Schaeffer’s Wheaton Lectures: Speaking the Historic Christian Position into the 20th Century

By: Dr. Bruce Little

In September, 1965 Francis A. Schaeffer set off a small explosion in the evangelical world with his lectures at Wheaton College’s Spiritual Emphasis week. Schaeffer gave ten lectures, one in the morning during chapel (30 minutes) and the other in the evening (40-45 minutes) Monday through Friday. In that brief time Schaeffer delivered a message that reverberated across the evangelical landscape providing important answers for many and provoking criticism from others. Now 50 years later the effects are still being felt.

Schaeffer had been invited by Dr. Hudson Armerding, recently elected president of Wheaton, to bring a series of messages on evangelism and spirituality to open the school year.  In correspondence, however, Schaeffer requested that the lectures should not be promoted as evangelistic meetings in the common understanding of the word and suggested a title something like: “Christian Reality, Intellectually and In Practice in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century.” The actual title was “Speaking the Historic Christian Position into The 20th Century”.  Later that year the same lectures were delivered at Westmont College. In addition, earlier that year some of the same material had been presented in Boston at a series of lectures organized by Harold O. J. Brown. Brown was working with InterVarsity campus ministry as well as on staff at Park Street Baptist Church while working on a PhD at Harvard.  Due to the avalanche of requests for the lectures, Wheaton requested permission to transcribe the lectures. Whereas Schaeffer was intending to write a book containing many of the key ideas presented in the lectures, he agreed to the transcription but only for distribution to Wheaton and Westmont staff and students. In 1968, Schaeffer published the book bearing the title: The God Who Is There: Speaking Historic Christianity into the 20th Century.

Speaking of these lectures as historic in terms of evangelical thinking is not hyperbole.  Schaeffer touched a nerve, especially in the young evangelicals of the day who were tempted to move to neo-orthodoxy or give up on evangelicalism altogether. One must remember this was in the mid-sixties when so much that had been accepted as right came under attack –all authority was under suspicion. Schaeffer clearly understood what was going on. As one report put it, Schaeffer understood the students better than they understood themselves. When in October Dr. Armerding contacted Schaeffer about coming to Wheaton to do a summer school class, initially Schaeffer hesitated because since returning to Switzerland he had received enough invitations to keep him traveling for nine months.

Schaeffer surprised the young evangelical minds when he pointed out that honest questions required honest answers – honest answers about the world and man. If, he stated, Christians were to communicate the Gospel to 20th century man it must be rooted in the framework of truth, truth that could be open to honest discussion. Truth was dependent on reality, and reality was what it was because God is there – He is the Creator. For Schaeffer, the biblical system could be considered to be true without any appeal to authority. Christianity is true because it is true to what is there, what he called the truth of the universe. Every person must live in the world as it is; as true personality – person as true person because God is person. Furthermore, salvation and spirituality had truth-content without which they both became meaningless.

Schaeffer explained that communication with modern man could begin with reality – the truth of what was. He called this pre-evangelism. Man lives in a world created by God and if a man has non-biblical presuppositions about this world, then his pre-suppositions will create a tension with the real world. In order for man to live with the tension, he builds a “roof” to protect himself from the blows of reality. In pre-evangelism the Christian, in love, removes the roof so man can really feel the strength of the tension between the real world and his non-biblical presuppositions.  Modern man must see for himself the logical conclusions of his own presuppositions. When this happens, the Christian then lovingly takes the Word of God and shows how the person can live properly in this reality – God’s reality because God is there and salvation speaks to this reality.

Though some would later accuse Schaeffer of being too rationalistic, his lectures clearer proved that accusation false. Schaeffer explained that a person could never start with man as an independent, autonomous being and build a cantilever bridge to God. However, in Christian communication with modern man, it is possible to begin with man because he is a personal being made in the image of God who is personal.  Man is truly fallen, but in ways he still bears the image of God; therefore, man can know about his world – he is fallen, but he is not junk. Repeatedly Schaeffer spoke of this as the mannishness of man. Man still had categories of thought that fit the world as the world truly is, he longs for certain things, and he desires certain things. Man is a true person, he is not a machine as naturalism had made him. So, Christians must respect humanity as personal, and this was precisely the point of contact with modern man.

Truly, this was explosive to the young evangelical minds resulting in a renewed passion to reach the lost.

Dr. Bruce Little is Senior Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Francis A. Schaeffer Collection at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

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