All posts by Richard L. Smith

Sola Scriptura: Revelation Is Communication

When we acknowledge sola scriptura, we affirm several important truths about the mind, about God, human beings, and the world we live in.

First, Scripture is an act of communication, and this implies intelligence. Intelligence requires a brain or mind. We learn from the Bible that God is a thinker. He understands everything. He interprets and evaluates all things within his realm. God is the standard and criterion for all thought and behavior, which means sola scriptura.

God is the supremely intelligent king. He is also the architect, econo­mist, and philosopher of creation. He is the ontological expert in each of these fields—and any other we might name. He is our transcendent genius, virtuoso, and mastermind. He is the ultimate specialist of every kind of knowledge. He understands in depth and breadth each realm of experience in every language and at each level of development.

Second, God created a world that is understandable and subject to analysis. It is manageable and capable of development. The transcendent scientist, mathematician, and artisan designed and constructed it. In fact, the world was made for thinkers, for a great mind created it. It is the product of a knowing God and a God who is knowable.

Third, the Bible shows that human beings are created in his image. He is a thinker and so are we. We can understand his revelation to us. Indeed, God made sentient be­ings with intellectual curiosity, imagination, and an aspiration for wisdom. Adam and Eve’s stewardship, for instance, was inconceivable without using the cognitive abilities God gave to and patterned for them. In the same way, we must develop and use our intellectual abilities to serve God and bless others.

The Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were commissioned in Genesis 1:26 to imitate the creator as apprentice rulers, builders, benefactors, and thinkers. For this reason, perhaps the greatest gift God gave us as the image of God is our mind, our self-consciousness.

Our doctrine of scripture, therefore, presumes that we possess the intellectual capacity to hear and understand revelation. This assumes that the divine communicator exists and is not silent. This doctrine also presumes that we should listen and obey.

Indeed, we must learn from God to be good stewards, for he is the divine teacher. The whole world and we ourselves are the classroom. We must listen to his voice in creation and especially through scripture―which implies sola scriptura.

Sola Scriptura: Our Ultimate Authority

Our concept of scripture affirms that the Bible is the supreme standard of knowledge. It tells us what to think, but also how to think, why, and when. It provides the norms for life, thought, and faith. It teaches wisdom to navigate the complexities of existence.

The Bible is revelation from God. It is his voice speaking to us. It demands our full attention. It requires our complete obedience. The Bible is the revelation of the mind of God with respect to creation. It tells what is real and how to respond.

Consider this brief illustration. In the Old Testament, the central creedal affirmation is called the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4–5. It says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

The Shema is an example of the indicative-imperative dynamic in the Bible. There are three parts of this formula: an indicative statement, which is a statement of truth or fact; a literal or logically implied “therefore,” which points to the proper response; and then the answer, which is an application or command.

In this case, the indicative is found in verse 4, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The imperative is verse 5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

The Shema tells us what reality consists of: an absolute, transcendent, sovereign creator, the Lord our God, and that he is God alone. There is no other. And there is a relationship between the creator and creature: a Lord-servant covenant. This means that we must devote all our being to his honor and service, which he communicates to us through the Bible.

In this passage, therefore, we are told that the proper response to God is total devotion in thought, desire, and behavior. This is an important implication of sola scriptura. God communicates to us with authority, and we must listen and obey because of who he is (creator) and what we are (servants).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solo Scriptura: “Listen to the Voice of God”

When Israel was about to enter the promised land, Moses taught them the most important lesson for any human being to learn. This is the concept of sola scriptura.

Listen to what Deuteronomy 8:3 says, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Consider three important lessons in this verse. First, the generic word for human beings, “man,” indicates that this is a lesson not just for Israel or for the church, but mankind in general. God declares to all people at all times, “Listen to me. I am your creator and Lord.” This is God’s affirmation of solo scriptura to the whole human race, regardless of their religious outlook.

Second, the term “live” has two meanings. It refers to physical existence, such as our need for food, water, shelter, and economic power. But it also refers to our quality of life, signifying peace or Shalom, the ability to flourish and prosper. This means that human beings will truly thrive only when they hear and obey the voice of God speaking to them in creation and his Word (Psalms 19; 119:105, 160).

