Monday, June 30, 2008

THE PRODIGAL GOD
...is this really a right description of who God claims to be?

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:

[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,
Steve
2 Cor. 4:5
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.

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."

"With this book, both the devout and skeptics will see Christianity in a whole new way."
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.

What do you think?  Let me know your thoughts.

Truth Matters,
Steve

71 comments:

Mike Riccardi said...

I'm right there tracking with you, Steve. I think your comments have been fair and even-handed, and yet not spineless and timid in places where rebuke and shepherding are needed.

I'd echo everything you've said.

It's unfortunate that Biblical fidelity has taken a back seat to shock value and cleverness.

Believing Thomas said...

"Taking his trademark intellectual approach to understanding Christianity, Keller uncovers the essential message of Jesus, hidden in plain sight for centuries."

I find this descript quite disturbing. The essential message of Jesus is hidden only to those who don't want to hear the truth. There's no secret to Christianity nor to God's heart to us. All one need do is read the scriptures.

I think our propensity toward explanatory or how-to books in Christian circles vs searching the scriptures and in-depth Bible study will lead to further straying from the truth. While I can't comment on Keller's book, not having read it, I can see lots of problems in the whole idea.

My wife and I attended a church briefly a few years ago, then left because their format changed to one of studying books by Christian authors, instead of reading THE Book, about the Author and Finisher of our faith.

We have far too many trying to delute the truth - we don't need another.

Repent of sin and Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ said...

The message of Jesus is only hidden to non-beleivers, His sheep will understand and follow Him.

Christinewjc said...

Dear Steve,

I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote. In this age of false doctrine masquerading as truth, SOMEONE needs to stand up for the genuine truth that instructs us in God's Word!

How timely it is (personally) for me to read your post.

I just completed an analysis of two authors who wrote, "Jesus for President" at my blog. Similarly, the red flags showed up in my mind as I read their skewed theology in that book!

Sometimes, people will come to my blog and ask why I have to be "so divisive." The "can't we all just get along" attitude seems to trump the truth of the Scriptures in many Christian circles today. Why is this so prevalent? I think it has a lot to do with people not owning a biblical worldview.

When I point out heresy disguising itself as "truth" even fellow Christians don't always like it!

Why?

I think that your blog post answers that question.

Bottom line is this. There MUST be proper exegesis in order to keep the truth of our common salvation, as Jude tells us, "that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints."

Jud 1:3 Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort [you] that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.

Otherwise, anyone, anywhere, can skew God's Word to fit their own "wisdom and knowledge," rather than the Wisdom and Knowledge of God being revealed in His Word!

Thanks for being a true soldier for Christ - continually and earnestly contending for the faith!

josephmcbee said...

Steve,

I would have to echo your words as well as those of the other brothers and sisters who have commented on this post.

One verse that popped into my mind immediately was James 3:1 - "Not many of you should presume to be teachers my brothers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (NIV)

We have to be so very careful when we teach others about the character of our God. I imagine that this book could cause a great deal of confusion among Christians and unbelievers as well. It is provocative to be sure, but at what cost?

gigantor1231 said...

S.J.

My first thoughts when I saw the title to the new book were, 'here comes another pragmatic work.' Here we go again with the end justifies the means.
I have heard Tim Keller speak and would say that he appears to be a gentle and thoughtful man, very deliberate and articulate in the words he chooses. The title of this book is disturbing to me because it reveals a man who has become wise in his own eyes. I know that Dr. Keller is a intelligent man and I know that he fully intended that the title to his book entice people to read it. There is a total disregard for God to do His work and draw all men to Him apart from human cunning, craftiness and manipulation.
The Apostle Paul says in
1Cor. 1: 17;

"17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."

1Cor. 2: 1, 4, 13

1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.
4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (1 Co 1:17). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Not with words of eloquent wisdom, not with cunning or cleverly devised words, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men but on the power of God!
I think Dr. Keller would be wise to follow the lead of the Apostle Paul on this one and I hope that he would understand that a salvation gained by the wisdom of man is no salvation at all, it is the power of God that is only capable of the authentic work!

Carla 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." - Keller

I would say first, that this not at all accurate. Regardless of what most people think this word means, and that most people (even unbelievers) automatically associate this word with the parable of the prodigal son who was wasteful, gluttonous, a squanderer, and all for entirely self-absorbed sinful reasons, there is still the matter of Keller's claim that the "actual" word simply means to spend extravagantly.

It took about 30 seconds on dial up to pull up dictionary.com and the 'actual' word. While it *can* mean that, it certainly isn't the common meaning, nor was it the orignal meaning. I have this pesky little thing about words mattering, so here we go:

prodigal

c.1450, back-formation from prodigiality (1340), from O.Fr. prodigalite (13c.), from L.L. prodigalitatem (nom. prodigalitas) "wastefulness," from L. prodigus "wasteful," from prodigere "drive away, waste," from pro- "forth" + agere "to drive" (see act). First ref. is to prodigial son, from Vulgate L. filius prodigus (Luke xv.11-32).

Now, while I am not a language expert, it's pretty obvious to me that this word orginally was used as a criticism, and NOT as a compliment. Still today, I would assume the vast majority of people would instantly connect this word with the COMMON use of it, and ORIGINAL use of it, and consider the sinfulness and selfishness of the prodigal son.

So, for Keller to claim it "actually" means one thing when the truth of the matter is that it CAN mean that (but overwhelmingly isn't even used this way - even in a thesaurus search, the majority of the replacement adjectives are just as negative as prodigal), is not at all accurate.

That's just for starters. There's still the matter of the editorial review that praises Keller's "intellectual approach to understanding Christianity" (which is not to say we should be bozos and not use our heads, but if the very use of the word prodigal to define God is a sample of his intellectual approach, and his wanting the rest of us to believe that the "actual" word meant something good in fact it did not, something is not well there), and that this new book will uncover the hidden, essential message of Jesus (is it just me, or didn't McLaren make the same claim?) so that both believers and unbelievers will see Christianity in a whole new way.

A new way? I have issues with new ways, since the Scriptures claim the same message for the last 2,000 years and there IS no "new way". Now I wouldn't dare presume to imply that Keller is claiming there IS a new way in Scripture, but rather I would assume he means seeing things in a new way for the individual. I only wish the editor promo piece actually said that.

Then again, as we've all heard a million times, you CANNOT judge a book by it's cover. The odd thing is, publishing houses are worth millions and millions of dollars, because we all do that very thing (influenced by ad copy writers who must laugh at that old cliche), and buy their books. Go figure.

So, those are my thoughts, for whatever they're worth. Likely not much, and likely not overly popular. Oh well.

SJ Camp said...

mike
Always good to have you post here. Thank you for your encouragement as to tone and truth. That means a lot to me.

It's unfortunate that Biblical fidelity has taken a back seat to shock value and cleverness.

BINGO!

