In the end, Schaeffer would call the Evangelical Church back to faithfulness to God and his Word. In his life and ministry, he lovingly and yet forcefully spent his life contending for the truth of the Gospel. In his day, he influenced many to do likewise. Almost four decades after his death, the Evangelical Church would be wise to heed his words of wisdom, not because they are his words, but because they reflect what the Lord of the Church calls his people to be in every generation.
What would Francis Schaeffer say to the evangelical church today? To answer this question, I first must highlight two crucial aspects of Schaeffer’s life and ministry. First, the burden of his life was to teach that the message of Christianity isn’t primarily about “religious experiences,” but about “true Truth.” Second, in contending for the truth, Schaeffer sought to do so with gentleness and compassion, and by doing so to practice simultaneously the holiness and love of God. To uphold God’s holiness requires that we stand against falsehood and unrighteousness. To uphold God’s love requires that we stand for the truth while also remembering life’s brokenness, including our own, and to walk moment-by-moment with Christ as we seek to love and honor God more than any created thing.
Throughout his entire ministry, Schaeffer practiced these two crucial points. He not only personally believed the gospel, he also taught and demonstrated that Christianity’s truth claims were really true in contrast to non-Christian thought. As such, he was willing to stand against those who either denied the truth or compromised it, and especially against those who did so within the church. Schaeffer loved and trusted Scripture. His message was the same whether chatting to individuals or addressing crowds. Honor God and revere his Word; follow Christ and submit to Scripture. What mattered to him was the trustworthiness of God’s written Word, hence the reason why he contended tirelessly for Truth in a post-truth society. For Schaeffer, if one tampers with the Bible, all is lost. This explains his concern at the end of his life regarding the direction of evangelicalism. As Schaeffer warned in his last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, some evangelicals were in danger of compromising the full authority of Scripture, and up until his last breath, he sought to call the evangelical church back to a full commitment to Scripture and the truth of the gospel.
With this in mind, we are now able to answer the question of what Schaeffer would say to today’s evangelical church, and also to discover his ongoing relevance for Evangelicals today. I will do so in two steps. First, I will answer the question of why Schaeffer’s commitment to truth and the full authority of Scripture is still relevant for evangelicals today despite the changes that have occurred in our culture since his death. Second, I will conclude with what I believe Schaeffer would say to us today.
Schaeffer’s Commitment to “True Truth”: Is it Relevant for Evangelicals Today?
Many evangelicals, I think, would be hesitant to answer yes. Why? So much has changed. For one thing Schaeffer died before Postmodernism took center stage. More specifically, his stress on antithesis and confrontation was a bone of contention even during his lifetime and the reaction to this would be stronger today: at best impractical, at worst offensive, unloving, and fractious. As a friend put it, why focus on Truth when people are interested only in experience, or why contend with falsehood when everyone just wants to be tolerant and accepting?
This attitude to Schaeffer’s alleged rationalism and commitment to “true Truth” is unfortunate because his opposition to the Enlightenment could not have been clearer. For example, Schaeffer argued strongly that, “the central ideas of the Enlightenment stand in complete antithesis to Christian truth. More than this, they are an attack on God himself and his character.”
Nevertheless, some evangelicals have argued that his commitment to objective Truth reflects the Enlightenment more than the Bible: that he was wrong to talk of “propositional revelation;” that he emphasized the mind too much; that his view of inerrancy was too literalistic; that he was too dogmatic, etc. Their dislike of the Modernist tradition is intense. By contrast they favor the Postmodern approach. They see it as more congenial to faith, more accepting, more open, more attentive to the heart rather than the head. Those who think this way conspicuously overlook Schaeffer’s warnings back in 1974 when he spoke in Lausanne. His message was blunt: if the Enlightenment was bad the existential methodology is worse. In Schaeffer’s view its foundations are like shifting sand, its proposals like poison.
The irony here is striking. Despite Postmodernism’s dislike of Modernism, we must never forget that it is itself derived from Modernism. Once Descartes and the Empiricists started to work out the logic of their ideas, they ran into difficulty. David Hume realized that even causality (the sine qua non of science) was a problem: “Do I sense the cause in causality” he asked, “or do I merely observe two consecutive events? I see billiard ball number one strike billiard ball number two—but do I observe ‘cause?’” Evidently not. With his empirical foundation, he had no answer—even though he admitted he couldn’t operate like this when playing board-games with his friends! Immanuel Kant tried to respond, but it was a hopeless task. Knowledge, like everything else, requires a metaphysical source. As a result, Modernism gradually nose-dived into Existentialism, which in turn morphed into Postmodernism—but only because the original epistemology was inadequate. When the cracks started to appear, the philosophers should have acknowledged that they had taken the wrong turn. On this point, Schaeffer was entirely on point!
But that was precisely what the Postmodernists didn’t do. Instead of back-tracking to reconsider where they’d come from, namely, the Christian worldview, they carried European thought towards “the hermeneutic of suspicion.” All attempts to establish worldviews based on rationality, they said, are suspect. According to Jacques Derrida, for example, not even language works that way. “Nothing exists outside the text,” he said. In other words, everything is an interpretation. No definitive explanation of anything is possible because language itself is relative. Similarly, Jean-François Lyotard dismissed all metanarratives, all, that is, which claim to be true and therefore exclusive—especially Christianity. Overarching stories of what life is about and how best to live are valid, but only as stories, never as “Truth.” Michel Foucault undermined things further by arguing that language, like everything else in society, is just a power-game: powerful social groups dominating others—oppressors/their victims, men/women, rich/poor, white/black, Europeans/colonials and so on.
The net effect of the postmodern slide was catastrophic. Particularly in relation to that, sadly, many have failed to appreciate the importance of what Schaeffer said about “rationality” and “rationalism.” This goes a long way to identify Postmodernism’s essential flaws and to show how best to counteract them.
In the first place, he said, Christianity isn’t rationalistic because it rests upon the reality of creation. It doesn’t start with the human mind. That was Descartes’ mistake. When he said, “I think, therefore I am” his assertion raised an obvious question: where does the (knowing) “self” come from in the first place? No answer. He just assumed it. By comparison, the Bible starts further back: it says the individual is able to think only because he or she is a creature created by the triune personal God. Given this starting point, rational thought itself—the great stumbling block of modern secular philosophy—becomes intelligible. Christianity also deals with the problem of sin and insists humanity needs a supernatural Savior because guilt is real and has to be atoned. Only Christ can do this, because he is the divine Son of God. Human attempts to merit salvation are worthless. In short, the Bible is God-centered throughout.
The second distinction Schaeffer used a lot was between “true knowledge, but not exhaustive knowledge.” What he meant is that human knowledge is limited, of necessity, because all our experience is superficial. No one knows even the tiniest thing completely. We see bits and pieces only. In addition, each person is unique. No two people share the same background or have the same interests or gifts. Yet the human mind is adequate: it grasps truth adequately if not exhaustively. Its limitations don’t invalidate either rationality or communication. Our experiences, though individual, are reciprocal.