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THE ESCAPE OF REASON FROM REASON – A BOOK REVIEW


Escape from Reason. Francis A. Schaeffer. InterVarsity Press, 1974. 96 pp. ISBN 0-87784-538-7.

Francis Schaeffer has been widely recognized as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Christian apologists.  In his book Escape from Reason, Schaeffer proposes to help the reader to interact, on a more meaningful level, with the current culture. Why? “We must realize that we are facing a rapidly changing historical situation, and if we are going to talk to people about the gospel we need to know what is the present ebb and flow of thought-forms. Unless we do this the unchangeable principles of Christianity will fall on deaf ears. And if we are going to reach the intellectuals and the workers, both groups right outside our middle-class churches, then we shall need to do a great deal of heart-searching as to how we may speak what is eternal into a changing historical situation.”[1] In order to help the reader to properly understand his current cultural situation, Schaeffer proposes to explain why people think the way they do today, and how we got to this point. Unless we understand the cause, we will be unable to know the effect fully. Schaeffer proposes, as a starting point, that the entire contemporary situation finds its starting place in a number of doctrines that he claims were proposed by Thomas Aquinas, namely: a distinction between nature and grace, and a partial fall of humanity by which humans retained some form of autonomy from their creator.[2] “What is wrong? Again, it goes back to Thomas Aquinas’s insufficient view of the Fall which gives certain things an autonomous structure. When nature is made autonomous it soon ends up by devouring God, grace, freedom and eventually man.”[3]

Schaeffer proposes that from this starting point we can follow the history of human philosophy and theology and give an explanation of contemporary thought, and how to approach it. He traces a line through the renaissance, the reformation, the development of science, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, contemporary existentialism, into contemporary culture. In his analysis of culture he considers the different domains of science, philosophy, and, primarily, the arts.

            The most important contributions of this book are Schaeffer's intriguing analysis of contemporary culture and society, and how Christians need to approach it. Furthermore, Schaeffer shows how the work of the existentialist philosophers such as Sartre and Heidegger have influenced our society, and indeed the Christian church, more than what most people realize. One of the conclusions that the reader will inevitably draw, after reading this book, is that, in order to be able to successfully present the gospel, we need to truly understand our culture, however, in order to truly understand this culture, we need to understand the ideas that drive it. If we don't understand our culture, then, when we preach the gospel, those who hear it won't understand it; it will be like trying to speak english to someone who does not understand english. 

The major problem of this book is that the starting point for his cultural analysis is factually wrong. He repeats his starting point on numerous occasions; namely, that Aquinas's distinction between nature and grace is the source of a dichotomy that has been influencing and destroying culture ever since. Regardless of his wrong interpretation of Aquinas, and his naming of Aquinas as the source of all the trouble, I do think that his diagnostic of culture is, in the main points, mostly right. It is a book worth reading for its diagnosis of culture, but not for its philosophical insights into the ancient and medieval philosophers. On the other hand, his critiques of Kierkegaard and Heidegger are a little bit more interesting, as he shows how these contemporary philosophers have had an enormous influence on our current society.

It is necessary to respond to his constantly repeated claim that "nature destroys grace", which shows up, in one form or another, throughout the book, as well as to his claim whereby he attributes a distinction between nature and grace to Aquinas, and  the claim that Aquinas only allows for a "partial fall", allowing for human autonomy from God. These claims are simply false as anyone who is familiar with Aquinas would know. Aquinas claims, to the contrary, that the entire human nature is corrupted, but that the fall did not erase all traces of rationality, etc. To make such a claim would be to contradict Rom. 1:19-20 and Rom. 2:15. A good book on this subject, which will correct the erroneous claims of Schaeffer, is "Aquinas, Calvin & Contemporary Protestant Thought" by Arvin Vos.

In relation to his claim that Aquinas only proposes a partial fall Schaeffer constantly claims that the "biblical doctrine" of the fall implies a total fall, and he constantly claims that a biblical theology is uninfluenced by any type of philosophy. Both of these later claims are naive and simply false. Most reformation theologians were either nominalists, such as Luther, or Platonist, in their philosophy, and these philosophical views, which were quite popular at that time, influenced their theology. Furthermore, the only truly "biblical theology" is the words of the Bible itself properly interpreted; however as many modern philosophers have noted, as soon as we begin the process of explaining and interpreting the Bible, we do so in the light of the categories that we accept about the world. That is, the Bible is interpreted in light of how we define certain terms, and these terms are not defined in the Bible. I always cringe whenever I hear someone claim, "That's just what the Bible teaches!", as they are arrogantly claiming some sort of insight that is over and above that of every other human since the apostle's finished writing the New Testament. There is only one proper interpretation for every part of scripture, however, human limitations and sinfulness should keep us from the pretentious and dogmatic claim that our theology is 100% truth. Schaeffer’s claim that nature destroys grace is humorous, because there was a common saying in the medieval age: "Grace perfects Nature".

All in all, I agree with his analysis of culture, but was greatly discouraged by his analysis of philosophy and theology. When I finished the book, the first thought that crossed my mind was, "how in the world did Schaeffer gain as much popularity as a Christian apologist as C. S. Lewis?" In fact, one can find, in C. S . Lewis, almost every insight that Schaeffer is credited with, however, with a more profound analysis of philosophical and theological trends. In my humble opinion, one would be better off reading C. S. Lewis than Schaeffer.


[1]Francis Schaeffer, Escape From Reason (1968; repr., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 93.

[2]Cf. 9, 11, 13, 16, 19, 23-24, 28, 32, 37, 38, 39-40, 51, 75.

[3]Cf. 39-40.

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