This is the first of four posts in a series titled Two Contents, Two Realities. These posts are slightly edited excerpts of a paper delivered by Dr. Francis Schaeffer as part of the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland.
As is often true for Schaeffer, his insights are timeless, and as pertinent today as they were a generation ago.
The first content, if we want to see somethng profound happen in this generation, is clear doctrinal content concerning the central elements of Christianity. There is no use talking about meeting the threat of the coming time or fulfilling our calling in the twenty-first century unless we consciously help each other to have a clear doctrinal position. We must have the Courage to make no compromise with liberal theology and especially neo-orthodox existential theology.
Christianity is a specific body of truth; it is a system, and we must not be ashamed of the word system. There is truth, and we must hold that truth. There will be borderline things in which we have differences among ourselves, but on the central issues there must be no compromise.
Evangelicals can fall into something which really is not very far from existential theology without knowing it. One form of such “evangelical existentialism” is the attitude, if not the words, “Don’t ask questions, just believe.” This sort of attitude was always wrong, but it is doubly wrong today when we are surrounded with a monolithic consensus which divides reason from non-reason and always puts religious things in the area of non-reason. We must call each other away from this idea. It is not more spiritual to believe without asking questions. It is not more biblical. It is less biblical and eventually it will be less spiritual, because the whole man will not be involved. Consequently, in our evangelism, in our personal work, in our young people’s work, in our ministry wherever we are, those of us who are preachers and are preaching, those of us who are teachers and are teaching, and those of us who are evangelists must be absolutely determined not to fall into the trap of saying or implying, “Don’t ask questions, just believe.” It must be the whole man who comes to understand that the gospel is truth and believes because he is convinced on the basis of good and sufficient reason that it is truth.
Moreover, we must be very careful to emphasize content in our messages. How much content will depend upon the people with whom we are working. In a university setting, the content will be slightly different than in a situation where people are not as educated. Nevertheless, whether we work with a man or woman who is not as educated or whether we work with an intellectual, in all instances the gospel we preach must be rich in content. Certainly, we must be very careful not to fall into the cheap solution (which seems so fascinating at first) of just moving people to make decisions without their really knowing what they are making a decision about. We in L’Abri have had people come to us who have “accepted Christ as Savior” but are not even sure that God exists. They have never been confronted with the question of the existence of God. The acceptance of Christ as Savior was a thing abstracted. It had an insufficient content. In reality, it was just another kind of trip.
Likewise, in a Christian school or college we can try just to religiously move the students on the basis of something apart from the intellect, separated from the academic disciplines and the whole of study. We must say no to this.
What we need to do is to understand our age to be an age of very subtle religious and political manipulation, manipulation by cool communication, communication without content. And as we see all these things, we must lean against them. We have a message of content; there is a system to Christianity. It is not only a system, true enough; it is not a dead scholasticism, true enough; but it is a system in that the person who accepts Christ as his Savior must do so in the midst of the understanding that prior to the creation of the world a personal God on the high level of Trinity existed. And if they “accept Christ as their Savior” and do not understand that God exists as an infinite-personal God, and do not understand that man has been made in the image of God and has value, and do not understand that man’s dilemma is not metaphysical because he is small but moral because man revolted against God in a space-time Fall, in all probability they are not saved. If we “evangelize” by asking for such “acceptance of Christ as Savior,” all we have done is to guarantee they will soon drift away and become harder to reach than ever. Not everybody must know everything – nobody knows everything; if we waited to be saved until we knew everything, nobody would ever be saved – but that is a very different thing from deliberately or thoughtlessly diminishing the content.
Another way to fall into an “evangelical existentialism” is to treat the first half of Genesis the way the existential theologian treats the whole Bible. The first half of Genesis is history, space-time history, the Fall is a space-time Fall, or we have no knowledge of what Jesus came to die for, and we have no way to understand that God is really a good God. Our whole answer to evil rests upon the historic, space-time Fall. There was a time before man revolted against God. The internal evidence of Genesis and the external evidences (given in the New Testament by the way the New Testament speaks of the first half of Genesis) show that the first half of Genesis is really meant to be space-time history-that is, space and time, the warp and woof of history.
In relationship to this is the danger of diminishing the content of the gospel in a reverse fashion. Bible-believing Christians who stand against the liberal theologian when he would say there are no absolutes in the Bible can make the opposite mistake by adding other elements as though they were equally absolute. In other words, the absolutes of the Word of God can be destroyed in both directions. That is, the liberal theologian can say, “After all, there is no such thing as an absolute, and specifically the Bible does not give absolutes,” or the evangelical can reach over into the middle, class standards and say, “These standards are equal to the absolutes of the Word of God.”
