What would Francis Schaeffer say to the evangelical church today? To answer this question, I first must highlight two crucial aspects of Schaeffer’s life and ministry. First, the burden of his life was to teach that the message of Christianity isn’t primarily about “religious experiences,” but about “true Truth.” Second, in contending for the truth, Schaeffer sought to do so with gentleness and compassion, and by doing so to practice simultaneously the holiness and love of God. To uphold God’s holiness requires that we stand against falsehood and unrighteousness. To uphold God’s love requires that we stand for the truth while also remembering life’s brokenness, including our own, and to walk moment-by-moment with Christ as we seek to love and honor God more than any created thing.
1. Portions of this essay are taken from Ranald Macaulay, “Contending for the Lamb,” SBJT 24.2 (2020): 11-29.
Throughout his entire ministry, Schaeffer practiced these two crucial points. He not only personally believed the gospel, he also taught and demonstrated that Christianity’s truth claims were really true in contrast to non-Christian thought. As such, he was willing to stand against those who either denied the truth or compromised it, and especially against those who did so within the church. Schaeffer loved and trusted Scripture. His message was the same whether chatting to individuals or addressing crowds. Honor God and revere his Word; follow Christ and submit to Scripture. What mattered to him was the trustworthiness of God’s written Word, hence the reason why he contended tirelessly for Truth in a post-truth society. For Schaeffer, if one tampers with the Bible, all is lost. This explains his concern at the end of his life regarding the direction of evangelicalism. As Schaeffer warned in his last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, some evangelicals were in danger of compromising the full authority of Scripture, and up until his last breath, he sought to call the evangelical church back to a full commitment to Scripture and the truth of the gospel.
With this in mind, we are now able to answer the question of what Schaeffer would say to today’s evangelical church, and also to discover his ongoing relevance for Evangelicals today. I will do so in two steps. First, I will answer the question of why Schaeffer’s commitment to truth and the full authority of Scripture is still relevant for evangelicals today despite the changes that have occurred in our culture since his death. Second, I will conclude with what I believe Schaeffer would say to us today.
Schaeffer’s Commitment to “True Truth”: Is it Relevant for Evangelicals Today?
Many evangelicals, I think, would be hesitant to answer yes. Why? So much has changed. For one thing Schaeffer died before Postmodernism took center stage. More specifically, his stress on antithesis and confrontation was a bone of contention even during his lifetime and the reaction to this would be stronger today: at best impractical, at worst offensive, unloving, and fractious. As a friend put it, why focus on Truth when people are interested only in experience, or why contend with falsehood when everyone just wants to be tolerant and accepting?
This attitude to Schaeffer’s alleged rationalism and commitment to “true Truth” is unfortunate because his opposition to the Enlightenment could not have been clearer. For example, Schaeffer argued strongly that, “the central ideas of the Enlightenment stand in complete antithesis to Christian truth. More than this, they are an attack on God himself and his character.”
2. The Great Evangelical Disaster, 33-34.
Nevertheless, some evangelicals have argued that his commitment to objective Truth reflects the Enlightenment more than the Bible: that he was wrong to talk of “propositional revelation;” that he emphasized the mind too much; that his view of inerrancy was too literalistic; that he was too dogmatic, etc. Their dislike of the Modernist tradition is intense. By contrast they favor the Postmodern approach. They see it as more congenial to faith, more accepting, more open, more attentive to the heart rather than the head. Those who think this way conspicuously overlook Schaeffer’s warnings back in 1974 when he spoke in Lausanne. His message was blunt: if the Enlightenment was bad the existential methodology is worse. In Schaeffer’s view its foundations are like shifting sand, its proposals like poison.
