An Examination of Tim Keller’s Views on the Trinity

Vimeo – Redeemer City to City

A week ago, I wrote an article that examined five common criticisms I have heard about noted pastor and Christian author Tim Keller. My original intention was to look at five more criticisms this week, but my thinking has changed since that time. I have decided that my stated purpose of providing an in-depth analysis would be better served by giving a longer treatment to one item rather than brief discussions of multiple points, which inevitably leave some things out.

I had intended to look at complaints made by some people that 1) Redeemer City to City and/or The New York Project plant churches that are not Reformed in their theology, 2) Tim Keller is either patriarchal or egalitarian in his view of gender roles, 3) Tim Keller holds to a view of creation and human origins that is not compatible with the Reformed confessions, and 4) Tim Keller promotes the New City Catechism at the expense of more traditional catechisms. By no means am I suggesting that those are not important issues, but I feel that my time would be better spent focusing on something that is of particular significance for the Church today: Trinitarian theology.

Before I proceed, let me just remind you that I made five separate disclaimers at the beginning of the previous article, which I highly encourage you to read. I should also note that I had an error in the original version of that article. I stated that Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City does not ordain any of its deacons. In fact, they ordain male deacons but not female deacons. I was kindly informed of this discrepancy by a Redeemer staff member, at which point I sincerely apologized and made the correction. I know there are some critics of Redeemer’s policies within the Presbyterian Church in America who will not be satisfied with this explanation and have objected that the ordination ceremony does not follow the standard format in the Book of Church Order. At this point, I feel that I am in over my head with the PCA rules, so I will leave it to others to take up this issue.

What I will attempt to do today is summarize Tim Keller’s views on the Trinity as accurately as possible. You will find a few different kinds of statements here. First, there are things that Tim Keller has written, which present the clearest indication of his thinking since he would have had time to change them if necessary. Second, there are things that Tim Keller has said in sermons or interviews. These are still most definitely his words, but as these comments were made more extemporaneously, we should cut him a little more slack with regard to word choice. Third, I am including some quotes from other authors to whom Keller has personally appealed in his explanations about the Trinity or whom I believe have some similarities with his thinking. Fourth, I will provide plenty of my own explanations and interpretations, which are just that: mine and mine alone. Fifth, there will be some occasions on which I reference things that have been confirmed for me by a staff member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. I am very grateful to this individual who has helped to clarify some of the comments which I was struggling to understand. Please keep in mind as you read that those five different types of statements are present.

Having said all of that, let’s begin. I sincerely hope that what follows will be honoring to God and beneficial to the Church. I apologize for the length.

“Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independent of the Westminster Assembly of Divines” by John Rogers Herbert, circa 1847

The Confessional Background

If there is one thing about which all Christians ought to agree, it is the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. Without the Trinity, there simply is no Christianity. The fact that God is Three Persons is what allows Him to be a God of love from eternity past, existing in continual relationship. This is a point that Keller has made on numerous occasions, and it is very true. Any orthodox Christian today will tell you that the Godhead consists of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Two important statements of Trinitarian orthodoxy were developed in the early centuries of the Church: the Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed. For the sake of time, I will not quote them here, but please reference them if you are unfamiliar with what they have to say.

What I will quote in its entirety is the second chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Not only is this the standard by which all PCA ministers are bound, but I also find it to be one of the best descriptions of the Trinity I have ever read.

  1. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and within, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

  2. God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them.

  3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Point three in that section is particularly important, as it lays out the standard orthodox description of the Godhead as consisting of “three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity”, with the Father as begetter, the Son as eternally begotten, and the Spirit eternally proceeding. However, there are a few other things that we should note. Point one describes God as “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions”. It says that He works all things “according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory”. Point two also states, “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them”. Please keep these principles in mind as we proceed.

A Divine Dance

I first became aware that there was an objection to Tim Keller’s description of the Trinity when I read a complaint about his book The Reason for God. This is a largely apologetic work that was released in 2008 and aimed to defend some of the primary Christian doctrines to a non-Christian audience. The passage in question begins by talking about how the Triune God is relational and appeals to John 17 to demonstrate that the Persons of the Godhead have been glorifying each other from eternity past. Keller notes that, “To glorify something or someone is to praise, enjoy, and delight in them…To glorify someone is also to serve or defer to him or her.” He then says the following.

What does it mean, then, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit glorify one another? If we think of it graphically, we could say that self-centeredness is to be stationary, static. In self-centeredness we demand that others orbit around us. We will do things and give affection to others, as long as it helps us meet our personal goals and fulfills us. The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this – perichoresis. Notice our word “choreography” within it. It means literally to dance or flow around’.[1]

Not everyone is happy with this description of the Trinity as a divine dance. Some have objected on the grounds that it erases any order or roles between the persons. Others have argued that the Greek fathers did not use the term perichoresis in quite this manner. Still others believe that the use of any non-scriptural metaphor or analogy to describe the Trinity is bound to lead to heresy.

