In 1811, a year before Princeton Seminary was to open its doors, a sizable gift was given to the fledgling enterprise from a wealthy elder at New York City’s First Presbyterian Church. That man’s name was William Edgar. The goal of Princeton was unambiguous and clearly communicated to prospective benefactors on fundraising trips. In the words of historian Mark Noll, the school set out to “fit clergymen to meet the cultural crisis, to roll back what they perceived as tides of irreligion sweeping the country, and to provide a learned defense of Christianity generally and the Bible specifically.”
By 1929, the seminary had drifted from this mandate, leading to the establishment of a school that would recover this vision of theological education: Westminster Theological Seminary (WTS).
In 1989, 177 years after that New York elder invested in the cause of training pastors to speak learnedly in a cultural crisis, William Edgar’s eponymous great-great-grandson picked up the cause and began teaching apologetics at WTS, the “Recovered Princeton.”
This year, after more than three decades of service at WTS, and over half a century in the classroom overall, William “Bill” Edgar has retired. As one who teaches in the field of cultural apologetics, I haven’t had my thinking on the subject shaped by anyone more than Edgar. Indeed, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Edgar’s twin emphases on (1) cultural sensitivity and (2) friendship with individuals have “fit” an entire generation of clergymen with the ability to communicate the gospel with clarity and compassion.
Edgar has ‘fit’ an entire generation of clergymen with the ability to communicate the gospel with clarity and compassion.
Edgar, an American, grew up as a third-culture kid in France. Known to sport a coonskin cap in his family’s Paris townhome, Edgar would belt the lyrics, “Dahvie, Dahvie Crockette, roi d’la frontière sauvage!” As one reads the sensitivity with which Edgar engages culture, one encounters a man deft at entering foreign worlds with the insight of an outsider and the respect of an insider. This cultural sensitivity was given a missiological thrust when Edgar was converted through the ministry of Francis Schaeffer.
In the summer of 1964, Edgar and his brother went on a bicycling tour of Europe. At the recommendation of one of his instructors at Harvard, Harold O. J. Brown, Edgar made his way to the foothills of Switzerland, just south of Lake Geneva. There, he found a somewhat eccentric, goateed gentleman sporting a pair of knickers. The man—along with his wife, Edith—ran a community of seekers called L’Abri (“The Shelter”).
Schaeffer wasn’t a cultural scholar, and neither was he a spiritual guru. He was, rather, an evangelist to beatniks and hippies, and he had a passion to see Christ’s lordship extended to the whole of life—art, education, politics, everything. He passed this passion along to Edgar, who has since brought the light of the gospel to his varied interests: literature, philosophy, ethics, and especially jazz.
One of Schaeffer’s early protégés, Os Guinness, went on to write a dissertation at Oxford that showed the importance of sociological realities in evangelistic encounters, correcting what he saw as an overly rationalistic approach to apologetics that expected “proofs” for God’s existence to speak past the myriad “plausibility structures” undergirding the skeptic’s decision making.
If there’s a tie that binds the unofficial cadre of L’Abri-associated apologists—like Edgar, Guinness, Jerram Barrs, and Dick Keyes—it’s this: ideas matter but so do cultures. Articulating this or that proposition isn’t enough if the apologist doesn’t first grapple with the underlying culturally informed presuppositions of the skeptic.
Friendship with Individuals
Edgar’s former colleague at Westminster, Harvie Conn, once noted that most apologetics courses don’t teach people to do apologetics. They teach people to teach other people an apologetics course. Conn’s point wasn’t that apologetics courses are bad per se, just that they should leave students with more than “answers.” Apologetics courses should prepare students to ask good questions and thus be fully present in the dynamism of an evangelistic encounter. This is precisely what Edgar’s courses have done. Of all the tools Edgar has given his students over the years, a shoehorn hasn’t been one of them!
Articulating this or that proposition isn’t enough if the apologist doesn’t first grapple with the underlying, culturally informed presuppositions of the skeptic.
I remember once hearing Edgar’s friend Dick Keyes—himself a fine teacher of apologetics—quip, “I never teach ‘the 10 worldviews’ and what they believe about various topics, precisely because everyone we meet in the real world holds to an 11th worldview all their own!” God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Edgar has taught a generation of apologists to listen, meet skeptics where they’re at, and bring the good news of Jesus to them in understandable language. To do this, we must trust that God is the true evangelist.
“The difference between listening and hearing,” Edgar is known to remind his students, “is the Holy Spirit.” We speak, the skeptic listens, but God gives the “hearing.” We need not dump upon each of the poor souls we encounter all of the apologetic answers we’ve memorized. The Spirit showed up in each of our friends’ lives before us, and he’ll be there after we’re gone.
The Schaefferian tradition which Edgar embodies has fallen on hard times of late. The presuppositional approach (or “covenantal,” as Edgar would have it) has ebbed during the recent flow of interest in Thomism (some helpful correctives there, no doubt), and secularism’s increasing hostility toward Christian orthodoxy has led many to question whether an emphasis on gentleness is sufficient unto the day.
Of course, the church has lived through many such turbulent days. “Irreligion” has swept our land before. Edgar has retired, but only after doing his part to fulfill the mission to which his great-great-grandfather gave all those years ago. A generation of clergymen has been fit to meet today’s cultural crisis, able to defend the Christian faith with learnedness. Many of these pastors, missionaries, and theologians have William Edgar to thank for that.
Like the sons of Issachar, William Edgar has understanding of his times. May God raise up a new generation who understand ours.