Refuting Tim Keller & The Bad Theology of Eisegetical Social Justice

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Tim Keller on Social Justice

In March of 2012, Tim Keller – founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Chairman and co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition – preached a message titled ‘Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective.’

A cousin of mine shared a video of that message in August of 2017. So just a little over three years ago is when I picked it up.

At the time, I responded with the following comment:

“Based on what Keller is claiming regarding corporate and communal guilt, is any other American or global community besides white people corporately guilty?

By his reasoning, should minority communities marked by high rates of crime, especially violent crime, be racially profiled and their actions and statements discounted accordingly?

Of course the immediate answer from anyone who likes this Keller message will be ‘absolutely not,’ but that is the logical conclusion of what he is saying if he is correct.

What Keller is saying cannot only apply to white people or else this sermon itself is guilty of the self-same racism it claims to decry.”

As so often happens on social media, particularly with persons who disagree, my objection fell on deaf ears. My extended family for whom the Tim Keller message was particularly desirable did not want to hear about the logical inconsistencies of what Keller was proposing. Nor did they want to discuss the selective application of these purportedly biblical principles he espoused.

In short, I tried at the time to dialog with my misguided family members to no avail. Yet I was told we would have to agree to disagree. And that was that.

Fast-Forward to The Present

In the three years since my initial introduction to Tim Keller, The Gospel Coalition has become rather prominent. Resources from that organization are shared by people I know on a fairly regular basis. The prominent role Keller has had in that organization as its co-founder has made me wary, however. So I have done some research.

My research has led me to conclude that Keller’s message on Racism and Corporate Evil in 2012 was not an outlier. He did not just briefly dip his toes in these philosophical and political waters. He did not just then dabble with social justice. Rather, Keller has been consistently weaving his stance on systemic racism and corporate guilt into his theology and teaching for quite some time. And I do not believe he is ignorant of what he is saying or its implications.

Take his 2012 book Generous Justice, for instance. Keller goes as far as saying anytime he reads “justice” in the Bible, he writes “social” in the margin. This he does to remind himself that biblical justice is social justice. Social justice is biblical justice. And Keller is on a mission from God like the Blues Brothers to champion both together, or else neither at all.

Briefly, however, what Keller is doing here is not exegesis. It is eisegesis.

Tim Keller is literally writing a meaning into God’s Word which its authors obviously did not intend. And thus armed with his new synthetic truth, Keller sallies forth to do battle with all our prejudices and corporate guilt.

New City Catechism

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of Tim Keller by a friend. A positive reference was made to Keller’s New City Catechism. My dear friend wants to use said resource to teach youth group. Hearing this, I groaned out loud before I could stop myself.

“Oh, Tim Keller,” I said in passing.

I did not want to say any more with others present and risk embarrassing my friend or putting him in an awkward spot. So I texted him privately later in the evening, and explained my concerns about Keller.

But then I looked up Keller’s Racism and Corporate Evil message from 2012 again. And I re-read the exchange with my family from 2017. And I decided to share to Facebook a warning about Keller once again.

Here is part of what I wrote:

“Tim Keller’s positions on social justice and critical race theory are deeply problematic, to put it mildly, and they pervert his theology and both his reading and teaching of the Bible.”

After sharing this, a friend of mine who is a Project Coordinator for Baptist Global Response commented. He wanted to know if I was refuting any specific points from Tim Keller’s 2012 message.

I offered to. He accepted. I said I would. Now here we are.

Refuting Racism and Corporate Evil

The 2012 Tim Keller message, ‘Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective,’ starts with Keller poking fun at his title. Call me humorless, but calling this “a white guy’s perspective” is not so funny. Rather, it seems a naked attempt at pandering to an audience of color.

What are we supposed to make of “a white guy’s perspective”?

Keller apparently did not think “a pastor’s perspective” would be persuasive enough. He is just some old white guy to us.

And as Keller’s message develops, it quickly becomes clear that if this “white guy’s perspective” were that sin, repentance, grace, and salvation are individual matters first and foremost, we should dismiss him as only saying so because he is an ignorant white American trying to minimize his white guilt.

Keller says the following:

“Western people in general, and white Americans in particular, have little or no concept of corporate evil or they are actively set against the idea. I think it is particularly important for me as a white man to say “Look, that’s wrong.”