I felt unable to come to any firm conclusion regarding Tim Keller’s views based on this passage alone, mostly because of the context in which it appears. The Reason for God is not an academic work. It is not a textbook on systematic theology. It is not meant to provide a final and definitive treatment of the Trinity. This talk of a divine dance is rather like how you might explain the Trinity to a child. Keller was envisioning that his readers would have little or no previous exposure to Trinitarian theology and that complex doctrines might fly over their heads. Therefore, while I am not a fan of the dance analogy, I was willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt when I first read it – at least until I could examine further evidence.

Unfortunately, Tim Keller has never written an academic work solely on the Trinity. This does not mean that he has no theological views on the subject: it simply means that they are scattered in various sermons and statements. I was able to listen to a few of sermons that Keller has given on this topic. That was where I started to get some additional context.

In the course of my research, I detected three separate but related in strands in Keller’s description of the Trinity. The first is the dance metaphor that I already mentioned. This may well be the least significant, although it has received the most attention. The second has to do with the nature of the glory of God. The third concerns God’s “other orientation”. I will attempt to go through these three in order, but at times you will see the points intermingling.

Other than The Reason for God, I could find only one instance in which Keller referred to the Trinity using the dance analogy. This was in a sermon titled “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” that he gave on January 15, 2006 as part of the series “The King’s Cross: The Gospel of Mark”. The main text was Mark 1:9-13. You can listen to the sermon free of charge here. This was actually the first time that Keller mentioned the divine dance. Here are some of the things that he said in that sermon.

If it’s true that this world has been created in the image of a Triune God, then ultimate reality is a dance. How so? Well, look at…When Jesus comes up out the water, the Father envelops Him, covers Him with words of love. ‘You are my Son, my love with whom I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit covers, envelops Him with power. And the Bible says that when you see this – when you see what Mark is showing us here…you are actually looking into the very heart of reality, the very meaning of life…the very essence of the universe, because it is what has been happening in the interior life of the Godhead from all eternity. It’s a dance. The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, according to the Bible, glorify one another. John chapter 17. Each one glorifies the other.[2]

He continued on the same theme.

Instead of self-centeredness, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are characterized in their very essence by mutually self-giving love…Each person in the Godhead does not insist that any of the others revolve around them, but rather, they center on one another. They glorify one another. They adore one another. They serve one another. They defer to one another. They put the interests of the other over their own interests, which means every one of them voluntarily goes out to circle and to orbit around the others.[3]

Already, you can see how this dance analogy is connected with the other two principles: the glory of God and what he here calls “self-giving love” but will later label an “other orientation”. Keller speaks of the Persons of the Godhead dancing because He wants to show that no one Person lords it over the others. He often uses the word defer to describe how they interact with one another. He also concludes that this is a dance that we are meant to join on some level. Near the beginning of the sermon, he said, “What we learn in these five verses is that there’s a dance, and the greatest need of your life is to get into that dance, and that Jesus is the one who can bring you in.”[4]

The Glory of God

Keller’s understanding of how the Persons of the Trinity seek to glorify one another is largely built upon part of John 17. He refers to this passage so much that I will quote it here.

Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.’

John 17:1-5

One occasion when Keller discussed these verses was June 12, 2011 in his sermon “The Triune God”, part of the series “To Know the Living God”. (It is available for purchase here.) “These three divine persons are not seeking their own glory, but they’re giving glory to the other two,” he said. “These three persons are not demanding love. They’re not seeking their own glory. They’re giving glory.” [5] He went on to explain more clearly what he meant by this.

In the heart of God from all eternity, each Person has been seeking not His own glory, but the glory of others, and therefore what Jesus Christ is doing on the cross is something that is actually showing us the heart of God…When Jesus Christ went to the cross, He was doing what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had been doing inside the Trinity, in a sense forever, which was each deferring to the other. Each seeking not their own glory, but the glory of others. And therefore there’s an unselfishness in the heart of God. There’s an other orientation in the heart of God that is profound…Inside the Trinity, Jesus had already been doing this. From all eternity, He’s been submitting: not seeking His own glory, but the glory of others.[6]

Let’s return now to the previous sermon, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. Keller had some things to say about God’s glory on that occasion as well. He discussed the purpose of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection and how it relates to both glory and happiness. He also anticipated an objection to his argument.

Because God does not seek His own glory, but seeks the glory of others…because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are giving glorifying love to one another, God is infinitely happy. He’s infinitely happy because He does not seek His own glory, but He seeks the glory of others. That’s why He’s infinitely happy. Because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are mutually doing that with one another. Ah, you say, but wait a minute! Wait a minute! If I say to you God does not seek His own glory, but the glory of others, and then you open up the Bible – wait a minute! Wait a minute! Every single page, He’s telling us, ‘Glorify me. Serve me. Adore me. Praise me.’ Every page!