Third, throughout the Old Testament, a mind that listens to God practices sola scriptura. The Hebrew verb for “listen” is translated in three ways, depending on context: “listen to,” “hear,” or “obey.” The same verb often appears with a particular direct object, “voice” or “listen to the voice of.” The Hebrew idiom “listen to the voice of” means acknowledging a speaker with authority who expects his instructions to be followed. In Deuteronomy, “listen to the voice of the Lord” appears twenty times. Other phrases include “listen to”: “the command of the Lord,” “my words,” and “the statutes and laws.”

Just as ancient Israel was expected to use their minds and hear God’s voice, we in the church must think and listen also. Remember what God said about Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen one; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Jesus, of course, is our model for practicing sola scriptura (Luke 2:46).

Clearly, we must pay attention to God’s instruction and learn to understand it. Indeed, the doctrine of sola scriptura implies that we are perpetual students. Always learning. Always curious to learn more about God, his world, his word, and his plan of redemption. To put it another way, sola scriptura implies semper reformada, which means “aways reforming,” “always learning,” “always repenting,” as we listen to the voice of God’s alone.

 

 

 

 

IGNORANCE OR INSIGHT?

The importance of insight―knowing the truth about reality and oneself―is universal, present in very culture, worldview, and religion. Leyland Ryken describes “archetypal plot motifs” that occur universally (Words of Delight, 49), such as “the movement from ignorance to epiphany” (insight). For example, the following is a Hindu parable about an adult tiger who encounters an orphaned tiger cub eating grass among the sheep:

One day the Bengal man-eater comes stalking through the woods. He has just eaten a gazelle for breakfast, but he is always hungry. His spring is impeccable. The goats all flee—except for the wanna-be goat. The tiger inspects the cub in astonishment. “What are you doing here?” “Maaaaah,” bleats the wanna-be goat. “We don’t bleat,” growls the man-eater. Confused, the cub nibbles grass. “And we do not eat grass!” roars the man-eater. “We are not vegetarians!” The tiger seizes the cub by the scruff of the neck and carries him to a reflecting pool, to show him his true face. When the wanna-be goat sees his true face, he squeals in terror.

Enraged and disgusted, the man-eater grabs the cub and drags him back to his lair, where he is hoarding the remains of the gazelle he had for breakfast. He pries open the cub’s jaw and forces down some of the raw meat. As the blood trickles down the wanna-be goat’s gullet, he opens his jaws. And he roars. Whereupon the tiger says, “Now that you know who you are, we can begin to discuss how you ought to behave.”

The motif of transformation, from ignorance to insight, is a recurring theme in popular film as well. The first “Matrix” movie concerns the initiation of Neo, who discovers that the human race is totally manipulated by computers. What he thought was real was only an illusion, created to enslave mankind. The “Truman Show” is about coming to know that reality, as it presents itself, is a total façade, designed to entertain others and sell products. “The Island” depicts human clones, brainwashed to embrace an illusion, but whose only purpose is the provision of body parts for others.

Why is “the movement from ignorance to epiphany” ubiquitous? Why is insight about reality so important? Why should we know the truth about God, the world, and ourselves? Because God created the world as a school. Every aspect of creation, the natural world, ourselves, and our relations are revelatory. All facts speak to us. Everything, every encounter, and everyone is an invitation to think and learn.

God, the great teacher, created human beings as his pupils―in his image. We are homo discens, the being who learns. Humans were designed for intellectual curiosity and insight. We were created to serve God and mankind with our minds.

Dru Johnson in his book, Biblical Knowing (p. xv), says: “The Christian scriptures could be theologically described as beginning and ending with an epistemological outlook.” He added: “The first episode of humanity’s activity centers on the knowledge of good and evil. The final stage of humanity is pictured by Jeremiah as a universally prophetic and knowing society (Jer 31:34).”

Knowing, understanding, wisdom, and insight, in other words, are crucial features of the world as God created it.

The movement from ignorance to insight is a central feature of the Bible. Consider these two passages, for example:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:28–30)

Please note that the most important commandment includes learning and loving God with the mind.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)

Our goal as followers of Jesus Christ is to know God and to make him known. This involves a process of diligent study, moving from ignorance and illusion to epiphany and insight. Or to paraphrase the last sentence of the Hindu parable, our transformation means: “Now that you know who you are, we can begin to discuss how you ought to think!” As Christians, we must stop consuming intellectual “milk” and eat the “meat” of God’s word (Heb 5:12–14). We should enroll in God’s school and seek insight.