Keller then goes on to outline the message that will follow as covering three main points.

  1. Corporate Moral Responsibility, Corporate Guilt
  2. Systemic Evil
  3. How the Gospel Addresses Those Things

What Keller means by ‘Corporate Moral Responsibility’ is not so much responsibility for good deeds. He does give a passing nod to that. But he is talking here especially about responsibility for bad deeds.

By ‘Systemic Evil,’ Keller associates black women paying more for cars than white men, on the one hand, with police allegedly forcing a young woman out of Bible study and into prostitution. And also the Holocaust.

And, briefly, how Keller believes the gospel addresses this is that we may not be Christians if we disagree with him.

Corporate Moral Responsibility

To prove his claims about corporate moral responsibility, Tim Keller cites three passages.

  • Joshua 7
  • Daniel 9
  • Romans 5

Keller asserts that these three prove that moral responsibility can sometimes only be rightly understood as corporate rather than individual. That, or the entire Biblical narrative breaks down, and our Christian understanding of God and ourselves along with it, et cetera.

Joshua 7

In Joshua 7, an Israelite named Achan takes plunder and hides it under his tent in disobedience to God’s command. When the plunder is found, Achan’s entire household receives the death penalty as punishment for their sin.

Tim Keller alleges that “Western people – especially white Americans” object to this because Achan’s family is presumably innocent.

On the contrary, Keller says Achan’s family was put to death along with Achan because they had contributed to his guilt by shaping the kind of person he ended up being They allowed him to be that sort of person. Therefore, Achan’s family is complicit in his sin by serving as a major influence in the development of the bad character which enabled Achan to justify disobeying the clear command from God.

But not so fast. The text does not say what Keller says it says. As with writing the word “social” into the margins of his Bible every time he reads “justice”, Keller is eisegeting again. He is reading his own interpretation into the narrative, then insisting that his view is what the text asserts. But that is just not so.

To be clear, Joshua 7 does not provide lengthy justification for Achan’s family being put to death. Yet considering the totality of Scripture, it is probable that Achan’s family assisted Achan in committing this particular sin, perhaps by helping him hide the plunder. Just so, the driver of the getaway car is an accessory to the bank heist.

Yet if Achan’s family was put to death for Achan’s sin, how does that not contradict Deuteronomy 24:16? There we read:

“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”

Daniel 9

Moving on, in Daniel 9 Tim Keller says the prophet Daniel “confesses sins – repents for – and says it’s his responsibility to repent for sins that his ancestors did that he did not do at all.”

Yet from whence comes this confident assertion that Daniel did not commit the sins he repented of here? Does the text say as much? No. It does not.

What if Daniel is repenting on behalf of the nation because he is God’s prophet explaining the narrative for us?

Yet Keller marches on undeterred.

“When I lived in the South… I heard white people say, “Yeah, it’s a shame what slavery did, but I never owned any slaves so why in the world does anybody think that I as a white person now had any responsibility to that community over there at all? I didn’t own slaves.”

This is a classic bait and switch. Keller tells us Daniel repented of the sins of his nation. But we do not know whether Daniel was individually guilty of those sins also. He may have been. But before we can think too long about that, Keller quickly changes the subject to white people who never owned any slaves and black people who never picked any cotton.

Therefore, all white Americans should repent of the sin of slavery. Never mind that another assumption has stealthily slipped into Keller’s eisegetical march toward social justice. This assumption is that slavery was a sin.

Yet if slavery was a sin in and of itself, why does Keller not point us to the book, chapter, and verse that says so? He does not because he cannot. Broadly speaking, slavery was not in and of itself a sin. God never prohibited it. Indeed, God even made room for it in the Law of Moses.

Romans 5

In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul explains the doctrine of original sin. Because of Adam eating the forbidden fruit in Eden which God had prohibited, the whole human race fell. Consequently, we all from that point forward have been born with a sinful nature.

“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

Tim Keller takes this to mean that corporate moral responsibility is real and true and biblically just. It is unavoidable, really.

Keller says:

“The whole structure of the gospel is based on corporate responsibility.”

