IBRI Research Report No. 7 (1981)


David P. Hoover
Covenant College
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee

Copyright © 1981 by David P. Hoover. All rights reserved.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

ISBN 0-944788-07-6


In the past eight years the name Francis Schaeffer has become a household word among a great many evangelicals. Even within professional academia he has attracted considerable attention as he has spoken to large -- often overflowing -- university and seminary audiences across the country. That Schaeffer has had an impact upon a wide spectrnm of Americans there can be no doubt, but why such an enthusiastic reception? It surely cannot be the mere fact that he has added several new volumes to an already inflated apologetic literature. Prior to the appearance of his first two books in 1968,1 there were plenty of works in Christian apologetics -- these latter marking off two rather entrenched apologetic traditions.2

It seems to me that there are basically two reasons for the response Schaeffer has gotten. First, in the words of Richard Russell, "Francis Schaeffer is a pastor with a rare and deep sensitivity to the spiritual plight of the present generation..."3 In Schaeffer, this sensitivity is coupled with a charisma that both engages and excites the minds of his audiences and readers. But there is this and more. Schaeffer genuinely loves those he confronts. This is admittedly a personal and subjective judgment, but I believe it is true. I have on several occasions witnessed Schaeffer, tired and spent after an hour's lecture -- perhaps the third such lecture in a single day, taking an additional hour or two talking and witnessing to a cluster of young people gathered around him. This is the Schaeffer that best accounts for the L'Abri phenomenon.

Secondly, there is Schaeffer's apologetic approach. In the following section I will mention a positive and a negative aspect to this approach, but suffice it to say here that Schaeffer does not have a "textbook" style. As he often has said, he is interested in giving honest answers to honest questions. Moreover, he restricts questions and answers to the truth-claims and intellectual defensibility of the Christian faith -- the question or comment that exploits the situation by feeding, in its effect, apologetic infighting is characteristically put off. And, whether in a popular lecture or any of his books, his style is a rustic, almost thinking-out-loud affair; yet it is just this quality at the personal level that proves to be so winsome.4

There is, of course, a great deal more to Schaeffer's approach than what can be judged on the personal level -- but it is very likely true that many young people come under his spell for little more than this! In what follows we will be trying to assess the merit or lack of merit in Schaeffer's apologetic as such. We will not be concerned with Schaeffer the theologian or Schaeffer the preacher -- except as it bears on the apologetic issue.

Some additional remarks before proceeding: in the section to follow, our main objective will be to appreciate what is distinctive about Schaeffer's approach to apologetics. We will be concerned, so to speak, to get the big picture. After a brief flyover, I want to turn to some preliminary definitions and distinctions that will serve us in a selective but critical assessment on foot. Then will follow a response to Schaeffer's critics, with discussion limited to Richard Russell's charge of rationalism and Cornelius Van Til's recent syllabus. The last section will give several criticisms of my own.


In considering Schaeffer's apologetics it seems best to speak of an "approach" rather than a "system," because for all that Schaeffer has written he claims not to have a technical "philosophical apologetic." That is to say, he does not have an apologetic system, although in He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972) he seems, at least, to have attempted one. In any case, on page four of that work, Schaeffer distinguishes two senses of the term "philosophy": in the first sense philosophy is a technical academic discipline, whereas in the second sense philosophy is dubbed the common man's "world view." I think there is a subtle (but not very serious) mistake here, but it will repay us to get clear on what it is.

Schaeffer wants to say that "all men are philosophers" in the sense that all men at least have a world view. But it does not at all follow that one is a philosopher, whoever he may be, merely by having a world view. Perhaps we can make this clearer by substituting the German Weltanschauung for world view. Accordingly, we agree with Schaeffer that, with the possible exception of idiots, infants and deranged persons, everyone has a Weltanschauung -- which is to say that everyone has a conceptual grid that is historically and culturally conditioned through which he makes sense of the world in which he lives.

But a Weltanschauung, or world view, is characteristically the sort of thing a person is -- if at all -- only dimly aware of. Ask the "man-on-the-street" what his world view is -- what its doctrines are -- and you are likely to get a blank (if not suspicious) stare, unless, of course, you have chanced upon a philosopher in our first sense (or at least a reasonably well-educated and reflective individual). Press him further -- say, for a rational defense of his world view -- and he may take you for a Jehovah's Witness and hurry on.

The point I want to press is that to the extent that one is able to take up the topic of his world view, he is a philosopher in sense one; and to the extent that one cannot say anything intelligible about the Weltanschauung that he assuredly has, he is not a philosopher at all. A world view is simply not the sort of thing that persons, although having them, normally adopt. We all have one because we are inevitably members of a cultural millieu. So it is false that every man is a philosopher. It is true, however, that Weltanschauungen can be philosophically analyzed or diagnosed profitably for one's apologetic endeavor.

To return from our digression, it is important at the outset to understand why Schaeffer eschews apologetic system-building. While I do not find any explicit reasons in his writings, it would probably be safe to list the following three: (1) Schaeffer is not a professionally-trained philosopher and is therefore simply acknowledging his limitations in that field. (2) The very notion of a rough-and-ready system that can easily (once one gets the hang of it) generate answers to any and all objections to Christianity smacks too much of pretense -- in fact, saying of apologetics that it is a system belies the very character of apologetics. If I am correct in ascribing this reasoning to Schaeffer, there is a cleansing insight couched in it for contemporary apologetics -- namely, apologetics is more properly a task requiring certain diagnostic and logical skills than a seminary outline to be memorized. This is not intended at all to slight the use of outlines and other materials in seminary courses; it is just to say that such learning as may result in this way ought to be geared to the development of the requisite skills.

Moreover, apologetics taken naively to be a system invites the false confidence that one is always sure to have an answer in advance of any question whatever. Often, it has seemed to me, system-bound apologists lapse into a somewhat abstract, heady soliloquy that nearly always fails to hit the problem nail on the head. Specific questions require specific answers. One who wields a system that is abstract enough to cover every contingency that can arise within apologetic discourse has a "tool" that is far too blunt to be effective. It seems strange indeed to say, in effect, "Never mind what is specifically bothering you; just attend to my system and the trouble will disappear!"

