What Exactly Is the “Toxic” Effect of Tim Keller’s Theology?

What Exactly Is the “Toxic” Effect of Tim Keller’s Theology? March 23, 2017

princeton hallMany have heard the news that Princeton Seminary offered, then un-offered, Tim Keller the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness. I wrote up a short piece entitled “In Praise of Tim Keller: On Princeton’s Decision” for the Center for Public Theology. In that piece, I quote from a RNS story that cited these words of Carol Howard Merritt on Keller and his theology:

“In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genitalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear … Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”

I’ve already made a brief case for why Keller does in fact deserve the Kuyper Prize, so I won’t do that here. You can read more of my response to Merritt if you like. Let’s think about this carefully: what exactly is the effect of Keller’s “toxic theology”?

Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the fruit of Keller’s ministry:

–He planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and has seen it grow by divine aid to a membership of around 1,750 people, with around 5,000 total people attending each week.

–He has written a number of best-selling books, including The Reason for God and Prodigal God, and has sold over 1 million copies of his texts.

–He has launched a church-planting movement in global cities called City to City, which has helped start over 380 churches in 54 cities.

–Keller is part of the Presbyterian Church in America, which began as just a handful of folks and now includes over 370,000 members.

–He started The Gospel Coalition with D. A. Carson, a ministry that now reaches many millions of people per year, and is now as established a website as traditional outlets like Christianity Today and the Christian Century. All this in just over half a decade. TGC’s conferences draw between 5000-8000 people, generally.

Here, by contrast, is what is happening in the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary:

–The PCUSA lost over 95,000 members in 2015.

–In 2005, the PCUSA’s overall membership was over 2.3 million. In 2015, overall membership was 1.57 million.

–The last year of growth for the PCUSA as a denomination was 1965.

–Princeton seminary’s enrollment declined, overall, from 660 in 2007-08 to 514 in 2012-13.

I do not personally wish ill upon the PCUSA and Princeton Seminary. In fact, with many others I grieve these statistics. I take no joy in them. I wish that the days of “Old Princeton” and a theologically flourishing PCUSA were upon us. But the trend of each is toward further decline and possible obsolescence. One can hope that genuine born-again believers in these places will carry the day, unexpected and difficult as that would be. We pray for our brothers and sisters who love Christ within these works.

For years, we heard that we needed to liberalize the faith to save it. Conservative doctrine was thought, to quote Carol Merritt once more, to be “toxic theology.” Best to downplay it, soften it, and jettison it. But the strangest thing has happened over the years. God has brought health and strength to Bible-loving, gospel-preaching denominations and institutions. You could say it this way: while no one is assured of statistical growth, the surest path toward that end is to preach sound doctrine. The hot “new” church growth method: preach the Bible, and evangelize the lost.

I have seen this firsthand. I trained and taught at Southern Seminary, which grew like Jack’s bean stalk under the conservative leadership of R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Southern is now one of the largest seminaries in history. I now teach systematic theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. In a little over three years, student enrollment has gone from roughly 1000 to 3000. The student body has tripled. All this has occurred under the leadership of one of the youngest and most conservative institutional presidents in higher education, Jason Allen. On not one but two SBC campuses, we’ve dealt as an organization not with managing decline, but with trying to accommodate more students than our facilities can handle. At MBTS right now, we’re having to move classes, because we’re literally outgrowing our classrooms. By the grace of God, we have too many students!

Do not miss this: complementarian institutions teaching rock-ribbed theology are not struggling to draw students. Complementarian churches teaching biblical sexual ethics are growing like gangbusters. Complementarian theology, and a biblical approach to homosexuality, does not kill churches and schools. It brings them to life. It draws people who love the wisdom of God over the opinions of the world. We do not need to soften our doctrine, friends. We need to hold it, promote it, and celebrate it, for it is the truth of God. It is right, it is holy, and it is good for us.


All this could change, of course. Princeton Seminary was once the key conservative institution of its day. In the 19th century, it drew large numbers–then, that meant 200 students in a big year (see Paul Gutjahr’s excellent biography of Charles Hodge for Oxford University Press for the stats). Today, Hodge would struggle to land a teaching spot at the institution he helped make great. So with Warfield; so with Machen; so with a long line of faithful men. How sad this is. Kuyper, as some pointed out, couldn’t give his famous “every square inch” lectures that he delivered in 1898, perhaps the most famous seminary lectures in history.

The theology these men held would be labeled “toxic” today. But it was not. It was life-giving. Here is the glorious truth, though: sound doctrine has not lost its luster (2 tim. 4:3). If we preach it, if we evangelize people based off of it, God will reap his harvest. He may be pleased to give spectacular growth, as he has in the ministry of Tim Keller, and as he is at conservative schools like Midwestern Seminary today. We do not know what he will do.

We do know this: if anything is toxic, it is that which draws the light out of a denomination, out of a seminary, out of churches that once brimmed with love for the gospel.

Browse Our Archives