Some Thoughts on Schaeffer’s Apologetics

by John M. Frame


Explanatory introduction

Steve Scrivener has gathered together John Frame’s comments on Francis Schaeffer’s apologetics from John’s various apologetics books. Steve has added some further reading, some Email correspondence between him and John, and then has reformatted everything into a question and answer format (so the questions [in italics] are Steve’s). The footnotes are John’s except where indicated by “SCRIVENER.”


Abbreviations for Frame’s writings

The following abbreviations are used for John Frame’s writings that are quoted.


AGG Apologetics to the Glory of God: an Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994).

CGAD Unpublished Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Course outline for Christianity and the Great Debates (no date).

CVT Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995).

DKG The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987).

STTIL Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John Frame, ed. John J. Hughes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009).


Questions and answers

1.    John, how has Francis Schaeffer influenced you?

I only met Schaeffer maybe three or four times in my life. I spent a night at his Chalet in Switzerland in 1960, but he was away in the states at the time. I hoped to spend more time there, but God never opened the door. Nevertheless, reports of God’s work at L’Abri stirred my soul, and I sought any opportunity to read his letters and, when later available, his books.

Early in my study at Westminster [Theological Seminary ( Philadelphia ) in 1961-64], I read Schaeffer’s article “A Review of a Review,” published in The Bible Today.1 Schaeffer had studied both with Van Til and with the editor of The Bible Today, J. Oliver Buswell. Buswell had been very critical of Van Til. Schaeffer’s article sought to bring them closer together. Much of Schaeffer’s argument made sense to me, and from then on I believed that the differences between Van Til’s and the “traditional” apologetic were somewhat less than Van Til understood them to be.

Even more impressive to me, however, was Schaeffer’s example as an evangelist. L’Abri sought both to give “honest answers to honest questions” to the people who visited, and to show them an example of radical Christian love and hospitality, a “demonstration that God is real.” I came to know many who had been converted through L’Abri, or had been deeply influenced by the ministry. Almost without exception, these believers were spiritually mature, balanced, passionate about both truth and holiness. Though I watched L’Abri from afar off, it influenced my own ministry more than many who were closer by.

My student years at Westminster were deeply formative. Particularly, I emerged fully convinced of biblical authority and presuppositional epistemology, modified a bit in Schaeffer’s direction.

STTIL, 19 and 20


2.    You say (see 1 above ) that you were influenced by a Schaeffer article to a “presuppositional epistemology, modified a bit in Schaeffer’s direction”—“that the differences between Van Til’s and the ‘traditional’ apologetic were somewhat less than Van Til understood them to be.” Regarding Schaeffer’s article, in addition to Schaeffer saying “to some we use the classical arguments” (in #8(H) of his article—see footnote 1 above ) what would Van Til object to and how would you respond? In other words, from the article how did Schaeffer influence you?

As for Van Til’s likely objection to Schaeffer’s article: I think Van Til would have disagreed strongly with Schaeffer’s contention that Buswell’s apologetic is reconcilable with Van Til’s. Van Til thought that Buswell’s use of evidences, etc. gave credit to the thinking of the natural man. Van Til would have taken great offense at Buswell’s position (as Schaeffer presents it in statement #5: “Dr. Buswell says in considering improvements on Thomas Aquinas’s arguments … that he, Dr. Buswell, would set forth certain logical conclusions to the unsaved man, based on these arguments, and then show him that “Among many hypotheses of eternal existence, the God of the Bible is the most reasonable, the most probable eternal Being.””). Van Til always reprobated the notion that Christianity should be considered as a hypothesis among others and should be proved “reasonable” and “probable.” Indeed, Van Til often referred to Buswell as having an unsound apologetic.

Now I agree with Schaeffer (#6) that Buswell’s “agreements” with unbelief should be understood as “for the sake of argument,” and therefore they are not incompatible with what Van Til himself recommends.

And I think that Schaeffer is very insightful in his analysis (#8) of the non-Christian’s (and the Christian’s) inconsistency and the apologetic fruitfulness of this inconsistency. Van Til also spoke of the non-Christian’s inconsistency, but he resisted the use of this inconsistency as a “point of contact.” I think this is part of Van Til’s general unclarity about the nature of the “antithesis” between believer and unbeliever, which I discussed in Chapter 15 of my CVT book. Schaeffer’s article was the root of my feeling that Van Til’s account of the unbeliever’s psychology needed clarification. I came out agreeing with Schaeffer, and not with Van Til, that it is legitimate to use the unbeliever’s inconsistencies as a positive point of contact. “OK: you believe in logic, but if you really believed in logic, you’d be a theist.”

