What I'm Reading

Timothy Keller by Collin Hansen

When I first wrote this “What I’m Reading” blog I never imagined it would serve as a testimony to Timothy Keller’s life and ministry. Like many of you, I was saddened to hear of his recent death. Keller’s writing and teaching ministry had a profound impact on the church in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

Hansen doesn’t paint an intimate portrait of Keller but explores the development of his thought life and teaching. I didn’t walk away understanding how he parented his children, the story or his pancreatic cancer, or a list of his hobbies. Instead, I’m drawn into his head and ministry heart.

This biography answers the question: “Who were the people that influenced and shaped Keller’s thought and ministry?” While this may be a one-dimensional approach to a person, Hansen turns it into a compelling narrative of spiritual formation. He invites us into Keller’s library and into his head. Here are some insights.

Keller had the rare ability to clarify and simplify biblically complex subjects into principles and insights that anyone can grasp. Simplifying the complex happens when writers and teachers move from the safety of a study to real-life exchanges with people.

Hansen describes how Keller’s first pastoral responsibility “ingrained the dynamic exchange between pastoral care and teaching.” He learned to ask questions, listen to people, and address the real problems of his congregants. Keller’s pastoral ministry shaped his teaching ministry that shaped his writing ministry.

“Keller preached to the heart as he taught the mind . . . Keller found that if he didn’t read broadly and deeply at the same time, his preaching grew stale and repetitive. . . .” His sermons feel less like stereotypical preaching and more like a “good friend instructing you in the context of a small group.”

Who shaped his preaching to the heart and the mind? One prominent figure was the eighteenth-century philosopher and pastor Jonathan Edwards. “Edwards combined the doctrinal preaching of his Puritan upbringing with the vivid images and metaphors of the new revivalism of Whitfield . . . logic, when fired with captivating illustrations, changes hearts.” Keller skillfully combined logic with vivid illustrations.

Appealing to the mind of his audience was complimented by Keller’s embrace of revivalism from his seminary professor, Richard Lovelace. This drive for spiritual renewal made him “prod his congregation away from complacency and toward revival.”

We can understand our leaders by what they read. Keller demonstrates that what we read and who we listen to not only shapes our thought life but forms how we minister to others. Hansen may not present a full picture of Timothy Keller but he reveals the people and thinking that shaped one of the most prominent preachers and teachers of the twenty-first century.

Thank you Lord for calling, gifting, and sending leaders like Timothy Keller. Keller’s life is a tribute not only to one’s pastoral ministry but to a writing ministry that expanded the Kingdom beyond his local church in New York city. It’s a great story about how what we read shapes how we lead and how we live.

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