The God Question According to Francis Schaeffer: How the Epistemological Basis for Truth Affects Every Culture
There are multiple problems that exist in philosophy and any thinker must come to terms on some level with each of them if he is to think rightly about the world in which he lives. These problems include, but are not limited to, questions concerning ultimate reality, whether or not there is a separation between the mind and body, the problem of free will, and what is referred to commonly as "the god question." The god question seeks to determine whether or not a god (some form of deity), gods (multiple deities of certain aspects of life that are often in competition), or God (a personal, infinite being) exist, and if so, how should we then live in light of this? A.W. Tozer comments, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us."(1) Indeed, how one answers "the god question" is the most important thing about an individual because from this answer will flow the basic foundations of thought. Thoughts concerning ontology, evil, morality, reality, and all others are influenced by the individual’s response to "the god question." For Francis Schaeffer, entire cultures could be examined based on how they answered this profound question.
Dr. Francis Schaeffer was born in 1912 and changed his answer to "the god question" at age eighteen. Then an agnostic, he converted to Christianity after writing in his September 3rd, 1930 journal entry, "all truth is from the Bible."(2) After marrying his wife, Edith, the duo was sent as missionaries to Switzerland where they eventually founded the L’Abri Institute, which means "shelter in French."(3) The Schaeffer’s began L’Abri in order to assist those who are "seeking the answers to the basic philosophical problems with which all who care about finding a meaning or purpose in life have to struggle" and "to show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God."(4) Thus, for Schaeffer, three things became apparent: God is real, God is personal, and our understanding of who He is directly affects our epistemological basis for truth. In other words, for Schaeffer, the most important thing about man is his concept of God.
Francis Schaeffer came to this conclusion after he traced the major thought progressions of most major western cultures beginning from Plato and Socrates and continuing until the modern era. As he looked to each prominent philosopher, he could see a corollary relationship between their thoughts on truth which stemmed from how each answered "the god question." These philosophers then influenced the surrounding culture by way of art, poetry, prose, and drama. According to Schaeffer, "People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions, than they even themselves may realize. By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world.”(5) These world view’s always act as a grid through which one determines truth, not just his or her personal preferences as others might suggest.
After Greece was conquered by Rome circa 146bc, assimilation occurred between Roman and Greek thought and culture. However, this proved to be detrimental to the Roman society. Approximately 250 years prior to the integration of Rome and Greece, the infamous trial of Socrates before Meletus was held. Found guilty by a jury, Socrates was eventually sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock poison. At the time of Socrates, the State or the polis was the ruling standard by which all was measured and as a result of Socrates’ commitment to the polis his philosophy bound him to submit to it because without his submission (and others who might follow) an anarchy might erupt causing the foundation of the society to be compromised.(6) “[Socrates] explains that the state cannot exist if people do not obey its laws […] So, the argument says, in disobeying the law we destroy the state. Socrates adds that it would be especially ungrateful for someone who has benefited so much from ‘the Laws and Constitution’ to offer injury in return.”(7) As an aside, the polis has a loose affinity with the myriad of gods of their society. According to Schaeffer,
“The gods were amplified humanity, not divinity. Like the Greeks, the Romans had no infinite god. This being so, they had no sufficient reference point intellectually; that is, they did not have anything big enough or permanent enough to which to relate either their thinking or their living. Consequently, their value system was not strong enough to bear the strains of life, either individual or political. All their gods put together could not give them a sufficient base for life, morals, values, and final decisions. These gods depended on the society which had made them, and when this society collapsed the gods tumbled with it. Thus, the Greek and Roman experiments in social harmony (which rested on an elitist republic) ultimately failed.”(8) Thus, because truth was determined by the society, the society ultimately crumbled because there was not a corporate concept of truth. There were segments that interpreted truth one way, others that interpreted it another way, and a few to be sure that were pluralists who saw no real basis for truth. Without a basis for truth, whatever structure is pretending to exist will ultimately fail. For Schaeffer, “the god question” could again be pointed to as the explanatory factor which caused the decline of the Greco-Roman behemoth that it became. In contrast to the Greco-Roman world view with the polis, or city-state as the foundation for society, first and second century Christians interpreted the world from a different view point.
