Russell and Duenes

Francis Schaeffer: Epistemology Helped Save My Faith in Christ

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schaefferAbout ten years ago, my Christian faith was in a kind of tatters. I was not on the verge of ceasing to believe in God, but I felt like the foundations of my belief in the Scriptures had been badly savaged, at least in my own mind, and I wasn’t at all sure what I could truly “know” about God.

One of the things that ultimately helped me regain my spiritual footing, and continues to help me to this day, is a greater understanding of epistemology, or how we know what we know. Though I had not yet read any Francis Schaeffer, and obviously would not for another ten years, Schaeffer’s thoughts on epistemology explain some of my experience.

Schaeffer argues that a non-biblical epistemology (e.g., “positivism”) leaves one with “no way of saying with certainty that anything exists.” With a non-biblical epistemology – that is, an epistemology that takes the starting place for “knowledge” from some other source than God’s self-revelation – “you simply begin nakedly with nothing there. You have no reason within the system to know that the data is data, or that what is reaching you is data. Within the system there is no universal to give you the right to be sure that what is reaching you is data.”

Indeed, according to Schaeffer, under a non-biblical epistemology like positivism, “[n]ot only does” a person “not know with certainty that anything is there, but even if it is there he can have no reason to think he knows anything truly, nor even anywhere near truly. There is no reason within the system to be sure that there is a correlation between the observer – that is, the subject – and the thing – that is, the object.” (emphasis mine).

To put it in more pedestrian terms, if the universe, and our world within it, is an utterly godless place, then there is no reason to think that we “know” anything. Knowledge is not possible for creatures that are mere impersonal agglomerations of atoms and molecules, which is all we can be if God did not create us. If our thought life is reduced simply to chemical reactions in our brains, then we are not really “thinking” about anything at all. We are just reacting to stimuli, kind of like a high-powered lab experiment. There is no such thing as “reason” in a godless universe. There is only randomness and chaos. There is no true order, nor is there anything like love, justice, compassion or virtue. These concepts are just semantic blah-blah blahing in a universe without a personal and rational God. I would go further, a world like ours, as we experience it, is not possible without there being a God behind it. He know a personal and intelligent God exists because He must. He is a necessary Being.

People may deny that God exists, and may theoretically hold to the notion that man is simply a more intelligent animal, determined in his behavior by the makeup of his DNA. Yet Schaeffer points out that “there is no determinist or behaviorist who can really live consistently on the basis of his determinism . . . saying, that is, that man is only a machine. . . [N]o chemical determinist or psychological determinist is ever able to live as though he is the same as non-man.”

But what does all this have to do with my trust in the Scriptures and the God who is revealed in it? It means that a non-biblical epistemology is not tenable and is, in fact, impossible. There must be a personal and intelligent God because a world like ours (and not some other kind of world) is truly an impossibility without him. This is a bedrock foundation. Those who would assail it must provide a more attractive alternative explanation, and in the course of human history, they have not come anywhere close to having done so. This has become more clear to me.

Thus, I am put in a place of much firmer confidence that a personal and rational God exists. And if he exists, now the relevant question is: What is this God like? Can we know this God? This, for me, puts the Scriptures in a whole new light. In other words, the question now is not whether I should believe our universe is devoid of God, but rather, whether I should believe in the biblical God. I must believe in God, and this God must be personal and intelligent, given a world and existence like ours; and so, how many options are there? To my mind, there is just one attractive option: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So epistemology is not just theoretical, “ivory tower” stuff for me. It is a crucial plank in the superstructure of my faith in Christ. I return to it when I find my mind returning to old patterns of skepticism, and I rejoice in it.



Written by Michael Duenes

December 4, 2014 at 6:49 pm

One Response

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  1. I can say that an even an accidental experience with the men and women of the L’Abri community will be a positive experience which can leave a long term memory of kindness, spiritual, and Christian love. It is too long of a story, but years ago when traveling in Europe I was given a ride by two guys to Switzerland and spent time with a group of their friends who lived in one apartment. They never even told me that they were part of the L’Abri community, just welcomed and shared with me a place to eat and sleep, Hundreds of kilometers away in Sweden I discovered what they never discussed when I saw one of their group in a train station ministering to passing strangers. What a different path and life they followed!!!

    james daniel

    December 7, 2014 at 5:25 pm

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