SJ Camp said...

believing thomas
Exactly. Are we content with the Scriptures themselves? Thank the Lord for gifted men of God who are called by Him to give the sense of it. But a true believer armed with nothing more than his or her Bible, can learn much from just reading the truth of God's Word daily.

A Band of Bereans!

SJ Camp said...

repent of sin...
The message of Jesus is only hidden to non-beleivers, His sheep will understand and follow Him.

Amen!

Here is the purpose of parables according to Jesus.

Stephen said...

Mike and Steve,

I too agree that this is becoming a problem that requires closer attention.

Steve, I appreciate what you said regarding how Keller often reads postmodern concepts into the text rather than "taking-out" meaning from the text (not a direct quote).

I've demonstrated this here:

http://biblicalthought.com/blog/testing-tim-kellers-gospel-forms/

I'm looking forward to this thread developing. Once again, thanks Steve!

SJ Camp said...

christinewjc
Sometimes, people will come to my blog and ask why I have to be "so divisive." The "can't we all just get along" attitude seems to trump the truth of the Scriptures in many Christian circles today. Why is this so prevalent? I think it has a lot to do with people not owning a biblical worldview.

Well said!!! Rodney King is not our standard; but the Lord is! :-).

Owning a biblical worldview takes time to unfold. Cleverness not done well can be quick and easy, stir things up a bit, even feed the trolls. But good solid teaching takes time in the crucible of ones study when you wrestle with the truths of God's Word and then letting them break you as well conforming you to Christlikeness.

This is hard for us isn't it? Privately being made small before God before we publicly can do much for God.

Thank you again...
Campi

SJ Camp said...

josephmcbee
We have to be so very careful when we teach others about the character of our God. I imagine that this book could cause a great deal of confusion among Christians and unbelievers as well. It is provocative to be sure, but at what cost?

The book isn't out yet; so my post does not go to the integrity of the book, but to its title and the interview by the author as to its purpose and content. As I said before, I liked very much Keller's MP3 on this parable. The book might be a very good and profitable read. But the title and subtitle suggest a meaning that this parable nor Scripture in its entirety offer. That is the initial concern.

Thanks for your comment here...
Steve

SJ Camp said...

G-man
As always, you offer here some well thought out things worthy of consideration. It may be a bit much to suggest that Keller is a man wise in his own eyes; that goes to motive. But certainly we can say that this title and the meaning it portrays does not line up with the how Scripture itself has unfolded the nature and character of God.

I appreciate you brother,
Campi


Carla
Another short comment I see :-). JK. You always have very good things to say here.

Now, while I am not a language expert, it's pretty obvious to me that this word orginally was used as a criticism, and NOT as a compliment.

BINGO! I was just at Starbucks having some coffee with a friend, and I went up to about a half a dozen people and asked them what their first response to the phrase The Prodigal God was. Not one positive comment and most were nonbelievers. Every one said something to effect of: "isn't prodigal used to describe someone who was wayward and did bad things with his life?"

Really good!

and his wanting the rest of us to believe that the "actual" word meant something good in fact it did not, something is not well there), and that this new book will uncover the hidden, essential message of Jesus (is it just me, or didn't McLaren make the same claim?) so that both believers and unbelievers will see Christianity in a whole new way.

Exactly; and yes, McLaren did make that same claim. Anyone remember a "New Kind of Christian"? This is part of the danger here. The title of "The Generous God" has been suggested to me - much better.

A new way? I have issues with new ways, since the Scriptures claim the same message for the last 2,000 years and there IS no "new way". Now I wouldn't dare presume to imply that Keller is claiming there IS a new way in Scripture, but rather I would assume he means seeing things in a new way for the individual.

I agree. Here is what Keller said about the subtitle: By the way--the subtitle on the Amazon book-likeness ('Christianity Redefined') was a working subtitle that I didn't choose and that we are not going to use. It's triumphalistic. I hope no one is put off by it. The new subtitle will be something like 'recovering the heart of the Christian faith'.

I cannot believe that Keller had not say as to content on his book when it comes to the subtitle. That would be highly rare for an established name like his.

BUT, love believes all things so we will take him at face value. But does the heart of the Christian faith need recovery? Have we really lost it?

I disagree with this premise.

Thanks again Carla - well done.
Campi

josephmcbee said...

Steve,

Thanks for the clarification. I didn't mean to indicate that I thought the content of the book would be heretical or anything like that.

My concern is over the title and subtitle themselves. When you use the word "prodigal" in reference to God and then say in your subtitle that the book "redefines Christianity," I think you are stepping out of line. Perhaps you are being provocative to sell a few more copies, but is that title and subtitle painting a picture of God in the minds of those who see it that is accurate and honoring?

I don't think it does. And I think we have to be very careful with that.

Forgive me if I gave the impression in my first comment that I was commenting on something I had not even read. I will be more careful in how I word things.

Alice said...

This is neither an attack on nor defense of Dr. Keller; I'll just address the last paragraph of your post regarding his publisher's words. They're silly. Typical PR/publishing hyperbole that sound like someone just sat at his or her desk and tossed them off. (I work in publishing so I'm familiar with that kind of thing, not just a random criticism.) That person was making some provocative statements in order to sell the book, and it's unfortunate, seeing as it is truly doubtful that this one book, no matter how good it may be, is the magic reveal of this parable after all these centuries and will make devout and skeptics alike see Christianity in a whole new way. Yeah. I don't think so.

SJ Camp said...

joseph...
My concern is over the title and subtitle themselves. When you use the word "prodigal" in reference to God and then say in your subtitle that the book "redefines Christianity," I think you are stepping out of line.

Completely agree brother!

And I did understand what you were saying before. My apologies for not being more clear in my response.

You are right on.
Steve

SJ Camp said...

alice
Well said and thank you for your insights into the behind the scenes of the publishing industry. Very helpful.

Good to have you weighing in on this.
Steve

gigantor1231 said...

S.J.

Having heard Dr. Keller speak and knowing that his skill and knowledge of the English language is far above average, as well as his knowledge of the Word of God and biblical languages is well beyond that of the average lay person, I see a title like this and it makes me question his motives as well as his perception of his authority! When choosing a title calling God 'prodigal' it makes me wonder if he simply has not been blinded by his own knowledge and his assumed authority.

Knowledge makes arrogant but Love edifies 1Cor. 8: 1.

Why would anyone, let alone a man as knowledgeable as Dr. Keller, presume that 'prodigal' would be a apt title for God? This just smacks of arrogance to me.
I am sorry if this is offensive but I think that this is a offensive term when applied to God who is so far above us, whose nature does not exhibit what the common definition of prodigal describes. Why not 'The Extravagance of the Father'? I know, this title would not generate the attention that the author and the publisher desires. God deserves so much better than this!

SJ Camp said...

G-man
God deserves so much better than this!

Amen.

Ken Temple said...

Steve,
Thanks for your article here -- (I am enjoying reading a lot of your past articles and posts; just now in the past few days "re-discovering your site" here.)

I agree that the title and sub-title are the main problems; seems to be attention getting marketing.

