Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic method

Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic method

How Should We Then Live? Episode 5: The Revolutionary Age


Episode VII – The Age of Non Reason



I love the works of Francis Schaeffer and I have been on the internet reading several blogs that talk about Schaeffer’s work and the work below   was really helpful. Schaeffer’s film series “How should we then live?  Wikipedia notes, “According to Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live traces Western history from Ancient Rome until the time of writing (1976) along three lines: the philosophic, scientific, and religious.[3] He also makes extensive references to art and architecture as a means of showing how these movements reflected changing patterns of thought through time. Schaeffer’s central premise is: when we base society on the Bible, on the infinite-personal God who is there and has spoken,[4] this provides an absolute by which we can conduct our lives and by which we can judge society.  Here are some posts I have done on this series: Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 10 “Final Choices” episode 9 “The Age of Personal Peace and Affluence”episode 8 “The Age of Fragmentation”episode 7 “The Age of Non-Reason” episode 6 “The Scientific Age”  episode 5 “The Revolutionary Age” episode 4 “The Reformation” episode 3 “The Renaissance”episode 2 “The Middle Ages,”, and  episode 1 “The Roman Age,” .

In the film series “WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE HUMAN RACE?” the arguments are presented  against abortion (Episode 1),  infanticide (Episode 2),   euthanasia (Episode 3), and then there is a discussion of the Christian versus Humanist worldview concerning the issue of “the basis for human dignity” in Episode 4 and then in the last episode a close look at the truth claims of the Bible.

Francis Schaeffer

Francis A. Schaeffer

Francis August Schaeffer IV (1912-1984) was one of the most beloved Christian apologists of the twentieth century. His influence was so great that Newsweek once called him “the guru of fundamentalism.”21 There are many reasons for Schaeffer’s popularity, but two stand out.

First and foremost, Schaeffer embodied the ideal of an apologist who sought to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). He talked to people, showed a genuine interest in them, and in his teaching on apologetics emphasized the importance of approaching non-Christians with compassion as individuals in God’s image. L’Abri, his retreat center in the Swiss Alps that has been duplicated in several countries, was a place where people in spiritual and intellectual anguish could go and be heard and helped.

Second, Schaeffer inspired evangelical Christians to broaden their approach to apologetics beyond the usual disciplines of philosophy, theology, science, and history—which have dominated our own discussion in this book—to encompass ethics and the arts. “Cultural apologetics” touches most people more profoundly than traditional forms, because it connects with them in those areas of life in which personality is more deeply involved.

Francis Schaeffer22 grew up in a blue-collar family in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. The son of liberal Presbyterians, he read the Bible as a teenager and was surprised to find that it contained answers to the most momentous questions in life. He gave his life to Christ and decided, against his father’s wishes, to pursue the ministry. While in college he began spending Sunday afternoons teaching children at a nearby African-American church. While visiting home on one occasion, he attended his family’s church, where a guest minister was openly attacking the Bible and the deity of Christ. Schaeffer stood up to protest, and then a young woman named Edith Seville also stood up and offered an intelligent defense of the Christian position. Edith, the daughter of missionaries to China, introduced Francis to the apologetic writings of J. Gresham Machen and other professors at Westminster Theological Seminary whom she had met in her parents’ home.

After college Francis married Edith and enrolled at Westminster Seminary in 1935. There he studied under Cornelius Van Til, who was still developing his presuppositional system of apologetics. The following year the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America (now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), which Machen had founded after he was ousted from the mainline Presbyterian church, suffered a split. The splinter group, which was called the Bible Presbyterian Church, favored a premillennial eschatology and differed in other ways from the more staunchly Calvinist parent body. Schaeffer transferred to the new group’s Faith Theological Seminary. He was a member of its first graduating class in 1938 and became its first ordained minister, serving as a pastor for several years in Pennsylvania and Missouri. In St. Louis he and Edith established Children for Christ, which eventually became a worldwide ministry.

