Review of How Should we then live? By Bryan Elliff (“Schaeffer Sundays” Part 2)

(“Schaeffer Sundays” Part 2)

Francis Schaeffer is a hero of mine and I want to honor him with a series of posts on Sundays called “Schaeffer Sundays” which will include his writings and clips from his film series. I have posted many times in the past using his material.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Elliff family and I found this review on Bryan Elliff’s blog.

A Review of “How Should We Then Live?” by Francis A. Schaeffer

October 15, 2008 — bryanelliff

Francis A. Schaeffer died in 1984. He wrote over twenty books during his career, mainly concerning the Christian worldview and its relationship to society and its place in the philosophical sphere. These include The Christian Manifesto, The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is Not Silent. Educated at Westminster Theological Seminary, he came to have a major influence on the religious community in the West through his writing, speaking, and ministry at L’Abri in Switzerland.

How Should We Then Live? is a history of Western thought and culture. It begins with ancient Rome and traces the flow of Western philosophy and society through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Modern Era, and into the twentieth century. The study is made for a specific purpose. It is not meant to be a “complete chronological history of Western culture” (Author’s Note). Rather, it is made “in hope that light may be shed upon the major characteristics of our age and that solutions may be found to the myriad of problems which face us as we look toward the end of the twentieth century” (Author’s Note). In other words, the object of the book is to draw upon the past in order to better understand the present and better face the future.


Francis Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live? (Full-Length Documentary)



What can be learned from the past? Schaeffer loosely draws out three ideas through his exposition of Western history. First, the tendency of Western culture is to move toward humanism. Humanism is a way of looking at the world that begins from what Schaeffer calls “particulars”–the individual entities that make up the universe (the opposite of “universals” or “absolutes”). The most important particulars are individual human beings. Humanism posits that an autonomous human, with his senses and reason, can come to a true understanding of what surrounds him with no need for outside revelation. While there are notable exceptions (such as the Reformation), Schaeffer shows that the tendency of the West is always to move back to humanism in some form. He speaks of the religious humanism of the Middle Ages, the more unashamed secular humanism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the despairing humanism of the twentieth century.

Second, Schaeffer demonstrates from history that a culture cannot function well on a humanistic base. The problem is that man, starting completely from himself with no outside revelation, can never “arrive at universals or absolutes which give meaning to existence and morals” (55). Schaeffer maintains that, without absolutes, there is no foundation, no unity, and no significance for individual man and for society. Man becomes nothing more than a machine in a cause-and-effect universe and the form of society becomes arbitrary. Though a culture may start out well and optimistically on humanistic base, it will–as we have seen in the twentieth century–inevitably end up in despair, meaninglessness, and deterioration. Only when there is a Christian worldview in the cultural consensus, Schaeffer shows while pointing to the Reformation, does culture function well.

Third, Schaeffer argues that if humanism is allowed to take its course, the result in Western society will the manipulation of an elite, authoritarian government. “As the Christian consensus dies [leaving no absolutes and no base on which the society can function], there are not many sociological alternatives” (223). Schaeffer lists three: “hedonism” (223), “the absoluteness of the 51-percent vote” (223), and “an elite filling the vacuum left by the loss of the Christian consensus” (224). Hedonism only leads to chaos (what happens when two hedonists meet on a narrow bridge?) and the 51 percent vote is a completely arbitrary absolute which the society will eventually reject. The only option left is the control of a manipulative elite that hands down arbitrary absolutes to the society. “An elite, an authoritarianism as such, will gradually force form on society so that it will not go on to chaos. And most people will accept it” (245). “Humanism has lead to its natural conclusion” (225).


Schaeffer ends his book with a call to Christians to stand up against the inevitable direction of the culture. “To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it” (257). The title of the book is taken from Ezekiel 33:1-11, in which God called Ezekiel to be a watchman for the house of Israel and speak out against the societal problems of his day. “Thus ye speak, saying, If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” (258).

It has been shown what the purpose of the author is in this book. Now the question is whether the author fulfills that purpose. Schaeffer does achieve his goal, but only partially. The main section of the book, concerned with the history of the West and with looking at the problems of the future, is convincing. He does a masterful job of taking the breadth of Western history, tracing its flow, and pointing out the path that it will take in years to come. Looking at Western society thirty years later, the solidity of his logic is clear because much of what he predicted is coming true. He is also to be commended for presenting his positions in memorable and fresh ways.

However, the last section of the book leaves something to be desired. Schaeffer fails to be entirely convincing when he calls the Christian minority to fight against cultural trends. His argument for this is based on an unsupported presupposition–that Christians are obligated to affect the functioning of culture and government. This concept does not seem to have much scriptural warrant, and Schaeffer certainly does not feel the need to give any. The New Testament writers taught that a believer’s relationship to government should be one of quiet submission and that his or her relationship with the culture should consist of preaching the gospel. While there are notable exceptions to this rule (Christians should be concerned about the relief of injustice and poverty, for instance, but this is not what Schaeffer is referring to), Christians are never exhorted to exert their energy in surface cultural reformation. Instead, they are exhorted to work for the salvation of souls. Ironically, Schaeffer seems to be setting up an arbitrary absolute.

How Should We Then Live? deserves thoughtful reading. It is masterful in its breadth and originality and helpful in its major purpose-expositing Western thought and viewing the future in its light. However, not everything Schaeffer says regarding the Christian’s role in society should be accepted without careful consideration.

Bryan Elliff Copyright 2008


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