And (3), probably foremost in Schaeffer's mind, is that historically, when apologetics has been taught as some thinker's system, the risk is run that the "system" and its author will encourage a binding discipleship. The danger, then, is that the disciples will treat their "system" as a kind of privileged knowledge, a veritable Apologetic Gnosis! My own seminary experience was torn -- or perhaps a better word is excited -- in three different directions in apologetics (but through no fault of my instructor). In retrospect two of those three now seem to me to have been of the "Gnosis" variety, while the third has proven to have been a good beginning for subsequent work. The point to be stressed is that whenever students become captivated by a "sure-fire" all-encompassing method (or "argument"!) the result is very frequently apologetic infighting and precious little confrontation with those in need and those who oppose the faith.

Negatively, then, Schaeffer is not out to build a system in the narrow sense -- indeed, as was indicated earlier, it is a category mistake to think that Biblical apologetics can be a system! But it would be a mistake also to think that Schaeffer approaches problems helter-skelter. He fully intends that his material and lectures be systematic -- which is to say, logical. In defending the faith one will have constant recourse to his understanding of the system of doctrine taught in Scripture as well as whatever Christian philosophy he possesses, but the essence of apologetics is Biblically sound and culturally relevant argument. And it is here that Schaeffer has made a truly significant contribution.

The positive aspect of Schaeffer's approach is that he revived a practicing and diagnostic apologetics. The God Who Is There was explosive for a good many seminarians back in 1968. It is tempting to say that we all became instant Schaefferians! Perhaps we were for the moment -- but that has not been the long-term effect. Properly understood, Schaeffer's work simply does not lend itself to that sort of thing. Rather, Schaeffer showed us dramatically what it means to engage in apologetics. It was Schaeffer's contention that Christianity -- its Gospel -- must become culturally deep if it is to be a formative power for our times. Thus for a great many students a dry-as-dust scholastic apologetics gave way to a culturally aware, diagnostic apologetics. And whatever shortcomings we will see in Schaeffer's books, his approach filled a long-standing vacuum. Schaeffer sums it up best in the foreword to Escape from Reason:

Every generation of Christians has this problem of learning how to speak meaningfully to its own age. It cannot be solved without an understanding of the changing existential situation which it faces. If we are to communicate the Christian faith effectively, therefore, we must know and understand the thought-forms of our own generation. (p. 7)


We now turn our attention to the bare rudiments of any viable apologetic.5 The question is, what sort of minimal constraints are there for an apologetic argument to succeed? We have already noted that "the essence of apologetics is Biblically sound and culturally revelant argument." This statement must now be further unpacked for some implications that may not be obvious at the surface.

Bernard Ramm, for example, seems to labor within a confusion when he discusses "The Concept of System In Apologetics" in his very fine book, Varieties of Christian Apologetics (1961). After stating that "Christian apologetics is the strategy of setting forth the truthfulness of the Christian faith and its right to the claim of the knowledge of God"6 (emphasis mine), he goes on to stress that apologetics, of whatever variety, is a system -- i.e., that apologetics is the sort of thing that can be called a system. He then gives two senses of the term "system," the first of which is "a very tightly organized set of propositions which are carefully interrelated."7 But it is his second sense of "system" that Ramm feels is appropriately applied to apologetics:

A system may mean an interpretation of some subject matter which is guided by certain fundamental assumptions with no attempt made rigorously to coordinate everything that is said. Rather it means a cluster of axioms and assumptions which function as guides and directives for the discussions and thus serve to unify and integrate the discussions.8

Although there may be an attenuated sense in which Ramm is correct, it can be very misleading to think of apologetics as a system.9 What is critical for apologetics, and what alone is critical, is sound argument for whatever conclusion is at stake. Apologetics itself has to do with arguing for a system, but is not itself a system. Moreover, for any putative truth-claim that comes up for apologetic scrutiny, there may be any number of valid and sound arguments to provide support for it. What is crucial for any "variety" of apologetics, therefore, is whether or not that apologetic employs a sound logical structure.

Returning to Ramm, it can be conceded that there are varying ways that Christianity's truth-claims (system) have been argued, both conceptually and empirically, but methodologically (or logically) no argument, no matter what label it goes by, is worth its salt if it is incoherent. What counts in apologetics is sound argumentation -- period! And this is easily seen in the fact that it is solely in virtue of an argument's (apologia's) logical structure that its conclusion can be forced in any way.

The interesting consequence of this is that I might seem to a friend to be an "evidentialist" today, a "presuppositionalist" tomorrow, and even a "fideist" the day following. Yet in no way has my logic changed -- I have let my opponent's background (whether, say, science or the arts) and his particular interests and intellect determine how the discussion will go.

In this regard, it would be foolish to fault Schaeffer for not saying enough about evidences. If there is something amiss about the bare bones of Schaeffer's method, it is not his historico-philosophical approach. Schaeffer's writings have come out of years of confronting, and witnessing to, a generation of young people who have sought him out on that level. The relevant questions are, does Schaeffer speak the truth, and is his argumentation sound and cogent? We proceed now to address this issue more directly.

We have dwelt at length on what I have termed Schaeffer's approach; we come now to method. The term "approach" has so far forth been the more generic term; for our purposes "method" will have the narrower sense of logical structure -- "logical structure" is at least subsumed under the notion of method. So to borrow the language of Ramm's book (though perhaps in a way he would disapprove) there are a variety of apologetic approaches, but each is viable or laudable only insofar as it can logically yield the desired conclusion. Apologetic approaches, no matter how many (Ramm puts the number at ten or twelve), are, after all, types of argument. What matters, then, is that an argument both square with Scripture and that it be valid, sound and cogent. If this is so, and it hardly seems it could be otherwise, the traditional schools "evidentialism" and "presuppositionalism" ought to bury the hatchet because they both get whatever clout they have in virtue of their logical viability. So for the presuppositionalist to say there can be no good inductive argument is just a presuppositionalist sulk. Moreover, for the evidentialist to disdain a presuppositional (reductio ad absurdum) argument is likewise a sulk. I speak rather abstractly here, however, for it will be seen later that Van Til is not a presuppositionalist in the foregoing sense -- his system collapses of its own weight; but more on this in the proper section.

