Book Review The God Who is There by Francis Schaeffer

By Cris Putnam
The God Who Is There in The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: Three Essential Books in One Volume by Francis A. Schaeffer. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 1990, 199 out of 361 pages, $16.95

The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer is a seminal work in twentieth century apologetics. Inspiring generations to follow, Schaeffer, an American philosopher, theologian and Presbyterian pastor, is one of the most recognized and respected Christian authors of all time. As his first book, The God Who Is There is one among an essential reading list including Escape From Reason, True Spirituality, How Should We Then Live and A Christian Manifesto. The four volume set, The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, is part of this reviewer’s Logos Bible software library. This presentation will give a broad overview and summary of the book, and offer several key points of analysis. The first point of analysis will be the line of despair, which naturally leads to discussion of propositional truth because it is the delineating factor. The steady progression of relativism and irrationality through various disciplines will be discussed with particular attention to theology and the implications to ecumenism. Schaeffer’s tactic of “taking the roof off” will be examined on the basis of the unbeliever’s inevitable leap into irrationality. Finally, the importance of compassion and consistency is emphasized. The review will attempt to show that the book is valuable for its prescient analysis of modern culture and powerful apologetic approach.

Schaeffer’s genius was his capacity to communicate difficult philosophical and theological issues to the average Christian. He begins by exposing the problem as a widening gulf growing between the older and the younger generations concerning the knowledge of truth or epistemology. In so doing, he rightly bemoans the mounting acceptance of relativism over antithesis. Of course, the book was first published in 1968 so that younger generation is now mature and relativism is deeply embedded in the public psyche. His analysis was prescient, because today there is an institutionalized divide where scientific truths are held as absolute but morals, values and religion are all relative and preference based. The book is divided into six sections of several chapters. In the first section dealing with the intellectual climate of the late twentieth century, Schaeffer demarcates a major shift in thought by “a line of despair” around 1935 (for the U.S.) which descends step wise through the disciplines of philosophy, the arts, general culture and finally theology.

In philosophy, Schaeffer was largely lamenting the then popular existentialist movement with its relativizing of truth. Even so, his critique applies equally to twenty-first century postmodernism. He draws the line of despair at Hegel with his dialectical synthesis but also traces the problem back to Aquinas with his division of “nature and grace” and an incomplete view of the biblical fall which held that man had an autonomous intellect.[1] He moves from Hegel to Kierkegaard who was the first under the line by asserting that a leap of blind faith was necessary to becoming a Christian. With this leap into non-reason, Schaeffer posits him as the father of modern existential thought.

The epistemological jump into subjective non-reason is the cause for the despair and the crux of Schaeffer’s critique. It undermines hope. Schaeffer observed, “As a result of this, from that time on, if rationalistic man wants to deal with the really important things of human life (such as purpose, significance, the validity of love), he must discard rational thought about them and make a gigantic, nonrational leap of faith.:”[2] This fuzzy way of thinking leaves no certainty in ultimate matters. While this leap is admitted by existentialists, other philosophies like logical positivism (or scientism) misleadingly lay claim to rationality. Even so, Schaeffer demonstrates positivism’s incoherence in that it simply assumes the reliability of sense data without justifying it. Because it floats epistemologically in mid-air with no foundation, it is self-refuting. In this way, Schaeffer argues that blind faith in science and human progress is ultimately an irrational leap of faith as well. The genius of this book was in showing how this secular impetus in philosophy spread to the culture at large.

With no grounding or basis for truth in ultimate matters, art and music also began to reflect the secular despair. The visual arts lost all sense of realism and progressed from the hazy wash of the impressionists to the tortured figures in Picasso’s work. Schaeffer critiques and explains his impressions of figures like Mondrian, Duchamp and the Dada group in terms of man’s leap into non-reason. As art grew more abstract and impersonal so music lost its tonal center. John Cage is an example of a composer who sought to introduce randomness into his music. The absurdity of a composition of total silence is milestone along the descent.

