Tim Keller’s The Reason for God is one of the best comprehensive defenses of the Christian faith of the 21st century. Keller does an excellent job answering seven common skeptical criticisms of Christianity and offering seven expositions of core Christian beliefs. Keller’s excellence in responding to secular philosophy is fueled by 40 years of pastoring a church in Manhattan composed of a significant number of young professionals who started their spiritual journeys as skeptics and cynics. Keller knows how to reach young intellectuals, especially when it comes to the gospel.
I have personally benefitted from The Reason for God, both when I originally read it in 2014 and again this year. Keller is a masterful writer, and his balanced and intellectual approach connects with me well. I have had significant challenges with doubt in my life (read more here and here), and Keller’s encouragement of honesty and engagement with multiple perspectives on these issues is therapeutic. Some brands of Christian apologetics encourage memorization of heavy-hitting facts, while ignoring critical thinking and failing to investigate a plurality of informed perspectives. Thankfully, Keller does not take this oversimplified approach, which can do more harm than good.
“It is not the strength of your faith, but the object of your faith that saves you.” | Tim Keller
The first section of the book responds to common questions that are lobbed at Christians. Keller tackles the problem of evil, the injustices of the Church, hell, science, and the reliability of Scripture, among other topics. Keller excels philosophically in his responses to these tough questions, and in places where is not an expert, he cites experts thoroughly in his endnotes. In my review, I’d like to focus on the two areas of debate I know best: science and the Bible.
“Science Has Disproved Christianity”
Keller’s response to those who criticize the anti-scientific behavior of some Christians is excellent; he maintains that good science and biblical Christianity are not mutually exclusive (I have written more about this topic here). Keller makes an important distinction where other pastors often fail: between evolutionary science and evolutionary philosophy. Evolutionary science is purely academic and is tested through observation, experimentation, and iteration. Evolutionary creation is now considered by many Christians to be a valid biblical creation model (read more in Francis Collins’ The Language of God, John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, or BioLogos.org).
Evolutionary philosophy, however, extrapolates the scientific principles of evolution to normative principles that guide everyday life. In a sense, evolutionary philosophy has become the “god” of the atheists in 21st-century discourse; it is called to as an explanation for unknown phenomena in psychology, sociology, and other disciplines. Keller pushes back on this tendency with an argument that seeks to separate the two concepts: evolutionary science is compatible with Christian thought, while evolutionary philosophy is not. To be clear, Keller does not take a hard stance on a particular creation theory—he mentions that his church accepts a variety of views on the issue. But Keller makes the excellent point that
vitriolic rhetoric toward evolutionary science from Christian circles can be an unnecessary stumbling block for skeptics of the gospel.
“You Can’t Take the Bible Literally”
Keller devotes one chapter to defending the veracity of the Bible, which I found somewhat inadequate. The elements of biblical apologetics involve a number of topics, including canonicity, translation, inerrancy, historicity, and textual criticism (read more in Can We Still Believe the Bible? by Craig Blomberg). Keller chooses to focus on what he (and most Christian scholars) consider the strongest defense for the Bible: the historicity of the gospels. Historicity is the likelihood that a document is historical in what it claims, and the gospels are considered by some scholars to be historical, while others consider them embellished legend. Keller focuses on a few points that make a strong case for the gospels not to be legends: the timing is far too early, the content is far too counterproductive, and the literary form of the gospels is too detailed. Keller makes a strong case with these points, and he cites more thorough analyses (such as Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham) for readers who would like more detail. Keller also mentions the challenge put forth by skeptics that normative cultural ethics (such as those found in Ephesians 5) are out-of-date. Keller responds by stating that these issues are secondary to the gospel, and he acknowledges a plurality of Christian views on these topics (read more in Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William Webb). While I wish Keller has devoted another chapter to Biblical issues, his choice in focusing on Jesus is a wise one.
“The Clues of God”
The second section of The Reason for God takes a different angle; instead of responding to criticism of Christianity, Keller takes a different approach by advocating for the pervasive validity of Christian philosophy. Keller makes the case that following Jesus is not only defensible but is the best way to view the world. Topics in this section include the clues of God, the problem of sin, the historicity of the resurrection, and the beauty of the Trinity. The line of thinking in this section largely follows in the vein of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which is a major inspiration for Keller’s work.
Tim Keller has written an excellent holistic approach to apologetics in The Reason for God, integrating history, philosophy, literature, science, and theology in a cohesive defense of biblical Christianity. While some areas could use more detail, Keller does a good job of citing more detailed analyses in his endnotes. This book is an excellent starter for Christians interested in learning how to defend their faith or for skeptics of Christianity seeking an intelligent Christian perspective.
Our next Book Club will be in July, where we will discuss Not My Will, by Francena H. Arnold.