Pastors should study the Greek word (aswtws or asotos,) and the context (Luke 15:30 “devoured your wealth with harlots”), not the old English word (Prodigal).

The Greek word, “aswtws” (w = omega, long “o”) is an adverb, "recklessly, wastefully, immorally, "with dissipation". “extravagance” is related to luxury and “going over board”, as people say today, “that was over the top”, unbalanced, extreme.

“aswtws” is related to the noun, aswtia, which is a compound "a" (negative) swtia (salvation); and points to "the inability to control oneself", "to dissipate" - "to loose distinctiveness", "debauchery".

The noun, asotia, is always in a negative context - Ephesians 5:18 - getting drunk is "dissipation", "debauchery", "the inability to control" or save one self from danger". (not salvation in a theological sense, but for example, a modern application, it would apply to the inability to control oneself and drive safely if they were drunk.

I Peter 4:4 (see context of verse 3) and I Timothy 1:6 -- both negative sinful, partying, drunkenness, sexual immorality contexts.

A-swtia is used in Proverbs 28:7, context of gluttony or riotous.

And A-swtws --
It is used in the LXX in the OT in Proverbs 7:11, describing an adulterous, (dressed as a harlot) woman. “She is boisterous and rebellious ( aswtos) ; her feet do not remain at home.” (rebellious, wayward, stubborn)

In fact the “sw” stem is used in other words to describe soberness, sobermindedness, self-control, wholeness, balance. So the "a" with it, is the negative of those things.

Given the quality of Rev. Keller's other material, as you and others have pointed out; I was quite surprised at this title and sub-title.

In Christ,
Ken Temple

SJ Camp said...

Ken
Very good work brother, thank you. I also believe that asotia is used in Luke 15:13 "...and there he squandered his property in reckless living." Reckless - asotia.

Prodigal living, reckless living, wasted life, a life spent on debauchery, wantonness, etc. This is clearly the meaning within the text and cannot in any manner due to some exegetical gymnastics or nomenclature flip/flops be attributed to God.

Could you imagine a book being called, "The Gay God"? instead of calling it "The Pleasure of God"? Word mean something...

Thanks again,
Campi

SJ Camp said...

stephen:
Thank you for your comment and for the link to your excellent blog. I appreciate the care you are giving to solid understanding of the text, while still guarding the man in your criticisms.

Grace and peace,
Steve
Eph. 4:1-3

SJ Camp said...

To All
The NKJV is the only version I find that actually uses the word "prodigal" in its translation in Luke 15:13.

It says, "...and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living."

Other translations say:

KJV - riotous living
NASB - loose living
NIV - wild living
AMP - reckless and loose [from restraint] living
HCSB - foolish living
NLT - wild living

All to say, that prodigal does carry with it the weight of waywardness; a spent or wasted life; reckless wantonness, foolish, wild, riotous, loose living, etc.

Again, this book by Keller may offer some helpful insights into this parable (as his MP3 message did). But it is good when speaking of the Lord and His character to be biblical - which I am certain Mr. Keller would also agree with.

I think this is a good lesson for us all to evaluate what we communicate with words; to be circumspect when describing the nature and character of God; and to exhaust ourselves when speaking of Him that we do so rightly, biblically, and carefully.

The One Triune God of the universe deserves that time and accuracy from us all... amen?

Peace,
Steve

Believing Thomas said...

"The One Triune God of the universe deserves that time and accuracy from us all... amen?"

Amen, brother!

This makes me think of all of the clever comments we've all made to explain God, explain scripture, explain spiritual things. It's easy to be flippant, clever, funny, etc, because it gives us acceptance and praise from our fellow man.

We're quickly leaving behind (as a nation and as an American church body) the reverence and awe that Almighty God so richly deserves.

SJ Camp said...

Believing Thomas
We're quickly leaving behind (as a nation and as an American church body) the reverence and awe that Almighty God so richly deserves.

Bingo!

When I hear on award shows people thanking "the man upstairs" "the big guy" or "my main man" etc. it sends shivers up my spine. And it does stem from a lack of reverence and awe for God.

Though I may not have used names like this for the Lord, I know that I have treated Him with a casual way in the past that I deeply an ashamed over. We should not take ourselves too seriously; but we should always take Him and His Word very seriously.

May we day with David: Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!

Chris said...

I posted this on Alex's blog:
-----------------------------

Hi Steve,

With all due respect, you're patently wrong.

You said, "Exegetically, the Greek word for prodigal means: dissolute and conveys the idea of an utterly debauched lifestyle."

Exegetically, prodigal isn't a Greek word. It isn't derived from a Greek word and isn't translated from a Greek word.

"Prodigal" is a Latin word. It apparently got it's connection with Luke 15 from the Vulgate (so says http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=prodigal), but, having checked the text of the Vulgate, it's not even there. It must have been a section heading or something.

The "exegetical" definition you supplied came from page 80 of "Relationship: Building Bridges," a book which isn't about Greek nor the text of Luke 15, and which, not surprisingly, has no footnote or citation for this definition of what a non-Greek, non-Biblical word "means in Greek."

This makes your assertion that Keller "fails to define his terms biblically and it makes him less effective" seem a little ironic.

Chris

Only Look said...

Amen. I agree...truth does matter.

Brian said...

That makes it more than a little ironic! Hilarious really.

Interestingly, if the word ain't from the inspired part of the Bible (section headings do not count) then the best way to figure out what it means is to look in our English dictionary!

Unfortunately for Keller, dictionary.com's "prodigal" doesn't have any words that reflect actual Biblical teaching about God's character. Although one definition, the second, says, "giving or yielding profusely; lavish (usually fol. by of or with): prodigal of smiles; prodigal with money," might be more accurate than the others (which all have negative meaning), the way the average person is going to take the title alone is going to be interesting.

At best, this book's title will hopefully draw some people in to read wherein they will find (I hope!) orthodox teaching on Christ. At worst, it will mislead.

Not a risk I'd want to take.

SJ Camp said...

Chris:
Thank you for your comment.

1. The definition I cited and its meaning came from the MacArthur Study Bible, page 1549, note under Luke 15:13 which I cited in my article here.

2. aswtws ( the o's are long here - w) means reckless immorality or destitute. This became synonymous with prodigal and thus the NKJV translates it as prodigal.

3. My point is dead on here brother. This word never carried with it a positive spin pertaining to the character of God or His divine nature when applied in this parable. Keller's leap was just that; a leap with no exegetical or etymological support. He pulled it out of thin cultural air... Not the Scriptures.

4. You have not, nor cannot, support the idea of a Prodigal God anywhere in Scripture. And that is the point.

Our Lord deserves more respect and godly reverence than to be referred to as The Prodigal God.

Words have meaning - let's use them wisely.

I do thank you for posting though.

VIVIT,
Steve

SJ Camp said...

brian
(which all have negative meaning), the way the average person is going to take the title alone is going to be interesting.

