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Reminiscences of Tim Keller

P. C. Kemeny

It is no secret that Timothy Keller had a profound impact on hundreds of thousands of people and enjoyed a huge stage for influence. But less is known about how Tim conducted himself out of the limelight.  As a student at Westminster Theological Seminary, he was my professor in a couple of classes. For three years my wife and I were part of a “mini church” at New Life PCA where we met weekly with Tim and his wife Kathy for Bible study. We also babysat their three young, and delightfully rambunctious, boys a few times in the Keller’s home.

An Unpretentious Pastor

As I reflect upon my experience with Tim in the weekly Bible study, two virtues stand out. Tim was unpretentious. Maybe his experience pastoring a modest church of working-class believers in a small town in Virginia helped cultivate such humility. He never made me, and probably others, feel like he wanted or needed to be deferred to as the “real expert” because he was, after all, the only seminary professor in the room. He was just Tim. He listened patiently to others and seemed to offer insightful comments when it seemed appropriate. But he never acted like he should get the last word. Kathy, whom he met at Gordon-Conwell, was equally engaging these Bible study discussions. I suspect that she might have also helped keep him humble because, as they say in Boston, she is “wicked smaht.”

When Tim left Westminster to plant a church, I was not surprised. I sensed that his time as a seminary professor was not the end goal of his career but just a stopover. He was too much of a pastor to spend the bulk of his career just teaching students. Given his background, I was a little surprised, however, that he went to New York City. One of my close friends from seminary, Scot Sherman, joined his staff early on when Redeemer was renting a Seventh-day Adventist church in midtown. My wife Betsy and I spent a few weekends with Scot and Katherine while I was working on my Ph.D. Sometimes we would just take the train into the city on a Sunday morning, worship at Redeemer, and then kick around the city for the afternoon.  

Making the Gospel Real

From my time in his classroom and in our mini-church, I knew that Tim was spiritually gifted. But hearing him preach in person at Redeemer, and subsequently listening to probably hundreds of his sermons (we shared a subscription with friends to his sermons back when they were distributed on CDs), a second virtue of Tim’s became clear. He had a gift for making the gospel message real. In some sermon or perhaps in a lecture I heard Tim say that the purpose of preaching is not to make the gospel clear but to make it real. He quickly added that one cannot make the gospel real if one does not make clear. But his point was simply that the purpose of preaching is not to provide an audience with a detailed Bible commentary. To be sure, one cannot make the gospel real without explaining what the text actually means. But if the sermon is just a tedious explanation of the text, peppered with a few invocations of Greek verbs thrown in to impress the audience, (as if actually knowing Greek gives one some sort of special epistemology superiority over the English Bible reader), then that is a lecture, not a sermon. I do not think, moreover, that Tim viewed the congregation as an “audience” he needed to impress. Rather, he saw the congregation a gathering of believers and unbelievers who needed to have their imaginations captured by the power of the gospel to change people’s lives.

Once when I was in his home, I stood marveling at his personal library. As a young seminarian, I was jealous of his impressive collection of books. It seemed like he owned every book published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Keller loved the British Puritans. Tim told me that he tried to read one Puritan sermon a day. A preacher reads other preachers. That made sense to me. In retrospect, it makes even more sense. Just as the great Puritan preachers had a knack for capturing the imagination of their congregants, one of Tim’s spiritual talents was to use illustrations and analogies from the modern day, not the seventeenth century, to help make the gospel real. He had the rare ability to address the genuine personal concerns and the hard questions that believers and unbelievers harbor about the credibility of historic Christianity. And he did so with a disarming candor and kindness that took those concerns seriously. His insightful illustrations made Christianity relevant to contemporary life.

Taking the Subway

The last time I talked with Tim was several years ago. My family was on vacation in New York City and we made our way to the Ethical Cultural Society on 64th and Central Park West to worship that Sunday morning. (The very fact that Redeemer Presbyterian Church was meeting in the Ethical Cultural Society represented to me something of a glorious, and also ironic, victory of historic Christianity in the twentieth-first century because the Ethical Cultural Society was formed in the late nineteenth century by humanists who wanted to promote morality sans theism. But I digress.) As my family walked toward the building, there was Tim, just standing outside. There he greeted us with a simple “Hi Paul and Betsy.” Here was the great Tim Keller. Mastermind of the sprawling collection of Redeemer Presbyterian Churches in NYC and the network of Redeemer churches found throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia. Tim was not wearing $1200 sneakers, like some GQ model hipster pastor. He probably shopped at Macys. He did not have an entourage of sycophantic assistant pastors angling to be the next Tim Keller. Nor did he have a security detail like some megachurch pastors employ. He told us that he was preaching at this service and then had to dart across town to preach at another Redeemer congregation. When I asked him how he was going to get there, he said he always takes the subway. Not a limousine or car service would shuffle him across town but the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Tim was just humble.

Parting Thoughts

I am thankful that I had Tim as a professor and got to know him and Kathy a little through our weekly Bible studies. I am more grateful for his personal witness and gospel ministry. If Christ really rose from the dead, Tim would say, that changes everything. And Tim had a God-given gift for helping many see how it does.

As dean of the Calderwood School and professor of religion and humanities at Grove City College, Paul lends his expertise as an academic administrator to the Project on Rural Ministry (PRM). In his role of academic director, he connects faculty and students with PRM initiatives. Paul is the author or editor of several books on the history of the church and of higher education, including The Oxford Handbook of Presbyterianism; Faith, Freedom, and Higher Education: Historical Analysis and Contemporary Reflections; Princeton in the Nation’s Service: Religious Ideals and Educational Practice, 1868–1928; and The New England Watch and Ward Society.