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To my knowledge, the evangelical Protestant Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) and the evangelical Roman Catholic Karol Wojtyla (1920-) never met. Francis Schaeffer, founder of L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, was a Christian intellectual and cultural critic, practical theologian, author, noted speaker, and evangelist, whose ministry in the last half of the twentieth century incited worldwide study and discipleship centers. Karol Wojtyla (1920-) is a philosopher, university professor, theologian, priest, bishop, cardinal, author, noted speaker, evangelist, and, last but not least, the man who became Pope John Paul II some 25 years ago.

These two great Christian pastors probably would have liked each other as well as deeply appreciated each other’s vision of the Christian life, each marked by intellectual vigor, theological substance, doctrinal orthodoxy, compassion, and a love for people. For them, Christian spirituality is based on the biblical affirmation that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11) over the whole of life, including culture, and that the whole of life is under God’s blessing, judgment, and redeeming purposes.

Both Michael Novak and James I. Packer have made comparisons between Schaeffer and Wojtyla, but neither Novak’s nor Packer’s analysis shows exactly where Schaeffer’s and Wojtyla’s visions of the Christian life are alike. My aim is to present some common themes in Schaeffer’s and Wojtyla’s thought. I derive these themes from two important books: Schaeffer’s 1969 book Death in the City, recently republished, and Wojtyla’s book Sign of Contradiction, consisting of his sermons at the annual Lenten Retreat in March 1976 to Pope Paul VI and his co-workers. The vision Schaeffer and Wojtyla express may be summed up in five propositions, each of which is essential to an authentically Christian engagement with contemporary post-Christian culture.

Creation, Fall, and Redemption through Jesus Christ

Schaeffer and Wojtyla consider the Christian faith to be a total worldview, because it embodies the truth about the whole of human life. At the core of this view is an interlocking set of life-orienting beliefs regarding the Creation, Fall, and Redemption. God created the world good. Indeed, the creation, especially humans who are its crown, actually manifests God’s goodness. This manifestation of goodness is God’s thesis, his affirmation, his yes to the creation (Gen. 1:31).

Now all creation is fallen through original sin. Human nature has lost its original harmony, and humans are wounded at the very root of their being, estranged from God, from themselves, and from their fellow humans, such that to be human means to be sinful, prone to sin, the violation of God’s will and purpose. This sinfulness denies God’s thesis and has its beginnings in Genesis 3. God’s response to sin is yes but also no. Yes, because God, full of love, mercy, and grace, does not abandon the fallen creation. Indeed, Genesis 3:15 contains the first proclamation of the Messiah, the proto-evangelium. But also no, because God, judging humans in the light of his perfect justice and holiness, is the author of the antithesis, of the sign of contradiction between good and evil, between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. As stated by Wojtyla, “Here, in the third chapter of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, it becomes clear that the history of mankind, and with it the history of the world with which man is united through the work of divine creation, will both be subject to rule by the Word and the anti-Word, the Gospel and the anti-Gospel.”

The redemption, accomplished through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, abrogates the antithesis between sin and creation. God’s original thesis is not only reasserted and reestablished, but also enriched, fulfilled, and perfected. The redemption restores the very heart of human nature, causing the rebirth of the human self in Christ (Col. 2:13; 2 Cor. 5:17). For Schaeffer and Wojtyla, the redemption in Christ becomes a vision of cosmic redemption for the whole creation, including society and culture, restoring all life to its fullness before the Fall. As Schaeffer writes, “Christian[s] should never give any onlooker the right to conclude that Christianity believes in the negation of life. Christianity is able to make a real affirmation [of life], because we affirm that it is possible to be in a personal relationship to the personal God Who is there and Who is the final environment of all He created. .… Therefore, since God made the whole man and is interested in the whole man, the salvation which [Saint] Paul preaches is a salvation which touches the whole man ... [including] culture ... which flows from people’s relationships with each other.”

Judgment in History: Word and anti-Word, Gospel and anti-Gospel, Love and anti-Love

Lord Acton observed that the key to interpreting history is religion. Christopher Dawson agrees, concluding, “The religion of a society expresses its dominant attitude to life and its ultimate conception of reality.” Thus, penetration into the religious dynamics at work in history is integral to understanding contemporary culture and society. Of course, such analysis does not deny the importance of the economy, social and institutional changes, and psychological and cultural aspects to historical study. Rather, this analysis only acknowledges that religious outlook drives the inner logic or dynamic of history.

