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It Is There and It Should Not Be Silent: Van Til’s Critique of Schaeffer

Many Christians are disconcerted when they see Christian apologists polemicize against each other. Is it not the job of the Christian apologist to defend Christianity to the unbeliever? Why waste time and energy and even create division among Christians by going after fellow Christian apologists who differ from you in method? Are we not doing the cause of Christian apologetics harm when we fight among each other?

There is some validity amidst such concerns. As one who has more than a few polemical bones in his body, I confess that I have often struggled with how I perceive and subsequently how I engage other Christians I disagree with, not just on apologetics but on all manner of theological topics. It is all too easy to begin to see those you disagree with as enemies in need of vanquishing rather than as brothers or sisters in Christ in need of loving correction.

But as hard as it may be to carry out polemics in a spirit of Christian love, we cannot assume that a spirit of Christian love prohibits polemics. The characteristic wisdom of Proverbs ought to shape our thinking here: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov. 12:1 ESV). Love and reproof are of a piece in Scripture. Granted, reproof can easily be doled out without love. But, if we are tempered by a spirit of Christ-like love, then we ought not be overly reluctant in opening our mouths to issue words of correction when we are convicted that our brothers or sisters need them.

This does not make us the cold-hearted orthodoxy police, but the body of Christ committed to guarding one another from harmful error in a demeanor of love and the Spirit of love. We easily recognize this in the general fabric of the Christian life. It is no less true in the common task of Christian apologetics. If done in love, it will only sharpen the cause of the defense of the faith.

With this in mind it is worth revisiting the criticisms that Cornelius Van Til made of another titan of Reformed apologetics, Francis Schaeffer. First, I want to revisit some of those criticisms since they are a helpful guard against a perennial temptation that is all too easy to fall into when engaging in apologetic discussions. Second, I want to end this discussion with a reminder of the spirit of loving correction with which Van Til himself understood his criticisms to be made.

The Critique

Van Til’s criticism of Schaeffer is much the same as Van Til’s criticisms of most every Christian apologist he critiques. It is that Schaeffer refuses to be immediately Christian in his discussion of epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical first principles. Schaeffer instead speaks of the necessity of “pre-Evangelism.”[1] What Schaeffer means by this is getting the non-believer to reckon first with the truth of the external world before confronting him with the truth claims of Scripture. Schaeffer uses the metaphor of a roof to get at how each person has constructed protective barriers of denial in order to allow him to be shielded from the tension of the logical conclusion of their presuppositions and the real world that confronts him. The task of “pre-evangelism” for the apologist is removing that roof. “The Christian, lovingly, must remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is, to beat upon him. When the roof is off, each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is.”[2]

This seems well and good so far to the apologist who has been shaped by Van Til’s insights. It may seem like Schaeffer is saying that what we need to do is engage in the internal critique of unbelief and deconstruct the façade of the autonomous worldview with the claims of a Biblically consistent Christianity. But that is not quite what Schaeffer is saying. He continues:

The truth that we let in first is not a dogmatic statement of the truth of the Scriptures, but the truth of the external world and the truth of what man himself is. This is what shows him his need. The Scriptures then show him the real nature of his lostness and the answer to it. This, I am convinced, is the true order for our apologetics in the second half of the twentieth century for people ling under the line of despair.[3]

Schaeffer’s method is a two-step approach to apologetics. The first step is, I believe, what Schaeffer would call “pre-evangelism.” We need to be careful here. For Schaeffer, it is not a classical natural theology in which the apologist argues for the existence of some generic god by use of some form of the traditional theistic proofs. Rather, for Schaeffer, pre-evangelism is much more existential in nature. It is getting man to feel the full weight of his despair before the “external world.”

Hence we begin to deal with “modern man” by preaching at the place where he can understand. Often he understands the horrible point of meaninglessness. Often he recognizes the tension between the real world and the logic of his presuppositions. Often he appreciates the horror of being dead and yet still alive.[4]

Schaeffer himself describes this method as similar to a Lutheran law/gospel paradigm.[5] Man is shown his deadness and hopelessness first, and then and only then is the solution from Scripture presented to him. But, the big difference even between the Lutheran law/gospel method and Schaeffer’s two-step approach is that the “law” which Schaeffer presents is not straight away informed by Scripture. It is an existentialized “law,” not a law which drives one to despair because of God’s holiness but a law that drives one to despair because of one’s existential misery. One does not need Moses for this; one only needs Sartre. What makes it pre-evangelism is that the evangel is not allowed to speak immediately. It must stand in line behind the exposure to Schaeffer’s existentialized law.

