What can we learn from Francis Schaeffer?

Francis Schaeffer is still a revered name in many evangelical circles. In others, he is now hardly known. Ranald Macaulay, who knew and worked with Schaeffer, summarizes his legacy.

From 1972… (and over the next 20 years) …the Schaeffers organized a multiple-thrust ministry that reshaped American evangelicalism … Perhaps no intellectual save CS Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicalism more profoundly; perhaps no leader save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole…1

At the risk of oversimplification, Francis Schaeffer’s vision can be expressed in two fundamental concerns: true truth and true spirituality.

As a young man, he came in contact with the Christian faith in a very unusual way. During his late teens he happened to be reading classical philosophy. This showed him (a) that he had found the field of interest in which he felt most at home: ideas; and (b) that philosophy had no answers, despite the fact that it dealt with what he later called ‘the basic philosophic questions’: plenty of questions, but no answers.

Then he found the Bible, or rather the Bible found him! He read alternately from the classical philosophers and from the Old Testament, with the latter steadily displacing the former as he went along. “Before I left Genesis 3”, he once told me, “I knew that this book had the answers to what the philosophers were asking”. Simply through his reading of Scripture he was born again. No-one on the outside was helping. “Before I reached the New Testament, I was virtually a believer in Christ”, he said. It was a somewhat lonely experience but it marked him forever: the Bible was sufficient in and of itself. Not surprisingly, his life began to move in an entirely different direction.

From the very beginning, then, Schaeffer had a mind for what he called true truth. He loved the Bible and its message of salvation first and foremost because it is ‘true’: it accurately reflects the reality within which all human beings find themselves and against which, ultimately, they cannot revolt—try as they may.

The corollary of this was a sense of inescapable responsibility to unmask and challenge falsehood. Other religious and philosophical world views are, he realized, basically ‘lies’ and/or distortions of the truth, as much in relation to the created order as in relation to God’s acts of salvation through history. So Schaeffer’s approach to ‘apologetics’ was already ‘presuppositional’ from the start. Begin with the Christian world view and everything makes sense; start elsewhere and nothing does.

Without recourse to Van Til or Kuyper or Dooyeweerd, Schaeffer had discovered the ground-motif of Scripture they shared: the reformed perspective. He also agreed with their critique of ‘evidentialism’ but carefully distinguished himself from them—with Van Til certainly—over the practical implications of this. Human beings could be reasoned with and challenged intellectually, he argued, not because they share a common presupposition with the Bible (because evidently they don’t), but because they are unavoidably creatures of the one true God. Surrounded by evidences of God’s creation and actions in the real world—what he called the mannishness of man and the form of the universe—they inevitably stand, therefore, simply through their ordinary experience as human beings (though inconsistently within their alternative intellectual frameworks) on common ground with the Bible.

Schaeffer’s experiences after moving to Europe in 1948 merely reinforced these passionately held convictions about the truthfulness of the Christian faith. The hollowness of life based on modernist presuppositions had already been expressed in the existentialist philosophy of men like Sartre and Camus, and their intellectual capitulation was quickly echoed and enlarged by the hippie revolution. Europe was never the same again. In such a context, what Schaeffer found was that he could apply these theological convictions to the ‘pulling down of strongholds’ (2 Cor 10:4). Relentlessly and penetratingly, but also with gentleness and sympathy, he exposed the inadequacies of all nonbiblical thinking, and tried to lead men and women to Christ. Hence the only authentic description he ever used of himself was not ‘philosopher’ or ‘theologian’ or ‘intellectual’, but simply ‘evangelist’.

This was already strikingly different from the run-of-the-mill Evangelicalism then current. But what made it truly outstanding was the fact that Schaeffer carried on this ministry within the context of a highly personal and non-exploitative environment— the existence of L’Abri, a French word meaning ‘The Shelter’. At great personal cost to himself and his wife and family, a constant stream of individuals made their way to the Schaeffers’ home in the Swiss Alps. This slowly developed into a larger community and study centre, the first of eight such L’Abris now scattered around the globe (see www.labri.org).