“That it was the Christians who were able to resist religious mixtures, syncretism, and the effects of the weaknesses of Roman culture speaks to the strength of the Christian world view. This strength rested on God’s being an infinite-personal God and His speaking in the Old Testament, in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and in the gradually growing New Testament […] Thus the Christians not only had knowledge about the universe and mankind that people cannot find out by themselves, but they had an absolute, universal values by which to live and by which to judge the society and the political state in which they lived. And they had grounds for the basic dignity and value of the individual as unique in being made in the image of God.”(9) It must be noted that it was not long, however, before those early Christians became tainted with the improper desire for power, fueled by the surrounding Greco-Roman society that was being built around them. By the end of the second century, the “Church” was being developed as a centralized power force and authority was understood as coming from the Church as opposed to from God Himself through His revealed truth in Scripture.
The view that the Church was able to stand as the touchstone for truth based on its own merit, not the authority of the Bible or God, continued throughout the Middle Ages.(10) It was also during this time that the Church set up the papacy who acted as the ultimate authority for the Church. Space will not permit for the discussion of why this act was wrong on so many levels, but the historic fact remains that this is indeed what happened. Therefore, suffice it to say, that this period was characterized by a general understanding of Christianity which permeated most of western culture, although many in society would not have identified themselves as “Christians.” It was in the eleventh century that John of Salisbury directly confronted the residing pope and declared that “the Roman Church, which is the Mother of all Churches, behaves more like a step-mother than a mother.”(11) Thus, even the entity composed of individuals who were supposed to know truth and interpret the world properly, had become lustful for power and greedy for dishonest gain that came at the expense of truth. Although western history experienced an overlay of Christianity, the heart of truth was not always prevalent in the minds of many who lived during this time. This period soon faded into the glory of what is now known as the Renaissance.
The Renaissance, or “new birth,” is generally dated between the 1300’s and the early 1700’s. According to Schaeffer, however, one must look back into the Middle Ages, specifically to philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in order to properly understand the Renaissance. The traditional Christian world view can be interpreted in the grid of Creation/Fall/Redemption/Restoration. The Biblical Christian sees the world as being first created by God (this answers the question of origins). Then there was the “Fall of man” which accounts for how evil entered into the world. The final stages are redemption, how God is working in the world to counteract the fall of man, and restoration, the future, final event when all things will be restored to their original state.(12) Thomas Aquinas, however, interpreted the fall of man to not affect the entire man (as the conservative understanding teaches) but that man “lost only the added-on gift of supernatural grace (the upper story). They fell from a state of grace to the state pf pure nature, losing the extra, supra-human faculties but retaining their human faculties (the lower story) essentially intact and unchanged.”(13) As a result, the idea that man’s intellect was different from his values was propagated and values and morals were no longer considered to be elements of truth, but merely opinions or preferences.(14) It was at this juncture that the Renaissance caught its fuel, albeit one hundred years prior to its official inception. What emerged was not necessarily a birth of a new man per se, but rather the birth of a new thought about man and his position in the universe.
The Renaissance brought with it a vibrancy to life and a renewed passion for the arts. Not to say that the arts were not influential in times prior, they were, but it was unquestionably one of the greatest peaks in the history of creativity. Artwork took on new meaning, theatre regained its significance, and as always, philosophers seemed to be behind the scenes directing the culture as a stage. The philosophical framework which was to characterize the Renaissance man centered on the idea of humanism. Humanism may be understood as the “philosophy or system of thought that begins with man alone, in order to try to find a unified meaning to life.”(15) Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio were influential artists in their day who took this form of humanism and illustrated it in painting and in architecture. It is difficult to separate “art” and “architecture” into their exclusive categories because for the Renaissance man, the world belonged to him, and the world was his canvas. It was not until the Renaissance that the use of simple geometric forms such as the square and the circle were used in art and architecture – of which da Vinci was the master of shape and Brunelleschi the master of space. “But for the men of the men of the Renaissance the new view of perspective was also something more: It placed man in the center of this space, and space became subordinated to mathematical principles spun out of the mind of man.”(16) Although much of the artwork and architecture that was employed during this period of history was associated with the Church, it should not be understood that the artist’s had a proper view of God as revealed in the Bible. Rather, these artists attempted to display their own view of humanism, man as the centerpiece for life, rather than God. Thus, humanistic men of the Renaissance answered “the god question” this way: “God may or may not exist, and we are the least bit concerned. Our focus should be on man and the creation in order to enjoy the here and now rather than concern ourselves with some cosmic question mark.”(17) According to Schaeffer, “Man made himself increasingly independent and autonomous, and with this came an increasing loss of anything which gave meaning, either to the individual things in the world or to man. With this we begin to see the dilemma of humanism which is still with us today.”(18)