I want you to consider this. When Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for our sins, what was He getting out of it? Oh, you say, He was getting worshippers…He already had that. He already had glorifying love. What did He get out of us? What did He get from dying for us? What was the benefit? Nothing! Which means, at that point, He began to glorify us. He circled us. He orbited around us: Jesus Christ. Now, it’s what He was doing from all eternity with the Father and the Son, but now He moves out to do it to us, and He honors us, and He centers on us, and He unconditionally loves us. He loves us not because He gets anything out of it, but just for who we are.[7]

I must confess that after hearing these two sermons, I was a bit confused about Tim Keller’s view of the glory of God and the point of salvation history. Was it correct to speak of God not seeking His own glory, but the glory of others? Was it correct to speak of the atoning death of Christ as something that was meant to glorify human beings and allow the Trinity to circle around them? Certainly, Jesus emptied Himself of glory by taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-7), and He said that He would give of His glory to those who would believe (John 17:20-22). However, Jesus also asked the Father to glorify Him (John 17:5).

Remember back to the words of the Westminster Confession: God is “working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory”. (WCF 2.1) He is “not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them”. I began to wonder if Tim Keller’s arguments stood in agreement with those statements. It was a bit hard to tell. Then the Redeemer staff member with whom I had been in contact pointed me to a second sermon on John chapter 17 given very recently. (You can purchase it here and see a video preview.) It is similar in many ways to the 2011 sermon of the same name, but contains a few important updates. For example, he said the following.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit do not seek their own glory. They seek God’s glory…The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit are all loving each other, deferring to each other, glorifying each other, lifting each other up. They don’t seek their own glory. They don’t live for their own glory. They live for the glory of God.[8]

He then went on to argue that if the Persons of the Trinity are made happy by glorifying each other, then we will be truly happy when we glorify God, for we are made in His image.

So I did not say you should glorify God so that you’ll be happy. I said you should glorify God because He’s God. Because you owe it. Because He’s due that glory. Because He’s worthy in Himself. And only in that way will you ever find the fulfillment that your human nature was built for.[9]

Therefore, part of the confusion I had could be explained by the fact that Keller was making a couple of distinctions. On the one hand, he was distinguishing between the Persons glorifying themselves and glorifying each other, or glorifying the Godhead collectively. On the other, He was distinguishing between the way salvation looks from God’s perspective and the way it looks from our perspective. The ultimate purpose of everything is the glory of God. However, in glorifying God and giving of ourselves, we find true joy, even as there is infinite joy in intra-Trinitarian relations. I think that is an accurate summation of Keller’s view. I do wish he had been a bit more careful with his earlier language, but I am glad to have some clarification now.

An Other Orientation

The concept of an “other orientation” has already been lurking in the background of those previous statements. Keller believes and teaches that the selflessness human beings ought to have is modeled by the Persons of the Trinity. He once compared this view of reality with that of the Enlightenment philosophers.

The essence of the Enlightenment was there is no authority outside of the self. There is nothing more important than you being true to yourself. There’s nothing more important than what you think is right or wrong: what you think is right or wrong for you. The self must be sovereign, and yet, we’re told here that that is an utter lie. That servanthood’s in the heart of God. That each of the three persons have always deferred to the other. They’ve always surrendered to the other. And you were made, and you will only be happy not when you seek your own selfish interests and live for yourself, but when you say to God, ‘Thy will be done, not mine.’[10]

“Obviously, what happens inside the Trinity is mutual sacrificial service,” he said in the 2017 version of the same sermon. “The whole idea of self exists to be abdicated.”[11] This presented me with a similar puzzle to the one I had previously faced. What exactly were the implications of these words? Certainly, the Son of Man came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45b) In that sense, servanthood is definitely in the heart of God. But was it right to make the comparison between how we should behave toward our fellow human beings and how the Persons of the Trinity behave toward one another? Between how creatures treat each other and how the Creator treats His creatures?

Here I must confess that I am a wary of any attempts to base human relationships on intra-Trinitarian relations. I have a particular reason for being wary, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. For now, let us set this issue on ice and look at some of the sources Keller points to when explaining the Trinity.

C.S. Lewis’ former home in Oxfordshire, England (Author photo)

Other Authors with Similar Principles

In this section, I will looks at the writings of six different authors, three of whom have been directly cited by Tim Keller in his writings and sermons about the Trinity, and three of whom might be seen as secondary links. In regard to those authors whom Keller does not mention, I will discuss whether or not I believe they have had any influence on his theology.