What is by now becoming apparent, the Achilles Heel of apologetics is its logical structure -- its method, not its label, nor even whether it finds an exact precedent in Scripture. There are, of course, texts in Scripture that certainly do serve as argument paradigms (Isa 41:21-29; Lk 1:1-4; Jn 20:31; Acts 1:3; and 1 Cor 15:1-8, to name a few), but such paradigms, so far as I can see, serve the contemporary apologist more in indicating a much wider range of ways to shore support for Biblical authenticity. Negatively, they count decisively against fellow apologists who insist that one cannot argue by testing a model in terms of data -- for example, that archeological and empirical evidence in general can be used. Certainly there can be no question about the legitimacy of appealing to fulfilled prophecy as counting in favor of theistic authenticity for the Bible. But it would be a mistake to suppose that Scripture functions as a sort of logic text, exhausting the number of ways one can advance arguments for its status as the infallible Word of God. There is indeed a Biblical "mode" of defending Biblical truth-claims, but that mode is, to put it crudely, just a lot of "horse-sense" within God-ordained logical limits.

Let us now attempt a rough and brief characterization of the logical structure of Schaeffer's apologetic. Again, it is very important to be clear on precisely the sort of question this is -- it is not to ask what approach he takes. That has been established. It is to ask how his basic argumentation goes. What Schaeffer appears to be doing -- especially in He Is There and He Is Not Silent -- is to begin implicitly with Christianity as a model (or hypothesis), a conceptual structure that best accounts for, and explains the greatest range of data within, one's world of experience. For example, that there exists something rather than nothing at all, that there is and always has been a moral dimension to Human life, and that one can know things, are all explained, and explained well, by the Biblical revelation. In fact, Schaeffer contends that one would have total mystery in these areas were it not for the Biblical "model."

In a nutshell, that, I think, is the Schaefferian strategy and I have no real quarrel with it. However, as will be seen, these major contentions of Schaeffer are at best poorly argued, and at worst, not argued at all. He seems, in fact, time and again to give the illusion of argument by the mere (hoped-for) connotations of words and coinages -- banking, in effect, upon his reader's intuitions, say, about what a person is.

But another difficulty pervades Schaeffer's works. While I do not put Schaeffer in the same rather leaky epistemological boat with Cornelius Van Til, Schaeffer speaks as though he has shown that the Biblical answer is the "only" answer, not merely the best answer, but an answer enjoying the logical status of necessity. For instance, he says, "Let us notice again that this is not simply the best answer -- it is the only answer;"10 and again, "... as in the area of metaphysics, we must understand that this is not simply the best answer -- it is the only answer in morals for man in his dilemma."11 But flipping back a few pages disclosed no argument for these stupendous claims. Schaeffer, (as I fear is the case with Van Til) is merely recording a determination that the logical necessity of his conclusions is bona fide -- he has certainly not argued it. But I will deal more fully with arguing the logically necessary status of existential truth-claims in the next section.

Upon reflection, what I find here in Schaeffer, as with Van Til, is the desire to demonstrate (by discursive argument) that one's conclusion is necessarily true -- not true as a matter of fact -- but true in the sense that one could deny the conclusion only upon pain of self-contradiction. This is the status claimed for the conclusion of the Ontological Argument: the fool cannot deny that God exists without contradiction. Now Schaeffer's and Van Til's motivation is understandable enough. It would be ever so nice to "prove" one's claims -- so let us for a moment worry over this notion of proof, what it is and what it isn't.

What is a proof? This is an extremely important question for apologetics -- especially so because at least one prominent apologist has exclaimed there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism."12 But what might this proof be? It surely cannot be a proof in the strict deductive sense of a string of dummy letters (premisses) entailing some conclusion C. Nor can it be, it seems to me, a version of the Ontological Argument (although Alvin Plantinga has recently given what he considers to be a sound version of that argument!).13

The notion of proof is a formal one (and, so to say, sacred to contemporary logic!). What is involved is a set of statements (the premisses) that bears a relation to another statement (the conclusion) such that if the premisses are true, the conclusion would have to be true as well. This is a truism of deductive logic. But can there be a set of statements that are all true (actually, it isn't necessary that they all be true) and that severally entail that God exists? Yes and no.

George I. Mavrodes in his little work Belief in God has given a very nice treatment to the problem of what it means to prove that God exists.14 In deductive logic, the matter is rather simple: e.g., "if A, then B" and it is the case that A, then B is sure to be the case as well. But when we substitute empirically-laden premisses for the dummy letters, quite another matter arises.

This is seen in that one can advance a logically legitimate question about any empirical or existential proposition -- even if perniciously. What the apologist must do, therefore, is to proffer the least objectionable premisses that will get him where he wants to go. Suppose, for example, that the following "dummy" argument contains all real existential and empirical propositions:









Now suppose, so far as you are concerned, all the premisses (all the P's) in the argument are true. Your listener, however, sincerely finds that he can neither accept P2 nor Pn, both of which are critical for the argument to go through. He isn't being pernicious; it just is not clear to him that the propositions in question are true. What then? Well, your listener will not feel constrained by dint of the force of your argument to accept its conclusion. The next move must be yours, so you say, "Okay, let us substitute for P2 and Pn the propositions P'2 and P'n. Both are hospitable to your conclusion and your listener finds them at least plausible. Of course these substitute premisses might also prove objectionable, in which case you would have to substitute P"2 and P"n and so on. We also notice that the argument has certain formal properties of a deductive argument but is itself a purely inductive argument.