A little later, Keller continues:

“If you do not understand that, to some degree, Western people, and white people in particular do not realize to what degree they filter out all kinds of things the Bible says. They just do not see them or they resist them because of that individualism. It is not biblical. It is not gospel.”

Here again, besides an unnecessary swipe at white Americans, we have another bait and switch.

It is alleged that we are corporately responsible for Adam’s sin. Therefore, we are presumably responsible for all the sins of our other ancestors also. Therefore, white Americans in particular are corporately responsible for all the sins which white Americans ever perpetrated against persons of color, but especially the sins of slavery and Jim Crow.

Is that how it works, though? Does the doctrine of original sin transpose so neatly into each of us being guilty of all the sins of our race?

If so, it is a wonder that Keller only bothers to mention the guilt of white Americans.

Systemic Evil

Moving into the second main point, Tim Keller explains what he means by ‘Systemic Evil.’ And he lays out what he believes to be the four levels of responsibility within that concept.

Thereafter, Keller uses the Holocaust as an example. There were people in charge who set up and ran the concentration camps. Then there were the civic leaders who knew what was happening in the camps but turned a blind eye. After this, there were German citizens who paid their taxes and minded their own business. What happened in the concentration camps was none of their affair.

According to Keller, all of these people were complicit to varying degrees. They were all a part of the evil Nazi system which imprisoned, tortured, and murdered innocent people during World War II.

A question here, therefore, enters my mind. Is Keller not condemning the entire German nation as complicit in the systemic evil of the Nazi regime?

But if the entire nation was guilty, then the bombing campaigns against German cities which killed all of the above indiscriminately were presumably legitimate.

So also, the entire Japanese nation – civilian men, women, and children included – were complicit in the atrocities of the Imperial Japanese military. Therefore, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were presumably just and appropriate. Does Keller believe that?

Of Concentration Camps and City Councils

But Tim Keller next does something remarkable. He shifts from talking about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany to an all-white city council in a small Virginia town.

In this town, over a quarter of the population was black. And Keller implies that the predominantly white city council was to blame for the black part of town being poor.

“The fact of the matter was of course that the poor part of the city, the poor part of the town, the school over there, the black part of town, was being absolutely starved of resources.”

Keller says that the white city council knew exactly what they were doing. And he, as a young white pastor was complicit so long as he did not challenge this status quo.

At this point, without really explicitly telling us what he has done, Keller introduces two assumptions to the topic. The most important of these assumptions is that racial inequality is a product of racial bias and prejudice. The poor part of town being the black part of town is the fault of the white city council.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Critical Race Theory, or CRT for short.

And the second assumption naturally follows. It is the responsibility of the white city council to correct the inequality of outcome.

The black neighborhoods must be just as nice and affluent as the white neighborhoods. The schools in the black neighborhoods must receive just as much funding as the schools in the white neighborhoods. The only explanation for why this is not the reality is “systemic evil” – with the evil here being more specifically racism.

Systemic Marginalization

In the next section, Tim Keller defines what he means by ‘Systemic Evil’ a little more pointedly.

“It is a system that excludes and marginalizes people on the basis of race, even though most of the individuals in the system are not probably intentionally trying to do it. The individuals are not intentionally trying to do it, they are part of a system that is doing it, and therefore there is guilt and therefore there is systemic evil.”

Here Keller has completely abandoned any pretense of using the Bible to support his assertions. And now ‘Systemic Evil’ has nothing to do with individual actions. You are complicit even if you do and say nothing.

“Silence is violence.”

What is more, ‘Systemic Evil’ according to Keller has little or nothing to do with intent. He grants that “most of the individuals in the system are not probably intentionally trying to” “[exclude] and [marginalize] people on the basis of race.”

But here now, because Keller primed your emotional pump with references to the Holocaust, you may impulsively concede that you as a white American are to blame for high crime, low economic opportunity, and poor property values and educational opportunities in the neighborhoods of many black Americans.

You did not know you were to blame. You were not trying to oppress your black countrymen. No matter. Because you quietly go to work and mind your business and pay your taxes rather than working with Keller to overthrow, or at least overhaul the system, you are the problem. You are part of this ‘Systemic Evil’ as he has defined it for us.

“Have you got the eyes to see systemic evil or are you a typical white Westerner?”

Either agree that you are a racist, or you are ignorant and wrong and still also racist.