Email 20 October 2008 from John Frame


3.    John, please give a brief outline of Francis Schaeffer’s apologetics, which you refer to as “Modified Presuppositionalism,” and add an evaluation.

  1. Schaeffer is not a professional scholar, though he knows a great deal in many fields, especially art history. Most of his knowledge comes from conversations with people who have studied in various areas.
  2. Essentially, Schaeffer is an evangelist. As such he is one of the best. His strategy:
    1. “Honest answers to honest questions.”
    2. Demonstration of the presence of God in lifestyle.
  3. Often talks like Van Til, with whom he studied. “We must begin with Christian presuppositions.”
  4. Still, we must verify all presuppositions by tests of coherence, factual adequacy and adequacy for practical life.
  5. Analysis of the history of thought:
    1. The modern age is characterized by scepticism over truth and meaning, a refusal to distinguish clearly between truth and falsehood.
    2. This malaise is clearly seen first in Hegel who defined truth as the union of opposites.
    3. Thus in witnessing to modern men we must first teach them to think—like Plato and Aristotle—in terms of truth as the opposite of falsehood, the law of non-contradiction.
  6. Evaluation
    1. Schaeffer has accomplished more obvious good in recent years than almost anybody.
    2. The emphasis on both presuppositions and verification is important; possibly even an advance over Van Til in emphasis.
    3. Emphasis on “being able to live with your presuppositions”—an important apologetic tool, often ignored by presuppositionalists. The rationalist/irrationalist dialectic appears in practical life, not just in theory.
    4. But Schaeffer does not make explicit the natural man’s rejection of all legitimate standards of verification.
    5. In calling a modern man back to the ancient Greek “truth as antithesis”,

a)    He misconstrues history. Hegel is not the first to abandon true objectivity. The Greeks were just as bad. (And Kant is more important than Hegel to the distinctively modern form of the dialecticism.)

b)    He calls men to a neutral notion of truth apart from Scripture which believers and unbelievers share in common. “Truth is not ultimately related to the Bible.” (In a private conversation, he told me that he didn’t mean to suggest this, but he couldn’t show me anywhere in his books where he guards against such notions. Therefore I still say that his books convey this impression.)

c)    He makes such adherence to “antithesis” a necessity before one can hear the gospel. A sort of “pre-preparationism.” In my view, there is no preparation for grace. To educate people as to the meaning of truth, we must go to Scripture, and that is evangelism, not pre-evangelism.

CAGD, 71–72


4.    In CGAD (see 3 above ) you say to “verify all presuppositions by tests of coherence, factual adequacy and adequacy for practical life … is important; possibly even an advance over Van Til on emphasis” with the qualification that “Schaeffer does not make explicit the natural man’s rejection of all legitimate standards of verification” (d and f(2 & 4)). Please could you explain this further (including whether you would still hold to this), as I am not sure that you have said this elsewhere and especially because Schaeffer’s apologetic method is closer to “verificationalism” than presuppositionalism.2

Epistemologically, it goes like this: (1) We presuppose the norms or standards for knowledge, (2) we apply these to the evidences and facts, and (3) we adopt those conclusions which we believe are warranted. (1) is normative, (2) situational, (3) existential. We can, then, err in three ways: (1) by presupposing the wrong norms, (2) by wrongly identifying and interpreting the evidence, or (3) by wrongly drawing conclusions from the application of the norms to the facts. These are perspectivally related: error on one of these will lead logically to error in the others. That’s the approach I developed in DKG.

Van Til would not have said that we must verify presuppositions (as in (d) under 3 above ). But he did believe that there was “absolute proof for Christian theism,” though it was circular proof in a sense. When I speak of verification by tests of coherence, facts, and practical adequacy, I am referring to an argument that is circular, but broadly, rather than narrowly circular. (This distinction is in my writings.3) So I think that if Van Til understood what I mean by verification, he would have agreed with me.

As for Schaeffer, I don’t think he ever developed a philosophically rigorous account of coherence, factual evidence, and practical adequacy. As I say at f(4) (under 3 above ), he does not say explicitly that the natural man rejects all legitimate standards. (He does say, however, in his article,4 that the non-Christian’s position reduces to irrationalism, which may amount to the same thing.)

