This winter, Westminster’s Director of Alumni Engagement, David Owen Filson, had an opportunity to interview Dr. Edgar over Zoom on a range of topics. Their conversation covered Dr. Edgar’s career at Westminster, family, politics, Albert Camus and jazz. The transcript below has been condensed and edited for clarity, and features some additional questions to Dr. Edgar by magazine staff.
David Owen Filson: Tell us about your family, Bill. Where the Edgars are now?
William Edgar: I have a wonderful family, beginning with my sweet wife. After fifty some years, we are still madly in love. We do a lot together; up until recently we've been the main stays at the Huguenot Fellowship. We are still on the board, so that is a charity that is dear to us. Additionally, we both work at Westminster. I am a professor, and she teaches French. So, we have been able to do a lot of things together. We have two children and three grandchildren. We are very proud of all of them.
Filson: Let me ask you, and this may sound like a Sunday school question. Tell us why you love Jesus Christ.
Edgar: It is a life-or-death question.
Edgar: I love Jesus Christ because he sought me and saved me when I was lost. I encountered Christ at L’Abri in Switzerland when I was 19 years old. I was, what they call today, a seeker. I love Christ because he saved me from my sins, which are plentiful. He saved me from a life that, I am sure, would have been totally misspent had I not met him. Barbara and I both come from this pretentious upper-class background; I mean they were, on the surface, good people, but underneath the surface there was so much pride. So, we both feel we've been saved from that. It was Jesus who brought me out from that, and I celebrate him every day.
Filson: So many of the people who were coming to L’Abri were coming out of a place of despair. . . finding no answers in nature, or Camus, or whomever. . . I'd love to hear you reflect on this: They say that people no longer come to [L’Abri] because they are despairing. . . Despair is no longer the number one struggle. . . It’s distraction.
Edgar: Yes, I completely agree. I stayed very close to the ministry, a couple of branches in particular, but the word is young people today are not concerned about truth the way we were. They may be distracted, as you say, but I think they're also from broken families and a number of them today come from churches that have given them a bad experience. We had some of those in the sixties, but I'd say a large number come from dysfunctional families and dysfunctional churches. And so L’Abri, before it can get to questions like truth and so on, has to try to rebuild their trust in people, in God, and so on. So, I think they're right.
Filson: Yeah, I see the distraction and dysfunction working with kids here at the Christian Academy [where I teach apologetics]. Bill, I have a stack of your books over here. When I think about your work, it seems to me that the human condition or the question of humanness is a theme that is either implicitly or explicitly somewhere on the tip of your pen for a lot of what you write. Is that fair?
Edgar: It's very fair. There are reasons for that humanly and psychologically, of course. I grew up in France and was guided by many people (like Albert Camus), and I was drawn to them because of their concern for the human condition. It was not only about human meaning, but justice. I got very involved with thinking about justice and fairness and, this led to the problem of evil. So, when I got to Harvard, the psyche I operated with centered on the old question, namely what's it all about? Thanks to a marvelous Christian professor, I got straightened out and he sent me to L’Abri where everything was conclusive. In the midst of a concern for human meaning and justice and human flourishing, in all those searches, the Lord intervened. I've done a lot of thinking about why such questions still ought to be on the agenda and often are not. As you know, David, I have a big passion for history. I did my doctoral dissertation on early 19th century Protestant apologetics from the French speaking world, and much of the work there was on the history of Europe after the French revolution. I think that has helped define our era. And then more recently I've been working hard on why the Second World War issued into a Cold War, which is much more complicated than it may appear. There are so many unresolved issues that, even after the miracle year of 1989, just did not get resolved. And I think we're living in the midst of an unresolved world today. Part of the problem is because of the secularization of Western culture. So that's been a big concern of mine, namely the whole issue of secularization, and why we are where we are.
Filson: I wonder sometimes if we weren't prepared for the Cold War to end. I wonder if in our culture we were simply not prepared for the undefined future.
Edgar: Yes, I think that's right. Part of the reason for our lack of preparedness is because during the Cold War we weren't thinking at the deepest level about Western values. There certainly has been a Christian influence on Europe and North America. People acknowledged some of that, but they didn't go deeply enough. So, when the Cold War ended in 1989, all it did was take the lid off of our unanswered questions, and it ushered forth conflicts in the Balkans and Tiananmen Square. If you want to take the 30,000 foot view, we just didn't have sufficient knowledge that would have prepared us for the lid being taken off. So, my generation has a lot of responsibility in the discipline that I teach, namely apologetics.
Filson: Following that, I have a two-part question. What do you think are the implications of the French revolution for the apologetic tasks today and who are some of the French intellectuals with whom energetic pastors should be familiarized?
