A Refutation of the ‘Theology of the City’ (Part II)

“…I see violence and strife in the city. Day and night they go around it on its walls, and iniquity and trouble are within it; ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from its marketplace” (Psalm 55: 9-11)

There is little doubt for those who know Tim Keller that he is a lover of the city. Having spent his life in Manhattan, there’s little doubt that the urban denizen has developed an infatuation for the sprawling jungle of concrete and steel that creates his ecosystem. Furthermore, Tim Keller has made it no secret that ‘the city,’ as he calls it, is foundational in his theology.

Keller made half the Twitterverse guffaw in reaction to a comment he posted on the social media platform in 2017, with some claiming it to be nonsense and the other affable half nodding their head in agreement, although probably unsure with what exactly they were agreeing.

Keller wrote, “It’s true that we must bring the gospel to the city. But we should also recognize how much the city brings the gospel to us.”

What exactly did Keller mean by this witticism? How does the city bring the Gospel to us? In Part I of a Refutation of the Theology of the City I explained the false premise of Keller’s doctrinal city fetish, which is premised upon his claim that…

‘The city is not to be regarded as an evil invention of ungodly fallen man…The ultimate goal set before humanity at the very beginning was that human-culture should take city-form…there should be an urban structuring of human historical existence…The cultural mandate given at creation was a mandate to build the city. 

Keller’s claim regarding the city, he says, was only repeated from years prior. When responding to someone asking if he had gone off the rails, Keller replied, “Nope. Said the same statement in 2015, and 2013. Same as always.”

As I explained in that first post over at PNP News, Keller’s assertion that the goal of God from the beginning that “human-culture” (as opposed to other kinds of culture, ostensibly) should “take city form” does not square with the Biblical narrative. In fact, it is boldly contradictory to the testimony of Scripture.

To recap my previous argument, God ordered from the beginning (in both Genesis 1 and Genesis 9) that humans should spread out over the Earth, not consolidate population. Furthermore, for several thousand years of early human existence, cities were made only by God-haters and sinners who were not a part of the Promised Seed of the Messiah (from Cain to Nimrod). Then, I recalled each time in the early history narrative that ‘the city’ played a prominent role and it always took the side of sin, depravity, and debauchery.

With it being sufficiently demonstrated that there is no early anthropological evidence for early metropolitan living that glorified God or wound up on the right side of redemptive history, I’ll move on to the next claim by the Socinian preacher.

In his treatise on the Theology of the City published by Cru, Keller draws upon deep eisegesis from Reformed Theologian, Meredith Kline, who might very well roll over in the grave if it weren’t for the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:8. Essentially, Keller draws from Kline’s words in Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview regarding our eschatological hope in the New Jerusalem and retroactively applies it to the cities of Earth in this present evil age.

Kline, ever an amillennialist, was sure to clarify in Kingdom Prologue that what we have experienced thus far in the annals of human civilization has been just that…a prologue. As a historic premillennialist, I find Kline’s notion depressing while still being able to yearn to see the process of God’s kingdom building, but Keller uses Kline’s words and applies them to his own eschatological framework that is, for all intents and purposes, post-millennial utopianism.

And make no mistake about it, there is no room for rurality in Keller’s aspirations for God’s kingdom come. As one theologian wrote…

From his own mouth, during an appearance at a small but quaint Montecito fundraiser, I have heard [Keller’s] vision for the future.  Imagine a world in which rural inhabitants have been absorbed, swallowed if you will, by monolithic urban centers…”

Wouldn’t the world be better if it all resembled New York? Gross. I’d rather have Mayberry.

He continues, “Well, the greater things that are yet to come and the greater things that are still to be done in the city…is specified by Tim Keller to be an ever-growing, ever-expanding network of mega-churches.  He cited some intriguing statistics to demonstrate that the percentage of evangelicals within a population is directly proportionate to the number of churches.  Hence, if the church raises up enough leaders who share Mr. Keller’s (and Rick Warren, and Mark Driscoll, and so many others) vision, and plant enough mega-churches around the world, someday we’ll have ‘Christianized’ society and established a post-millennial kingdom on earth.”

Certainly, the urbanization of church planting has been a central part of Keller’s vision for the future. I’ll not pick a bone of contention with Keller in regard to his view of demographic changes and his church planting pragmatism, but with his twisting of Scripture to make his point.

In true New Yorker fashion, Keller’s metro-snobbery and pompous urbanity is demonstrated in his equation of the city with culture (of this I also wrote in my previous piece, recalling numerous times New Yorkers asked me how I ‘liked all the buildings’ as though I lived in a teepee or asked my children if they want to get out of the country and ‘see the culture’).