The first author that Keller always references when talking about the Trinity, almost like clockwork, is C.S. Lewis. There are two separate quotations that we should examine. The first one has to do with that concept of the divine dance.

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing – not even a person – but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and the Son is a real Person, is in fact the third of the three Persons who are God.[12]

This passage occurs in Lewis’ classic work Mere Christianity. Notice the similarities with Keller’s language in the beginning of this quote. Lewis speaks of God as “not a static thing – not even a person – but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” The rest of the passage contains a principle which I have never heard Keller mention. Lewis writes, “The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person…What grows out of the joint life of the Father and the Son is a real Person, is in fact the third of the three Persons of God.”

You could argue that Lewis is simply drawing on the concept that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, is the breath of God, the spirit of God, etc. However, there is also a similarity with something in Augustine’s writings.

But what is love or charity, which divine Scripture so greatly praises and proclaims, except the love of good? But love is of some one that loves, and with love something is loved. Behold, then, there are three things: he that loves, and that which is loved, and love. What, then, is love, except a certain life which couples or seeks to couple together some two things, namely, him that loves, and that which is loved? And this is so even in outward and carnal loves. But that we may drink in something more pure and clear, let us tread down the flesh and ascend to the mind. What does the mind love in a friend except the mind? There, then, also are three things: he that loves, and that which is loved, and love.[13]

Augustine made psychological analogies like this that were meant to help explain certain aspects of the Trinity using philosophical concepts. The analogy of the lover, the beloved, and love itself is one of the more famous ones. It is a very imperfect analogy, for it seems to reduce the Spirit to an impersonal force, even as C.S. Lewis comes close to comparing the Holy Spirit to the communal spirit of a trade union.

Now, to be entirely fair to these two authors, Augustine described his love analogy as merely “the hinge of some starting-point, whence to weave the rest of our discourse”.[14] Lewis noted that the communal spirit of humanity was not a person, whereas God the Spirit is definitely a person. I cannot say that I like either analogy, but I do have great respect for their authors. More to the point, the Redeemer staff member with whom I spoke specifically mentioned the analogy of Augustine as one that Tim Keller does not accept. Therefore, I do not think that we should consider that a real link.

Another passage in Lewis’ works that Keller often mentions comes from The Problem of Pain.

For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch the rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He ‘did that in the wild weather of his outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness’. For from before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience. And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the Father glorifies the Son. And, with submission, as becomes a layman, I think it was truly said ‘God loveth not Himself but as Goodness; and if there were aught better than God, He would love that and not Himself’. From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever.[15]

There are two quotes within a quote here. The rather musical line about Christ doing “in the wild weather of his outlying provinces” what He had always done “at home in glory and gladness” is actually borrowed from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. Lewis was a friend of MacDonald, and like any good friend, he borrowed his stuff. The second quote is from the 14th century mystical work Theologia Germanica. Let’s not focus on those too much. Simply note the talk of self-giving, mutual glorification, submission, and abdication of the self. Lewis says that this spirit in Christ existed in eternity past, and Calvary was but the most powerful example of the Son of God’s self-sacrifice.

There is another author to whom Keller has personally appealed when speaking about the Trinity as a divine dance: Cornelius Plantinga. In his book Engaging God’s World, Plantinga writes the following.

At the center of the universe, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt each other, commune with each other, defer to one another. Each person, so to speak, makes room for the other two. I know it sounds a little strange, but we might almost say that the persons within God show each other divine hospitality. After all, John’s Gospel tells us that the Father is ‘in’ the Son and that the Son is ‘in’ the Father (17:21), and that each loves and glorifies the other. The fathers of the Greek church called this interchange the mystery of perichoresis (perry-co-RAA-sis), and added in the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of both the Father and the Son. When early Greek Christians spoke of perichoresis in God, they meant that each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being. In a constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the others.[16]

Notice here more language that is similar to Keller’s: the love of the Trinity is self-giving, they defer to one another, they envelop and encircle one another. This certainly seems to be where Keller picked up the connection with the Greek term perichoresis. The heart of Plantinga’s argument is the following: “Each person, so to speak, makes room for the other two. I know it sounds a little strange, but we might almost say that the persons within God show each other divine hospitality.”

I would have been remiss if I did not explore another possible link with Keller’s thinking. I was reading Derek Rishmawy’s rather even-handed examination of the Trinitarian dance analogy as used by Keller and others, “To Dance, Or Not To Dance With The Trinity?”, when I followed his link to a book review by Fred Sanders. I greatly appreciate Sanders’ writings on the Trinity. On this occasion, he was reviewing Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation for The Gospel Coalition.

