– by Jeremy Arntz
Francis Schaeffer was a complex man whose legacy makes an intimidating study for the seminarian who is only beginning to understand the long road of a life committed to vocational ministry. Schaeffer’s Christian experience ran the full gamut from unchurched to believer, pastor to missionary, and conversationalist to lecturer; further, he pastored Presbyterian churches in the United States and also opened student communes in Europe. Schaeffer’s prismatic plethora of experience culminated in one of the most exciting and refreshing evangelistic approaches stemming from the Fundamentalist movement. A study of Francis Schaeffer’s legacy is polarizing which is perhaps reminiscent of the man himself and his Christian journey.
A consideration of Francis Schaeffer’s beginnings must look at not only his upbringing but also his early experience with the faith. He was born to working-class parents in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1912. He later intended to follow the path of his father as a tradesman, but when he came to study both philosophy and the Bible concurrently, a spark was struck which led him to the notion that would become absolutely critical in his experience of which, at the age of 17, he wrote in his diary: “All truth is from the Bible.” Thus, the stage was set for his formative years at seminary which came under the tutelage of J. Gresham Machen at Westminster Seminary who was one of the foremost voices in the debate against liberal theology at the time. Schaeffer’s commitment to Biblical truth was such that he left Westminster and enrolled in the foundling Faith Theological Seminary which had come into existence as a consequence of a rift gone schism which found Machen expelled from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.; resultantly, Schaeffer became the first minister of the newly organized Bible Presbyterian Church. It is important to understand that Schaeffer’s early theological beginnings resulted in a fundamentalism deeply rooted in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy which had emerged in opposition to the notions of liberal theology that were widely courting much of Christian and secular academia at the time. It is likely this deeply rooted belief in biblical truth across all experience would result in Schaeffer’s singularly desirable conversational apologetics later in his ministry; however, the direct result of his fundamentalist underpinnings was a period of approximately nine years during which he served to pastor Presbyterian Churches in Pennsylvania and Missouri. Regardless, his beginnings, both in life and ministry, served to uniquely prepare him for the powerful impact that he would come to have on evangelicalism.
Francis Schaeffer’s mainstream impact on evangelicalism actually sprang from work that he began in the field of missions following his time in the pulpit. In 1945 he and his wife Edith were approached by the Independent Board for Foreign Missions about “[building] networks among Bible-believing churches, pastors, and institutions.” This would begin the span of time and events that led to the Schaeffer’s establishment of L’Abri which was a student commune in the Swiss Alps. In explaining the driving force behind the establishment of the communal home Schaeffer wrote: “This was and is the real basis of L’Abri. Teaching the historic Christian answers and giving honest answers to honest questions.” At L’Abri, Francis and Edith opened their home as an extension of community and hospitality that expressed Christianity in terms of love while, at the same time, Francis conversed with European students who were being educated in a secularized system of philosophy that was long on man and almost totally devoid of God. This is where Schaeffer truly excelled because, in the words of Barry Hankins, “his training within the Reformed branch of American fundamentalism by scholars such as J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til” allowed him to “engage [young Europeans] through discussion at the level of ideas and not merely tell them to straighten up and get right with Jesus.” At the very core of Schaeffer’s conversational apologetic evangelism is this notion of engaging in discussions at the level of ideology, and this approach stemmed from “Schaeffer’s view that American fundamentalism expended too much time and energy attacking any semblance of liberalism and not enough constructing a positive response to modern ideas that competed with Christianity for people’s hearts and minds.” Thus, L’Abri fused fundamentalism with community and hospitality which would have been a paradox of incalculable impossibility in America but was perfect for its time in Europe.
TEARING DOWN THE VEIL IN AMERICA
Eventually, Schaeffer’s work in Europe found an audience in America as a result of recordings of his conversations and books which were primarily written from transcripts of his recorded lectures and conversations. His conversational style of ideological apologetics found a ready following among American evangelical students which is articulated by Michael Hamilton writing for Christianity Today in a 1997 article which reads: “Historian Mark Noll remembers the Wheaton talks as the most stimulating campus intellectual event of his student years. Francis Schaeffer tore down the gospel curtain that had separated evangelicals from contemporary cultural expression, giving Christians object lessons in how to interpret sculpture, music, painting, and literature as philosophical statements of the modern mind.” Thus, the veil was torn between evangelicals and the mainstream, for Schaeffer’s notion was that the arts are really philosophical expressions hailing from society; therefore, they are also cultural ideologies which are open for Christian discussion- or at least they are according to Schaeffer’s style of conversational apologetics. This train of thought deeply appealed to the evangelical students of the time; after all, this was the mid 1960s and the fabric of America was being stretched as never before- particularly in artistic expression. In effect, Schaeffer’s evangelism gave the green light to engage people in the areas that were most culturally relevant which is a topic of concern up into our present day. It is extremely important to understand all of this in light of Schaeffer’s never-ending belief in biblical inerrancy. The interpretation of which Schaeffer spoke must not be mistaken in any way that would lead one to believe that he held to the notion of subjugating the authority of God or his word; rather, Schaeffer’s notion was that the interpretation of art was subject to biblical truth. Essentially, art was another opportunity for discussion at the level of ideas, and his part of that conversation remained from a point of biblical inerrancy which informs the human condition. Clearly, the veil of which Mark Noll spoke was rent asunder by Schaeffer’s notions which allowed evangelicals to engage with seculars in ways that fundamentalism in America was never able to do.
Francis Schaeffer succumbed to lymphoma on May 15, 1984 in Rochester, Minnesota. He and Edith had spent almost a decade in Rochester following the discovery of cancer in his lymph system, and during this period “the shadow of death intensified his concern to do what he could to try to reverse the horrific trend of easy abortion.” His work toward preserving the life of unborns brought him to be associated with America’s religious Right, and during this period he came to be known as “the philosopher of the Moral Majority.” Suddenly, Schaeffer was a leader not only involved in political issues but an advocator of civil disobedience which many viewed as an endeavor in hypocrisy, but for Schaeffer- ever the product of fundamentalism- “the battle lines were not drawn around the inerrancy of scripture… such a position could be held coldly, without love. Rather, for him the watershed issue was obeying the Bible.” It is in this that Schaeffer’s ideas become confused especially by American evangelicals who are often polarized into either the fundamentalist or anti-fundamentalist camps over the doctrine of inerrancy. Perhaps this is one last legacy that Schaeffer left behind with his passing- that one can seek to obey the Bible and lovingly engage with others about the issues that face man while remaining firm about God’s truth as inerrantly preserved in Scripture.
Francis Schaffer’s work can have a polarizing effect as the result of his widespread path through Christian ministry. From his fundamentalist beginnings to his politically active ending, his is a study in variety; ultimately, one cannot help but feel a ring of truth to his particular style of apologetics which were deeply rooted in love, community, and conversational truth. Perhaps this unlikely fusion was made possible by the prismatic plethora of pursuits that defined his life in ministry.
 Michael Hamilton, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer,” Christianity Today, March 3, 1997, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1997/march3/7t322a.html?start=4.