Practice in Precision: Pt 3


Tim Keller, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, has done much for the kingdom of Christ.  Let me emphasize that – Pastor Keller does more good, say, on any given Thursday, than I’ve accomplished in my life.  He’s written many fine books, several of which I’ve read with profit.  I know no one more adept than Keller at relating Christian doctrine to the modern, secular city-dweller. 

However, that no one is perfect is a truth that applies to even the best of pastors.  No matter how much fine material a pastor or theologian has previously turned out, one cannot afford to receive his new work uncritically, without waving around the discernment antennae.  When it comes to Pastor Keller’s recent online treatments of the topic of racism, I find his reasoning to be facile and, unintentionally, misleading.  I’d like to demonstrate that over a few posts by interacting with this recently written article:  

The purpose of these posts is not to smear Keller or steer you away from his writing.  Rather, the hope is that we’ll get some practice in biblical precision, we’ll dip our toes into the contemporary discussion of racism, and generally remember our calling to a love that discerns (Philippians 1:9).

  1. Keller’s use of the word “racism” is vague and gratuitous. (see first  post)
  2. The third section of Keller’s article – “Is racism a corporate as well as an individual sin?” – is logically and exegetically confused.
  3. Today’s post will conclude the point #2 above, began last time – Keller’s third section is… exegetically confused – with a short examination of 2 Samuel 21:1ff.  Keller claims that this passage is another example of the truth that “God still holds nations and peoples responsible for sins after the individual perpetrators had died.” And at several points it appears that his definition of responsibility includes the notion of “bearing guilt.”  In the last post I worked out that Keller’s other scriptural citations didn’t carry this point.  

In 2 Samuel 21, a famine descends for three years on David’s realm.  When David inquires of the Lord the reason for the famine, he’s told that there is “bloodguilt” on King Saul and his house, because Saul had years ago put some Gibeonites to death.  At this time Saul had been dead for years.

You may recall from Joshua 9 that the Gibeonites – non-Israelite residents of the Promised Land – were under Israel’s special protection, an arrangement that had been sealed with an oath.  You’ll also remember that it was through Gibeon’s chicanery that Israel had been tricked into entering this oath.  Yet an old, seemingly trifling oath that was entered into dubiously is still binding, and at some point in his reign Saul had violated it.  

Breaking a 400+ year old oath with a no-account people presumably felt to Saul as rather unimportant.  And indeed, for some years after the violation Israel suffered no repercussions.  But now in David’s reign, for three years in a row, a famine on the land due to Saul’s transgression.

Perhaps unwisely, David asks the Gibeonites for their terms of atonement.  In the Middle Eastern fashion, their initial response contains some deflection, but they eventually get around to stating the high price: the death of seven of Saul’s descendants.  David the King answers: “I will give them.”    Later the rains came, washing over the corpses. 

Ok, that’s the summary of the grim events.  Back to the matter at hand, and let’s state the question crassly: Does this passage lead us to perceive that living white Americans are guilty because of what white Americans did in the past?  


Firstly, any interpretation of this passage has to bear in mind that its events are in the context of an arrangement unique in human history: the Creator in covenant with a specific nation. (See previous post for more on this interpretive limitation.)  Also, remember that this passage is dealing with the transgression of, not just a regular citizen of the covenant nation, but their Head and Representative.  So drawing parallels to our time will be quite tricky to start with. 

Secondly, in this passage God assigns guilt specifically to “Saul and his house,” not to David or all of Israel. So David and Israel face the consequences of Saul’s violation, but they do not bear his guilt.  They are responsible for Saul’s sin in that now they’ll have to look for a way to repair the damage; but they cannot justly be held responsible in the sense that they’re blamed for what Saul did.  But that kind of blame is seemingly what Keller infers from this text, and then wants to apply the principle to the effect that… moderns with white skin bear guilt?!

Finally, we don’t want to pass over that both Saul and his house are said to bear guilt.  Granting that the guilt didn’t extend out to all of Israel, is there some insight to be gained by noting that Saul’s guilt extended to Saul’s immediate descendants?  Well, maybe?[1] 

But that brings us back to the point about solidarity.  Saul and his children were legally constituted together.  But people of similar skin color are not in any kind of official solidarity with one another!  There is nothing official, legal, covenantal etc binding together peoples of a certain skin color.

Let me repeat that: People sharing similar skin color are not by that fact in any real solidarity with one another.  Which is why I dislike and reject terms like “black community,” “white community etc.”  I’m not part of the white community… There is no such thing!

(For similar reasons I dislike when companies adopt household language when addressing their employees: Welcome to the Stop and Shop family!)

So once again I don’t find that Pastor Keller is supporting his basic practical point – living American whites are inevitability guilty of the ethnic malice some American whites have committed in the past – with legitimate principles derived from good scripture interpretation.  

Next time we’ll discuss Keller’s ideas for “repenting from racism,” though with the proviso that this is one of the very few times repentance might not be in order.   

[1] And maybe not.  Because the details aren’t provided, we don’t know if Saul’s children and grandchildren were themselves involved in the Gibeonite extermination.

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