Francis Schaeffer: Leaping Across the Chasm
"I work with L'Abri Fellowship among far-out twentieth century people."1 This is indeed an apt description of the task which occupied the time, energy, and thought of the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer for so many years. He worked with young people who had been caught in the web of modern philosophy and the social revolution of the '60s — the hippies, the drug addicts, the suicidal and the nihilists. This was the generation which he so poignantly described as the one "that can find 'no one' home in the universe."2
As the antidote, Schaeffer pointed to man's significance as the image-bearer of the "God who is there."3 He emphasized the reality of man's moral guilt 4 and the objective "propositional" truth of Holy Scripture.5 He pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way to man's restoration. 6 His primary objective was to rescue the modern unbeliever and bring him to the saving knowledge of God. Schaeffer's dedication to his task and his compassion for a lost generation cannot be doubted.
Defending the Faith
Schaeffer's approach to the defense of the Christian faith centered around one main principle from which he developed his method:
The truth we let in first is not a dogmatic statement of the truth of 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 nature of his lostness and the answer to it. This, I am convinced, is the true order for our apologetics...7
How does the Christian convince the unbeliever that the Bible holds the answer to his dilemma? Schaeffer suggested that we push the unbeliever toward the logical conclusions of his own unbelieving system, that is, toward the "point of tension" or contradiction with reality.8 The unbeliever must be placed in a position where he experiences the full impact of his rebellious system which, in turn will help him to see his need so that he will listen to the gospel.9
Taking the Roof Off
Schaeffer called this process "taking the roof off."10 We must begin by communicating with the unbeliever at the point which he can understand even in his unbelief. Schaeffer claimed that the modern unbeliever is often acutely aware of three facts about himself: one, he understands meaninglessness; two, he recognizes the tension between reality and his system of unbelief; three, he appreciates the horror of being dead and yet still alive. The Christian's response to this inner knowledge of the unbeliever must be "to tell him that the present death he knows is a moral death and not just metaphysical lostness."11
Thus, according to Schaeffer, the Christian has the ability to maneuver the unbeliever into the best position for evangelism without the need to resort to Scripture. The unbeliever can be brought to the crucial point of making his choice. When he hears the Bible's answer to his deep sense of need and his lostness, will he choose to respond? Or will he walk away? 12
We must carefully consider whether or not Schaeffer's method is in accord with the Word of God. The central error, though by no means the only one, in Schaeffer's apologetic is his conception of the abilities of the natural unregenerate man. He allowed the sinner a certain amount of self-sufficiency, that is, the ability to understand his own nature and the meaning of reality without first acknowledging God's existence.13 Schaeffer, in effect, said to his unbeliever:
Look around you, unbeliever, do you not see the reality of the universe? And look within you, unbeliever, do you not feel your own humanity? Use your reason, unbeliever and see for yourself whether the facts of your existence and that of the universe accords best with Scripture or with your own unbelieving system. If you but observe the facts correctly, you will see that they coincide with what Scripture says.
But this is to give the unbeliever an ability which Scripture plainly denies him. 14 The unbeliever does not believe that he is a mere creature who is subservient to the sovereign God. He insists that he is his own god "knowing good and evil." He refuses to understand or to interpret himself and reality in terms of the sovereign Triune God. There is a great chasm between the sinner and God, a chasm which the sinner neither can nor wants to bridge.15 Abraham Kuyper described the sinner as "without knowledge, the feelings are perverted, the will is paralyzed ... and in all his ways, tendencies, and outgoings are at once evil... "16
According to Schaeffer, however, the unbeliever possesses knowledge which, insofar as he is limited by his finitude, corresponds with God's knowledge. Thus, reality is always comprehensible to the unbeliever; he need only use his reason. This means that the believer in witnessing to the unbeliever can do so with the assurance that the unbeliever's knowledge and experience of reality corresponds, to a great extent, with his own knowledge and experience based on the Christian faith.17
But this cannot be: The unbeliever will persist in viewing reality in terms of his own supposed self-sufficiency and non-createdness. The believer, on the other hand, views reality in terms of God's sovereignty and on the basis of his own creaturely status. There is a great gulf between these two interpretations of the nature of reality. The gulf is so great that it cannot be bridged by the use of mere reason. But this is precisely what Schaeffer's method proposes to accomplish: Dr. Cornelius Van Til warned us that an apologetic method which looks for "a point of contact with the unbeliever in the unbeliever's notions of himself and his world is to encourage him in his wicked rebellion..."18
Challenging the Unbeliever
Nowhere does Scripture assure us that man's experience, though it brings him to the very depths of despair and meaninglessness, is sufficient to convince him of his sin. Nowhere does Scripture assure us that man's knowledge, though it be vast and reaches to the stars, is sufficient to bring him to repentance. Thus, in contrast to Schaeffer's notion of an apologetic based on man's so-called natural abilities, we ought to challenge the unbeliever at the very outset with the claims of authoritative Scripture.
As a Presbyterian minister, Schaeffer repeatedly asserted the truth of Scripture. But to say that Scripture is true necessarily involves the idea that one also believes what Scripture says about reality and about man's condition. If one believes, as Schaeffer did, that God created the heavens and the earth, then one must also believe that it is impossible for anything to have meaning apart from Him. If one believes, as Schaeffer did, that God determines meaning, then it follows that Man cannot understand anything, or any "fact", apart from Him. Yet Schaeffer expected the unbeliever, though separated from his only true reference point, to retain sufficient ability to discover the truth about himself and, further, to possess sufficient will to desire the good. The orthodox Christian must reject such an apologetic. 19
Point of Contact
What we must never do is to confirm the unbeliever in his rebellious insistence on interpreting reality in terms of himself. Schaeffer recognized that reality can only be known if God is the reference point. However, he abandoned what he knew to be true in an attempt to convince the unbeliever of the truth of Christianity. What Schaeffer really did was to allow the unbeliever the opportunity to go on using his autonomous reason and experience apart from God. He did not understand that this is precisely the height, the breadth, and the depth of man's sin! Human pretension to autonomy must be confronted at every turn with the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. 20 That is our point of contact with the unbeliever.
Schaeffer, the Christian, knew that there is a great chasm between God and the sinner. But Schaeffer, the apologist, used a method which virtually denied what he confessed to believe. To assert against the plain teaching of Scripture, as Schaeffer did, that the sinner can use his reason and experience to correctly assess his condition and, even more, to actually desire his own salvation, is to capitulate to unscriptural ideas of free will and human potential. The Christian who uses Schaeffer's method to bridge the chasm between the unbeliever and God will only end up in the murky waters of Arminianism below.