Is Tim Keller Down On Exegesis? (And A Few Other Clarifications)

Tim KellIt is unsurprising that when Timothy Keller brings out a book about preaching, lots of people will be eager to consume it. Preaching: Communicating In An Age Of Skepticism has drawn some notable reviews of a positive nature, but it has also raised a few questions. I am delighted, then, that Tim Keller joins us today on Unashamed Workman to give us an insight into his thinking.

Tim, in your book, you are drawing the preacher’s attention to the cultural and social environment in which they preach. Perhaps you can clarify for us, what are your views on exegeting texts as well as congregations?

Tim: There is no hint in the book that I believe exegeting texts is less important than exegeting the congregation. I point out that, since virtually all good textbooks on preaching devote vastly more space to exegeting Scripture than to exegeting listeners, I have tried to add a bit of balance in the literature by giving more pages to the latter. But I make it clear that understanding the meaning of the authoritative text is the most fundamental basis for preaching the Word.

This is a point well made, Tim, much of the preaching literature has very little to say about how our preaching context should affect the manner of our preaching. Now, a recent reviewer takes issue with the methodology that you sometimes employ in your book: namely, arguing points from historical and cultural sources. Do you agree that especially in preaching this approach is fraught with danger? If not, can you help people see the rationale for this approach?

Keller PreachingTim: In the book I say that every point the preacher makes and declares should be grounded in and should arise from the Scriptural text, but that (especially with listeners who don’t believe the Bible) you can use other sources that support the Biblical assertions. Paul did this of course in Acts 17. This can go a long way toward getting skeptical people to start listening to the Bible for the first time. I would not say that the preacher should make assertions or argue points from purely historical/cultural sources.

You have suggested in your book that preachers consider moving through Scripture at a quicker pace than preachers might have done in a bygone era. Could there be situations, though, where you might disagree with your own advice?

Tim: Certainly. But I’m not unique here. Dr Lloyd-Jones, for example, moved at a far slower pace in his Friday night expositions of Romans than he did on Sundays. He knew that the “Friday-nighters” were more mature Christians who were committed to listening over the long term. Sunday mornings he went through texts more quickly—the audience was more mixed in the levels of spiritual maturity. He moved most quickly of all in his evening expositions, where you had many non-Christians and visitors.


In his thoughtful review, Christopher Ash has gently critiqued your suggestion that the main point of the passage need not always be the main point of the sermon. I wondered if you had any response to this. Are you advocating a strongly different approach here, or simply making what you think is an important distinction?

Tim: It’s a gentle critique because I’m not recommending a strongly different approach. As you can see by my appendix, I believe that in sermon preparation you should indeed look for the main authorial intent and I also believe that a good sermon outline does need a “shaft” or central thrust to it. That is just a good discipline and it helps enormously in the development of clear sermons. This is especially important for young preachers to use.

But two other things should be said. First, in the history of preaching, plenty of great expositors (e.g. Calvin and Chrysostom) did not look for one main point in a text. Hughes Old’s volumes on the history of preaching show that the idea of the sermon outline and “one main point” developed in the medieval church, inspired in part by Greek rhetoric.

Second, I don’t think it’s exegetically defensible to insist that in every text there is only one point the author is trying to get across. Anything a Scriptural author asserts, whether it is his main point or a tangent, is divinely inspired and the proper object of exposition.

Tim, thank you for writing this book, and for taking time to respond to these questions!

1 thought on “Is Tim Keller Down On Exegesis? (And A Few Other Clarifications)

  1. Thanks for this – I really enjoyed reading Tim Keller’s book, and am glad to see Tim giving a little clarity to some of the critique that’s begun to surface.

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