A few years ago I read 'The Reason for God'. In fact it was the subject of our Theology Study Group at the John Owen Centre on one occasion. A while later I read 'The Prodigal God' and was deeply challenged by Keller's exposition of the attitude of the elder son.
Recently I read 'King's Cross'. Again it is challenging, enjoyable, instructive in the way Keller explores and penetrates the mind of the unbeliever.
Yet some things leave me uneasy. It began with 'The Reason for God'. His doctrine of the atonement seemed very much to be God's provision for victims of sin to be saved. What, one may say, is wrong with that? The problem is, it is only half the truth. Men and women are not only victims of sin (and Keller explores expertly the workings of sin in the human psyche); they are perpetrators of sin. They are guilty and guilt is not a disease or an affliction. Guilt is what accrues to one who has rebelled against the Most High God and has incurred his wrath.
This is not a note one finds prominent in Keller.
'King's Cross' is a series of sermons on Mark's gospel. Once again, the apologetics is good; Keller is after all a devotee of C.S. Lewis whom he describes as his favourite writer. But
(1) Sin is defined repeatedly in terms of what it does to me - shame, suffering, bondage. It is not pointed out that what is more important is what sin means to God. Now Keller may say this does not mean much to a modern New Yorker. Maybe not, but is that not precisely the preacher's task? To make the gospel in all its unpalatableness, clear to us, not necessarily acceptable.
(2) In discussing our idolatries - what we think are our deepest wishes - Keller says, 'And we will discover that in the process of dealing with what we thought were our deepest wishes, Jesus has revealed an even deeper, truer one beneath - and it is for Jesus himself. He will not just have granted that true deepest wish, he will have fulfilled it'. Now can that be true? How can Jesus be the deepest truest wish of an unregenerate heart? Is this not creeping close to the 'Tash' idea of Lewis - that deep down we are actually worshipping God whatever we call him? He quotes Lewis in another place to the same effect: 'The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last...then our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off... is no mere neurotic fancy but the truest index of our real situation...'
(3) In describing the cross he says that 'All life-changing love is substitionary sacrifice'. He cites the sacrificial love of a parent or lover. Yes - but that is not substitutionary in the sense that Christ's was. It is vague language which is seeking to make the profound and ineffable love of Christ somehow comprehensible to modern people.
(4) There is a clear description of penal substitution (p 101-02) and of the wrath of God (p 176f) but he says things like the 'sin, guilt and brokenness of the world fell on Christ'. What exactly is the brokenness of the world? He talks of 'wrath, the abyss, the chasm , the nothingness of life.' What does this mean? And is it not diluting the wrath of God to include it in the same sentence as 'nothingness'? Even when he talks of the wrath of God, he seems somehow to blunt its awfulness. He talks about the eternal destiny of the unbeliever as 'separation' from God, not hell as an experience, or a destiny, inflicted by God.
All in all, Keller seems so keen to make the gospel comprehensible to the modern mind that he slips into making it acceptable. Apologetics has become accommodation. Sin is what hurts us, and salvation too often comes across as what makes us truly ourselves, makes us happy, fulfils us; God is there for us, not we for him. It all comes across as human-centred rather than God-centred. The elements of the truth are there, but not in the right proportions and the hard edges of the gospel are disappointingly smoothed over.
But maybe I need to read a bit more of Keller - I have 'Generous Justice' and 'Center Church' to dive into some time...