Renowned apologist Francis Schaeffer, whose philosophical writings in the 20th century helped shape the evangelical movement, championed an understanding of reason and faith that influenced a generation of Christian scholars. Schaeffer contended in his writings that reason should not be regarded as a magisterium but rather as a minister. On his view, reason is not an authority to which faith must submit but rather a servant on which faith may call. Here his thought echoes the ancient Christian commitment to “faith seeking understanding.” Schaeffer’s apologetics helped a generation of believers, either leading some to faith in Christ for the first time or others to a more comprehensive understanding and commitment to Christ. Furthermore, a significant number of Christian scholars working today in various fields found in his writings inspiration to pursue the life of the mind in a distinctively and self-consciously Christian way.
Schaeffer is popularly regarded as a presuppositional apologist in the tradition of Cornelius Van Til. As Schaeffer himself clearly saw, however, significant differences distinguish his apologetic approach from Van Til’s — so much so that, despite popular opinion, it is a matter of scholarly debate whether Schaeffer can be regarded as a presuppositionalist. Regardless of how that debates turns out, Schaeffer’s apologetic thought can best be appreciated against a presuppositional backdrop.
For his part, Van Til’s primary apologetic insight concerned the assumptions which govern the way one reasons, thinks, or even sees the world. Those governing assumptions — which Van Til refers to as presuppositions — determine what conclusions one will accept. Since believers and unbelievers enter into discussion with incompatible presuppositions, Van Til held that they share no common ground from which to assess evidence and weigh arguments. If Christians are to engage unbelievers meaningfully, then, they must do so through some avenue other than traditional theistic arguments and Christian evidences.
Following Van Til’s lead, presuppositionalists generally regard Christianity not simply as the one and only true worldview but also as the one and only rational worldview; in other words, every other worldview is not just false but also unreasonable. Unbelievers are thus not simply mistaken — they are downright irrational. Among the various world religions and philosophies, Christianity alone proves to be logically consistent.
Given that every unbelieving worldview turns out to be inconsistent, the presuppositionalist strategy involves demonstrating the logical incoherence of such views using what philosophers call “transcendental arguments.” Such arguments attempt to show unbelievers inescapably committed to notions of logic, morality, and rationality to which their presuppositions do not entitle them. Only by abandoning the presuppositions of unbelief in favor of Christian ones can they consistently maintain those notions. By thus deconstructing unbelief, presuppositionalists seek to clear the ground, so to speak, for unbelievers to hear the gospel. Rather than contending for the faith with traditional theistic arguments and Christian evidences, presuppositionalists prepare unbelievers to receive the truth by undermining the foundations of their unbelief.
In a similar vein, Schaeffer’s own apologetic strategy juxtaposes historic Christian orthodoxy’s presuppositions with those of various unbelieving worldviews. He seeks to show the superiority of Christian presuppositions over those of alternative worldviews by showing that only the former can satisfactorily account for the world and our place in it. Only Christian presuppositions, he argues, adequately explain the two worlds that every human being encounters — the external world of public, objective reality and the internal world of one’s own subjective humanity (with its concomitant desires for significance, meaning, and love).
Schaeffer writes in a mid to late-20th century milieu in which objectivity was thought to be possible, to a significant degree. In such a social setting, the “marketplace of ideas” was construed as a sort of intellectual boutique comprising a vast array of booths from which various philosophical and religious viewpoints hawk their wares. Buyers examine these various viewpoints from a neutral hallway from which they can objectively examine each one in turn.
As Schaeffer clearly sees, this construal turns out to be nonsense. For of course, no such hallway exists. Every viewpoint comes from some booth or other; every viewpoint is thus governed by the presuppositions endemic to its booth. Despite what modernity says, setting one’s presuppositions aside to consider which worldview to embrace simply isn’t possible. So the question isn’t whether to allow presuppositions to enter into the equation; rather, it is which presuppositions to allow in.
As an undergraduate at Baylor University in the mid-1980s, the chairman of the philosophy department told me that I needed to set my religious commitments aside while pursuing philosophy. I simply wouldn’t be any good as a philosopher, he told me, unless I set those commitments aside and pursued my studies objectively. In so counseling me, the professor asked me to do the impossible. In fact, what he asked was not only impossible but also undesirable.
To abandon Christian presuppositions is not to proceed without presuppositions, biases, and assumptions; rather, it is to replace Christian ones with unbelieving ones. Having read Schaeffer, I realized at that point in my studies that one can either please secular academicians or remain faithful to the gospel. One cannot, however, do both.
Reason either serves the faith or subjugates it; it becomes either faith’s minister or its master. … Schaeffer saw these truths with uncommon clarity, especially given the age in which he wrote.
Reason either serves the faith or subjugates it; it becomes either faith’s minister or its master. Schaeffer understood his own thought in terms of “the Lordship of Christ in the totality of life.” If Christ is to be one’s Lord, he must be Lord of every aspect of one’s life; and that includes the life of one’s mind. Moreover, Christ is not Lord of the mind that elevates reason above the faith he entrusted to his apostles. Schaeffer saw these truths with uncommon clarity, especially given the age in which he wrote. And so he called believers to pursue the life of the mind in a distinctively and self-consciously Christian way.
While I count myself among those whom Schaeffer inspired to pursue scholarship in such a way, I am only one among many. Indeed, when studying philosophy as a doctoral student at Notre Dame — a program known at that time for its high number of conservative Protestant graduate students — I found that many of my fellow students had in one way or another been significantly influenced by Schaeffer. And what was true of that department can be multiplied many times over. Now the last 40 years have seen a remarkable renaissance in Christian philosophy, a rebirth for which Schaeffer is largely responsible.
Douglas K. Blount is professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Southern Seminary.