When Dr. Ligon Duncan assumed leadership of RTS in 2013, he inherited an invitation from Dr. Timothy Keller to launch a campus in New York City. Much of the first year of the new chancellor’s tenure would be given toward finalizing the accreditation and the strategic plan for the new campus and preparing to teach one of the marquee courses in the program, Introduction to Pastoral and Theological Studies. Dr. Duncan would be the professor of record for this course of 39 instructional hours given to an overview of Reformed theology and the distinctives of Reformed pastoral ministry. But he was delighted for his friend, Dr. Keller, to teach 16 of these hours.

“By that time Tim and I had been close friends for over a decade,” Dr. Duncan recalled. “The church I pastored in Jackson had supported Redeemer’s ministry initiatives in the city for years.”

Dr. Duncan and Dr. Keller’s friendship first deepened over a shared love of J.R.R. Tolkien. Then, the two worked closely together as council members when Dr. Keller and Dr. D.A. Carson launched The Gospel Coalition in 2007. By the time Dr. Keller asked RTS to start a campus in New York City, he had become known for his writing, his church planting, and his balance of expository and evangelistic preaching.

Dr. Timothy Keller, Dr. Ligon Duncan

“Through my friendship and work with Tim,” said Dr. Duncan, “I knew how important Reformed theology was to him. I was not surprised that he asked RTS to start a campus in the city given our purpose, commitments, and ethos.”

Collin Hansen notes in his biography of Dr. Keller that Dr. Keller’s vision for theological training can be captured through the dual image of “a clenched fist and a bowed head.” The bowed head represents a prayerful piety that is humble, non-triumphalistic, and always dependent upon the Holy Spirit. When the time came for Keller to realize his vision for theological education in New York City, the clenched fist and bowed head would become “a mind for truth and a heart for God.” RTS did not have to adjust its values at all to respond to the invitation. Consider the purpose statement found in the seminary’s academic catalog:

The purpose of RTS is to serve the church in all branches of evangelical Christianity, especially the Presbyterian and Reformed family, by preparing its leaders, with a priority on pastors, and including missionaries, educators, counselors, and others through a program of theological education on the graduate level, based upon the authority of the inerrant Word of God… This program shall be characterized by biblical fidelity, confessional integrity, and academic excellence, and committed to the promotion of the spiritual growth of the students. The breadth of this ministry will include multiple campuses… as led by the Lord.

Even those familiar with RTS are often surprised to learn that the first statement of its purpose is “to serve all branches of evangelical Christianity.” That statement hearkens to the founding of the institution. From its inception, it would be free from denominational control, not to seek theological license, but to maintain orthodoxy. The training would focus on raising up a new generation of Bible-believing and gospel-preaching ministers, but would welcome the full breadth of Christian workers and laypeople who wanted to deepen their faith. Considering the stated purpose of RTS, the church in New York City provides an ideal context for its ministry expression.

RTS’ adherence to the Westminster Standards was and is what distinguishes it from other seminaries in New York City.RTS’ purpose also proved essential to obtaining permission from the state of New York to launch the seminary in New York City. There were already seminaries with plenty of capacity to train new students in New York City, so any institution that came in would have to demonstrate a distinctive contribution. RTS’ adherence to the Westminster Standards was and is what distinguishes it from other seminaries in New York City. The seminary obtained permission to operate and began teaching its first cohort of students in 2015. Now, RTS New York City has a headcount of over 70 students and has graduates serving as senior pastors, church planters, campus ministers, and ministry directors throughout the city. In 2023, the campus reached a new milestone when a recent graduate and current student were admitted to Ph.D. programs in theology and New Testament.

Duncan notes how every year, when he begins his Introduction to Pastoral and Theological Studies course, he starts by expressing appreciation for Dr. Keller’s emphasis on theological education: “I tell students, ‘RTS and I believe with Dr. Keller that ministers today need to know more, not less. To do faithful contextualization requires better, more robust theological education than ever before.’”

Hansen’s biography of Dr. Keller notes how in the early days of Redeemer, it was clear that he was no control freak. Similarly, Dr. Duncan has been appreciative of the generous collaborative spirit of Dr. Keller in inviting RTS to New York City. Because RTS is an accredited institution with its own board, Dr. Keller was lending his influence to start RTS New York City while never having any real control of the work.

“It was remarkably generous of Tim and a testimony to his kingdom-mindedness,” recalled Duncan. “As a former seminary professor, Tim knew that he would have to trust us to run everything. He respected our theological commitments and ethos as an institution and gave us the reins to fulfill our ministry.”

As RTS continues to fulfill its ministry in New York City, it has seen notable growth in diversity. Former New England Patriots and New York Giants offensive tackle Nate Solder is an MABS student at RTS New York City.

“I would say that two of the greatest things about RTS are that its faculty loves the students and their families, and that the students are wildly diverse,” said Solder.

Brandon Cobb is the executive pastor at Renaissance Church in Harlem. He has six credits left to complete his MABS degree and plans to graduate in January of 2024. A native of the New York metro region, Cobb was living in Harlem and working full time in the tech industry during the first years of his studies at RTS New York City. Having an RTS campus in New York City allows Cobb the opportunity to experience a world-class theological education with in-person instruction while not having to leave the city or disrupt his service to Renaissance Church.

“Ministers today need to know more, not less. To do faithful contextualization requires better, more robust theological education than ever before.”
Dr. Ligon Duncan
Cobb is grateful for the seminary’s presence in the city: “I have become a better father as much as I have become a better pastor studying with RTS. I’m encouraged to look at New York City through a tested and biblically sound lens.”

The love of the faculty, along with their confessional commitments, is the reason that the RTS New York City student body reaches native New Yorkers. In fact, the campus is unique in that it does not often admit students who do not already live in the city. Students come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, from all five boroughs, and from various ecclesiastical traditions, but each one comes for a Reformed theological education. Every applicant reads and responds to the Westminster Shorter Catechism as part of the application process. They trust that RTS professors will teach them the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, and love and respect them and their communities as a beloved branch of the tree of evangelical Christianity. Such is our calling to have a clenched fist and a bowed head—a mind for truth and a heart for God.


This article was completed prior to Dr. Tim Keller’s succumbing to pancreatic cancer and finishing his race. Now that Dr. Keller is with the Lord, RTS remains committed to the strategic ministry of RTS New York City, and joins our partners in New York City as we seek to honor his legacy of gospel faithfulness. We give thanks to God for Dr. Keller’s life, ministry, and example.