The irony here is striking. Despite Postmodernism’s dislike of Modernism, we must never forget that it is itself derived from Modernism. Once Descartes and the Empiricists started to work out the logic of their ideas, they ran into difficulty. David Hume realized that even causality (the sine qua non of science) was a problem: “Do I sense the cause in causality” he asked, “or do I merely observe two consecutive events? I see billiard ball number one strike billiard ball number two—but do I observe ‘cause?’” Evidently not. With his empirical foundation, he had no answer—even though he admitted he couldn’t operate like this when playing board-games with his friends! Immanuel Kant tried to respond, but it was a hopeless task. Knowledge, like everything else, requires a metaphysical source. As a result, Modernism gradually nose-dived into Existentialism, which in turn morphed into Postmodernism—but only because the original epistemology was inadequate. When the cracks started to appear, the philosophers should have acknowledged that they had taken the wrong turn. On this point, Schaeffer was entirely on point!
But that was precisely what the Postmodernists didn’t do. Instead of back-tracking to reconsider where they’d come from, namely, the Christian worldview, they carried European thought towards “the hermeneutic of suspicion.” All attempts to establish worldviews based on rationality, they said, are suspect. According to Jacques Derrida, for example, not even language works that way. “Nothing exists outside the text,” he said. In other words, everything is an interpretation. No definitive explanation of anything is possible because language itself is relative. Similarly, Jean-François Lyotard dismissed all metanarratives, all, that is, which claim to be true and therefore exclusive—especially Christianity. Overarching stories of what life is about and how best to live are valid, but only as stories, never as “Truth.” Michel Foucault undermined things further by arguing that language, like everything else in society, is just a power-game: powerful social groups dominating others—oppressors/their victims, men/women, rich/poor, white/black, Europeans/colonials and so on.
The net effect of the postmodern slide was catastrophic. Particularly in relation to that, sadly, many have failed to appreciate the importance of what Schaeffer said about “rationality” and “rationalism.” This goes a long way to identify Postmodernism’s essential flaws and to show how best to counteract them.
In the first place, he said, Christianity isn’t rationalistic because it rests upon the reality of creation. It doesn’t start with the human mind. That was Descartes’ mistake. When he said, “I think, therefore I am” his assertion raised an obvious question: where does the (knowing) “self” come from in the first place? No answer. He just assumed it. By comparison, the Bible starts further back: it says the individual is able to think only because he or she is a creature created by the triune personal God. Given this starting point, rational thought itself—the great stumbling block of modern secular philosophy—becomes intelligible. Christianity also deals with the problem of sin and insists humanity needs a supernatural Savior because guilt is real and has to be atoned. Only Christ can do this, because he is the divine Son of God. Human attempts to merit salvation are worthless. In short, the Bible is God-centered throughout.
The second distinction Schaeffer used a lot was between “true knowledge, but not exhaustive knowledge.” What he meant is that human knowledge is limited, of necessity, because all our experience is superficial. No one knows even the tiniest thing completely. We see bits and pieces only. In addition, each person is unique. No two people share the same background or have the same interests or gifts. Yet the human mind is adequate: it grasps truth adequately if not exhaustively. Its limitations don’t invalidate either rationality or communication. Our experiences, though individual, are reciprocal. We experience the same objective things that we know only too well: water, ice, blue skies. God’s world fits together and we are knowing persons within it, human beings made in his image. The reliability of this shared experience, which no one can deny or escape, rests not on Descartes’ abstracted Reason but on God’s created design—and then necessitates both antithesis and, where necessary, confrontation.
In short, Postmodernism is profoundly mistaken. By undermining confidence in Truth, it has undermined our Christian cultural heritage. Probably more than any other Christian thinker in the 20th century, Schaeffer opposed it not because he was a Rationalist, but because without reason madness prevails: if gravity is true, he would have said, don’t throw yourself out the window—and don’t listen to those who say the opposite! (The Woke culture today illustrates how far we have come and by its use of force indicates, ominously, where we may be headed).