The question therefore becomes, is there such a thing as inductive proof? The answer, officially at any rate, is no. Such argumentation may be correct, plausible, or probable as concerns the conclusion, but so long as the conclusion is logically corrigible, the argument can only be persuasive. But I do think there is sense in the question, when does an argument become a proof? For we frequently speak as though an inductive set of premisses "proved" something to us. For example, the testimony for the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty. So, if our colloquial and inductive notion of proof is approved, an argument becomes a proof when our listener sees the conclusion to follow from the premisses and is convinced of this. In our second sense of proof, therefore, proof is always "person-variable."15 That is to say, in most of those instances where we are attempting to "prove" a thing to someone, such a proof will invariably have the status of being a proof for that someone. It may not suffice as a proof for a different individual simply because that individual may not be acquainted with those premisses that the former person was. And indeed, "proofs" do seem to be interesting only to the extent that they stand to increase our knowledge. But let us not lose sight of why the discussion of proof came up: Schaeffer, at least on some occasions, seems to imply that he (like Van Til) has accomplished a proof in the incorrigible sense -- but not only are the arguments absent, such an argument is an impossibility. It seems to me, however, that when Schaeffer lapses into the sort of statements that were quoted, they are more homiletic and hortatory than an incorrigible finish to an argument.


Richard Russell

In a review article for the International Reformed Bulletin (1970), Richard Russell, instructor in philosophy at Trinity Christian College (Palos Heights, IL) , charges Schaeffer with rationalism and individualism. My concern will be with just the former.

At the outset it should be stressed that Schaeffer is primarily concerned with the intellectual defensibility of the Christian faith and its truth. This in itself is unobjectionable. Russell, however, faults Schaeffer for his overall interpretation of what has happened in the history of philosophy. He quotes Schaeffer in Escape from Reason (p. 92) a saying "... the Jewish and Biblical concept of truth is much closer to the Greek than the modern." Now I am as dubious of this remark as Russell is, but I think Russell has not attended to what Schaeffer means in remarks like these. I am convinced that for a significant number of Schaeffer's statements, what Schaeffer says is not always what Schaeffer means. It is true that Schaeffer thinks of "modern modern man" as post-Hegelian, but to conclude from this that Schaeffer wants to champion pre-Hegelian rationalism, as Russell contends, is entirely unwarranted. Schaeffer is concerned for an intuitively sound logic wherein A is not non-A. Schaeffer is concerned for the law of identity (A is A) , the law of contradiction (A is not non-A) , and the law of excluded middle (either A, or non-A). Without these logical laws there could be no intelligible discourse.

However, it is not really certain that these laws suffered at the hands of Hegel. Hegel is ambiguous at this point, and at any rate, his subsequent influence had least to do with his logic! Rather it was Hegel's notion of nature and the vicissitudes of human endeavor and thought as one organic and ever-developing whole that played upon the minds of Bradley, the pragmatists, and Whitehead. So far from being post-Hegelian in logic, Schaeffer's modern modern man within the Anglo-American culture has the legacy and continuing development of nearly a century of logic. Philosophically, this has been the century of logic from Frege's early work through Russell, Whitehead, and Wittgenstein!

What Schaeffer must attend to is just what aspects of contemporary thought can be attributed to Hegel's influence. Further, it seems to me, from typical Schaeffer examples (which often have the distressing feature of little more than name-dropping) , he reads the Anglo-Canadian~American tradition through a heavy existential and phenomenological mist. The Anglo-American tradition has majored in logic, the philosophy of language, and the philosophy of science. In all these, the "Law of Excluded Middle" is alive and well.

But perhaps Russell's point may be taken against Schaeffer in yet another way. In Escape from Reason we are given diagrams which sum up Schaeffer's diagnosis of modern man. I think there may not merely be a minor flaw in the argument of the book, but a decisive one. Tracing western man's philosophical roots to the present day, Schaeffer finds much to criticize in Aquinas, Kant and Kierkegaard. Each of these thinkers built, as it were, a two-storeyed house but with no logical staircase to connect the upper with the lower storey. It is instructive to see what, in each "house," characterizes the storeys. For Aquinas it was nature/grace; Aquinas did much to set human reason off on its autonomously merry way. Next is Kant, who gave up on grace altogether, and with his religion of moral freedom, built a house of nature/freedom. And last, apparently, is that house that Hegel and Kierkegaard built -- faith/rationality.

Now in each house notice that the lower storey is the realm of what may be ascertained by autonomous reason. The lower storey is the domain of the particulars of nature as discriminated and assessed by man and his logic:

                                          GRACE           FREEDOM                FAITH
                                         ________         __________        _____________

                                         NATURE           NATURE            RATIONALITY

In the upper storey is the element of freedom and that which provides meaning and significance to the downstairs of particulars. But in none of these houses is there a logical (or coherent) connection from one floor to the other; there is no staircase. Thus, regarding these philosophers' "houses" as symbols of their systematically worked-out woridviews, Schaeffer's point is that in none of them can universality (meaning) logically relate to particularity (items in one's world of experience). In this I believe Schaeffer's analyses are basically sound.

Over against the despair of these faulty worldviews Schaeffer holds out the Christian position, the Christian "house." Scripture, Schaeffer tells us, speaks of both the "upstairs and the downstairs."16 This addressing of both universals and particulars in the Bible assures us of the unity that was lacking in the other views. But of course Kant "spoke" of upstairs and downstairs too, to use Schaeffer's metaphor. So did Aquinas. How is it that mere biblical reference to both universality and particularity secures a coherence unobtainable in the other views?

To see whether Schaeffer faces a difficulty here we must attempt to make Schaeffer's "upstairs" and "downstairs" explicit. It seems to me that the only candidates for these two "floors" within Schaeffer's biblical commitments are (1) God and His decrees -- the source of all created meaning , and (2) the particulars of created reality -- including man and his moral responsibility. On the one hand, Schaeffer, subscribing as he does to the Westminster Confession of Faith, would have to put in the upstairs of the Christian house "God and His decrees." Quoting from the Catechism, question number seven, "The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass" (emphasis mine). Note that this is a commitment to complete determinism -- theistic and teleological in character, but a thoroughgoing determinism just the same.

