Last Updated September 5, 2023.
At its core, Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? is about the degeneration of authentic Christian piety and morals, and the need for Western culture to revive the proper interpretation of church doctrine before the time that it had been thrown to the wayside. As such, an overriding theme of Schaeffer’s work is that of “absolute” truth as it was given in the Bible and the efforts of earlier historical peoples to replace it with an adulterated, overtly human-centric version. Much of the book’s historical analysis concerns itself with the ways in which Western culture has abandoned God and the Bible, and the cultural depravity that, according to Schaeffer, this abandonment has produced.
We can see, for example, Schaeffer’s emphasis on absolutism in his discussion of the Reformation. In chapter 5, he states,
What the Reformation’s return to biblical teaching gave society was the opportunity for tremendous freedom, but without chaos. That is, an individual had freedom because there was a consensus based upon the absolutes given in the Bible, and therefore real values within which to have freedom, without these freedoms leading to chaos.
There are a few arguments here that need to be unpacked. First, Schaeffer recognizes that the Reformation, with its partial emphasis on the reassertion of traditional Christian virtue, helped society recover from the supposedly destructive values of previous generations. In this case, he is referring to the secular philosophy of Renaissance humanism, which emphasized human innovativeness over the need for faith. Second, the “absolutes” of the Bible, which the Reformation church community had come to a consensus about, are the only thing qualified to define real freedom and keep society from plunging into chaos. Thus, Schaeffer is implying the existence of a universal morality, a universally acceptable interpretation of Christian virtue which can only serve to promote society’s interests. It should be noted that Schaeffer has been criticized by other theologians and scholars of church history for his simplistic and ahistoric analysis of Western cultural development.
By the time of the European Enlightenment, new problems in interpretation had developed. In chapter 8, Schaeffer explains the reemergence of Renaissance humanism in the eighteenth century and why this was a problem:
By the time of Rousseau, this humanist problem developed further. With Rousseau, the same problem was worded differently and may be expressed like this:
AUTONOMOUS FREEDOM / AUTONOMOUS NATURE
There were two parts to this new formulation of the old humanist problem. First, there were those who were aware that in the area of reason people were increasingly coming to the place where everything was seen as a machine, even people. At the end of his life Leonardo da Vinci had foreseen that beginning humanistically with mathematics one has only particulars and will never come to universals or meaning, but will end only with mechanics. It took humanistic thought two hundred and fifty years to arrive at the place which Leonardo had foreseen, but by the eighteenth century it had arrived. Everything is the machine, including people.
Again, Schaeffer is making crystal clear his animosity to scientific rationality and the human-centered approach to meaning-making. This passage in many ways underlines his overarching argument—that isolated, rationality-based ways of thinking limit mankind’s ability to come to absolute truths or create universal knowledge about the world in which he lives. If humanism prohibits thinking people from ever coming to universals, and if its end result is the complete machination of humanity, then it is not a paradigm of thought worth following. Nor are the eighteenth-century paradigms that drew their inspiration from it. The quotes provided above showcase Schaeffer’s basic argument—that the only truth that can liberate humanity comes from an absolutist, faith-based reading of Christian doctrine. All other reason-based forms of human knowledge are therefore anathema and ultimately destructive to human and divine integrity.