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How then Should we Live? by Francis Schaeffer is a historical analysis of the idea of moral relativism in contrast to Biblical revealed truth, and the effect on society the increasingly relativistic mindset has created. This text explores several different themes, all related to truth and its impact on society.


(The entire section contains 2277 words.)

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How then Should we Live? by Francis Schaeffer is a historical analysis of the idea of moral relativism in contrast to Biblical revealed truth, and the effect on society the increasingly relativistic mindset has created. This text explores several different themes, all related to truth and its impact on society.

First, it explores the idea of Biblical revealed truth. According to Schaeffer, and held true by Christians throughout the world, the Bible is the revealed truth from God, containing knowledge that is immutable and definitive. This is the idea of "absolute truth." First of all, it is revealed by God, so, being from a higher power, it is transcendent above the moral quandaries and differences throughout the world.

The second theme that Schaeffer explores is the idea of moral relativism and its spread throughout the world. Schaeffer says that as the world has advanced, individuals and societies have begun turning towards their own disparate moral views. The idea of moral relativism is not uncommon in modern society, with the main claim being that certain ideas and concepts do not hold true in every situation. While this is true for smaller moral qualms, Schaeffer expresses the idea that Biblical truth is transcendent and applies to the world at large. Without an absolute moral standard, relativism drives people apart and increases the isolation present in the world.

The final theme is directly tied to that last concept, and is the idea of fractured and isolated societies. Schaeffer's logic shows that a morally relative society will not only descend into ethical chaos, but it will lead to isolation and significant differences of opinion and morality that will cause people to no longer be able to truly relate. He offers the Picasso painting Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon as an example of this idea, because it is the beginning of modern art. It shows women fractured and isolated, representing the separation that was spreading throughout society.

Overall, this book is a critical analysis of the state of ethics in the modern world. It offers the sincere and honest plea from Schaeffer to return to a Biblical worldview and an acceptance of universal truth, or else we will tear ourselves apart.

Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1445

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314

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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154

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.

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