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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 510

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In Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, the author criticizes various historical movements for the supposed negative impact each had on humanity. Schaeffer’s text is often credited with inspiring the evangelical Christian resurgence that became prominent during the 1980s. The book is divided into 13 chapters with an index and note of instruction to its Christian audience.

The central premise of the book is that a God-centered approach to forming society leads to a harmonious existence for humans. Unfortunately, Schaeffer asserts, society has often based itself on humanistic principles, or the belief that people are sufficiently good on their own. Schaeffer posits that the main flaw of basing society on such principles is that people disagree on what is best for people, which creates conflict and inequality.

To support this argument, Schaeffer explains how various societies throughout history failed because of their reliance on humanism. These include the fall of the Roman Empire in Chapter 1 and the nearly theocratic system of Middle Ages Europe. Schaeffer praises the Christian elements of the Middle Ages, but he suggests that the gradual incorporation of humanism, which culminated with the Renaissance, corrupted the Bible-based foundation of society.

After discussing the failings of the Renaissance, Schaeffer spends several chapters on the Protestant Reformation, explaining why reformers wanted to leave the Catholic Church. Generally, Schaeffer paints the Reformation in a positive light, depicting how it impacted even non-Christians positively.

During the Enlightenment, however, society separated the achievements of humans from the influence of religion, a flaw that Schaeffer asserts gave way to the development of modern science. Schaeffer suggests that the flaw of this approach is that it assumes God can be easily understood or controlled by man. In fact, he discusses how over time, prominent scientists completely disavowed religion altogether, reaching the dismal conclusion that humans are simple animals who exist only by chance via a series of natural accidents. Schaeffer credits this philosophy with society’s de-prioritization of God.

He proposes that all facets of culture, including philosophy, theology, art, and literature reflect the negative impact of this trend. He cites various examples of each to show that the prevailing sentiment among humans during the time in which he wrote the book is alienation. He refers to this sentiment as “fragmentation I’d thought,” or the inability to integrate the disparate parts of life.

Schaeffer then turns his discussion to how the present state of society will lead to further social collapse. He explains how the contemporary values of personal peace—or the desire to be unaffected by the world’s problems—and affluence have corrupted humans’ ability to work toward the betterment of society. Because humans value these qualities so much, they will inevitably allow a fascist system of government to gain power over the system, promising them wealth and insular happiness in exchange for personal liberty.

In the final chapter of the book, Schaeffer calls on society to redirect its attention to Christian teachings or face the worsening of current societal ills, including depressed economy, catastrophic war, and scarce resources.


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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1949

First published: Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1976

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Critical analysis; history; theology

Core issue(s): Abortion; alienation from God; despair; freedom and free will; reason; social action; truth

Christian Themes

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 and decline of the West. First, whereas earlier theologians such as Augustine interpreted the fall of man as affecting every part of his being, including his mind, Thomas Aquinas believed that the intellect was unaffected by the Fall. It followed from this that man could rely on unaided human reason and wisdom to come to truth about reality apart from revelation. Second, Thomas Aquinas reintroduced Aristotle’s emphasis on the particulars or individual things back into the philosophical discussions. For Schaeffer, he prepared for the humanistic aspects of the later Renaissance by introducing the problem of nature-versus-grace or particulars-versus-universals. The problem is that man’s beginning with himself and analyzing the particulars can never come up with absolutes or universals that give ultimate meaning to existence and morals, since such absolutes are simply collective characteristics of the individual things.

Next, Schaeffer focuses his attention on two concurrent streams coming out of the so-called Dark Ages: the Renaissance and the work of the Protestant reformers. Renaissance humanists possessed a love for pre-Christian Greco-Roman thought and believed that human beings could solve every problem. In the end, however, the humanists realized that man beginning with himself could not discover the universals or absolutes (the nature-versus-grace problem). Unlike the Renaissance thinkers, the reformers restored the authority of the Bible, which gave them divinely revealed absolutes about the nature of man and his place in the universe. Beyond Christian conversion, the preaching of the reformers brought forth an interest in culture and a basis for a balance between form (law) and freedom (individual actions) in society and government, ultimately exemplified by parliamentary England and American constitutional government, with its checks and balances. In stark contrast, the inability of autonomous man to balance form and freedom was demonstrated in the bloody French Revolution, based in the Enlightenment philosophy that finally enthroned reason and promoted man’s perfectibility.

The rise of modern science is predicated on the Christian view that a rational God designed both humanity and the cosmos. Using reason, man can investigate and uncover the truth about himself and the objective created order. Early scientists believed in the uniformity of natural causes in an open system. They believed that God and even man to some extent were outside the system of cause and effect and could freely act on it. Science based in the Christian view broke down when later scientists embraced the uniformity of natural causes within a closed system, thus pushing God out as the basis of science. All that was left was the material universe and man as matter or particles—a part of the cosmic machine.

However, says Schaeffer, man, since he really bears God’s image, could not live with the fact that he was simply machine and sought meaning in irrationality. In this way, man could use reason with the particulars while still finding meaning in emotion or an act of the will, among other things. This breakdown separated modern man once and for all from any hope of unifying nature and grace (or the phenomenal world and the noumenal world, to use Immanuel Kant’s terms). These irrational and arbitrary ways of finding meaning permeated the philosophy, government, art, and music of Western modernity.

Since Schaeffer contends that autonomous man has only arbitrary absolutes based on his own ideas, the frightening result may be a manipulative authoritarian government that tries to condition man physically and psychologically. This could easily come about, for without absolutes, people face the tremendous pressures brought to bear in this age of modernity. Those who desire only personal peace and affluence will gradually give up their precious freedoms to authoritarians in order to be delivered. In dire straits, the only alternatives are imposed order by an authoritarian elite and a return to the Christian worldview, which gave freedom without chaos to the West in the first place. Christians do not need to be the majority to influence the consensus and sway people toward the Christian alternative. Like Paul (Romans 1), Schaeffer believes that the universe, its form, and the uniqueness of man (mannishness) versus non-man provide rational grounds to persuade men concerning the Christian alternative.

At the end of his book, Schaeffer speaks to Christians and offers several admonitions. He reminds his fellow believers of the dangerous hallmark of humanism, which is the separation of ultimate meaning and values from reason. He warns Christians not to do likewise by separating the Bible into true statements about faith and doctrine and false statements about history and science. Those who practice such separation remove the Christian’s authority to speak to the culture, rendering the Christian’s claims as mere “upper story” gibberish with no connection to reality. For those who still take the Bible seriously, Schaeffer says they must speak its truth to the culture regardless of the cost, for not speaking will ultimately make Christians enemies of the state, as in the days of Rome, because of their arbitrary absolutism and their belief in an absolute God who judges all people. Schaeffer closes by noting that he wrote the book in hopes that the present generation would turn from the greatest evil—placing any created thing in place of the Creator.

Christian Themes

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.

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.