Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic

Mary Moorman
01 February, 2004 5 min read

Dr Francis Schaeffer’s defence of the gospel (‘apologetic’) is simple and consistent. His approach is perhaps best summarised in the opening words of his book The God who is there: ‘Christian apologetics do not start somewhere beyond the stars. They begin with man and what he knows about himself’.

Schaeffer, who has been called the last great [evangelical] theologian, believed that only Christianity could provide adequate and realistic answers to human questions.

Modern Christians must address a world whose god is dead or nameless. Schaeffer’s defence of Christianity in such a world is personal, because the gospel is the story of the personal actions of the personal God.

Schaeffer’s apologetic is also compassionate, requiring that the apologist respectfully communicate in terms familiar to the hearer.

Finally, Schaeffer’s apologetic describes reality. He insisted that Christians owe their final allegiance to truth – so much so, that if Christian beliefs were to conflict with what is true and real in the universe, Christians would have a moral obligation to abandon them.

In defending Christianity, Schaeffer appealed to what he called ‘the truth behind the gospel’, teaching that Christianity is believable because it fits the facts of human existence.

Resisting lies

Schaeffer insists that the task of presenting the gospel in our contemporary context requires an acquaintance with contemporary ideas. He refers to this task as ‘thinking pre-suppositionally’ – understanding the sources of modern questions and reasoning from them in order to provide appropriate and coherent answers.

To make a proper argument or ‘apology’ for Christianity, the apologist must speak in the same language as his hearer. And to speak the same language, he must be able to think like his audience.

To help Christians do this, Schaeffer describes a history of the world’s ideas. Human philosophy, he maintains, has undergone a radical shift – from the presumption that God exists to the prevalent view that no objective reality can be assumed to exist.

Schaeffer traces the modern denial of absolutes back to its origins in the writings of eighteenth-century philosophers such as Hume, and to the explanations of modern philosophers like Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Hegel who begin their theories apart from the existence of God.

The atheistic philosophies of Nietzsche and Heidegger declared that human authentication is not derived from God. Instead, humanity must prove and save itself through arbitrary choices.


Schaeffer points out that the attempt to live apart from fundamental principles rooted in God has failed. Humans need a rational and unified explanation for life, but are unable to attain such an explanation when they deny the existence of a purposeful God.

In the end, modern people tend to believe that their existence consists only of illusions and mechanical reactions but, while these explanations may be persuasive, humanity cannot live in such a way.

Any human balks at the thought of being a machine. Humanity wants to know that the love, conviction, and hope which people enjoy really mean something. But nothing is left but impenetrable mystery if there is no fundamental Reason or Being in the universe by which to interpret human experience.

Schaeffer’s prescription is that Christians should analyse the worldview of their unbelieving neighbours and antagonists, reducing their questions to their basic components.

Using this approach, and by way of example, he provided answers to some common questions.

What is humanity?

Every person asks who or what he really is. Schaffer maintains that only Christianity can explain the components of personhood.

He responds to modern assertions that personality is the result of non-personal processes (such as chemical reactions in the brain) by insisting that no one has ever been able to show how thinking, feeling personality could derive from non-personal, material sources.

Furthermore, if the components of human personhood are only meaningless reactions, human personhood lacks all significance and any hope of fulfilment – making humanity the only life-form in the universe which cannot fulfil its purpose.

Schaeffer argues that the existence of human personality requires the existence of original personality in the form of God.

To use one of Schaeffer’s favourite illustrations, a couple who walk hand in hand and confess love for one another are not merely experiencing chemical reactions in their brains – they are participating together in the fundamental human activity of falling in love.

Because love has existed in God from before time began, love can reasonably be called a universal aspect of reality – and people may properly participate in it.

In short, personhood and all personal activity have meaning because they derive from God.

The knowledge of God

Every person asks whether God can be known. Schaeffer taught that Christianity – alone among the world’s spiritualities – can answer that God has accommodated humanity by meeting people in their own terms and in their own world.

Christianity fits the reality in which humanity lives. To finite, mortal, suffering humanity, God became finite, mortal, suffering flesh, speaking our language in the context of human history and experience.

Humans tend to regulate their communities on the assumption that humans can make moral choices. But the existence of human moral choice implies the existence of the higher moral requirements of God – which explains man’s sense of guilt when he offends them.

Schaeffer suggests that human indignation at the evil in the world is proof of the existence of God.

God’s expectations of right behaviour are engrafted into the human heart because we are made in the moral image of God. We experience moral guilt, both in ourselves and towards others, because we instinctively know when we have failed him.

Dealing with modern man

Schaeffer taught that the Christian gospel requires adequate communication between the apologist and the hearer. The apologist must take time to listen with openness to the hearer’s thoughts – in order to understand the terms which are familiar to him and then address him in those terms.

Thus real communication of the gospel requires the preacher to abandon clichés and mechanics and cling instead to precision and personal relevancy.

Most importantly, Schaeffer urged Christian apologists to ask the right questions. Every person has a set of fundamental ideas. As an apologist for Christianity, it is your job to discover those ideas.

Ask your hearer to explain what he really believes. Ask him to identify the logical conclusions of his presumptions. Keep your ears open for inconsistencies between his conclusions and the real world, and help him recognise the tension in which he is forced to live if there are discrepancies between his beliefs and reality.

Having identified inconsistencies of thought, Schaeffer would carefully push the hearer towards the logical conclusions of his premises.

Schaffer refers to this process as ‘taking the roof off’. The Christian must lovingly remove the shelter of invalid beliefs and assumptions under which the hearer attempts to live his life – thereby making the truth of the external world apparent.

The Christian apologist must simply and thoroughly confront the hearer with reality.

More about Christ

While Schaeffer’s apologetic method is effective, the attention he gives to proving that God exists indicates the challenge facing any Christian apologist in defending the seemingly incredible facts of the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Christ.

At this point, I believe, the apologist must go beyond Schaeffer’s teachings. Schaffer has done a great work for simple theism in the postmodern world, but if we think our work complete once the existence of God has been validated, we have failed!

For our task is not just to introduce men to the reality of God, but to ‘make disciples’ of the triune God who reveals himself uniquely and explicitly in Jesus Christ.

Schaeffer offered a solid defence of simple theism when he explained that a person must ‘bow twice’ – submitting first in the realm of morals by admitting that God exists, and only afterwards submitting in the realm of redemption (‘obeying the gospel’) by admitting his need and believing in the Saviour.

Christ is the truth

Clearly, Schaeffer focused his labours on getting people to take the first step. But he would certainly agree that while we must seek to demonstrate the presence and character of God in the world, we must go further to set forth ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. Otherwise, we might as well argue for any organising principle behind reality or for a nameless sense of the divine.

We are not trying to inculcate mere spiritual awareness or moral improvement when we set out to share the gospel. Rather, we must present the explicit story of Christ Jesus.

Schaffer was right to insist that Christians should adhere to the ‘truth behind the gospel’, but we must surely major on ‘the truth of the gospel’ – showing that ‘truth’ is the person by whom alone we ‘come to the Father’ (John 14:6).

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