Schaeffer's Misunderstood Statement

I am presently reading through Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?, subtitled "The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture". In this book, Schaeffer examines the way in which cultural worldviews have led to the rise and decline of various civilizations. The second chapter tackles the Middle Ages and the lessons about world views to be learned from that history. In addition to the book, Schaeffer has also produced a video series by the same name.

While I find the book very interesting, he has made a statement which I think may lead to some confusion about the views of St. Thomas Aquinas. Specifically, Schaeffer says:

Aquinas's contributions to Western thought is, of course, much richer than we can discuss here, but his view of man demands our attention. Aquinas held that man had revolted against God and thus had fallen, but Aquinas had an incomplete view of the Fall. He thought that the Fall did not affect man as a whole but only in part. In his view the will was fallen or corrupted but the intellect was not affected. Thus, people could rely on their own human wisdom, and this meant that people were free to mix the teachings of the Bible with the teaching of the non-Christian philosophers.

* * * As a result of this emphasis, philosophy was gradually separated from revelation--from the Bible--and philosophers began to act in an increasingly independent, autonomous manner.

Somehow, this statement has led to the assumption that Aquinas taught that man could arrive at an independent understanding of God absent the revelation of scripture.

We have to be very careful about what Schaeffer actually said in his book, and what Aquinas actually wrote. Both are being mischaracterized here. First, Schaeffer doesn't say that Aquinas was claiming that true knowledge of God could be aquired through reason alone without revelation. Instead, he is saying that Aquinas's view of the non-fallen intellect gave license to philosophers to opine about God without having to resort to Biblical passages for their evidence. Reason alone could lead them to reach some conclusions about God. Hence, Aquinas used the thoughts of Aristotle and Cicero and others to establish truths about God even though these men weren't Christian and had no knowledge of the Bible.

But what Schaeffer doesn't say and what Aquinas didn't teach was that revelation was not necessary to reach a true, accurate and complete picture about God. In the very first Article in his work, Summa Theologicae, Aquinas examined the question of "Whether it is necessary to have another doctrine besides philosophical disciplines." His answer: yes. Specifically, as translated here, Aquinas said:

It must be said that, besides the philosophical disciplines which are investigated by human reason, another doctrine based on revelation was necessary for human well-being. Such is true, in the first place, because man is ordered by God to a certain end which exceeds the grasp of reason. As Isaiah says, "Eye has not seen, God, without you, what you have prepared for those who love you" (lsa. 64:4). The end must be fore known to man, however, since he must order his intentions and actions to that end. Thus it was necessary to human well-being that certain things exceeding human reason be made known to man through divine revelation.

Even in the case of those things which can be investigated by human reason, it was necessary for man to be instructed by divine revelation. The truth concerning God, if left to human reason alone, would have appeared only to a few, and only after a long search, and even then mixed with many errors; yet all of man's well-being, which is in God, depends on knowledge of this truth. Thus, in order that this well-being should become known to men more commonly and more securely, it was necessary that they be instructed by divine revelation.

Thus it was necessary that, besides the philosophical doctrines which can be investigated by reason, there be a sacred doctrine known through revelation.

Thus, to the extent that some may intrepret Schaeffer to claim that man Aristotle taught that man could arrive at a true, accurate and complete knowledge of God without reference to the scriptures, unless Schaeffer expanded his teachings elsewhere to make such a claim, I think that it is a misunderstanding of what Scheaffer had to say. It certainly isn't what Aquinas taught.


slaveofone said…
Schaeffer could not have meant that one could come to a complete knowledge of YHWH on reason alone because it is his basic argument in nearly a quarter of all his books that starting with reason itself without a reference point in the divine, taken to its logical conclusion, equals non-reason or anti-reason. Not only does divinity get swallowed up, but human reason ends up swallowing itself.

It was Augustine (particularly in Confessions) who first argued that virtually everything one needed to know about God was available outside scripture through reason with the exception of three things, YHWH's mercy, the Son, and something else...I can't remember...
Edwardtbabinski said…
Francis Schaeffer's son, Frank Schaeffer, rejected his father's Reformed faith in favor of a more traditional form of Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy. Frank Schaeffer's most recent book (due out Sept 2007) is titled "Crazy for God: How I Helped Found the Religious Right and Ruin America"

Frank also wrote several semi-autobiographical books about growing up in the Schaeffer household. One was titled "Portofino" that mentioned how his sister would pack a sweater while on summer vacation on Italian beaches because Russian troops (Magog) could swoop down at any time and cart the family off to Siberia, i.e., apocalypse soon fears. The second novel was titled, "Saving Grandma," about Francis Schaeffer being unable to convince his elderly mom, who lived with the family, about the truth of Reformed religious beliefs.

Edward T. Babinski
Brandon said…
Yes! Thanks, BK; it's good to find someone who sees this. You are definitely right that the view you are criticizing misunderstands Aquinas, and I'm inclined to think you're right about its misunderstanding Schaeffer as well.