In 1948 the Schaeffers moved to Switzerland to serve as missionaries. Postwar Europe was in spiritual crisis, and in 1951 Francis experienced his own spiritual crisis, reexamining the truth claims of Christianity and gaining a more profound realization of the importance of holiness and love in the Christian life. During the next few years young people began coming to Schaeffer’s home to discuss their doubts and to learn about Christianity. As they returned home, they spread the word, and soon the Schaeffers found themselves engaged full-time in a ministry of personal evangelism and apologetics from their home, which they called l’Abri (“the Shelter”), to people from all over the world.

Beginning in the 1960s Francis was invited to speak at conferences and at leading colleges and universities in Europe and America. Out of his lectures were developed his most influential books, beginning with Escape from Reason and The God Who Is There, both of which were published in 1968 by InterVarsity Press. Schaeffer regarded these two books and the 1972 book He Is There and He Is Not Silent as a trilogy that formed the foundation of his published work. He published ten other books during this period, and went on to publish six more in the next four years, culminating in How Should We Then Live? (1976). This book, which was also made into a film series, offered a sweeping overview of the history of culture and the different worldviews that emerged from the ancient Greeks, the early Christian church, the medieval church, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the modern West.

Schaeffer published just two more books, and because of them he is remembered as a prophetic voice of protest as much as he is an apologist or evangelist. In Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), co-authored with C. Everett Koop, Schaeffer lamented the evil of abortion in America and warned that euthanasia was not far behind. Schaeffer was one of the principal figures who made abortion a central issue for American evangelicals during the last two decades of the twentieth century. In A Christian Manifesto (1981) he warned that America had moved so far away from a Christian worldview that Christians might find themselves in situations where they had to practice civil disobedience. Some evangelicals in the pro-life movement concluded that the time Schaeffer had spoken about had arrived, and that belief led to the practice of civil disobedience in their protests at abortion clinics.

These last two books were written and published while Schaeffer was battling cancer. Realizing that his life was coming to an end, he reedited his books into a five-volume set published in 1982 entitled The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer.23 His final literary effort was Great Evangelical Disaster, published just before he died in 1984. In this book he delivered a stinging indictment of the state of the evangelical church in America, warning that ethical and theological compromise was becoming the order of the day.

Schaeffer’s apologetic method has been the subject of considerable debate, and was even while he was alive. Near the end of his life he commented ruefully, “I have been mystified at times about what has been said concerning ‘Schaeffer’s apologetics’” (1:176). Within three years of his death, four major books appeared evaluating his thought and offering markedly different analyses of his apologetic approach.24 This diversity may best be explained on the view that Schaeffer had developed a distinctive apologetic that has important affinities with more than one of the four standard approaches.

Schaeffer and Classical Apologetics

Schaeffer distinguished his approach from classical apologetics but did not criticize that approach. As he saw it, classical apologetics was effective because most non-Christians accepted the elemental laws of logic and the reality of absolutes (though not the true absolute of God). Modern man’s lack of confidence in logic and his relativistic view of truth make it ineffective to conduct apologetics without challenging such epistemological issues. “The use of classical apologetics before this shift took place was effective only because non-Christians were functioning, on the surface, on the same presuppositions, even if they had an inadequate base for them. In classical apologetics though, presuppositions were rarely analyzed, discussed or taken into account” (1:7).

Schaeffer’s apologetic retained some elements of the classical model. As in classical apologetics, he advocated a two-stage defense that moves from God as Creator to Christ as Savior. “We must never forget that the first part of the gospel is not ‘Accept Christ as Savior,’ but ‘God is there’” (1:144). Modern people are lost in two senses: they are “lost evangelically” in the sense that they are sinners without Christ, but they are also “lost in the modern sense” that their lives are without meaning. “This lostness is answered by the existence of a Creator. So Christianity does not begin with ‘accept Christ as Savior.’ Christianity begins with ‘In the beginning God created the heavens (the total of the cosmos) and the earth.’ That is the answer to the twentieth century and its lostness. At this point we are then ready to explain the second lostness (the original cause of all lostness) and the answer in the death of Christ” (1:181).