At best, this book's title will hopefully draw some people in to read wherein they will find (I hope!) orthodox teaching on Christ. At worst, it will mislead.

Not a risk I'd want to take.


And I wouldn't either.

We all know that Keller used this as a marketing hook; a clever title to draw in an audience. That is a given. But why not make the title one of truth considering he wrote this book for Christians?

Thanks for your thoughts...
Steve

SJ Camp said...

Chris
One other thought. Do you support under the same "logic" a prominent Roman Catholic writer's view that Jesus was the prodigal of heaven?

If so, chapter and verse please. If not, why not?
Cheers

SJ Camp said...

Chris
FYI: it is in The Vulgate.

Luke 15:13: et non post multos dies congregatis omnibus adulescentior filius peregre profectus est in regionem longinquam et ibi dissipavit substantiam suam vivendo luxuriose

Means "son wanderer" or prodigal.

Carla said...

I find it a monumental stretch at best, that anyone would expect anyone else to simply accept this definition of God's character by using THIS word. Just because someone says it *can* mean something good. I can think of a lot of words (that I do not use, nor would I ever in a million years use to define God's character) that *can* mean something good, used in strange context, but that generally mean something VERY bad. I find no need whatsoever to use THOSE words, because Scripture is already filled with plenty of wonderful words used to define the character of God. His very own inspired word already defines Him - who are we to REDEFINE Him, in such a way?

I find it worth noting that the prodigal son became know as such (even though that word wasn't used in the original Greek since it didn't exist yet) based on all the OTHER (all negative) words used to define his sinful character, that were in existance at the time.

I can't even believe we're discussing this. This reminds me of the Outer Limits episode years ago when the man woke up one day and every word he normally used had been redefined to mean something else.

SJ Camp said...

Correction
MSB - page 1545 - my typo.

Deb_B said...

"I can't even believe we're discussing this. This reminds me of the Outer Limits episode years ago when the man woke up one day and every word he normally used had been redefined to mean something else."

Aye.

As to the all too fashionable current trend of flippantly referring to God as though He were some third grade schoolyard recess pal, it grates on me inside in a way I cannot, for all my usual virtual verbosity, adequately put words to.

I read Isaiah 6 and the inspired words of the major prophet strike a chord deep inside...

"...I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. ... 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.' And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, 'Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.'” [Isaiah 6:1-5]

...and I cannot fathom being flippant and/or coarse in my references God-ward. It all rather amazes me - especially in light of the NT passages regarding the prodigal child - that He should condescend Himself to be so mindful of a miserable, sinful cretin such as myself.

How can they not see our beloved God as a plenarily inspired Isaiah does, lofty and exalted in all of His glory ... and John also in Revelation, likening our precious, triumphant Lord Jesus to precious gems.

How can we take such flippant, coarse liberties with the holy, majestic God He has revealed Himself to be through the canon of Scripture?

I cannot imagine it.

Chris said...

I too have benefited and will continue to benefit from the ministry of Tim Keller. I can't comment on the book because I haven't read it, but "Prodigal God" for a title? c'mon! Steve, I share your concerns. Whatever leaders do in moderation their followers will due in excess. The language is simply irresponsible in my estimation and others will follow suit I am sure in their attempt to be creative. It won't be long until someone looks to scripture in search for sinful biblical characters and then try to somehow make a connection back to God. The "fill in the blank" God.

gigantor1231 said...

S.J.

Momentarily off topic, can you please comment on the exegesis exhibited on the attached youtube link?

http://youtube.com/watch?v=e6FfHhamRFs

Brian said...

Camp

We all know that Keller used this as a marketing hook; a clever title to draw in an audience. That is a given. But why not make the title one of truth considering he wrote this book for Christians?
_________

A lot of "Christians" will buy/read a book by a famous dude with a provocative title. I hope and pray the content is valid and that the title of the book doesn't mislead too many.

Jonathan Hunt said...

Steve

Wholeheartedly agree. Prodigal implies reckless waste. Anyone with a concordance can tell you that. It is a deliberate marketing ploy, and a sad one.

Stephen said...

Steve,

If you ever decide to feature a "comment of the year" or something like that, I vote for Carla. She said:

"I can't even believe we're discussing this. This reminds me of the Outer Limits episode years ago when the man woke up one day and every word he normally used had been redefined to mean something else."

Classic!

TheThinker said...

smacks of some Gnosticism......

SJ Camp said...

Stephen
Great Idea about the comments. I should feature great comments from combox here from time to time. I am in your debt :-).

And I agree, that comment was classic Carla!

SJ Camp said...

Jonathan
Prodigal implies reckless waste. Anyone with a concordance can tell you that. It is a deliberate marketing ploy, and a sad one.

I agree - I thought it was a no brainer too. I have been very encouraged with the overwhelming positive comments here on this issue.

Thanks for your thoughts.
Campi

Chris said...

Steve:

1) In regards to the source of your defninition, I'll admit to a reckless use of Google Books on my part. Mea culpa. However, in my defence, the author of "Relationship" should have provided a reference!

2) I still maintain that to quote MacArthur the way you did was, at the least, misleading.

Here's why: in context, MacArthur is giving a comment on the text of the NKJV, which happens to translate the Gk. word "asotos" with "prodigal."

So, in context, what MacArthur was saying was, "The Greek word translated "prodigal" by the NKJV means..."

Whether the NKJV should have translated this word with "prodigal" is open to discussion. As you yourself pointed out, it is the only translation that did this. This is noteworthy.

The fact is, "prodigal" isn't a Biblical word. Someone who has spent their whole lives reading nothing but the NKJV may be forgiven for thinking so, but most people don't even have the first clue what the word means in the first place, let alone associate it with the Biblical text this closely.

For all these reasons, talking about "Greek meanings," "Biblical terminology," and charging someone with failing to "define terms Biblically," especially in a public forum, is simply misleading, if not irresponsible.

My thoughts on the Catholic author's use of this phrase? Like the mention of the WWCOG, it sounds too much like guilt-by-association for me to go there. I don't know nor care what the prominent Catholic author meant by that phrase, and, it seems to me, it has absolutely nothing to do with what we're talking about anyways.

Tim's book is coming out in October. Frankly, this discussion shouldn't even exist until we've had a chance to read the book, which will surely contain his fuller explanation of the meaning/background/association of this word, why he chose the title, etc.

Chris

SJ Camp said...

Chris
but most people don't even have the first clue what the word means in the first place, let alone associate it with the Biblical text this closely.

Do you spend time with many nonbelievers? I do. And guess what, they definitely know what prodigal means AND the first thing they associate it with IS this parable.

Your statement above is false.

I still maintain that to quote MacArthur the way you did was, at the least, misleading.

How? The Greek in verse 13 and 30 (and in other references) is always used in the negative and depicts a wasted life misspent on wantonness and debauchery. This is what prodigal means. The Greek is good for it carries many facets within its etymology. A wandering son (or prodigal) in Luke 15 is not a young man about a stroll around town. It is a wayward young man who is headed for the far country to satisfy his most debased passions.

