Dr. William Edgar is Emeritus Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. A renowned writer, apologist, and Harvard trained musicologist and pianist, Dr. Edgar’s books include Reasons of the Heart and A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel. Our conversation ranged a wide gamut of important issues, from the life of Francis Schaeffer to the place of aesthetics in Christian apologetics. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jackson Lee: Thank you very much for doing this. Before we move on to the substance of the interview, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
William Edgar: I don’t know what to say – I grew up in Paris, became a believer in the early 60s, in a community in Switzerland called L’Abri. I’ve had three different jobs. One as a schoolteacher in Greenwich, Connecticut, one as professor of apologetics in Aix-en-Provence, and the third as professor of apologetics at Westminster seminary. I just retired a couple of months ago. That’s me in a nutshell.
JL: We at Synesis believe that Christianity is a reasonable faith – we want to be able to clearly articulate what we believe and also do it in a way that is good and beautiful. I know a huge part of that is your personal testimony, so could you tell us more – how you grew up, how you came to Christ, and beyond?
WE: Well, as I was telling you earlier, I grew up in Paris. My dad was a businessman there. And he was in, you know, what Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation.” He lived through the Depression and fought in the War. In the 50s we were living in Paris, and I had lots of questions. He was a moral man – my dad was, my parents were – but they didn’t have answers to my questions. So long story short, when I got to Harvard, there was a curricular requirement that you take courses outside of your specialty. My specialty was music. I took a course on the epic and the drama – a big sweeping course taught by the legendary John Finley. And the course was divided into small sections of 12 to 15 people. And my section was headed by a graduate student in history who was a Christian. He taught the class – without preaching – from a believer’s point of view. I’d never heard anything remotely like this and became friends with the guy. And then that summer, he recommended that I go see his friend, Francis Shaeffer – he didn’t tell me anything about him. So I looked him up and went down to see him and spent the weekend there and had my life turned upside down. I ended up staying there the rest of the summer and coming back to college, as you know, an on-fire believer. There are lots more details, but that’s how I became a Christian. Since then I have been involved in many different ministries – one of them is the Veritas Forum. I’ve been involved in a youth work called Focus that reaches out to independent school, young people. I’m also very involved in something called the Trinity Forum. I did have day jobs – started off as a schoolteacher in a school in Greenwich, Connecticut. And then I spent 11 years in Aix-en-Provence at a seminary there teaching apologetics. And then, since 1989, I’ve been a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, from which I’ve just retired. I have a beautiful wife, two children, and three grandchildren. So I’m a blessed man.
JL: That’s a remarkable story – praise God. Another reason I wanted to talk to you is that you studied music. When you became a Christian, did that impact your view of your studies?
WE: Yeah, well, it gave a reason for the great beauties and diversity of music. I started off as a musicologist, studying history and theory. And then I developed a little bit as a pianist, playing jazz. And I’m still very interested in it all – I just wrote a little book about jazz, called Supreme Love. Christianity could have profoundly affected my approach to music in 100 different ways.
JL: Could you elaborate on that? A little bit about how it’s impacted your view of music?
WE: Oh my, it’s a huge story. How do I begin? Well, much of western music in its best expression has a Christian background. You think of the great medievals, you think of the Reformation. You know, 18th century revivals. Even some of the 20th century there’s just an enormous influence of the gospel on all these different forms, in different ways. So I don’t know that you can understand, let’s say, Brahms or Stravinsky without knowing something about their Christian commitments. They believed that music was to God’s glory – that its intricacies deeply reflect the message of the gospel. In some cases, they wrote music that was literally from the Gospels or on the mass. In other cases, faith was just a general influence. You know, a lot of Brahms’ music was generally influenced by Christian sensibility, but not always directly about Christian subjects. Some of it was, but not all of it. It’s a huge, long story, and it will require volumes to answer that question.
JL: You’re also an apologist – professor of apologetics for many years – how do you think that fits into your apologetic framework? All these ideas about music and how it’s done for God’s glory and about art, anything that fits into your framework for talking to unbelievers.
WE: Well, apologetics is the defense and commendation of the Christian faith. In my version of it, it’s based on ‘worldview thinking.’ Christianity is a worldview that affects all areas of life. And that includes the sciences, law, government, and particularly, aesthetics and the arts. So I spent a lot of my time trying to connect Christian theology and the Christian worldview to the arts. I think the arts are profoundly influenced by a spiritual point of view. And people may or may not realize that, but they are living in a spiritual world that has no neutrality. So yes, my apologetics has profoundly affected the way I view the arts.
JL: Is there any piece of art, whether it’s a musical piece, or it’s an actual piece of physical art, even literature that when we’re talking about this, particularly comes to mind?
WE: Absolutely not. Everything comes to mind. You know, there’s great music that is directly to the glory of God, you know, like Bach. Then there’s music, which is indirectly reflective of God, like Mozart and Beethoven. And then there’s visual art that is in the same way more directly related to how the Creator has influenced what we see and other works of art that are much more indirect. So I think of everything, there’s no one piece, that’s a crazy idea – everything that we do has spiritual implications.
JL: One thing that comes to mind as we’re talking about art and faith is the question of clarity. I know a lot of people tend to think that artists have a greater grasp of life’s apparent contradictions than say engineers, who tend to be more concrete thinkers, and that some Christians object that art can be dangerous and should avoid it, or that it should be very on the nose and didactic. How would you respond to someone who would say that Christians should stick to the ‘hard facts’ or avoid most art altogether?
