Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where Francis Shaeffer goes wrong: Is the belief in natural theology the beginning of the end of Western culture?

Most protestants know very little about St. Thomas Aquinas. But there is one thing they do know (or think they do) about him: Thomas believed that the will was fallen but that the intellect was not: that in the wake of the Fall the will was corrupt, but that the intellect remained perfect. I have heard this over and over again. And when I inquire about where they got this idea, they all tell me the same thing: from Francis Schaeffer, one of the most influential protestant thinkers of the 20th century.

The recent tell-all book by Franky Shaeffer, Francis and Edith Schaeffer's son has recently put Shaeffer back into the limelight again. Shaeffer deserves better from his own offspring. I was myself very influenced by Schaeffer. He had several key insights about modern thinking and culture that, despite the sometimes maddening terminology marking him as an autodidact, I still find helpful.

Shaeffer was not an original thinker, but he managed to repackage the observations of others in a way that appealed to a modern protestant audience that has fundamentally affected the thinking of protestants ever since, mostly for good, and the mischievous effects of his mistaken analysis of Thomas shouldn't detract from the good effects of much else that he wrote.

Of course, before being told where this mistaken notion of Thomas came from, I had already encountered it in the same place myself. I remember reading it in the same place: in Schaeffer's Escape from Reason, one of the three books that lays the foundation of his thinking on Christian apologetics.

Did St. Thomas think the intellect was not fallen?
This interpretation of Thomas is not incidental to Schaeffer's analysis of modern thought. In fact, Schaeffer views this presumed failing of Thomas as the origin of the decline of the Christian worldview in the West:
In Aquinas's view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not. From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all subsequent difficulties. (Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, p. 11)
The chief trouble with this assertion, for which Schaeffer gives no documentation, is that it is completely the opposite of what Thomas actually said. Thomas clearly believed that the Fall applied to the intellect as well as the other powers of the soul:
As a result of original justice, the reason had perfect hold over the lower parts of the soul, while reason itself was perfected by God, and was subject to Him. Now this same original justice was forfeited through the sin of our first parent, as already stated (81, 2); so that all the powers of the soul are left, as it were, destitute of their proper order, whereby they are naturally directed to virtue; which destitution is called a wounding of nature ... [T]hrough sin, the reason is obscured, especially in practical matters, the will hardened to evil, good actions become more difficult and concupiscence more impetuous. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Article 85, Question 3)
And not only did he not think the human intellect was uncorrupted, he clearly attributes its proper function to God:
Hence we must say that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act ... We always need God's help for every thought, inasmuch as He moves the understanding to act. (Summa, Article 109, Question 1)
I don't know, but am willing to conjecture that part of the problem with Schaeffer's analysis of St. Thomas stems from the fact that he never actually read him. Schaeffer's comments on his thinking bear all the marks of someone who has picked up his Thomas second hand, and from sources who have themselves misinterpreted him. In any case, his misunderstanding of Thomas's thinking causes Schaeffer to finger him as the fall guy in the decline of Western civilization, and in this he is completely and utterly wrong.

Schaeffer's Misinterpretation of the Nature/Grace Distinction
Schaeffer's analysis of the decline of Western thought begins by asserting that Aquinas makes a distinction between nature and grace. Nature is, roughly, the lower: corporeal things, such as the visible, tangible, bodily world in all its diversity. Grace, on the other hand, is the higher: constituted by the heavenly, the spiritual, the abstract, that which can provide unity to the diversity of nature.

Schaeffer's great contribution to the understanding of the history of ideas was to take these two ideas and present them as what he called the "upper story" (Grace: the realm of universals), and the "lower story" (Nature: the realm of particulars). Schaeffer used this notion to explain in a simple way the modern split between existentialism or postmodern on the one hand (those who occupy the upper story), and materialism on the other (those who have confined themselves to the lower story). The observation was not original to Schaeffer: It had already been articulated by T. S. Eliot (the "dissociation of sensibility") and Alan Tate (the "double retreat from the moral center"). Schaeffer, however, gets the prize for simplifying and popularizing the idea.

There are several problems with this analysis. The first is that nature and grace are, in fact, distinct, and Schaeffer nowhere argues that they are not. In fact, he can't. All we get from his comment is a sort of bad vibe with which it is hard to know exactly what to do with other than conclude that there is something wrong with making this distinction. But there is clearly a distinction--a distinction that Schaeffer seems to misinterpret as a separation. The question is not whether nature and grace are distinct, but in what their relationship consists--and whether Aquinas had a true view of that relationship or a false one.

