Tim Keller is a respected, reformed Bible teacher and pastor. I personally have enjoyed his ministry and appreciate what his church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, is doing for the kingdom. He is coming out with a new book on the "tale of two sons - the parable of the prodigal son." I recently listened to a message of his concerning this parable which I found helpful and instructive. It is when I read the title of his book and an interview with him about this book that the theological red flags went up. Even Tim recognized that the title can make someone stop and think for a minute because of its odd language.
So is God the Prodigal God beloved? Is He? Is that an apt and accurate definition of who He is and what He has done? Does the Bible clearly teach or refer to God as "The Prodigal God"? Anywhere? The simple answer to all of these questions is a resounding no.
One of the duties of any pastor is to exposit Scripture faithfully, cutting straight its truths, and giving the "sense of it" to the people (cf., 2 Tim. 4:1-5, Neh. 8:8, 2 Tim. 2:15). Scripture is God's self-revelation to man. Therefore, we must be careful to handle it as a workman, approved unto God, who has no need to be ashamed by trying to reinvent God (His attributes, His Word, or His character) by our own sentimental or cultural proclivities and experiences. We don't have that privilege or freedom to make Scripture mean whatever we want it to mean. We must speak of Him rightly as He has spoken about Himself lest we be guilty of taking His name in vain and representing a God to people that is not described in Scripture.
It is because of this I felt the need to write a comment on a blog that had interviewed Keller about his book. I posted the following comment last evening about this title of prodigal being used in respect to defining who God is. As a curious point of reference, I did a quick Google search to see if others ever referred to God in this fashion. To my surprise, the very first link was to an article written by the Worldwide Church of God in 1993 where it says exactly what Keller says - almost to the word. Though the WWCOG has changed many of its heretical doctrines to a more orthodox view, I did find this reference to them still a bit disturbing.
Gifted men of God, like Keller, know this and know better than this. When they flirt with pushing the edge of biblical truth by redefining God in today's postmodern terms out of the pragmatic emerging church framework, they make it difficult for the many of us who want to trust them in how they handle God's Word to do so. But as in this case, orthodoxy it seems was not the prime consideration; but relating to an audience, being clever, and cutting edge. IOW, pragmatics again.
Biblical terminology should not be stretched to a place that is foreign to the meaning of those words as found in God's Word. It can be very confusing for younger believers in the Lord, it can be gangrenous to the body of Christ in general, and the fallout to maintaining a right view of God compromised.
Here is my comment:
Again, there are many things about Keller's ministry I do appreciate and support - so please don't make your comments here on this something of a complete dismissal of everything Tim has written or does thing or an attack against his ministry. It is not meant to be that at all.[Keller said] "I don't know that the title is all that creative. The reason it makes us think for a moment is that so many use the word 'prodigal' to mean 'wayward' when actually the word means to spend extravagantly. In the end, the father (who represents God) outspends his prodigal younger son, in order to bring him home."
That isn't exactly accurate. While the word prodigal does mean "to spend extravagantly", it also carries the modifier of "spending recklessly or wastefully." And not only wasteful extravagance but a wanton immorality. Exegetically, the Greek word for prodigal means: dissolute and conveys the idea of an utterly debauched lifestyle. (MSB, page 1545, note under Luke 15:13).
Thus it is a fitting description of the younger son who wasted his life by extravagant and lascivious spending; but not of God. Nowhere does Scripture represent God as being "prodigal" by asset or liability of definition.
I find that Keller does this repeatedly. He derives not his meaning from the text of Scripture, but from a modern cultural subtext that he tries to fold back into the meaning of the text. IOW, he fails to define his terms biblically and it makes him less effective.
While I liked much of Keller's sermon itself, the leap to this title is a grand canyon jump. In fact, I have read a few Roman Catholic authors who have referred to Jesus as the "prodigal of heaven" with the same kind of logic. But this is a blasphemous inference taken at face value.
Sometimes in our desire to be clever or unique, we unwittingly depict God in a manner that He has not chosen to depict Himself throughout the Scriptures. He is Redeemer; Savior; Lord; Rock; Refuge; Shepherd; etc. - but one thing He is not... He is not prodigal.
Grace and peace,
2 Cor. 4:5
It is meant as a look biblically as faithful Bereans. If we are going to recover a reverence for God in ministry and honor Him in spirit and truth, then we must be careful with how we define Him in our songs, sermons, books, CD's, and blogs.
In closing, here is how Tim's publisher defines this book:
"Taking his trademark intellectual approach to understanding Christianity, Keller uncovers the essential message of Jesus, hidden in plain sight for centuries."Really? We will all see Christianity, not just this parable, but the entirety of Christian faith and doctrine in a whole new way? When anyone thinks what they are presenting is so "new" that it will seek to unveil the faith in a whole new way like never before, they are on very thin doctrinal ice. This is typical of those within the emerging and emergent church to make this claim. Also, the message of this parable has not been "hidden in plain sight for centuries." That is not only an inaccurate statement, but an arrogant one as well.
"With this book, both the devout and skeptics will see Christianity in a whole new way."
What do you think? Let me know your thoughts.