Keller writes, “It is widely understood that when God tells Adam and Eve to ‘have dominion’ and ‘fill the earth’ he is directing them to build a God-honouring civilization. They are to bring forth the riches that God put into creation by developing science, art, architecture, human society. City building is an ordinance of God just like work and marriage. And indeed, cities draw together human talent and resources and tap the human potential for cultural development as nothing else does.”

Of course, as previously explained, God did not order them to build a city but to spread out ( מָלָא ). There is simpy no place in the Scripture that God ‘ordained’ city building as he did work or marriage (both of which are very explicit in the Creation mandates of Genesis 1 and Genesis 9).

Then how does Keller come to the conclusion that city-building is an ordinance like marriage and work? It’s simple; he views city-building as civilization itself.

Keller writes…

“There is no absolute way to define a ‘city’. A human settlement becomes more ‘urban’ as it becomes more a) dense and b) diverse in its population. God made the city to be a developmental tool, a form of cultural ‘gardening’, designed to draw out the riches he put into the earth, nature, and the human soul at creation.”

I emboldened the phrase above to point out its sheer absurdity. As one who has taught the history of World Civilization at the university level, nowhere in the field of anthropology has a city been defined by its ‘diversity.’ This is Keller’s Cultural Marxist (also known as multiculturalism) influence showing forth. Anyone asserting that the cities of Beijing during the Zhou Dynasty, Tenochtitlan in the 15th Century, or Ayutthaya (Thailand) in the 1800s weren’t truly cities because they maintained a mono-ethnic population would rightly be laughed out of Freshman world history class.

The world’s oldest largest city, Jericho, and the world’s largest history of all time, Tokyo, were throughout most of their history lacking in ethnic or cultural diversity. Keller’s argument is falsely premised. It is the result of urban bigotry, devoid of historical substantiation.

But more importantly, Keller ignores the redemptive historical narrative of Scripture in regard to the rural cultivation of God’s holy people.

As relayed in my first retort on the theology of the city (I’m sorry for the constant reference), God’s grooming of Israel as a holy nation was done outside the urban centers of the ancient world.

Keller likens the Garden of Eden to a city at one point, saying “the city is a form of cultural ‘gardening’ if you will” (I won’t), which is not a word association that anyone would organically have. There is simply not a logical thought-flow connecting agriculture and urbanity. But logic doesn’t seem to deter Keller, who seems convinced his thoughts are always smarter than anyone else’s.

The Scriptural reality is that God’s Promised Seed avoided city life from the Garden of Eden through to their enslavement in Egypt. As best as we can tell from the Scripture, the ancient cities of Cairo, Memphis, Thebes, Luxor, and Giza are the first urban areas the Promised Seed ever called home, and they cried out for 400 years to leave these places (Exodus 2:23).

It was in the wilderness during the Exodus that the Hebrew people truly became the nation of Israel and began to identify as a unique ethnic people group (having grown from roughly 75 people to 2.4 million). God used the wilderness to solidify their status as a people holy unto him and set apart for his purposes. When they entered into the Promised Land they did not set up residency in Jericho, a city at the time of nearly two-thousand people (this was a lot), but they walked around it and watched God destroy it. This was not a curse, but a blessing. No one complained about the loss of Jericho’s culture, which unsurprisingly included a whore house built into its wall.

In fact, the use of the wilderness to grow, solidify, strengthen, and inspire God’s people is a very real theme in Scripture, far from the imaginary urban-centricity of Keller.

God’s first act upon calling Abraham was to send him away from the city. The patriarch left Ur, which at the time was the largest city in the world (approximately 65 thousand people) under the command of God. He would later come upon the Promised Land, a relatively underdeveloped rural area with only sporadically-placed smaller trading outposts. God did not choose the New York of Abraham’s day to place his people, but the countryside.

God’s use of the wilderness in the life of Israel was pivotal for their spiritual training and chastisement (Deuteronomy 32:10) . The wilderness is a word used 300 times in the Bible, and at almost every juncture it is the place of divine significance. It is where God spoke to Moses, where God dealt with Elijah, it is where Jacob and David encountered Yahweh. The wilderness is where Jesus frequently went to spend time with God (Matthew 4:1-25) and also where he went to preach (Matthew 5:1-48). It is where John the Baptist baptized (Matthew 3:11) even though he was raised in the metropolitan sprawl of Jerusalem. The wilderness is where God’s people will flee in the End Times to avoid the plagues of the city (Revelation 16:7-11). It’s where God will comfort the errant and correct them (Hosea 2:11).

Living in the country was synonymous with blessing, as Ezekiel writes, “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods.”

One can only imagine how Keller would shudder at the thought of sleeping in the woods.