Schaeffer’s argument for the existence of a Creator is most fully set out in He Is There and He Is Not Silent. His starting point in this book, which argues for “the philosophic necessity of God’s being there and not being silent,” is basically the same as in the cosmological argument. “No one said it better than Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that the basic philosophic question is that something is there rather than nothing being there” (1:277). As in classical apologetics, Schaeffer analyzes this question in terms of the basic alternative worldviews and the answers they give to the question of existence or being.

One might conclude “that there is no logical, rational answer—all is finally chaotic, irrational, and absurd” (1:280). Schaeffer points out that any attempt to express this view is self-defeating: one cannot make a meaningful statement about all being meaningless, or communicate the idea that there is nothing to communicate (1:281). So this is really a non-answer to the problem.

The possible answers to why something rather than nothing is there boil down logically to four. “(1) Once there was absolutely nothing, and now there is something; (2) everything began with an impersonal something; (3) everything began with a personal something; and (4) there is and always has been a dualism” (2:10; cf. 1:282-284). The first answer is actually quite rare once the point is pressed that the beginning must be from an absolute nothing—what Schaeffer calls “nothing nothing” (1:282). One is reminded of Norman Geisler’s version of the cosmological argument in which he emphasizes that “nothing comes from nothing.” Schaeffer also dismisses dualism as an answer, since it inevitably reduces to one of the other two remaining options (1:284 n. 1; 2:10).

By far the most popular answer among non-Christians is that everything began from some impersonal beginning. Often this is articulated as pantheism, but Schaeffer argues that this term is misleading because it smuggles in the idea of a personal God (“theism”) when in fact the pantheist actually holds to an impersonal view of the beginning. He prefers to call this answer “pan-everythingism” (1:283). Pan-everythingism is thus the same view, whether it is expressed in mystical religious terms or in modern scientific terms in which everything is reduced to fundamental physical particles. This view founders because it leaves us with no basis for attributing purpose or meaning to anything, including man: “If we begin with an impersonal, we cannot then have some form of teleological concept. No one has ever demonstrated how time plus chance, beginning with an impersonal, can produce the needed complexity of the universe, let alone the personality of man. No one has given us a clue to this” (1:283).

As Clark Pinnock points out, this appears to be “a rudimentary form of the teleological argument.”25 Schaeffer’s argument here broadens beyond the usual confines of both the cosmological and teleological arguments, integrating into one argument the need to account for the origin of diversity, meaning, and morality as well as being.

This leaves as the only remaining possible answer that ultimately everything owes its existence to “a personal beginning” (1:284). This is an answer that gives meaning to ourselves as persons (1:285). This personal beginning cannot be finite gods (they are not “big enough” to provide an adequate answer), but must be a personal-infinite God (1:286-287). Schaeffer here follows a strategy similar to that employed by Geisler: set forth the basic worldviews (atheism, dualism, pantheism, finite theism, theism) and show that all of them except theism are irrational. As in classical apologetics, Schaeffer concludes that a worldview in which everything was created by an infinite-personal God is the only worldview that provides a rationally adequate answer to the question of why there is something (1:288).

We may represent the structure of Schaeffer’s argument as follows:

The similarities to the cosmological argument are apparent. It is with some justice that Robert L. Reymond calls it “the old cosmological argument of Thomas in new garb.”26 In addition, the argument is structured using the law of noncontradiction as the basic principle, a feature characteristic of the classical approach.

Schaeffer and Evidentialism

While few if any students of Schaeffer would conclude that the classical model dominated his approach to apologetics, some do contend that he is properly identified as an evidentialist. Reymond includes Schaeffer (as well as Carnell) in his chapter on “empirical apologetics.” He recognizes that Schaeffer’s apologetic has presuppositional elements (of which Reymond approves), but concludes that he compromised that approach by using “an empiricist verification test of truth.”27

There is indeed some basis for interpreting Schaeffer as advocating a verificational approach to defending Christian belief. The premise here is that Scripture deals with not only “religious” matters “but also the cosmos and history, which are open to verification” (1:120). He suggests “that scientific proof, philosophical proof and religious proof follow the same rules.”