Schaeffer is slightly off about Aquinas; Thomas does hold that the intellect is affected by the Fall, both indirectly because the will is affected (and in its turn affects our reasoning) and directly because it is itself darkened. I think it's a reasonable misunderstanding, since you'd have to know Thomas fairly well to catch it, particularly given how he has often been summarized.
Anonymous said…
I think Aquinas' most important insight in terms of the doctrine of original sin doesn't have anything to do with the degree of impairment of the intellect or free-will.

It has to do with his conception of the loss of original justice: the subordination of the passions to reason, both broadly understood. He theorized a pre-Fall preternatural gift of grace: the perfect self-control that is characteristic of a mature adult human being. This gift was not part of human nature, but would have become part of human nature had Adam not sinned.

I see this as important for understanding original sin in that Aquinas is saying what is transmitted from generation to generation is not something (impaired intellect or free-will) but rather the lack of something (a divine infused habit of self-control). Hence, children learn through trial and error. It is a metaphysical not a moral evil that is transmitted. What is transmitted is not the habit of sinning but the lack of a habit of self-control that might prevent sinning.

Robert Sutherland
BK said…
Just a brief response to Edward T. Babinski's comment about Frank Schaeffer's upoming book "Crazy for God: How I Helped Found the Religious Right and Ruin America":

Francis Schaeffer was one of the most regional thinkers of the twentieth century. In the course of pursuing the mission that he felt called to do, it seems apparent that he was not there for his son as much as he ought to have been. Frank Schaeffer even says that the three semi-autobiographical novels that he has written "explored the 'disconnect' between parent and child when parents are driven by an overriding sense of mission. Kids are left trying to figure out where they fit in."

Frank Schaeffer has rejected the teachings of his father but I don't know if this rejection is intellectually motivated or an emotionally motivated rejection of something because of hurt he feels about his father.

And, of course, no one believes (other than skeptics) that Christians will be perfect when they are truly saved. Schaeffer had flaws, but then every Christian has flaws. Thus, for Mr. Babinski to point to Frank's noting of some failures of his father doesn't surprise me much.

I certainly welcome anyone to read his book. I will probably read it as well, but I will not read it uncritically. Rather, I will read the writings of a man who appears to have been hurt because his father had priorities that kept him from devoting his full attention to his son. I will read it to see what insight can be gained from his experience. But I won't read it with the expectation that it will reveal some deep truth about evangelicals and how they are seeking to somehow destroy America. That's simply Frank emoting.
Edwardtbabinski said…
"That's simply Frank emoting." (?)

According to studies mentioned in a Christianity Today article, most converts to Evangelical Christianity appear to also be "simply emoting."

In the late 1800s, Edwin Starbuck conducted ground-breaking studies on conversion to Christianity [Evangelical only? -- E.T.B.]. Ever since then, scholars, attempting either to verify or disprove his findings, have
repeatedly demonstrated them to be accurate. Most observers agree that
what Starbuck observed is to a large extent still valid. From these studies we learn two significant things: the age at which conversion to Christianity most often occurs, and the motivational factors involved in conversion. Starbuck noted that the average age of a person experiencing a religious conversion was 15.6 years. Other studies have produced similar results; as recently as 1979, Virgil Gillespie wrote that the average age of conversion in America is 16 years. Starbuck listed eight primary motivating factors: (1) fears, (2) other self-regarding motives, (3) altruistic motives, (4) following out a moral ideal, (5) remorse for and conviction of sin, (6) response to teaching, (7) example and imitation, and (8) urging and social pressure. Recent studies reveal that people still become Christians mainly for these same reasons. What conclusions can be drawn from this information? First, the average age of conversion is quite young. Postadolescent persons do not seem to find Christianity as attractive as do persons in their teens. Indeed, for every year the non-Christian grows older than 25, the odds increase exponentially against his or her ever becoming a Christian.
BK said…

The idea that people come to God because of the reasons that those studies describe is not the least bit surprising. The idea that people need to come to Jesus as a child suggests that people who think themselves wise are much less likely to come to Jesus. However, it is also clear that some people do come to Jesus intellectually even if that is an admitted minority of all converts.

And, of course, Franky Schaeffer hasn't abandoned Christianity at all, but is now (I recollect) Easter Orthodox. He merely abandoned the evangelical stream of Christianity that his father tried to live (albeit imperfectly) and to which his father reasoned (according to his writings). Consequently, Franky Schaeffer is not some type of proof that religion or Christianity as a whole is evil. Nor is he proof that his father, Francis, was wrong. Your original comment was simply the typical ad hominem which tried to make discount Schaeffer's teachings on the basis of his son who has, for reasons of his own, chosen a different approach to Jesus.

And if you want to claim that recognizing one's own guilt or the desire to follow a moral idea or the desire to act altruistically are all merely emoting, then it seems to me that you don't understand the role of the intellect in these matters.

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