This article is about the work of Francis Schaeffer—his defense of the gospel and his point of contact with unbelievers.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1989. 3 pages.

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

Careful Consideration🔗

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

Irreconcilable Views🔗

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.


  1. ^ Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969), p. 94 
  2. ^ Francis Schaeffer, The God who is There (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968), p. 154
  3. ^ Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City, p. 18
  4. ^ Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the 20th Century (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970), p. 48 
  5. ^ Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City, p. 45 
  6. ^ Francis Schaeffer, The God who is There, p. 106, pp. 133-134; pp. 140-141 
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 122 & 128
  8. ^  Ibid., pp. 121-123
  9. ^ Ibid., p. 126
  10. ^ Ibid., p. 128 
  11. ^ Ibid., p. 129
  12. ^ Ibid., p. 134
  13. ^ Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City, pp. 13 & 80. Also The God who is There, p. 28; pp. 46-47; p. 86; pp. 93-94; p. 122
  14. ^ Genesis 8:21; Job 14:4; 15:14; Psalm 51:3-5; Romans 5:12; Ephesians 2:1-5. See also the Belgic Confession Art. XIV; the Canons of Dort, Chap. 3/4, Art. 1,2,3 
  15. ^ Romans 1:18-23. See also John Calvin, In­stitutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1, translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprinted 1981, originally pub­lished 1536), Book 1, Chapters IV, V; Book II, Chapters I, II, III 
  16. ^ Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, translated by Henri De Vries (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub­lishing Company, reprinted 1979, originally. published 1900), p. 266
  17. ^ Francis Schaeffer, The God who is There, p. 122 & 125
  18. ^ Cornelius Van Til, "My Credo", in Jerusa­lem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til, edited by E.R. Geehan (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980), p. 17
  19. ^ For an excellent Reformed refutation of a similar apologetic see Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 255 ff
  20. ^ Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1955, third edition 1967), pp. 90-95

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