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An Overview of the Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (Part 1)

Updated on June 27, 2016

Francis Schaeffer

L'Abri Fellowship

Biography and Introduction to Important Terms

Before we present the apologetic position of Francis Schaeffer, it is useful to learn a little about the life of this major Christian philosopher of the twentieth century. Schaeffer was born in 1912 and died in 1984, and was responsible for writing over twenty books. Interestingly, his early life was influenced by a liberal minister in his church who, Schaeffer said, “gave answers to nothing.” He left the church an agnostic and began to read philosophies, and also the Bible “as a matter of curiosity.” Within six months, he became a Christian because he believed that “the Bible gave the full answer to problems.”

He was ordained a pastor in the Presbyterian Church, and served from 1938-1948. In 1948 Schaeffer began another ministry as a missionary to Switzerland. He and his wife Edith started the L’Abri Fellowship in 1955 in Huemoz, Switzerland, stressing the Lordship of Christ over the whole man, giving attention to arts and culture in general and seeking to develop the creative Christian lifestyle in those who came to them. In 1968 Schaeffer published his first book The God Who Is There. Much of what we will discuss today is derived from another of his works: He is There and He is not Silent.

One of the essentials that students must master when they attempt to understand Schaeffer is philosophical jargon. Accordingly, I have provided for you a short list of definitions with which you should familiarize yourselves in more detail on your own. For the sake of clarity, let’s now examine them in order.

The first term we must understand is presupposition. A presupposition is a belief or theory which one assumes before one develops the next step in logic. Such a prior postulate often consciously or unconsciously affects the way a person subsequently reasons. Schaeffer is a presuppositionalist: he does not assemble all manner of empirical evidence to prove the truth of Christianity, but assumes the truth of the faith before proceeding to the next logical point.

Schaeffer approaches the field of apologetics from a philosophical perspective. Let’s stop to define what we mean by apologetics. Apologetics is “the strategy of setting forth the truthfulness of the Christian faith.” Therefore, Schaeffer uses a method to present the case for Christ. We must also understand that Schaeffer considers two senses of the term “philosophy” in his discussion here. First, there is “the technical academic discipline” sense. This meaning, of course, brings into focus the purview of professional philosophers such as Hegel and Kant. The second meaning of the term is the “common man’s world view” sense. What is a world view? A world view, or Weltanschauung, is a conceptual framework that is historically and culturally conditioned through which one makes sense of the world in which one lives. The “man-on-the-street” is dimly aware of his world view, if at all, even though he has one. Schaeffer uses both senses of the term “philosophy” to put forward his apologetics as pre-evangelism. What, you may ask, is pre-evangelism? Pre-evangelism is preparatory work necessary to bring a modern non-Christian to an awareness of his need for the gospel.

Two more terms that you will meet in your readings of Schaeffer are open system and closed system. You will often come across his phrase “uniformity of natural causes in a closed (or open) system.” Now what does he mean by this abstruse verbiage? Simply put, one who believes that we live in a closed system purports that all that exists is autonomous, self-contained, random, self-regulated, and composed of matter-energy, and that it has always been this way. On the other hand, the individual who holds that human beings carry on their lives in an open system adheres to the belief that the universe is related to a more basic “Reality” which is a temporally limiting and spatially causing Force. This “Force” reaches down into the system and causes events to occur.

Finally, in terms of definitions, we encounter the philosophical terms epistemological and positivism. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the theory of knowledge: its nature, limits and validity. We will be looking more deeply into this concept later in this lecture. Positivism is a trend in modern philosophy which holds that all metaphysical theories (theories that discuss existence) are strictly meaningless because they are unverifiable by reference to empirical facts. It contends that mankind can know facts and objects with total objectivity. You will come into contact with these concepts again. So, do not fret at this point.

Escape from Reason

Schaeffer's Apologetic Approach

Let’s now move on to Schaeffer’s basic apologetic approach. In his method, he compares the presuppositions of orthodox Reformed Christianity with those of modern non-Christians. Schaeffer does not analyze rival philosophical positions, but does apply generalized claims and criticisms in a pre-evangelism/evangelism scheme.

A quote from another of Schaeffer’s books, Escape from Reason, exemplifies how he believes we must approach the non-Christian world: “Every generation of Christians has this problem of learning how to speak meaningfully to its own age. It cannot be solved without an understanding of the changing existential situation which it faces. If we are to communicate the Christian faith effectively, therefore, we must know and understand the thought forms of our own generation.”

Schaeffer’s method of approaching the task begins with Christianity as a model (or hypothesis), a conceptual structure that best accounts for, and explains the greatest range of data within, one’s world of experience. For example: “Something exists rather than nothing at all,” and “There is and always has been a moral dimension to human life.” In his works, Schaeffer follows three points: (1) he initially posits the basic presuppositions; (2), he compares these presuppositions with those which contradict; and (3) he argues the necessity of maintaining the Christian presuppositions.

