This survey of Schaeffer’s life self-consciously omits discussion of Schaeffer’s involvement the inerrancy debate of the 1970s and early 1980s. Although Schaeffer’s involvement with the issue of inerrancy is a significant aspect of his life, I focus here on his influence among evangelicals with regard to their intellectual engagement with wider culture.
Francis Schaeffer was one of the first well-known evangelicals in the twentieth century to promote Christian thinking about philosophy, art, culture, and other important areas of modern learning. Prior to Schaeffer, evangelicals, beginning in the early to mid-20th century, had been, in large measure, guilty of shirking these kinds of intellectual pursuits and retreating into pietism, anti-intellecutalism, prophetic fanaticism, and separatism.
Schaeffer’s lasting legacy, however, is not found primarily in the soundness of his philosophical reasoning or the strength of his historical interpretations; some suggest his arguments here were sometimes lacking detail and far too simplistic. Rather, Francis Schaeffer’s greatness should be centered in his enduring influence upon a Christian subculture that had determined cultural engagement was unworthy of its attention. Barry Hankins, author of Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, interprets Schaeffer’s legacy succinctly: “Schaeffer was the most popular and influential American evangelical of his time in reshaping evangelical attitudes toward culture, helping to move evangelicals from separatism to engagement” (xv).
In this post I will trace the life of Francis Schaeffer and the development of his thought, following him from his early days as a separatist pastor to his time in Europe and the subsequent opening of L’abri, ending with the latter part of his life as a Christian activist. After this biographical sketch and a survey of a few of his most significant works, I will end with a brief conclusion on Schaeffer’s lasting legacy upon evangelicals and Evangelicalism.
Francis Schaeffer was born on January 30, 1912 in Germantown, Pennsylvania to middle-class parents of German heritage. After being converted as a young man, Schaeffer felt a calling from God to be a pastor. After his graduation from college in 1935, Schaeffer married Edith Seville and then entered Westminster Theological Seminary (in Philadelphia) in September of that same year. As a result of a split within his denomination (PCUSA), Schaeffer soon found himself transferring to a new seminary, Faith Theological, and relocating his membership to a new denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church. From this point, it is most helpful to trace Schaeffer’s life in three phases: his time as a separatist pastor, the prelude and development of the work of L’Abri fellowship, and his involvement as a political activist.
After graduation, Francis and Edith would find themselves in three different cities throughout the United States, as Francis would spend the next ten years serving in pastoral ministry. In the spring of 1947, the Independent Board of Foreign Missions (of the Bible Presbyterian Church) would invite Schaeffer to make a “fact-finding tour” for three months that summer in order to determine how churches in Europe were faring theologically under the destructive influence of neo-orthodoxy. The impact of this investigative expedition upon Schaeffer cannot be overstated. Indeed, as biographer and personal friend Colin Duriez observes, “This tour would change his life—and eventually the lives of countless others throughout Europe and the world” (Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, 63).
When the Schaeffer’s returned to St. Louis, Francis began to receive letters from Europeans, requesting that he return to Europe and help establish the same kind of evangelical work that was being cultivated in America. The mission agency agreed to these requests and decided to send the Schaeffer’s to Europe permanently so that Francis might help revive European Protestantism. After six months of preparation in Philadelphia, the Schaeffer’s moved to Switzerland.
While in Europe, Schaeffer delivered an address to the International Council of Christian Churches (an organization of separatist churches). In the address entitled, “The New Modernism,” Schaeffer, responded to the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth. Schaeffer argued that Barth’s separating of religious truth from the facts of history was both nonsensical and dangerous. Nevertheless, despite his passionate denunciation of Barth’s teaching, Schaeffer revealed his heart for right use of apologetic reasoning; an approach that would later characterize all of his evangelistic efforts: “The end of apologetics is not to slay men with our logic, but to lead them to the true Christ, the Christ of the whole Scriptures” (Hankins, 32). Schaeffer’s address in Geneva would anticipate the direction his thought would begin to take, as he would attempt to wrestle with the writings of prominent thinkers and philosophers and their influence on Christianity; this time would also feature Schaeffer’s break with fundamentalism (Hankins, 40).