After the question has been defined, in each case proof consists of two steps:

A. The theory must be noncontradictory and must give an answer to the phenomenon in question.

B. We must be able to live consistently with our theory. (1:121)

Christianity is proved by the fact that it, and it alone, “does offer a nonself-contradictory answer which explains the phenomena and which can be lived with, both in life and in scholarly pursuits” (1:122).

A couple of key elements of the evidentialist approach are present in this passage. First, Schaeffer claims that proof in apologetics should follow the same rules as in science. Second, he specifies that for a theory to be considered proved it must not only be logically self-consistent but also consistent with the “phenomenon in question.”

Schaeffer invites non-Christians to examine the Christian worldview in the light of every kind of phenomenon, including nature, history, human nature, culture, and ethics, confident that Christianity will be proved consistent with the facts. We can only do this, he contends, if we “have faced the question, ‘Is Christianity true?’ for ourselves” (1:140). On the basis of John 20:30-31 Schaeffer affirms, “we are not asked to believe until we have faced the question as to whether this is true on the basis of the space-time evidence.” Likewise, the prologue to Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) shows that its “history is open to verification by eyewitnesses” (1:154). Schaeffer argues that if we deny that the Scriptures are “open to verification,” we have no basis to say that people should choose to believe Christianity rather than something else (1:259). Christianity, he affirms, offers to modern man “a unified answer to life on the basis of what is open to verification and discussion” (1:263).

The non-Christian who denies that God can speak to us as he has done in the Bible must, Schaeffer warns, “hold to the uniformity of natural causes in the closed system, against all the evidence (and I do insist it is against the evidence)” (1:325). Such a presupposition is not “viable in the light of what we know. . . . It fails to explain man. It fails to explain the universe and its form. It fails to stand up in the area of epistemology.” On the other hand, Schaeffer affirms that the Christian presupposition that God can and has spoken to man is reasonable in light of what we already know. “In my earlier books and in the previous chapters of this book we have considered whether this presupposition is in fact acceptable, or even reasonable, not upon the basis of Christian faith, but upon the basis of what we know concerning man and the universe as it is” (1:326).

Schaeffer therefore invites people to consider both the closed-system and open-system views of the universe, “and to consider which of these fits the facts of what is” (1:326). This “is a question of which of these two sets of presuppositions really and empirically meets the facts as we look about us in the world” (1:327).

Gordon Lewis argues that we need to distinguish between an inductive, empirical approach, exemplified by Montgomery, Pinnock, and others, and a verificational approach, exemplified above all by Carnell. According to Lewis, Schaeffer employed such a verificational method. “The verificational, or scientific, method addresses a problem by starting with tentative hypotheses. . . . Then the verification method subjects these hypotheses to testing and confirmation or disconfirmation by the coherence of their account with the relevant lines of data.”28

We would contend that Lewis’s verificationalism is just as much a type of evidentialism as the inductivism of such apologists as Montgomery and Pinnock. Few if any evidentialists operate according to the naive inductivism that supposes the apologist can begin with only the bare facts and no epistemology or hypothesis as to how the facts are to be explained. As we saw when we analyzed evidentialism, its essential feature is not a pure inductivism but an approach to justifying truth claims based primarily on empirical facts.

There is, however, one major difference between Schaeffer’s apologetic and both Lewis’s verificationalism and other forms of evidentialism. All evidentialists agree that the Christian apologetic properly concludes with the claim that the Christian beliefs defended have been shown to be probable, not certain. To be sure, Lewis argues that Schaeffer did hold to this probabilistic understanding of apologetics, even if he did not articulate it as clearly as he might: “No, Schaeffer’s conclusion is not justified by a technically logical implication, but by a highly probable practical necessity, given the alleged lack of other hypotheses to test and the improbabilities of the non-Christian options. . . . A more precisely worded verificationalist like Trueblood or Carnell would state the point in terms of probabilities.”29

However, Lewis’s interpretation is rather difficult to sustain in the light of some specific statements Schaeffer made about probability.