Another line of pre-evangelism in Schaeffer comes in Schaeffer’s attempts to take the modern relativist and first turn him into a modern objectivist, before turning him into a Christian. “The invitation to act comes only after an adequate basis of knowledge has been given.”[6] “We are concerned, at this point, not with the content of truth so much as with the concept of what truth is.”[7]

Granted, Schaeffer does frame his concept of truth ultimately by “the God who is there.” “The Bible, the historic Creeds, and orthodoxy are important because God is there, and, finally, that is the only reason they have their importance.”[8] This last statement is entirely in line with the convictions of Reformed orthodoxy. The basis for Scripture functioning as our principium cognoscendi for our knowledge of God and His world is God’s own being and knowledge of himself as the principium essendi.[9] But, Schaeffer’s problem is that Scripture as our principium cognoscendi is only secondarily related to man in the apologetic discussion.

In his defense of rationality one often gets the impression that he is arguing for an objectivism that stands on its own first irrespective of any relation to the Triune God and the Gospel.[10] It is an attempt to lay first the foundation of philosophical objectivism and then only afterwards to construct the edifice of Christianity upon it. Hence he grants,

But the Jewish and biblical concept of truth is much closer to the Greek than to the modern, in the sense that it does not deny that which is a part of the ‘manishness’ of man—the longing for rationality, that which can be reasonably thought about and discussed in terms of antithesis.[11]

Schaeffer makes the mistake that so many Christian thinkers are tempted to drift towards in our post-modern climate: to think that somehow the philosophical world before Kant was a safer haven for Biblical Christianity. Against this tendency Van Til levies a cutting criticism against Schaeffer which is worth quoting at length.

It is, to be sure, only in modern times, particularly since Immanuel Kant, that the purely dialectical nature of apostate thinking has revealed itself clearly. But Greek philosophy was based upon the same assumptions as is modern philosophy. There is no “classical view of truth” that is basically any better or any worse than the philosophy of 20th century man. There is and can be no descent into idolatry that is or can be any deeper than the descent of worshiping the creature more than the Creator. There are no “degrees of apostasy and error” here. Classical non-Christian thinking was as truly relativist as is that of the pragmatism, existentialism, empiricism, or analyticism of our day. There are, no doubt degrees of violence as well as variations in form in which the basic principle of apostasy expresses itself. But the best-dressed and best-mannered suburbanite of whatever time is no more ready, of himself, to surrender his thought and life captive to the obedience of Christ speaking directly to man in the words of Scripture than is the most blatant blasphemer and sensualist.[12]

Van Til’s critique of Schaeffer at this point, as was said earlier, is much the same as his critique of most other apologists. It will not do to have a theory of truth that separates concept and content as Schaeffer offers. As Van Til is fond of reminding us, the what and the that go together. Denotation and connotation cannot be separated for the Christian. We cannot really point man to the true nature of his misery unless he sees that misery qualified in relation to God.

Existential angst that is a product of man’s navel gazing is not enough. It is not enough for man to feel uncomfortable because he faces physical death and the nausea of being. He must see that his misery is misery precisely because he stands as an autonomous rebel in relation to the holy Triune God who created him. And to do this he must reckon not with a general sense of reality, but he must be confronted by the Christian apologist at once with God’s own speech defining the nature of that misery.

It is also not enough for the Christian apologist to get the non-Christian to accept a correspondence theory of truth. “Modern subjectivism cannot be challenged in terms of any view of objectivity that has not been accepted on the authority of Christ.”[13] If we really believe with Paul that God has created all things by Christ, that in Christ all things hold together, and that God is also reconciling all things to himself in Christ (Col. 1:15-20), then there is no thing we can know that is not immediately related to Christ.

To turn a non-Christian subjectivist into a non-Christian objectivist is not really a movement at all. He still regards his own mind as the ultimate arbiter of rationality, since whatever counts as a proposition corresponding to the truth of the external world is still left to his autonomous rational judgment. We are still asking him to interpret his world first without reference to Christ.

Thus to engage in pre-evangelism of any sort is to automatically grant that “the external world and the truth of what man is” has meaning and significance apart from Christ presented in the evangel. The Gospel still stands in line behind man’s independent and autonomous assessment of himself and his world. In line with this William Edgar has put his finger on the issue consistent Van Tilians have with Schaeffer,

At bottom, then, Schaeffer’s view of presuppositions does not allow him truly to be transcendental. Rather, he uses presuppositions as a kind of adjunct to various traditional methods in apologetical argument.[14]

Schaeffer does not immediately confront the non-Christian with the necessary pre-conditions of human knowledge in light of the Trinity and the gospel. Instead, he confronts him with what is supposed to be the truth of the external world as though that world could be interpreted intelligently without immediate reference to the Word of the God who created, defines, upholds, and is redeeming that world.

