Tim Keller is Wrong about Abortion because he is Right about Third-Wayism

Over the past few weeks, Tim Keller has received pushback for making some controversial political statements. One particularly troubling example came from a Twitter thread, in which Keller said the following:

Here are two Biblical MORAL norms: 1) It is a sin to worship idols or any God other than the true God & 2) do not murder. If you ask evangelicals if we should be forbidden by law to worship any other God than the God of the Bible—they’d say ‘no.’


We allow that terrible sin to be legal. But if you ask them if Americans should be forbidden by law to abort a baby, they'd say ‘yes.’ Now why make the first sin legal and NEVER talk about it and the second sin illegal and a main moral/political talking point?

The most astute criticism I’ve seen of this false equivalence is an op-ed by Andrew T. Walker for WORLD Magazine. Walker rightly calls Keller out for failing to adequately distinguish between sins and crimes, thus confusing the Christian position on abortion. Walker’s op-ed is a respectful and necessary pushback to Keller’s confusing contribution to the abortion debate.

Many of Keller’s critics would point to his “third way” stance toward cultural engagement as the source of botched arguments like the Twitter thread above. As they see it, Keller is trying too hard to not “take sides” on political issues, choosing instead to camp out on a milquetoast middle ground. But such an interpretation fails to distinguish between true third-wayism and its misuses.

In a general sense, Keller’s critics have indeed made legitimate points about the potential pitfalls of third-wayism. For example, in a piece for First Things, James R. Wood notes that a third way approach can encourage

…a pietistic impulse to keep one’s hands clean, stay above the fray, and at a distance from imperfect options for addressing complex social and political issues. It can also produce conflict-aversion, and thus it is instinctively accommodating. By always giving equal airtime to the flaws in every option, the third way posture can also give the impression that the options are equally bad, failing to sufficiently recognize ethical asymmetry.

Of course, any “way” is not without its problems and misuses. And some of the critiques of third-wayism don’t acknowledge the reality that abuse does not cancel use. In other words, the misuse of something is no argument against its proper use.

In an article published for The Gospel Coalition, Chris Watkin does an admirable job explaining the true and biblical nature of third-wayism:

Rather than crudely splitting the difference [between ‘rightwing’ and ‘leftwing’], third way thinking is about letting the Bible set its own table—unfold its own categories and tell its own story in its own way—rather than squeezing it in awkwardly between existing ideologies at a table set by others. Only when the Bible has first been allowed to speak in its own terms can we bring it into meaningful conversation with secular ideologies.

Watkin’s article, which I recommend reading in its entirety, makes four points:

  1. Not all Third-Wayisms are the Same
  2. Modernity Is Structured by Dualisms
  3. The Third Way Is The First Way
  4. Theology is Different from Politics

Under his fourth point, Watkin explains the position of third-wayism:

I may still vote for—even campaign for—one party, but my political vision and vocabulary will not become subsumed under that party’s agenda, nor will I stop pointing out when it takes positions that are contrary to the Scriptures. Insisting on the Bible as a third way does not stop me from being politically passionate; it stops me from becoming a political poodle.

Far from occupying a squishy, non-committal no-man’s land, third-wayism seeks to view culture and politics through a biblical lens. As Keller himself once put it, “[E]veryone occupies SOME middle because there’s always someone to one side or the other on issues who thinks YOU have compromised. Nearly everyone is in a ‘middle’—the question is: which middle is the right one?”

That’s a question we would all do well to ponder—including Pastor Keller himself.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash (edited)