Book Review: How Should We Then Live?


With a weakened certainty about objectivity, people find it easier to come to whatever conclusions they desire for the sociological ends they wish to see attained.” Dr. Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?

I had to reach How Should We Then Live?, by Dr. Francis Schaeffer, for a class that I am taking this week on Law and Ethics.  This is a pivotal read for Christians…especially those that are in leadership positions.  The title of the book comes from Ezekiel 33:1-20 and asks the question…How should we then live in light of a biblical worldview and all that we know about history, philosophy, and culture?  Schaeffer’s book is an overview of the last 3,000 years of history with a particular eye towards the role of Scripture, biblical authority, and the rise of humanism.  I’m glad that this was a book that I was required to read, it is a question that I certainly need to ask myself and my team on a regular basis to be sure that I am always doing things with the ultimate goal of honoring the Lord.

I highlighted several things while reading and have posted many of those items below…

  • Schaeffer’s thesis: If we are to understand “how we should live” today, then we must understand the cultural and intellectual forces that brought us to this day.  Schaeffer thus begins his penetrating analysis with the fall of Rome, followed by the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Englightenment, while focusing in the twentieth century primarily on the influence of art, music, literature, and film.
  • What they are in their thought world determines how they act.
  • The results of their thought world flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world.
  • To understand where we are in today’s world–in our intellectual ideas and in our cultural and political lives–we must trace three lines in history, namely, the philosophic, the scientific, and the religious.
  • Rome did not fall because of external forces such as the invasion by the barbarians.  Rome had no sufficient inward base; the barbarians only completed the breakdown–and Rome gradually became a ruin.
  • In the Middle Ages, a humanistic element was added which caused the authority of the church to take precedence over the teaching of the Bible.
  • If a robust Christian faith could handle non-Christian learning without compromising, it was all too easy for Greek and Roman thought forms to creep into the cracks and chinks of a faith which was less and less founded on the Bible and more and more resting on the authority of church pronouncements.
  • Without some ultimate meaning for a person (for me, an individual), what is the use of living and what will be the basis for morals, values, and law?  If one starts from individual acts rather than with an absolute, what gives any real certainty concerning what is right and what is wrong about an individual action?
  • An important step came when an Oxford professor named John Wycliffe (c.1320-1384) taught that the Bible was the supreme authority and produced his English translation of the Bible, raising a voice which had influence throughout Europe.
  • While the men of the Renaissance wrestled with the problem of what could give unity to life and specifically what universal could give meaning to life and to morals, another great movement, the Reformation, was emerging in the north of Europe.  This was the reaction we mentioned at the end of our study of the Middle Ages–the reaction against the distortions which had gradually appeared in both a religious and a secular form. The High Renaissance in the south and the Reformation in the north must always be considered side by side.  They dealt with the same basic problems, but they gave completely opposite answers and brought forth completely opposite results.
  • One must understand that these two things were happening almost simultaneously: First, in the south, much of the High Renaissance was based on a humanistic ideal of man’s being the center of all things, of man’s being autonomous; second, in the north of Europe, the Reformation was giving an opposite answer.  In other words, the Reformation was exploding with Luther just as the High Renaissance was coming to its close.  As we have said, Luther nailed his Theses to the door in Wittenberg in 1517.
  • While the Reformation and the Renaissance overlapped historically and while they dealt with the same basic questions, they gave completely different answers.
  • At its core, therefore, the Reformation was the removing of the humanistic distortions which had entered the church.
  • Luther said in the preface to the Wittenberg Gesangbuch, “I wish that the young men might have something to rid them of their love ditties and wanton songs and might instead of these learn wholesome things and thus yield willingly to the good; also, because I am not of the opinion that all the arts shall be crushed to earth and perish through the Gospel, as some bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of Him who gave and created them.”
  • To whatever degree a society allows the teaching of the Bible to bring forth its natural conclusions, it is able to have form and freedom in society and government.
  • If industrialization had been accompanied by a strong emphasis on the compassionate use of accumulated wealth and on the dignity of each individual, the Industrial Revolution would have indeed been a revolution for good.  But all too often in England and other countries the church was silent about the Old and New Testament’s emphasis on a compassionate use of wealth.
  • The utopian dream of the Enlightenment can be summed up by five words: reason, nature, happiness, progress, and liberty.  It was thoroughly secular in its thinking.  The humanistic elements which had risen during the Renaissance came to flood tide in the Enlightenment.  Here was man starting from himself absolutely.  And if the humanistic elements of the Renaissance stand in sharp contrast to the Reformation, the Enlightenment was in total antithesis to it.  The two stood for and were based upon absolutely different things in an absolute way, and they produced absolutely different results.
  • The rise of modern science did not conflict with what the Bible teaches; indeed, at a crucial point the Scientific Revolution rested upon what the Bible teaches.
  • Isaac Newton, like other early scientists, had no problem with the why because he began with the existence of a personal God who had created the universe.
  • Michael Faraday was a Christian.  He belonged to a group whose position was: “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
  • The Christian world view gives us a real world which is there to study objectively.  Another result of the Christian base was that the world was worth finding out about, for in doing so one was investigating God’s creation.  All things were created by God and are open for people’s investigation.
  • Francis Bacon “To conclude, therefore, let no man out of weak conceit of sobriety, or in ill applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works.” “The book of God’s word” is the Bible and the “Book of God’s works” is the world which God has made.  For Bacon and other scientists working on the Christian base, there was no separation or final conflict between what the Bible teaches and science.
  • Humanism had set out to make man autonomous; but its results have not been what the advocates of humanism idealistically visualized.
  • With a weakened certainty about objectivity, people find it easier to come to whatever conclusions they desire for the sociological ends they wish to see attained.
  • After the turmoil of the sixties, many people thought that it was so much better when the universities quieted down in the early seventies. I could have wept.  The young people had been right in their analysis, though wrong in their solutions.
  • Consider two hedonists meeting on a narrow bridge crossing a rushing stream: Each cannot do his own thing.
  • Society cannot stand chaos.  Some group or person will fill the vacuum.  An elite will offer us arbitrary absolutes, and who will stand in its way?
  • Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1778) said that the following five attributes marked Rome at its end: first, a mounting love of show and luxury (that is, affluence); second, a widening gap between the very rich and the very poor (this could be among countries in the family of nationals as well as in a single nation); third, an obsession with sex; fourth, freakishness in the arts, masquerading as originality, and enthusiasm pretending to be creativity; fifth, an increased desire to live off the state.  It all sounds so familiar.  We have come a long road since our first chapter, and we are back in Rome.
  • Without the absolute line which Christianity gives for the distinctiveness of people, even things which can be good in themselves lead to humanness being increasingly lost.
  • Modern man has no real boundary condition for what he should do; he is left only with what he can do.  Moral “oughts” are only what is sociologically accepted at the moment.  In this setting will today’s unthinkable still be unthinkable in ten years?
  • The central message of biblical Christianity is the possibility of men and women approaching God through the work of Christ.  But the message also has secondary results, among them the unusual and wide freedoms which biblical Christianity gave to countries where it supplied the consensus.  When these freedoms are separated from the Christian base, however, they become a force of destruction leading to chaos.  When this happens, as it has today, then, to quote Eric Hoffer, “When freedom destroys order, the yearning for order will destroy freedom.”
  • As Christians we are not only to know the right world view, the world view that tells us the truth of what is, but consciously to act upon that world view so as to influence society in all its parts and facets across the whole spectrum of life, as much as we can to the extent of our individual and collective ability.
  • To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.

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