Guest Blog (Bruce Little): An Encounter with Francis Schaeffer

A Personal Encounter with Francis Schaeffer

I remember hearing Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) in person, several weeks before his death, at a large gathering on the campus of a Christian University. Schaeffer was of particular importance to me. At the time, in April 1984, I was attending a graduate seminar on Schaeffer so it was perfect timing. Just a few years before, I had first felt the force of Schaeffer’s thought through reading his books, and now I was having the opportunity to hear him in person as he was on a speaking tour promoting his latest book, The Great Evangelical Disaster. I have vivid memories of that night. I watched as he was helped to the platform and then remained seated even while he spoke. By this time cancer had so weakened him physically that standing was out of the question. In fact, at that time I was told that his diet consisted mainly of milkshakes.

After Schaeffer delivered his lecture, the audience was invited to ask questions. I remember one young man who began his question by reviewing some of what Schaeffer had just noted (and as many young men tend to do, he tried to impress the crowd with his knowledge, struggling to put his mini-speech into the form of a question). And alas, after the young man launched a rather dramatic presentation of his insights, he concluded by picturing the Church in the tenth round, bloody and beaten and on its knees. Then, at last, he asked his question. He wondered if there was any hope the Church could win given his analysis of the situation.

Dr. Schaeffer leaned forward and brought the microphone to his lips. A hush came over the audience as it awaited the response. Then Schaeffer said, “If we do it to win, we have lost already. We do not do it to win, but because our risen Lord has commanded us.” What an answer! I have told this story so many times I embarrass myself, but the power of that response moves me each time I think of it. In fact, I often have been encouraged as well as challenged by those words. And for this, I am forever grateful for that night I heard Dr. Schaeffer. That was 26 years ago, not so long when you think about it, but it has been long enough for the name of Francis Schaeffer to fade from the evangelical memory. My hope is that Francis Schaeffer’s life and ministry will not fade from memory, but will instead remain present to our minds as a model of faithful witness. Perhaps this blogpost will be the catalyst for some of our readers to read Schaeffer’s works and benefit from them.

A Brief Biography of Francis Schaeffer

Schaeffer spent most of his adult life in Europe with his wife Edith and their four children (three girls and one boy). Francis and Edith went to Switzerland shortly after World War II. I once asked his daughter, Deborah, why her dad chose Switzerland. She explained that many people in those days in Europe thought there would be another war and her dad wanted the family to be safe in the event such a concern materialized. For this reason, they chose a remote village in the Swiss Alps where they founded L’Abri Fellowship (only after they were told to leave one little community because Schaeffer was having a religious influence on their predominantly Roman Catholic populace). The story of the L’Abri (the word means Shelter) ministry can be found in Edith Schaeffer’s wonderful book, The Tapestry.

Over the years, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people journeyed to L’Abri (for stays that ranged from days to months) where some found Christ as Savior and others were strengthened in their faith. This was especially true in the 60s and 70s; those of us who lived through those times remember the political and social upheaval as students on both sides of the Atlantic went full throttle into a rebellious mode. Many evangelicals merely condemned the senseless destruction-of course, in one sense it needed to be condemned-while ignoring the questions raised by the rebels. Schaeffer, on the other hand, listened carefully to their questions and helped them to see how historic Christianity answered those questions coherently and consistently. Many of us remember those days and not without some residual anxiety. Many evangelicals responded by entrenching, but Schaeffer chose to engage the young people and the intellectuals (many were existentialist) 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., and that Christianity answered those questions consistently and sufficiently.

Consequently, Schaeffer eventually earned the reputation of having a mission to the European intellectual. In 1960, Time magazine suggested that the mission of Schaeffer was to target the European intellectual. The truth is that the Schaeffers had been sent to war-torn Europe in 1948 by the Presbyterian mission board to work among children, many who had been orphaned by the war. That often comes as a surprise to those not well acquainted with Schaeffer, because by the time he was well-known, it was not for children’s work, but work among young people and intellectuals. Furthermore, Schaeffer became known as an apologist (Some evangelicals loved him but others were suspicious of him, mainly because of the way he dressed!). He defended the faith in a way that challenged traditional categories. For this reason, he is difficult to label. Although some commentators claim that he was a presuppositionalist, Schaeffer tells us that he had no one method apologetically.

A Basic Overview of Schaeffer’s Apologetic

In order to understand Schaeffer’s approach to evangelism and apologetics, 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, Schaeffer himself edited his works, which were published in a five-volume set, including the trilogy 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). According to Schaeffer, historic Christianity is creation-centered. Furthermore, central to creation is the truth that God created man in his image. The first apologetic implication of this truth is that man has intrinsic worth which means he is 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 man could also be very cruel. Schaeffer spoke of man being noble, not because of man’s 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.

According to Schaeffer, the second apologetic implication of creation 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.

The Christian’s apologetic task, according to Schaeffer, is to show man where the point of tension existed between his presuppositions and the way the world really is. Schaffer’s approach was to push man towards the logic of his position in the area of his own real interests. Schaeffer believed that man builds a sort of philosophical shelter to protect himself from the blows of the real world. The Christian must lovingly remove the shelter and allow man to feel the blows from the real world, both internally and externally.

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.

Schaeffer’s life, ministry, and writings are instructive for evangelicals today. One more than one level, he remains an important apologetic resource for Christians in the 21st century. For this reason, the L. Russ Bush Center at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary houses the Francis A. Schaeffer Archives. The Schaeffer Archives includes a voluminous collection of unpublished papers, source materials, correspondence, and recorded discussions of Schaeffer, thanks to the generosity of the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation.

[Editor’s note: For further reading about the Schaeffer archives, see the articles at the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture (SEBTS) and the Evangelical Philosophical Society.]