But when he advocates appeal to coherence, etc., I think we should interpret him in the best possible way, as advocating (as I do, and as Van Til does) an argument that is ultimately circular, because it depends on biblical presuppositions.

Email 20 October 2008 from John Frame


5.    The L’Abri Statements, 21 April 1997, later qualify Schaeffer’s statement in his The Bible Today article that “to some we use the classical arguments”5 by saying, “We deny the Thomistic claim to be able to argue from the natural order independently of an epistemology rooted in God’s special revelation.”6 What do you think of this L’Abri qualification?

The L’Abri statement you cite is interesting. I have not seen it before. Now Schaeffer was an evangelist, not a philosopher, certainly not an expert in the epistemology of apologetics. He said things like “truth is not ultimately related to the Bible,” (rough quotation from one of his early books) which makes little sense. He often wrote as if the Greek philosophers were models of belief in objective truth, which at best is a misunderstanding. Except for his The Bible Today article, which I found helpful as I said, I don’t think he thought very clearly in these areas. But the L’Abri statement you quote, on the obvious meaning of it, says something that Schaeffer was rarely (if ever) willing to say during his lifetime. It definitely turns in a Van Tillian direction. As such, I applaud it.

Email 20 October 2008 from John Frame


6.    How would you compare Van Til’s and Schaeffer’s analysis of the history of philosophy?

Van Til’s analysis of the history of philosophy is more accurate, and, I think, more profound, than that of his student Francis Schaeffer, though there is much profitable teaching in Schaeffer’s thought. Schaeffer argues that the Greek philosophers believed in objective truth, and that that conviction pervaded Western philosophy until the coming of Hegel, who taught that truth and falsity could somehow be combined dialectically to achieve a supralogical level of insight. After that, says Schaeffer, Western culture “escaped from reason,” despairing of ever discovering “true truth”.7

Van Til, on the contrary, finds the Greeks just as irrationalistic as the moderns. The Sophists’ “man is the measure,” Heraclitus’s “everything flows,” Plato’s “realm of opinion,” Aristotle’s “prime matter”, the Gnostic realm of error—all are, to Van Til, classic statements of the irrationalist impulse—which, to be sure, was combined in their thought with the rationalist impulse. But, says Van Til, even Greek rationalism did not possess the sort of objectivity that Christians should applaud. Greek rationalism was based on human autonomy, and therefore on empty concepts rather than the riches of divine revelation.

Unlike Schaeffer, therefore, Van Til did not commend the objectivity of the Greeks; nor did he see some drastic shift to irrationalism in the philosophy of Hegel. Plato was both a rationalist and an irrationalist, and so was Hegel. The differences between the two were differences in detail and historical perspective, not differences in underlying commitment.

CVT, 237–238


7.    What do you think about Van Til’s influence on Schaeffer and his critique of Schaeffer?

I believe that Van Til … had a profound influence upon Francis Schaeffer, and through him, upon many others. Schaeffer studied with Van Til in 1936–37 and then left to join the student body at the newly formed Faith Theological Seminary. Schaeffer saw himself as a kind of bridge between Van Til and the more traditional apologetics, particularly that of James Oliver Buswell, and he published an article to that effect in the early 1950s.8

Schaeffer conducted a remarkable ministry in Switzerland , first to children, then to adult inquirers. In time, the ministry became known as L’Abri, which is French for “the shelter.” Many came to profess faith in Christ through Schaeffer’s work, particularly younger intellectuals. From the late 1960s until his death, Schaeffer produced a number of books reflecting the apologetic he practiced among these inquirers.

Van Til wrote, but did not publish, a volume attacking Schaeffer’s apologetic.9 His critique of Schaeffer was very similar to his critiques of Butler and Carnell: Schaeffer held to the traditional method; he presented the Christian faith as a supplement to the unbeliever’s knowledge; he used evidences and logical tests without first announcing their basis in scriptural revelation; he viewed the epistemology of the ancient Greeks too favourably.

I believe that Schaeffer was rather unclear on some important matters, particularly the existence of a distinctively biblical concept of truth. The epistemological basis of his reasoning is somewhat obscure. And Van Til is a far more reliable guide than Schaeffer in the history of philosophy.10 Nevertheless, to the extent that I have defended Butler and Carnell,11 I would defend Schaeffer, and with roughly the same argumentation.

