Monday, October 01, 2007

Introduction to the Selected Works of Dr William Young

It is both an honour and a pleasure to be asked to write about Dr. William Young, whose life and Christian confession is celebrated in this selection of his writings. I could say a lot about Bill at the personal level, for our friendship goes back over 40 years, to the time when he first mentored and argued with a young apprentice philosopher. But I will in general confine myself to some remarks about the pieces that have been brought together in this book. They are not quite representative of all Bill's writings - for there is nothing here from his books or his voluminous correspondence - but they fully represent, without qualification, Bill's theological, philosophical and pastoral outlook, which has remained pretty constant over a long life-time.

Theologically, Bill stands unashamedly in the tradition of the Reformation in his commitment to salvation by grace through faith, and in the sufficiency of Scripture for all matters of faith and practice. He gives his own special emphasis to each of these principles. While not in any way minimizing the accomplishment and application of redemption he lays particular stress on its decree, its origin in the Father's electing and predestinating love. Bill is a decretal theologian, or perhaps it is more accurate to think of him as a decretal thinker. It is God's eternal decree that establishes all contingent truths and accounts for their consistency. Bill is a foe of any appeal to free will as initiating or unaidedly cooperating with God's grace. And in his appeal to the sufficiency of Scripture he in particular upholds, and has fought for, its sufficiency for the ordering of Christian worship. Throughout his long career he has championed 'purity of worship'. This has set him apart not only from the 'whatever Scripture does not forbid is permitted' approach of Lutheranism and Anglicanism but also from the unashamed pragmatism of the modern evangelical church. Bill is a strongly 'counter cultural' Christian.
However, this strong commitment to Reformation principles is not only founded on firm adherence to Scripture itself but on a recognition of the theological achievements of the Patristic and Scholastic eras, particularly those of Augustine, Anselm (a 'genius') and Thomas Aquinas. Bill recognizes that the Reformation was a re-formation of the Gospel message, and not a revolution. The Reformers conserved and endorsed their Christian past wherever possible, and Bill does the same.

Bill's overall outlook is quite remarkable, if not at present unique. For his natural gifts and God's special grace have enabled him to combine the study of philosophical issues with a deep interest in the theology of so-called 'High Calvinism' - of the Puritanism of Old and New England, the Covenanting tradition of Scotland, and the Reformed Scholasticism and 'precisionism' of the Netherlands. Bill's series of articles on the Puritan Principle of Worship, and several of his addresses, as well as his discussion of Gordon H. Clark's view of saving faith, give the reader a sense of how thorough, familiar and utterly sympathetic is Bill's acquaintance with this literature. One can well imagine him seated around the table with Samuel Rutherford, William Twisse and Willem à Brakel, for instance, and discussing with each of them - in English or Dutch, as necessary - the heights of supralapsarianism, or the gross follies of Arminianism or Molinism, or the painful misunderstandings of R. T. Kendall. Bill is completely loyal to this tradition and thus a true theological conservative, increasingly out of sympathy with the changes that have taken place in evangelicalism and in Reformed theology during his lifetime. Besides such writers as these, he has other favorites - the epigrams of John 'Rabbi Duncan, the eccentric Scottish Hebraist of the 19th century, and the philosophy of Jonathan Edwards.

In Jonathan Edwards Bill found a powerful advocate of determinism, which has fed his own emphasis upon the divine decree. It is clear to Bill that God's counsel, while inscrutable and in that sense mysterious, works through and by means of the ordering of the thoughts and choices of men and women who nonetheless remain responsible for their voluntary (and in that sense, free) choices. Edwards provided for Bill a philosophical defense of this view which he already found in Scripture and which is also stated with such elegance and economy in Chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, 'Of God's Decree'. 'I could be labeled a pretty strong determinist. But I assure you that I am a very soft determinist, in the sense that I take a very hard view with regard to human responsibility. I believe God holds men accountable, and holds men accountable for all kinds of things with regard to which men would like to make excuses for themselves. And this is perfectly consistent with God having, from eternity, foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, including all human actions. If you want to call me a determinist, you can.'

Bill's appropriation of Edwards on the freedom of the will is characteristic of his attitude to philosophy more generally. He employs reason in elucidation of and in defense of the faith. Not-infrequently he can be found drawing attention to a logical fallacy in some view he is contending with. But at the same time he is in no sense a rationalist, for he does not require that the articles of the faith must first meet some a priori standard of reason or reasonableness in order to be acceptable. Bill has too sharp a sense of the noetic effects of sin to succumb to this temptation. In this sense philosophy is subordinate to faith, but not because matters of faith cannot be reasoned about. 'I do not know where to draw the boundary line between Christian philosophy and theology. I must confess that if people want to accuse me of being a theologian and not a philosopher when I proceed along these lines, I am willing to plead guilty, and it does not matter too much what label one uses, as far as I am concerned. And this, too, is in the spirit of Augustine, no doubt.' I believe this to be Bill's dominant and enduring view of the relation between theology and philosophy.