WE: You know, I think every discipline should articulate the tensions of life. Law and business and you name it as well as the arts can do it very well. The arts can be very literal. So I don’t think sensitivity to the tensions of life is restricted to the arts. And you know, engineers may not realize it, but they’re not objective. They’re not dealing with just pure facts. There’s a philosophy behind their approach. So the arts help us to see things that are less easy to see. And that can involve tensions in life. But I don’t see that as any different from any other discipline that shouldn’t be doing that naturally. We think of it too much that way.
JL: Since you work at Westminster, I take it you’re Presbyterian. I know that within the Westminster Confession there is mention of a doctrine which is called the regulative principle of worship. I know that some interpret this incredibly strictly – how has that interacted with your views on art and beauty?
WE: Well, the regulative principle basically says, “Worship has to be biblical.” Now there are those who have taken it to an extreme with things like exclusive psalmody and, as you say, the eschewing of the arts. That’s not what the regulative principle does. The Bible speaks abundantly about wider worship and the role of the arts and so forth. I think the term is subject to being misinterpreted by some people who are looking for an agenda to make things very restrictive. The regulative principle, according to the Westminster Confession, says, “Just do it according to Scripture.” It makes a number of very minor suggestions about when to when to worship and how to worship and so forth. But there’s no overriding principle that dictates the kind of music, the kinds of buildings we should be in. It’s wide open. so And I think Calvinists have sometimes missed the riches of what the Word says about music and the arts, understandably, because there was a zeal to purge the church from superstition and so on, but I think the Lutherans have a much better grasp of the implications of scripture for all of life and for music, and that in particular, the second and third generation Calvinists, Rembrandt and so on, have done this much better than brother Calvin himself. So the phrase “the regulative principle” I find is almost a useless concept unless you carefully define it to mean worship according to Scripture.
JL: Thank you – that’s really helpful. Moving on, in your book Reasons of the Heart, you talked about a famous Pascal quotation in your introduction – “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” And I think very clearly, when we talk about beauty that is what we’re talking about, we’re talking about art, we’re talking about aesthetics that’s part of what Pascal is getting at. We can’t always articulate what’s going on in art and life and faith, but we can see with our eyes and then in the Scriptures. How do you as an apologist go about advocating, telling people “This is good, this is true, this is beautiful,” and “Taste and see that the Lord is good?”
WE: Well, it depends on who you got in front of you. Everybody has different aspirations, different needs, different weaknesses, and the wise apologist tries to discover those and work with them. One of the things that Francis Schaeffer was very good at is finding the disconnect between somebody’s avowed philosophy and his or her practice. It could be a philosophical disconnect, or it could be just a disconnect between their claims and their life. And I think the wise apologist tries to identify that, in order to dislodge a person from certainties that they hold illegitimately. Then on the flip side, the wise apologist tries to present the glories of the Christian worldview, which includes the reasons of the heart that you alluded to, and includes life from a biblical point of view. Our job is to present both the disconnect and the fullness of a Christian worldview. That’s where our job stops, the rest is up to the Holy Spirit, who will either take our words and burn them into someone’s heart or decide not to do that. So, apologetics has to do with trusting that God is sovereign, and he’s working in people’s hearts but not claiming that an argument is good or bad according to whether it really leads somebody to faith. You’re gonna have some bad arguments, but you’re gonna have good arguments that actually don’t lead people to faith. Our Lord Jesus had some of those and a lot of people didn’t follow him. So I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think the biblical apologists tries to preach you know, the law and then the gospel, the law being how you can’t live consistently with your unbelieving point of view, and how by implication, it leads to darkness. And the gospel is the good news of Christ – it’s a finished work.
JL: That’s a very helpful answer. Now, we’re coming to the end – and I think it’s important that, in an issue on beauty, I ask you this question: What is beauty?
WE: Well, that’s a very deep question that would take hours and hours to respond to. One thing it’s not – it’s not a Platonic sense of harmony and form because something can be beautiful and highlight the darkness of human life. I think of Francisco Goya’s paintings, the blues – they’re not Platonically beautiful, there’s no harmony there. But they are profoundly beautiful because they articulate the Christian worldview in art. Beauty is not just one set of criteria which transcend the rest – it involves confronting the world and its issues with a high level of craft. The artist’s craft is good insofar as it does justice with the Christian worldview. Sometimes that craft is issued in glory – like in Solomon’s temple. Sometimes that craft issues in challenge, as it did in Jesus’ parables. The fundamental idea is not to think of beauty merely in terms of harmony and form and resolution. It’s more complicated than that.
JL: I only have two more questions before we end. First, is there anything else you would like to add on this topic of beauty and aesthetics?
WE: Well, there are whole worlds of information and thought anyone could give. I’d say that anyone should look at the worlds and worlds of material, of art and everything, to learn more about it. But there’s not just one thing I’d want to say!
JL: Finally, do you have any books to recommend?
WE: Sure. Everything by Calvin Seerveld related to the subject of beauty is excellent. For example, in his book, Rainbows for the Fallen World, he examines the pitfalls of Platonic beauty and the glories of the Christian view. Francis Shaeffer’s little book Art and the Bible is a surprisingly powerful resource on how the faith influences the arts. Gosh – there are hundreds of titles on the issue. Roger Scruton has written on beauty. But start with Seerveld – he’ll really enrich you.