In any case, it is interesting that there are some elements in Schaeffer’s thought that bring him closer to Van Til than are most traditional apologists. His use of the Trinity to solve the problem of the one and the many is right out of Van Til. And perhaps more significantly, Schaeffer’s apologetic is transcendental in a more explicit way than either Butler ’s or Carnell’s. Schaeffer argues that the only alternative to belief in the biblical God is matter, motion, time and chance, in which there is no basis for rationality, moral standards, or aesthetic value.

Since his death, Schaeffer’s influence has continued through the teaching and writings of his family and of disciples such as Os Guinness, Jerram Barrs, Ranald Macaulay, Udo Middelmann, and Donald Drew. Among these, one will not find much Van Tillian terminology. But, in my opinion, their writings have injected into evangelical apologetics and theology a high level of intelligence, wisdom, balance, and cultural awareness, together with an overriding concern for biblical principle. In these respects they … are Van Til’s grandchildren.

CVT, 395–396


8.    How has Schaeffer effectively used ad hominem arguments (or the irrationalism-irrationalism dilemma of Van Til, and does this have any weaknesses?

Unbelievers, too, must be challenged to look at themselves and not only at the arguments for Christianity. If they do not see the relation of the argument to them, they will never be persuaded. Francis Schaeffer has very effectively used ad hominem arguments that challenge the unbeliever’s right to speak (and especially to live) as he does. He tells us, for example, about the composer John Cage who believes that the universe is pure chance and who seeks to express this in his music. But Cage is also a mushroom grower who once said, “I became aware that if I approached mushrooms in the spirit of my chance operations, I would die shortly. So I decided that I would not approach them in this way.”12 Schaeffer comments, “In other words, here is a man who is trying to teach the world what the universe intrinsically is and what the real philosophy of life is, and yet he cannot even apply it to picking mushrooms.” Cage’s philosophy of chance is not disproved merely because Cage is unable to apply it consistently. Still, this argument has a great deal of force. First, it shows something wrong in Cage’s life—something that needs to be changed in one way or another. Second, it lessens the attractiveness of Cage’s position. Most of us want a philosophy that we can live with, but if even Cage himself cannot live by his philosophy, there is little reason to believe that others will be able to. Third, it suggests problems in Cage’s thought of a deeper sort—the rationalist-irrationalist dialectic as described by Van Til.

DKG, 286–287


The choice is between God and chaos, God and nothing, God and insanity. To most of us, those are not choices at all. Believing in an irrational universe is not believing at all. It is, as we have seen, self-contradictory. But if someone has resolved to live without logic, without reason, and without standards, we cannot prevent him. He will, of course, accept logic and rationality when he makes his real-life decisions, and so he will not live according to his theoretical irrationalism. In many apologetic situations, it is useful to point this out. Perhaps the most persuasive element of Francis Schaeffer’s apologetic was his emphasis that irrationalists (or relativists or subjectivists) cannot live consistently with their beliefs. Indeed, when one tries to live as if there were no rational order (arbitrarily stepping in front of moving cars, etc.), one is not likely to live very long! That message had a strong impact on many minds.

AGG, 102 with footnote 18 (the last two sentences)


Atheism [Irrationalism]

Among Christian critics of culture, the late Francis Schaeffer and his disciples have perhaps presented most vividly the implications and dangers of atheistic relativism.13 They characterize the modern period as dominated by this type of thought, as opposed to the more rationalistic thought of earlier periods. They analyze modern art, music, films, philosophy, and politics among these lines, with fruitful apologetic conclusions.


Idolatry [Rationalism]

… The followers of Schaeffer tend to downplay modern idolatry, because they tend to be committed to a historical model in which ancient optimism concerning reason and order degenerates into modern irrationalism (atheistic relativism).14 They are therefore so committed to15 seeing modern man in terms of irrationalism that they often miss his idolatry and dogmatism—his rationalism.

AGG, 195 and 198


9.    How does the work of the Schaeffers show us how to treat inquirers?

The inquirer is to be treated neither as a statistic nor as someone to be manipulated into a verbal commitment; nor is he to be treated with contempt, though his unbelief is loathsome to God. He is a human being, made in God’s image, and is to be loved and treated with dignity. The work of the Schaeffers at L’Abri will be an enduring example to us in that regard, for the laboured to present thoughtful answers in a context of love and respect.16


10.  Who are useful writers from the Schaeffer group to help us know the people we are addressing?

Apologetics is addressed not only to individuals but also to families, to groups, to nations (as in the Old Testament), and to the world. The apologist is often called on to present his message, not only one-on-one but in speeches, publications, and media appearances. To do that effectively, it is important to know something of the mentality of the groups being addressed. What are the distinctive characteristics of modern culture? Of present-day American society? Answers to such questions can also improve the effectiveness of our witness to individuals.