 

 

 

 

 

“The Heart Has Its Reasons”

In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal, renowned mathematician, and Christian intellectual, disputed with the rationalistic apologists of his time, such as René Descartes. Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not” and “We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart.”

Pascal did not claim that belief in God or faith in Jesus Christ is against reason or that it is irrational and anti-intellectual. He was, rather, articulating a more balanced and biblical description about how belief operates. Bill Edgar wrote, “Reason is good and necessary as long as it knows how to submit to the truth. To do that, it needs the heart’s right disposition. The heart, as Pascal puts it, does have its reasons. But a system of rationalization alone will never lead to God” (Reasons of the Heart: Rediscovering Christian Persuasion, 14).

Pascal understood that human beings are indeed complex creatures. We act and believe for both rational and emotional reasons. We disbelieve or embrace faith for often contradictory motives. Phenomenologically, Tim Keller articulates three factors that determine the intellectual plausibility and existential credibility of faith: intellectual reasons, interpreted personal experience, and social conditioning. People tend to believe if they have good intellectual reasons, personal experience that does not psychologically preclude trust in God, and a supportive community open to or tolerant of a worldview that deviates from the accepted “group think.”

Further, Pascal understood, as did Paul before him, that faith is not simply concerned with rationality or emotion, but motive. According to Romans 1:19–23, unbelievers already know God, but they do not demonstrate the proper spiritual and ethical response to the knowledge they have. The question is not whether humans have a relationship with God or whether or not they have knowledge of God, but what manner of relationship and knowledge he/she already has―obedient or disobedient, acknowledgment or suppression of the truth. Sadly, sinners are highly motivated to deny God’s existence or goodness, for “the heart has its reasons.”

As an example, consider someone who claims to be an atheist but whose motive for disbelief is rooted in a negative personal or communal experience. Basically, this objection claims that God has misbehaved. He has been unfair or unjust. He is not good, so he does not merit affection, worship, obedience or faith. Sometimes, the atheist has experienced trauma in his/her life. Something happened which so offended the conscience that, in effect, they cannot forgive God for permitting this or that evil to happen.

In such cases, often the best response is empathy and a willingness to listen. Sometimes, it is wise to share your testimony or experience with suffering. It is useful, also, to probe their religious history and ask questions like: When did you stop believing? Why? What happened? How do you feel about that decision now? How is your atheism working out for you in everyday experience? Why do you hold your atheism so dearly?

Or you might ask the unbeliever to consider God’s witness in their lives through the “riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” (Acts 14:17), despite their painful experience. Assist them to think about what they should be thankful for. As Paul said, “For he did good by________?” or “He satisfied your hearts with________?” Explore how God’s kindness is designed to lead them to repentance (Rom 2:4). Talk about the implications of the biblical view of God: Does it make sense to use (or presume on) his grace to live in sin and rebellion (Rom 2:4–5)? Or is it wiser to “honor him as God” and “give thanks” (Rom 1:21)?

Finally, it is important to listen much more than we speak. (There is a reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth!) Ask lots of questions and listen carefully. Pray that the Spirit leads  and gives discernment about how to proceed. Look for the dissonances in your neighbor’s soul, between what they really know and what they actually do or say. Many times, intellectual arguments and worldview are simply a mask to protect a soul embittered by suffering―their own sin or damage done to them through the sins of others.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

Dissonance

I read an interesting book The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson. In the Introduction, he explained the dissonance he felt between his church and his passion for art. He described the discord as “the awkward convergence of my evangelical and my secular training” (p. 4). Whereas he entered the study of the visual arts “expectant, believing that painting, sculptures, prints, drawing and photographs could cast fresh light on deeper things” (p. 1), his Christian community manifested “serious misgivings about the legitimacy of art as a vocational endeavor” or even viewed his calling as “a capitulation to carnal desire” (p. 4).

