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.