Sanders points out a number of fallacies in Rohr’s work. Full disclosure: I have not read The Divine Dance, and based upon the quotations provided in this review I certainly will not be paying money to fund this author’s false teaching. It seems to me that Rohr has gone far beyond Keller with his use of the dance analogy and lunged into full-on heresy. It is also worth noting that Rohr’s book was released only last year, long after Keller made his statements about the Trinitarian dance. Therefore, if anyone is borrowing here, it is presumably Rohr. Nevertheless, I noted two similarities between Rohr’s descriptions and Keller’s. First, Rohr also appealed to the Greek concept of perichoresis and pointed out its linguistic similarities with the word choreography. Second, Rohr referred to an opening by which human begins could enter into the dance.

This 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev depicts “The Hospitality of Abraham”. The three visitors are sometimes seen as a representation of the Trinity.

Speaking of a famous icon that is often identified with the Trinity, Rohr noted that there is apparently an empty spot at the table where a mirror would have been mounted, thus suggesting that the viewer is meant to enter into the fellowship. The review quotes him saying, “Some mystics who were on real journeys of prayer took this message to its consistent conclusion: creation is thus ‘the fourth person of the Blessed Trinity’! Once more, the divine dance isn’t a closed circle—we’re all invited!” Sanders concludes that this quote ought to set off alarm bells in our minds, and I agree. The trouble is, Keller has said “the greatest need of your life is to get into that dance, and…Jesus is the one who can bring you in.”[17] No, he did not mention anything about a “fourth person of the Trinity”, but I still felt a nagging need to verify that Tim Keller did not agree with Rohr. I asked. I was assured that he did not. More to the point, he has not even read Rohr’s book.

One theologian whom I have never heard mentioned in the same breath as Tim Keller (which is not to say that it has never happened) is Jürgen Moltmann. His work The Trinity and the Kingdom is considered one of the main texts supporting Social Trinitarianism. Moltmann’s writings are not without their merits, but many orthodox Christians have criticized him for developing unbiblical understandings of certain doctrines. How did Moltmann speak about a social Trinity?

In the doctrine of the Trinity, perichoresis is used to capture the mutual indwelling of the equal divine persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Here also the Greek word hidrysis occurs, which emphasizes mutuality without mixing or separating. The divine persons embrace one another in love and exist in one another.[21]

In the eternal life of the Trinity there are simultaneously absolute silence and total whirlwind, just like the ‘eye’ of a hurricane. More importantly, there is on the level of the Trinitarian perichoresis no priority of the Father, but total equality of the divine persons. You cannot even number them as number one, two, or three. The very special suggestion of perichoresis is that the divine persons are ‘habitable’ for one another, giving one another open life-space for their mutual indwelling. Each person is indwelling and room-giving at the same time. Each person is in ecstasy out of itself in the other. This is the meaning of each person’s ‘ek-sistence’ (the Greek roots mean to ‘stand outside’). It is love that draws a person so much out of himself or herself that the person ‘ek-sists’ in the other.[22]

These selections are from a chapter that Moltmann contributed to a collection of Trinitarian essays. (Read the whole thing here.) There are certainly portions of these two Moltmann quotes that bear little or no resemblance to Keller’s teachings, yet it is interesting that the two men do have some things in common. Both appeal to the Greek term perichoresis, which we have now seen many times. Both discuss the love between the Persons and the infinite joy that this creates. Both speak of a mutuality and equality between the Persons. Moltmann also describes an “ek-sistence” of the Trinitarian Persons, which sounds somewhat similar to the “other orientation” mentioned by Keller, though not exactly the same. I should note here that Keller never cites Moltmann in regard to Trinitarian theology, and any influence would likely be secondary rather than direct. I am by no means claiming that Keller received his view of the Trinity from Moltmann. I am merely noting some basic similarities.

I would like to look at one more author who has clearly influenced Tim Keller’s thinking on the Trinity: his friend D.A. Carson. Keller referenced Carson’s commentary on the Gospel of John in his sermon on the Trinity in May 2017. It is from Carson that he seems to have taken the phrase “other orientation”. Keep in mind, I am not criticizing Keller for borrowing ideas. If there is one area of study where completely new ideas tend to be a bad thing, it is surely theology. The paragraph to which Keller has appealed is taken from Carson’s The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. I am going to quote here from a slightly edited excerpt that appeared in Ligonier’s Tabletalk in 2012. That way you can follow the link and read it yourself.

The love of Allah is providential, which is one of the ways the Bible speaks of God. But here there is more: in eternity past, the Father loved the Son, and the Son loved the Father. There has always been an other orientation to the love of God. All the manifestations of the love of God emerge out of this deeper, more fundamental reality: love is bound up in the very nature of God. God is love.[18]

There you have the origin of the phrase “other orientation”. I hardly think anyone would criticize the statement that “God is love”. They may have some difficulty with the other orientation. However, what really caught my attention was the very next paragraph in Carson’s work. Keller never quotes from it, and it is unclear if this has influenced his thinking at all, but here is the link that Carson makes.

