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.]

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation Entrusts Southeastern Seminary with Schaeffer Archives

[Editor’s Note: We at BtT are happy to announce that the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation has entrusted Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary with the papers and correspondence of the late Francis Schaeffer. Udo Middelman made the presentation in Southeastern’s chapel this morning, on behalf of the Schaeffer Foundation. Below is the official press release from SEBTS.]

WAKE FOREST, N.C. – Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary today announced the addition of a voluminous collection of papers and correspondence of the late apologist Francis A. Schaeffer to Southeastern’s libary, thanks to the generosity of the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation. The collection is given to the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture for Southeastern Seminary.

The collection includes select unpublished papers and correspondence, source materials, notes, and recorded discussions of Schaeffer, one of evangelical Christianity’s most prominent 20th century voices and the author of 27 books. The collection, of which Southeastern has custody, will be placed under the direction of Bruce Little, professor of Christian philosophy and director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture, a ministry of Southeastern.

The foundation is overseen by its president, Udo Middelmann, who is Schaeffer’s son-in-law. Middelmann said the foundation is pleased to entrust these materials to Southeastern, in the hopes that Schaeffer’s work will continue to be influential for years to come.

“A lifetime spent in the pursuit of truth, and its relationship to society, philosophy and culture, is found in the collected papers and correspondence of Francis Schaeffer,” Middelmann said.

Little said he is grateful for the opportunity to serve as custodian of the collection.

“We are thankful to the Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation for entrusting us with this priceless treasure of historical significance,” Little said. “Every now and then, God gives His Church a unique voice for His people. Schaeffer was such a voice. It is our privilege to have a part in preserving and promoting this legacy for the generations to come.”

Schaeffer was born in the United States but spent most of his life in Switzerland with his wife Edith and their four children. In 1955, Francis and Edith Schaeffer opened their chalet/home to those who were seeking answers to life’s many questions and from that the ministry known as L’Abri began. The Schaeffers welcomed thousands of visitors during several decades some who stayed for only a few days while others a much longer time. However long the stay, it was an opportunity to learn from Schaeffer how the inerrant Scriptures gave the only fitting understanding of the real world.

In addition to his more than two dozen books, Schaeffer also recorded the influential series of videos called How Should We Then Live?, revealing the rise and decline of Western thought and culture.

President Daniel Akin said Southeastern was humbled to receive guardianship of the collection.

“It is my hope that the spirit of Francis Schaeffer, with his mind for truth and heart of love, will pervade our campus,” Akin said. “I pray that this collection will allow Southeastern to serve the church by extending the legacy of this great man of faith.”

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For more information about the collection, contact Jason Hall in the Southeastern Communications Office at (919) 761-2270 or Julie Anne Rouse in the Center for Faith and Culture at (919) 761-2190.

A Little Book on Francis Schaeffer

Now here is an interesting and worthwhile Little book. Francis Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God (P&R, 2010), edited by Bruce Little, is a collection of five essays on Schaeffer’s work and its continuing relevance in our world, written by arguably the four premiere Schaeffer scholars alive (all of whom knew Schaeffer well and two of whom are his sons-in-law): Udo Middlemann, Jerram Barrs, Ranald Macaulay, and Dick Keyes. It is 108 pages of brain candy, the best one-stop concise Schaeffer resource on the market.

The strength of the book, as Little points out in the preface, is its ability to (1) introduce Schaeffer to younger evangelicals who are unfamiliar with his life and thought; and (2) allow Schaeffer’s life and ministry to provide some guidance on how to engage our society and culture in the 21st century. Udo Middelmann writes on “The Man;” Jerram Barrs on “His Apologetics” and “His Legacy and His Influence on Evangelicalism;” Ranald Macauley on “Francis Schaeffer in the 21st Century;” and Dick Keyes on “Sentimentality: Significance for Apologetics.” The occasion for collecting these essays was the conference “Francis Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God,” sponsored by the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith & Culture at SEBTS.

Little points out that the contributors “give an in-depth and balanced view of Schaeffer, his mind and his heart for God. They highlight the importance of Schaeffer’s apologetic ministry for those in any culture who desire to communicate effectively the truth of historic Christianity to a world terribly out-of-joint. They reveal his keen mind shaped by a Christian worldview, how that worldview critiqued the culture as revealed through its artifacts, and his love for lost and broken humanity. The book shows how Schaeffer understood man to be, on the one hand, a sinner and rebel against God, and yet, on the other hand, created in God’s image and therefore worthy of dignity and respect when answering his questions. . . . Contrary to what many people have come to believe about Schaeffer’s ministry . . . Schaeffer’s apologetic is, after all, an apologetic model for every Christian in any place as it is crafted on the principle of authentic Christian love.”

Likewise William Edgar (Westminster Theological Seminary) sums up the book: “Each author brings a moving combination of personal tributes and original insights from their own work. Few texts will give the reader deeper insight into Francis Schaeffer, the man and his legacy, than this one. And few texts will better challenge the reader to carry on the work he began.”

In addition to its inherent worth as a work of theology and apologetics, one wants to buy the book out of sheer appreciation for Dr. Bruce Little, who not only is one of the sharpest wits ever to teach, but who has also almost single-handedly brought about a suit-and-bowtie renaissance in evangelical circles. (And for this reason, is sometimes referred to as Dr. Crisp. Or so I have been told.)

Which brings me to my last point: Dr. Little is professor of philosophy, director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith & Culture, and author of numerous books and articles, including the forthcoming God, Why this Evil (Hamilton, July 2010), and Defending the Faith and Engaging the Culture (B&H, 2010). If you are a prospective student interested in studying philosophy and apologetics, come join us at SEBTS where you have the opportunity to study under professors such as Dr. Little.