One weakness in Schaeffer’s discussion is the neglect of viable Christian alternatives. When one compares the beauty and order of a J.S. Bach piece to a modern like Cage the line of despair stands out in sharp relief. Surely some Christian contemporaries of Schaeffer were producing viable art? But this seems to beg the question of Christians equitably competing in the contemporary artistic culture. There is surely an element of secular snobbery involved in the academy. Even those not inclined toward the sophisticated art forms are influenced in popular films and television. He makes a convincing case that the culture as a whole had fallen below the line.

What all disciplines share is the divided field of knowledge and the belief that truth is unknowable in ultimate matters. The trend toward despair is traced through the literature of Henry Miller and Dylan Thomas and the point is well illustrated. He observes that things like purpose, morals and love are relegated to the domain of opinion. Even so, an exemplary aspect of Schaeffer’s critique is that it is compassionate. After dissecting the absurdity seen in modern art forms he reminds the reader, “There is nothing more ugly than a Christian orthodoxy without understanding or without compassion.”[3] Man’s despair is real and it is epistemic of relativism and a deep lack of real hope. He frames the state of affairs as an opportunity for the church to compassionately declare that God is really there.

The second section deals with the new theology and the departure from biblical Christianity. He argues that theology is simply the last to fall along the same lines as philosophy and the arts. Theologians adopted purely rationalistic approaches and the demythologization program which ensured not only excised the supernatural but Christ as well. Of course, foundational to New Testament theology is the fall of man and the effects of Darwinian thought are still echoing today. Schaeffer observed, “Take away the first three chapters of Genesis, and you cannot maintain a true Christian position nor give Christianity’s answers.” This issue of man’s sinfulness and justification is crucial to coherent theological dialog. A major strength of this book is its scathing critique of liberal theology

Whereas Lesslie Newbigin advocates a generous ecumenism in an organization like the World Council of Churches, Schaeffer seems more realistic as to the state of affairs. The pivot point is the depravity of man and justification before a Holy God. He writes that justification means to be acquitted from actual guilt, “an absolute personal antithesis.”[4] This is often the point of tension with liberal theology which has important implications or ecumenism:

We may not play with the new theology even if we may think we can turn it to our advantage. This means, for example, we must beware of cooperation in evangelistic enterprises which force us into a position of accepting the new theology as Christian. If we do this, we have cut the ground from under the biblical concept of the personal antithesis of justification.[5]

Schaeffer critiques Barthian neo-orthodoxy as well as liberal Catholic thought, labeling it as ostensibly “semantic mysticism.” This did not happen overnight and he traces it back to Aquinas’ division of nature and grace, which sought to find a corporate meaning, to more desperate modern formula of the irrational over the rational, with no hope of unity. He argues that because the new theology has divorced faith from reason you can testify to it but you cannot really discuss it. Indeed, finding the point of irrationality and pressing it to the forefront of discussion is at the heart of Schaeffer’s apologetic.

Foundational to Schaeffer’s thought is that God has communicated real propositional truth to man in the Bible. It follows necessarily that the antithesis of God’s truth is false and this is the basis of what he calls “taking the roof off.” The idea is that secular presuppositions invariably contain an incoherence that when pressed lead to an absurd and intolerable conclusion. Without this realization, the unbeliever lives comfortably under a roof of irrational beliefs which shield him from the outside world. When the roof is removed, reality comes crashing in. The task of the apologist is to find a point of tension and lovingly yet firmly carry it through so the incoherence is obvious. If one can lead the unbeliever to see that his own system is unlivable, then there is a real opportunity to provide biblical answers. Taking the roof off is often painful because the real dilemma of modern man is moral and he is culpable to God. This is the truth of the Gospel which is often most offensive. There really are no “good” people.

