Led up the garden path by Timothy Keller

Recently I saw a book called Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller. I readily admit I didn’t read the whole book but, knowing Keller’s penchant for Calvinism, I couldn’t help but read the chapter called The Sovereignty of God.

As you would expect, there are the common explanations that suffering is ultimately the result of human sin (Adam and Eve) but that individual suffering is largely mysterious as to the direct cause (Job).

What is more curious is his use of David Bentley Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami as he tries to explain how suffering is the enemy of God. Firstly because Hart is ardently anti-Calvinist (especially in that book) and secondly because this makes little sense on a Calvinist worldview. How can something God divinely authors and decrees be described as his enemy? Keller, in my opinion, offers us little of a response.

What is even more curious is that Keller gives just two pages to explain compatibilism to his audience. I have already claimed in numerous previous blogs that this is one of the fundamental issues that causes the Calvinist a huge intellectual problem and this is why it is sad to see it treated so very briefly.

In the key paragraph Keller states:

What do we mean, first, when we say that God is sovereign over history and therefore over suffering? The doctrine of the sovereignty of God in the Bible has sometimes been called compatibilism. [227] The Bible teaches that God is completely in control of what happens in history and yet he exercises that control in such a way that human beings are responsible for their freely chosen actions and the result of those actions. Human freedom and God’s direction of historical events are therefore completely compatible. To put it practically and vividly – if a man robs a bank, that moral evil is fully his responsibility, though it also is part of God’s plan.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering p.140

Keller goes on to assert that this should be understood quite differently to some Islamic and ancient Greek ideas of fate but, if you think about it, it’s pretty tough to see how.

How on earth can God “completely control” (not partially control or merely know in advance) each and every individual action that takes place in the universe and yet still hold such agents fully responsible for their actions? They are doing what he has decreed!

I confess that I love Calvinist analogies and the robber analogy doesn’t disappoint. Now imagine that same man robbed the bank because he was literally forced to by some other agent (person). How on earth can the robbery be his responsibility? Even the most incompetant solicitor would argue for dimished responsibility in this case.

Now here comes the sneaky bit… A few sentences later Keller explains:

God’s plan works through our choices, not around or despite them. Our choices have consequences, and we are never forced by God to do anything – we always do what we most want to do. God works out his will perfectly through our willing actions.

I think Keller has been sneaky here myself. Calling it God’s plan makes it sound more compatible with the man’s action than if he were to admit it was God’s will or decree. Once you call it that it becomes much harder to explain how it could possibly be compatible. It also becomes harder when you remember that God has given us our natures and desires by his own sovereign decree as well. You desire what you desire because God has decreed you will desire it. But Keller is not about to make that clear to his popular Christian audience. Now the robber analogy should make it clear that the robber robs according to his own desire and will but that this desire and predisposition to do such an act has been created by some other agent’s source other than his own so that the other agent’s will is achieved. Keller doesn’t go back to his own analogy to spell this out and it’s no surprise he doesn’t.

Good luck finding a Calvinist who can explain compatibilism… this is where you will be told about divine mysteries and the fallen nature of man’s understanding. The mystery card is played by all people who believe irrational things!


Footnote 227 recommends D.A. Carson and J.I. Packer for further reading on compatibilism. If Keller is in agreement with these two it would indicate he is an inconsistent Calvinist as Jerry Walls puts it. For a refutation of Carson and Packer see:



About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Calvinism, Free Will, Theodicy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Led up the garden path by Timothy Keller

  1. randystarkey says:

    Yes. Exactly. So true. Keller does “soothing with semantics” but in actuality it’s a true contradiction thus one side of the contradiction is not true. Obviously to me it’s the side of the divine robotic decree that is the untrue portion. It steals love, relationship and more.

  2. SteveK says:

    “he was literally forced to”

    If this were the case then we would not be free agents at all with the ability to carry out our free choices. We would literally be forced to do the things we do. So it seems this robber analogy swings too far in the other direction.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      It may seem so Steve but it’s not unfair to Calvinism at all. What Calvinists are saying is that what happens happens because God has decreed it will happen. Many people don’t realise this. They define free-will in an odd way you see. They think someone is acting freely if they are doing what God has decreed for them to do. And this is the problem. It’s hard to then see how on earth individuals can be accountable for their actions since they are doing what God has decreed for them to do. This is where the Calvinist shrugs their shoulders and cries “mystery”! It’s not a mystery. It’s completely illogical. Calvinism is an irrational form of Christianity.

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