That Schaeffer and Wojtyla agree with this analysis is reflected in their similar approaches to understanding the fundamental choices of humans in history as being either their radical affirmation or denial of God. The deepest dynamic of history is, then, the struggle between Word and anti-Word, Gospel and anti-Gospel, City of God and City of Man. This affirmation and denial reflect two kinds of love, referred to by Saint Augustine as “love of God carried as far as contempt of self” or “self-love reaching the point of contempt for God.” Anti-Word, anti-Gospel, and anti-Love all refer to denials of God throughout history. These denials manifest a deliberate turning away from the knowledge of God that results in the death of the city, with its fragmented, lost, and disoriented individuals, in the culture of death, with its practices of abortion, euthanasia, and cloning, and, ultimately, in the death of humans. The intellectual, moral, and religious consequences of this denial pervade every area of life. Without God, no basis exists for morality, meaning, the dignity of human beings, knowledge, or truth. Humans cannot reject God and pretend as if everything remains the same without him. In Wojtyla’s words, “[t]he tragedy of atheistic humanism ... is that it strips man of his transcendental character, destroying his ultimate significance as a person.” Similarly, Wojtyla adds, citing the Second Vatican Council, “when God is forgotten the creature itself is unintelligible.” Schaeffer agrees, stating “[m]an, made in the image of God, has a purpose – to be in relationship to the God Who is there. ... Man forgets his purpose, and thus he forgets who he is and what life means.” Without God, therefore, humans self-destruct in nihilism.

It should not be overlooked that our culture is under the judgment and wrath of God. This means, as described by Schaeffer, that “God is a God of grace, but the other side of the coin of grace is judgment. If God is there, if God is holy (and we need a holy God or we have no absolutes) … there must be judgment.” God’s wrath is his holy displeasure at sin. Schaeffer explains that one way that God works in history is to judge humans by “allowing cause and effect to take its course in history.” While humans are lost, fragmented, and disoriented, they are also great. Schaeffer notes that “man is not just a chance configuration of atoms in the slipstream of meaningless chance history.” Rather, humans are responsible for their choices, which are measured against the pure holiness and goodness of God’s character. In this light, Schaeffer indicates that “God works into history upon the basis of His character, and He continues to do so.” Even now God’s judgment is at work in history (Rom. 1:18). Furthermore, Wojtyla adds that “Christ’s eschatological discourse [Matt. 25:31-46] makes it clear that at the final consummation of the history of man and the world the ‘self-love reaching the point of contempt for God’ will still be present, and that type of love will reap its own harvest of definitive condemnation….”

True Knowledge of Humans Depends on True Knowledge of God

Schaeffer and Wojtyla share a Christ-centered worldview. True self-knowledge is not attainable without true knowledge of God. Here Wojtyla cites the Second Vatican Council: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. ... Christ ... by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” Schaeffer defines this calling as follows: “Our calling is to enjoy God as well as glorify Him. Real fulfillment relates to the purpose for which we were made – to be in reference to God, to be in personal relationship with Him, to be fulfilled by Him, and thus to have an affirmation of [the whole of] life.”

Christianity is life affirming. This is one aspect of the Good News that applies through all generations, but especially now given that the worldview of naturalistic materialism dominates contemporary culture. Schaeffer sums up the worldview of naturalistic materialism by explaining that what is ultimately real “is purely material, everything being reduced to mass, energy, and motion,” with humans being just the chance product of matter in motion. Schaeffer then draws the logical conclusion that “[o]ur generation has nobody home in the universe, nobody at all.” This outlook begets the death of humans. Hope of purpose, significance, love, conscience, rationality, beauty, sociality, and communication, things that make humans uniquely human, become ultimately unfulfillable and, therefore, meaningless. Thus, humans, being unfulfillable, are dead.

The truth is that humans are meaningful by nature, significant, indeed, intrinsically good, because created by God, in His image, albeit they are now in ruin and broken as a consequence of the Fall. Because of humanity’s historic, space-time fall, humans are alienated from God, and, in turn, from themselves, others, and from nature. As suggested by Wojtyla, the Christian faith substantially heals all these alienations, because “everything that is essentially human and constitutive of man is summed up in the mystery of Christ.” Wojtyla further adds that Christ is the “revealer of the full mystery of man and of human dignity. ... The incarnation of the Son of God emphasizes the great dignity of human nature, and the mystery of redemption not only reveals the value of every human being but also indicates the lengths to which the battle to save man’s dignity must go. ... The price paid for dignity is the blood of the Son of God.” Human dignity is then grounded and perfected through the redemption.

These beliefs are true to reality, as stated by Wojtyla: “The dignity proper to man, the dignity that is held out to him both as a gift and as something to be striven for, is inextricably bound up with truth. ... Truthful thinking and truthful living are the indispensable and essential components of that dignity. Thus, it is truth that makes man what he is. ... True knowledge of himself, of the world, of God; truth in conscience, truth in knowing, truth in believing.” Schaeffer wholeheartedly shares Wojtyla’s emphasis on the importance of truth for our Christian witness, evangelism, apologetics, and scholarship.