We must mark well the distinction between the love of the Father for the Son and the love of the Son for the Father. The Father commands, sends, tells, commissions, and demonstrates His love for the Son by ‘showing’ Him everything, such that the Son does whatever the Father does. The Son obeys, says only what the Father gives Him to say, does only what the Father gives Him to do, comes into the world as the Sent One, and demonstrates His love for the Father precisely by such obedience. Not once is there any hint that the Son commissions the Father. Not once is there a hint that the Father submits to the Son or is dependent on Him for His own words and deeds. Historically, Christians avoiding the trap of Arianism have insisted that the Son is equal with the Father in substance or essence, but that there is an economic or functional subordination of the Son to the Father.[19]

Carson speaks of the other orientation of the love of God. He then immediately transitions into talking about how God the Son is functionally or economically subordinate to God the Father. Now, I want you to note that Carson insists that “the Son is equal with the Father in substance and essence”. This is not an argument for ontological or eternal subordination within the Godhead. It did, however, get me to thinking.

Subordination of the Son

About a year ago, a debate broke out within the rather small world of Reformed and evangelical theologians. The issue at hand was the doctrine typically known as the Eternal Subordination of the Son, or occasionally as the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son. (There is some disagreement over these titles. In my mind, they present a distinction without much of a difference, but I will attempt to use them both as appropriately as possible.) I’m not sure there is a dictionary definition for these principles, but the way I have usually heard them explained is that from eternity past, God the Son has been equal to God the Father in His Deity, substance, and glory, but He has been subordinate in terms of His function. God the Father commands and God the Son obeys. God the Father is in authority and God the Son is under authority. By implication if not explicit statement, the Spirit is usually in a subordinate role as well.

There has been a low-level debate about these principles for a very long time. You can see traces of them in the writings of theologians such as Charles Hodge and even, it has been argued, Jonathan Edwards. By no means do I believe that it has been the dominant view within Reformed theology, but it has certainly been a strong minority view. Keep in mind, the subordination described here did not begin with the Incarnation and is not limited to the economic Trinity, i.e. God’s dealings with humanity. It has been going on for all eternity and is part of the very nature of the Godhead, hence the term eternal subordination. What makes things a bit more complicated is that over the past few decades the doctrine of eternal subordination has been steadily linked with an understanding of human gender roles. ESS/EFS now has a strong presence in complementarian circles, though it is certainly not taught by all complementarians.

As I said, people had been criticizing this doctrine for some time, particularly women who saw it popping up in Christian literature that was aimed at them. The issue really came to a head last summer when Liam Goligher, minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and Carl Trueman, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, published articles that severely criticized this doctrine. By “severely criticized”, I mean severely severely. You can read those initial articles here, here, and here. Many more followed.

Two of the main ESS proponents that were named in those blog posts were Wayne Grudem, professor at Phoenix Seminary, and Bruce Ware, professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Both of them wrote rebuttals in which they defended their interpretation of scripture. You can read those articles here and here. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, an organization to which I have contributed articles, has published a helpful “best of” list for the Trinitarian debate. No, this is not the greatest hits album you should give grandma for Christmas.

When all of this was going on last summer, I was blissfully unaware. I was stuck in the 12th century writing my series of historical fiction novels. Ah, those were simpler times! However, I eventually became are of the controversy and have since come to appreciate that it is rather a big deal. Not everyone agrees with me that it is a big deal. It is certainly more difficult for the average person to wrap their head around than a debate over whether we should dunk or sprinkle. It may be hard to see how a seemingly small difference in our doctrine of God could have much of an effect on our daily lives, but the fact of the matter is that there is nothing more foundational to the Christian faith than 1) how we view God and 2) how we view man. Our understanding of the Trinity is not a secondary issue. It has an effect on everything we do.

I believe that Tim Keller would agree with this assessment. He has said as much on more than one occasion. In his sermon “The Triune God” earlier this year, Keller stated, “To understand what the Triune God is all about would be to understand ultimate reality and what life is all about.” [20] Those seem like awfully high stakes.

The Social Trinity, ESS, and Other Theories

Here we must turn our attention to a conversation that occurred at the 2012 Gospel Coalition council meeting. Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, and John Piper all joined in a panel discussion on a very important topic: “Only the Triune God is Love”.

I appreciate Keller’s comments in the opening of this video. He talks about how the doctrine of the Trinity has not received as much focus in evangelical circles as, say, the doctrine of salvation or our understanding of Christ’s Atonement. All three gentlemen have some good things to say here. It was when I neared the end of this video that I started to become more concerned. Keller was asked a question about the “social Trinity”. You will find his comments on this subject beginning at about the 13 minute mark of the video above, but I encourage you to watch the whole thing so that you understand the context. Here is a portion of Keller’s remarks on that occasion.