On the other hand, the particulars of Schaeffer's downstairs include man as significantly free, significantly responsible, not an automaton. So we are bidden to take up residence in an apparently split-level house wherein upstairs is a radical determination of all things and the downstairs is area of "unprogrammed man," to use Schaeffer's expression. We have then:

God and His Decrees

Created Particularity

But what does this construction invite Schaeffer's opponent to say? I do not doubt what the Catechism says in the least, but for all that, doesn't this situation pose for Schaeffer an equally formidable logical problem to that which destroyed the other "houses"? It certainly seems that if each "house" is assessed according to its logically apparent features, Schaeffer's "house" doesn't get a staircase either. That is to say, there can surely be no staircase in the requisite sense if there is no current human understanding of the logical steps between, say, divine foreordination of all things and human responsibility. Indeed, God has addressed both areas in His Word, but their logical unity (or integration) is nowhere rationally exhibited. Thus while we should like to appreciate real value in Schaeffer's point that God reveals to us in His Word that His plan is ultimately coherent, we must hasten to add that not only doesn't Scripture logically harmonize certain of its clear teachings (concerning, e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, and God's absolute sovereignty vis-a-vis man's responsibility), man may be quite incapable of construing such material as free from logical difficulty (cf. Isa 55:8-9; Deut 29:29).

But if this is right, and if Schaeffer invites a rationalistic assessment of Christianity's most fundamental claims, then the blow to Schaeffer's central thesis in Escape From Reason is devastating! He has left mystery and finitude of perspective out of account at a very sensitive point. In fact, any quickwitted antagonist could, with Schaeffer's own logic, dismiss Schaeffer's entire effort. One may simply not fault Kant, let us say, for failing to harmonize universality and particularity within his system when no Christian thinker has ever logically penetrated the problematics of God's decrees and man's responsibility -- unless, that is, it can be shown that the latter problematics arise for quite different reasons than in the Kantian system. (Alvin Plantinga has recently advanced an ingenious way out, but he seems to have come precariously close to Arminianism.)17

I conclude, then, that Russell's point is well taken if he has this sort of thought in mind. If I am right, Schaeffer's whole program in both Escape From Reason and The God Who Is There is left in the lurch. While we should not want to "escape reason," it is equally clear that we should not allow the case for Christianity to rest upon the human ability to exhibit Christianity as a perspicuously logically-harmonized system.

Cornelius Van Til

Recently Professor Emeritus Cornelius Van Til has allowed a rather lengthy critique of Schaeffer to be printed and sold at the Westminster Seminary Bookstore. Although there are several well-taken criticisms of Schaeffer's approach, Van Til's central concern is that Schaeffer has taken up the cudgels of a basically Butler-Paley apologetic and that, despite certain superficial similarities of language, Schaeffer is not a presuppositionalist but a veritable Arminian in apologetics! I shall maintain that, insofar as Schaeffer has been charged with holding an apologetic method that fails because it is not true to Van Til's apologetic, Schaeffer need have no qualms. Schaeffer is being judged in terms of an incoherent apologetic framework! The charge I make is quite serious, but, I think, demonstrably true.

Let me preface my remarks by acknowledging a real debt of gratitude to Professor Van Til, both through a reading of his books (many of them given me by him) and through personal acquaintance with him, for the stimulus he has been to my own development.

I will now respond to what strikes me as fallacious about the very heart of Van Til's presuppositionalism. If his apologetic fails, as I think it does, it can hardly be used to critique someone else's thought. I will contend that Van Til's method does not give way because of any empiricistic critique, but because its own logical strategy, as specified by Van Til, simply cannot yield the only type of conclusion Van Til will accept. It must be one hundred per-cent or nothing. But as we shall see, Van Til, in effect, logically short-circuits his own line of argument.

Van Til calls his method "presuppositional." Its chief feature is presupposing the truth of Christianity as the system that integrates all factuality and that accounts for life as it is actually lived. The objective is to show or demonstrate to one's opponent that Christian theism (1) truly does this, and (the much more ambitious claim) (2) that Christianity alone can do this. The question is, can presuppositional argumentation accomplish these objectives?

Let us first review why it is that Van Til insists that his presuppositionalism is the only approach that does not ultimately sacrifice the truth of Christianity. To begin with, all facts (presumably statable states of affairs) in the universe are such by virtue of creation and so are God-interpreted (i.e., ultimately rational) facts. Particularly important for Van Til is that there are no "brute" facts (that is, uninterpreted and therefore non-integrated and non-rational facts). Therefore, in principle, according to Van Til, one cannot know any particular fact without exhausting its integral relation with every other fact in the universe. Without the principle that the universe is a rational whole, he seems to argue, one is epistemologically cut adrift upon a sea of pure contingency. Although man, with only a finite intellect, cannot fathom the universal context for each particular fact, God can. This being the case, the way is open for man -- particularly, if not solely, the Christian man -- to "think God's thoughts after God" and thus "reinterpret" what has already been interpreted by God. But whereas God knows exhaustively and therefore incorrigibly, man knows analogically (i.e., in some such fashion as God knows). And insofar as man's 'kiowledge" might be aptly described a reinterpretation, Van Til would say his knowledge is "knowing truly."

But this is all very obscure. First, how does one know when he has "reinterpreted" a part of God's knowledge -- say, about some aspect of created reality? Van Til, at this point, would doubtless introduce an array of postulates that are formulable from biblical texts. If the statement purporting to be factual is consistent and/or deducible from any of these postulates (presuppositions) , one has rightly reinterpreted and can be said to know "truly."

But it is not at all the same whether a putative assertion sustains a consistency or a deductive relationship to another statement. If consistency is the desideratum, one is faced with the paradox that several empirical (hypothetical) statements might be consistent with the same postulate, but only one of which could be true! Moreover, each consistent statement would count, pace Van Til, as a "reinterpretation."

