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Ronald Arthur Horton: In Memoriam

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Ron_Horton.jpgWritten by: Brendon Johnson

About a month ago I drove Ron Horton to a wedding. I was the organist, and he was to address the bride and groom. As we talked in the car, I asked him whether he had ever considered writing his life’s story. I am sure that he did not see memorializing himself as at all important. But he agreed that the ways the Lord had directed his life might be worth telling, and he said he might be able to put something together.

He wrote me the next day, explaining that he was doubtful about writing an autobiography but would be interested in working with me to record some of his memories (he had what I felt was an excessive regard for my writing ability). But it was not to be. I saw him only one more time. Lying in bed, from which he was unable to rise, he did want to talk but not about himself. A week later he was gone.

The outline of his life is easily stated: born in Glendale, California, November 9, 1936; entered Bob Jones University in 1954 with his twin brother, Don; was graduated B.A. in 1958 (and later M.A., California, 1961, and Ph.D., North Carolina, 1972); faculty member at Bob Jones in English, writing, and philosophy from 1960 to 2019, with service as division chair and department head; wrote several books, many articles, a handful of poems; taught Sunday school at Trinity Baptist Church, Gaffney; married Martha Jean Dillard and had three daughters; died in Greenville, South Carolina, June 2, 2019.

I first met Dr. Horton when I was an undergraduate, maybe eight or nine years ago. Some of my cousins, who knew him, invited him to join us for lunch one Saturday: the first of many conversations in the Dining Common, in our offices, on the sidewalk, in the halls, in his house. He became my teacher when I took his series of four philosophy courses. Then I joined the English faculty as a graduate assistant, and we were colleagues as well as near neighbors in the East Faculty Wing (unofficially and ambiguously styled the “Old Faculty Wing”). The door to office 17, where I stayed four years before moving down the hall directly opposite Drs. Horton and St. John, was usually open, and I remember him coming in occasionally, mistaking it for the faculty work room two doors away—not the only teacher to do so!

Our philosophy courses migrated from Arts and Science to Religion, and Dr. Horton officially left the English Division. I followed him to the School of Religion last year. When he still was coming into his office, he frequently stopped by Dean Hall to share his most recent ideas. He usually apologized, quite unnecessarily, for taking my time.

Ron Horton’s first area of expertise was English Renaissance poetry, and he always looked back gratefully to his association with O. B. Hardison, Jr., who supervised his dissertation (later published) on Spenser’s Faerie Queene. He was as much a writer as a literary scholar. His doctoral committee asked, “Where’d you learn to write so well?” He replied, “Well, I graded a lot of papers.”

Dr. Horton did grade papers, for the better part of six decades. A few pointed notes in the margins, a concise paragraph of evaluation, and the student knew exactly what was wrong with his work. Dr. Horton valued clarity and simplicity—and always an economy of language. “Sometimes less is more,” he said. I will miss his criticism.

Many of our students did not know him personally, but his textbooks for the first-year English courses taught them how to think about writing, how to approach the writing process, and how to avoid common errors. If the purpose of a university is to train men and women for service in the world and the church, then students must learn to write. While he could sympathize with those who truly struggled to learn, if there was anything Dr. Horton did not understand, it was a student without motivation. His desire for his students was that they prepare themselves as thoroughly as possible. After all, that is what he had done.

His final years of teaching were in philosophy. To him, an understanding of the major western philosophers was an essential element of a student’s ability to interact with ideas in the modern world, and he led the development of a general philosophy course now required for all BJU undergraduates. His own courses were three historical surveys and Aesthetics. In response to a friend’s quip (at that great forum of wit and wisdom, a Dining Common lunch table) that it is a lot easier to teach something if you lived through it (this in reference to Ancient and Medieval Philosophy), Dr. Horton, with characteristic self-deprecating humor, assured us that he was only medieval, not ancient!

His influence on Christian education extended beyond the university. High school students, for example, benefitted from his British Literature textbook. He was a chief contributor and editor of the university’s official statements that were collected in Christian Education: Its Mandate and Mission. These have given philosophical support and practical advice to Christian schools across the country. They also express Dr. Horton’s firm persuasion that Bob Jones University had the right approach to education.

Dr. Horton loved his university not just because he studied and taught here but also because he thought an institution like Bob Jones University offers something of great value to the church. Culturally and theologically, BJU has traditionally provided an important alternative for Christian education with a unique stand that Dr. Horton described as “heroic” and “self-vindicating.” His conviction was so strong that he told me once that should the university ever cease to exist, someone ought to collect a dozen core faculty members and start over on the same principles.

Incidentally, he had little sympathy for a graduate whose attitude toward the university was something less than appreciative. That was like a newly hatched chicken turning around to attack its shell.

The key to the university’s uniqueness, as Dr. Horton saw it, is its approach to theology.  While orthodox and evangelical, adhering to a Fundamentalist creed, Bob Jones University has never endorsed a specific theological system. There are, no doubt, practical reasons.  An interdenominational institution like this one would have a hard time being, for example, strictly Calvinist—never mind that the founder was a Methodist. But Dr. Horton had his own reason for valuing BJU’s approach. In his eyes, this university’s theological position, strengthened by a program of theological training that emphasizes biblical over systematic theology, is exactly what the church needs. He told me, not just once, that our approach ought to be better known among Christians.

