In the early 1980s, a Christian friend waxed eloquent about the writings and thought of Francis Schaeffer to me. I was a young Christian then and respected this friend’s endorsement, but didn’t think I was up to tackling his five volume collected works which had just been published in 1982. So I bought the smallest book I could find by Schaeffer in the bookstore instead, Escape From Reason. It was so full of thoughtful theology, apologetics and philosophy that I have been reading, re-reading and referencing it since then.
In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer developed a helpful way of conceiving how the modern understanding of humanity came about. But unlike other modern thinkers, he went back to the thought of Thomas Aquinas, over three hundred years before Descartes. See “Not a Ghost in the Machine” for more on Descartes. Schaeffer thought the real birth of modern humanistic thought began with Aquinas’ distinction between nature and grace. According to Schaeffer, Aquinas thought grace was a higher level of existence that included God the Creator, heaven and heavenly things, the unseen and its influence on the earth and the human soul. The lower level of nature contained every thing created—all earthly things, all that is visible, and what nature and humans do on the earth, including the human body.
Similar to the Cartesian mind-body distinction, Aquinas did not see a complete separation between nature and grace—between the human body and soul. However, he had an incomplete view of the biblical Fall, according to Schaeffer. Aquinas thought human will was fallen, but human intellect was not. “From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all the subsequent difficulties.” In Aquinas, one realm of human existence could potentially be independent of God. Human intellect wasn’t entirely non posse non peccare— not able not to sin—to use Augustine’s description of human nature after the Fall. According to Schaeffer, this meant there was a potential for us to act as if human reason could be autonomous from God.
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 Scriptures. This does not mean this tendency was never previously apparent, but it appears in a more total way from this time on.
When nature was made autonomous by Aristotelian thought in Aquinas, it began to annex grace. Schaeffer stressed that when nature is conceived as autonomous from God, it becomes destructive and it will ‘eat up’ grace. “Nature gradually became more totally autonomous. . . . By the time the Renaissance reached its climax, nature had eaten up grace.” But the Reformation was a counter balance to this autonomy of intellect.
In the Scriptures, God spoke truly about the upper level and the lower level. He spoke truly about Himself and heavenly things, and He spoke truly about nature—the created order of the cosmos and humanity. This is known as the two-books theory of God’s revelation—special revelation in Scripture and general revelation in nature. This was incidentally the starting point for many of the first modern scientists. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher and scientist, is generally seen as the father of empiricism. He said:
God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.
Scripture also says we are made in the image of God, but fallen because “at a space-time point of history,” humanity sinned. Although the people of the Reformation knew they were morally guilty before God, they were not nothing. “These people knew they were the very opposite of nothing because they were made in the image of God.” And when the Word of God was listened to, the Reformation had tremendous results—in culture and in people becoming Christians.
The Bible tells us God is “both a personal God and an infinite God.” This personal-infinite God is the Creator of all things. Therefore, everything else is finite; everything else is created. This Creator-creature distinction places a chasm between God and all created things—humanity, animals, plants, and the machine. Yet when you come to the side of humanity’s personhood (Descartes’ mind-body composite), we were made in the image of God—created to have a personal relationship with Him. So humanity’s relationship is upward with God and not merely downward with the rest of the created order. Schaeffer pictured this relationship as follows:
On the side of God’s infinity, humanity is as separated from God as the Cartesian sense of machine and the other aspects of the created order. This is the Creator-creation distinction. However biblically, there is a different story on the side of human personality. Being made in the image of God, we were created to have a personal relationship with Him. Here our relationship is upward and not just downward; and there is a difference between humans and the rest of the created order.
If you are dealing with twentieth-century people, this becomes a very crucial difference. Modern man sees his relationship downward to the animal and to the machine. The Bible rejects this view of who man is. On the side of personality you are related to God. You are not infinite but finite; nevertheless, you are truly personal; you are created in the image of the personal God who exists.
Schaeffer said there is nothing truly autonomous from God; not the human mind or reason. There can be nothing apart from the lordship of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures. God made the whole person and He is interested in the whole person. While the modern humanist may have been conceived during the Renaissance, the Reformation provided the corrective to his dilemma. Although dualism in Renaissance thought has contributed significantly to the modern world’s sorrows, there is still hope in Christ. In another of his works, A Christian View of the Bible as Truth, Francis Schaeffer said:
The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, including true to the ultimate environment—the infinite, personal God who is really there—then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Such an attitude will give our Christianity a strength that it often does not seem to have at the present time.
What happened is that rationalism evolved and became entrenched in science. The uniformity of natural causes in creation or nature was gradually closed to any intervention from outside, from God. Nature became a closed system devoid of any intervention from God. The distinction of nature and grace no longer made sense. “There was no idea of grace—the word did not fit any longer.” There was no room for revelation, so the problem was redefined in terms of freedom and nature. “Nature has totally devoured grace, and what is left in its place ‘upstairs’ is the word ‘freedom’.”
At this time we find that nature is now so totally autonomous that determinism begins to emerge. Previously determinism had almost always been confined to the area of physics; to the machine portion of the universe.
This autonomous freedom is one where the individual is at the center of the universe. It is a freedom without restraint; without limitations. Descartes’ conception of the mind as a thinking thing, the person as a fundamentally rational, mind-bound individual, fits well within this freedom. And here we can see the fulfillment of the promise of the serpent in the story of the Fall. Eating of the forbidden fruit opened human eyes and made us like God, with the freedom of knowing good and evil independent of Him. As Blaise Pascal observed: “Original sin is foolish to men” who seek to be autonomous beings.
If interested, you can watch Francis Schaeffer unfold more of his thinking in several YouTube videos. Here is a link to one on “The Flow of Materialism.”