Schaeffer was beginning to experience growing doubts about the adequacy of fundamentalism, especially with regard to its focus on strident separatism. Schaeffer believed the Lord would not bless the efforts of separatist churches if they continued “fight without restraint” against those who differed from their work. Furthermore, Schaeffer began to grow tired of his old mentor, Carl McIntire’s “insatiable desire to fight against other evangelical Christians and institutions” (Hankins, 46). By 1954, Schaeffer and McIntire were in open warfare; the feud would eventually lead to Schaeffer’s break from McIntire and separatist churches. The break, however, would free Schaeffer to pursue what would become his life’s work.
Life at L’Abri
Prior to the establishment of the L’Abri fellowship, Schaeffer trudged through a season of spiritual turmoil and profound questioning. He had grown disillusioned with the spiritual reality of his own life and of those within the separatist movement and in other orthodox churches with which he was familiar (Louis Parkhurst, Francis Schaeffer: The Man and His Message, 69-70). The result of the honest questioning his faith and of Christianity led Schaeffer, not to despair and unbridled skepticism, but to a deeper faith and experience of God’s reality as he saw the clear truth of God’s existence and his revelation in Scripture. This newfound joy in Christ would lead to a fruitful–albeit unique–ministry over the next several years.
When the Schaeffer’s completed a one-year furlough back in the United States, they were, through various (and at times, extremely difficult) circumstances, able to purchase a home that would “always be open to young people” (Hankins, 55). Shortly after their purchase of this home, the Schaeffer’s resigned from the Independent Board for Foreign Missions on June 4, 1955. Schaeffer’s break from fundamentalism was now complete (Hankins, 56).
The Schaeffer’s new venture would formally begin in July 1955 as L’Abri (“the shelter”) Fellowship became the official name of the Schaeffer’s new ministry. During the first years of L’Abri, a variety of visitors would come to the Chalet and find warm welcome. Shortly after they opened L’Abri, the Schaeffer’s were able to purchase and use other nearby buildings. These buildings would become places of study and accommodations for visitors. The main feature of L’Abri, however, was the discussions.
Schaeffer would entertain and encourage discussions of all kinds with visitors. These conversations typically flowed out of questions posed by the guests as they inquired into the nature and reality of Christianity or boldly asserted their unbelief. The talks, however, were, for Schaeffer’s part, never mere academic banter; they were, as Hankins observes, “about truth and how it affected real lives” (Hankins, 61). The Schaeffer’s were intentional in coupling sincere intellectual engagement with an environment of warmth and love. They were convinced of that the “final apologetic” for the truth of Christianity was the demonstration of the love that Christians had for one another and for others. Regarding the importance of this visible testimony to the reality of Christianity, Schaffer would later write in his book, The God Who is There,
The final apologetic, along with the rational, logical defense and presentation, is what the world sees in the individual Christian and in our corporate relationships together…What we are called to do…is to exhibit substantial healing, individual and then corporate, so that people may observe it (Schaeffer, The Francis Schaeffer Trilogy, 165).
This important facet of Christianity and the defense of its truth had been absent in much of the fundamentalism to which Francis Schaeffer had been exposed; he and Edith were resolute in their effort to make sure L’Abri would be different in this regard (Hankins, 72).
As L’Abri’s popularity grew, Schaeffer would have the opportunity to speak at university campuses throughout Europe. Yet, as Schaeffer became more convinced of the truth he was purveying in the work among the questioning visitors and among the universities, he also became frustrated that only a handful of people—those who visited L’Abri and those in the European universities—would hear these important messages. Schaeffer’s effort to speak to a larger audience would eventually lead to lecture circuits to colleges in the United States (Hankins, 74-75).
As Schaeffer spoke across the United States at various colleges, he would not only impress listeners with his engagement with the wider culture and his ability to make Christianity appear intellectually tenable and relevant to the contemporary era, he also demonstrated a notable compassion for those whose works he would analyze and interpret. This latter characteristic of Schaeffer’s approach to intellectual engagement was illustrated vividly when, after reading a nonsensical poem by an unbelieving author, rebuked the laughing crowd, saying,
I get so tired of Bible believing Christians who laugh at these people—who laugh at them when they look at their tortured paintings. Do you laugh at a man at the door of hell? When evangelicals learn to stop their laughing and take such men and their struggles seriously then [evangelicals] can again begin to speak to our generation (Hankins, 77).