So far the problem is only a misinterpretation of Aquinas, in which Schaeffer mistakenly believes that he disagrees with him. But Schaeffer takes that perceived disagreement and founds upon it a belief that really does put him at odds with Aquinas--as well as with the whole of historic Christianity. And it is here that Schaeffer goes terribly wrong in his thinking, and propounds and error which increasingly infects much of protestant thinking:
While there were some good results from giving nature a better place it also opened the way for much that was destructive...In one realm man was now independent, autonomous.

This sphere of the autonomous in Aquinas takes on various forms. One result, for example, was the development of natural theology. In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures. Though it was an autonomous study, he hoped for unity and said that there was a correlation between natural theology and the Scriptures. But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up.

From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures. (Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, pp. 11-12)
Here Schaeffer takes his misinterpretation of Aquinas and connects it to a view that Aquinas actually did hold: that there are things we can know about God independently of direct divine revelation. Schaeffer correctly labels it natural theology: the idea that there are truths, some of them even about God himself, that we can learn from God's creation. But whereas Schaeffer starts out by rightly defending a correct idea from a bad one he mistakenly thinks Aquinas holds, now he begins to incorrectly defend a bad idea from a good idea he correctly thinks Aquinas holds.

Shaeffer, Natural Theology, and Presuppositionalism
The relationship between natural and revealed theology is one of the most salient issues concerning faith and reason, and it is ironic that one of the 20th century's most influential protestant thinkers should get it so wrong. Schaeffer's rejection of natural theology (again, he never argues the point, only assumes it) flies in the face of assertions in revealed theology itself. Schaeffer obviously wants to say (although he never comes right out and says it) that natural theology should be rejected. But the Apostle Paul says quite plainly at the beginning of Romans that we can know certain things about God from His creation. There may be somewhere in the corpus of Schaeffer's writing where he takes this into account, but I have yet to come across it.

Schaeffer is, in this sense, the intellectual heir of Cornelius Van Til and others who champion "presuppositionalism"--the idea that Christianity must be defended only by requiring the unbeliever to first abandon his worldview, and never by argumentation that assumes a neutral ground with the unbeliever. In fact, Schaeffer's debt to Van Til has yet, I think, to be fully appreciated. But while you can only sense Schaeffer's complete rejection of natural theology lurking in the background, Van Til comes right out in the open with it:
The point in dispute is not whether there is some knowledge that must be acquired by revelation, but whether there is any knowledge that can be acquired without redemptive revelation. We hold it to be definitely anti-Christian to say that any man can have any true knowledge of anything except through the wisdom of Christ. (Cornelius Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 63)
Now Van Til and his chief disciple Greg Bahnsen get very slippery when you start asking them hard questions about whether they are saying that you can't know anything apart from direct revelation. Sometimes they seem to say that you can and other times they seem to say that you can't. But if you reject natural theology, then what else can you possibly mean? And if that is not what you mean, then how can you reject natural theology?

The disintegration of the modern mind does not stem from a distinction between Nature and Grace, nor are its origins to be found in the belief in natural theology, a belief that antedates Aquinas by a good 1,500 years. Rather it stems from a mistaken view of the relation between nature and grace, and from a corruption of the idea of natural theology--and neither of these things can be laid at the feet of Aquinas. Far from it.

Aquinas's Correct View of the Relation of Faith and Reason
In fact, if there is one person in the history of the Church you could point to as the man who did not have it wrong on the issue of faith and reason, it is Aquinas. It was Sigar of Brabant, a professor at the University of Paris in the mid-13th century, who, working from the ideas about Aristotle propounded by the Arab philosopher Averroes, propounded the doctrine of Double Truth: the idea that an idea could be true scientifically, but false theologically (or vice-versa). This is what Schaeffer seems really to be concerned about, although his unfamiliarity with the relevant history appears to prevent him from saying so.
Sigar of Brabant said this: the church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. When we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Sigar of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of a battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. (G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, pp. 92-93)
Had Aquinas been complicit in this, Schaeffer would have a case. But, in fact, it was Aquinas who, in 1268, was sent to the University of Paris to correct the problem. His solution is well articulated by Etienne Gilson:
St. Thomas had asked the professors of theology never to prove an article of faith by rational demonstration, for faith is not based on reason, but the word of God, and if you try to prove it, you destroy it. He had likewise asked the professors of philosophy never to prove a philosophical truth by resorting to the words of God, for philosophy is not based on Revelation, but on reason, and if you try to base it on authority, you destroy it. In other words, theology is the science of those things which are received by faith from divine revelation, and philosophy is the knowledge of those things which flow from the principles of natural reason. Since their common source is God, the creator of both reason and revelation, these two sciences are bound ultimately to agree; but if you really want them to agree, you must first be careful not to forget their essential difference. Only distinct things can be united; if you attempt to blend them, you inevitably lose them in what is not union, but confusion. (Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p. 50) [Emphasis added]
Aquinas was clear on what the difference was between faith, based on direct revelation, and reason, based on natural revelation. He was an example of his own definition of a wise man: "That man is wise who orders things rightly and governs them well." (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Article 1, Question 1) Unfortunately, there were those who were to follow, who didn't have things so nicely in balance.

