Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Francis A. Schaeffer’s focus in How Should We Then Live? might best be seen as a Christian view of the development of the West. Like the writer of the biblical books of 1 and 2 Kings, he looks at the history of the West through Christian spectacles. He freely admits his work is selective, apologetic, and evangelistic in intent. Above all, the author seeks to show that the Christian view of the world is the only one that can make sense of and properly guide the actions of humankind in any given historical moment. The flow of Western history in all its manifestations in philosophy, artistic endeavor, government, and science becomes a proving ground for Schaeffer’s thesis.

Schaeffer launches his Christian analysis of Western civilization by stating the importance of understanding people’s presuppositions in decoding the flow of Western history. By presuppositions, Schaeffer means the basic way an individual looks at life—that individual’s worldview. For Schaeffer, it is fundamental to understand that people act out what they think. To see how presuppositions are worked out in the flow of Western history, he believes that one must trace their impact through the philosophic, the scientific, and the religious spheres. For Schaeffer, there are really only a few worldviews: those that begin with man alone and try to interpret reality and the Christian worldview, which begins with belief in God, who is there and who has spoken to man the truth about himself and the universe.

Schaeffer begins his analysis with the Roman state as the direct ancestor of the West. Noting that Roman thought was influenced by Greek ideas of the polis, or city-state, and its many gods, Schaeffer asserts that Rome failed because neither the city-state nor the gods provided a sufficient basis on which to build a society. The city-state fell because absolute values cannot be based only in the state as a consensus of the citizenry; neither could the gods provide such values, because they were finite and even sinful. Because the Romans embraced no absolute values, they abandoned the republic and accepted the rule of authoritarian caesars to maintain their personal peace and affluence. These fallible caesars could not provide the absolutes either, so Rome ultimately decayed and fell from within.

In contrast to pagan Rome, the embryonic Christian church stood against persecution and the vicissitudes of life exactly because Christians had absolutes by which to measure and interpret their experiences. They believed in the infinite personal God, who had revealed himself in the Bible. They had true knowledge of the universe and the nature of man and absolute values by which to live and to judge all actions—even those of the state. Thus armed, they were willing to suffer and even die for their faith.

The demise of Rome and the barbarian invasions resulted in a time of social, political, and intellectual upheaval and comparative decline in learning known collectively as the Middle Ages. Though not a true “dark age,” the era witnessed trends that paved the way for the rise of human beings as autonomous. There was the distortion of the Church, the addition of humanistic elements (such as the traditions of the Church) that would override the authority of the Bible and the ability of individuals to save themselves by meriting Christ. Most important, however, was the increasing mixture of Christian with non-Christian thought flowing from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, which marked a watershed in the history...

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Making Christ Lord in the totality of the Christian life runs throughout Schaeffer’s work. This includes not only the spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and Bible study, but also interacting with and engaging the surrounding non-Christian culture in a loving if sometimes confrontational way in order to present the claims of Christ and by all means save non-Christians. This effort sometimes requires social activism by Christians, historically seen in the fight to end slavery and in the current battle against abortion on demand.

In order to speak to the culture, the Christian must study it, recognizing that all truth is God’s truth and that the pursuit of the arts and sciences reflects the creative image of God in man, even if often marred by the effects of the Fall. Schaeffer makes it clear that man and his intellectual and creative endeavor to discover God’s world are in themselves “good” but can lead to false and contradictory conclusions when man as autonomous being pursues them.

Christians should examine, embrace, and operate out of a Christian worldview derived from the Bible and not from the culture around them. The Christian worldview explains the nature of man and the universe (for example, why he is both cruel and kind, why he has ultimate value and dignity), providing ultimate meaning for all reality, while the secularist/humanist worldview does not and cannot, since it begins with autonomous man and has only the particulars. This inability to discover final meaning is a weakness in the humanist view that the Christian can press to advantage as an apologetic for the truth of the Christian faith. However, this presuppositional apologetic is not practiced to win arguments but to lead people to Christ and to provide a biblical foundation for existence in God’s world that enables man to balance form (absolutes) and freedom or choice within biblical boundaries.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Brown, Colin. Philosophy and the Christian Faith. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1968. Places Schaeffer in the context of the history of philosophy and evaluates briefly the promise and problems inherent in his approach.

Burson, Scott R., and Jerry L. Walls. C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of Our Time. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998. Compares and contrasts the apologetic approaches of Lewis and Schaeffer and suggests ways their method can be effective in a postmodern world.

Dennis, Lane T., ed. Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1986. A sympathetic yet critical analysis, by leading evangelical scholars, of Schaeffer’s views on truth and its practice.

Morris, Thomas V. Francis Schaeffer’s Apologetics: A Critique. Chicago: Moody Press, 1976. An assessment of both the strengths and weaknesses of Schaeffer’s presuppositional apologetics by an evangelical philosopher.