Schaeffer considers the existence of the “infinite-personal” triune God as a foundational presupposition of historical orthodox Christianity. He also asks the basic questions concerning the nature of the universe, including the human phenomenon; that is, he asks, “Which answer—the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system or the uniformity of natural causes in an open system—fits the facts?”

He looks at and calls attention to the way the universe is, or to the structures of human life within the universe, and claims that the design of the universe is such that certain kinds of presuppositions or explanatory hypotheses, in fact, do explain its being the way it is better than do others. Schaeffer argues the truth of the hypothesis with the greater explanatory power.

Schaeffer posits a tripartite “argument from design”: metaphysical, epistemological, and moral. He begins his metaphysical argument by positing that there are three possible rational answers to the existence of the universe. The first answer states that the universe came out of absolutely nothing. He explains this concept with his “nothing-nothing” illustration. Going to a blackboard with one circle drawn on it, he asserts that the emptiness represented inside the circle does not show the idea of “nothing-nothing” adequately. He then erases the circle and says, “This is what I mean by nothing-nothing.” Schaeffer believes that this answer to explain the existence of everything is “unthinkable,” and provides “no sustainable argument.”

The Impersonal and Our World

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The Impersonal and the Personal Answers

The second rational answer for the universe’s existence is the impersonal beginning. That is, everything has resulted from the impersonal + time +chance. Somehow, through fortuitous chance and given enough time, mass, energy, and motion combined to form the universe. Schaeffer states that this is “insufficient for what is.” He notes that there is something about mankind that is qualitatively different from the impersonal. This quality is personality.

Schaeffer offers three observations that confound the view that human personality is not real. First, he argues that if human personality is real in a foundationally impersonal universe, then mankind cannot fulfill its aspirations, and they are therefore finally meaningless. An impersonal universe does not account for the “mannishness of man.” By “mannishness of man,” Schaeffer means those characteristics that distinguish humanity from all else. Human beings aspire to accomplish goals; they need meaning, significance, purpose, love, beauty, order; they have a fear of non-being. In a totally impersonal universe, the origin of “apparent personality” characteristics would be inexplicable.

Second, Schaeffer asks, “If human personality is real in an impersonal universe, then how could personality have arisen from the impersonal?” He suggests that only through a “mystical jump” can this be possible. The premise that mankind is no different than non-mankind contradicts the testimony that people have borne regarding themselves for all time. Human beings have always regarded themselves as separate from nature, as creatures somehow apart from the rest of creation. Schaeffer concludes that no individual who denies the reality of personality can live consistently with his/her view. People will behave in such a way that betrays their innate belief that they are different from all the animals. They can maintain that their personality came from the impersonal only by leaving the realm of reality and logic.

Third, Schaeffer cannot see how the philosophical necessity of unity and diversity can be maintained if personality is real in a foundationally impersonal universe. An impersonal reductionist universe comes to only unity. It gives no special significance to any particular formation of the basic components, whether they be matter, energy, etc. He argues that if there is real significance to the unity of a homogeneous impersonality, then there can be no significant diversity of particulars. Likewise, if there is real significance to the diversity of particulars, then there can be no significant unity of homogeneous impersonality.

The third rational answer for existence is that the ultimate origin and ground of being of the Universe is personal. This personal beginning provides appropriate answers to life’s questions. First, when we start with the personal beginning, there is no problem with the fulfillment of aspirations. The affinity existing between human personality and the ultimate environment can entail the possibility of fulfillment. Second, a personal beginning answers the question of where human personality originated. The personality of mankind can only derive from a personal source. And third, a personal beginning also gives us an answer to the universal principle of unity and diversity. Significant unity can exist at the same time with the significant diversity of personal individuality, since they are independently derived from the nature of ultimate personality. Consequently, Schaeffer posits that the personal beginning provides the best answer to the problem of existence.

© 2015 glynch1


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    • glynch1 profile image

      glynch1 2 years ago

      Same story here. I read many of his books very early on, and then prepared a lecture dealing with his philosophical apologetic while I was a seminarian. His works have helped form my thinking on this subject, too.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      As a young Christian, I read everything by Schaeffer and about L'Abri I could get my hands on. It's been decades now since I really thought about him or his ministry. But in reading the first part of this hub, about vocabulary, I realize I've probably internalized much of what I got from Schaeffer. So, he's had an impact with me.

    • glynch1 profile image

      glynch1 2 years ago

      Would you like to elaborate upon what you found interesting?

    • Rabadi profile image

      2 years ago from New York

      Really interesting hub looking forward to more.