In stressing so strongly “true Truth,” especially in light of our cultural embrace of Postmodernism, Schaeffer is never more relevant to today’s evangelical church. The problem is that too many Evangelicals did not heed his warning that the key issue the church faces today is a defense of and proclamation of the Truth of God’s Word. Sadly, since his death, too many Evangelicals have exchanged one kind of “theological liberalism” for another. The older Liberalism that Schaeffer and others confronted had its roots in the Enlightenment and reflected that era’s skepticism. Its principal tool was the scientific method. The Bible isn’t true, it said, because an unbiased examination of the text reveals a myriad of factual mistakes. For example, two German theologians, Graf and Welhausen, argued that a study of the Hebrew names for God in the Pentateuch (Yahweh and El) showed, beyond doubt, that the first five books of the Bible were a fabrication: a messy compilation put together approximately 1000 years after the event to explain how the Jewish tribes migrated into Palestine and developed their primitive rituals. In due course, thankfully, the whole “documentary hypothesis” was repudiated. Its science was shown to be flawed, reflecting not the facts but the evolutionary paradigm which was popular at the time. But the effect on the church was devastating. By a sleight of hand, Liberalism led ordinary people to distrust the Bible, so they felt they could dismiss Christianity with impunity. A century of extensive scientific investigation—not to mention startling discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls—has since vindicated the Bible in spades. The older Liberalism is now largely discredited.
The New Liberalism, by comparison, exerts a different though equally malign influence; something Schaeffer dealt with in his day and predicted would only become worse. With a change in the concept of Truth, the emphasis now is upon experience rather than the mind. Questions about the reliability of the text or the definition of doctrine are of little interest. What matters to people isn’t Truth, but their experience, their sense of loneliness, their confusion about identity, etc. These, therefore, must become the focus of the Church’s attention if the church is to grow. Of course, much of this is laudable: the church ought to be concerned about societal changes; people’s felt needs are important. They are often the gateway to salvation and the church should treat them sensitively and compassionately.
In a relativistic age, however, especially one swamped by experientialism and uninterested in (or actively opposed to) the idea of Truth, the church needs to be clear about where it stands—a point that Schaeffer repeatedly taught and pled with Evangelicals to never forget! The idea, for example, that Christianity is first and foremost the story of mankind’s objective guilt before God needs to be hammered home. It isn’t a recipe for a more satisfying lifestyle. It isn’t a program or agenda for bringing about social justice. These may be a by-product of faith and are certainly commendable in themselves—and Christians have been outstanding in both areas historically. But they are not what Christianity is about essentially. Essentially, Christianity is a matter of Truth. It traces our derangements both in society and in our own personal lives not to poverty, inequality or race or anything else, but to sin. This is why Christ came and this is what constitutes the essence of the gospel. If this Truth is forgotten, as Schaeffer warned, the Evangelical Church will become nothing but resounding gong and clanging cymbal.
Sadly, for many who identify with Evangelicalism, Schaeffer’s warnings have not been heeded. Instead, for some the present tendency is to go the other direction, to act as if the most important things are not what God’s Word defines—about God, sin, judgment, the cross and so on—but the things that concern society. Most recently, “racism” has risen to the forefront—and too many evangelicals have been at pains to demonstrate sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement—just as they did earlier with feminism and homosexuality. Which isn’t to say that the relevant injustices in these and other arenas aren’t real or shouldn’t be redressed—as our forefathers did in abolishing slavery in 1833 in the British Empire (and later in the USA). The issue, rather, is what motivates such responses? Do they stem from a solid commitment to biblical truth or do they simply echo the emotional sloganeering of the culture? Do they express genuine moral outrage or are they simply an attempt to keep in step with society? Too often they seem like the wag on the dog’s tail—carefully positioned (somewhat late in the day usually) to show awareness of the latest sensitivities.
In this regard a striking feature of the evangelical response to racism has been its failure to speak out against Critical Theory and to stand for “true Truth.” Almost all the grievance culture today is inspired by the neo-Marxist ideology underpinning it. Yet the connection between Critical Theory and the various social protests is rarely mentioned, and when it is some sound as if they’ve taken a page out of liberation theology. This is the more troubling when one considers that Critical Theory may constitute the greatest threat to Western society since the Second World War. It is, in effect, the triumph of Marxism after all.
Why is Schaeffer relevant for Evangelicals today? For this reason: we must heed his call to stand for the Truth of God’s Word and to remain faithful to the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Compromise on these points is not influencing the culture for Christ’s sake but a capitulation to our current Zeitgeist.
What Would Schaeffer Say to Evangelicals Today?