St. Thomas's views on faith and reason are not the cause of the decline of Western thought, but the cure. And the solution, far from abandoning Aquinas's beliefs, is to restore them. In fact, it was the abandonment, not the propagation of Aquinas's beliefs on faith and reason that brought about the modern condition that Schaeffer spends so much time lamenting.

This is why I would take my stand with Richard Weaver, the author of Ideas Have Consequences, who traces the decline of the West, not to Aquinas, but to William of Ockham. Aquinas constructed the only truly unified system of Christian philosophy--a system that recognized both revealed and natural revelation as distinct avenues to one truth, while acknowledging the proper limitations of each--and their ultimate source in God. While Aquinas was the author of this system, Ockham was its destroyer. If anyone deserves blame for what ails modern man, it is Ockham.

The Presuppositionalist Failture to Distinguish between Ontology and Epistemology
As Weaver correctly points out, Occam's chief mistake was questioning the reality of transcendental ideas:
...I take the view that the conscious policies of men and government are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.

For this reason, I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man's conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to that question is decisive for one's view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism. (Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, p. 3)
But it is hard for people like Schaeffer and Van Til to see the role of Ockham in all this because Ockham's mistake was an ontological, rather than an epistemological one, and the presuppositionalist's philosophical vision has never extended much beyond the epistemological. They can't see the ontological forest for the epistemological trees. The problem is not the epistemological problem of the starting point of our knowledge in the created world, but the ontological problem of a failure to understand what reality is and how it may be approached.

In fact, one of the chief problems with presuppositionalism is precisely this: that it confuses the epistemological and the ontological. The whole problem with the presuppositionalist assertion concerning the apologetic "starting point," which they say, must be the Bible, is a confusion between these two categories. They assume that the ontological starting point is the epistemological point. It is an assumption that they are blind to because they don't even recognize the distinction, which is why it is never argued for in their literature, but simply assumed. Just because something is ontologically prior, it does not follow that it is epistemologically prior: just because a thing is most important, does not mean that it is the first temporal step in one's thought.

There are some of us educators who spend not a little time pointing this out to modern educators who don't get this distinction either, and who, as a result, end up jettisoning traditional methods of reading and math instruction that are based on an understanding of this distinction, in favor of methods that ignore it, and, as a result, fail to properly education children.

What goes for education goes for philosophical theology.

The blindness of many protestants to the ontological problems of thought have resulted in otherwise orthodox thinkers (some of them at the forefront of classical education) who champion modern systems of logic as opposed to the traditional system, as blind to bad metaphysics behind the former, as to the sound metaphysics underlying the latter. In fact, you could argue that the nominalism of Ockham is widespread among modern protestants. It is case of intellectual possession warranting a philosophical exorcism.

All this is to say that the problem at the origin of the decline of the Christian West that Shaeffer spent so much time lamenting is ontological--not, as he thought, epistemological, and its chief antagonist is Ockham, not Aquinas. Indeed, where do we find the best philosophical expression of the Christian West that has fallen on such hard times if not in Aquinas?

It is Shaeffer who is largely responsible for the parody of St. Thomas that passes for his thought. There are obvious protestant objections to St. Thomas, but in making them, they should be made against what Thomas actually thought, not on oversimplications that fail to capture what, in fact, he really thought and said.


Anonymous said...

Great article! Do you know if Aquinas was the first to use "belief in" and "belief that" to show the distinction between faith and reason? So far, Norman Geisler is the only author I can find who uses this. Thanks!

Martin Cothran said...


Good question, but I really don't know the answer. You might try asking Ed Feser on his blog, or my son Thomas who runs Tearing Down the Mask of Maya. Try them and let me know what they say.

Unknown said...


Those who claim that Francis Schaeffer misread Thomas Aquinas inevitably do not understand Schaeffer or Aquinas, or both.