If deducibility is the desideratum, one ends in total rationalism, and it seems clear that this is not what Van Til wants. I think here we have an inescapable dilemma given Van Til's notion of what may be called the "integrality principle." All facts are so related such that partial knowledge entails, in principle at least, exhaustive knowledge. Clearly, one needs some omniscience principle to vouchsafe any human knowledge whatever. For Van Til, this principle is embodied and confirmed (in part) by God's revelation, the Bible. But here is a problem:

Revelation for Van Til is just that; in the case of the Old and New Testaments it is God Himself who reveals Himself. It is the inscripturated "Word of God" and God is speaking. Moreover, as we find in Psalm 19:1, the heavens do not declare that God "probably" exists, nor do the Scriptures evidence the least bit of doubt as to the verities they assert. How then can a believing apologist argue to a dubitable and corrigible conclusion? Is this not tantamount to telling God His revelation is muddled? Van Til would insist that this is just what "evidential" apologists invariably do.

Van Til's response is that the inscripturated "Word of God" is God speaking, and since it is God who speaks, the content of the revelation is authoritative -- in fact, absolutely authoritative. If so, one does not apply external criteria of testing to such an authority; one can only obey or disobey. For Van Til, any external checking principle -- e.g., logical coherence or even the corroboration of Scripture by such disciplines as archeology, paleontology, or astronomy -- must tacitly deny the ultimacy of God's authority by assuming a more ultimate verificatory authority (human reason), in terms of which the very worth and credibility of God's Word is judged!

But there are at least two problems that Van Til has ignored: (1) authority -- as pertaining to a document -- presupposes authenticity, and authenticity is straightforwardly a pressing epistemological issue. If some alleged "canonical" literature X or Y is offered to us as the infallible Word of God (say, the Book of Mormon, or the Koran), it is certainly not impertinent but highly necessary to inquire into its theistic authenticity before accepting it as binding. And this leads to: (2) there do happen to be several 'canonical" literatures competing for allegiance. Does one fideistically (no questions asked) just imbibe one of these, or is there some adequate process of rational discrimination that can help to weed out those that are bogus?

Let us now briefly go to the root problem of Van Til's presuppositionalism -- why in principle it is not a viable apologetic method. In his Defense of the Faith (p. 100) , Van Til states, "The Reformed apologist will frankly admit that his own methodology presupposes the truth of Christian theism" (emphasis mine) Van Til is embarking upon what he feels is the only uncompromising apologetic, and it is well to notice the wording here; we shall revert back to it later. What is important is the strategy, the logical structure, that Van Til sets up. In Defense of the Faith, as elsewhere, the strategy outlined in the various passages on method stresses that the believer will put himself on the assumptions (or presuppositions) of the unbeliever for the sake of argument, and demonstrate that on those assumptions "the facts are not facts and the laws are not laws." In effect, the believer performs a Socratic elenchus upon the unbeliever's major assumptions -- that is to say, he refutes the unbeliever's position by showing it to be either incoherent or inadequate or both (cf. Phaedo 101d, and both Kenneth H. Sayre's Plato's Analytic Method, pp. 3-56 and Richard Robinson's Essays in Greek Philosophy, pp. 1-15).

What is of special interest is that there is a critical symmetry outlined in Van Til's method with respect to analyzing first the non-Christian's position and then the Christian position. If the symmetry is maintained, Van Til's conclusion about the necessary truth of the Christian position cannot possibly follow. When you, the believer, assume the non-Christian's presuppositions for the sake of argument, you are assuming them as provisionally true to see what would happen, for according to Van Til:

We can begin reasoning with our opponent at any point in heaven or earth and may for argument's sake present Christian theism as one hypothesis among many [!], and may for argument's sake place ourselves upon the ground of our opponent in order to see what will happen.18

The symmetry, then, is this: in both cases, your opponent's case and your own, the provisional or hypothetical character of the opposing (both) sets of pre-suppositions is the same. Neither has the status in the argument of being true, only of being provisionally true for the sake of analysis.

Now let us revert back to Van Til's earlier statement about presupposing "the truth of Christian theism." Although there is a clear sense in which it would be okay to use this wording, the fuller context of Van Til's methodology passages shows that he has shifted the logical ground on the opposition. He is not presupposing his own presuppositions as being true -- the word "as" being elliptical for "as though" -- he is rather changing the rules of the inquiry when it comes his turn to be examined -- in effect, fudging on the logical symmetry that originally determined the ground rules for discussion. The wording in Defense of the Faith must be taken quite literally -- even letterally -- if we are to see what has taken place! An assymetry is introduced, as we can now see in retrospect, that is designed to mysteriously endow the Christian's presuppositions with the remarkable logical status of self-evident truth!

If indeed one sets up the process of analysis on the basis that systems X and Y are both hypothetically true, or what is the same thing, provisionally true for argument's sake, one must, upon pain of incoherence, strictly adhere to those ruiles. Van Til does not do this. This is extremely serious because at stake in apologetics is sound argumentation -- one either has or does not have an argument. If Y is the conclusion of an argument, it is essential to see how that argument goes. But, assuming Van Til has been successful in rebutting X via a reductio ad absurdum, the up-till-now equally hypothetical Y (Christianity) , is suddenly regarded as factually necessary, not hypothetically or provisionally true as in the case of the hapless system X!

Lest this critique should seem cavalier, perhaps unfair, in suggesting that Van Til has only pretended the initial strategy so clearly marked off in the above quotation, consider a rather amazing statement that Van Til makes against Buswell:

The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down the validity of this argument to the probability level. The argument may be poorly stated, and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is perfectly sound.19

This is a remarkably confused statement -- a conflation of the categories of logic and metaphysics. Van Til, the metaphysical banker, is guaranteeing his disciples that they have plenty of epistemological credit -- in fact, they can hardly overdraw their account! Because one is assured (fideistically) of what metaphysically must be the case, it does not matter much how one argues for it.

This is an unfortunate position to hold since it is so vulnerable. One hardly needs reminding that one can have a perfectly valid argument whose conclusion is factually false. Moreover, it is just the adequacy of an argument's formulation that constitutes its soundness.

