An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Review of Schaeffer's Escape from Reason

This review appeared in Perspectives of Science and Christian Faith 59 (3) (Sept 2007): 239.

ESCAPE FROM REASON: A Penetrating Analysis of Trends in Modern Thought by Francis A. Schaeffer. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006. 123 pages. Paperback; $8.00. ISBN: 10: 0 8308 3405 2.

Schaeffer is incredibly difficult to pin down. He has been described as a (compassionate, inconsistent and modified) presuppositionalist , an inconsistent empiricist and a verificationist– this is, I suspect, because he is more an evangelist and apologist than an academic philosopher. Schaeffer's books have been incredibly influential, not least his trilogy of which Escape from Reason (EfR) is the second part – the first being The God Who is There and the final part He is There and He is not Silent. EfR is the shortest of the two and has sometimes been mistaken for the introduction to the trilogy.

Reading Schaeffer is a bitter sweet experience. I rejoice at his desire to see the lordship of Christ expressed over every area of life, but get frustrated at his broad brush strokes that often over-simplify. Schaeffer is rarely subtle!

The villain of this piece is Aquinas. It’s perhaps an understatement to say that Schaeffer is a little hard on Aquinas; a better Reformed analysis of Aquinas is found in Arvin Vos’s Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought. Nevertheless, Schaeffer does highlight the problems scholastic dualism has caused Christianity.

He sees the most crucial problem facing Christians today as being rooted in the Middle Ages and in Aquinas in particular. It was Aquinas that opened the way for autonomous rationality. According to Schaeffer, Aquinas claimed that the human will but not human intellect is fallen. This assumption, once popularised, provided the fertile soil for the belief that humans could become independent, autonomous.

In EfR Schaeffer he examines the relationship between ‘grace’ and ‘nature’. He argues that nature has slowly been ‘eating up’ grace. Yet a ‘line’ or ‘gap’ exists between the supposed upper realm of grace and the lower realm of nature. Western society has gone below this line and it has led to despair. This despair is revealed first in philosophy; subsequently, it spreads to art, then music and general culture, before reaching theology.

Schaeffer had a way of communicating Christianity to modern culture – we need more like him today. He awoke his generation to the presence of secular humanism and showed that it was possible to think and be a Christian at the same time. This book provides an excellent introduction to his ideas, though it shows its origin in the lecture format: there are few footnotes and references. His analysis is often derivative of the Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Schaeffer's close friend Hans Rookmaaker once remarked that ‘Escape from Reason is Schaeffer's version of what Dooyeweerd develops in [In the Twilight of Western Thought].'1

It is a shame that this book is not illustrated, for Schaeffer makes some excellent points regarding grace and nature using descriptions of art works and having them illustrated would have greatly enriched the reading experience.

This version has a brief foreword by James Moreland and a two-page index. It is a welcome addition to the IVP Classics series.

1 ‘A Dutch view of Christian philosophy’ in The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker edited by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker Vol 6 Part III The L'Abri Lectures. (Piquant, 2005).

Steve Bishop


Paul said...

I'm intrigued as to why he is described as a verificationist. Do you think there is anything in that? (Or does it rank alongside the charge made a few years ago that Roy Clouser is a positivist!)

I'm a big fan of verificationism, but I'd be surprised if Schaeffer was as well!

Steve Bishop said...

It was Gordon R Lewis in 'Schaeffer's apologetic method' Reflections on Francis Schaefer ed R W Ruegsegger (Zondervan, 1986) p. 86 (cited in S R Burson and J L Walls C S Lewis and Francis Schaeffer (IVP< 1988) that described Schaeffer as a verificationist.

I suspect that what Lewis meant was that he compared hypotheses with the various data to see what makes best sense. I'm not convinced that Schaeffer was a verificationist; probably, more an inconsistent presuppositionalist.

Paul said...

Thanks Steve.

I take it that verificationism in apologetics and in philosophy is quite different.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Verificationism is a dummy label. You can be a verificationist about meaning, i.e. something has no meaning unless it can be verified empirically. You can be a verificationist about truth. Something can't be true without being verifiable. And so on.

Now to evaluate whether Schaeffer was a verificationist, I'd need to know what he is supposed to have been a verificationist about. It's certainly not truth or meaning, and it's nothing that entails any sort of empiricism either. My suspicion is that it's just an inaccurate label.

As for Aquinas, I wouldn't trust anything Schaeffer said about him. Schaeffer may not have been a verificationist, but he certainly wasn't a careful historian of philosophy either. He blamed things in the Enlightenment on things in Aquinas that had nothing to do with what happened in the Enlightenment. I started reading How Shall We Then Live? and gave up a few pages in, because his treatment of thinkers was so ridiculously straw mannish that I really didn't want to bother wasting my time continuing.

Jeremy Pierce said...

As for presuppostionism, I think Schaeffer did call himself that but only because he didn't understand what the view amounts to. He wasn't anything like Van Til, Clark, Bahnsen, or any of the other standard cases of presuppositionalism. You might call his view soft presuppositionalism or something like that. The hard presuppositionalist thinks it's inapppropriate to offer arguments for God's existence based on the premises that non-believers accept, leaving the presuppositionalist with no choice but to give question-begging arguments that will accomplish absolutely nothing. Schaeffer was willing to give arguments. He just thought the best way to do it was to start with the presuppositions of non-believers and then examine them. So in the end he was doing something with presuppositions. It was just the very thing that presuppositionalists forbid.

(This being said, it's hard to resist pointing out that presuppositionalists endorse transcendental forms of the classic arguments for God without admitting that those arguments are the same classic arguments found in Aquinas and so on, just presented from a different perspective. So presuppositionalism is just confused to begin with, and maybe what Schaeffer is doing isn't as far from what they actually do, even if it's contrary to what they say they can do.)