Those who object to the position that there are good, adequate, and sufficient reasons to know with our reason that Christianity is true are left with a probability position at some point. At some point and in some terminology they are left with a leap of faith. This does not mean that they are not Christians, but it means that they are offering one more probability to twentieth-century relativistic people to whom everything is only probability. They are offering one more leap of faith without reason (or with the severe diminishing of reason) to a generation that has heard a thousand leaps of faith proposed in regard to the crucial things of human life. I would repeat that what is left is that Christianity is a probability. (1:181)

Note that according to Schaeffer, if one concludes that reason can only show that Christianity is probable, the lack of certainty that results must be compensated with “a leap of faith.” Clearly, Schaeffer saw this as unacceptable. By “good, adequate, and sufficient reasons” he did not mean arguments sufficient to convince one that Christianity was likely or probably true, but sufficient “to know with our reason that Christianity is true” (emphasis added). Apologists must maintain that Christianity is not merely the best answer to the big questions of life, but that it is the only answer.

Schaeffer’s rejection of probability and his frequent reference to presuppositions suggest that he might have some affinity with presuppositionalism, to which we turn next.

Schaeffer and Reformed Apologetics

Like Carnell, Schaeffer was a student of Van Til, and like Carnell, he is commonly identified as a presuppositionalist by classical and evidential apologists and as an evidentialist by Reformed apologists. On the one hand, Schaeffer sometimes seems to express himself as only a presuppositionalist would. For example, speaking of the growing difficulty of communicating the gospel in a relativistic culture, Schaeffer states in a subheading, “Presuppositional Apologetics Would Have Stopped the Decay” (1:7). The question, of course, is what Schaeffer meant by “presuppositional.” On the other hand, Schaeffer denied being either a presuppositionalist or an evidentialist: “I’m neither. I’m not an evidentialist or a presuppositionalist. You’re trying to press me into the category of a theological apologist, which I’m not. I’m not an academic, scholastic apologist. My interest is in evangelism.”30

The issue, though, is not in what setting Schaeffer employs his apologetic method, but rather what that apologetic method is. For that reason the above answer (which, it should be noted, was an off-the-cuff reply to a question in a public meeting) is less than satisfying. Still, it is clear enough that Schaeffer was unwilling to be classified as a presuppositionalist without qualification, and that fact should be taken into account. Evidently what he meant was that he did not wish to limit himself exclusively to the presuppositional approach. On one occasion he met with Van Til and Edmund Clowney, then president of Westminster Seminary, in Clowney’s office to discuss their differences. Clowney reported that Schaeffer agreed with Van Til at every turn, even praising Van Til’s summary of his apologetic as “the most beautiful statement on apologetics I’ve ever heard. I wish there had been a tape recorder here. I would make it required listening for all l’Abri workers.”31

Schaeffer seems to have been indebted to at least three streams of Reformed thought. The first is the theology of Old Princeton. Forrest Baird (who seems generally critical of this influence) has pointed out that Schaeffer followed Hodge and the other Old Princetonians in their emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture, their critical stance toward revivalism and pietism, and their opposition to liberalism.32

The second is the analysis of Western history and culture produced by the Kuyperian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, according to whom the biblical “ground motive” of creation-fall-redemption was supplanted in medieval thought by an irrational dualism between nature and grace. The biblical motive was revived in Reformation theology, the rejection of which led to the irrational dualism in modern thought between nature and freedom.33 This analysis of the history of Western thought underlies Schaeffer’s own sweeping treatments, notably in The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and How Should We Then Live?

Schaeffer’s use of Dooyeweerd’s analysis is creative and distinctive: according to Schaeffer, the modern dualism eventually broke down and resulted in modern man crossing what he calls the line of despair. This line represents the transition from a culture in which people lived “with their romantic notions of absolutes (though with no sufficient logical basis)” to one in which many people have abandoned belief in absolutes and so have despaired of finding any rational basis for meaning or purpose in life. “This side of the line, all is changed” (1:8).