The Social Trinity is…usually it’s put forth, by the way, I think as a basis for talking about egalitarian relationships: that it’s non-hierarchical, at least in the ontological Trinity, that they’re all three equal. And yet, I must say, one of the ways in which I preach it is that servanthood does not demean you, because for Jesus to serve the Father and the Holy Spirit to never speak of Himself but to only show us Christ…If that doesn’t demean the Deity of those Persons, then why in the world couldn’t you decide, ‘It’s my place to be a subordinate. It’s my place to submit, because Christ has done it.’ So I have never understood how the relationships between…I mean, it’s true that there’s an ontological and an economic Trinity. I’ve always known that. But the fact is that Jesus and the Holy Spirit do submit to one another, and so I think it’s a case for servanthood. To me it’s not a great case for egalitarianism.[23]

Keller is responding here to a particular way in which social Trinitarian ideas have been applied: to support the notion of egalitarian relationships between men and women, presumably in marriage and in the Church. (Keller does not specify in the video, but these are two common applications.) It is worth noting that in his remarks, Keller never suggested an ontological subordination of one or more Persons of the Trinity. He repeated what he has always taught: that servanthood is part of the very nature of the Trinity. However, my ears perked up a little when I heard him say, “It’s my place to be a subordinate. It’s my place to submit, because Christ has done it.” Now, Keller was not specifically saying that women alone are subordinate or God the Son alone is subordinate. My concern arose not so much from his conclusions, but from the similarity that his language bears to that used by many ESS advocates.

Based purely upon his sermons, I had little reason to suppose that Keller would have supported ESS and/or EFS. He speaks of members of the Trinity deferring and serving, yes, but never of authority relationships within the ontological Trinity. Nevertheless, I had some reason to be concerned when I heard D.A. Carson’s immediate response to that Keller quote. In the same panel discussion, Carson made what I believe is a clear endorsement of the doctrine of the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son.

The argument against that that is often put is that if all the subordination passages – it is argued, falsely in my view – have to do with the economic Trinity, that is, as God has manifested Himself in space time…So at this point, Jesus is the God-Man. He’s somehow limited in some ways as a human being…But the fact of the matter is that John makes it clear that the Father sends the Son. If He sends the Son, then you’re talking about Him sending Him before He became a human being. He sends Him back from eternity past. This is the Father’s own design from eternity past. And there the relationship, the dynamic is always one-way. The Father sends, the Son obeys. And to talk about this as some theologians do, as mutually reciprocal deference, is hiding in fact a real distinction in the way the command goes. ‘I have come to do my Father’s will. I always do those things that please Him,’ Jesus says. And the Father doesn’t turn around and say, ‘Oh yes, that’s very good, and I always do those things that please Him too.’ I mean, it just doesn’t work that way. From eternity past, this was God’s design. But this does not in any sense diminish the Son or take away from His status as one with God.[24]

Note how Carson explicitly rejects the notion that Christ’s subordination is only part of the economic Trinity or only occurred as a result of the Incarnation. He uses the phrase “eternity past” to describe the origins of that situation. He then makes the standard disclaimer that this in no way diminishes the Son’s status within the Godhead. Was Carson simply being unclear? Does he still hold to this belief? Is it really what he meant to teach? I suppose that all of these things can be debated, but his comments seem to me to be a textbook definition of EFS.

Vimeo – Redeemer City to City

What Does Tim Keller Really Think? What Do I Conclude?

To state the obvious, this is not an article about D.A. Carson. It is an article about Tim Keller, and we should not assume that his friendship with Carson means that Keller himself advocates the same understanding of the Trinity. Even so, I must admit that at this point in my research, I was in a state of confusion. There was no real proof that Tim Keller supported ESS/EFS or that his understanding of the Trinity was outside the bounds of orthodoxy, but there were enough of these little oddities that I felt a need to check. I reached out to that Redeemer staff member and asked a number of questions. They answered them all very graciously, and I must say that I was encouraged by what they told me.

They assured me that when it comes to the doctrines of the Eternal Subordination of the Son and the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son, Tim Keller “explicitly rejects them”. He holds to the traditional understanding found in the Westminster Confession of Faith that the Father is neither begotten nor proceeding, the Son is begotten, and the Holy Spirit is proceeding. At that TGC council meeting, his comments were meant to state that the Persons of the Trinity are not simply interchangeable. They are fully equal, but this equality of glory and Deity does not provide a basis for an egalitarian understanding of gender roles. This person also noted to me that while an ESS proponent would typically qualify their arguments by speaking of a functional subordination, Keller does not do that. His understanding of Christ’s subordination is that it does not stretch beyond the economic Trinity. Moreover, this seems to have been Tim Keller’s view for a very long time.