In hindsight, Cameron explained that there were “three nearly insurmountable barriers” (p. 2) to a vocation in the visual arts. The first was “the absence of a mentor.” He did not have a mature and empathetic Christian advocate to guide him. As a result, he wrote, “I lacked a ready apologetic . . . for how or what such an enterprise might contribute to the church and its mission” (pp. 2-3, his emphasis). The second obstacle was his “church’s disregard for the visual arts,” which hovered between “ambivalence and hostility” (p. 3), as well as its “palpable distain for modern art” (p. 3). “To underscore their reservations,” he wrote, “they relied on shoddy biblical exegesis, false dichotomies and the anecdote of scandal” (p. 5). And, the third was “the art world’s hostility to religious belief,” due to its secular, modern, and postmodern worldview.

I suspect that the dissonance that Cameron experienced with his calling is parallel to what many Christians experience in their churches today (ages 20–40 especially). Many have told me about their “awkward convergence” of evangelical conviction and secular training or profession. Most cannot easily reconcile what they hear in church with what they experience in the world. Some have encountered the “church’s disregard,” its “palpable distain,” “ambivalence and hostility,” or sometimes even “shoddy biblical exegesis” regarding objections to their profession or aspiration to serve God in the public square. Some pastors express “serious misgivings about the legitimacy of (fill in the blank) as a vocational endeavor.”

Here are some examples (names have been changed): Matias is a university professor who struggles with the hegemony of naturalism in his faculty. Pedro strives to articulate his biblical worldview through painting. Gustavo tries hard to reconcile the Bible and biology. Pablo endeavors to integrate the biblical worldview with marketing and entrepreneurism. Jorge has a vision for Christians in politics and public policy. Silvia wonders how to integrate faith and philosophy. Martin searches for links between Christian spirituality and the materialism of his psychology faculty. Deborah feels threatened by the secular worldview propagated by the faculty of medicine.

A woman who works with young people in her church expressed her concerns after a nine-hour course I taught, “Three nights is not enough instruction. We don’t even know how to process all the information. We need more Biblical and theological study. I work with the young people and I know that they are not prepared for the university and the challenges to their faith that they will face.”

Each of these individuals often feels isolated and unsupported in their churches―spiritually and intellectually. Sometimes, their communities’ stance is even hostile, as if they were “doing the devil’s work” or engaging in “worldly” pursuits unworthy of a serious Christian. But most of the time they encounter indifference. Their religious leaders do not often integrate the biblical worldview with their cultural and intellectual context. Often, the gospel, calling, and spirituality are narrowly conceived. The intellectual aspect of God’s word and faith is overlooked. Sadly, many Christian communities do not even know the questions that many Christians face in their schools and workplaces, let alone the answers so sorely needed. Is there an evangelical spirituality for the public square and the marketplace of ideas?

What can be done about this? Consider the three barriers that Cameron mentioned.

First is the need for a mentor. Church leaders could become better listeners and more empathetic to the university students and young professionals in their midst. Learn about their questions and struggles. Support them in prayer and reflection. Become their advocates.

Second, churches should develop a robust theology of common grace and calling. Endeavor to minimize the influence of the sacred-secular distinction, because Christ is Lord over every day and all professions.

Third, programs for the study of worldview, apologetics, and theology would help prepare Christian ambassadors in the marketplace of ideas to express, explain, and defend their faith.

In these ways perhaps the dissonance between doctrine and the world, piety and profession can be reduced. Perhaps together students, professionals, and church leaders could articulate an apologetic for “how or what such an enterprise might contribute to the church and its mission.” And also in this manner make positive contributions to the common good for the glory of God.

 

JUNK FOOD FOR THE MIND

It is well known that a diet of junk food is not healthy for the body. It promotes obesity and disease. It produces listlessness and passivity. There is also, I suggest, junk food for the mind. It produces spiritual and intellectual lethargy.

Let me provide an example. A friend of mine, a pastor of many years, decided to leave the church because of ecclesiological pragmatism that stifled spiritual growth. He saw that “success” in the evangelical church merely required four aspects: a concert-feel worship service, simple practical how-to preaching on popular topics using humor with a non-confrontational challenge, a fun-clean-safe children’s ministry, and a similar teen meeting concurrent with the adult service. I wonder if you have observed a similar kind of pragmatism in your churches.

