Honest Answers to Honest Questions: Francis Schaeffer and the Dogma of Doubt

Christians will doubt, and skeptics will question. This is an inevitable part of the church’s relationship to the world. There will be times when the strength of the faithful in the face of crises will be too fragile for them even to pretend to have certainty, and there will be moments when the challenges of unbelievers to the core doctrines of our religion will unnerve even the most devout. Our demeanor at such times is nearly as important as our answers to the inquiries themselves.

Now, we can veer to one side by ignoring the person before us, treating them as though they’re nothing more than the object of our pontification, making the question merely the opportunity for us to speak and for others to listen. We can veer to the other by making the person the center, acting as though the only thing that matters is that the questioner feels comfortable asking the question, making any answer to the query secondary at best.

Historically, conservatives have erred on the side of obedience, asking “Who are we to question the truth?” This has the virtue of taking the truth seriously and remembering that reality is not determined by democratic consensus. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, have traditionally gone off course by leaning too much on openness, asking “Who are we to say what is true?” This has the merit of taking the questioner seriously and admitting that humanity’s perceptions can and do err.

One of my theological and personal heroes is Francis Schaeffer, significantly because he threaded this needle so well. There are a lot of things to admire about him: his work encouraging the arts, his role in moving issues of human dignity to the forefront of the evangelical conscience, the way he made it respectable for erstwhile Fundamentalists to use their minds, the way he popularized issues of worldview and encouraged Christians to consider that their ideas did have consequences.

Nonetheless, these things do not form the core for my admiration of the man. Yes, these were, and are, vitally important and influential for English-speaking evangelicalism and beyond, even for those who are still unaware of his influence upon them. In many ways these virtues were merely the outflow of his pastoral style. Style is too weak a word. It wasn’t an affectation but a principle which played out in the way he spoke to people.

You see, what drew people to him wasn’t just his theological or philosophical formulations or even his strong sense of morality. Because he believed that not only were there answers but also that we could know those answers, he could face the questions of skeptics and doubters with both grace to them and confidence in the truth. He had a passion for giving honest answers to honest questions.

In his day, and ours, there were those who opposed one or another end of this little phrase. There were the people, broadly speaking conservatives, who challenged the idea of asking questions, because doing so supposedly demonstrated a lack of faith. Then, there were those people, broadly speaking liberals, who opposed the prospect of providing answers, because to do this presumed that we have any answers to give.

Schaeffer’s ministry was a lived-out refutation of each of these errors. Instead of simply telling his interlocutors to “shut up and believe” or letting them drift in the ignorance of “it doesn’t matter what you believe,” he worked with people to answer their questions about the truth claims of Christianity. By his great confidence in the reality of biblical revelation, Schaeffer spent his life convincing skeptics and church burnouts that the Word of God had something to say about all of their lives. He didn’t mock them for their doubts or deride them for their uncertainties, but, with confidence that God had not been silent, he worked to explain how their questions were answered in the truth of Christianity.

As anyone who knows his story can tell you, he did not come to this certainty by a direct route. Growing up in a non-believing home, Schaeffer didn’t come to faith until his late teens. Then, after spending several years as a pastor in America and Europe, he nearly lost the faith he’d been preaching to others. Failing to see a reality in the faith of his fellow Christians and his own heart, he, in effect, went back to his agnosticism, examining his doubts and all the presuppositions which had led him to faith in the first place.

Fortunately for all of us who’ve benefited from his work, he found that his questions did have answers, that his doubts about Christianity were not as strong as the reasons for believing it was true. It’s not that his newly renewed faith was devoid of questions, but it was reinvigorated by a renewed appreciation for its propositions. In the Bible, God had provided His image bearers with answers to life’s questions that, though they were not exhaustive, they were sufficient. He spent the next few decades listening to questions, hearing people express their doubts without shaming them for having them in the first place.

Thankfully, owing significantly to Schaeffer’s example, there are now a host of ministries, such as his own L’Abrithe Francis Schaeffer Foundation, the Colson Center, and Summit Ministries, specifically oriented towards helping people work through their questions and doubts. His effect on the work of Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey is profound.

Yet, we still face many of the same problems today. There are still those Christians who feel as though doctrines of the Faith are simply to be rammed down others throats with little or no room for questions. Such methods may have the virtue of simplicity as they appreciate the sometimes-uncomfortable nature of truth, but they don’t do a lot for humanity’s personal nature and the uncertainties that plague our limited vantage point.