Here again we find a man not only interested in developing an apologetic to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity, but also—and just as importantly—a love that could weep over those with whom he would engage with intellectual argument and rigor.
A Few of His Most Significant Works
The subject matter of Schaeffer’s speaking tours would eventually become the content of three important books, The God who is There, Escape from Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent, published in 1968, 1969, and 1972 respectively. In these books Schaeffer sought to demonstrate, from a sweeping account of Western intellectual history, how the paradigm for the understanding of truth had changed dramatically over the last seven-hundred years and how Christianity, which requires an antithetical framework in order to maintain coherence, had become exceptionally difficult to communicate in the contemporary setting which did not believe in a unified answer to knowledge and life (Bryan Follis, Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer).
Schaeffer tackled this communication problem by not only making his readers aware of the epistemological shift, but also by encouraging them to consider how denial of Christian presuppositions leads to a denial of reality. Christians not only need to understand where men and women had come from (in regards to the influence of Western thought upon their own presuppositions), but also how to “push [them] towards the logic of [their] own positions…” in order to help them see the inadequacy of their presuppositions (Schaeffer, Trilogy: The God who is There, 139).
As a result of his many talks at colleges and universities throughout the United States and the subsequent publishing his first two books, The God who is There and Escape from Reason, Schaeffer’s popularity steadily grew. He would publish another book shortly after Escape from Reason entitled Death in the City, which called Christians to reclaim pure doctrine amidst growing liberalism and to renew their commitment to a biblical lifestyle.
Schaeffer expressed the concern that, as the culture drifted from absolutes maintained by a biblical world-view, people lost what it meant to be human and made in the image of God. This devastating trend needed a strong counter, and Schaeffer argued the answer to this impending crisis would come from Christians as they demonstrated that the Christian life was meant to fulfill the entire person and return man to what he was always meant to be (Hankins, 112). Materialistic philosophy—which denied the supernatural—led to meaninglessness and despair; Christianity rightly understood would lead to joy and purposeful living—to being fully human.
In 1970, Schaeffer began to expend efforts in applying Christian truth to other important but heretofore neglected areas. In Pollution and the Death of Man, Schaeffer would argue for a Christian understanding of ecology. Schaeffer would argue that pantheism, while attempting to save the natural environment, actually removed the grounds for human preservation and protection of the environment—if there is no difference between a man and a plant, then on what basis can we appeal to unique human responsibility? He would also establish the truth that only a biblical world-view provides the framework within which to develop a proper environmentalism (Hankins, 119). Nature, because it has its origin from God, has value in itself (Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, 48).
Thus, although Christians were to exercise dominion over the creation, they were also morally obligated to avoid exploitation of the creation—they are to “[exercise] dominion without being destructive:” trees should be plundered and animals should be killed for the purpose of providing shelter and food, not for mere sport (Schaeffer, Pollution, 72). Proper care for the environment flowing from a Christian world-view would, Schaeffer believed, diminish current ecological problems. Schaeffer would also voice what he perceived as a biblical position in the area of economics in his book, No Little People.
Throughout No Little People and throughout other writings related to the issue of economics, Schaeffer would admonish Christians to a “compassionate use of accumulated wealth” and exhort Christian employers to take less profit so their employees could make considerably more than the going wage rate (Hankins, 133). Schaeffer believed the world would wake up and listen to the church as she spoke and lived counter to the treasured American principle of undisturbed personal peace and prosperity. Another major work—one by which Schaeffer would become especially known—was his film, How Shall We Then Live.
In 1973, Schaeffer embarked on a filmmaking project that would trace the history of western thought, beginning with the Greeks and Romans, demonstrating that when a society drifts from presuppositions that provide a basis for transcendent morality (like Rome), that society eventually self-destructs. Schaeffer would further argue that the church, through the middle ages, had been guilty of imbibing Greek and Roman ideas which eventually led to a distortion of biblical Christianity. The Reformation, while not perfect, reclaimed much of biblical Christianity and had profound and positive affects on Western culture. The Enlightenment, however, led to a strong affirmation of human autonomy and had devastating affects on human society. According to Schaeffer, Hankins writes, “The message was clear: The Reformation, with its Christian base, leads to democracy; the Enlightenment, with its humanistic and secular base, leads to dictatorship and communism” (Hankins, 165-171; George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 245).