Meanwhile, the Scripture is replete with admonitions to flee the city. Not only does the narrative of Lot’s flight from Sodom paint for us a strong picture of the consequence of looking behind at the city’s alluring sinfulness, there are many accounts to this effect. Consider, for example, Ezekiel’s constant begging of God’s people to flee Jerusalem in advance of the city’s coming destruction. According to Ezekiel 11:3, it was a group of sinful and wicked counselors who insisted that people stay in the city under a false presumption that God would never destroy it. In Ezekiel’s imagery, borrowed from Jeremiah 1:13, the city was “a caldron” that would cook anyone who remained there.

It sounds like New York on doomsday.

Speaking of doomsday, God’s people are instructed to flee the city to spare their lives (Luke 21:21) when that great day arrives. But the clearest apocalyptic imagery of the ultimate fate of the city lies in Revelation 18:4, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.”

John the Revelator then explains what was so alluring about Babylon, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk
the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.”

No doubt symbolic of the world’s mammon, John’s list of Babylon’s characteristics sounds uniquely urban. The rich collect there. The powerful have made it their home. There is every kind of detestable uncleanness, sexual immorality, and luxurious living.

Imagine a preacher saying, “It is true we must take the Gospel to Babylon. But Babylon also brings the Gospel to us.” Tim Keller is that preacher. Nonsense. Poppycock. Balderdash.

Within Keller’s thinking, his anti-rural bias has made mincemeat of sound exposition. While a true and God-made city is eschatologically coming (more on that in Part III), every city on Earth is a taste and foreshadow not of Heaven, but of Hell. Cities, scripturally, exemplify everything that is contrary to God and God’s Word. Without a hint of exaggeration, it is fair to say that little else symbolizes a world at hostility with God as well as the city.

Marxism, however, is a disease that infects theology and Keller shows that his condition is terminal. Keller writes with Communist flair…

The city attracts the minorities of any society who can band together for mutual support. Thus the city is deeply merciful to those with less power, creating safe enclaves for singles vs. families, the poor (and even the rich!) vs. the bourgeois, immigrants vs. longer- term residents, racial minorities vs. majorities. Thus the city will always be the most diverse human-life structure.

Touching on the concept of Marxist Intersectionality, Keller claims that the city empowers minorities. He claims, much without reason or empirical evidence, that the city is “deeply merciful” to the proletariat over against the bourgeois and minorities over majorities.

I tell you, there is not an ounce of sociological evidence for this wildly utopian claim. Cities swallow up minority populations into ghettos and ‘projects,’ creating a system of dependency and generational poverty that it is hard (for some) to escape. While it is true that urban areas have been the center of cross-Atlantic immigration (thanks to its low-paying manufacturing jobs) and black settlement during and after Reconstruction, studies show that those in rural areas are more likely to own their own homes, have either higher income or a lower cost of living that effectively amounts to a higher quality of life, and enjoy better health. These findings are proportional among both minority ethnic populations in rural America and their Caucasian counterparts. Meanwhile, living in urban areas make ethnic minorities more likely to suffer violence, theft, and sexual assault. The urban utopia of Tim Keller truly doesn’t exist, especially for minorities who are disproportionately affected by urban crime and poverty rates.

Keller’s factless infatuation and bald assertions about the city comes across in his writing…

 The challenge of the city attracts the most talented, ambitious. Thus, whoever you are, when you come to the city you are confronted by far more people who are far better than you at whatever you do.

Keller might be surprised to know that the incarnate Son of God was born in Bethlehem of Judea and raised in a tiny hamlet in the countryside of Galilee called Nazareth. It had no stoplights, so to speak.

When confronted with the assertion that Jesus was the Son of God in John 1:46, Nathaniel asked in indignation, “What good can come from Nazareth?”

Tim Keller has the same prejudice towards rural America today. Surely, Keller thinks, nothing good can come from Fly-Over.


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4 thoughts on “A Refutation of the ‘Theology of the City’ (Part II)

  1. So good. The system of animal sacrices ties God’s people to rural living and gives evidence of rural living people.

  2. Two excellent articles that I fully agree with. Even a cursory scan of the Bible shows that cities tend to concentrate sin and evil, and thus bring God’s judgment time and time again. He even had Jerusalem leveled in AD 70 because of its wickedness and rejection of the Messiah, and it is the “city of the great King”. Abraham “was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God”, because he knew the present cities were really messed up. Jesus had harsh words for several cities in Matthew 11 for their rejection of Him. Jerusalem will finally be a city worth its salt when Christ rules and reigns from there in the Kingdom, and again in the eternal state in the New Jerusalem.

    Bottom line, Keller wants to pump up the importance of cities to pump up his own importance since he grew a big church in one. I’m not buyin’.

  3. I’ve always maintained that people think Tim “The Great Nuancer” Keller is intelligent because he’s bald, wears glasses, and looks and sounds the way most people think a professor should look and sound. Relatively few people pay serious attention to what he says, which is increasingly nonsensical.

    It might be worth noting that the astronauts of the “Right Stuff” era were overwhelmingly from small towns or farms.

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