Books and articles by the Schaeffer group (Francis, Edith, and Franky Schaeffer, Os Guinness, Donald Drew, Udo Middelmann, and Hans Rookmaaker) … are among the most helpful sources within the Reformed community for this purpose.

DKG, 365–366

Further reading

Bahnsen, Dr. Greg L. (edited by Joel McDurmon) Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended (Georgia: American Vision and Texas: Covenant Media Press, 2008), pages 241–268.

—. Van Til: Apologetics Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), pages 16–17n54, 52–53, 466 and 537–545.

Boa, Kenneth D. and Bowman, Robert M. Faith has its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Colorado: NavPress, 2001), pages 462–476.

Edgar, William “Two Christian Warriors: Cornelius Van Til and Francis A. Schaeffer Compared,” Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995), 57–80.

Follis, Bryan A. Truth with Love: the apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (Ilinois: Crossway Books, 2006), especially see pages 29-30, 61-67, 99 and 107–122 for a comparison of Van Til’s and Schaeffer’s apologetic method.

Schaeffer, Edith L’Abri (Ilinois: Crossway Books; 2nd Revised and Expanded edition, 1992)

Schaeffer, Francis A:

These are available in the latest editions or in The Complete Works as follows.

—. Trilogy: Three Essential Books in One Volume: The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent (UK: Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press or USA: Ilinois: Crossway Books, 1990). Especially see The God Who Is There Sections 4 to 6 and Appendix B.

—.The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume One, A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture (UK: Carlisle: Paternoster Press or USA: Ilinois: Crossway Books, Second edition, 1985). This contains The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent, plus an important additional Appendix A “The Question of Apologetics” to The God Who IsThere.

—. How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Ilinois: Crossway Books; 50th Anniversary edition, 2005)

—.The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume Five, A Christian View of the West (UK: Carlisle: Paternoster Press or USA: Ilinois: Crossway Books, Second edition, 1985). This contains How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.


Oct., 1948, 7-9. Now available at

SCRIVENER: As per: part III of Bill Edgar’s article Two Christian Warriors: Cornelius Van Til and Francis A. Schaeffer ComparedWTJ 57:1 (Spring 1995): 57–80; Bryan Follis Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer(Ilinois: Crossway Books, 2006), 99, 107–120; Dr. Greg L. Bahnsen (edited by Joel McDurmon) Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended (Georgia: American Vision and Texas: Covenant Media Press, 2008), 248-252 andVan Til: Apologetics Readings & Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 16–17n542. Though compare Kenneth D. Boa, and Robert M. Bowman, Faith has its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity(Colorado: NavPress, 2001), 472–473.

3 SCRIVENER: See DKG, 130–33 and 376 (maxim 18); AGG, 14.

SCRIVENER: See footnote 1 above.

SCRIVENER: See footnote 1 above, 8(h).

7 Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove III.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), 1–29.

8 SCRIVENER: See footnote 1 above.

9 SCRIVENER: See “The Apologetic Methodology of Francis A. Schaeffer” (1977), Eric H. Sigward, ed. The Works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895-1987 [Logos] CD-ROM (New York: Labels Army Co., 1997).

10 See my remarks [under 6 above].

11 SCRIVENER: See CVT, 269-297, especially Frame’s conclusions on 296-297.

12 Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is there (Chicago; Inter-Varsity Press, 1968) 73f.

13 This group includes Schaeffer’s wife Edith, his son Frank, his daughter Susan Macaulay, and the present and past associates of L’Abri Fellowship, such as Os Guinness, Donald Drew, Ranald Macaulay, Jerram Barrs, Udo Middelmann, and Jane Stuart Smith.

14 It would be interesting to see how much this is related to Schaeffer’s original premillennialism.

15 My contrast between atheism and idolatry is closely equivalent to Van Til’s contrast between irrationalism and rationalism.

16 See Edith Schaeffer. L’Abri (Wheaton, III.: Tyndale House, 1969) and The Tapestry (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1981).


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