Review: Comparing Two Giants of Apologetics: C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer

Douglas R. Groothuis

Dr. Groothuis is associate professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity Press) and four other books, including Unmasking the New Age: Is There a New Religious Movement Trying to Transform Society? and Confronting the New Age. He has written many scholarly articles and his observations on religion and culture have been quoted in Time, The New York Times and US News and World Report.  Groothuis's primary passion is to make Christian truth known in contemporary culture and in the church. To that end, he speaks at many colleges and universities on apologetics and ethical themes.

Review of Scott R. Burson 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, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998

Last year, many evangelical Christians celebrated the birth centenary of C. S. Lewis, the most influential Christian apologist of our times.

Last year also marked the 30th anniversary of the book The God Who is There by Francis A. Schaeffer. Schaeffer’s book of apologetics and social criticism sparked many evangelicals to leave their cultural ghettos, to reject their anti-intellectualism and to leave their theological oblivion behind them to communicate the cogency of the Christian worldview to a needy world. InterVarsity Press recently released a new edition that includes laudatory comments from evangelical luminaries such Charles Colson, Os Guinness, J. I. Packer and Bishop John W. Howe of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida.

Lewis and Schaeffer had much in common as well as many points of divergence, both in their manner of life and their perspectives; and we have much to learn from both, as the book C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer aptly documents.

The Pastor

Though seminary-trained and possessing a keen mind, Schaeffer was not a practicing academic and never claimed to be one (despite sometimes being billed as such). He was a pastor with special gifts in evangelism that in the 1950s and 1960s flowered into apologetics as he talked with alienated youth from around the world who congregated to his retreat center in the Swiss Alps called L’Abri.

His many books appeared late in his career, almost as an afterthought, as a wise way to put the ideas into the hands of a wider audience. Schaeffer’s works are peppered with arresting personal anecdotes (usually illustrating apologetic and evangelistic encounters) and memorable images illustrating theological and philosophical points. The books, however, were not models of stellar writing. Schaeffer’s strengths lay in a passion for God’s truth, his apologetic prowess and the broad appeal of his message and ministry.

Having converted as a young man, Schaeffer began in the Fundamentalist tradition, but later transcended its narrow sectarianism to serve the larger evangelical world along with his wife Edith (also an author and lecturer). Although committed to a Calvinist orthodoxy, Schaeffer’s ministry affected a wide cross-section of the evangelical world, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, when he became a leading spokesman for conservative Protestantism and even (against his wishes) something of a celebrity.

After becoming a Christian in college, I cut my apologetic teeth on The God Who is There, which helped chart a course of ministry that I have not deviated from since. Schaeffer argued that Christianity is objectively true and rational and that it uniquely provides hope and meaning that secular culture desperately needs. Christians should outthink the world for Christ! As a philosophy major, I devoured Schaeffer’s many books. Although they didn’t answer all my questions, they gave me a framework for keeping both my intellectual integrity and my biblical orthodoxy.

The Oxford Don

Unlike Schaeffer, C. S. Lewis was a convert later in life and never left the halls of the English academy for the pastorate or the mission field. Lewis was an Anglican with no overt connections to American Fundamentalism or Evangelicalism, despite the wide and deep effect his writings have had on these communities. Lewis’s project was to defend “mere Christianity,” or the doctrinal basics of the faith, against the unbelief of the modern world. Rather than writing as an afterthought, Lewis was always a writer through and through, as well as an expert in literature. These literary gifts shine through his writings, which are consistently lucid, filled with apt metaphors, similes, and examples, and often arresting in their forcefulness.

Not only did he reach a large audience through his apologetic works such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain and The Abolition of Man, but Lewis also won the hearts of millions through his works of fiction such as The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. Reading Lewis’s major apologetic works at the same time I was working through the Schaeffer corpus further inspired me to develop a Christian worldview in the face of philosophical rivals. Many evangelicals will give the same testimony.

Differing Theology

Lewis and Schaeffer attempted to avoid partisan or sectarian disputes in setting forth and defending the core claims of Christian orthodoxy. Their theological views differed in several respects, as this volume brings out.

Schaeffer honed his apologetic skills in debate with theological modernism (or liberalism) and neoorthodoxy. Although he later critiqued Fundamentalism for its legalism, social irrelevance and doctrinal dogmatism (which often excluded authentic Christian spirituality), Schaeffer had little patience with theologians who abandoned biblical inerrancy or the historic doctrines of the Reformation (sola scriptura, sola fide, and the priesthood of all believers). Although he was not a young-earth creationist, Schaeffer rejected macroevolution as incompatible with a literal reading of Genesis 1—11, as he argued in Genesis in Space and Time.

Lewis’s doctrinal core was considerably smaller than Schaeffer’s. Although he rejected naturalistic evolutionism (see “The Funeral of a Great Myth” in Christian Reflections), he saw no need to give Genesis a literal reading and thought that the Old Testament contained some mythical materials. He never articulated the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone, although he stressed the uniqueness of Christ, the historicity of the resurrection of Christ and the need for faith in salvation. He also believed in purgatory (which is obvious in The Great Divorce) and in praying for the dead. These ideas rankle many conservative Protestant readers, despite their affection for his deft apologetic abilities in other areas.

Lewis and Salvation

Surprisingly, the authors of this book, who both teach at Asbury Theological Seminary (an evangelical institution), appreciate Lewis in areas that many evangelicals (such as myself) do not. They prefer Lewis over Schaeffer in several key areas.

