I Love Tim Keller But I Don’t Hate Religion image

I Love Tim Keller But I Don’t Hate Religion

Religion gets a bad press these days, and not just from secular people. Everywhere you turn, there seem to be Christians lining up to denounce religious people, and to explain why Christianity isn't a religion at all. Jesus wasn't religious, we're told. The problem with the Pharisees was that they were too religious. A couple of weeks ago, a YouTube video went viral which began with the words, "what if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?" In many circles, the word "religion" is increasingly being used interchangeably with "legalism", and assumed to be referring to something that is "dead". And so on.

Well, the push back is on. Kevin DeYoung, at the Gospel Coalition, wrote a very insightful response to Jeff Bethke (the young guy who made the video), and then Jeff replied in a wonderfully humble way, admitting that aspects of his poem were not well-expressed, giving a tremendous example of how to handle correction, and living out the exact ethics his video was designed to encourage. The essence of Kevin’s critique was that Jesus was not really anti-religion - he went to synagogue, observed Jewish festivals, founded the church, inaugurated sacraments, preached a message and summoned people to follow him, urged the discipleship, teaching and baptism of his followers, and so on - and that religion is a neutral word in Scripture, which can have positive or negative connotations depending on the context. It’s easy to see why people might want Jesus to hate religion (it puts clear blue water between him and something our culture finds tedious or judgmental, and it paints Jesus as the ever-fashionable anti-establishment radical), but unless we are going to distort the meaning of the word altogether, so that it basically means “self-righteousness” or “justification by works”, then it’s hard to argue from Scripture that he did.
The puzzle for me, then - given how much I respect him as a preacher, writer and thinker - is why Tim Keller says this sort of thing so much. I was reading a chapter of King’s Cross this morning, and in just a handful of pages encountered the following statements:

Jesus declares not that he has come to reform religion but that he’s here to end religion and replace it with himself.
[The Jewish leaders] are tribal, judgmental, and self-obsessed instead of caring about the man. Why? Religion.
One paradigm is religion, which - as we observed before - is fundamentally advice.
In religion the purpose of obeying the law is to assure you that you’re all right with God.
[Christianity is] no kind of religion at all.

That’s just a few examples; there are many more. In comparison with Tim Keller, to be honest, Jeff Bethke has been low-balling it.
I say this is a puzzle for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to get Jesus wrong, as I noted just now. Jesus engaged in Jewish religious observances, initiated Christian ones, and his brother spoke highly of practices common to both; “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). For James, and Jesus, it is not religion that causes tribalism, judgmentalism and self-obsession, but the far more basic sin of pride. Keller knows all this, of course, but this leads me to wonder why he uses this word, “religion”, when it isn’t really what he means (he could have replaced it with the words “self-righteousness” or “legalism” in the above quotations and it would have expressed his meaning far better). In fact, given that Keller is likely to be far more influential amongst pastors and leaders than Jeff Bethke, you might expect more reviews of Keller’s book, and his (generally outstanding) preaching ministry, to have pointed this out.
Secondly, it also seems to get Judaism wrong. You don’t have to be a signed up member of the New Perspective to have concerns about the statement, “in religion the purpose of obeying the law is to assure you that you’re all right with God.” Again, unless religion is defined as “self-righteousness” - which is not how either the Bible or the Dictionary defines it - this is simply not true. For Moses, David, Isaiah, Daniel and many others, the purpose of obeying the law and keeping other religious observances was not to assure themselves that they were right with God (and they certainly didn’t see the law as “fundamentally advice”), but to live faithfully in response to the covenant that God himself had made with them, by grace. When the Psalmist says, “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97), he is not trying to assure himself that he is in the right before God; he is delighting in knowing God’s will, and living according to it out of gratitude and joy. So unless we are to define religion in such a way as to exclude both ancient Judaism and Christianity, which would seem both counterintuitive and rather bizarre, there are significant difficulties with Keller’s description of “religion” as the problem, borne out of introspective self-righteousness and leading to parochialism, pride and navel-gazing. At best, this Jesus vs Religion approach reinforces a common distortion of Judaism of the type Moore and Sanders rightly critiqued; at worst, it can (and, in my experience, frequently does) lead to a new sort of Pharisaism, whereby individuals and churches thank God that they are not like those religious people over there, not to mention a disdain for works in general, and a muddled message to unbelievers (“this lot gather weekly, worship, catechise, use sacraments, and call themselves a church, but they say Christianity’s not a religion? It sure looks like one.”)
I am a big fan of Tim Keller. I’ve read his books, been to his church, downloaded his sermons, blogged and done seminars on his way of doing apologetics, and I’m writing this post while my Leadership Training students study his church growth paper all around me. As a man and as a minister, I give him a huge thumbs up. But I think that an uncritical acceptance of what he says about Jesus, the law and religion risks causing people to misunderstand all three. As Jeff Bethke might otherwise have said, I love Tim Keller, but I don’t hate religion.

Andrew’s next book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, will be released in April, published by IVP.

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