Indeed, it seems that most preaching today stresses application― ecclesiological pragmatism―and ignores the theology or biblical rationale for the application. The result is often just busyness and rules. But the real motivation for the Christian life is knowing the truth. That reality motivates us, producing transformation, creative thinking, and godly ethics.

Many Christians, I think, want to develop their minds in a distinctly Christian fashion and grow in discernment. They struggle with a sense of intellectual dissonance. They experience conflict between what they hear (or do not hear) in church and what they observe in the world. They express boredom with insipid sermons. They lament teaching that stresses “how-to” knowledge but rarely “why” or “what” thinking. They hear applications but they want more biblical rationale, more worldview.

I believe that our souls are hard-wired, so-to-speak, with something called the indicative-imperative dynamic. There are three parts of this formula: an indicative statement about an essential truth; a literal or grammatically implied “therefore” which points to the expected response; and then an application or demand.

A simple example is 1 John 4:19. “We love because he first loved us.” Most sermons today simply respond to the demand of the congregation―give us an imperative. They say, in effect: “Just tell us how to do it. Tell us how to love. Be practical. Do not bore us with teaching that forces us to think or evaluate ourselves or our culture. Do not explain to us in depth how or why God first loved us as the rationale for how and why we should love others.”

Another example is Deuteronomy 6:4–5. The indicative is expressed in verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The imperative is provided in verse 5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

This passage tells us what is important in verse 4: an absolute, transcendent, sovereign creator, the Lord our God, called Yahweh Elohim, is God alone. It also indicates a relationship between this creator and his creation. God is our sovereign Lord, and we are his human servants. Because of this, he communicates with authority, and we must listen and obey. The imperative in verse 5 tells us what to do. We must devote all our being and resources to his honor and service. The proper response to God is total devotion in thought, desire, and behavior―assuming we understand in depth the indicative in verse 4.

The church needs solid teaching that includes both the imperative and the indicative, not simply intellectual fast food. As disciples, we need to learn in depth. We need mental piety. Or, as Alistair Begg comments, “When the Bible is truly taught, then the voice of God is truly heard.”

Indeed, we must hear God’s voice speaking―educating, reproving, and inspiring us through his word. Then, Lord willing, follows transformation in every area―because the truth (not spiritual junk food) will set us free to love God with our minds, to serve him, and to bless others for the sake of the gospel.

 

“DID GOD ACTUALLY SAY?”

In Genesis 3:1, the serpent said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

In the whole history of recorded thought the small phrase uttered by the serpent “did God actually say” is surely the most consequential. Hidden within this seemingly innocent question was a Pandora’s box full of blasphemous errors and destructive evil. “Did God actually say” conveys a host of assumptions motivated by envy, mutiny, and cynicism. The audacity and arrogance implicit in this question are difficult to imagine.

With this inquiry the snake got his proverbial “foot in the door” within Adam and Eve’s mind and heart. He inserted just enough doubt and confusion to suggest the idea that God could and should be questioned. The serpent insinuated that the creator’s perspective was skewed and in dire need of correction. Subtly, he positioned Adam and Eve to judge between himself and Yahweh Elōhîm. He asked them to heed his words instead of God’s.

The snake’s declaration: “You will not surely die” was also a blatant contradiction of God’s words in 2:17. In effect, he accused God of lying. Yahweh Elōhîm was holding back on them, the serpent argued, and withholding his greatest blessing, specifically a kind of knowing that would make them “like God.”

In addition, by utilizing the language from Gen 1:26-28 of image and likeness (“like God”) the snake urged them to re-imagine themselves apart from their creator. The serpent redefined them within his worldview by stripping the concept of the divine image from its setting in Eden. He inspired them to align themselves as the imago Satanas (image of Satan), rather than the imago Dei (image of God).

How true, then, is Paul’s depiction of mankind’s mental state: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).

A Mind That Fears

Six times in Deuteronomy, God’s intent for Israel focused on acquiring the fear of the Lord (5:29; 6:2, 2x, and “learn to fear the Lord” in 14:23; 17:20; 31:12). In 4:10, God commanded Moses,  “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.”

In Deuteronomy, God-fearers were typified by an intellectual acknowledgment of God’s voice: “my words” (4:10), “commandments” (5:29), “statutes” (6:2, 24), and “all the words of this law written in this book” (28:58). Behaviorally, those who possessed a heart that fears “serve” and “swear” by the Lord’s name (6:13), “walk in his ways” (8:6), “hold fast to him” (10:20, “obey his voice” (13:4), “read” God’s word (17:19), and “purge evil” from their midst (21:21).