Edgar: Well, the French revolution has been studied a lot and there are different perspectives on it. Mine is that it was the logical outcome of an Enlightenment confidence in rationality to the exclusion of a more transcendental point of view. So, it set the stage for a Europe that was moving rapidly towards secularization. And when Napoleon came along and ended the conflict, he established laws and rules that were still based on rationality and the secularization of schools and institutions. Abraham Kuyper believed in two kinds of secularization. The positive sense of secularization is getting certain sectors of society out from under the grip of the institutional church. The negative sense of secularization, according to Kuyper, is the emptying of culture of those transcendental and Christian values. It seems to me the West is secular in that second sense, that God is seen as an option, and the pressure is on you to choose. That means that the individual has an awful lot placed on him in trying to sort out the world. Regarding the second part of your question, curiously there's a lot of very thoughtful French philosophers. I think most of them have something of value to teach us, especially Foucault and Derrida (with qualifications). One of the people I follow is Jean Birnbaum. He's written a very sharp critique of the left and how it missed the religious nature of Islam, which brings to our attention (the Dooyewardian) point that everyone has faith. Luc Ferry is another whom I read who is an excellent historian of philosophy. He recognizes that Christianity had a defining role in saying who we are as human beings and helped in defining love and marriage. Now, one needs to be cautious reading his work, but his deep insights are worth savoring.
Filson: I'm curious as to how you came to Westminster. You obviously came under the influence of Van Til and Schaeffer. Epistemology, especially for Van Til and Schaeffer, truly seemed to matter. Why do you think that is, historically and contextually?
Edgar: I think one of the reasons is the uncertainty generated in the 20th century. In certain respects, it was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind and led (as it should have) to big epistemological questions. Where I think it went off the rails is that evangelicalism eventually became more tribal and less able to engage people and institutions persuasively. Initially, whether it was Reinhold Niebuhr, or much later, David Brooks, these Christians were listened to, and then for one reason or another, evangelicals became much more tribal and ingrown. So, I think that's one reason that the evangelical voice has diminished. And then, very worrisomely, at least to me, there is the modern evangelical support for Donald Trump and his demagoguery. I spent a lot of time trying to think about why that is, and I think one of the reasons is that evangelicals don’t know who they are anymore. They're beleaguered and benighted, and that's why I think epistemology was so important in the thirties and forties, and in our time, has now eclipsed into these tribes.
Filson: It seems to me that with the culture wars in the 80s, evangelicalism also became less culturally relevant. In terms of moving forward in the apologetic task today, what are the prospects and trajectories for apologetics over the next twenty years?
Edgar: I think about that question every day. I don't have a very coherent answer for you. I am personally optimistic, but my projections about apologetics, if we don't challenge ourselves, are fairly negative and that's ironic because there's a resurgence of interest in apologetics from many quarters today. But there are some hopeful signs. You can find authors that are really not only creative, but influentially persuasive like Tim Keller. I think one of the things that I appreciate about Tim Keller is that his apologetics is coordinated with the life of the church. I think that's one of the true and direct trajectories that we will have to engage in if we're going to have any serious influence. We're going to have to show people in our community in our love for one another, as Jesus directs, that the gospel is true. I don't know if that's happening in apologetics today to any large degree. So, you mentioned the culture wars in the 80s. I think one of the big mistakes there was over-investing in politics as a hope to control the direction of culture. Now as a Kuyperian, I believe that politics are crucially important, but I don't think evangelicalism should systematically align itself with conservatism or the Republican party. I'm a lifelong Republican, but I don't think it's going to hold together much longer. I think we should be presuppositional as we take one issue at a time and see where it comes out, fighting a battle on many fronts.
Westminster Magazine: You recently taught a course on Public Theology at WTS. What do you want WTS grads to leave seminary prepared for in 2021?
Edgar: To have a biblical framework for answering the questions that are (or ought to be) on the world’s agenda, and ethical issues such as pollution, aesthetics, gender and the like.
WM: As we get further into the 21st Century, some of Francis Schaeffer’s warnings about the trajectory of civilization seem to be closer to the mark than we might have thought. What kind of lessons ought we to take away from his work in 2021?
Edgar: Schaeffer’s eschatology was premillennialist. He was persuaded government would take over, abortion would be rampant and human life diminished. I share those concerns, yet I am an a-millenialist. The wheat and the tares grow up together, but there is much wheat: health care, the reduction of poverty, respect for women, genetic improvement, etc. As I think Van Til used to say, “the bad gets badder, but the good gets gooder”
Filson: What would you say to our readers and listeners, particularly those who are in various forms of ministry, about the apologetic value of hospitality?
Edgar: I know that in the fifties and sixties when I was at L’Abri, the commune was the ideal, and people longed after it because they were tired of the gray flannel suit. That, however, was over the top in a sentimental direction. I think that the church's tough love with the community, both in the fellowship of the church and in families, is absolutely critical. Consider the wonderful testimony of Rosaria Butterfield, how she identified with the gay agenda because it gave her meaning. The Covenanters, because they had amazing theology, patiently spent hours with her, and it finally dawned on her that these people really love me. It's hopeless to try to do apologetics without community.