The obvious illustration is how the church treats the counterculture person or a person dressed in a different way. Young people come to us at L’Abri from the ends of the earth, become Christians, and go home and then try to find a Bible-believing church that will accept them without all the change of life-style. I do not mean they try to retain a drug life or a promiscuous sex life which would be against the Word of God. I mean, for example, the way they dress or talk. It is one of my greatest sorrows that the evangelical church often will not accept the person with his lifestyle unless it fits into the middle-class norm in that particular geographical location. And unhappily we often do not realize what we have done when we do this. It is not only a lack of love. We have destroyed the absolutes of the Word of God by making something else equal to God’s absolutes.
If you ask me why the evangelical church has so often been weak in the question of race in the past, I think it was the same. 1 We were surrounded by a culture that had racial prejudices and which did not look at all men as equal, and we allowed this to infiltrate the church. We made taboos apart from and even against the Word of God, and we held them to be equal with the absolutes of the Bible. But to exalt a cultural norm to an absolute is even more destructive today because we are surrounded by a totally relativistic society. As we make other things equal to the absolutes of the Word of God, it may not be more sinful in the sight of God than it was in the past, but it is more destructive. Consequently, when we talk about content, we are talking about something very practical indeed. We must have a strong, strong doctrinal content.
And as we have a strong doctrinal content, we must practice the content, practice the truth we say we believe. We must exhibit to our own children and to the watching world that we take truth seriously. It will not do in a relativistic age to say that we believe in truth and fail to practice that truth in places where it may be observed and where it is costly. We, as Christians, say we believe that truth exists. We say we have truth from the Bible. And we say we can give that truth to other men in propositional, verbalized form and they may have that truth. This is exactly what the gospel claims and this is what we claim. But then we are surrounded by a relativistic age. Do you think for a moment we will have credibility if we say we believe the truth and yet do not practice the truth in religious matters? If we do not do this, we cannot expect for a moment that the tough-minded, twenty-first century young person (including our own young people) will take us seriously when we say, “here is truth” when they are surrounded by a totally monolithic consensus that truth does not exist.
Consider an example in the academic world. One girl who was teaching in one of the major universities of Britain was a real Christian and very bright. She was teaching in a sociology department whose head was a behaviorist, and he told her she had to teach in the framework of behaviorism or lose her post. Suddenly she was confronted with the question of the practice of truth. She said no, she could not teach behaviorism, and she lost her post. This is what I mean by practicing truth when it is costly. And this will come in many, many places and in many, many ways. It will come in the area of sexual life forms, being surrounded by permissive sexualists and asexuality. We must be careful by the grace of God to practice what we say the Bible teaches–the one-man, one-woman relationship–or we are destroying the truth that we say we believe. And this practicing will include church discipline where it is necessary.
But nowhere is practicing the truth more important than in the area of religious cooperation. If I say that Christianity is really eternal truth, and the liberal theologian is wrong–so wrong that he is teaching that which is contrary to the Word of God–and then on any basis (including for the sake of evangelism) I am willing publicly to act as though that man’s religious position is the same as my own, I have destroyed the practice of truth which my generation can expect from me and which it will demand of me if I am to have credibility. How will we have a credibility in a relativistic age if we practice religious cooperation with men who in their books and lectures make very plain that they believe nothing (or practically nothing) of the content set forth in Scripture?
Incidentally, almost certainly if we have a latitudinarianism in religious cooperation, the next generation will have a latitudinarianism in doctrine, and specifically a weakness toward the Bible. We are seeing this happen in parts of evangelicalism as well. We must have the courage to take a clear position.2
But let us beware. We certainly must not take every one of our small secondary distinctives and elevate them to be the point where we refuse to have fellowship on any level with those who do not hold them. It is the central things of the Word of God which make Christianity Christianity. These we must hold tenaciously, and, even when it is costly for us and even when we must cry, we must maintain that there is not only an antithesis of truth, but an antithesis that is observable in practice. Out of a loyalty to the infinite-personal God who is there and who has spoken in Scripture, and out of compassion for our own young people and others, we who are evangelicals dare not take a halfway position concerning truth or the practice of truth.
Thus, with regard to the first content there are three things to recognize: first, there must be a strong emphasis on content; second, there must be a strong emphasis on the propositional nature of the Bible, especially the early chapters of Genesis; and third, there must be a strong emphasis on the practice of truth. We can talk about methods, we can stir each other up, we can call each other to all kinds of action, but unless it is rooted in a strong Christian base in the area of content and the practice of truth, we build on sand and add to the confusion of our day.