That is what Tim Keller really thinks on those particular issues. I have no doubt that people will continue to debate some of the other points I have raised in this article. On the whole, I do not find Keller’s teaching to be incompatible with the historic, orthodox understanding of the Trinity. That is not to say that no one can find fault with Keller’s descriptions. As I noted, his ideas do bear some similarities to social Trinitarian thinking, even though he rejects many of the conclusions of that movement. I was not entirely happy with the way He spoke about members of the Trinity deferring to one another, though he affirms that the three Persons of the Trinity share one united will.

The real difference between us, I gather, is that while I am happy to use Christ’s behavior as a model for my own, I am hesitant to use intra-Trinitarian relations as a basis from which to argue about human relationships. Why? Well, for one thing, we cannot fully comprehend the inner workings of the Godhead. We can only understand the Trinity as God has revealed it in His Word. For another, the inherent sinfulness of human beings and our naturally opposing wills mean that our relationships can never match the degree of unity and holiness in intra-Trinitarian relations. Nevertheless, I think what Keller is suffering from is not so much a lack of orthodoxy as a lack of clarity.

If I have one main criticism to make, this is it: we all need to speak with more clarity about the Trinity. I feel a sense of urgency about this issue. I think orthodox Christians are well aware that our cultural climate requires them to speak with clarity on issues of personal morality. I believe that faithful Protestants are generally aware that we need to speak with clarity about the Atonement and salvation. Yet when it comes to the Trinity, we have failed to grant it sufficient attention. Rather than speaking with the clarity of our creeds and confessions, we have developed a wide variety of theories about the Trinity, some of which seem less intended to glorify God and more intended to justify our own views about human relationships. I am not singling out one group here. I see serious flaws in the thinking of both Moltmann and the ESS proponents.

This is the hour for us to speak with clarity about the doctrine of the Trinity. We cannot imagine that if we ignore this or treat it as a secondary issue that it will somehow be kept from affecting our Christian piety and practice. I assure you, that effect is already being felt. I implore our leaders within the evangelical and Reformed communities to make clear where they stand on these issues, even if they disagree with one another. Such a debate would be beneficial for the Church. I understand the fear that growing opposition to Christianity of all stripes within Western culture means that we must band together in unity and leave smaller debates for another day. But friends, this is no small debate.

This year, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. That enormous doctrinal division came at a most inopportune time for Western Christianity. The Turks were invading from the East and threatening to impose Islamic rule upon central Europe during the same period that Martin Luther was writing his most famous works. The peasants were rioting in the streets of Saxony. A pragmatist might have suggested to Luther that he should leave such issues for another day, when the threat of war was gone and there was less civil unrest, but Luther knew that the fortress of Christendom would not stand without a firm foundation. He was absolutely right.

This is the time to shore up our foundations. It is a time to speak with clarity about our most fundamental doctrines. By no means should we do so in a spirit of arrogance. Our engagement with one another must always be joined with love and grace. I hope that I have achieved that in this article about Tim Keller. We must strive to be Christ-like when we engage with one another, but we must not fail to engage.

I offer my thanks to the individual who helped me understand Tim Keller’s views, and to you for reading this to the end. All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation. The quotes from sermons and discussions are my own transcriptions and may omit a few “filler” words or comments that trailed off into nothingness. I usually marked such instances with an ellipses.

[1] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008) pgs. 214-15.

[2] Keller, Timothy. “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in King’s Cross: The Gospel of Mark, Part 1 – The Coming of the King. Delivered on January 15, 2016 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Keller, Timothy. “The Triune God” in To Know the Living God: The Adequacy of God. Delivered on June 12, 2011 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

[6] “The Triune God” 2011

[7] “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” – Note that these two paragraphs were not directly sequential in the original sermon.

[8] Keller, Timothy. “The Triune God” in Jesus, Mission and Glory: The Lord’s Prayer for His Glory and Ours. Delivered May 14, 2017 at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

[9] “The Triune God” 2017

[10] “The Triune God” 2011

[11] “The Triune God” 2017

[12] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), pg. 143

[13] Augustine of Hippo. On the Trinity (De Trinitate), Book VIII, Chapter 10. Translated by Arthur West Haddan. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 3. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), pg. 643.

[16] Plantinga Jr., Cornelius. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), pgs. 20-21.

[17] “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”

[18] Carson, D.A. “The Love of God” in Tabletalk. 1 February 2012.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “The Triune God” 2017

[21] Moltmann, Jürgen. “Perichoresis: An Old Magic Word for a New Trinitarian Theology” in Trinity, Community, and Power, ed. M. Douglas Weeks (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2000), pg. 114.

[22] Ibid., pgs. 114-115

[23] Keller, Timothy. Remarks to The Gospel Coalition Council meeting on July 16, 2012.

[24] Carson, D.A. Remarks to The Gospel Coalition Council meeting on July 16, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *