Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New Book about Francis Schaeffer's Apologetics

[This was just published in DenverJournal, the on-line book review journal of Denver Seminary.]

Bryan A. Follis, Truth With Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005. $15.99 paperback. 206 pages, no index.

As one who awoke to the intellectual richness and cultural depth of the Christian worldview in the mid-1970s through the writings of evangelist-apologist-activist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), I often worry that the next generation will fail to heed the challenge and receive the inspiration Schaeffer gave us through both his writings and his life of discipleship. Truth With Love is thus heartening because it winsomely explains both the rational and the relational apologetic of Francis Schaeffer to those who may not have otherwise heard the good news.

This book is a revised doctoral dissertation, but one that succeeds in being both intellectually meaty and existentially appealing to those outside the strictly academic crowd. There are plenty of quotations and footnotes, as well as personal interviews with those who knew Schaeffer well. While such a well-documented book needs an index of names and subjects as well as a bibliography, unfortunately, it has neither.

The promotional sheet put out by the publisher claims that the book can help ingratiate Schaeffer to “the emergent conversation” (or the emerging church movement). While the book itself does not take this particular angle (except to say that Schaeffer’s approach is appropriate for reaching postmodern unbelievers), Schaeffer should appeal to those in the emergent movement who are weary of religious cliches, formulas, legalism, and dead orthodoxy, since Schaeffer left those things behind when he abandoned the Fundamentalist movement in the early 1950s. Schaeffer’s approach will also offer them a theological and philosophical depth not always encountered in “the emergent conversation.”

Follis begins with a chapter called “Schaeffer in Context,” which traces briefly Schaeffer’s historical and theological background. Schaeffer came of age during the Fundamentalist/Modernist split and was a Fundamentalist Presbyterian minister until the early 1950s when he and his wife Edith formed the L’Abri (which means “shelter”) community in the Swiss Alps as a safe place for those seeking “honest answers to honest questions,” as Schaeffer put it.

Schaeffer was always a man of the Reformation. His break with the legalism and lack of love in Fundamentalism never severed him from his Calvinistic commitments, although he was never a doctrinaire or pugilistic kind of Calvinist (as many are today). Thus, Follis begins with a chapter called “Calvin and the Reformed Tradition,” which explores Calvin’s doctrines—particularly the image of God, the noetic effects of sin, and general revelation—as they relate to apologetics. Follis notes that those in the Reformed tradition interpreted Calvin in various ways, due possibly to some imprecision or ambiguity in Calvin’s writings on the subject. The Old Princeton school of A.A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen found in Calvin incentive to develop a strong apologetic based on the deliverances of reason—reason that was accessible even to the nonChristian mind. This apologetic approach involved argumentation from natural theology and the giving of Christian evidences for the reliability of Scripture. On the other hand, Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian, journalist, and politician, took a presuppositional approach that granted no substantial common ground between the believer and the unbeliever. This method greatly influenced Cornelius Van Til (one of Schaeffer’s professors), who developed it through a long career at Westminster Theological Seminary and is known for his “presuppositionalism.”

With this foundation laid, the next three chapters assiduously analyze and defend Schaeffer’s apologetic method against various charges. Chapter two, “Arguments and Approach,” explains Schaeffer’s apologetic, which developed organically out of years of face-to-face evangelism with hundreds of questioning souls—mostly students and younger people—in the 1950s and 1960s. (His books came later and all grew out of his conversations, lecturing, and preaching.) The church was no longer communicating biblical truth to the younger generation because each employed different ideas of truth. The seismic cultural and intellectual upheavals of the twentieth century had brought formerly common sense notions of truth and its discovery into question. Schaeffer, ever the student of people in their concrete situations, realized that the battle for hearts and minds and cultures was being waged on a new level. Christians could no longer assume that unbelievers even understand the basic ideas of the Christian worldview. Therefore, Schaeffer traced the decline of the idea of objective truth as it affected philosophy, theology, and the arts, and sought to bring people to a realization of its implications for meaning, morality, and humanness.

Schaeffer argued that since we are made in God’s image and dwell in God’s world, we cannot totally suppress the objective truths of our unique humanity (“the mannishness of man,” as he put it). This includes our conscience and our desire for real love and significance. But insomuch as the unbeliever is consistent with his nonChristian worldview, he must deny one or more of these truths and put himself into a position of tension between the logic of his presuppositions and what he really takes the world to be like. Schaeffer aimed to highlight this by “taking the roof off” of the nonChristian worldview. This was preliminary to presenting the Christian message. Once one understands the inadequacies of one’s worldview, the Christian message will look far more credible, especially if it answers questions otherwise unanswerable. Schaeffer was particularly adept at this form of negative apologetics, but never practiced it in a combative or insensitive manner. In fact, he strictly warned against engaging in apologetics as a game. He always affirmed that Christianity must be lovingly presented as objectively true, rational, and meaningful to all of life. We need not put Christianity into a nonrational, mystical “upper story” untethered to facts and logic. No, Christianity explains all of life better than any rival viewpoint.

Follis’s next two chapters, “Rationality and Spirituality” and “Academic or Apologist?” take up matters of debate concerning Schaeffer’s apologetic method and whether or not it was consistently Reformed. Follis covers this contested terrain fairly well, although most of these debates are at least two decades old and of little interest to those not already interested in Schaeffer or in apologetic method. Nevertheless, Follis sizes up the key issue adroitly and defends Schaeffer’s apologetic approach, which he identifies as a nontechnical form of verificationism. That is, Christianity is presented as a hypothesis to be verified or refuted by various lines of evidence. In this, Schaeffer’s approach was similar to that of the brilliant apologist Edward John Carnell. But Schaeffer seldom quoted Carnell, and the similarity of method seems to be more coincidental than the result of studied emulation. Schaeffer was, therefore, neither a presuppositionalist nor an evidentialist, although he has been wrongly accused of being both. Although Schaeffer did build a cumulative case for the rationality and livability of the Christian worldview, he did not stress the specific historical evidences for the reliability of the Bible. While this dimension of historical verification has always been a vital part of apologetic endeavor, the need for a substantial apologetic from history has increased in light recent scholarly and popular interest in “the historical Jesus.” Follis would have done well to make this point, but he does not. Moreover, even the more philosophically developed verificationism of Carnell does not support natural theology per se. But in recent decades the various arguments for God’s existence—ontological, cosmological, design, moral, and religious experience—have been revived and formulated quite cogently. Any well-orbed contemporary apologetic should make good use of these cognitive resources.

Follis underscores the fact that Schaeffer was not an academic by training or vocation. He did not have endless leisure time to spend in the study in order to refine his theories. People were literally pounding on the doors wanting to talk about the meaning of life! Schaeffer painted with a broad brush, but seldom blurred the issues. He never claimed to be the last word on any subject, but always gave an important first word on how subjects should be addressed.

The last chapter, “Love as the Final Apologetic,” argues that Schaeffer’s apologetic was never a matter of abstract theorizing. Rather, it was born of person-to-person engagement in Schaeffer’s own home at L’Abri where he and Edith practiced radical hospitality. Schaeffer believed that “the final apologetic” was the love among Christians and of Christians of unbelievers. Decades before evangelicals began to write on “community,” Schaeffer advocated and lived out a radical dependence on God in community. The Schaeffers began L’Abri by simply opening their home to skeptics and inquirers. This became a full-time ministry as hundreds of people came to study, work, and eat with the Schaeffers and other Christian workers. There was a cost: family life was stretched, all the Schaeffer’s wedding gifts were trashed, and some of the pilgrims were less than pleasant to work with. Schaeffer’s later books and global influence stemmed from this lived-out reality. There was no grand plan for a series of books or an influential intellectual platform. There was, in fact, no methodology! Rather, the Schaeffers wanted to live in such as way as to demonstrate the reality of God. They did not solicit funds or advertise their ministry. Instead, they prayed, served, and sought God day by day.

Follis emphasizes that the principles they lived out are articulated in Schaeffer’s book, True Spirituality, which is crucial to Schaeffer’s entire apologetic. Schaeffer taught that one must live in total and constant dependence on the Holy Spirit for the entirety of the Christian life, including apologetic and evangelistic encounters. Prayer is as important as solid arguments. They must go hand in glove.

Follis wisely argues that Schaeffer’s wedding of rational argument with a loving personal presence is well suited to reach contemporary unbelievers influenced by postmodernism. In fact, in some ways, Schaeffer saw postmodernism coming without calling it by name. For example, in Escape from Reason, he critiqued Michel Foucault before most evangelicals had even heard of him. While many postmoderns seem uninterested in “consistency” (an important concept and word for Schaeffer), they are very concerned with “honesty.” So, one can use Schaeffer’s method of “taking the roof off” of nonChristian worldviews by appealing to honesty. For example, “Can you honestly value humans above animals on the basis of a materialistic philosophy? Are you being honest with your own beliefs about this?” Or: “Can you honestly affirm that love has genuine meaning if we are nothing but the result of time, chance, matter, natural law, and long periods of time? Can you honestly say that?”

Despite being timely, well-written, well-researched, and careful in its treatment of the topic of Schaeffer’s apologetic, Truth With Love has a few drawbacks. First, the book does not emphasis sufficiently the role of art and beauty in Schaeffer’s apologetics. Christianity, according to Schaeffer, must be commended through artistic beauty and the appreciation of the arts as much as it should be rationally defended through arguments. This element of beauty in the Christian life served as an integral aspect of Schaeffer’s overall apologetic. Follis makes some mention of this theme but, to my mind, does not do it proper justice. For example, despite copious references to the Schaeffer corpus, there is no reference to Schaeffer’s important and insightful booklet, Art and the Bible. Second, Follis mishandles a few matters of the philosophy of religion as well. He gives a caricatured description of foundationalism, not mentioning there are various versions of foundationalism. When Follis gives an excursus on Reformed epistemology (advanced principally by Alvin Plantinga) he does not sufficiently explain its relationship to Schaeffer’s method, which was not that of a Reformed epistemologist.

Despite these minor flaws, my hope is that Truth With Love will help initiate another generation of thinking Christians into the large and inspiring world of Francis Schaeffer.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.,
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
December 2006

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