How Shall We Then Live, which three years after the release of the film became a popular book, finally was a call to culture war. Schaeffer held out two options to Christians: they could either compromise and accept the culture’s prevailing humanistic notions, or they could go to battle with the culture (Hankins, 175). The issue that pervaded this call to action was the volatile matter of abortion; this would lead Schaeffer personally into the fray alongside others in the pro-life movement.
Schaeffer’s Political Activism
Up to this point in his life, Schaeffer had remained aloof to political activity. He would become convinced, however, that political involvement was the only logical step given his theory that the decline of Western thought and morality was due to departure from biblical presuppositions (Hankins, 175). Schaeffer was especially alarmed by the legalizing of abortion, stating that such legalization was arbitrary, both legally and medically; further governmental authoritarianism would be the consequence if Christians did not resist the trend represented by Roe v. Wade.
All of this effort against abortion aimed directly at secular humanism. Secular humanism, Schaeffer was convinced, was antithetically opposed to biblical Christianity, and, if allowed to take root, could usher in a situation where a few elite policy writers would fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of transcendent absolutes with arbitrary rules and regulations (Hankins, 177-180), Against this very real threat of authoritarianism Christians had to fight.
Schaeffer’s effort against abortion expressed itself in another film and book, co-authored with C. Everett Koop, entitled, What Ever Happened to the Human Race. In both the book and the film, Schaeffer argued that the disappearance of a Christian base in the West had led the adoption of a humanist foundation; the remedy was the reestablishment of the Christian base that had been lost in the twentieth century as a result of the ideas of the Enlightenment that had spread throughout the culture (Hankins, 188). As the book and the film graphically describe the process of abortion, Schaeffer observed that clear phrases like “ending a pregnancy” were only a disguise for what was actually occurring; namely the killing of a human being (Hankins, 181).
Schaeffer and Koop’s endeavor to startle sleeping evangelicals into action apparently worked. Prior to 1980, very few Protestant denominations sought involvement in the abortion problem, considering it a problem with which the Roman Catholic Church had taken issue. In 1980 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), for example, established pro-life resolutions aimed at stopping abortions. Key leaders within the SBC had read Schaeffer and testified to Schaeffer’s influence on this vital issue. According to Hankins, “[Schaeffer’s] push against abortion certainly helped fuel the evangelical pro-life movement” (Hankins, 182).
Schaeffer followed What Ever Happened to the Human Race with A Christian Manifesto. Schaeffer’s burden in the latter book was to help Christians understand their relationship to the government, law, and civil disobedience. Like the books that had come before, Manifesto was a book of worldviews. In introducing his plea for Christians to stand against secular humanism, Schaeffer began his argument by noting how pietism—that form of Christianity that emphasizes the experiential component of the faith—had served to divorce facts and ideas from the realm of experience and thus relegated Christianity to the sphere of the private and subjective. This unfortunate consequence of pietism, Schaeffer argued, allowed secular humanism to develop a strong foothold; Christians were to stand against development by seeing Christianity not merely as an experience, but as a worldview that makes sense of all reality (Hankins, 196-197).
In regards to the question of civil disobedience, Schaeffer believed it was the responsibility of Christians to resist the state when officeholders became tyrannical, although the general demeanor of Christians should be one of submission. Schaeffer was also reluctant to advocate the use of force—even on the issue of abortion. Legislative action, sit-ins, political pressure, and quiet demonstrations should be the primary way in which Christians should seek to influence the government and the change of laws (Hankins, 208).
Schaeffer wielded significant influence in the political realm, just as he had previously in the area of Christian apologetics and evangelical engagement with culture—the latter area undoubtedly related to his political involvement as well. According to Colin Duriez, Schaeffer’s three books, How Shall We Then Live, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, and A Christian Manifesto,
…substantially helped created a new Evangelical Right in America. Certainly, joining the pro-life lobby identified Schaeffer with America’s Religious Right, which was able to exercise considerable political clout during the Reagan era (Duriez, 191).