Europe before 1890 and the

U.S. before 1935

The line of despair__________________________________________

Europe after 1890

U.S. after 1935

Schaeffer qualifies this schema, explaining that the shift across the line of despair “spread gradually” in three ways. First, it spread from one geographical area to another—from the Continent to Britain to America. Second, it spread from one segment of society to another—from the intellectuals to the workers to the middle class. Third, it spread from one discipline to another—from philosophy to the arts to theology (1:8-9).

Schaeffer argues that modern man, having crossed the line of despair, takes a leap of faith to affirm that life has meaning and purpose because human beings cannot live without such meaning (1:61). This “leap” results in a two-storied view of the world. The “downstairs” is the world of rationality, logic, and order; it is the realm of fact, in which statements have content. The “upstairs” is the world of meaning, value, and hope; it is the realm of faith, in which statements express a blind, contentless optimism about life (1:57-58, 63-64). “The downstairs has no relationship to meaning: the upstairs has no relationship to reason” (1:58). The downstairs is studied in science and history; the upstairs is considered in theology (1:83-85). According to Schaeffer, this two-storied view of the world is what makes liberal theology possible: the liberal excuses theological statements from any normal expectation that they will satisfy rational criteria of meaning and truth because they are upper-story statements.

The third stream of Reformed influence on Schaeffer is the presuppositional apologetics of Van Til.34 While Van Til himself seems to have regarded his influence on Schaeffer as less than adequate, there is clear evidence that Schaeffer learned a great deal from him. Recently William Edgar—who was converted to Christ in a conversation with Schaeffer at L’Abri, later studied apologetics under Van Til, and is now a professor of apologetics at Westminster Seminary—argued that Schaeffer was much closer to Van Til’s position than Van Til recognized.35 He notes that both apologists

  • emphasized presuppositions,
  • argued that non-Christians could not give a unified account of reality,
  • opposed both rationalism and irrationalism but not rationality,
  • diagnosed man’s ignorance of the truth as a moral rather than a metaphysical problem,
  • advocated an indirect method of apologetics in which one assumes the non-Christian’s position for the sake of argument, and
  • affirmed both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. 36

But Edgar also sees two crucial differences between the two. The first is Schaeffer’s emphasis (which we have previously considered) that Christianity’s consistency with the way things are provides verification of its truth. Edgar agrees with Van Til that in this regard Schaeffer was naively assuming that non-Christians agree with Christians as to the way things are and as to what is consistent with things as they are. However, Edgar qualifies this criticism by suggesting that Schaeffer’s intent was not to concede to non-Christians that they had an adequate understanding of the way things are, but to acknowledge that by God’s “common grace” non-Christians are enabled to express some truth.37

Second, according to Edgar, “presuppositions” are not understood in Schaeffer’s system in the same way as in Van Til’s. This is a more important question, since if Schaeffer means something different by the term presuppositionalism he cannot properly be termed a presuppositionalist in Van Til’s line.

Edgar points out that for Van Til the unbeliever’s presuppositions in every age and culture are radically different from those of believers. For Schaeffer, on the other hand, premodern unbelievers and believers had the “shared presupposition” that there are absolutes. Modern unbelievers no longer share this presupposition with believers, now that they have crossed “the line of despair.”38 However, this is not exactly what Schaeffer says. He says that before the line of despair, “everyone [that is, all non-Christians] would have been working on much the same presuppositions, which in practice seemed to accord with the Christian’s own presuppositions” (1:6, emphasis added). Note that Schaeffer does not actually say that non-Christians had the same presuppositions as Christians, but that their presuppositions “in practice seemed to accord” with those of Christians. What Schaeffer appears to be saying is that non-Christians and Christians before the line of despair had different presuppositions, but in practice these did not seem to interfere with communication in the way the non-Christian presupposition of relativism does today.

