Keller, Piper, Yancey and the meaning of words...

(Tim) Tim Keller's coming out with another book titled, The Prodigal God. Unlike his last book written for unbelievers, Pastor Keller says this one's addressed to Christians. From Alex Chediak's blog, here's an interview with Pastor Keller. Below the interview, Steve Camp comments about Pastor Keller's use of the word 'prodigal' to refer to God.

Similar comments caused Pastor Keller to give this explanation.

The word ‘prodigal’ is an English word that means recklessly extravagant, spending to the point of poverty, of ‘being in want’ (Luke 15:14.) The dictionaries tell us that the word can be understood in a more negative or a more positive sense. The more positive meaning is to be lavishly and sacrificially abundant in giving. The more negative sense, is to be wasteful and irresponsible in one’s spending. The negative sense obviously applies to the actions of the younger brother in the Luke 15 parable of the two sons. But is there any sense in which God can be called ‘Prodigal’?

Dropping the discussion on Alex Chediak's blog, Steve Camp moved it to his own for continuation. I think Steve Camp's concerns are legitimate, although I'm not sure had I been the editor I'd have forced a title change. Seems to me Helmut Thielicke's title, The Waiting Father (a superb book, by the way), is even more effective. In the discussion, those souls who try to strong-arm Steve to silence strike me either as intentionally obtuse or as possessing only an elementary understanding of language--something you could never say about Pastor Keller.

Other well-known Christian writers have been intentionally risque with their language...

Think of Phil Yancey's Disappointment with God, and John Piper's Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. The phraseology of each of these three men has been chosen with an eye to giving the reader a jolt, hoping that jolt will move him away from the stultifying complacency of evangelical Christianity long enough to allow him to hear Biblical truths that might otherwise be beyond his capacity.

Today, when we want to say what Pastor Keller means by his archaism 'prodigal' while avoiding its pejorative connotation, we use the word 'extravagant'. Maybe a better discussion would be whether the extravagance of God's love or His judgment is the message Christians are most resistant to?

In other words, a book better-suited to the church's need of the hour might be The Bloodthirsty God, detailing His hatred of sin and the horrors of the judgment He revealed to the Apostle John, and commanded him to record for us in his Apocalypse.


Yes, in our culture God is treated as not only extravagant but permissive and (ahem) affirming when we define who we are on the basis of our sexual proclivities rather than on to whom we belong.

Piper's book on Christian hedonism reminds me of the discussion I had some time ago with and Anglican Kiwi - regarding the difference between sensual and sensuous.


Tim, I'd think a discussion of God's extravagance could be pretty easily turned toward meditation on the church's need of the hour. "Christ extravagantly gives, to the point of incredible sacrifice. Are we, who claim to be Christ's followers, truly following?"

Lloyd Ogilvie used the very same language in his book on the parables, "The Prodigal God". He was making the point of course that God is prodigious in his lavish and unquenchable love, and that the Father - rather than the 2 sons - is the 'star' of the story. This isn't new, even if it is rarely employed.

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