Michelangelo’s statue of David and the men “tearing themselves out of the rock” were sculpted during this Renaissance period and attempted to capture the essence of the humanistic world view that dominated the era. “They make a real humanistic statement: Man will make himself great. Man as Man is tearing himself out of the rock. Man by himself will tear himself out of nature and free himself from it. Man will be victorious.”(19) In contrast to the secular humanist’s Renaissance that was occurring, there was also another cultural revolution that was occurring in northern Europe during this same time frame. What later came to be known as the Reformation, was actually a clarion call from within the Church to bring its constituents back to a biblical view of man and of God. This was the attempt to dethrone the humanistic vantage that had gripped most of western culture and to replace man with man’s Creator, the Christian’s God. “The differences in the Reformation and the Renaissance lie right there, in the view of man. The Reformers preached the original sin of man and looked upon the world as “fallen” from God’s intended place. The Renaissance had a positive estimate of human nature and the universe itself. This confidence in man and his powers flowered and filled the air with fragrance during the Enlightenment.”(20) According to Schaeffer, the Renaissance in the south and the Reformation in the north must be dealt with concurrently, for each dealt with the same sets of issues, but yielded totally contradictory answers and results.(21)
The Reformers in the north answered “the god question” entirely differently than the southern men of the Renaissance and this thought was evident in their writings as well as the artists who were influenced by this emphasis on Biblical authority.
“In contrast to the Renaissance humanists, [the Reformers] refused to accept the autonomy of human reason [made popular by the humanists of the Renaissance], which acts as though the human mind is infinite, with all knowledge within its realm. Rather, they took seriously the Bible’s own claim for itself – that it is the only final authority. And they took seriously that man need the answers given by God in the Bible to have adequate answers not only for how to be in an open relationship with God, but also for how to know the present meaning of life and how to have final answers in distinguishing between right and wrong. That is, man need not only a God who exists, but a God who has spoken in a way that can be understood.”(22)Johann Sebastian Bach and Friedrich Handel were arguably the most prominent composers who were heavily influenced by the Reformation’s answer to “the god question.” Disenchanted by the idea that man was the center of the world, Bach and Handel sought to compose music that would point to God as Creator, Jesus Christ as the Savior, and man in total dependence upon Him for the very air that they breathe. Thus, their music had a distinct quality about it that was characterized by chords that were always resolved, and harmonies that were never dissonant. This was deliberate in order to show how the God of the Bible causes all things to work together in harmony in order to complete a cohesive whole.
The Reformation which offered a concept of Biblically revealed truth compared to the Renaissance which eventually lead to humanistic despair was soon followed by the rise of modern science which heavily influenced modern art, music, literature, and film. This period may be referred to as the Enlightenment and its philosophical father was a Frenchman named Voltaire. According to Schaeffer, Voltaire was thoroughly impressed with the English “Bloodless Revolution” (1688) where William III of Orange and Mary came to the throne, but with limits imposed on them by Parliament. Schaeffer argues that this form of revolution was made possible only as a result of the Reformation’s concept of truth. Voltaire desired to see this same kind of revolution in France, however, what he witnessed instead was the massacre of thousands of people led by Maximilien Robespierre. Because the French leaders of their revolution answered “the god question” entirely differently than those of the Reformation, true change did not occur and it came at the expense of needless blood shed. And even after thousands of people were killed, it still did not produce the lasting results that were desired. In June 1789, Frenchman of the National Assembly gathered to develop what is now famously referred to as the “Tennis Court Oath,” where the men swore to establish a constitution after locking themselves inside a building that housed tennis courts. According to Schaeffer,
“Their base, consciously, was purely a humanist theory of rights…It sounded fine, but it had nothing to rest upon. In the Declaration of the rights of Man what was called “the Supreme Being” equaled “the sovereignty of the nation” – that is, the general will of the people. Not only was there a contrast with what resulted in the United States from the Declaration of Independence which was made thirteen years earlier. On had the Reformation base, the other did not.”(23)Because “the god question” was left interpreted from the humanistic standpoint, the French could not offer anything of lasting value. As Schaffer comments on the Rights of Man, “within a year it was a dead letter.”(24)
The Enlightenment brought with it a season of rapid scientific advancements such as the discovery of electricity, the universal force of attraction we call gravity, and the development of such everyday tools as the barometer. All of these came about as man began to weigh heavily on the instrument of reason because he saw that the world seemed to operate in a consistent manner. According to Schaeffer, two non-Christian men, Alfred North Whitehead and J. Robert Oppenheimer, both “stressed that modern science was born out of the Christian world view.”(25) Schaeffer quotes Whitehead to assert that the early scientists “had an inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labors of scientists would be without hope.”(26) In other words, the scientists of this period answered “the god question” by at least affirming that there is some being in which has caused the world to exist in its current state and to display consistent attributes by which we can observe nature and make educated predictions.