Whatever English word you wish to associate with this is not the point. But to use a word that even most nonbelievers associate clearly with that which is lascivious and wayward with God is immature and foolish. Again, Keller is a pastor - he knows better.

Frankly, this discussion shouldn't even exist until we've had a chance to read the book,

Sure it should.

This discussion is not based on speculation about the books contents, but solely on Keller's own words from the book title itself and the interview(s) he has granted where he has already explained himself as to the use of prodigal. That is scope of my article and the very well focused comments on this thread. It is fair game and should be discussed in a good and biblical manner as has been demonstrated here.

Listen, Keller was irresponsible to use a word which 95% of the time has come to be known for living a reckless and riotous life. He picked this word purposely and placed it conveniently next to God's name out of a rare dictionary attribution for sizzle; to punch up the title and give it some buzz out there. I get that.

But it's still not good form for any pastor to lower himself to use nomenclature that is not honoring to our Lord to describe the Lord he is under divine mandate to serve.

2 Tim. 4:1-5

Deb_B said...

"Frankly, this discussion shouldn't even exist until we've had a chance to read the book, which will surely contain his fuller explanation of the meaning/background/association of this word, why he chose the title, etc."

With all due respect, I disagree ... adamantly. Frankly, I can't get past the cover.

There is simply no way you, or anyone else, can viably ascribe the word "prodigal" to Jehovah God. Period.

IOW, there IS absolutely no "fuller explanation" that can explain away the book's title. None whatever.

gigantor1231 said...

Chris

"For all these reasons, talking about "Greek meanings," "Biblical terminology," and charging someone with failing to "define terms Biblically," especially in a public forum, is simply misleading, if not irresponsible."

The observation taken by Steve is no empty observation and a discussion based upon the use of the word 'Prodigal' used by Dr. Keller, who is educated well beyond the average, is absolutely valid and reasonable here. The point is that Dr. Keller knows and knew exactly what he was doing when he chose the title to his book and that was to garner the attention of as many people as possible in order to sell his book, totally disregarding the association with God and Christ. He is no idiot, he and his publisher have a goal to sell as many books as possible and so they rendered a title that would evoke as controversial response as possible, yet be just gray enough to deflect any accusation of manipulation on their part. It is just a simple play on words as far as they are concerned, a simple tool used to get Tim Keller's message out!
The problem is that there is a common association with the word prodigal when used in the English language and that association is always negative because of who it is associated with, the younger son in Luke 15 who chooses to squander his cut of the stuff! That is the association placed on the word by this famous and well known parable and that is the image evoked when Tim Keller associates the word with God in his title.
You can justify it and twist it all that you want. We can wait for the book to come out in order to purchase it and see what is inside, mission accomplished for the controversial title because you bought it!
Prodigal still has it's negative meaning no matter how you spin it, it's negative connotation, and, as is so often done to garner attention to make a buck, Tim Keller will achieve his pragmatic goal. Will people benefit from what is inside? Perhaps, and with that benefit will lie the justification of using such a title 'The Prodigal God'. You see, no matter the means it is the end that justifies, even if the means impugns the name of God, and here lies the heart of pragmatism! So spin on.

SJ Camp said...

deb b
Well said... thank you.

SJ Camp said...

G-man
The problem is that there is a common association with the word prodigal when used in the English language and that association is always negative because of who it is associated with,

That really is the issue here. the word prodigal is very stigmatized as to its common meaning that to play verbal gymnastics with it - applying some rare meaning in a positive way to the name of God is really lacking wisdom.

Thanks G...

Believing Thomas said...

Chris, et al - The crux of this entire discussion is the verbage with which God is described. Set aside the author's intent and the actual contents of his book - the title carries a clear connotation.

One can really stretch a point by finding obscure, rarely-used definitions of the word prodigal, but the reality is that none but pointy-headed intellectuals are going to think of the alternative definitions. The vast majority have then the potential to be influenced merely by the title of the book. The lack of reverence for THE Holy God seeps into our subconscious and can influence how we view Him.

If a Christian leader speaks this way about God, then why should anyone think of God with any awe? He's then relegated to a just-one-of-the-guys status in the minds of many. The author does a great disservice to God and the cause of Christ.

Napoleon said...

I say to Steve Camp....relax.

Here are some other provocative titles that may be familiar to you:

Don't Tell Them Jesus Loves Them
Cheap Grace

Clearly the titles of some of your songs are deliberately provocative. The story behind the title is unclear until you read the lyrics.

Similarly, Keller is using Prodigal to refer to the Lord's extravagant love and care for us, and clearly he knows that this will provoke some folks, perhaps enough that they will read his book.

So I find it a little odd that you would take such issue. Even a cursory glance at your blog reveals:

1. A Pacific Cruise - what is that all about - is that not perhaps a little extravagant? Not many of the people I know can afford to go get on a ship for a chance to be taught about the Bible

2. "End of the Spin" movie marquee, showing an "R" rating. Yeah, that's not needlessly provocative.

"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."

I agree with your statement, but you are not immune to these charges, either. I wonder how the poor and struggling Hispanics in our inner city churches view those fancy Northwest Pacific cruises. Might they get a skewed idea of what it means to be a Christian? Isn't the cruise itself or the clever "R" rated marquee a reflection of us and how our Christian culture views God?

You call Keller blasphemous while also saying how much you admire his ministry.

It seems to me that you want to have it both ways.

And by the way, I am not a Keller devotee.

Just thought I would give you a different perspective from all of the rah-rah-way-to-go-Steve posts that have followed your review of Keller's book.

Cheers,

AR

SJ Camp said...

Napoleon
Thanks for your comment.

A few needed clarifications:

1. Thanks for the song plugs :-). But none of my song titles use a crass or provocative term about the nature or character of God; Apples and Oranges. Context my brother.

2. The cruise with Jerry Bridges and Wayne Taylor is a great time to study God's Word together. Did you see the price? $299.00. You can't stay in town anywhere for that price. A modest hotel will run you $75.00 a night (#350.00 including tax). Now, tack on food for four days, any kind of recreation outings and special events, plus rent a car that might accompany a vacation time and you are up near $1,000.00 for that same time period. The group we work with is so frugal and almost anyone can afford to come. I thank the Lord for them.

3. And the "R" on the end of spin parody is clearly defined there as being reformed and Calvinistic. Again, Apples and Oranges.

But Keller's title is not a parody, it is not a play on words, it is meant to be taken literally within a very narrow definition of what prodigal means. That is quite different.

4. You call Keller blasphemous while also saying how much you admire his ministry. It seems to me that you want to have it both ways.

Not a question of having it both ways; it is a question of not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I can appreciate much of what Tim has done and do and still disagree, as many have here, with how he handled this subject. The title to most is offensive and rightly so.

5. When we speak of the Lord and His character, we don't have the right to reinvent Him or attribute words to Him that are provocative in nature just to promote one of our own tomes.

