This pastor, apologist and writer had a profound impact on evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century, and his impact is still very much felt today. Although he has been dead now for a quarter of a century (he died in 1984), this great Christian continues to influence believers around the world.
Born in 1912, he studied under Cornelius Van Til and J. Gresham Machen at Westminster Theological Seminary. He became a Presbyterian pastor in the US. But his global impact took off when he went to Europe in 1948.
In Holland he met art historian Hans Rookmaaker, and was introduced to the thinking of Abraham Kuyper and Dutch neo-Calvinism. Thus the presuppositional apologetics and worldview thinking he learned at Westminster was further augmented in Europe.
He and his wife Edith soon settled in Switzerland, and established a ministry which would influence millions of people. In 1955 they started L’Abri (French for ‘shelter’) in the Swiss Alps. There he taught Christian truths to anyone who would listen, and soon travellers worldwide were coming to the Swiss chalets to hear and learn and work.
This ministry became especially vital during the counterculture of the 60s. Westerners seeking truth and gurus in the East would often travel along the “hippy trail”. From London and Amsterdam, Western young people would travel through Europe to India, Nepal and other exotic locations hoping to find truth in the wisdom of the East.
As they often stopped at L’Abri along the way, they were exposed to the truth about Jesus Christ and biblical Christianity. The routine there was fairly simple. They could stay at the chalets, do some work during the day, and study and listen to lectures by Schaeffer, Rookmaaker, Os Guinness and others during evenings and weekends.
Edith Schaeffer especially developed a hospitality ministry (which she wrote up in Hidden Art and L’Abri). Sure, people would throw up on the carpets and cause other headaches for the Schaeffers, but they loved these young people and were intent on reaching them with the Gospel of Christ.
The evening lectures and debates were the highlight of life at L’Abri. Many young intellectuals and seekers were warmly yet forthrightly confronted with the logical contradictions of their own non-Christian thought systems, and the coherence and beauty of the Christian worldview. Many people were saved through this ministry, and countless others were strongly influenced by it.
The core of his thought appeared in his first three works: Escape from Reason (1968), The God Who is There (1968), and He is There and He is Not Silent (1972). This trilogy serves as the basis of all his other thought. In it he lays out the case for the biblical worldview, and offers penetrating critiques of non-Christian philosophies and worldviews.
His apologetic method was full-orbed, with many discussions of art, film, literature, culture, sociology, philosophy, theology and history along the way. He firmly believed that Christianity spoke to every area of life, and that believers must love God with their minds as well as the rest of their being.
He insisted that Christians develop a complete biblical worldview, and see how their faith impacts on all aspects of life. He said, “The basic problem of the Christians in this country in the last eighty years or so is that they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals.”
And his apologetics was not just about right thinking. He was a pastor, and he knew that right behaviour was also critical. This was a constant theme in his writings, especially in his The Mark of the Christian (1970) and True Spirituality (1971). He insisted that we not only defend the truthfulness of the Gospel, but that we live the truth of the Gospel as well.
As he said in his important 1976 volume How Should We Then Live?, “As Christians we are not only to know the right worldview, the worldview that tells us the truth of what is, but consciously to act upon that worldview so as to influence society in all its parts and facets across the whole spectrum of life, as much as we can.”
He was certainly no mere egghead. All his learning and brilliance was aimed only at one thing: to help people come to know Christ, and to make Christianity known as the sole answer to mankind’s problems. He engaged with all the important thinkers and philosophers of the day, not as a simple academic exercise, but so that he could effectively speak to them and their followers about the truth claims of Christianity.
Consider an illustration of his real heart on this: after delivering a learned lecture on a deep philosophical and apologetic topic, he said in the ensuing question time that he was ‘just a plain old evangelist’. The audience broke into laughter, trying to square this with his eloquent discourse. But deep down that was what Schaeffer was all about: an evangelist.
Schaeffer was greatly concerned that the church was just not doing its job in terms of having a holistic witness to the surrounding culture: “Our culture, society, government, and law are in the condition they are in, not because of a conspiracy, but because the church has forsaken its duty to be the salt of the culture.”
Thus he wrote books on a wide variety of themes, including Art and the Bible (1973), and Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology (1970). Toward the latter part of his career he made two important series of videos dealing with contemporary issues: How Should We Then Live? and Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
His concerns especially moved in the direction of the life issues, and he became an outspoken critic of the culture of death, taking a strong stand against abortion and euthanasia at a time when few other evangelicals were concerned about such matters.
Indeed, he became increasingly concerned about the state of evangelical Christianity, and how it had in so many ways simply followed the dead-end paths of the surrounding culture. His last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, written the year he died (1984), was a clarion call for the church to rouse from its slumbers, and become a true beacon of hope, truth and light in a dark and broken world.
He was greatly concerned about the erosion of truth and the collapse of moral absolutes, and offered a genuine prophetic voice to a dying world. His works and influence were enormous, and he was one of the great Christian apologists and activists of last century.
No committed Christian should be ignorant of his life and work. For those who want to go further with Schaeffer, his twenty or so books can still be found, but a 5-volume Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer came out in 1985 and is still widely available. It is well worth getting if you don’t have his original volumes.
Also, helpful works about Schaeffer include:
Scott Burson and Jerry Walls, CS Lewis & Francis Schaeffer (IVP, 1998).
Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (IVP, 2008).
Bryan Follis, Truth and Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer. (Crossway, 2006).
Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America. (Eerdmans, 2008).
Schaeffer was a prophetic voice, both to the non-Christian culture around him, and to the church as well. He took his faith seriously, and wanted all believers to engage with their culture in order to reach it for Christ and his Kingdom. We will all benefit greatly by reading – or re-reading – the works of this great Christian thinker, pastor, evangelist and apologist.
(All the books mentioned here can be obtained in Australia at Koorong Books.)