However, according to Schaeffer it was here that scientists made a grave error. The trend went towards emphasizing the particulars over the universals which ultimate reduced man’s significance. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution based on the concept of natural selection caught significant attention with the publishing of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859. Whether Darwin intended to cause such a break in the way I which man was viewed is irrelevant, his thinking has shaped western culture more so than most philosophers of the past two hundred years. In Darwin’s natural selection, man is reduced to a compilation of molecules on the basis of time plus chance. In short, if natural selection is to be understood as the premise for the origin of species, something came from nothing as a result of nothing other than random chance and many millions, if not billions, of years of random chance activity. These infinite number of chance occurrences coupled with a little bit of luck and stretched out over eons, in Darwin’s view, has created everything that we see in our world today. For Darwin, and those who hold to the theory of natural selection, “the god question” is answered by stating that man does not need God, a god, or gods as a necessary and sufficient being, for all man needs is time plus chance. However, since man is then reduced to a chance number of cells and DNA strands, man’s value is lost because there is nothing that gives him value other than the idea that his number hit the lottery.
This idea of chance selection influenced more than just the area of biological science. In fact, even the musical compositions of the day were leaning on this theory of randomness as a source of creativity. John Cage was a musical composer who believed the idea that the universe consisted purely as a result of time plus chance. Therefore, his music was composed with this same theory in view and the result, although to some may sound creative, to most it was sheer noise. All sounds were dissonant. All sound was not intended to produce melodies or harmonies, it was simply intended to produce noise which hopefully with enough time and enough chance might actually formulate something that could be heard and interpreted by the listener. However, Cage eventually understood the fallacy of his thinking as he realized that one can not practically live in this world with the base idea that time plus chance will consistently yield beneficial results. Cage was also an authority in “mycology, the science of mushrooms. And he himself said, “I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operation, I would die shortly.” Mushroom picking must be carefully discriminative. His theory of the universe does not fit the universe that exists.”(27)
As Schaeffer traced “the god question” throughout the ages, he saw a prominent theme emerge that is no shock to philosophers: how one answers “the god question” will have dramatic influence on every other area of his life. This was true in the days of Plato, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment and is still true even today. When Schaeffer began to look at the modern times (for him this would have been from the 1950’s up until the time of his death in 1984), he still saw “the god question” as the determining factor of society and culture. With the 1960’s and 1970’s came an increased desire for personal peace and affluence.
“Personal peace means just to be let alone, not to be troubled by the troubles of other people…Affluence means an overwhelming and ever-increasing prosperity – a life made up of things, things, and more things – a success judged by an ever-higher level of material abundance.”(28) According to Schaeffer, in today’s world the majority answer “the god question” on the basis of a misconstrued vocabulary. No longer is God an infinite personal Being, but rather “this finally brings them to the place where the word God merely becomes the word God, and no certain content can be put into it.”(29) Therefore, god is seen as something that would allow the individual to gain greater affluence and prosperity. And when there is a lack of affluence or prosperity it is then “god’s” fault for he, she, they, or it has not provided abundantly beyond that which they have worked for. Sadly, as Schaeffer has rightly noted, “Much of the church is no help here either, because for so long a large section of the church has only bee teaching a relativistic humanism using religious terminology.”(30) According to Schaeffer, most will continue to give up his or her “liberties” provided that his or her personal peace and affluence is not threatened. This leads us into a lackadaisical approach to the issues that affect our time. Women’s rights, racial injustice, and the defending of all life at any stage meets apathy when it comes to the aggregate of western society. For the typical westerner living in a democratic society where his or her vote and voice is theoretically equally heard, the majority express a sheer disinterest until it directly affects his or her personal peace or affluence. This is a direct result of how many in this current society answer “the god question.” Without a proper, Biblical view of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture, Schaeffer attests that man will ultimately only be concerned with that which directly affects himself. To be sure, there will be a few altruistic souls in the lot, but for the majority, the fight is not worth it as our society has bought into the idea that time plus chance will solve all problems. This is hardly a healthy view for any individual for any society and this present author desires that he was making a broader generalization than is actually present. Unfortunately, I am convinced that this is an accurate assessment.