What drives this attitude is a mistaken perspective. Instead of being about God and His universe, it becomes about us, particularly the one answering the questions. In place of being about learning the truth, it becomes an opportunity to prove one’s own worth as a defender of the faith. It often ends up as a chance to show off knowledge, to demonstrate prowess with wit and wisdom, or, worse yet, to beat down the other. This other person is no longer a fellow human being with fears and concerns, but an enemy or a conquest.

This may create within the one with “all the answers” a great sense of satisfaction and maybe even the feeling of privilege of being one of the few “in the know,” but it does little to advance God’s kingdom in the world or our own hearts. How many of us have turned away from an academic subject because our history, math, poetry, or what-have-you teacher taught it so poorly that we cannot conceive ever appreciating it ourselves. Would-be apologists of the faith may comfort themselves, saying “It’s not my fault the person was so sensitive,” but we must still face the fact that you have put an obstacle in the way of a lost soul, one that may have obstructed you were you in his place.

While theologically conservative Christians are known to fail their people in this way, their more progressive counterparts tend to make the opposite error. They are ready to embrace the questions and doubts as seriously as they deserve, but they do so by making the questions the endgame and seeing ambiguity as admirable in itself. Just as much as the other flaw makes it about us and not God’s truth, this does the same, except that the person asking the question becomes central.

Where the danger for conservatives is to be obnoxious in their presentation of the truth, making the listener uninterested in hearing what they have to say, the quagmire for the progressives is to focus so much on the felt-needs of the doubter that they are left with nothing left to say. This isn’t just quirk of the movement, much less is it hypocrisy. Instead it is a function of progressive epistemology.

They can have great confidence in human abilities to understand the workings of worldly affairs, but once we cross the threshold to “upper story” issues of God and ultimate meaning, doubt reigns supreme. Part of this is a reasonable desire to let people ask their questions without shame or fear, but part of this is a more principled skepticism about whether any of us can know the answers to those questions.

Seeing the differing views within Christendom, they refrain from standing too firmly on any particular doctrine, raising, in effect, natural human doubt to the level of inviolable dogma of the faith. Humility is an admirable trait, but this is taking it too far. Our view of the cosmos has changed over the centuries, with those in one era absolutely confident that theirs is right and all predecessors were wrong, but this does not mean that there is no truth nor that it cannot be known. The reason we abandoned Ptolemy for Copernicus wasn’t petty bias but because we were able to learn that the one better comported to the actual universe than the other.

There is no greater virtue in refraining from belief on account of life’s uncertainty than there is blindly believing everything we are told, nor is it somehow morally enlightened to refuse a reasonable answer out of a fascination for the question. Questions are not the end of the matter but the means by which we seek the truth, and asking innately assumes that the truth can be known. In His Word, God has spoken more than the truth of fables subject to our fallible interpretations but “true truth” which we can know.

This has practical effects. Without an emphasis on the reality and knowability of divine truth, the church becomes just another social club whose ideas have no greater significance than fan-fiction and whose ethical stands of no more enduring value than those of a political party.

If the core of the mission shifts from proclaiming the evangel of God to the church and watching world to creating a community where uncertainty is a cardinal virtue and doubt is prized as an end in itself, it becomes less and less important that any particular thing be said. If the focus of our faith is centered on the sincerity of our questions more than truthfulness of God’s answers, the church will inevitably alter its calls to match the preferences and temper of the world.

Progressive theologians have rightly noted the importance of loving others well and approaching seekers’ and believers’ questions and doubts with grace and love, but they fail these same souls by making their concerns and fears the center of their faith. It is vital that we speak the truth in love, but a love that ignores the truth is no love at all. We know things about God because He has told us who He is and what he expects of us. No, this knowledge will never be exhaustive according to our desires, but it will be sufficient to our needs.

The great strength of Francis Schaeffer, and the reason his example continues decades after his death, lay in this call to give honest answers to honest questions. It wasn’t his knowledge or intelligence, though such undoubtedly aided him greatly. Nor was it his charm or personal characteristics, though these were invaluable. What made him such a great apologist was that his abiding compassion for people was met in equal measure by his firm conviction of the truth. He loved the people who came to him and knew that he could help them find peace because God had spoken in a way that we could understand.

The power to communicate the Christian Worldview doesn’t flow from it being our message, which we can bash over others’ heads, or from the authenticity of others’ questions, which we ought to affirm no matter what, but from the fact that the Creator of the universe is there, and He has not been silent.

 

Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973

Image: YouTube

Resources

Dr. Francis Schaeffer on Doubt in the Scope of the Work of Apologetics
  • Dan Guinn
  • International Society of Christian Apologetics and Evangelical Ministries to New Religions Conference 2019

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