Francis Schaeffer is well known as a sort of cultural prophet. Living in Europe and interacting with some of the emerging thought trends of the 60s and 70s, meant that Schaeffer saw what was coming to the Evangelical church in America. In that sense his work predicted what we see today. What made his 1968 classic The God Who Is There so important, however, was not merely that he saw this trend coming, but that he simplified profound philosophical concepts in order for his readers to interact with these thought trends. The challenge of all simplification is to make deep thoughts accessible to the average reader without misrepresenting the thoughts. The God Who Is There does help even modern readers to understand the state of our culture, but the book doesn’t always do a good job of explaining exactly how we got here.
It’s important to note at the outset that Schaeffer was first and foremost and evangelist and not a philosopher. He was brilliant, to be sure, but those with advanced degrees in philosophy, art history, history, and science will most likely find some of his analysis of ideas and individuals lacking. As an evangelist, and a diversely well-read one at that, Schaeffer was equipped to communicate with all kinds of people on all kinds of subjects. His goal was always to help people see how the gospel of Jesus Christ answered the questions that they did not even know their soul was asking. In The God Who Is There Schaeffer does this expertly. He introduces readers to the “line of despair” which has swept through culture, and which arose from a loss of antithesis and the hope of unified knowledge. He demonstrates for them how the variety of alternative worldviews lead only to despair and absurdity, and how none of them can be consistently lived. The soul needs the God who is there and who has revealed himself in Scripture and Christ.
In his final conclusions Schaeffer is profoundly insightful. He demonstrates well what happens when you attempt to live autonomously, apart from God. He demonstrates the power of ideas and the devastating impact of separating reason and faith. He shows us what despair is embedded in the complete loss of truth (not just different definitions of truth, but complete loss of the concept altogether). His final analyses are often accurate and predicted what we are living through today in postmodern American culture. Yet, as he traces the history of these various thought trends he often misrepresents key individuals.
For example, Schaeffer attributes to Thomas Aquinas the birth of autonomous human reason and the eventual rise of atheism. It wasn’t Aquinas’ intention to leave the door open to such possibilities, says Schaeffer, but he did. And how did Aquinas do that? By elevating human reason above the fall. According to Schaeffer, the theologian believed that human intellect was not subject to the fall and could, on its own, arrive at a knowledge of God. This is a key point for Schaefer because it leads to the a separation between grace and nature which allows for man to operate without need of God’s help. The only problem is that it isn’t true. That’s not what Aquinas taught and in fact he plainly teaches the exact opposite.
Schaeffer also gets Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” completely wrong. He views the Danish philosopher as further separating faith and reason and arguing that the content of your faith doesn’t matter, only that you have faith. According to Schaeffer, Kierkegaard’s faith has nothing rational to build upon. That, however, is not what Kierkegaard had in mind. Kierkegaard did not believe that there was no such thing as objective truth, plenty of his writings validate this. His point with the “leap,” however, is to show that following God is costly and risky. His work sought to rebuke the cultural Christianity of his day; he wanted to call believers to step out of their comfortable bourgeois lifestyle and take up their cross to follow Christ. This is what he had in mind when he spoke of the leap. The soul’s own internal struggle to trust God and follow Him, to count the cost and take up your cross. Schaeffer got Kierkegaard wrong.
In fact, in general, I think that Schaeffer’s efforts to help us understand key thinkers and ideas often falls into caricatures of great thinkers. Any expert on Heidegger or Kant, for example, will likely find things to criticize in Schaeffer’s analysis. It’s not that Schaeffer is never right. I think he does understand some of the concepts these thinkers laid out and he does accurately understand the consequences of overall thought trends. His ability to trace the history of these ideas or the development of them through time is not so certain. That this messes with his outcomes is surely true, but not enough, in my estimation, to lead us to dismiss his conclusions altogether. We are living the reality that he saw coming.
The God Who Is There is a Christian classic, and it is worth reading. It’s worth reading because of the ways in which it helps us to see the reality of despair in so many alternative views of life and existence. Schaeffer demonstrates for us both the importance and method of interacting with these ideas and those who believe them. His emphasis on compassion in our apologetic and evangelistic method is, itself, of profound need in our day and age. Yet, I think the modern reader should be careful not to follow all of Schaeffer’s critiques of individuals. Read with the big picture in mind and appreciate the insights of his conclusions, but be skeptical of his caricatures.