The Gospel v. Systemic Racism

In the third and final point Tim Keller makes in ‘Racism and Corporate Evil,’ he turns to how the gospel addresses these two problems he has just laid out – Corporate Responsibility, and Systemic Evil.

Yet he undermines this final section at the outset when he says:

“…You have got to keep in mind that just converting some individuals with the gospel if the system needs to be dealt with will not be enough to deal with racism.”

There are a number of pivot points here worth examining more closely.

First of all, the word ‘if’ here. That is conditional. Does the system need to be dealt with or not? Supposing it does, what does that look like? What specifically is Keller recommending?

Having been quiet on the proposals front so far, all we know is that Keller blames white America for racial inequality.

A democratically elected city council in Virginia, for instance, is to blame for the black part of town being the poor part of town. The presumptive solution is for the city council to be shamed until it either redistributes wealth, or else makes way for those who will.

The listener and reader can be forgiven for assuming that Keller is proposing a radical and retroactive redistribution of wealth and power.

Again, “if the system needs to be dealt with” in order “to deal with racism,” and the inequality is taken as proof of persistent racism, and is therefore evil, then it automatically follows that the inequality must then be exchanged for equality. Nothing else will do.

But of course Keller does not explicitly say here what he is proposing besides the gospel because if he did, it would sound an awful lot like Marxism. In point of fact, it would be an awful lot like Marxism too.

Three Ways

Even though Tim Keller essentially says that preaching the gospel is not enough, he proceeds in laying out three ways he believes the gospel should address this problem he has just told us we have.

  1. Understand gospel theology, as Keller explains it.
  2. Change your identity so you are less sucked into the social system around you.
  3. Do not be self-righteous and angry when you crusade against systemic racism.

Keller ends his message on this third and final point and argues that self-righteousness and anger are to be avoided not only because they are ungodly attitudes. Perhaps more importantly, anger and self-righteousness should be avoided because they will turn people off to the social justice warrior’s cause.

In other words, the real radical takes the long view. He patiently works for incremental change in a winsome way. In other words, do what Tim Keller does.

But let us consider the other two points, since they are more substantive, and remind me less of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

New Identity

Working backwards through the list, consider the second way Tim Keller says the gospel addresses corporate evil and systemic racism. He cites James 1:9.

“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation…”

But then shortly after this, Keller proceeds to unpack how and why he believes this verse applies here.

“The gospel takes white people and keeps them from really getting their identity from their place in society, and it takes poor people and it keeps them from taking their identity out of their place that has been assigned to them in society. That helps destroy the power of the system.”

As Joe Biden says, “Poor kids are just as bright as white kids.”

In other words – and not even paraphrasing Tim Keller very much either – we all just need to check our white privilege.

But consider the example Keller provides here. Take the case of Irish immigrants who were seen as a scourge when they moved to America in the 1840s.

Citing Bill Stuntz in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, Keller says:

“Irish criminals were tried by Irish juries. They were tried by Irish judges. They were arrested by Irish policemen and Irish district attorneys. In other words, the Irish community was empowered to actually deal with their own crime problem and they got on top of it.

These inner-city black communities are not empowered to do that because the criminal justice system, he says, is in the hands of white people.”

But this is patently false.

Last I checked, black Americans have judges, juries, policemen, district attorneys, legislators, mayors, city councils – the works. It is gross ignorance of the obvious facts to claim otherwise.

Tim Keller & Eisegetical Social Justice

The Gospel According to Tim Keller

The most concerning aspect of how Tim Keller says the gospel should change our approach to tackling our white guilt and systemic racism is where Keller attacks individualism as ungodly and at-odds with the gospel.

“To me, the reason that I have been able to get beyond my individualism and start to think in terms of corporate responsibility is because of the gospel.”

Set aside for the moment the subtle manipulation of language here.

Keller is more than implying that an individualistic approach to combating racism or treating people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds with fairness demonstrates that you do not really understand the gospel.

Clearly, if you understood the gospel, you would agree with Keller about corporate guilt and systemic evil. But if you as a Christian do not agree with Keller, you do not understand the Bible. You do not understand the gospel. And if you are comfortable with your own even passive contribution to racial inequality in America, you may not even be a Christian. Or, at best, you are not a particularly good Christian.

