Honoring the greatest philosopher I ever knew

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Honoring the greatest philosopher I ever knew

June 3, 2014 -

It was one of the greatest honors of my life to take part in Dr. Yandall Woodfin’s memorial service last week.  Many in attendance asked me to share the manuscript, and as a tribute to him, I share it with you, as well.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claimed that great people plant trees they’ll never sit under.  I am one such tree.  My life is different and better in every way because of the influence of Yandall Woodfin.  I know I speak for many when I say that he will forever be a mentor and hero to me.

I first encountered Dr. Woodfin the way generations of ministers have—in the classroom.  In my case, it was a philosophy elective in Christian evidences.  I was struck immediately by his brilliance.  He was the first true genius I had met, and I was astounded by his intellect.  As many of you know, Dr. Woodfin taught systematic theology at Southwestern Seminary from 1960-67, then returned to the seminary in 1973 to teach philosophy of religion.  He was the first faculty member in the school’s history to teach as a professor in two different academic fields.  He earned doctoral degrees from both Southwestern and the University of Edinburgh, and taught at Baylor University and the International Baptist Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland as well as at Southwestern.  He was prolific in German and one of the finest writers in English I have ever known.

His deep voice and remarkable presence immediately impressed me as well.  But as that first semester went on, I became even more engaged by his spirit.  So godly, gracious, kind, humble.  He truly manifested the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  I chose to study philosophy because of him.  He became my major professor and my dissertation chair.  He supported me for a faculty position at Southwestern.  And he has remained a hero and guide to me ever since.

In seeking to remember a man of such brilliance and grace, I thought my words insufficient to the day.  So I’ll let Dr. Woodfin speak to us in his words.  His 1980 publication, With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy (Nashville: Abingdon) was the text for my first class with him.  It was the most formative book I read in seminary, and became the text for every philosophy class I taught since.  Reading through it again this week, I have been amazed at how much of my thinking over the years was formed by its insights.

The great theologian Karl Barth said we should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  I will speak to you today with 1 Corinthians 15 in one hand and Dr. Woodfin’s great text in the other.  As a student of Yandall Woodfin, I have three philosophical questions for us today, three questions we all ask on a day like this one.  Three questions which God’s word and Yandall Woodfin’s wisdom will answer for us.
Why death?

First, why are we here?  Why does an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God permit physical decay and death?  Here is Paul’s answer: “I tell you this, brothers, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (v. 50).  If we would enter God’s kingdom, we must leave our diseased, fallen flesh and blood behind.  If we would step into the imperishable, we must leave the perishable.  To step into the house, we must leave the car.

How do we know?  Here’s Dr. Woodfin’s answer: “Every epistemological assertion is inherently ontological and must reflect some understanding of and participation in the reality which is being known” (p. 18).  Said differently, every decision requires a commitment which transcends the evidence and becomes self-validating.  You cannot know you should be married until you are married.  You can and should examine the evidence.  But then you must take a step beyond the evidence into the relationship.  Only then can your decision be validated.

So, prior to death, we cannot know with absolute certainty why death exists.  In this world, death is the end.  We cannot see beyond it.  The theist postulates that there is a God; the atheist postulates that there is not.  Neither can prove his or her case.  But when death comes and we step from time into eternity and grave to glory, then we know.  Then we are known.

Later in his text, Dr. Woodfin cites John Hick’s “fascinating parable of the two who journey together on a road.  One believes that he moves toward the Celestial City while the other is equally convinced that there is no such place awaiting him.  During the course of the journey, Hick concedes, the ultimate issue which distinguishes the two men has not yet become an experimental one; however, when they come to the end of the journey it will then be determined that one of them has been right all along and the other wrong” (p. 113).

Dr. Woodfin has reached that Celestial City.  He was right all along.

What happens when we die?

Paul next tells us what happens when a believer dies: “This perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’  O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 53-57).

Jesus assured the grieving Martha that “he who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26).  He told the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  He told his fearful disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).  “Room” translates a word for a destination at the end of a journey.  It is as though our bodies are vehicles for that journey.  One day we step out of the car and go into the house, and we are well and we are home.

Dr. Woodfin captured the essence of this glorious destination when he quoted Arthur John Gossip’s famous sermon after his wife’s sudden death.  I have quoted this passage in memorial services for decades now, and share it with you today:

In the New Testament . . . you hear a great deal about the saints in glory, and the sunshine, and the singing, and the splendour yonder.  And, surely, that is where our thoughts should dwell.  I for one want no melancholious tunes, no grey and sobbing words, but brave hymns telling of their victory. . . . Think out your brooding.  What exactly does it mean?  Would you pluck the diadem from their brows again?  Would you snatch the palms of victory out of their hands?  Dare you compare the clumsy nothings our poor blundering love can give them here with what they must have yonder where Christ Himself has met them, and was heaped on them who can think out what happiness and glory?  I love to picture it.  How, shyly, amazed, half protesting, she who never thought of self was led into the splendour of her glory. . . .
To us it will be long and lonesome: but they won’t even have looked round them before we burst in.  In any case, are we to let our dearest be wrenched out of our hands by force?  Or, seeing that it ha
s to be, will we not give them willingly and proudly, looking God in the eyes, and telling Him that we prefer our loneliness rather than that they should miss one tittle of their rights? . . . When we are young, heaven is a vague and nebulous and shadowy place.  But as our friends gather there, more and more it gains body and vividness and homeliness.  And when our dearest have passed yonder, how real and evident it grows, how near it is, how often we steal yonder.  For as the Master put it: Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also (p. 231).

Dr. Woodfin is home and he is well.

What do we do now?

God permits death as the gateway to life.  In the moment of death we step into that life eternal.  My last question: what about those who are left behind?  We feel this separation, this void, this loss.  Dr. Woodfin is in glory, but we are not.  He is home, but we are still on the road.  What of us?

Paul closes his magnificent chapter on death and eternal life with this practical admonition: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (v. 58).  Serve the Lord of time and eternity until the day he takes us home.

As we do, we may know that this world is not our home.  Dr. Woodfin, as a great artist, especially loved the field of aesthetics.  It might be said that his chapter on the subject is the most beautiful in his great text.  Towards its end, he quotes Karl Heim’s assurance:

the thirst for beauty will be satisfied.  Every really great piece of music; every great work of art therefore is the morning light of eternity, a first dawn of the perfecting of the world.  Immortal works of music, classical works of art are like the fir trees on the slopes of the mountain, whose tops are already in the light of the approaching morning while the valley is still covered in mist (p. 128).


Now we know why we die—so that we can live.  We know what happens when we die—we step into eternity and glory.   And we know what we must do in the meantime—live for Jesus every day as our Lord and King.  Then one day will come that day where there is no night, that joy where there is no sorrow, that life where there is no death.  On that day we will be with our Father and we will be well.  And Yandall Woodfin will welcome us home.

When Dr. Woodfin wrote his great text more than 30 years ago, he may not have imagined that its closing lines would be read at his own memorial service:

It can be for any of us who trusts in Christ as it was for Christian and Hopeful in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  As they approach the river of death, which has no way around nor bridge across, they ask about the depth of the water and are told, “You shall find it deeper or shallower, as you believe in the King of the place.”  Upon entering the water Christian begins to sink and cries to his companion that the billows and waves are going over his head.  To this Hopeful responds, “Be of good cheer, my Brother, I feel the bottom and it is good.”  Christian soon finds solid ground to stand on and “the rest of the River was but shallow” (p. 240).


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