Saturday, October 30, 2010

Presupposing: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til

Amidst all the strange events of the 1960s—flower children, hippies, marches for peace and marches for Jesus—when college students were challenging the establishment, the Vietnam War, racism, and conventional social structures, an even stranger thing happened. A squeaky-voiced little man in knickers, who in 1948 felt called of God to become a missionary and to move with his family to a lonely chalet in the Swiss Alps (knowing not a word of local language), began to attract young intellectuals from all over the world.

Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) had written no books or popular articles in those early years.1 He made no broadcasts or tape-recorded messages in his early ministry.2 Yet by the end of the decade Schaeffer's remote chalet had become a place of refuge for young people searching for answers to life's deepest and most troubling questions. This phenomenon would come to be known world-wide as “L'Abri” (French for “the shelter”).

Rev. Louis Gifford Parkhurst, Jr., who served the Schaeffers as their pastor in the last years of Dr. Schaeffer's life, describes L'Abri's beginning:
L'Abri began in a very real way with Priscilla [Schaeffer's daughter] on the weekend of May 6, 1955. She brought home from college a girl who had many questions, and so began the flow of people. L'Abri came to be a spiritual “shelter” for people with real and honest questions. God's hand was so obviously in the work that Dr. Schaeffer courageously wrote his mission board on June 5 and resigned. He asked that all salary be cut off immediately, and he told of the beginning of L'Abri Fellowship. The Schaeffers had had the reality of the existence of God demonstrated to them in real ways up to that point, and L'Abri was begun simply from a desire “to demonstrate the existence of God by our lives and our work.” 3
From this humble beginning Schaeffer's work began to grow and to attract attention. In the late 1960s Schaeffer began to speak at American colleges like Wheaton in 1967 and, later, at Westminster Seminary. By the end of the decade and the beginning of the next Schaeffer was speaking at Harvard (1968), Princeton (1972) and Yale (1973) as well as some prestigious universities in Europe and Asia.4 It was during this same period that Schaeffer began to publish his lectures in book form.

But as the strangeness of the sixties passed into the apathy of the late seventies, and as many of the popular causes and personalities of that era faded into the warm fuzzy memories of yuppies in the 1980s, another strange thing happened. Rather than passing from the scene, Schaeffer's ministry and fame grew. In the late 1970s Schaeffer began a campaign for Christian political involvement primarily aimed against abortion. Seeing his own social concerns as similar to those of earlier Christian leaders who promoted democracy, abolition, and other civil reforms, Schaeffer's efforts included books and film series that sought to outline the biblical and historical precedent for Evangelicals to take aggressive social action. By 1982, Schaeffer gained the attention of even the secular media, as Kenneth Woodward, of Newsweek, proclaimed Schaeffer “the guru of Fundamentalism.”5

It was Schaeffer's social conscience that kept him before Evangelicals and Fundamentalists long after the social conscience of the sixties lost its radical passion. But it was Schaeffer's apologetic effort to offer Christian answers to philosophic questions in the sixties and seventies that originally put his L'Abri on the Evangelical map. Although Schaeffer went on to other causes, his apologetic continues to influence many Evangelicals today.

What Is “Apologetics”?

While Schaeffer can be credited with introducing many Evangelicals to the field of apologetics on a popular level, apologetics is a field that has a rich heritage dating back centuries. The word apologetics derives from the Greek legal term for giving an answer of defense against charges in court. Plato uses the term to title his classic account of Socrates' trial in Athens, The Apology. This is the term Peter uses in 1 Peter 3:15 when he says, “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you ...” (RSV, emphasis added). Famous apologists include: Justin Martyr, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Butler, William Paley and C.S. Lewis.

When used in the context of Christian theology and religion, then, “apologetics” has come to mean the study or practice of how to give a defense of the faith. This generic definition of apologetics is what would generally be understood by theologically literate Christians using the term. But there are many different kinds of apologetic methods. Therefore, classifying Schaeffer's apologetic has been a controversial matter among his friends and his critics.

The Schaeffer-Van Til Connection

As we will see in the story about to unfold, it was originally assumed, by Schaeffer himself and therefore by others, that Schaeffer's apologetic followed the method of his Westminster Seminary professor, Cornelius Van Til (1895-1986). This method, called “Presuppositionalist Apologetics,” proposes that rather than trying to prove Christianity by satisfying the requirements of other world views, each world view ought to be tested on its own presuppositional premises.6

Very early on, however, this categorization of Schaeffer's approach became widely and severely challenged. Was he truly a presuppositionalist? Was he Van Tillian? In one of the first extensive critiques of Schaeffer's work (1976), Thomas V. Morris argued that Schaeffer had really just reworked classical arguments, such as the argument from design.7 Some time later Gordon R. Lewis argued that Schaeffer's approach really should be called “verificational” more than “presuppositional.” 8
The material above has been excerpted from Dave's upcoming e-book, soon to be released on several e-platforms. If you'd like to read more of it, please post a comment or email Dave with your feedback! Thanks!

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