A Eulogy for Phillip E. Johnson

A Eulogy for Phillip E. Johnson November 23, 2019

This is taken from part of what I said at the memorial service for Phillip E. Johnson, Gandalf gone to the West.

We celebrate the Christian life of Phillip E. Johnson.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . .”

Phillip E. Johnson shifted the dialog about the nature of reality from the origins of the cosmos to the origins of ideas and the mind that holds those ideas. Put Biblically, he saw John 1:1 as more critical to the debate than Genesis 1:1, mind before matter.

The last time I talked to Phil on the phone, the day before he saw glory, he was excited about the idea of applying Orthodox spirituality and the ideas of Dallas Willard to education. He was pressing me to get on with the project at The Saint Constantine School and college program. Phil was full of ideas about what to do.

He was an idea man who did things with his ideas.

Phil loved the truth, but not as an abstraction. He loved the truth the way a fish loves water: as the medium in which he lived. As a result, he had no fondness for academic bloviating, masking poor thinking in jargon, or silencing dissent with power. Any seemingly lost academic cause, if presented clearly, with sound argumentation, and with practical implications, could get his attention. This is the Socratic openness many profess, but few practice.

This willingness to consider, reconsider, and then do something about what he found is why numerous schools, programs, and an entire intellectual movement can claim him as one of their progenitors.

Phil was graceful in the pursuit of truth. He never founded his own center, program, or ministry. Instead, he elevated the work of other people, finding means and ways to connect the right people so their work could flourish. He never hired ghost writers, read himself what he needed to read, and was happy to break ground for an idea and then see (or at least claim) his protégés had surpassed him.

He hated cant, grift, and lies, but he was tolerant of people who made mistakes, intellectual and personal. If you were trying, he may become irascible, but never intolerant of you. People came before programs always, because for Phil, people were the thing: ideas made flesh. This informed every political, social, cultural discussion we ever had. Most of what he described exists now, in one place or another, thanks to the many friends he made, the friends he introduced to other friends.

Once in La Mirada, we took a walk around what he called “the duck pond” and discussed the future. What was needed, he told me were more ways to educate more students who would hear the Word and do it. I thought at the time, as I still think today, that what we needed were people like Phillip E. Johnson: active idea people.

Phil incarnated grace and truth himself. Some very smart folk read, study, read some more, and become full of great ideas that somehow never work their way out to the rest of us. If they speak, they are incomprehensible or one needs other smart people to decode the message. Phil wished to be understood and was understood by a startling range of people. He once commented to me that he would prefer the support of a thoughtful NFL linebacker to the pompous academic. Needless to say, more than one NFL player, and a good many thoughtful academics, learned from Phillip E. Johnson. As for the pompous academics, Phil suffered such fools uproariously. He never took them seriously.

Whether humming Gilbert and Sullivan, laughing at Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, or watching a community of friends he and Kathie created play on the beach at Pajaro Dunes, Phil was alive. A great mercy, in the severe mercy of this broken world, is that when he died, he was still very much alive. He was reading new books, recommending new articles, pressing new projects on us all.

If all of us, as people, are created in the image of God, some of us live lives that mar that image. Maybe Phillip E. started that way, he certainly would regret some early choices, but he did not end that way. Phillip E. Johnson reflected the image of God better to me on the last day I spoke with him than on the first day thirty some years ago. He grew in grace and truth.

Of course, like an image of reality, he was, this side of paradise, an imperfect mirror. So he said, so say we all.

What is true of the idea man, this Phillip E. Johnson, now? He was all his life an image of the Word made flesh, growing over time. He cared, perhaps, first about truth with relentless good cheer and as he grew older, particularly after health setbacks, he grew in grace. Phil always had the goal of sharing a drink and good fellowship with an intellectual foe.

He beholds Jesus, the Word made flesh, and the glory of that only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.


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