Edgar also repeats Van Til’s criticism that for Schaeffer a presupposition “is nothing much more than a hypothesis, or a starting point.” That is, Edgar understands Schaeffer to view Christian presuppositions as hypotheses regarded as possibly true and subject to verification rather than, as Van Til held, transcendental truths to be defended by showing “the impossibility of the contrary.” Edgar writes, “At bottom, then, Schaeffer’s view of presuppositions does not allow him truly to be transcendental. Rather, he uses presuppositions as a kind of adjunct to various traditional methods in apologetic argument.”39

What Van Til and Edgar identify as a weakness in Schaeffer’s apologetic, Gordon Lewis identifies as a strength. As we saw earlier, Lewis also understands Schaeffer to present the Christian position as a tentative hypothesis verified by its internal and factual coherence. Schaeffer’s emphasis on the verifiability of Christianity does lend some support to this interpretation. However, in general he presented Christianity as anything but a tentatively held position. His consistent claim is that no one can even make sense of being, truth, rationality, knowledge, personality, or morality on any other basis than that of the infinite-personal God revealed in the Bible. “No one stresses more than I that people have no final answers in regard to truth, morals or epistemology without God’s revelation in the Bible” (1:184).

For Schaeffer the (transcendentally) necessary truth of Christianity is not incompatible with its verifiability. Although Christianity is absolutely true, non-Christians must still move in their minds from rejection of Christian presuppositions to acceptance of them. When Schaeffer assures non-Christians that they are not expected to believe and accept those presuppositions until they have verified them, by “verify” he means precisely to look and see that Christianity does give the only adequate answers to the big questions.

Schaeffer and Fideism

Like most conservative evangelicals, Francis Schaeffer was very critical of the philosophy of Kierkegaard and the theology of Barth and contemporary neoevangelicals. In particular, he frequently criticized the Kierkegaardian notion of a “leap” of faith. The index to Schaeffer’s complete works lists over fifty references to the term in the foundational trilogy of books, and it appears sporadically throughout the other volumes (5:555). One might expect, then, that he would have little or no affinity for the fideist approach to apologetics. Yet in fact there is a strong element of fideism (as we have defined it) in Schaeffer’s method.

First of all, it is worth noting that Schaeffer qualified his criticisms of both Kierkegaard and Barth. Kierkegaard is an important figure because he is the father of both secular and religious existentialism (1:14-16). Yet his writings, Schaeffer observed, “are often very helpful,” and Bible-believing Christians in Denmark still use them (1:15). “I do not think that Kierkegaard would be happy, or would agree, with that which has developed from his thinking in either secular or religious existentialism. But what he wrote gradually led to the absolute separation of the rational and logical from faith” (1:16, emphasis added).

Likewise, Schaeffer acknowledged that Barth did not agree with much of what neo-orthodox theologians taught in his wake. “But as Kierkegaard, with his leap, opened the door to existentialism in general, so Karl Barth opened the door to the existentialist leap in theology” (1:55). Elsewhere Schaeffer expresses “profound admiration for Karl Barth” because of his “public stand against Nazism in the Barmen Declaration of 1934” (5:189).

While Schaeffer’s theology and theory of apologetics differ significantly from those of the fideists, his method of apologetics has some striking similarities. Like both Pascal and Kierkegaard, Schaeffer sought to dislodge his hearers from their comfortable delusions through indirect argument. The delusions were different—Kierkegaard mainly combated nominal Christianity, Schaeffer mainly struggled against atheism and liberalism—but the goal was the same.

The key to Schaeffer’s “method” is to find what he calls “the point of tension” (1:129-135). The basis of this method is the principle that “no non-Christian can be consistent to the logic of his [non-Christian] presuppositions.” That is, people cannot live in a way that is consistent with unrealistic presuppositions about the world in which they live or about themselves. “Non-Christian presuppositions simply do not fit into what God has made, including what man is. This being so, every man is in a point of tension. Man cannot make his own universe and live in it” (1:132). “Therefore, the first consideration in our apologetics for modern man, whether factory-hand or research student, is to find the place where his tension exists. We will not always find it easy to do this” (1:135). We will have to invest ourselves in the person, get to know him, and help him discover the point of tension between his theory and his life. This point of tension is the place from which we can begin to communicate with him.