Similarly, throughout the Old Testament, godly fear signified intellectual humility and ethical rectitude typified by Proverbs 3:7: “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”  So, for example:

Abram did not withhold Isaac from sacrifice, even though it was inconceivable (Gen 22:12).

Joseph rejected Potiphar’s wife’s enticement as a “great wickedness” (39:9).

The Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh to protect the baby Moses (Exod 1:17).

Yahweh-fearing servants of Pharaoh sheltered their livestock during the plagues (Exod 9:20).

Israelite leaders would not accept bribes (Exod 18:21).

Hebrew kings ruled justly (2 Sam 23:3).

Obadiah feared the Lord and hid the prophets from the wicked king, Ahab (1 Kings 18:4).

And those who still “feared the Lord” after the exile “esteemed his name” (Mal 3:16).

Today, are we also guided by the fear of God? Can you and I point to decisions, actions, or imaginations, we did not embrace because we knew they would dishonor the Lord? Or can you and I point to decisions or actions we did take which did, in fact, dishonor the Lord?

When do not fear the Lord in thought and deed, we should remember the prayer of confession from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

MY MENTOR, BILL EDGAR, RETIRED

Recently, Bill Edgar retired as professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary. I urge you to read this tribute posted in The Gospel Coalition: ‘Learned Defense’ in Cultural Crisis: William Edgar’s Legacy.

I also want to tell you about my relationship with Bill Edgar. I first met Bill and Barbara in the fall of 1989, when he was a new professor. I visited Westminster at that time and providentially our paths crossed.

We talked for a good while. I did not know what to expect of a seminary professor, but he broke the mold of what I imagined, which was a stodgy, aloof, and cerebral scholar. Bill was, rather, warm, engaging, and quite interesting. I told him about my admiration for a French thinker, Jacques Ellul. Bill, who had served as a missionary in France for a decade, was quite knowledgeable about Ellul. (In fact, he was very knowledge about many subjects.) Bill then spoke his first blessing on my life and told me, “You will be a good Westminster student.”

I thoroughly enjoyed my apologetics classes with Bill during my master’s studies. He often brought interesting material to provoke our thinking. For instance, he played a video designed for children called Gryphon, a clever piece of propaganda concerning New Age spirituality. I remember feeling rage at the audacity of that film. But, indeed, it made me think, as did many lessons that Bill taught. (In fact, after almost twenty-five years, I still use the video for instructional purposes.)

Bill encouraged me to explore my interests. I wrote papers about ideas and thinkers that were not normally considered apologetical themes. After I began my doctorate studies, with Bill as my advisor, we began the Friday Forums for open discussions about theological issues. Many times I joined him for lunch at his house, or we met at our favorite pub. Bill and Barbara practiced intellectual hospitality, which I suppose they learned from Frances Schaeffer.

Which brings me to the second blessing. I prayed a lot about pursuing a doctorate. At one of meals together, Barbara said to me, “Richard, you must do a doctorate because you have too many questions.”

Towards the end of my studies, I sought God for direction after seminary. Bill, knowing my love for Europe, suggested that I contact the International Institute for Christian Studies (now Global Scholars) about serving as an academic missionary. About eighteen months later, our family arrived in Prague, and I began teaching non-Christians at a new college there. After our first year, we felt compelled to return―but we lacked $41,000. Little did I know at the time, that behind-the-scenes Bill urged a wealthy benefactor to support us, and he did. After we returned to Prague, I told this story to a non-Christian student. She commented, “It was a miracle!” And it was.

Perhaps the greatest blessing was the sermon Bill delivered at my first wife, Karen’s, funeral in 2002. His remarks were full of biblical wisdom and comfort. You should read it (below).

Finally, when I wrote a book about thinking based on the Old Testament, I dedicated the text to the those who molded my own thought: “I have learned from many excellent teachers . . . Cornelius Van Til, John M. Frame, and William Edgar explain the complex nature of human thought with biblical-theological sensitivity.”

Quite honestly, you should pray that God provide a Bill and Barbara Edgar in your life as well.