6. BTW, "cheap grace" was a term derived many years ago by ones far greater than I, to label a diluted gospel that some wrongly promote as the genuine article. The term is brilliant and in keeping with biblical truth (Gal. 1:6-9).

May our songs, books, sermons and blogs when addressing the character, nature and attributes of the One Triune God be biblically honoring and reverent when speaking about Him to others.

7. Lastly, I think you may have unwittingly offended the many commenters here as interpreting their words as being congratulatory to me against Keller. That is not true. They are rightly defending the character of God in how the title of keller's book wrongly portrays Him... It is about His honor, not about my article. BTW, the folks at this blog don't cut me any slack whatsoever. If I had written that book with that title, they would have said the same things to me. It's what I appreciate about the Bereans that post here; they don't play favorites but really try to measure all things against the plumbline of God's Word.

Thank you again for your thoughts,
Steve
Psalm 2:11-12

Napoleon said...

Steve,

2. No doubt the cruise is a wonderful thing. No cruise bashing here, and I don’t want us to follow the rabbit trail I started. My point is that the idea of such a cruise would strike most of our brethren around the world as rather odd. But of course, there is more there than meets the eye. And $600-1300 per couple may seem pretty cheap to some. The low price doesn't make it any more appealing to someone who cannot afford it. Like the title of a book or a song, it requires and should be given the opportunity for more explanation.

3. As you say, the "R" is clearly parody. I would also note that our society universally understands an "R" rating as something inherently negative and immoral. I see a very clear line of logic between this point and your point about the employment of the word prodigal. BTW, I admire your use of this clever "hook." 

4. "The title to most is offensive and rightly so." Clearly it is offensive to you. I respect that. I'm not jazzed about it either. But I guess we don't know if most believers find it offensive, especially most believers who are familiar with Tim K. I would rather err on the side of grace here, in light of the fact that Tim is a fellow servant of Christ whose life and works, like yours, are an open book to any who are interested.

5. Agreed.

6. I am familiar with the term. But the title of your song may mislead someone who doesn't appreciate your subtlety. We may want to give Tim the same measure of grace that you expect of those who buy your albums. We know that grace isn’t cheap – rather it cost the lifeblood of the Lamb. It also costs us to give grace to others (dying to self), and you and I agree that we are need of that gift of grace daily if we are to love our brethren.

7. Brethren, I am sorry for my flippancy (rah-rah). Not good, and I apologize to all whether you were offended or not. The point that was probably missed due to my quick fingers and slow mind is that, with two exceptions, all the good folks that have written here agree with you wholeheartedly. As a brother in this family, I thought it would be good to provide a differing perspective.

Which I have.

Back to work, and peace,

AR

Deb_B said...

"My point is that the idea of such a cruise would strike most of our brethren around the world as rather odd.

You can wrangle up all the rabbit trail points you wish, but not one of those assails the very character of Jehovah God.

Perhaps the foot-loose and fancy-free "God associations" in our modern times are why surveys/polls indicate some FIFTY-SEVEN PER CENT of those who consider themselves "evangelical Christians" do NOT believe Jesus Christ is the ONLY way to God, that is, God as He has revealed Himself to us through the canon of Scripture, Genesis to Revelation, to be specific (yet another necessity in these present times.)

There is no way whatever to justify a title that links "prodigal" with God. No way whatever.

It is grossly inappropriate and I find it that way all on my own without any help from Campi, although I appreciate the firm stance he has taken in this regard. Just as I appreciate any and all of my brethren who stand firm in Christ in these perilous times.

I'm not going to "rabbit trail" your points because they lack context. In none of those points is God's very character assailed as it is in "The Prodigal God" title.

SJ Camp said...

napoleon
We are good and thank you for your kind words of clarification.

I also share a burden for the poor around the world and have ministered many times in some of the most impoverished nations on the earth. There is much work to be done there for the kingdom.

I appreciate your heart in this area and on this issue as well.

Let us pray for each other that we can encourage each other to love and good works to His glory and by His grace. When the iron sharpens the iron it is a good thing.

Grace and peace to you,
Steve

Jeff Patterson said...

Steve,

You're pretty even-handed here, except on one point, in my humble opinion. No mention on the angle Keller takes on the parable and how it might have been "hidden in plain sight for centuries." Okay, decades perhaps, but the primary understanding of the parable in Luke 15 for us American Evangelicals is to see the younger, lost, "prodigal" son as the primary character in the story. God, the Father, is the primary character. But those are not the only two, and that is what Keller wants to illuminate. It is not just the son who threw away his life that the Father seeks, but also the one who "saved" it and self-righteousnessly thinks he deserves his father's love. Our traditional understanding may be incomplete, and as Luther would say we need to beat the text to receive its truth. While no new revelation is needed, we always need illumination by the Spirit to see the intent of our Lord Jesus and His words of Truth.

I recognize you are taking aim at the title (note the subtitle is not the final one), but the content of the forthcoming book is what matters. Can't judge a book by it's cover.

With you in the Gospel,

Jeff

p.s.- I plead with any and all here to not play the guilt-by-association card of lumping Keller in with all things emerging and emergent.

SJ Camp said...

Jeff Peterson
I appreciate your thoughts very much.

A few key things:

1. I don't think that the message of this parable has been hid for centuries in plain sight. On the contrary, this parable has been clearly taught and expounded since its giving for 2,000 years.

2. The best treatment of this parable in our day has been by John MacArthur in his book and excellent sermon series "The Tale of Two Sons." If you haven't heard him on this, it is profound.

3. I found Keller's MP3 on this sermon (which I linked to in the body of my post here) was also helpful. IMHO, not as near exhaustive or thorough as JMac's, but still quite good.

4. Again, I do think we can judge a book by its cover; especially one like this one when taken in context of Tim's interviews about this book to date.

5. I have high hopes the content of this book will be much more biblical than the skewed title he has offered up.

6. I also see the elder brother as being more the key figure of this parable. It was, after all, the elder brother of the Pharisees to whom Jesus is addressing--and they knew it.

Thanks for your thoughts here Jeff. Good to have your voice expressed here.

Steve

Nick and Rosemary Cady said...

Maybe I'm on my own on this one here...
I think that Dr. Keller has explained his use of this phrase very clearly: "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."

The title of the book is intended to grab people's attention and make them think or make them curious enough to open the book and find out what he means by saying "The Prodigal God".

It is very obvious that Keller is not claiming that God is wasteful or rebellious or immoral, but rather extravagant in his grace and love.

And as he himself stated, he is referring to a different meaning of the word prodigal than what most people usually think of. So, for those of you who made the argument that when most people think of the word prodigal, they don't first think of the meaning "extravagant", well, that is obviously the point! Keller knows that, and he is trying to come up with a title that will surprise and interest people. And once again - that is not wrong, because he then goes on to explain that he is referring to God as extravagant, and not as a waster or immoral.