The Love, Mercy, and Justice of God

Schaeffer and Wojtyla affirm orthodox Christian teaching that the mystery of the redemption abrogates the antithesis between sin and creation. The Catholic priest prays during Mass: “In love You created man, in justice You condemned him, and in mercy You redeemed him through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Redemption is the meaning of the saving death of Jesus Christ. In Wojtyla’s words, “He suffered … in all the mystery of His Person, in all the indescribable depth of His nature as God-man, the one and only subject and the one and only author of redemption of the world.” Through the mystery of the redemption, the love of the Father is expressed in the gift of the Son and communicated through the movement of the Holy Spirit. For Wojtyla, God’s revelation of himself on the cross manifests his justice and mercy, his holiness and love. The mystery of the Redemption, Wojtyla adds, germinates from the confrontation between two kinds of love, “love of God carried as far as contempt of self” and “self-love reaching the point of contempt for God.” Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is an expression of supreme love, of love’s victory, of that “love of God carried as far as contempt of self.” Wojtyla affirms that in Christ’s death “finally, lies the full truth about man, about man’s true stature, his wretchedness and his grandeur, his worth and the price paid for him. ‘God loved the world so much that He sacrificed His only Son.’”

Wojtyla’s Augustinian description of this mystery originates in the biblical understanding that the redemption presents the antithesis between disobedience and obedience, between sinners and the just. Saint Paul contrasts the disobedience of the first Adam with the obedience of the second Adam (Christ): “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Wojtyla explains that “[t]he full dimension of the obedience of Christ is determined by the Word and by Love, just as the disobedience of the first man has its source in the anti-Word and anti-Love. ... Jesus Christ took upon Himself the burden of this problem and solved it by going to the root of it. Man first became unjust when he became disobedient to the Creator. For that reason Christ became obedient unto death, thus bequeathing to mankind His own justice to serve as an inexhaustible fount of justification before God.”

Sin violates the will and purpose of God, fostering a wrong relationship with him. He is holy and righteous and thus the perfect judge of sin. Schaeffer ponders the question: “Is all lost now that I have sinned?” He answers with a resounding “No!,” stating that “God has provided a propitiation, a substitute. The whole of God’s answer [to my moral guilt] rests upon the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. Because of Who He is, His death has infinite value; it can cover every spot; it can remove true moral guilt ... in the presence of God as the perfect Judge of the universe.” Salvation, then, removes true guilt before God, effecting the forgiveness of sin.

Because sin is a cancer affecting the whole human, the broader effect of salvation is to make humans whole again, healing their relationships with God and others. Salvation emancipates humans from the power, stranglehold, and bondage of sin. Salvation prompts a conversion, call to holiness, and sanctification of the whole human existence, grafting Christ’s Lordship through the whole of life. Finally, salvation demarcates two radically different ways of living one’s life. On the one hand, humans can live an unredeemed life, in darkness, being lost, remaining in the grip of sin, and bound by the power of death. On the other hand, humans can live a redeemed life by accepting the gift of being found, of life, of light, of grace made possible through the redemption.

The Church as the Sign of Contradiction

In spite of the Catholic Wojtyla’s and the Protestant Schaeffer’s differing orientations as to ecclesiological doctrine, they agree that the church should be a “sign of contradiction” in this contemporary culture that has abandoned, both intellectually and practically, its biblical moorings. The church’s missionary mandate includes the dissemination of the whole truth in Jesus Christ, who is, as noted by Wojtyla, “both the light that shines for mankind and at the same time a sign of contradiction.” Wojtyla further adds that Jesus Christ is not only revealed as the light of the world, but also as “that sign which, more than ever, men are resolved to oppose.” Schaeffer rightly indicates that the church ceases being that sign of contradiction in one of two ways: “[O]ne is to compromise the truth, and the other to have a dead orthodoxy.” The truth is compromised when the church’s message degenerates from the full doctrinal position of historic Christianity to become merely an “echo of the world.” Schaeffer pronounces orthodoxy dead at the time it becomes a “dull, dusty, introverted orthodoxy given only to pounding out the well-known cliches.” Instead, a dynamic orthodoxy that evinces a living faith in the truth of Christian beliefs is needed. Orthodoxy also turns ugly when Christians lack compassion. Saint Paul teaches that orthodoxy without love is empty (1 Cor. 13:2). However, love without orthodoxy is blind.


The five tenets expressed in Death in the City and Sign of Contradiction can be summed up as: Creation, Fall, and Redemption through Jesus Christ; judgement in history according to Word and anti-Word, Gospel and anti-Gospel, Love and anti-Love; true knowledge of humans depends on true knowledge of God; Love, mercy, and justice of God; and the church as a sign of contradiction. Each of these tenants exhibits a similarity of thought between Schaffer and Wojtyla and an ecumenical worldview that is essential to an authentic engagement of contemporary culture.

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