What Van Til really means to say is that God really does exist and that testimony to this fact, no matter how feeble, will never lack a corresponding reality. There seems to be no attempt to distinguish "kerygma" from "apologia" (they are distinguished in Scripture, e.g., 1 Pet 3:15), and so the question remains, is there anything to Van Til's kerygma? Answer: only if God exists.

Although a more rigorous logical critique of Van Til's method could be given, I think the above line of criticism is both fair and decisive. It will hardly do, therefore, as a platform to criticize Schaeffer.


Again I shall preface my remarks with an expression of thankfulness and deep admiration for Dr. Schaeffer. He has been mightily used by God as a missionary to thousands of young people -- beginning with the L'Abri work and now continuing through his books and lectures. The following criticisms have no other intent than to suggest wherein Schaeffer might be more effective. My examples will hopefully appear as constructive efforts to indicate general tendencies, not a harassment. Also, it is only the apologetic aspect of Schaeffer's work that will be the focus.

Schaeffer's Diagnosis of the Historical Roots of Modern Thought

Perhaps due to a lack of specific footnoting, a reader canvassing Schaeffer's books may become uneasy when generalizations are made about Plato, Aquinas, Kant and contemporary thinkers. Two examples may serve to illustrate this: Schaeffer speaks of Plato's "gods" being too small to account for unity in diversity.20 However, it is at least dubious that Plato was a polytheist and far more probable that he was an atheist. While it is true that in the Timaeus a "Demiurge" is depicted as forming the world according to the Ideal or Exemplary Pattern, most commentators take this language to be a pedagogical device on Plato's part. It is quite certain, at any rate, that Plato felt no compunction to reckon with any "gods." When speaking through Socrates in the Euthyphro, Plato seems to mock the very notion of a quarreling semi-corporeal nest of gods on Olympus.

But with Kant, Schaeffer's facility or lack of facility with the history of philosophy is far more critical for his major concerns. Schaeffer states that:

Kant's system broke upon the rock of trying to find a way to bring the phenomenal world of nature into relationship with the noumenal world of universals.21

The fact is, however, Kant had no proof, within his system, that there even was a "noumenal" world of things-in-themselves. He merely argued its bare possibility, and in any case, such a world would not have served in Kant's system as the supplier of universals. Knowledge for Kant was restricted to what the human mind could rationalize through its pure forms of intuition and its several categories. One can know only phenomena; the thing-in-itself may or may not have the good fortune to exist. The mind conceptually brings to the raw appearances (sensations) its categories and thus particularity is unified within a conceptualism. It is just false that the "noumenal" was even hoped to supply universals because none of the rational categories could even apply in a realm beyond the phenomenal. Man has rationality to do the work of universalizing and that is all.

Finally, Schaeffer seems to be unfamiliar with the philosophic roots of the Anglo-Canadian-American tradition. The philosopher William Barrett (Irrational Man) has stated that philosophers cannot respond to what their own cultural milieu has yet to live through. Europe was traumatized by two world wars in a way that America was not. Correspondingly, Europe's art and philosophy was also shaken and does indeed reflect a monumental change in values. It would be a great mistake and overly simplistic, however, to say that the same holds true for America. Moreover, it is not a post-Hegelian-Kierkegaardian despair that afflicts the American Weltanschauung. True enough, America's youth have developed a sort of crackerbarrel existentialism -- but mostly a much diluted version developed during the '60s.

What, it seems to me, Schaeffer has not attended to is what is distinctively American about the present outlook in the U.S. It has not been, nor is it now, an existentialism -- incipient or otherwise -- that accounts for our present tradition. Rather, it is the outcome of a distinctively American philosophical movement, not European. It was the pragmatist philosophy and its subsequent influence upon the philosophy of science and logic that best accounts for the present state of mind. What pragmatism and the subsequent movement in analytic-logic oriented philosophy bequeathed to our American thought-milieu was an epistemology of fallibilism -- in fact, an unrestricted fallibilism (there is no such thing as incorrigible knowledge because the-data-is-never-all-in, or it is always conceivable that the present data have been misconstrued) . This was not true of the older positivism. It has been fallibilism, as it has utterly permeated the university systems in Canada, Britain and America, that best accounts for the loss of confidence in absolutes of any kind. Perhaps, though, it is safe to say that confidence in logic itself has been persistent (although there are a variety of 'other logics" being studied).

Schaeffer's Logic

This heading is perhaps misleading, since it is Schaeffer's tendency to commit non-sequiturs that I want to discuss. Many readers of Schaeffer have shared their own frustrations with me on this count: Schaeffer makes one statement and then says another statement follows from it when there is no apparent logical relationship there at all. In fact, this is the primary difficulty in loaning Schaeffer's books out to unsaved friends.

A particularly flagrant example is found in He Is There and He Is Not Silent. While agreeing heartily with all that the title stands for, the book as a whole is very poorly argued. A case in point is found on page eight:

The great problem with beginning with the impersonal is to find any meaning for the particulars.... If we begin with the impersonal, then how do any of the particulars that now exist -- including man -- have any meaning? Nobody has given us an answer to that. In all the history of philosophical thought, whether from the East or West, no one has given us an answer.22

Perhaps this is an elliptical argument or enthymeme, but as it stands, it just does not make sense. What I suspect is going on is that Schaeffer has a gut-feeling that complexity and particularity logically require a personal creator. If the reader's intuitions match Schaeffer's, perhaps the passage will have some force; but logically speaking, it is extremely puzzling to see any necessary connection between bare particularity and personality. But most importantly, there is just no logical entailment involved as Schaeffer seems to suppose. I can very easily imagine a world in which there are particulars without persons. Although it is empirically unlikely that the universe of matter-energy is eternal, there is no logical necessity -- that is to say, conceptual necessity -- that (a) the universe should not be eternal, nor (b) that the universe consist in as many particulars as you please, including man -- all that without a "personal beginning." Less stringently, it is surely conceivable that the universe exist but have no persons.

The problem of rationalism and the "Christian two-storeyed house" has already been taken up, so we pass on to our final consideration.