Bill is emphatic on the primacy of the intellect. So Christian theology is not exempt from intellectual study, for whatever else God's special revelation is it has the character of propositional truth: it propounds truths for our acceptance. Our normal thought processes and standards of argument are not bypassed in some mystical way, but are to be thoroughly engaged in understanding and analyzing the truths of Holy Scripture. In order to receive the testimony of Scripture with faith, the illumination of the Holy Spirit is indispensable; but the Spirit illumines the propositions of Scripture, revealed truth. There is thus a strong evidential element in faith. The other feature is Bill's insistence on the objectivity of the claims of Scripture against the increasingly skeptical and relativistic outlook of the age. Yet there is nothing in Bill of that supposed antithesis between propositional and personal truth. The proposition is the vehicle of truth, and reliance on the truth of some of these propositions can bring a person to the feet of the Almighty. 'While readily realizing the riches of scriptural law addressed to the will and scriptural poetry captivating the affections, we must insist on the primary of scriptural doctrine addressed to the intellect, a doctrine at the same time grounding and pervading the affective or volitional aspects of revelation. Scriptural doctrine is truth expressible in propositional form.' Bill seems to have had little sympathy with much of the recent 'Christian philosophy' movement, partly, I imagine, because of its almost uniform emphasis on indeterministic free will and also because of its failure to appreciate and conserve the Augustinian and Reformed theological heritage.

Bill also has had an enduring interest in systematic philosophy, in metaphysical systems, as can be seen from his admiration for Herman Dooyeweerd, interest in Hegel (in his book Hegel's Dialectical Method) and in his appreciation of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus, 'a metaphysical masterpiece despite its conclusion that metaphysics as well as ethics and aesthetics is nonsensical'. Bill projected a book on Wittgenstein at one stage but unfortunately it never materialized. His enduring interest in the Austrian philosopher can be seen in his short paper on Wittgenstein and predestination.

However it is in this region, the relation between systematic philosophy and theology, that one may detect some change or development in Bill's thinking. Because of the systematic character of Reformed theology there is a natural affinity between it and philosophical systems of ideas. Early on in his career Bill put a good deal of energy into the idea of a 'Reformed philosophy'. There is his early monograph, Toward a Reformed Philosophy (1952) (though even here his interest in and sympathy with Puritans such as Theophilus Gale is evident). And there is his translation (with the late David H. Freeman) of Herman Dooyeweerd's A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, undertaken in 1951, a monumental achievement. Perhaps it was under the influence of Gordon H. Clark during Bill's time at Butler University, ending in 1954, that the idea of a philosophical underpinning of the Reformed faith began to seem less attractive, and sola scriptura reasserted itself in all its purity. It is hard to be sure. But what is clear is that his disenchantment with some of the theological consequences of such an approach, particularly the implied appeal to the idea of the covenant as an overarching organizing principle of thought, has become clearer and more public as time has gone on.

In his important paper 'Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism' he sees the intellectual father of Dooyeweerd, that 'great man' Abraham Kuyper, as perhaps unwittingly initiating a new movement, 'Neo-Calvinism'. It has two emphases, the doctrine of the presumptive regeneration of infants, which for Bill strikes at the heart of experimental religion and at the preaching of the law preparatory to the gospel, and the doctrine of common grace, which has given birth to 'cultural Calvinism', an emphasis on the 'christianizing' of culture and a marked shift away from the centrality of the sola gratia of the Gospel. The new movement derides personal religion as 'pietism'. 'That the Puritans separated religion from daily concerns is a base slander, but the Puritans never succumbed to the error, pointed out by Dr. Patton, as quoted by Dr. Machen, of making much of applied Christianity without being concerned about having a Christianity to apply.' The important theological principle here is that for Bill the natural law - the obligation mankind has to worship and serve the Creator - precedes any covenant, both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. It is only on this basis that the covenant of works can be made intelligible. In this article he also briefly makes serious criticisms of Dooyeweerd's system and its tendency to theological agnosticism.

It is interesting that despite his sympathy with the 'presuppositionalism' of Gordon H. Clark and (I suspect to a lesser extent) that of Cornelius Van Til, one distinctive feature of Bill's thought is that he believes natural theology to be worthwhile. It is typical of him to write, in advocating the need for the theologian to have some skill in logic, that 'Contemporary discussions of the theistic proofs, as a matter of fact, involve arguments involving modal concepts such as possibility, necessity and contingency. Such arguments as the ontological proof and the proof from the contingency of the world require the mastery of an elaborate, technical logical apparatus, if they are to be stated, defended or criticized effectively.'

Pastorally, in his sermons and some of his lectures, the striking thing is Bill's insistence on the need for personal religion to be 'experimental'. A person's professed faith in Christ should be put to the test: it is not sufficient for that person to conclude that he is a Christian merely from the fact that he believes that he is. The New Testament teaches that a person should examine himself (1 Cor. 11:28), take heed (I Cor. 10:12), judge himself (1 Cor. 11.31), abase himself before God (Luke 18:15), and be watchful (Matthew 25.13). The presumptuous 'easy-believism' of the modern church ignores this teaching at its peril. For Bill it is central to Christian religion, both in its private and public expressions. Paradoxically, God-centered worship provides opportunities for solemn self-reflection of this sort, the wisdom of knowing God and ourselves. Is this subjectivism at odds without Bill's pronounced objectivism in theology? Not at all. It is concerned with the impact of objective truth on the soul, on the self. Is it self-absorption? It may degenerate into that, but in its best expression it is concerned to discern the life of God in the soul of man. For Bill, Christian theology is not 'dry', merely a form of words or a system of ideas. Hence both his relief and delight (in his review of Gordon H. Clark's Sanctification) when he discovers evidence in that book of a concern for such 'experimental Christianity'.

It is a privilege to be able to commend Bill's Selected Works to a wider readership.