The reality behind this brings us to the second of Schaeffer’s prime convictions: true spirituality. The Schaeffers deliberately avoided the organizational razzamatazz they had been accustomed to in the States, and began to ‘live by faith’, making prayer the centre of L’Abri’s ‘methodology’, not programmes or advertizing or gimmicks. Edith Schaeffer’s The L’Abri Story describes what happened, and, certainly, it too merits attention half a century later.

In hindsight, of course, one is able to see the extraordinary providence in all this. For what looked at the time bizarre and inefficient turned out to be just the sort of environment in which the pointlessness and inauthenticity of postmodern experience could best be challenged—a family, a small community, in which the individual is supremely valued. This dual thrust of Schaeffer’s work was necessary then, and is all the more necessary now: Modernism needs to be challenged intellectually, and Postmodernism needs to be shown something ‘real’. Schaeffer was able to combine both within L’Abri. Hence the relevance of Schaeffer’s second abiding concern.

It was a theme he never tired of. God has called us, he would say, not to programmes but to personal experience—not to the imitation of the mechanical, but to the imitation of Christ. Whatever sphere of life one is called to, Christianity has to be a moment-by-moment experience of the living Christ. Hence the importance for him of prayer, of being led by the Spirit, of knowing weakness because of sacrifice, and frustration because of the severities of the battle.

What remains to be asked, of course, is how much this or any of Schaeffer’s many concerns actually got across to the wider church. The answer to that question is complicated.

Many individuals were deeply affected by his message about ‘true spirituality’, and their lives changed as a result. But in the United States, at least, what attracted the majority were his ventures into the apologetic arena, not his teaching on the Christian life. Undoubtedly he helped to strengthen the intellectual convictions of many throughout the variety of evangelical constituencies across the States. This in turn enabled a new level of engagement academically and politically—for all of which he deserves our thanks and respect to this day.

But the American church at large, even as it eulogized him for these new contributions (even going so far as to hail him, at times, as a prophet), in fact mostly ignored his emphasis on spirituality. It remained practically invisible and unintelligible.

In a large measure, this helps to explain why Schaeffer’s later and much misunderstood emphasis on social concerns— particularly his passionate loathing of abortion—were less carefully applied and nuanced than he himself would have wanted. He repeatedly warned against the dangers of “wrapping Christianity in the American flag”. But his warnings went unheeded, and the result was that the larger community quickly identified him with what Evangelicalism as a whole was doing politically, dismissing him along with the rest as a right-wing fundamentalist (which he most certainly wasn’t).

Schaeffer’s acceptance in American Evangelicalism was widespread and influential, though complicated, as we’ve said. When he insisted on the development and application of the Christian mind, he was well received, and the church inestimably strengthened as a result. But things would have been better had his spiritual challenge been understood more widely. Instead, what I call ‘the virus of technique’ continued to be the church’s default mode across the board. Mega-churches proliferated, and marketing techniques were enthusiastically applied—neither to the church’s advantage, as writers like David Wells, Os Guinness and Craig Gay have well documented.

British Evangelicalism, by contrast, never really took to Schaeffer. The scientists found fault with his insistence on a real Adam and Eve and an actual literal ‘Fall’; the preachers didn’t like his emphasis on discussion and persuasion (it was too intellectual and not sufficiently spiritual); the medics took umbrage at his ‘hard-line’ position on abortion and infanticide; the pietists wondered what good could come out of ‘culture’; and the Anglicans, of course, disliked talk of ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ churches.

As a result, Schaeffer is still a household name in evangelical circles in the States while being almost unknown in the UK. Despite this, his influence remains— much like CS Lewis’s. His books continue to sell widely, as do the documentaries he made on history and ethics—as do the writings of his wife, Edith, who is still alive. Younger leaders in South America and Asia are discovering his insights, finding them just what they need at the start of the 21st century. In addition, L’Abri continues to exist and to flourish, though never, given its unusual calling, without difficulty and a certain ‘hiddenness’.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to Schaeffer’s work is that we find ourselves living in the midst of the very fragmentation he predicted. All the more reason, then, to attend to one of his fundamental concerns— that we live, moment by moment, in relationship with the living Christ.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Evangelicals Now. (Never read Schaeffer? Try starting with The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, He is There and He is not Silent or The Great Evangelical Disaster.)

  1.  Michael Hamilton, Christianity Today, 5 March 1997.

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