On January 30, 2012, had Francis A. Schaeffer still been living he would have celebrated his 100th birthday. In recognition of this fact a number of Christian organizations have been paying tribute Schaeffer as one of the great evangelical Christian thinkers of the 20th Century. One of those is the Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, of which I am director.
There is a growing consensus among older evangelicals that Schaeffer must not be forgotten. So, efforts such as this are important as today many under the age of 40 have little awareness of Schaeffer’s impact on the evangelical world. It has been most encouraging to see the 100th anniversary of his life used as an opportunity to reacquaint the evangelical world with the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer. Happily, there are a good number of evangelical notables who remember and understand the importance of Schaeffer’s legacy, not only as something to be remembered, but to be followed.
Schaeffer was a Christian theologian, philosopher and Presbyterian pastor (maybe a pastor first and foremost) who spent most of his adult life in Switzerland with his wife Edith and their four children. His insightful mind disturbed the evangelical conscience with his penetrating analysis of culture. In the 1960s he taught evangelicals to take seriously the questions brought to the surface by the anti-authority cultural revolution.
One of his major contributions was that he taught Christians the importance of worldview thinking both in living the Christian life and evangelizing the lost. I believe a strong case can be made that Schaeffer’s thinking, passion, and ministry are still able to inform present-day evangelicals on engaging culture and defending the Faith.
In 1948 Schaeffer moved to Switzerland to begin a children’s ministry (Children for Christ) in worn-torn Europe under the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions. In time, however, his ministry developed beyond a children’s ministry to university students. Eventually, the Schaeffer’s purchased a chalet in Huemoz where eventually the ministry known as L’Abri (Fr. Shelter) was birthed 1955 (the story of the L’Abri ministry can be found in Edith Schaeffer’s wonderful book, The Tapestry). Truly it was a shelter for many who were thrown into intellectual and spiritual chaos by the anti-establishment forces of the 1960s encouraged by existentialism. In 1960, Time magazine took note of Schaeffer’s ministry in the Swiss mountains and referred to it as a unique ministry to the European intellectual.
Over the years, hundreds (probably thousands) of people came (some for days others for months) to L’Abri where many found Christ as Savior. This was especially true in the 60s and 70s and those of us who lived through those times remember the political and social upheaval as students on both sides of the Atlantic went into a rebellious mode full throttle. Many in evangelicalism merely condemned the senseless destruction (of course, in one sense it needed to be condemned) and ignored the legitimate questions being asked by the students.
Schaeffer, on the other hand, listened carefully to their questions and helped them to see how historic Christianity answered those questions consistently within the reality all lived. While it was a time of entrenchment for many in evangelicalism, Schaeffer engaged the young people and the intellectuals (many were existentialists) on their own terms. He showed them that their explanation of the world was inconsistent with and insufficient for the world in which they lived. Then he would show how Christianity answered those questions.
A hallmark of Schaeffer’s apologetic was that it was driven by a deep and abiding love for humanity. He truly empathized with those who were struggling with life in a world that was terribly out of joint. I am told that Schaeffer would spend hours with one person asking questions until the individual had sufficient information to think further on the matter.
To understand Schaeffer’s approach to evangelism and his apologetic thought one must give attention to the three works that reveal the foundation of his understanding of man, reality, and the Bible. These three books serve as the foundation for all his other books, forming a trilogy: The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent. According to Schaeffer all his other books fit into these as “spokes of the wheel into the hub”. In 1982, the works of Francis Schaeffer were edited by Schaeffer and published in a five-volume set in which the books in the trilogy are in the order in which they were written. This order reveals the development of his thinking apologetically and is essential to understanding Schaeffer and his apologetic method.
In these three books, one learns how Schaeffer’s view of man shaped his apologetic approach (which for him was part and parcel of his evangelism). Historic Christianity, according to Schaeffer, was creation centered and central to creation was that God created man in his image. The first apologetic implication of creation was that man had intrinsic worth which meant he was to be treated with respect and love. This truth shaped Schaeffer’s life and ministry as he was motivated and directed by love and compassion for man as a person. Apologetics, he urged, must be “shaped on the basis of love for the person as a person.”
While Schaeffer did not minimize the historic fall recorded in Genesis, he argued that the fall “did not lead to machineness, but to fallen-manness.” There was a greatness to man even though he could also be very cruel. He spoke of man being noble, not because of his achievements, but because of who he was as a creation of God---man was not a zero, to use Schaeffer’s words. Only Christianity, Schaeffer said, could explain both the greatness and the cruelty of man. This truth moved Schaeffer to take all men seriously and to answer the honest questions of fallen man. Furthermore, he argued that the Christian must take care to understand the person by looking carefully at cultural artifacts (especially the arts) to understand the underlying worldviews and presuppositions revealed in them.
The second apologetic implication of creation for Schaeffer was the intelligibility of creation. The categories of the mind of man correspond to the structure of the world as God had created both. The result, Schaeffer argued, was that common ground existed between the Christian and the non-Christian. This is not something man put upon the universe; it is simply the way it is. Man lives in a morally structured, rational universe and no matter how he might try to live against the way the universe is, Schaeffer was sure it would push back at him and create tension for his non-Christian presuppositions. Of course this was not a game for Schaeffer and he urged the Christian always to give the answer as understood in light of historic Christianity and to do so in a loving and compassionate tone.
He was convinced that when speaking to the non-Christian the first truth to present was that of the truth of the real world and the reality of man himself. For Schaeffer, the real point of contact with the modern (and post modern mind) was reality. Regardless what presuppositions a man claims as grounds for his worldview, Schaeffer showed how they can be tested for truthfulness when pressed against the reality in which every person must live.
In 1978 Schaeffer learned that he had lymphoma cancer succumbing to it in May 1984. However, almost until his death he maintained an active speaking schedule. During his life time he carried on a voluminous correspondence with many of the great evangelical minds of the day. Most of this correspondence is in the Francis A. Schaeffer Collection (of which I am director) given by the Francis Schaeffer Foundation which is now under the custodianship of the library at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He wrote 27 books (and many pamphlets), and produced two films with his son Frank. Of the two films, the most well-known is How Should We then Live? which is a companion to the book by the same title. The second film, Whatever Happened to the Human Race with Everett Koop, Schaeffer shows the social and philosophical consequences of abortion. He wrote on responsible stewardship of creation long before others were talking about it. Schaeffer not only could think with the best minds of his day, he lived out his Christianity in very practical ways and urged all in the church to do the same.
The concluding thought is that Schaeffer remains an important apologetic resource for Christians in the 21st century. It goes without saying that the evangelical world owes much to the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer. Every now and then, God gives His Church a unique voice for His people—Schaeffer was such a voice. It is without fear of contradiction to say that Schaeffer was one of the evangelical giants of the latter half of the 20th century. We will do well to listen, for to do otherwise will deny that which was intended for our profit.