5 Powerful Tributes To The Late Pastor Timothy Keller

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Since the passing of the noted pastor and author Timothy Keller late last month, hundreds if not thousands of tributes have been written and published across the web and the globe. To read more about Keller’s life and work, check out our obituary about him here and a column we published by Terry Mattingly here.

At ReligionUnplugged.com, we’ve also compiled five of the top tributes written since Keller’s death, highlighting the influence and incredible legacy he left on individuals, New York City and the Christian sphere.

This rather biographical piece may not strike many readers as noteworthy among the many Keller tributes around, but it does a great job highlighting Keller’s nuanced wisdom and methods of ministry. Luo highlights Keller’s popularity in New York City and America but proceeds to give some reasons for why Keller became successful. 

Luo paints Keller as somewhat aloof and remote, describing him as tall, imposing and famous from afar in the second paragraph. The third further highlights the big names Keller was associated with during various points in his life and his remarkable achievements in the 2000s. However, as the article progresses, the reader sees that Keller is just as human as any of us. Luo even notes that he was “bookish and socially awkward” in his younger years and details the humble beginnings of his ministry in northern Virginia and his initial rejection of the challenge to come to New York City in the first place. 

Keller and Redeemer stood out because they were a stark contrast to many contemporary, mainstream churches. “Redeemer’s services were almost defiantly staid,” Luo writes, “featuring traditional hymns and liturgy. But the sermons were wry and erudite, filled with literary allusions and philosophical references.” Luo highlights Keller’s holistic approach to running a church service and presenting the gospel and person of Jesus to Christians and non-Christians alike. While using a plethora of contemporary sources to illustrate his points and contextualizing the message of the Bible to modern-day New Yorkers, Keller remained steadfast to the core message he wanted to convey. 

Luo further notes that Keller placed a great emphasis on a kind of political neutrality, truly valuing Christianity over many views of the political left or right. Keller showed how some conservative and liberal policies can be derivatives of Scripture. In this piece, Keller is described as a humble reconciler of modernity and tradition, as well as political ideologies, with an immutable God.

Francis Collins, a well-known physicist-geneticist, stopped by Redeemer one Sunday afternoon hoping to meet Keller. Collins recounts a slight tension within him as he wondered if a theologian would readily receive him, a scientist, at a time when faith and science seemed to consistently lock horns for supremacy in the cultural arena.

Much like in Luo’s piece, a sharp contrast follows these introductory remarks. In Keller and Collins’ first conversation, Keller acknowledged the validity of the perceived friction between science and faith and proceeded to make the reconciliation of the two topics of high importance both for the sake of his congregation and, perhaps unwittingly, for the sake of Christendom itself. Keller wanted Christians to be ready to give a reason for their beliefs, a Christian command (1 Peter 3:15-16). 

To achieve this goal in this arena, Keller partnered with Collins’ BioLogos, a foundation that “explores God’s Word and God’s World to inspire authentic faith for today. … Our vision is faith and science working hand-in-hand.” Keller appeared in many of the organization’s gatherings, wrote a piece and featured in a podcast, discussing how the claims of faith and science are not mutually exclusive. All the while, Keller held the teachings of the Bible as fundamental to his thought. Collins writes that the Bible “spoke in relevant ways to our lives today, including science, and it was the guidebook by which (Keller) encouraged others to live, and by which he lived his life — a life that profoundly influenced me and countless others.”

Hidden within the narrative of this article is a picture of how Keller was readily available and looking for any opportunity to uphold and discuss the truth, wherever it could be found and wherever it needed to be brought to light. Keller courageously leapt into the difficult topics of discussion in modernity, deeply committed to his biblical worldview. 

Keller seemed undaunted by the challenges that his courage could bring. It is this kind of courageous response to the questions and challenges of modern culture and, eventually, pancreatic cancer, that left the biggest impression on Collins. As Keller approached his death, his commitment to answering these questions and living up to what he believed to be true remained unwavering. 

Keller’s humility and how others were surprised by it is a consistent theme in many of these tributes. Here, this is explicitly on display as Michael Wear paints a vivid picture of Tim Keller’s character: “esteemed and well-regarded, yet self-forgetful, lowly in service.” Wear opens his article remembering a time when he was working at the White House and Keller had been invited to read a passage of Scripture at the Easter Prayer Breakfast. Responsible for planning parts of the event, Wear notes:

“I had the ridiculous, embarrassing job of prompting Keller to send us the Scripture he planned to read by sending him some suggestions of my own. I would not have blamed him had he dismissed the email out of hand. … Surely Keller would have some learned explanation for why the passages I selected were not the right fit for the moment. … He replied that he liked the passage I had selected from 2 Corinthians, and that he would read that one.”