The supernatural atoning work which Christ finished on the cross is the content of real biblical faith. But because they may never read a Bible, Schaeffer argues that the final apologetic is how the world sees Christians living individually and corporately. It follows that the message of the final section of the book is one of housecleaning. Individually, as an ambassador of Christ to the fallen world one must examine his own presuppositions with equal rigor. In an increasingly biblically illiterate (or skeptical) culture, Christianity is judged by the words and actions of Christians. Corporately, when Christians do not live as if God is really there, then it is hard to expect the world to believe our message.

The book teaches that a cold hearted orthodoxy is a poor substitute for loving authenticity. While a very strong case is made for the latter, a weakness in a book with this title (and perhaps indicative of Schaeffer’s training under Conelius Van Til) is that there is a conspicuous lack of evidential arguments for the existence of God. Nevertheless, because God is really there and calls the world to worship Him, Schaeffer’s apologetic works. The pride of life is a constant barrier and Schaeffer asserts, “Men turn away in order not to bow before the God who is there. This is the ‘scandal of the cross.’”[6] The challenge to believers is to live in way that shows His presence.

This brief summary and analysis of The God Who Is There sought to illustrate the value of the book for its scrutiny of Western culture, concept of truth and apologetic method. The so-called “new theology” was discussed as concession to the relativistic philosophy. It was agreed that man is truly fallen and guilty in the eyes of the Holy God who is really there. Because of this, the task of modern evangelism and apologetics is often to expose the incoherence of secular presuppositions in a firm yet compassionate way. Relativism is ingrained in the secular culture but there is also plenty of work to be done within the evangelical community. In the end, it seems that these points support the idea that this book is still extremely valuable for study.

[1]Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There in The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: the Three Essential Books in One Volume. (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990), 211.

[2] Schaeffer, The God, 16.

[3] Schaeffer, The God, 34.

[4] Schaeffer, The God, 112.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Schaeffer, The God, 111.

Presuppositional Apologetics

This essay will attempt to demonstrate that the presuppositional apologetic method is a potent posture yet falls short as a methodology for comprehensibly demonstrating the legitimacy of the Christian worldview. Presuppositional apologetics is a systematic defense of Christian theism based on the assumption of certain basic propositions. While it is often associated with fideism which is placing faith above reason, not all presuppositionalists are fideists.[1] In fact, the presuppositonalist would argue that reason itself proves God’s existence. The apologist simply assumes the truth of Christianity to varying degrees and argues from that platform. This varies from a fideistic position that non-Christians are so corrupted by their sin nature that they are incapable of responding to evidence to a more modest position that belief in God is properly basic. The rationale offered by presuppositionalists is that everyone presupposes basic premises which define their worldview. It is certainly true that some beliefs such as the law of non-contradiction must be presupposed for rational discourse to be possible. Accordingly, this is known as a properly basic belief. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has convincingly argued that belief in God can also be held as properly basic.[2] The different presuppositional approaches all share this epistemological foundation yet vary on issues of truth, scope of human depravity and use of evidence.

Norman Geisler delineates four main approaches based on their means of establishing truth: revelational, rational, systematic consistency and practical presuppositionalism.[3] The revelational approach championed by Cornelius Van Til is perhaps the most well-known and also the most fideistic. He boldly proclaimed, “that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning.”[4] This style presupposes the authority of scripture and also that those who do not hold this presupposition are incapable of even basic reasoning.Greg Bahnsen is advocate and teacher of Van Til’s method. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries is another modern day practitioner of this Van Tilian style.[5] Here is James discussing the topic:

Rational presuppositionalism is a less strident variant employed by Gordon Clark and Carl F. H. Henry that allows that the secular mind still can use logic and reason. The test for truth is the law of non-contradiction.[6] John Carnell and Gordon Lewis pioneered a method, systematic consistency, which uses the rational approach with the additional qualifications that it must take account of all knowledge and meet man’s basic needs.[7] The style most open to non-believers is the practical approach in the style of Francis Schaeffer who set about demonstrating that all other worldviews are not livable in a consistent fashion.[8] These approaches share the assumption of Biblical revelation yet vary on discerning truth and the scope of unregenerate depravity. There seems to be valid thinking behind each variety and I maintain respect for the respective apologists even if I do not entirely agree with all of their methodology.