You can read his many thoughtful posts and articles here. 

His review of my book is here.

This is Bill’s sermon at Karen’s memorial service:

WORDS FOR KAREN SMITH’S FAMILY AND FRIENDS
William Edgar, PhD
September 21, 2002

Dear Richard, Christine, Stephanie, Louis, and dear family and friends: I want to join these many voices and express, on behalf of Barbara and myself, our deepest condolences. We commiserate with you over this great loss, and want you to know, whatever else may be said, you are not alone. There is, of course, a loneliness from such a tragedy that only the Lord God, the Heavenly Father, can comfort. But inasmuch as we can be your friends, your helpers, your companions on the hard journey, we’re there for you.

This will be very simple. Here are some questions, five of them, that you must be asking, and that we all may be asking at this time. If there be answers, if there be any comfortable words, if there be a revelation from Heaven, then it is good to hear them.

First, you’ll be asking, why? Why did this have to happen? Your life’s companion, your mother, your daughter, and our very good friend, cut off at a young age, through a cruel disease. Why? You are in good company to ask. No less a spiritual person than the psalmist asks this question a lot.

“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you?” (Ps 30:9)

“Why have you forsaken me?… O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but I find no rest.” (Ps 22:1-2)

No less a visionary than the prophet asks it as well.

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2)

Be assured that the Christian faith never skirts the question. Nor does it ever make evil to be anything less than evil. Evil is real. It is opaque. It is obstinate. It is perverted. We do not have a religion of detachment, but one, which can stare death in the face and say, “What, are you doing here? You don’t belong.” Some come to the conclusion there can be no God. But, as W. H. Auden found out, only if there is a God can we have right and wrong, and call a spade a spade.

As you know, God has wonderful answers for all these. But he usually does not frame them in the terms required by the question. The first answer we find may seem stoical, yet it is anything but. It is the answer of Job, in the midst of his great sufferings, as he tries to get through to God.

“Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him; But he knows the way that I take…” (Job 23:9-10)

In a powerful way, this is deeply comforting. God knows. He knows me. He knows the way I take. We don’t understand. We don’t have the answers. God does. What good would it do us to know all the reasons, anyway? How comforting would that be? Maybe a little. But it would not bring any lasting peace. People get desperate for answers at times like these. They make up foolish things, like, “God needed her in his choir.” Or, the innocuous, “It was a blessing.” “It leads to improvement.” “What a beautiful testimony,” etc. No, these are hopeless. It’s evil, and let’s face it. But God knows. He has reasons. And because he is a God who is good, his reasons are good. He’s not safe, but he is good. (C. S. Lewis’ Narnia)

Second, where were you, O God, in all this? Where was God when we needed him? If he had been more concerned, would he not have prevented this? Could he not have healed Karen, and spared so much grief?

Again, this question puts us in very good company. Both Mary and Martha asked Jesus the same question upon the death of their brother Lazarus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they remarked.

Was he not there? No, he was not there in the flesh. But Jesus brings two answers that make it plain that he was, and is, and will be there: a far greater and more meaningful presence than simply being physically around when bad things happen. First, he makes that extraordinary assertion: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” There is a world, far more real, and far more certain, even than this present, sorrowful world of sin and misery and death. It is the world of life, of eternal life. It is the world of knowing and being known by God. It is the world of communion and friendship and conversation with him. It is the resurrection. Where do we go to find it? To Jesus. Karen knew that, and so she was already enjoying that part of resurrected life to which we have a right even now. We who trust in Christ are dead to sin and alive to God, and death no longer has dominion over us. (Rom. 6:6-11)

Second, Jesus himself not only wept, but also was furious over the death of their brother Lazarus, who was also his friend. And in his mournful fury, he went down to the grave and called him forth. With the voice with which he brought the worlds into being, the voice that calls the dry bones of the valley to live, Jesus calls him by name, and commands him to live. How could he do this? Because a week later, he would suffer for the sins of the world, his voice would not command but implore a deaf father, “why have you forsaken me?” And he would enter his own tomb. But because he was obedient unto death, he would come bursting out of the grave, full of life-giving Spirit, filled with resurrection power, which he freely gives to all who ask it of him. Karen knew he was there, and even through the sad reality of her broken body, she radiated the greater reality, not worthy to be compared, of the glory of God.