Also, don't forget that the word prodigal isn't found in the Bible. Its the title that people gave to that story. Even if those who gave it this name did not intend to use the same meaning of the word prodigal as Dr. Keller does, at the very worst he is making a play on words - which he has every right to do, since he is not saying anything heretical, and actually explaining an amazing truth about God, who is extravagant with the way He gives love and grace and blessing.
Why do you all have such a big problem with an author using a play on words, which he later explains to those who have ears to hear?
I honestly don't think anyone is going to see this book at their local bookstore and be stumbled by it. Or that some non-believer is going to see this book and say Aha! I knew it! God is immoral and wasteful! That's just ridiculous.

Lastly, let me ask: How many of you on here speak another language other than English? And for those of you who do - look up in your language the name of the story of the Prodigal Son.
I speak Hungarian, and the name of the story in Hungarian is, A Tékozló Fiú. And in Hungarian, Tékozló means...(yep, you guessed it!) extravagant.

There is no need to be insulted by this title - its a play on words, and he explains what he means by it.
If you are offended by it - well then read what he has to say, because its all about God's abundant, extravagant love and grace. I'm sure this book is full of things that you would all not only agree with, but would be very blessed by as well.

Nick and Rosemary Cady said...

One more thing -
What's the deal with bringing the Worldwide Church of God into this, as if to say that them also teaching about the extravagant love of God is a sign that Dr. Keller's view of this scripture is somehow skewed?

The Worldwide Church of God went through a radical transformation - they went from being a cult to being an evangelical church who hold to all of the essential doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

Here is an excerpt from the wikipedia article, which you linked:
However, within a few years after Armstrong's death in 1986 the succeeding church administration, led first by Joseph W. Tkach, Sr. and then his son, Joseph Tkach, Jr., changed the doctrines and teachings in which the WCG held fundamental differences with more mainstream Christianity. Many members and ministers left the WCG to form churches that conformed to most, if not all, of the church's former doctrines. The WCG claims 64,000 members in 860 congregations in about 90 countries as of June 2007. The WCG is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals.

So, that doesn't make too much sense to me why you would mention a post-transformation teaching from them (by 1993 WCG was no longer a cult - there are 2 great books about it, and an article all about it in the updated version of The Kingdom of the Cults) as a proof for why its bad that Keller uses the phrase "Prodigal God".
Personally I think its a great thing that WCG teaches people that God is extravagantly gracious and loving (a big change from the legalistic nonsense they taught pre-tranformation).

SJ Camp said...

nick and rosemary cady
It is very obvious that Keller is not claiming that God is wasteful or rebellious or immoral, but rather extravagant in his grace and love.

No one disputes that here. BUT, what is the issue is his choice of using a word that 95% of the time doesn't communicate the later but the former. AND, and this is important, we all should do our best not to be clever when it comes to portraying the nature and character of God, but to be plain and truthful.

As the Apostle Paul has said, "but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God." -2 Cor. 4:2

You also asked a good question about WCG on their 1993 article on The Prodigal God. I explained that they have repented of several skewed doctrines; but at the same time, found it interesting that they used this exact same language, that Keller has adopted, to describe the greatness and kindness of our God in salvation to sinners.

To quote Arsenio Hall: "things that make you go - hmmmm."

Keller is a pastor. When it comes to the nature and character of God he should not seek to be clever, but clear. He should define God how God has defined Himself in His own Word.

Surely you don't disagree with that premise?

Thanks for your continued contribution on this issue and to this blog. It is appreciated.

Campi

Nick and Rosemary Cady said...

Looks like we're going to have to agree to disagree.

You seem to be saying that being clever and being plain and truthful are mutually exclusive. I don't think so.
I think it is possible to be creative and interesting in the way you phrase things, while at the same time speaking the plain clear truth of God.
Keller is using a literary device here, by using a different meaning (but still, a VALID meaning) of the word prodigal. And since he is writing a BOOK, I think he has every right to use literary devices, in fact I think a writer should use them.

Which part of 2Cor 2:4 do you think applies to this situation?
Do you think Keller is using something "hidden because of shame"? Obviously he is not using anything hidden because of shame. He is not using any secret meanings - anybody with access to a dictionary can look up the meaning(s) of the word prodigal. So there is nothing secretive or gnostic going on here.
Are you saying he is "walking in craftiness?" I don't think using a valid definition of a word is craftiness nor deception, nor dishonesty! Especially because he goes on to explain himself!
And I certainly wouldn't expect you to mean that he is "adulterating the word of God" by using a word which the Bible doesn't even use to describe (properly) who God has revealed himself to be: Extravagantly loving and gracious.

I still don't get what you are saying about the WCG, because since they are not a cult, what you are essentially saying is that a group who is not a cult looks at this scripture from the same angle as Keller. Well, I don't see anything wrong with that!

And FYI - neither Keller nor WCG were the first to look at this scripture from this angle, and use this terminology. I have personally heard this story preached about using this angle and using this terminology in both a Calvary Chapel and a Reformed church!

Your question was: "is this really the right description of who God claims to be?" Yes, it absolutely is! According the definition of the word which Keller uses, it absolutely and properly describes who God Himself claims to be.
You said: "He should define God how God has defined Himself in His own Word." That's exactly what he is doing! God Himself defined Himself as the father who is more extravagant in his love and grace than his sons are in their wastefulness and sin.

Stephen said...

Hi Nick and Rosemary,

You’ve said: “I think it is possible to be creative and interesting in the way you phrase things, while at the same time speaking the plain clear truth of God.

Keller is using a literary device here, by using a different meaning (but still, a VALID meaning) of the word prodigal.”

You’ve made a healthy distinction here, I think. I appreciate “plain clear truth of God” as the controlling criterion in word selection whether written or spoken. But the danger of granting such a degree in freedom of vocabulary (for whatever motive) lies in the potential destruction of the loss of meaning, particularly in the receptor audience.

As Steve mentioned, would it be a wise choice to name a book on the subject of the intratrinitarian love within the Godhead, The Gay God, or God is Gay?

Furthermore, Keller has, in my conservative Reformed view, overstepped his creative freedom bounds in his recent media appearance wherein he says that he has “a gospel for the circumcised” and “a gospel for the uncircumcised.” Please note:

For the uncircumcised - this gospel is for postmodern listeners that “consider all moral statements to be culturally relative and socially constructed.” Keller says that these people are not to be given the other form of the gospel (for the circumcised) because “[i]f you try to convict them of guilt for sexual lust, they will simply say, ‘You have your standards, and I have mine.’ If you respond with a diatribe on the dangers of relativism, your listeners will simply feel scolded and distanced.” So rather than explaining their sin to them in the context of the falling short of the demands of God’s moral law, Keller “take[s] a page from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death and define[s] sin as building your identity-your self-worth and happiness-on anything other than God. That is, [he] use[s] the biblical definition of sin as idolatry. That puts the emphasis not as much on ‘doing bad things’ but on ‘making good things into ultimate things.’”