This is highly manipulative and dishonest. It really is a form of argumentum ad hominem. Yet it does get to the heart of the divide between two opposite philosophical visions: the collectivist and the individualist.

Keller favors the collectivist view rather strongly, I gather. Fortunately for reality, however, more is required to get at the truth than Tim Keller stating his preferences and opinions.

Biblical Individualism

Again, consider Deuteronomy 24:16.

“Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”

Yet there are many more concrete Biblical examples which establish this passage as more than just a shadow of unmerited grace, and confirm that God does not define justice the way Tim Keller is claiming he does.

Ten and Two

Consider the twelve spies sent into the Promised Land. Only two out of twelve – Joshua and Caleb – insist that the Lord would deliver the land and its inhabitants into the hands of the Israelites. Their reward is to not be lumped in as complicit with the ten who were faithless. Instead, they inherit the land after all the rest of their generation die in the wilderness over the next four decades.

Besides this, it is true that the entire generation except for Joshua and Caleb die in the wilderness as a consequence of their faithlessness. Yet it is no less true that their children inherit the Promised Land afterward.

In other words, the Lord’s mercies are new with that next generation. That next generation is not prevented from inheriting the Promised Land simply because their fathers sin against God by being faithless.

Therefore, Keller must be missing something about the way a legacy of corporate moral responsibility works in his reading of Joshua 7, Daniel 9, and Romans 5.

Lot in Sodom

Consider also Lot “whose righteous soul was vexed daily” when he lived in Sodom, a city whose wickedness ultimately resulted in fiery judgment from the Lord.

Remember how Abraham haggles with the Lord over whether he will destroy the city if there are still righteous persons living in it.

“Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And Yahweh said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Yet as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there remained far fewer than fifty righteous persons in Sodom.

The Lord sends angels to evacuate Lot and his family. During their escape, Lot’s wife looks back on the city with longing, despite having been explicitly told not to. Yet only she is turned into a pillar of salt, not her whole family with her.

Moreover, once they are clear, the two daughters of Lot conspire together to get their father drunk and sleep with him so they can become pregnant. So how righteous were they, really?

Yet for all this, it is remarkable that God does not leave the whole family in Sodom if what Keller concludes about Achan’s family is true, that they were put to death along with Achan because they had helped shape his bad and sinful character.

Ananias and Sapphira

For an example in the New Testament, remember Ananias and Sapphira selling their personal property and keeping back the proceeds. Their sin is not keeping the money they had received for selling their property.

Indeed, the Apostle Peter explains to the both the husband and the wife why they are each about to be struck dead in turn. And Peter does this separately and individually.

To Ananias he says:

“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?”

And to Sapphira he responds:

“How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”

Yet if Tim Keller were correct in his view of corporate moral responsibility and systemic evil, we should wonder why both the man and his wife separately are given an opportunity to come clean before judgment comes.


In conclusion, all we can say from the Scriptures is that Tim Keller is mistaken and has gone astray.

Tragically, Keller was not communicating the truth about God, human nature, the gospel, justice, or responsibility in his 2012 message, ‘Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective.’ And in so far as Keller is still teaching the same today, he continues to err dangerously.

Even if Keller were correct about corporate responsibility broadly speaking, however, he does not apply these principles consistently. Rather, he is guilty of the sin of partiality.

Keller repeatedly singles out white Americans for scorn, shame, and special application of these principles of justice he claims are inescapably true. Yet all Americans must be guilty if white Americans are. And all nations must be guilty if Americans in particular are.

Unfortunately, like so many other social justice warriors, Keller lacks self-awareness regarding the glaring inconsistencies in his own position.

Distracted with making others feel uncomfortable and putting them on the defensive, he expects no challenge. Or, supposing he is challenged, he has set up a fire break from the outset. Dismissing all criticism and dissent as ignorant, self-seeking white privilege, Keller is under no obligation to defend his claims. Nor will he need to consider valid criticism or rebuke.

All the while, the obvious truth is overlooked. And there is a kind of ironic privilege enjoyed when a message like this is preached. Keller plays fast and loose with the Scriptures, with truth, and with good taste. That he does so with impunity is due to the privilege which he enjoys derived from political correctness and Progressivism.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.