In short, Schaeffer would call Evangelicals to stand for the Truth of Scripture, to not compromise with the current thought of the day, and to proclaim Christ alone as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). He would warn Evangelicals not to jump on the latest cultural bandwagon but instead to challenge it on the authority of God’s Word. This is not to say that many of the causes that Evangelicals now emphasize are not legitimate in their own right. Injustices in this world are real and the concerns about them understandable and proper. But sadly, in emphasizing these issues, much accommodation has occurred. If the Scriptures really were at the center of our thinking, as we claim, one would have expected more. By contrast, Schaeffer was completely different. When he opposed abortion, he was deliberately counter-cultural. He took his stand on “true Truth.” He saw that the Bible outlaws the taking of innocent life with the strictest of penalties and he flew in the face of what society at large wanted to hear. Today the situation is almost reversed. Our current leaders say little or nothing about abortion and rally to support moralistic protests whose credentials, to say the least, are dubious. They seem to take pains to sound as like the culture as possible.
If Schaeffer were with us today, he would warn the Church that the continuation of Modernism to Postmodernism is ultimately idolatry and that the only counter to it is to stand on the Truth of Scripture. Furthermore, in light of our current culture, and its embrace of the neo-Darwinian theory of origins which stands in direct contrast to biblical teaching, Schaeffer would warn the church to not compromise the truth of creation, especially the opening chapters of Genesis. For Schaeffer, if one denies or compromises the reality of the triune God who creates ex nihilo, the special creation of an historic Adam and Eve, and an actual Fall in space-time history, then the Truth of Christianity, including its message of redemption, will be lost. In his day, Schaeffer stood strong on this issue and warned the Church to contend for these truths. In fact, at Lausanne in 1974, he warned Evangelicals that the only response to a relativistic culture is the proclamation of the Truth. For the Church this means we have to settle the question of whether we believe the Bible is “true Truth” and infallible wherever it speaks, including where it speaks of history and the cosmos, or is it only in some sense revelational when it touches religious subjects? If Schaeffer were with us today, he would emphasize the same point, and probably, with even more vigor than he did in his day. As he anticipated, the theory of Evolution is the metanarrative that unites all the disciplines in our postmodern world, and as such, it is a direct attack on the truth of the entire Christian worldview. But what is so serious about the current secular worldview is that it not only offers no grounding for Truth, but if believed and acted upon, it will lead to a further de-humanization of man with untold atrocities to follow.
3. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMYEH435os0&t=4s
This is why I have little doubt that, if Schaeffer were here today, he would strongly stand against the Darwinian Theory, and its various iterations, including Theistic Evolution. Amongst other things he would have been the first to draw attention to the scientific sleight of hand involved—the impression that everything about evolution is beyond question, when it very much isn’t. He would also urge Evangelical scientists to have the courage to reassess their long-held beliefs even at cost.
In fact, if Schaeffer were with us today, he would call the evangelical church to fulfill her calling as those who first love God and the truth of the gospel and secondly to love our neighbor as ourselves. He would call us back again to re-commit to the authority of God’s Word, the only epistemological base upon which Truth can be built because it is the Word of the triune God who is truly there. He would call Evangelicals, who stand in the “protestant” tradition, to stand again as “radicals for Christ,” since we alone are adequately qualified to mount that challenge. Why? For this reason: we alone have a view of a created universe which is not just matter, but personal—the handiwork of the infinite-personal triune God of the Bible. We alone have a source of knowledge which guarantees the trustworthiness of human knowledge—the written Word of scripture, endorsed by the living Word of Christ. We alone can assert that everything is not relative, that God’s laws are good and life-giving. We alone have a hope for Nature (including the fragile human body which dies) because of the supernatural restoration of all things at the return of Christ in glory.
In the end, Schaeffer would call the Evangelical Church back to faithfulness to God and his Word. In his life and ministry, he lovingly and yet forcefully spent his life contending for the truth of the Gospel. In his day, he influenced many to do likewise. Almost four decades after his death, the Evangelical Church would be wise to heed his words of wisdom, not because they are his words, but because they reflect what the Lord of the Church calls his people to be in every generation.