Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Critical Standards Essential for Evangelicals
John Sommerville
Mountainview, Calif.

From: JASA 22 (June 1970): 76.

Francis Sehaeffer's The God Who Is There has achieved a considerable following, despite the caution shown by this journal (Journal ASA 21, 54 (1969) and by other evangelical publications in reviewing the book. In several respects its popularity is justified. In identifying relativism and subjectivism as the characteristic intellectual difficulties of our time, in urging Christians to take the offensive against a culture which is less formidable arid less self-assured than some might suppose, and in specific suggestions concerning apologetics and evangelism, Schaeffer performs needed services. But in numerous respects he violates his own principle (p. 166) by teaching what will later have to he unlearned.

Take his central point, for example. Sehaeffer identifies the fundamental stumbling block today, not as philosophical scepticism, which might make Hume, Kant, and Sehleiermacher the central figures in his discussion, but rather dialectical idealism. He supposes that Hegel denied any real difference between a thesis and its antithesis, but constantly sought to resolve differences by synthesis. Now, whether or not Hegel was more interested in the new synthesis than in the subsequent antithesis, it is obvious that Kierkegaard, the author of Either/Or, was no disciple of Hegel (p. 21).

The point of dialectical argument, put most simply, is that many philosophical problems prove to he the result of an inadequate, poorly phrased, or historically conditioned dichotomy, which must he replaced by another, in which elements from both sides of the original problem are found in the new thesis, which again has its antithesis. Schaeffer himself uses just such a dialectical approach to show that Camus' ddemma concerning medicine and Providence was not adequate to the true moral situation as revealed by Christian theology (pp. 101 & 107; see p. 95 for another of Schaeffer's own dialectical arguments). All this is rather academic, however, for the real philosophical problems of today stem not from a dialectical method but from scepticism, which has a history going hack to pre-Christian times and was recognized as a problem by theologians as early as Tertullian. What Dr. Sehaeffer is trying to say about the despair in modern literature and art makes sense only in terms of philosophical scepticism.

Even more damaging to the hook is the lack of ally sense of the difficulties with which natural theology met in the 13th century and which eventually drove religious philosophers into fideism. The little story of how Hegel hit upon the new way of thinking, not in terms of "cause and effect" but rather in terms of synthesis (p. 20), seems designed to indicate that there were no genuine reasons behind Hegel's attempt to solve some of these very problems, and that we are therefore justified ill simply returning to a prior philosophical position (p. 54?).
Besides the seeming ignorance of the relevant development of philosophical theology and the frequent confusion of categories, the book uses a terminology that is hopelessly and needlessly inadequate. For example, Schaeffer could have avoided the absurdity of the phrase "true truth" by realizing that the only way to "think about truth" (see p. 15), as opposed to considering the truth of particular propositions, is to think generally about the conditions under which we would accept propositions as verified. A number of other words (universal, absolute, real, reason, nature, romantic) fall apart in Schaeffer's hands, or are used for their connotative value, a practice he decries in others.

He is also guilty of misrepresentation, as in regard to existentialism. He is correct in saying that Sartre has forfeited his right to express objective moral judgments on other men's actions, and is bound by his own principles to consider the most hideous act as evidence of a man's "authentic" character. But to say that to Sartre the choice is "unimportant" (p. 24) is a grotesque error. Sartre can show his own repugnance by choosing not to do such an act, though he has not, iii fact, limited himself to deeds ill expressing his own deep moralizing interest-a point which Sehaeffer labors.

To show the logical or practical difficulties in other philosophical traditions, although having a place in apologetics, does not suffice to prove one's own position. And there is a danger that readers who have not been made aware of the difficulties in the way of anyone who wants to demonstrate that the Scriptures contain "truths ill a propositional form" or prove that "reasons" and revelation form a "unified field of knowledge", will find their witness weakened rather than strengthened. It is not Sehaeffer's fault that he was the first to grapple with these broad cultural and intellectual questions, and to indicate the pitfalls to avoid. But evangelicals will he open to the charge of dishonesty if we fail to demand the same critical standards of ourselves that we expect of others.