Do you know what the “third-way” is? Until a few months ago I had no idea, but then I began to hear the term “third-wayism” used to criticise certain approaches to Christian ministry, often the ministry of Tim Keller.[1] It refers, as I quickly learned, to a stance that rejects the either/or political or cultural alternatives on offer in our society and seeks a third, different approach.

As someone who was recently accused of third-wayism before I really knew what it was, I have been listening attentively to these criticisms. I think they have some merit, but I also think they are frequently beset with misunderstandings, conflations and naiveites. So here are four points (and an exhortation) to help us understand what the third-way is, what it isn’t, and why, despite everything, I still think it’s a healthy and biblical approach to controversy.

1. Not All Third-Wayisms Are the Same

Let’s begin with what the critiques of third-wayism get right. Two main criticisms tend to be made. First, a third-way approach engages with every political or cultural disagreement with the assumption that the truth is found halfway between the two opposing sides, and so it gives equal airtime to both camps in every debate. But this “splitting the difference” approach has more to do with Aristotle and his golden mean than with the Bible and its bold antitheses (“work out your salvation… for it is God who works”, Philippians 2:12). The idea that we should simply split the difference between major political parties, never mind between orthodoxy and heresy, is not just bad cultural engagement, it has wandered away from the faith.

Rather than crudely splitting the difference in this way, 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.

The second problem identified with third-way thinking is that it imagines itself to be subtler than thou, rejecting every existing position and serenely floating above the fray, reducing neighbour-love to holiness signaling. It is, in short, a way of never committing to any position at all, while looking down on those who do. If this were what the third-way means, then it would deserve to be denounced, but such gross caricatures are not the sum and substance of what thinkers like Keller are doing. We shouldn’t ban all currency because forgeries exist, nor should we reject all “third-way-ism” because, sometimes, it may have been done badly.

2. Modernity is Structured by Dualisms

In building a case for a better, biblical third-wayism we can begin with two related thoughts. The first is that modern western culture has a congenital predisposition to think in dualisms:

  • signs and things; subjects and objects;
  • superstition and enlightenment;
  • heteronomy and autonomy;
  • prejudice and free thought;
  • traditional and modern.

The list goes on. Our politics and international relations are also largely governed by a set of dualisms:

  • the first world and the third world;
  • colonisers and the colonised;
  • oppressors and victims;
  • the proletariat and the bourgeoisie;
  • the deserving poor and the indolent poor.

Conforming to this same pattern, U.S., British and Australian politics is dominated by two major parties, whether we like it or not.

Modernity’s dualisms are frequently damaging and violent; to reject them is not to be indecisive, it is to be biblical.

But none of these dualisms, not one of them, captures the richness and complexity of a biblical account of who we are, what we can know or how we can flourish. Modernity’s dualisms are frequently damaging and violent; to reject them is not to be indecisive, it is simply to let the Bible set its own table, rather than forcing a choice between pre-existing options.

3. The Third-Way is the First Way

Related to this, it is also important to understand that the Bible does not arrive on the heels of these modern dualisms with a third proposal as an after-thought—simply reacting to the alternatives presented in modern secular culture. This is where the “third-way” terminology is really quite misleading. Our modern dualisms are reductive and partial distortions of the more complex biblical reality.

Take the example of the presence of both justice and mercy in God’s character. Is God just? Yes, down to the last jot and tittle. Is God merciful? Praise the Lord yes, through his great mercy he made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. As John so succinctly puts it, God is not half-justice half-grace, but “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). G. K. Chesterton captures the radical biblical “third-way” in the following words:

… we want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy; love and wrath both burning. […] I need not remind the reader that the idea of this combination is indeed central in orthodox theology. For orthodox theology has specially insisted that Christ was not a being apart from God and man, like an elf, nor yet a being half human and half not, like a centaur, but both things at once and both things thoroughly, very man and very God.[2]

Both things at the top of their energy: that is the biblical way! But see how the attributes of God are sundered and made into enemies of each other in our culture: a penal system built around mercy and understanding versus one founded on justice and punishment.

We are not splitting the difference between contemporary models; we are showing that these contemporary models themselves have split the rich biblical picture.

If we insist on a biblical understanding of justice and mercy we are not splitting the difference between contemporary models; we are showing that these contemporary models themselves have split the rich biblical picture. Like so many heresies, they do not invent a new truth but take part of the truth and make it the whole truth. The rich complexity of God’s character comes first (Gen 1:1), not third, and to insist on its relevance to public debate is not to carve out a novel third way but to insist on the original first way from which all ideologies have wandered.

4. Theology is Different from Politics

Some people see the refusal to bring the Bible in line behind this or that secular ideology as an abdication of responsibility—a failure to take sides on important social or political issues.

But this is to confuse theology and politics. Theological engagement asks questions like: how does the complex truth of the Bible, with its overarching story of creation, fall, redemption, consummation, and with all its details and nuances, relate to the categories and structures of modern ontology, epistemology and politics? Political reality deals with questions like: who I should vote for at the next election.

Insisting on the Bible as a third-way stops me from becoming a political poodle.

If I begin by thinking things through theologically, I will see that no political party perfectly mirrors a full-orbed biblical view of God, humanity, society and the world. 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.

An Exhortation: Don’t Hitch Your Discipleship or Ministry to Any One (or Two!) Writers

The accusations laid out in this article are often made against Tim Keller’s ministry. Keller is, by his own admission, something of a reconciler. Other ministers of the gospel are more polemically minded. And that’s okay: the church needs this variety. “I follow Keller” is no improvement in the twenty-first century over “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas” in the first. Tim Keller is one of the “servants through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Cor 3:5). If we treat any of these servants as the only path to ministry success or cultural insight, then the fault lies not with them but with us.

Keller’s own reading is broad and generous: he doesn’t just follow one thinker or one paradigm. So let’s not, in our turn, be dualistic about Tim Keller or about any other servant. Under the grace of God, he has been a huge influence on my own Christian growth and understanding, and I am now more determined than ever to follow his own example by not becoming a Kellerist. And if that is the “third-way”, then sign me up.

[1] One of the most recent examples is James R. Wood, “How I evolved on Tim Keller”, First Things, 5/6/22. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/05/how-i-evolved-on-tim-keller. For an earlier influential treatment of the third-way, see Chad Hall, “Third Way Faith”, Christianity Today 10 October 2008, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2008/october-online-only/third-way-faith.html.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 296.