Once again, perceived expectations don’t seem to be exactly met when it comes to Tim Keller. Keller was an opportunist not only in the realm of apologetics but in receiving suggestions as well. He was capable of engaging in the ostensibly transcendent, intellectual realm of inquiry, but he never allowed that to stifle the down-to-earth kindness he displayed in everyday interactions with ordinary folks. To use Wear’s verbiage, it was both in the intellectual debates and the casual workplace where the kingdom of God was relevant and necessary. This was his consistent focus: stewarding what he believed God had entrusted him with, not allowing the allure of power to distract him from that mission. 

Wear concludes his article by noting that Keller’s vision was in fact ambitious and went beyond himself. Keller spent his last years training and investing in younger leaders, encouraging and training them to be ambitious for the Kingdom of God. “Tim loved the Lord with all of his mind,” Wear writes, “and he used his mind to love people.” This is the example that he set, and Wear hopes it is one that many will decide to follow.

Writing for the Gospel Coalition, which Keller himself co-founded, Ortlund best sums up his experiences with Keller as “refreshing.” Keller’s influence on Ortlund is based on Keller’s own commitment to walking in wisdom, evangelism and discipleship. Ortlud says, “By God’s grace, he was great at (these things).” In this article, the reader picks up on many biblical allusions woven throughout the vernacular, which is perhaps how Keller himself would have hoped to be remembered. 

Keller had a passion for engaging with popular culture. Ortlund recalls a particular, striking address that Keller gave in his hometown, where Keller “made the case that we don’t have to submerge our bold theological convictions in order to engage nontraditional people today.” Keller firmly advocated for bringing the timeless, immutable wisdom and gentleness of Christianity and using it to become transformationalists in a broken world, bringing goodness into it. 

Instead of becoming a passive observer of the world, Keller wanted to take steps to change and redeem it for the better. According to Ortlund, he called for a bold commitment to this kind of mission, and that is what had the most striking effect on Ortlund, who explicitly says he’s better off with Keller’s guidance and teaching.

Ortlund’s relentless emphasis on Keller’s foundational bedrock of the gospel is enough to make any reader’s hairs begin to stand on edge. Ortlund’s language is incredibly tangible yet concise, portraying Keller as a wise Gandalf-like figure who changed Ortlund’s outlook on his ministerial life. In terms of influence, Ortlund claims that Keller showed him how much bigger and better the kingdom of God was than he could have ever imagined. 

Ortlund describes being “captivated” by Keller’s teachings from sermon tapes on long drives from Georgia to Iowa and how his teachings profoundly affected the trajectory of the church Ortlund was pastoring at the time. Although Ortlund never had many interactions with Keller himself, his influence was so profound that Ortlund felt like an immediate beneficiary even from such great distances. Such was the impact of Tim Keller, expanding the horizons of those who knew him, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Tish Warren brilliantly narrates aspects brought up in each of the previous four pieces in this New York Times op-ed. Like most of the aforementioned pieces, she begins with an anecdote about Keller. This time, Keller was debating a secular humanist who struggled to convey his points clearly. In her words:

The secular humanist struggled with a point he was making and was unclear, something that happens often enough in public speaking. Keller could have chosen to go in for the kill rhetorically and make his opponent look foolish. Instead, he paused and asked, “Is this what you mean?” Keller then restated the secular argument in a clearer, better way, arguing against his own point of view.

The highlighted aspects of Keller discussed in the previous pieces we mentioned all culminate in Warren’s essay and are all encapsulated within this anecdote. Luo’s picture of the humble reconciler, Collins’ illustration of his courage, Wear’s description of the ambitious opportunist, and Keller’s refreshing and invigorating effect on Ortlund are all on display in this piece. 

Keller shows the reader once again, through Warren’s words, that he strove to be a peacemaker, and this endeavor was underpinned by consistent humility. He also sought to be an encouragement despite disagreement. Keller and Warren held differing theological beliefs, yet Keller was “a chief source of cheerleading and guidance in (Warren’s) life — a protective older brother or father figure, a life coach and a spiritual sage combined.”

Outside of the “Christian” label, it seems none of these writers could really pinpoint an all-encompassing word to best describe Keller. However, it is exactly this label that allowed him to love “his neighbors, even across deep differences, simply because he was a man who had been transformed by the grace of Jesus.”

It is the label and end goal of living as a true Christian that allowed Keller the nuance and steadfastness he has been known for. “Tim was criticized by some for being too theologically conservative, by others for being too liberal and by others for being too moderate,” Warren writes. “However, he never seemed bitter or upset by the criticism. He took it all in stride and encouraged me to as well, signing emails with advice like, ‘Keep that skin thickening!’”

Courage, humility, reconciling, refreshing, invigorating and most importantly Christian. This was Timothy Keller.





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