Van Til’s charge to Schaeffer and those who would take their cue from him is instead to be fearlessly direct with the non-Christian as an apologist. Own your Christian epistemology. Own your Christian metaphysic. Own your Christian ethics. Let your method be immediately shaped by them. If we confess that they are principial in theology, then they cannot be anything less in our defense of that theology.

The Qualification of Love

An unfortunate misunderstanding exists both in the disposition of some committed to Van Til’s apologetic methodology and in some of its critics. Because of Van Til’s penchant for totalizing polemics it is often assumed that he and his followers comb through the historic volumes of Christian theology and apologetics on a mission such as David Hume’s. “Does it contain a consistent outworking of Biblical, Trinitarian, and Reformed truth?” “No.” “Consign it to the flames!”

One can get the impression from Van Tilians (and sometimes from Van Til himself) that any Christian theology or apologetic which is compromised by some taint of autonomous thinking deserves a summary dismissal. Perhaps it is because Van Til frequently seized upon such inconsistencies and then drew them out to what he saw as their logical end. But, even though Van Til pushes us to be tirelessly consistent in our theological and apologetic method, it does not mean that he did not recognize the helpful contributions of those who sometimes found themselves on the sharp end of his polemical scalpel. Such is the case with Schaeffer.

The letter which comprises the first part of his syllabus in which he collected his criticisms of Schaeffer begins and ends with an important qualification. At the opening, Van Til confesses his personal affection for Schaeffer but qualifies that this ought not deter him from speaking openly and frankly to what he sees amiss in his apologetic method.

I now turn to a consideration of Schaeffer’s writings. I ask myself whether they support your contention that they depart from what you call a Reformed method of apologetics. You should remember that I have known Schaeffer for a long time. It will be with reluctance if I grant you your point. On the other hand, I do not want to be carried away by my love for him personally or by the reports of the “good work” that he has done in connection with L’Abri Fellowship. “Good work” is done in God’s kingdom all the time by those who hold to unbiblical views on apologetics and theology.[15]

Okay. We can sense Van Til’s tongue in cheek dig at the unqualified assessment of Schaeffer’s work as “good” by his use of quotation marks. This could be read as Van Til being uncharitable. On the other hand, it simply could be read as realistic exasperation at a certain tendency that often surfaces in the Church. The good work (yes, good work without quotation marks) that is done in the kingdom is often used as a means to wave away any criticism of that work. If you don’t think this is true, try criticizing Billy Graham in any way whatsoever in front of Evangelicals. You will meet a wall of righteous indignation that surpasses even how Catholics respond to criticism of the Pope.

Just because someone is being used in positive ways to advance the mission of the Church does not mean that they have a sacrosanct status elevated above all critique. Conversely, just because one critiques (or even scathingly critiques) a “good work” does not mean that they do not genuinely believe that there is good being done for the kingdom by that work. I think such is the case with Van Til in his critique of Schaeffer. The rigorous criticism of what he pens in the body of his letter is no reason to doubt the sincerity of that with which he ends his letter:

In conclusion let me reiterate what I said to you at the beginning. I am convinced that Schaeffer is, at heart, committed to a more biblical form of apologetics, than the one he actually presents in his writings so far discussed. I have written as I have written in the hope that he, as my brother in Christ, will stir me up to faithfulness in Christ as I, as his brother in Christ, am stirring him up now. May our common Savior make us ever increasingly useful in his service.[16]

As we wrestle over the differences between these two men, may Christ do the same for us.


[1] Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There, in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Vol. 1 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books), 155.

[2] Ibid, 140.

[3] Ibid, 140-141

[4] Ibid, 141-142.

[5] Ibid, 144.

[6] Ibid, 153.

[7] Ibid, 155.

[8] Ibid, 157.

[9] For more on this see Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003-08.), 1:210-214.

[10] This is one of Van Til’s explicit criticisms. The Apologetic Method of Schaeffer, iv.

[11] Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Vol. 1 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books), 269.

[12] Van Til, The Apologetic Method of Schaeffer, 6.

[13] Van Til, The Apologetic Method of Schaeffer, 5.

[14] William Edgar, “Two Christian Warriors,” WTJ 57 (1995), 75.

[15] Van Til, The Apologetic Method of Schaeffer, 3.

[16] Ibid, 14.


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