Rather than viewing salvation as a one-time event rooted in saving faith in the finished work of Christ (justification by faith alone through grace alone), Lewis presented what the authors call a “transformational” model of salvation wherein one is either moving toward heaven or hell at any given time. The authors believe that his view of salvation is an entailment of Lewis’s (and their) view of the human will as free or self-determining. (Philosophically, this is called libertarianism, which is not to be confused with the anarchistic political philosophy of the same name.) If so, a more Arminian view of human volition leads to a denial of a Reformation doctrine of salvation as the legal imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinful humans totally apart from their works.

Many in the Arminian camp—whether Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists or other—who hold to justification by faith alone as an event to be distinguished from sanctification (or becoming more Christ-like experientially) would reject this conclusion. Moreover, one of the most noteworthy evangelical Anglicans of our day, John Stott, thoroughly and convincingly defends justification by faith alone in his magisterial work, The Cross of Christ (InterVarsity Press).

The authors also seem to imply that their view of free will leads to a rejection of biblical inerrancy, since the biblical writers were not completely controlled by God in the process of inspiration. In this, they prefer Lewis to Schaeffer, who affirmed the sovereignty of God in salvation and in the inspiration of Scripture. They accuse Schaeffer of two fundamental errors of apologetics in this regard.

First, they claim that a strong view of God’s sovereignty is unjustifiable philosophically and makes for bad apologetics, since it denies humans real moral responsibility and makes God the author of evil.

Second, they charge Schaeffer himself with not being theologically consistent on the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In his apologetic writings, they write, Schaeffer argued for libertarian freedom, opposing the naturalistic worldview of B. F. Skinner and others who reduced humans to machines. Yet in his teachings on the Westminster Confession of Faith (the controlling creed of his denomination), Schaeffer affirmed God’s absolute control over all events, including human will.

Settling these matters requires a longer essay than this one, so a few points must suffice. First, Schaeffer may not have affirmed a libertarian view in his apologetic against naturalism. To claim we are not machines totally controlled by impersonal factors is not the same as arguing that the human will is autonomous of God’s sovereign plan for humanity. Schaeffer often claimed that humans are not “programmed” by nature. They are moral agents. We live in an “open system of cause and effect” (Christian theism) as opposed to a “closed system of cause and effect” (naturalism). God may intervene supernaturally, and humans have significant moral responsibility within the order and plan of God’s creation.

Schaeffer should be granted some rhetorical slack in his apologetic writings. He is not addressing trained theologians as much as modern people looking for significance and meaning in a world that so often denies it to them on the basis of bogus worldviews, whether atheistic or pantheism, both of which reduce persons to components of the impersonal matrix of being.

When Schaeffer argued that humans make significant choices, I believe his emphasis was not on a radical self-determination (libertarianism), but on the fact that we live in a personal universe. God, the supremely personal being, has given persons moral agency and responsibility that would be impossible within either naturalism (which reduces humans to impersonal material factors) or pantheism (which reduces humans to being manifestations of an impersonal deity).

It is interesting and troubling that Burson and Walls do not appeal directly to Scripture to support their views of libertarian free will, the transformational view of salvation or the rejection of biblical inerrancy. They argue this philosophically, but often fail to adequately encounter philosophical arguments (outside of Schaeffer’s own writings) to the contrary. For instance, this book fails to engage two other important InterVarsity books defending a Reformed view of divine sovereignty and human responsibility: Paul Helm’s The Providence of God and R. K. MacGregor Wright’s No Place for Sovereignty.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century

The authors do, however present an excellent exposition of both Lewis’s and Schaeffer’s theologies, apologetic methods and historical settings. They mine this material not merely for academic reasons, but to find apologetic insights applicable to our times. Their final chapter, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” brings together the combined strengths of Lewis’s and Schaeffer’s apologetic efforts. While I cannot address all twenty-one lessons, a few stand out for comment.

Apologists in our postmodern times must emphasize objective reality and absolute truth and not dissolve truth into relativism and subjectivism. Both Lewis and Schaeffer rejected the notion that religion is a private or merely cultural affair. Christianity is only as good as it is true and rationally defensible. “While objective truth may not be the most fruitful point of entry into contemporary apologetics, it cannot be ignored or soft-pedaled in the long run without disastrous consequences,” the authors note. Amen to that.

Apologetics also demands that we give “honest answers to honest questions” (as Schaeffer put it)—to the big questions of life. This requires serious intellectual pursuit and honesty as Christians listen carefully to the concerns, doubts and arguments of unbelievers. No superficial slogans or trite one-liners will satisfy.

Christians must thus oppose the spirit of the times, which revels in diversions, propaganda and endless entertainment rather than informed and rational discourse. Christians need to possess “a unified body of knowledge and meaning” in challenging our fragmented, postmodern world. All inquiry and knowledge must be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

As Christians defend their faith, they should employ a cumulative case form of argument, as exemplified in different ways by Lewis and Schaeffer. The apologist draws evidence from many sources—science, history, philosophy, psychology, even mythology (in Lewis’s case)—to build a strong overall apologetic for Christian theism and against rival worldviews.

The Christian worldview is not proven in one or two strokes, but is rather verified by appealing to a wide and compelling variety of converging arguments. Christianity is shown to be the best explanation for origin and nature of the universe as well as the human condition and the facts of history. Moreover, Christians must be pastoral in their apologetic practices. We must care deeply for the lost, not simply desire to defeat their arguments. The stakes are too high for apologetic one-upmanship.

Despite my complaints, if this book sparks a new generation of Christian thinkers to engage the thought of C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer for the purpose of defending the faith given once to the saints (Jude 3), it will have made a significant contribution indeed.

© Douglas Groothuis . Used by permission of the author.