In order to enable the non-Christian to see the point of tension, we must help him realize the logical implications of his presuppositions. This means that we should not start out by trying to change his mind about his presuppositions, but rather to think more deeply about them. “We ought not to try first to move a man away from the logical conclusion of his position but toward it” (1:138). We must do this cautiously and lovingly. “Pushing him towards the logic of his positions is going to cause him pain; therefore, I must not push any further than I need to” (1:138-139). Exposing the point of tension entails what Schaeffer memorably termed “taking the roof off” (1:140), the “roof” being whatever rationale the non-Christian uses to excuse the disparity between what he believes and how he lives. The Christian must lovingly “remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is, to beat upon him” (1:140). The non-Christian must be helped to see his need before he is ready to accept the solution: “The truth that we let in first is not a dogmatic statement of the truth of the Scriptures, but the truth of the external world and the truth of what man himself is. This is what shows him his need. The Scriptures then show him the real nature of his lostness and the answer to it. This, I am convinced, is the true order for our apologetics in the second half of the twentieth century for people living under the line of despair” (1:140-141).

Schaeffer’s reference to “the truth of the external world” should not be construed as a call for empirical investigation into nature or history as a means of establishing rational evidence for the truth of Christianity. While he does not seem to have been opposed to such lines of argument, that is not the direction he is taking here. Rather, he is saying that we need to confront the non-Christian with the truth about the world in which he lives and about what he is and what has gone wrong. This line of argument proves directly that we have a need but cannot identify or prove what the solution to that need is. For Schaeffer the answer to our need is only indirectly supported or verified by the argument, insofar as the answer given in Scripture—reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ—can be shown to meet the need.

Schaeffer’s apologetic method shows affinities to fideism in its focus on the human condition and need as the point at which non-Christian beliefs are critiqued and the truth of the Christian faith is presented. Schaeffer also sounds a fideist note when he warns fellow Christians that a valid and effective apologetic must include the practice of the truth and not merely its rational defense.

Christian apologetics must be able to show intellectually that Christianity speaks of true truth; but it must also exhibit that it is not just a theory. . . . The world has a right to look upon us and make a judgment. We are told by Jesus that as we love one another the world will judge, not only whether we are His disciples, but whether the Father sent the Son [John 13:34-35; 17:21]. The final apologetic, along with the rational, logical defense and presentation, is what the world sees in the individual Christian and in our corporate relationships together. (1:163, 165)

There must be an individual and corporate exhibition that God exists in our century, in order to show that historic Christianity is more than just a superior dialectic or a better point of psychological integration. (1:189)

We may summarize those aspects of Schaeffer’s apologetic that resonate with fideism as follows: (1) the non-Christian must be shown that he cannot consistently live with his non-Christian presuppositions, and (2) the Christian must show that he can live consistently with his presuppositions.

Schaeffer and Integration

Schaeffer’s formal method of apologetics was shaped primarily, though not exclusively, by Reformed apologetics, including the presuppositionalism of Van Til. However, his actual argument for the existence of the God of the Bible closely follows the classical approach, and he affirmed the verifiability of biblical Christianity in terms compatible with some forms of evidentialism. The practical application of his apologetic, on the other hand, assumes the central fideist contention that the truth must be lived and not merely affirmed.

It is no wonder that Schaeffer avoided being labeled an advocate of any one school of apologetic theory. He did believe there were certain guiding principles that should be followed, but he rejected the idea of an apologetic system that could be applied in all cases. He emphasizes that in evangelism and apologetics “we cannot apply mechanical rules. . . . We can lay down some general principles, but there can be no automatic application.” Thus “each person must be dealt with as an individual, not as a case or statistic or machine” (1:130). “I do not believe there is any one apologetic which meets the needs of all people. . . . I do not believe that there is any one system of apologetics that meets the needs of all people, any more than I think there is any one form of evangelism that meets the need of all people. It is to be shaped on the basis of love for the person as a person” (1:176, 177).

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