Schaeffer and Personhood: the "Mannishness" of Man

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Schaeffer's writings in general is the freedom he takes in coining new terms. I do not doubt for a moment that he does so for emphasis and clarity. But time and time again it would be in the interest of both precision and clarity if the strange terms did not arise. Such animals as "true Truth," "modern modern man," "nothing nothing," and "moral motions" clutter and confuse rather than clarify -- and perhaps the greatest difficulty is this notion of "the mannishness of man." What is clear, virtually after a reading of any of Schaeffer's material, is that man, and more particularly, the bare notion of a person, is absolutely critical to the logical development of his primary thesis: the significance of, and salvation for, man.

But, more often than not, it appears that Schaeffer depends upon the intuitions of his listeners or readers, for nowhere does he offer a concise characterization of what it means to be a person. Rather, he characteristically throws up coinages and then says some extraordinary things about a hoped-for connotativeness of each. This practice seems to me quite analogous to the "God-words" he faults modern liberalism for. If there is content for the word "person," or "man," then let us have a full discussion of it.

This is an extremely important request to make of Schaeffer, because secular materials within the philosophy of mind, psychology, neurophysiology, and even experimental parapsychology all are zeroing in on the nature of man. Within an atmosphere of such an abundance of secular works on the subject,23 Schaeffer may not safely throw about "person-words." To do so is just to beg the most fundamental questions that are being heavily scrutinized today.

Consider "the mannishness of man." What is that? The closest Schaeffer comes to unpacking this expression is when he characterizes man as both "noble" and "cruel," as capable of love -- even at first sight! The trouble is, each of these predicates can equally characterize animals. Indeed, is there such a thing as Schaeffer credits Dante for: loving at first sight?24 And what a lot of metaphysical problems could be solved merely by appending "ishness" to each worrisome entity! Imagine -- the essence of books would be their "bookishness"; that of lumps, their "lumpishness"; and perhaps most informative of all, that of slugs their "slugishness." What seems clear is that without an account of persons other than connotation words, there is just no significant defense being brought against the philosopher of mind's program (in cooperation with allied disciplines) to reduce the human being to just an extraordinarily adaptive biochemical organism. As one prominent philosopher, soon to publish a book Persons and Minds,25 put it, "persons" are just "culturally emergent entities," nothing more, and certainly not natural entities (beings with essences in their own right). So "ishness" may be good fare for young and naive audiences, but at the frontier of philosophy of mind and neurophysiology it just begs the question. It is desperately important that we draw the intellectual scrimmage line at the right place in apologetics -- we dare not be oblivious to Satan's contemporary strategy!


Schaeffer, for all that we have considered, has provoked us to think. Even if his diagnoses miss their targets by a degree or two, he has still brought us face-to-face with the monumental task of working for a culturally-deep Christianity. We all, I think, have much more yet to learn from his example. And as long as he writes, he will stimulate and provoke widespread response. May God firmly establish the L'Abri work and many others like it! Schaeffer has shown us -- myself at any rate -- that orthodoxy is far from being dull, and that -- in the words of his former associate Os Guiness -- the Christian need not be the odd man out. How exciting to "occupy till He comes"!


Escape from Reason (1968)

The God Who is There (1968)

Death in the City (1969)

Pollution & the Death of Man (1970)

The Church at the End of the 20th Century (1970)

The Mark of the Christian (1970)

The Church Before the Watching World (1971)

True Spirituality (1972)

He is There and He is Not Silent (1972)

Basic Bible Studies (1972)

The New Super-Spirituality (1972)

Back to Freedom and Dignity (1972)

Genesis in Space and Time (1972)

Art and the Bible (1973)

No Little People (1974)

Two Contents, Two Realities (1974)

Joshua & the Flow of Biblical History (1975)

No Final Conflict (1975)

Everybody Can Know (1975; with Edith Schaeffer)

How Should We Then Live? (1976)

Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979; with C. Everett Koop)


1. The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason.

2. For want of better labels, "Evidentialism" and "Presuppositionalism." Later in this paper I hope to show that neither label conveys much useful information.

3. Richard Russell, "Escape from Reason," International Reformed Bulletin 43 (Fall 1970) , 23.

4. It is also Schaeffer's style that occasionally proves to be a liability. There are points where clarity and precision are sacrificed by solecistic, vague and ambiguous terminology. On some critical issues the reader is frustrated by "living room" parlance, even leaving him to wonder whether there is any theoretical depth behind the talk. More footnoting and references would help remedy this.

5. As I am using the terms, an "apologetic" will denote a specific argumentive approach, while "apologetics" has more the connotation of the academic discipline by that name.

6. Bernard Ramm, Varieties of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961), p. 13.

7. Ibid., p. 14.

8. Ibid.

9. I think one could own a system in Ramm's sense only in philosophically assessing another's apologetic approach. This would be a sort of meta-apologetics, a second-order discourse about apologetics that hinges upon one's theology and Christian philosophy. But apologetics proper is, as Ramm states, "the strategy of setting forth the truthfulness of the Christian faith." A strategy per se must be systematic, but it seems solecistic to say it is also a system.

10. Francis A. Schaeffer, He Is There and He Is Not Silent (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1972), p. 16.

11. Ibid., p. 33.

12. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1953), p. 103.

13. Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (New York: Oxford, 1974), pp. 196-221.

14. George I. Mavrodes, Belief in God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion (New York: Random House, 1970).

15. Ibid., pp. 40-41.

16. Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape >From Reason (Chicago: InterVarsity, 1968) p. 23.

17. Plantinga, Nature of Necessity, passim.

18. Cornelius Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology (Philadelphia: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1960), p. xi.

19. Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969) , p. 291.

20. Schaeffer, He Is There..., p. 13.

21. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason, p. 33.

22. Schaeffer, He Is There..., pp. 8-9.

23. E.g., D.C. Dennett, Content and Consciousness and Roland Puccetti, Persons.

24. Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, p. 27.

25. Dr. Joseph Margolis, Temple University.

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Last updated: January 19, 2002