying a theology of the city, and Jack Miller providing a relaxed Presbyterianism that could adjust to the culture (Miller’s tastes ran less to ballet and more to Jesus people. Keller went to New Life Glenside while he taught at WTS, if I am not mistaken.) Not to mention that the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (which goes back to the Bible Presbyterians) side of the PCA that gave it Covenant College and Covenant Seminary, is not the same slice southern Presbyterianism that produced Reformed Seminary and the original PCA.
In other words, the history is thick behind Keller and simply looking at the PCA from the perspective of Baptists and Episcopalians doesn’t take you very far into the weeds.
Yet, when you apply the categories of Baptist and Episcopalian, you wind up rendering Old School (or vanilla) Presbyterianism as a couple clicks away from strange:
During times when progressivism is ascendant, as it certainly is in our day, there is a natural temptation amongst conservatives to want to double down on their most strident rhetoric, add purity tests to protect their institutions, and to begin attacking people not only for holding wrong ideas, but for holding ideas which they suspect could lead to wrong ideas (even if they won’t inevitably lead to them).
Is this a plea for Erdmanesque tranquility so that the boat won’t rock? Ministry unites, doctrine divides?
Whether Keller is responsible or no, he has not helped to prepare the PCA for the predicament that Meador thinks the denomination faces:
You’re in this weird denomination that aspires to being the church that can reach secular bobo-types in upwardly mobile neighborhoods but that also aspires to be faithful to theological orthodoxy and even to be theologically evangelical, all the way down to not ordaining women. That is an awkward position to be in from the beginning.
If Keller had left the impression that working through presbyterian channels was not weird but normal, and had achieved his fame not as a pastor with one foot in presbyterianism and another in networked Protestantism but as a regular Presbyterian minister, he might have communicated an important lesson to young pastors, namely, that it’s okay to be simply a pastor. But that is not what he did. And his fellow Presbyterian Church in Americans are sorting out what the Age of Keller means.