“The god question” is the most important question for Francis Schaeffer and he set out to trace each culture’s response to “the god question” in an effort to see how each then gained their epistemological basis for truth. We live in an age of postmodern skepticism where the only absolute that is proffered is the false idea that there are no absolutes. Nancy Pearcey sums up Schaeffer’s word view this way:
“In other words, objective truth is possible only if there is a Creator who has spoken to us – giving us divine revelation. As Schaeffer put it in the title of one of his books, only if He Is There and He Is Not Silent. The only way of escape from postmodern skepticism is if God has revealed something of His own perspective to us – not about spiritual matters only, and not a noncognitive emotional experience, but revelation of objective truth about the cosmos we live in. In short, the biblical doctrine of revelation is the only way to close the gap between fact and value, between the upper and lower stories.”(31)Schaeffer’s legacy and influence on thinking Christians who have refused to accept the anti-intellectualism so prominent in the Church today will be felt for generation’s to come. He saw and envisioned things that were virtually unheard of in his day (in-vitro fertilization, partial-birth abortion, euthanasia - to name a few) and he spoke on these issues as a foretelling of things to come. “The god question” for Schaeffer had to be answered this way:
“In Christianity the value of faith depends upon the object towards which the faith is directed. So it looks outward to the God who is there, and to the Christ who in history died upon the cross once for all, finished the work of atonement, and on the third day rose again in space and in time. This makes Christian faith open to discussion and verification.”(32)Schaeffer’s answer to “the god question” was never to simply place blind faith in something that is without reason. He denied this fallacy of “blind faith” because first, it is simply irrational to believe that such a leap is necessary, and second because the New Testament never presents faith in this light. For Schaeffer, God Is There and He Is Not Silent. For countless thinking Christians, so is Francis Schaeffer.
1 AW Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1961), p. 1
2 Christopher Catherwood, Five Evangelical Leaders (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1984), p. 112. As quoted by Bryan A. Follis, Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), p. 13
3 Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri: New Expanded Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1992), p. 13
4 ibid p. 13, 15-16
5 Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 19
6 One could argue that this form of city-state governing polis was a precursor to socialism, but the corollary is insignificant to this discussion.
7 James Rachels, Problems from Philosophy (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2005), p. 5
8 Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 21
9 ibid. p. 22
10 For our purposes we will define the Middle Ages as consisting roughly between the years 500 and 1400ad.
11 ibid. p. 35
12 This should not be understood to be a complex treatise in the area of Christian world view. For such a discourse, I would respectfully submit Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004). Heavily influenced by Francis Schaeffer during her stays at L’Abri, Pearcey is also an expert in Schaeffer’s answers to “the god question” and other problems in philosophy.
13 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 92. The dichotomy between “upper story” and “lower story” was the attempt by Aquinas to
“ ‘Christianize’ Aristotle’s philosophy, rejecting what was clearly unscriptural and seeking to interpret the rest in a form compatible with Christianity (just as earlier thinkers had done with Plato).
The end result was that Aquinas retained the dualistic framework of Greek philosophy while changing the terminology. In the upper story he put grace, and in the lower story he put nature – not nature in the modern scientific sense but in the Aristotelian sense of the “nature of a thing,” meaning its ideal or perfect form, its full potential, the goal toward which it strives, its telos. In Aristotle’s philosophy, all natural processes are teleological, tending toward a purpose or goal.” (ibid 78)
14 Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 52
15 Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There: 30th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 216.
16 Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 62
17 This is this present author’s summation.
18 ibid. p. 68
19 ibid. p. 71
20 Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language: Updated 2nd Edition (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1995), p. 313
21 ibid. p. 79
22 Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), p. 81
23 ibid. p. 122. It should be noted that Schaeffer does not subscribe to the theory that the founders of America were all Christians, rather, that the majority were deists at best. However, he does argue that although they were not Christians in the Biblical sense, the developing nation operated under the pretenses that Biblical Christianity offers (when faithful to the Biblical revelation). These pretenses are what offer us our “unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
24 ibid. p. 122
25 ibid. p. 132
26 ibid. p. 133
27 ibid. p. 196
28 ibid. p. 205
29 ibid. p. 176
30 ibid. p. 227
31 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 246.
32 Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There: 30th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 84-85.