Schaeffer would continue his labors despite the fact that two years earlier (in 1978) he had been diagnosed with cancer. With treatment, Schaeffer’s cancer retreated into remission for a season, while he continued to write and speak at various venues around the United States and spend time at L’Abri. On May 15, 1984, however, only two years after publishing a five volume set of his complete works, Francis Schaeffer died at his home in Rochester, Minnesota.
Schaeffer’s Enduring Influence
Francis Schaeffer’s enduring influence upon evangelicals and evangelicalism cannot be overlooked. In great measure, Francis Schaeffer taught evangelicals the value of intellectual engagement. While in Europe, Schaeffer began to see the fault of fundamentalism lying primarily in its strident separatism. As he would interact with young unbelievers who were persuaded by nihilism, atheism, and existentialism, Schaeffer learned that merely attacking liberalism and other evangelicals was less than profitable. He needed to provide a positive response to modern philosophies and thoughtfully interact with opposing ideas on the level of world-view so unbelievers could see the incoherence of their positions and subsequently embrace the truth of Christianity.
Schaeffer’s desire to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity to unbelievers led him to begin to think more and more about how world-views had played a significant role in the formation of Western thought and culture. As such, Schaeffer sought to engage with and think critically about past and present culture; not for its own sake, but so he might listen to the voice of those who were drowning in meaninglessness because they had embraced a world-view that erased the existence of a personal God—a world-view that inevitably led to the loss of a sense of humanness and overall purpose.
Schaeffer’s endeavor to wrestle with ancient and contemporary culture, especially in the realm of ideas and world-view, would have a tremendous influence on how Christians thought about and interacted with culture. Ronald Nash summarizes his impact in this area well when he writes,
Francis Schaeffer was the instrument through whom hundreds of thousands of people became conscious of [the] intellectual dimension of the Christian faith, of the importance of philosophy, of the significance of world views and their presuppositions, of the message that ideas have consequences (Parkhurst, 69).
Among these hundreds of thousands to be profoundly influenced by Schaeffer would belong Christian apologists, philosophers and authors. Nancy Pearcy, popular editor and author, tells of her trip to L’Abri and how she was immediately intrigued by Christians who were engaged with the intellectual and cultural world. As she read works by Christian apologists and interacted with Schaeffer and others at L’Abri, Pearcy interacted with many good and sufficient arguments that did much to challenge her unbelief (Nancy Pearcy, Total Truth, 55). Pearcy would eventually embrace Jesus Christ and a biblical world-view.
Pearcy also notes how Schaeffer provided her and other Christians with the apparatus with which to properly enjoy and accurately evaluate culture. She writes,
There is no need to avoid the secular world and hide out behind the walls of an evangelical subculture; instead, Christians can appreciate works of art and culture as products of human creativity expressing the image of God. On the other hand, there is no danger of being naïve or uncritical about false and dangerous messages embedded in secular culture, because a worldview gives the conceptual tools needed to analyze and critique them (Pearcy, 56).
Pearcy here testifies to what Barry Hankins believes was Schaeffer’s “signal achievement and most lasting influence;” namely, the “important task of world-view formation” (Hankins, 227).
On the other hand, we would be remiss if we did not reflect here on what motivated Schaeffer in his whole enterprise. It was not merely an interest in ideas; it was love for people. Bryan Follis guards us from turning Francis Schaeffer into a stuffy, intellectually smug apologist when he writes, “To understand Schaeffer, we need to understand the love he had for the individual person” (Follis, Truth with Love, 53). Love for others appeared to free Schaeffer to engage the surrounding culture for the sake of people’s good and salvation. As Schaeffer traveled to America and shared his message with young evangelicals, his point was unmistakable in this regard. Barry Hankins notes,
…[Schaeffer’s] message to American evangelical college students was that to be effective witnesses they would have to move beyond fundamentalist separation from secular ideas and beyond mere denunciation of liberals. Instead, evangelicals needed to take their ideas seriously and to understand and engage their culture (Hankins, 233).
Schaeffer would not merely seek to understand and exhibit the impotence of unbiblical world-views; he would sympathize with and weep over those who struggled desperately with the essential questions of life—even if their answers came in the form of unbelieving, incoherent philosophy, art, and poetry—and he encouraged following generations of evangelicals to do the same.