Three Presbyterians and the Postmodern Mind

Francis Schaeffer

These are my reflections on an essay by K. Scott Oliphint in The Practical Calvinist entitled “Non Sola Ratione: Three Presbyterians and the Postmodern Mind.”

The Postmodern Mind is confused.  But according to those with postmodern minds, they’re OK with that, because at least they know they are confused (which supposedly makes them less confused that everyone else!).  Postmoderns have an advantage in our world today because at least they know there is nothing to really know.  Moderns (children of the Enlightenment) and Premoderns (those who inhabit a religious/mythical world construct) haven’t yet awakened from their dogmatic slumbers.  For the postmodern, truth is all about those in power in a particular society or culture claiming absolute authority over other groups by appealing to a metanarrative that works to their own advantage.  Postmoderns call every truth claim into question by labeling it groupthink and then deconstructing it into basic power plays.  Oliphint does a fine job distilling the essence of the postmodern critique into a mere 7 pages, and then argues that the only adequate answer is found in the arguments of three 20th century Presbyterians: Gordon Clark, Francis Schaeffer, and Cornelius Van Til.

Gordon Clark

I can almost hear the sophisticated postmodern philosophers chuckling at the notion that these relatively obscure (most Americans, nay most American Christians, probably would not recognize these names) Christian philosophers-apologists—who spent a lot of time criticizing each other (especially Clark and Van Til)—were even capable of offering a united critique of the postmodern challenge.  And the postmodernists have a valid point, which seems to justify their brushing aside the challenge of the Presbyterian triad.  But it turns out that the Clark-Schaeffer-Van Til theological and philosophical disciples seem to be playing nicer with each other, and have fine-tuned the arguments and rhetoric into a more forceful and pointed challenge that cannot be easily ignored.

Cornelius Van Til

Oliphint stresses that the triad stands united on their most crucial point: “Unless and until we have a Word from God, the Word of God, we simply cannot make sense of the world around us or the ‘word’ within us, not to mention the more important truth of how we can please God” (p. 382).  At first this doesn’t seem like anything but old fashioned fundamentalist Bible-thumping.  But it is really a reasonable philosophical argument that pleads for full disclosure of underlying presuppositions (basic beliefs that form the bedrock or foundation for all other beliefs).  All three men were painstakingly truth-seeking when it came to uncovering the presuppositions of the various forms that unbelief assumes.  Clark and Van Til may have fought over the theory and method of presuppositional apologetics, but Schaeffer forged his own path by taking their insights to the street in order to do “surgery” on unbelievers by helping them see clearly the implications of their particular forms of unbelief.  All three members of the triad relied on Scripture (and secondarily the Reformed creeds which they confessed to explain the Bible’s theology) as the sole rule of faith and the presupposition for reason itself, but it seems to me that Schaeffer was the most pastoral with the people he met and reasoned with.  Their voice, which seemed fresh and prophetic in the last generation in the 21st century, appears to be muffled in the culture’s view.  We need fresh expressions of their insights and fresh applications to a generation that is even more hardened to the notion of Truth.

I suppose there will never be another group of Christian philosopher-apologists like the Presbyterian triad of the 20th century, but their labors must be resumed by ordinary pastors and teachers as they challenge their churches and communities with the strong call of radical discipleship to Jesus Christ.  I hope I’ll get the opportunity someday to work to that end.

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One Response to Three Presbyterians and the Postmodern Mind

  1. KG says:

    Excellent. Thank you for the review. These three were amazing and so far ahead of the curve that they are still not properly appreciated.

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