It was no accident that his university’s theological method corresponded to Dr. Horton’s own intellectual preoccupations. At the end of his career his mind was engaged in the old problem of the one and the many. He wrestled with determinism, which he rejected even in the form of compatibilism because it did not allow for a free human will. In this area, he felt that pagan philosophy had been far too influential in Christian thought. On the other hand, a random-chance cosmology denies the sovereignty of God. Either one results from a misplaced emphasis. The corrective is to let the Bible speak for itself.

For Dr. Horton, the Bible is a story: a collection of stories but, preeminently, one story. It is not a miscellany of proof texts. It is not even, really, a textbook of systematic theology. Not that he was opposed to all theological systematization—but he gave first place to reading the Bible as it is written, reading the whole with careful attention to details while never losing sight of the big narrative. Taking the Bible as literature, he thought, is too neglected among Christians. The neglect has resulted in deficient theology, theology informed more by philosophical preconceptions than by the biblical story. Dr. Horton encouraged our ministerial students about reading the Bible, and it is the theme of his last book, now in process of publication. It was not a new idea for him, though. He came to my desk once last year, excited at having rediscovered a thirty-year-old article he wrote on the same premise.

The struggle to develop a sound, biblical approach to theology and philosophy was of practical importance. It affected Dr. Horton’s psychology, for example. And, especially, his view of culture.

Dr. Horton long studied the ideas of art and beauty (the last class he taught was Aesthetics). He had a great interest in music. I must say that his compositional advice was not always helpful. I remember once—again at that lunch table—trying to decide whether a piece of music I was writing should be in 3/4 meter or 4/4. One professor told me to make it 11/4. Dr. Horton’s suggestion? Stream-of-consciousness.

But he did seriously think and write about art and music. He lived in a university that had always promoted high culture, and he appreciated good music, notably the church’s inheritance of sacred music. He knew that music has meaning, even morality. He hated any attempt to dismiss music as culturally relative; not every culture has equal validity, anyway. There is room for variety, but there are unchanging universal aesthetic principles.

There was solid philosophy behind Dr. Horton’s conceptions of music and culture. But there was also an attentive reading of the Bible. Dr. Horton had no place for the cultural mandate that he called “the mantra of New Evangelicalism.” He loved life. He enjoyed all aspects of human experience: history, family gatherings, hard work, art, hiking trips. But if they are not careful, Christians may change what God says about the world into something dangerous. Dr. Horton’s reading of the Bible convinced him that the natural world, the good world that God made, is not identical to human culture, the broken part of the world into which He sent His disciples to preach the gospel. Our relationship to the former Dr. Horton described as world-ness. An unhealthy desire for the latter he called worldliness.The two are not the same.

It was one of the teacher’s final warnings: “God’s world involves everything good; it leaves out Satan’s world. . . . The attraction of Satan’s world . . . will draw you in and flatten you, and twist you, and chew you up, and spit you out in pieces and leave you by the road, while the con man goes on laughing. That is a three-syllable word, worldliness. And the two get confused. . . . But that’s the great alternative, even for Christians: world-ness, two syllables; worldliness, three syllables. And even Christians get a choice. . . . Two syllables, three syllables. World-ness, worldliness. . . .” That is not just aesthetics. It is Christian wisdom for all of life.

Dr. Horton used to walk across campus to the Dining Common, often accompanied by one or more grandchildren. The long, slow incline from the Dining Common up to the Student Center he named “Cardiac Hill.” (Was that his way of telling me to slow down?) Toward the end, walking became hard for him, and he moved his last class into his house. He thought much about his future, trying to foresee how many semesters he had left. He loved teaching, but he wondered whether the Lord was forcing him to focus just on his writing. He welcomed the prospect.

As it turned out, even his writing days quickly ended. He could be content with that, too. Eight days before he died, he described his attitude: “You know, the Lord said to His disciples that dark night, ‘I leave you my peace and my joy,’ and that’s my mindset. I’m very positive, and as they say in the business world, bullish: whatever comes, at whatever time.”

He gave me, for the last time, a summary of his final conclusions in theology and philosophy—about causation and responsibility, about the world, about the human will. He was tired, but his mind kept working. He wanted to sleep, so I moved to a chair across the room. But he twice called me back to his bedside: “There’s one missing piece in what I told you.” Finally, he said, “That was a missing piece. I have no more pieces.”

No more pieces—this from the man who could never satisfy himself with what he wrote! If he sent a paper to friends, they expected an improved version to follow shortly. He used to revise his lectures until the last minute, printing them out just in time for class, and often came to the next class period with yet another revision. But at last, he felt that he had said all he needed to say. The only thing left was to wait in thankfulness and faith.

He did not have to wait long.

Honored professor, gentle critic, wise counselor, dear friend—farewell. You gave your life to teaching us how to live, and you taught us well. You served us by the will of God, and He has given you rest from your labors.

We follow you in hope.

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