Third, what’s the good of this? If “all things work together for good,” then why did this have to happen? Who benefits from this?

We must be very cautious here. Suffering is not good. Evil is against the good. Death is an enemy. The Bible curses people who call good evil, and evil good. So, when it says, all things work together for good, it does not mean all things are good. The key idea is working together. In French, it’s concert. All things concert for the good.

So, what good can emerge from this evil? For one thing, God is known in weakness. We Americans have a hard time with this. We believe God must identify with success. But, the Bible has another take. Jacques Ellul is one of Richard’s favorite authors. Listen to what he says: “He is a God incognito who does not manifest himself in great organ music or sublime ceremonies, but who hides himself in the surprising face of the poor, in suffering (as in Jesus Christ), in the neighbor I meet, in fragility.”

We meet God in fragility. Karen was an amazing witness, a solace, and a comfort, to many who knew her, both in strength and in weakness. So many have said it. But, it is true. Her quiet strength, her humor in the face of negative diagnoses, this was contagious. And, Richard will be the first to tell you that it helped him get priorities straight. You’ll admit it, Richard, it was hard for you when you realized the work in Prague was not possible in the same way, given Karen’s condition. You had to come home. Maybe you wrestled with God. You certainly knew the frustration of managing things from a distance, and letting others take over for you. But, did not God do a wonderful work in your heart? We have all been astonished and delighted to see that in faithfulness and love, you devoted your time and attention to Karen? Did not your love, already strong, grow even deeper? Her suffering drove you to care for the things that really matter, and to relativize ministries and causes that will always be there. We’ve learned so much from you Richard, and we are deeply grateful.

Furthermore, Karen’s death shows us that death has lost the battle. It is overcome, swallowed up in victory. We take great courage in this. Not everyone dies so well, so peacefully as Karen. But those who do show the way to those who may not. You will remember at the end of the Pilgrim’s Progress, on their final journey through the deep river to the Celestial City, Christian loses nerve. And Hopeful has to remind him, “These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters, are no sign that God has forsaken you; but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon him in your distress.” and then they both see Jesus, and take courage, and see the enemy only as still as a stone, impotent. “Thus they got over,” says the text. We saw Karen beginning to cross and we who may tend to sink down take great courage in her clear sight of Jesus.

Fourth, where is Karen now? Will we see her again? What happens at death? The psalmist who asked, “Will the dust praise you?,” knew in part what we know more fully. Here’s one of the best parts of the gospel. Yes we will see her again, and she’ll be there to greet us. “But we do not want you to be uninformed,” says the apostle, “about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” We do grieve. This is a sad day, not a happy one. But we grieve with hope that breaks through, knowing that we will see Karen again. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thess. 4:13 ff.) Heaven will be the greatest reunion, the greatest homecoming imaginable, all orchestrated by the one who left his family, his glory in Heaven, to come and fetch us and make us his bride.

So now, we wait. We’re sad because she is gone. She is herself waiting, like the souls under the altar, asking Jesus when he will come back to earth and finish the work of bringing justice to the land. And Jesus is saying to her, “Take this white robe of my righteousness, and rest a little longer, till the number of dead is complete. And then you can ride with me back to earth, and share in the final victory over sin and evil. And then, Richard, and Stephanie and Christine, and all who are close to her, will be reunited and nothing… nothing will separate us ever again.”

Fifth, and last, what do we do now? How do we spend our time while we wait for that great day?

I’ve already said that we wait. We wait with God-given patience. But we wait not in passive inactivity. There is work to be done. We do so with added motivation. We now do it to honor her memory, to emulate her example. As the hymn puts it:

Come, labor on.
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here:
By feeble agents may our God fulfill his righteous will;

Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun, “Servants, well done.”

And yet, and yet, even this meaningful life we can lead, and will continue to lead throughout eternity, good as it is, cannot be the first and the last answer. You see, we have something far better, far more precious than a host of good reasons for bad things. We have God himself. We are his, and, amazing truth, he is ours too. And so, what we do is to know him, and to enjoy him, and to give him praise and glory. But we do not praise a faraway god, a distant deity. We praise the God who has made himself known to us by sharing our miserable condition:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction… For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”  Amen.