It seems reasonable for believers to assume theism because the average Christian does not have time to master complicated philosophical arguments. However, trained apologists should be able to employ those arguments to provide warrant for the average believer. Yet some presuppositionalists fail to distinguish between belief in God and belief that God exists. Many presuppositionalists completely reject traditional apologetics as a futile concession to the skeptic’s methods.[9] Yet we all use the same rules of logic. A principle criticism offered by Geisler is that there is a confusion of epistemology and ontology. He writes,

The Christian fideist may very well be right about the fact that there is a God, but this begs the question unless he can tell how he knows this is the case. God may indeed have revealed himself to us through the Bible, but how do we know that the Bible is the Word of God?  [10]

Van Til did not seem to mind question begging. His style is tactically advantageous but it is unlikely to influence non-Christians. While it is true that men suppress the truth, evidential apologetics causes even hardened skeptics like Antony Flew to change their minds. Ultimately one should remember that Jesus and the apostles appealed to evidence, (Jn 2:23, 1 Cor. 15:3-7).

This essay has briefly summarized the presuppositional method and its four approaches. God’s existence and biblical revelation were defined as the basic foundation. The different styles were differentiated by the scope of their assumption and their test for truth. Critique was offered that the method strongly proclaims that Christianity is true but falls short of adequately explaining why it is true. A hybrid approach along the lines of Schaeffer’s technique in Escape From Reason and other works are worthy of further study. I must admit I am very interested in the ideas and techniques employed. It seems that there are some valuable tactics and truths in this method yet is not entirely convincing.

This site is powerful example of how the presuppositional method can be employed: Proof That God Exists

[1]Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics, Includes Index. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 47.

[2] Thomas Provenzola. “Apologetics, Reformed.” In The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, by Ed Hindson, & Ergun Caner, ( Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 59.

[3]Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 607.

[4]Cornelius Van Til and William Edgar, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing     Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2003).

[5] White, James. Alpha and Omega Ministries. n.d. (accessed 10 08, 2010).

[6] Geisler, Baker, 607

[7] Geisler, Baker, 607

[8] Geisler, Baker, 607.

[9] Mark Coppenger. “Presuppositonalism.” In The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, by Ed Hindson, & Ergun Caner, 401-404. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 402

[10]Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 61.

Movie Review: Transcendent Man …the despair of modern existence

I saw a really well made documentary film last weekend: Transcendent Man. It is a biographical sketch of visionary computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. The strength of the film is that shows the heart and soul of the man. Kurzweil is a bonafide genius, a fact which certainly comes through in the film, but overall he is still a profoundly tragic figure. He is extremely talented and successful. He has much to be grateful to God for. Yet he denies his creator (Rom 1:21). Many of you are aware of my recent research in the area of transhumanism as it interfaces with a Christian worldview. My argument is that the two are incompatible worldviews. Of course that research was speaking to bible believing Christians, I would write it differently to nonbelievers. If you do not have Christ, I suppose all you have to hope for is transhumanism. I believe it is a false hope (Heb. 9:27). However, whether you accept the authority of scripture or not, Ray Kurzweil’s tragic desperation is laid bare by this film.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Th. 4:13)

Modern man has no hope without God. Life is precious and yet fleeting (Jas. 4:14). Not only does Kurzweil believe that he can personally achieve immortality, he believes he can bring his dead father back to life using computer science. Having lost my own father to an untimely stroke in 2005, I certainly have empathy. My Dad was only 67 and I had hoped to garner much more of his wisdom. I spent most of my young adulthood in rebellion, now those years seem wasted. I would like to have them back but I know better. Ray doesn’t accept death. I suppose his own hype has gone to his head because he is determined to defeat it. He has collected all of his father’s writings with the audacious hope of recreating him from the raw data. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating.

