It seems that every theologian and his cat has felt compelled to post an opinion on whether Tim Keller is a Marxist. Yet after all of it, there is still something very important missing.
The root of this perturbation in the matrix was Keller’s NYT op-ed piece, “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.” The effect has been a roil of polarized articles and social media attacks answering the question yea or nay.
I’d like to say, “Let’s clear this up,” but there’s no easy way to do so. Besides, that’s exactly what everyone else claims to do, while in reality doing more sidestepping, whitewashing, slandering, and demagoguing—oh! the demagoguing these days!
First I’d like to point out that I have been criticizing Keller’s social theory since before criticizing Keller’s social theory was cool. I started personally in a 2013 article ironically directed at Carl Trueman (it is Trueman now who is most widely cited in defending Keller). I followed a few months later with another directed at Keller himself: “Frustration with Tim Keller’s frustration.”
In both, I showed the general idea that yes, Tim Keller is steeped in socialistic ideas and his social views drip with Socialism. Even his biblical exegesis is steeped in welfare statism.
“Steeped.” That’s a coffee-shop metaphor for “eisegesis.”
But forget 2013, Gary North was writing these same criticisms nearly three decades ago, in 1991 (see pp. 270–280 of Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy). I’ll return to this momentarily.
This brings me to what’s actually missing in all of this back-and-forth: biblical social theory. The more progressive side keeps dipping into Social Gospel-style transformationalism; the old school conservative side cries “Marxism.” The old school conservative side preaches pietism; the transformationalists cry retreatism, negligence for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. “How can the love of God dwell in old school conservatism?” they ask.
The progressive side has no biblical social theory. They even deny one exists. So they adopt from humanistic schools of thought and baptize the language. They always end up with socialism.
The conservative also has no biblical social theory. They also deny one exists. They apply “thou shalt not steal” selectively enough to deny they have any obligation to socialism. But they are inconsistent, compromised, complacent, and uninterested. They claim capitalism, but send their children to public schools, want tariffs and taxes, buy prescriptions with Medicare, and ensure Social Security remains the third rail of American politics.
They also do little-to-nothing in order to alleviate the condition of the actual poor, the orphan, the widow, the refugee, the unemployed, etc., even in their own churches. For these purposes, they send people routinely to the state, or ignore them altogether. Again, we always end up with socialism.
In short, neither side has ever developed a biblical social theory or practice. As a result, we are always at the mercy of whatever forms of welfare statism, statism, fascism, or socialism, etc., is prevailing.
In the meantime, the progressive side works hard to maintain the bare-minimum of creedal orthodoxy. Then they weasel in socialistic ideas and programs into their teaching and accepted practice. Socialism thus gets the cover of orthodoxy.
The traditional conservative side also works hard maintain creedal orthodoxy. It protects “the Gospel” at all costs. It ignores virtually everything else, except when anything else poses an inconvenience to them personally. Any whisper of social obligation—at least any they don’t like—is called “Marxism” or adding works to “the Gospel.” Then they practice socialistic programs anyway. Socialism still gets the cover of orthodoxy.
Neither side truly engenders compassion or voluntarism. Neither truly fights socialism. Neither will replace socialism.
As a result—and this is what I have been saying repeatedly all along—socialism will inevitably win in society.
Because we refuse, perennially, to develop a biblical social theory and practice, and begin to make the sacrifices necessary to implement it, socialism will win. It will not win because it is God’s will or biblical or right or anything else. It will win by default.
This idea suits most Christians just fine, ultimately. Even if the idea of losing in history sets their collar aflame, they still, after all, believe evil must encroach and win ultimately. They believe this world is doomed to the forces of evil. So why go through the trouble of trying to create a biblical social theory and then sacrifice so much, against so strong a mainstream, to live by it?
In short, what’s missing in all of this is the law of God applied to every area of life. What’s missing is a developed application to righteousness in business, government, and charitable care of the marginalized. What’s missing, further, is an optimistic view of social success. What’s missing is a transformationalism built on biblical standards and not pagan ones.
This brings us right back to what North said about Keller’s views in 1991, where he ends up calling slavery and dictatorship a “blessing”:
We are told that Joseph extracted “all the traffic would bear,” in the classic line of the capitalist villain in Frank Norris’ socialist novel, The Octopus. This was a blessing of God, concludes E. P. Clowney. For some, it was; in history, every blessing can become a curse, and every curse on the covenant-breaker can become a blessing if he repents. This is not what Clowney had in mind. Keller’s argument comes through as clear as crystal: the blessing was part of the new Egyptian welfare State. “I am sure everyone in Egypt would have called the program a blessing; the alternative was mass starvation.” This shows that Dr. Keller does not understand economics. The text shows that Joseph made the Egyptians pay dearly to stay alive. He bought their lands in the name of the State. He brought them into permanent slavery. He bargained sharply.
There was another quite obvious alternative: Joseph could simply have given away the food, year by year. The people would have retained their land and their legal status as free men. Later, Joseph gave food to his family; he did not enslave them. But Dr. Keller does not mention this alternative. Why not? I offer this possibility: because he is “insensitive” to the tyranny of the welfare State. The obvious does not occur to him when he discusses the workings of the welfare State. The same is true of Clowney. Clowney goes so far as to say that this action on Joseph’s part was an aspect of the prophecy that Abraham would bless the nations.
Keller assumes similar things about government programs and tyrannies in his latest op-ed. We’ve been saying this all along. But the real problem lies elsewhere—elsewhere closer to home, that is.
The problem is that while many of the conservative side would wholeheartedly amen this passage—when it is applied against the socialist Keller—they still send their kids to public schools, and still refuse to preach against the evils of State-monopolized tyrannies and bureaucracies in a host of areas. They also refuse to create private alternatives to any of these tyrannies. They still deny inequities against minorities and turn a blind eye to a host of injustices.
So we are stuck with gradually-creeping socialism as a byproduct of the pietist-humanist alliance. “Is Tim Keller a Marxist?” is not the right question. The right question is more like this: Even if Tim Keller really was a full-on, died-in-wool Marxist, how do you intend to halt Marxism?
The first step to answering that is answering this: What do you intend to do about your own socialism? Because the Tim Kellers of the world only persist in socialistic ideas when there’s a market for socialistic ideas in pulpits. What about yours? What about the socialist programs and institutions that persist and from which you benefit, or which you defend? What about those about which the majority of even conservative pulpits simply remain silent and give a pass?
The bottom line is that if you can’t address those, the left wins. This is precisely how the left wins. This is the very designed, prescribed method by which the left wins. Because conservatives are compromised on social practice and bankrupt on social theory, the left can easily manipulate society incrementally toward greater compromise. The left proposes, the pulpits keep silent. The left disposes, the right cries, squirms, then compromises again. Today’s liberal is tomorrow’s conservative. Today’s conservative is tomorrow’s barbarian.
Conservatives (I am one!) historically rarely see this. They cry “Bible! Bible!” and “Marxism! Marxism!” all day, but get dragged along with the cultural drift. Under the same guise, for the same reasons, and with the same slogans and insults, they fought for slavery, Jim Crow, Apartheid, and more. The same lack of biblical social theory, the same failure of voluntary charity, the same appeals to pietism, providence, and pie-in-the-sky, and the same compromises and default to humanism in society occurred then as will occur now—if we do not change.
One difference is that we can see it better now. We can acknowledge it, admit it, repent, and change—if we want to. The question is not whether Tim Keller is a Marxist. That’s just a boogeyman so we can feel righteous about ourselves. The question is whether we can be honest with ourselves about our own failures, get consistent, and then start talking about what the needed sacrifice looks like.