Filson: Yeah. If being an apologist is to be a hope defender, the context of hospitality is crucial. Moving on, what led you to Westminster, and what were some of your impressions, interactions, and experiences with Van Til?
Edgar: It's a funny story, David. I was a senior at Harvard, I was radically converted and decided that I should learn a few things about my new faith. As a brand new Christian I thought the logical thing was that I should go to seminary. So, I applied to a bunch of them. Around this time, Ed Clowney came up to Harvard and spoke. About seven or eight of us said we don't care what the reasons are, but we have to be where this guy is; we just ate up biblical theology. We soon after encountered E. J. Young, Paul Woolley, and Cornelius Van Til. Van Til was this towering figure, who solidified and corrected some of what I had learned from Schaeffer. Van Til truly had an incalculable influence on me, and he still does. I reread him often, with gratefulness, as I am devoted to his approach. Having said that, do you want to know who the most influential professor was of mine? It was John Murray. He was a warm and affectionate man who befriended me. His theology was grounded in exegesis through biblical theology. Everything he did came through that filter, and that's the way I want to think about all of life. I recall taking his course on sanctification where he enunciated the Pauline “becoming what you are” view. I was just blown away by this approach to the Christian life. Anyway, I just loved these men and reread them all the time.
Filson: Amazing. What was it like interacting with Mr. Murray?
Edgar: He was a character. But what he was like to me was this warm, selfless man who took an interest in me, just as he did in all the other students. He was just so quintessentially human, and I’ll never forget him. You don't get that from the austere portrait of him in the dining room.
WM: You’ve written a lot about music and the arts from a Christian perspective during your career, what do you make of the creative state of the Church at the moment? What are we doing right, or wrong?
Edgar: That’s a huge question. Aesthetics has not been the great strength of evangelicals. But things are getting better. Young people are clamoring for excellence. The sermon is important, but so are the sacraments, and the choice of hymns. I could refer the reader to the work of Jeremy Begbie and others.
Filson: You have a new book coming out. Can you tell us about it?
Edgar: It is a book on the aesthetics of jazz music. It has two basic parts, an historical background and then an engagement with various musicians and music. My thesis is that there is a narrative underlying the best of jazz, which is moving from the deepest misery to the most inextinguishable joy. Now, not every piece of music does this, but I go to some trouble to show how that's the heart of it. In fact, the working title of the book is Strength to Climb, which is from one of my favorite spirituals. The book goes into slavery, and how enslaved Africans encountered the gospel or were encountered by it, and how it changed not only their lives but the style of Christianity, which had become stale and which they generously shared with the world. I also go into the frustrations of Jim Crow and the blues, which I define as a profoundly Christian popular music. I compare blues and jazz to wisdom literature. I think Job was one of the great blues singers. I also think the greatest blues singer was Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. I've been blessed to interact with not only these wonderful Christians who love jazz, but some of the top jazz musicians, many of whom are, if not believers themselves, very sympathetic to the Christian faith. I mentioned many of them in my book. That's been a privilege of my life. When we lived in France, I was often asked to be the translator with, you know, Ray Brown and the Stars of Faith. And that meant that I got to go to the concerts and then have dinner with them. Ray Brown, the world’s greatest bass player, came to our home and we listened to spirituals together. I mean, how good does it get?
Filson: Now you're just flexing on me! . . . Anyway, a couple more questions. Recently, you have been honored at John Calvin Seminary, right? Tell us about that.
Edgar: So, for 30-some years, I was the president of the Huguenot Fellowship, which is basically a charity that funnels dollars to the seminary and Aix-en-Provence. I decided when I turned 75, I was going to hand over the reins to somebody younger. We had a search, and we came up with the most splendid successor, whose name is Paul Wolfe. The board unanimously voted him as president and then asked me to stay on. Through various communications, the proposition of a chair of apologetics known as the William Edgar Chair was put forward. I thought, if it's going to bring income to the seminary, then I will accept. I'm very honored by this, and I hope I live long enough to see the thing fully funded.
Filson: That is certainly something we can pray for. I'll close with this question, then. How can we be praying over the next weeks and months for you and Barbara, and for your hopes for Westminster?
Edgar: Firstly, pray against the fragmentation of much of our Western world, as well as for the great needs of the majority world. We must pray that the gospel will go forth and speak into that, persuasively and powerfully as well as savingly. Secondly, pray that Westminster be one of the instruments to do that. We've got a lot going for us. So, pray that we will be faithful to that calling and have the resources we need to carry that out. Finally, if you'd be so kind to pray for my health. I'm on these very strong medicines for heart disease. So, if you could pray for my health and for my dear wife, who's my primary health-care-giver, that would be lovely. Pray also for our children and grandchildren, as they're growing up in a very difficult world. They know the gospel, but it's not enough just to know it. You have to embrace it.