On Francis Schaeffer
By Bruce A. Little
It has been 30 years since Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) passed into the presence of the Lord. I remember hearing Schaeffer in person several weeks before his death. A few years before, my thinking as a Christian had been profoundly shaped by Schaeffer’s thought and ministry. On this occasion he was on a speaking tour promoting his latest book, The Great Evangelical Disaster. On that evening, he spoke with a clear steady voice seated on the platform as by this time the cancer had so weakened his body that standing was out of the question. He was a man at the end of his life–broken in body, but not in spirit or vision. It was a life lived for Christ in a powerful way leaving an indelible mark on evangelical Christianity, a mark that undeniably remains to this day.
In 1948 Schaeffer, with his wife Edith and their children, went to war torn Europe to begin a children’s work under the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions. In 1955, they moved to the small village of Huemoz in the Swiss Alps and founded L’Abri Fellowship, the story of which can be found in Edith Schaeffer’s wonderful book, The Tapestry. Within a short time, people learned of Schaeffer’s ministry and would travel by different means to L’Abri, many of whom came to Christ. We must understand that this was at the time of political and social upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic as students 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 questions being asked. Unfortunately it was a time of entrenchment for many in evangelicalism. Schaeffer, however, while not condoning the senseless mayhem, listened carefully and took their questions seriously. Then he would compassionately show how Christianity consistently answered their questions. Schaeffer engaged the young people from the west and many intellectuals of Europe (many were existentialist) on their own terms and he did so with a full confidence in biblical revelation. He showed them that their view of the world was inconsistent with and insufficient for the reality in which they lived. He said their analysis of western culture was right in many ways, but their worldview provided them with no real answers. It was then that he would show them how the Christian worldview provided a sufficient base for living as God intended them to live.
For those unfamiliar with Schaeffer’s work, I point to three of his books that serve as the foundation for a proper understanding of his thought and ministry: 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.” The rest of his books reveal the comprehensiveness of his thinking Christianly about all of life.
Historic Christianity, according to Schaeffer, was creation-centered. Central to this was the fact that God created man in his image, hence man had intrinsic worth. While Schaeffer did not minimize the historic fall recorded in Genesis, he argued that the fall did not result in man becoming a “zero.” There was a greatness to man, Schaeffer noted, even though man was often very cruel. Still, Schaeffer believed that man was noble and yet fallen and only Christianity could explain both the greatness and the cruelty of man. Therefore, apologetics, he urged, must be “shaped on the basis of love for the person as a person.”
Furthermore, man lives in a morally structured, rational universe, Schaeffer reasoned, and no matter how he might try to live against the way the universe is, it would push back at him and create tension for his non-Christian presuppositions. For Schaeffer, the point of contact with the modern (and post-modern mind) was reality. Regardless of one’s non-Christian presuppositions, Schaeffer argued, they can always be tested for truthfulness when pressed against the reality in which every person must live. In the end, Schaeffer was confident that only the Christian worldview provided a proper view of reality. Furthermore, he would say that Christianity is true because it is true to what is and it applies to all of life.
This is only an example of Schaeffer’s legacy to evangelism, a legacy in my mind that can never be overstated.
Bruce A. Little serves as senior professor of philosophy and director of the Francis A. Schaeffer Collection at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.