The film lays bare the utter desperation and futility of modern man. Kurzweil is a naturalistic scientist and he does not appear to have any belief in a theistic God. Naturalism and materialism leave the scientist in a cold, hopeless, mechanical universe. I think Richard Dawkins has encapsulated it well, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”[i] Atheists necessarily live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. The internal conflict is that no matter how convincingly they might protest, the atheist cannot really live with the universe Dawkins describes. They leap into the infinite. This film Transcendent Man is a shining evidence of that.

Kurzweil is lashing out at the scientific determinism that leaves him so hopeless. He is embracing the irrational. Francis Schaeffer’s seminal work The Escape from Reason has an answer for transhumanism. Schaeffer wrote, “So man, being made in the image of God, was made to have a personal relationship with Him. Man’s relationship is upward and not merely downward. If you are dealing with twentieth-century people, this becomes a very crucial difference. Modern man sees his relationship downward to the animal and to the machine. The Bible rejects this view of who man is. On the side of personality you are related to God. You are not infinite but finite; nevertheless you are truly personal; you are created in the image of the personal God who exists.”[ii] It is especially poignant that he associated modern man to the animal and machine. Darwinism is the starting point in transhumanist thought. Despite his seemingly naïve optimism, Kurzweil’s worldview looks downward to the animal and then forward to the machine bypassing God altogether. His presupposition of naturalism limits his search for truth.

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ec. 3:11)

Because God has written eternity into men’s hearts they instinctively seek the eternal. C.S. Lewis said it this way, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[iii] Ray is not being irrational in seeking the infinite or the “upper story” as Francis Schaeffer put it. He is being irrational by denying his creator. I applaud this film for including criticisms of Ray’s ideas. Christianity was represented well by Dr. Chuck Missler and William Hurlbut M.D.. Those links tell you about the men, but I want to talk about what they said in the film.

Missler, a childhood computer prodigy himself, is a Bible teacher and lifelong student of prophecy. Missler offers Ray a salient word of correction, “God is who He is… And our challenge should be to know Him, not to try to create Him.”[iv] Missler believes we are on the precipice of the end times and I tend to agree with him but there is no guarantee it will be within my lifetime. Chuck contends that Kurzweil is going to run out of time. Perhaps he is correct?  Because when I ponder the extent to which man is violating the sanctity of life, I do not think the Lord will stand for it much longer. The other noteworthy Christian voice, Hurlbut, is also very impressive. He is a medical Doctor who serves on the Presidents’ bioethics commission. He argues that Kurzweil has vastly underestimated biological complexity. Kurzweil is an expert on the computational end not the biological. While we might have the number crunching ability in the near future, mapping the human brain is the limiting factor. It is being worked on. Yet even if the brain is reverse engineered, you are not your brain.  This is a fact Kurzweil doesn’t seem to get and it is because he begins with naturalism. A belief which ultimately reduces to materialism, the belief that matter and energy are fundamentally all that exist.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Pr 9:10)

While it is a widely held position by scientists, philosophical materialism is incoherent. In fact, the things that are most important to us don’t exist in the physical world, but they really do exist. Things like love, friendship, education, knowledge, ideas, virtues, morals and even scientific theories. All of those things are not physical. They are not made of atoms. It follows that whatever linking there might be between mental states like thoughts and feelings with biochemical brain-states, the connection is not identity. Brain-states have a specific location in the brain but mental states do not. Brain-states exist independent of a perceiver but mental states are not. In other words your brain chemistry may play a role in your thought life but chemistry is not your thoughts. Consciousness is something more than a physical process. Kurzweil would probably argue that it is a function of information but this is also incoherent.