The blogger acknowledges that Schaeffer correctly read Aquinas to be saying that man's reason alone can find universal truths without resort to the revelation of Scripture. The blogger's quotation from Etienne Gilson confirms Aquinas' revelation/reason dichotomy that Schaeffer attributed to him. Aquinas presumed that the philosophers could reason their way from the particulars of nature to the universal truths of Scripture relying on reason alone and without ever resorting to the Scriptures. But Aquinas gave the philosophers an impossible task and the project was doomed from the start.

At first, the philosophers bought into Aquinas' false hope that they could find universals through reason alone and this provided the foundation for Descartes’ modern rationalism ("I think, therefore I am"). But hope eventually gave way to pessimism leading to the postmodern view that either there are no universals, or if universals exist we have know way of rationally knowing what they are. Whether you want to call this an ontological problem (universals do not exist) or epistemological (we have no way of rationally knowing what they are) is really beside the point. The point is that both ideas are the logical result of Aquinas' affirmation that human reason can arrive at truth without resort to the Scriptures.

The blogger is embarrassingly uniformed about Schaeffer. Had he read Schaeffer's He is There and He is Not Silent, he would never have made his ridiculous comment that protestants and presuppositionalists "don't even recognize the distinction" between the ontological and the epistemological. Chapter 1 of Schaeffer's book is titled The Metaphysical Necessity and addresses the ontological issue, chapter 2 is titled The Moral Necessity, and chapters 3 and 4 deal with The Epistemological Necessity. And that's the entire book at only 77 pages (with some appendices)! Only someone desiring to remain willfully ignorant could claim that Schaeffer does not "recognize the distinction" between ontology and epistemology.

Schaeffer was right. Aquinas was part of the problem, not the solution.

Dan Lawler

GEM of The Kairos Initiative said...


Thanks for your link to this discussion, and for your input at UD.

My own discussion is here at UD, as you know.

You intervened here, and I replied here.

In brief essence, as the markup of Sawyer and the diagram I used in the OP at UD show, I think the bridging issue is Paul's discussion, especially that in Rom 1 and Eph 4. Paul's emphasis does not fall on the ability to warrant -- to moral certainty -- knowledge of God on the world around us and our inner life, but on our culpability for suppressing the gateways that would otherwise allow us to access that knowledge. This is driven by key (often implicit) worldview first plausibles marking the faith-point at the foundation of our worldviews, cf my discussion here on; kindly note my allusion to the issue of the implications of the possibility of an empty set for the square of opposition.

In that context, on fair comment, I first acknowledge that on evidence FS did miss some of the teachings by TA in his corpus, but the problem is that due to the balance of emphases in TA, FS's mistake is quite understandable (and it is not evidence that he failed to read TA, no more than your own/my gaps on FS are a proof that you/I did not read him).

Having said that, we can see that where FS was informed that he misread, he corrected in the 1982 edn, where he spoke of in effect TA inviting a trend, one that was indeed unquestioningly taken up by more skeptical thinkers in following generations, culminating in the widespread dismissal of natural theology type arguments today. His miss on the impairment of the mind, e.g. in ST I 85 Art 3, is understandable, as that is about 400 pp in. Also, it seems from 1968 (and certainly from 1982) FS acknowledged antecedents to TA on the issue.

The grace/nature split and the declaration of skeptical autonomy that led to nature eating up grace, is real, and a dominant part of intellectual history since during the renaissance era; indeed reaching a definitive incoherence in the field of thought at about turn of C18, hence FS's famous Line of Despair diagram (which I have extended). And the issue is a dominant one in our culture to this day, leading to the enduring significance of FS's work.

Let us accept limitations, adjust then build on what we have from both TA and FS (and others all the way back to Plato in The Laws Bk X).

Grace and peace


GEM of The Kairos Initiative said...

OOPS: Turn of C19

GEM of The Kairos Initiative said...

F/N: Pardon a for record link to where I make point by point responses on issues raised. GEM of TKI

Fred Noltie said...


Thank you for this post, which I stumbled across only because I noticed referrals to my own posts on the topic from Uncommon Descent.

It is frustrating to say the least to have defend St Thomas against Schaeffer's error. The more I learn about the history of philosophy, the more obvious it becomes that to lay the blame for modern philosophy anywhere near Aquinas (rather than, say, Ockham or especially Descartes) is just untenable.

Given that his mistake sounds a lot like criticisms de Lubac made of Cajetan, I can't help wondering whether Schaeffer read de Lubac and thought he was getting a reliable report on Thomism and Thomas. See this post of mine on that subject, if you're interested.