If that summary of Tim Keller’s “gospel for the uncircumcised” was not clear enough, the following paragraph in his own words should give you a clearer understanding of what he means when he says “my gospel for the uncircumcised.”

“Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to justify and save them, to give them what they should be looking for from God. This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and his salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom. This is my ‘gospel for the uncircumcised.’”

Tim Keller’s “gospel for the uncircumcised” is presented to postmoderns as their only hope for freedom. This freedom, so it seems from his own words, is from the anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment that come from their Godless search for meaning in life. Since they look to other things such as their romances rather than to God in their search for meaning, they are guilty of idolatry, and idolatry is sin. In this context (contrasted with breaking God’s law), Christ and his salvation can be presented as their only hope for freedom. This, he calls his gospel for the uncircumcised.

As I have argued elsewhere, “If the gospel is reduced to merely a source of meaning for the postmodern existentialist, even if it is viewed as true and ultimate meaning, unless it points to Christ’s death on the Cross as a substitute for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried and was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, then it must be rejected because it is a false gospel.”

All of this is an attempt to contextualize, a danger zone in contemporary theology/missiology/hermeneutics/etc. This fad is dangerous and has already led to heresy (i.e. in Africa). Playful and creative attitudes and ideas should be encouraged only if they glorify God by clear and unquestionable displays of their complete subordination to revelation, iow, as servants to Scripture and not lords over it!

Does anyone else see the problems I do? Or am I a lone ranger here?

gigantor1231 said...

Stephen

You are not alone in your assertion, perhaps those that agree with you are few, I completely agree. Bottom line is that Tim Keller is simply pragmatic in his methods and what he does is driven with the end in mind, the method to the end is simply justifiable by the end. This way he can do what he wants, say what he wants, tweek things, manipulate, practice clever little methods (sophia logou) but in the end if the end he desires is achieved then everything else is justified. N and R seem to think that is cool, the man achieves the ends so give him carte blanche, gotta get those numbers, gotta sell those books!

Nick and Rosemary Cady said...

"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you. 1Cor 9:19-22

In my opinion, this is the very thing that Tim Keller is attempting to do. He is not being soft on sin – as you seem to be implying – he is simply trying to speak to his hearer in a way which they can comprehend. He is trying to meet them on their level and speak their language (while at the same time not condoning their beliefs), so that they will actually listen to what he’s trying to tell them.

This is the very thing which the Apostle Paul did as a missionary to the Gentiles. When Paul went into Gentile areas (Athens, Lystra, etc…) and spoke to Greeks who had no knowledge of – nor care for – the Old Testament scriptures, Paul didn’t bother referencing God’s promises to Abraham or David, nor did he reference the 10 Commandments as proof of their need for God.
Rather, he spoke to them on their level (as IMO Tim Keller is seeking to do), and he explained to them their need to put their faith in Jesus based upon the more general revelation of God which is seen in nature.

What Tim Keller is doing is not telling these people that what they are doing is ok, but rather proving to them that they are sinners in need of a Savior in a way that they will understand and comprehend.
But don’t forget this – he is telling them that they are sinners! So the Gospel is not being softened nor adulterated. And I’m sure that this method of speaking to this faction of society is a lot more effective than the guy on the street with a cardboard sign which says Judgment is coming!, and yelling into a bullhorn about how God is going to send fornicators and homosexuals to hell. Don’t misunderstand me – I 100% believe in the fact that God hates sin and that he will judge righteously (as Dr. Keller does as well), I’m just saying that some ways of communicating the same message are more effective than others to certain factions of society.

In Paul’s day, it was the legalists who had a problem with his method of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles (not referring to the Law of Moses nor telling them to become like Jews), and I think we shouldn’t start judging Keller for seeking to do the same thing (again, he not is being soft on sin, nor preaching a cheaper Gospel – he’s just using different language to communicate to people that they are SINFUL and in need of a savior).

And gigantor – I don’t think we should give carte blanche, and I’m not a fan of the seeker friendly movements, nor the emergent village, and I don’t think that anyone should propagate a cheap Gospel just to get bodies in the door. I also don’t think that’s what’s happening here. But don’t forget that in God’s economy numbers are important – because there is a Lamb’s Book of Life, with names in it. And our desire should be to see as many names in that book as possible. I believe that is Keller’s desire too.

Stephen – The God is Gay example is a good point – but to me, its still apples and oranges.

I respect all of your opinions on here, but God is the one who will judge Keller’s motives and intentions. He is the one who will test his actions by fire, and reveal whether or not he is building with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw. And along with the Apostle Paul, no matter what Keller’s motives, I will say “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” Phil 1:18

These words were recently spoken at a pastors’ conference: “Shoot the wolves, not the shepherds, sheep or goats.”
Maybe it would be better to spend time ripping apart those who are a real threat to Christianity (such as Echart Tolle, Oprah, and even Todd Bentley), than to critique those who are part of the true flock of God and trying to serve Him and live out His Word with all their God-given ability.

Tim said...

Good comments, Steve. I've posted a few thoughts over at Baylyblog.com.

Rob Davis said...

http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2236.htm

Amen.

Jeff Patterson said...

I wonder if we would take to task the late Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who preached a sermon: "Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son." (The last commenter noted the link, also here)

Alex Chediak has some comments on this

---
And at least one of the commentors here called Keller a "pragmatist."

Are you kidding me?

It is polarizing comments like that which form a wedge between generations.

CowPi said...

Well, Keller's book The Prodigal God has been out for several months now. The question that seems to remain after an interesting discussion on word choice is: Steve, have you read the book?

I Just Want A Cup of Coffee said...

Thank you very much for bringing this topic to the forefront. I'm sure there are many brothers and sisters who would just rather not deal with the controversy. However, I believe it's HIGHLY important to pay attention to how we think of God. A.W. Tozer's "Knowledge of the Holy" has some great insight on this. Tozer discusses even the importance of not using the term "characteristics" when speaking of God but rather "attributes." For He is God and not a created being. Wrong thinking about God definitely skewed my view of the gospel for many years, so I am "on guard" for anything that has the appearance of unsound doctrine. At any rate, I, too, feel Keller makes a giant leap when using the term "prodigal." However, I am hopeful that I can, with grace, focus on the gist of what he is trying to say re: God's mercy and grace and His infinite well of it for both "older" and "younger" sons alike. I just began reading the book for Bible study but hit a major speedbump after reading the introduction, which is where he expounds on the thinking that preceded the title he chose. Again, thank you for discussing this red flag. Obviously, it is something that does not quite resonate with some of us, and for good reason.

Michael said...

I first heard the phrase "Prodigal God" two Sundays ago when one of our ministers used it in a sermon on the prodigal son.

I commented to my wife afterwords that I did think it was appropriate and she said she had not heard the phrase and thought I had misheard.

Then last Sunday another of our ministers used the same phrase during his sermon so I nudged my wife as to say "SEE!"

So I googled the phrase and that brought me to this post which I very much appreciate.