He cannot explain the connection between the material and immaterial. Mental events cause physical events. For example, your mental decision to throw a ball causes it to fly. In a similar fashion, physical events cause mental events. You see a ball flying toward your face and become excited. Clearly there are laws that govern mind-body communication. Mental and physical events are related but distinct. Scientific materialism and naturalism cannot adequately explain this. This called the mind/body problem in philosophy. Kurzweil smuggles the immaterial in the back door as “information patterns” but his reasoning is incoherent because he cannot account for the connection. He starts from the wrong place. The only satisfactory explanation for the connection between the two is a theistic one. God sustains the coordination between mind and body (Col. 1:17). No matter how brilliant he is, no matter how accurate his calculations, Ray Kurzweil can never get the right answer because he started from the wrong beginning. Renowned philosopher Alvin Plantinga has put it this way, “If we don’t know that there is such a person as God, we don’t know the first thing (the most important thing) about ourselves, each other and our world. This is because… the most important truths about us and them, is that we have been created by the Lord, and utterly depend upon him for our continued existence.”[v] Indeed it is the most important thing, it is the beginning of all wisdom. One is lost with out it.

I ask you to join me in prayer for Ray Kurzweil and all the lost transhumanists who instinctively know that there is more to life than blind pitiless indifference. Pray that they will come to realize there really is a God who is there and that he can be known. Christians do not need to fear death. Only through the Lord Jesus Christ can we exclaim,
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”(1 Co. 15:5)

[i]Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85.

[ii]Francis A. Schaeffer, The Escape from Reason in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer : A Christian Worldview. (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1982).

[iii] C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity, (NY: Harper Collins, 1980), 137.

[iv] Chuck Missler quoted from “Transcendent Man Film Trailer” 2:00 (accessed March 17, 2011).

[v] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (accessed March 17, 2011).

Transhumanist Debate Heats Up!

Transhumanism is an ambitious philosophy that is gaining popularity as people seek to break through the perceived limitations biology places on human development. Of course this is categorically different territory than assisting the handicapped, this is techno-Darwinism if you will. Adherents to this worldview plan to extend lifespans, augment the senses, boost memory capacity, and generally use technology to improve the human condition. Yet this depends on a myriad of variables. Can we account for them all? We could end up with the 6 Million Dollar Man or the Frankenstein monster. And what does it mean to be a post human? What are the spiritual consequences? Of course, only an elite few will be able to afford the enhancements… and where will that leave the rest of us? Atheistic scientists have no qualms about tampering with God’s designs. Perhaps CS Lewis’ Abolition of Man is coming true? The transhumanist agenda is clear:

Christian author, former Pastor and church executive, Thomas Horn, recently issued this:

Time running out to influence debate on transhumanism

Tom’s letter is an excellent summation of the current state of affairs and also serves as a primer for the uninformed. He is certainly sounding an alarm but nothing in his work amounts to a personal attack or attempt to exaggerate. The technologies and programs he lists are a matter of public record. It’s well worth your time to read and ponder. The implications are staggering.

In response, Patrick Lin, an atheist academic type from the National Science Foundation wrote this, On Wrestling with a Pig: Getting Dirty in a Debate, actually having the nerve to call Mr. Horn a pig.

Lin burns straw men, painting Tom as an obscurantist fanatic holding back progress. His condescending tone is only outdone by his penchant for logical fallacy. Red herrings galore and civility is abandoned in favor of name calling. It’s really amazing that this sophomoric level of discourse comes from a someone who is supposed to be an academic and a philosopher. More serious theologians and Christian philosophers need to step up and get involved in the discussion.

A Prophetic Warning From 1961!

Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer was in many ways a prophet. He saw this coming and issued a warning back in 1961! In this video production of How Should We Then Live? he said, “Who will control the controllers? And what will happen now that the line between what man should do and what he can do is obliterated? And if man is only a conditioned machine, what is the value of the continuation of mankind?”

At 6:49 in part 2 Dr. Schaeffer touches on what we today call transhumanism:

His summation gives me chills up my spine. We have arrived!

Indeed, how shall we now live in 2010?