Francis Schaeffer ‘Indispensable’ To SBC

Schaeffer's interest in engaging culture made him appealing to Southern Baptist conservatives

“(Schaeffer) believed churches were acquiescing to the world, abandoning their belief that the Bible is without error in everything it said. A watered-down theology left the SBC with decreased power to battle cultural evils. To Schaeffer the convention was the last major American denomination with hope for reversing this “great evangelical disaster,” as he put it.”

 

The late Francis Schaeffer was known to pick up the phone during the early years of the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative resurgence. Paige Patterson knew to expect a call from Schaeffer around Christmas with the question, “You’re not growing weary in well-doing are you?”

Francis Schaeffer & the SBC

Patterson, a leader in the movement to return the SBC to a high view of Scripture, would reply, “No, Dr. Schaeffer. I’m under fire, but I’m doing fine. And I’m trusting the Lord and proceeding on.

To some it may seem strange that an international Presbyterian apologist and analyst of pop culture would take such interest in a Baptist controversy over biblical inerrancy.

But to Schaeffer it made perfect sense.

He believed churches were acquiescing to the world, abandoning their belief that the Bible is without error in everything it said. A watered-down theology left the SBC with decreased power to battle cultural evils. To Schaeffer the convention was the last major American denomination with hope for reversing this “great evangelical disaster,” as he put it.

Thirty years after Schaeffer’s death, Baptist leaders still remember how he took time from his speaking, writing and filmmaking schedule to quietly encourage Patterson; Paul Pressler, a judge from Texas with whom Patterson worked closely during the conservative resurgence; Adrian Rogers, a Memphis pastor who served three terms SBC president; and others.

By the early 1990s, conservatives had elected an unbroken string of convention presidents and moved in position to shift the balance of power on all convention boards and committees from the theologically moderate establishment. But at the time of Schaeffer’s annual calls, the outcome of the controversy was still in doubt.

“I strongly suspect that he was afraid I would not hold strong,” Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, told Baptist Press. “He had seen so many people fold up under pressure that he assumed we probably would too. So he would call and ask for a report.”

A worldwide ministry

Schaeffer was born in 1912 in Germantown, Pa., and was saved at age 18 through a combination of personal Bible reading and attending a tent revival meeting. Within months of his conversion he felt called to vocational ministry and eventually enrolled at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he studied New Testament under J. Gresham Machen and apologetics under Cornelius Val Til.

Schaeffer withdrew from Westminster before he graduated to attend the more fundamentalist-leaning Faith Theological Seminary in Wilmington, Del. In keeping with early 20th-century fundamentalism, Schaeffer emphasized separation from the world and personal holiness. Among the practices he opposed were theater attendance and dancing. Schaeffer retained his fundamentalist commitments through 10 years of pastoring in the U.S. and then service as a Presbyterian missionary in Europe.

In the early 1950s, however, a crisis of faith led Schaeffer and his wife Edith to begin engaging culture with the Gospel rather than shunning it. They founded a retreat center in Switzerland called L’Abri — French for “the shelter” — where he studied culture from a Christian perspective and engaged young people with the claims of Christ.

L’Abri grew and was featured in TIME magazine in 1960. Soon Schaeffer emerged as a popular author and speaker, explaining how western civilization had departed from a Judeo-Christian worldview and setting forth Christianity as the only solution to societal ills.

Schaeffer “wakened the cultural consciousness of the evangelical community,” Bruce Little, director of the Francis Schaeffer Collection at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP. The Schaeffer Collection includes all of the apologist’s personal papers and has been digitized by the North Carolina seminary.

“He thought that man’s dilemma was that man was fighting against the evil of the day, but he wasn’t winning,” Little, who also serves as senior professor of philosophy at Southeastern, said. “Schaeffer thought the answer to this is found in the Scriptures.”

From a Christian worldview perspective, Schaeffer wrote and spoke about such topics as the environment, abortion, art, literature, music, intellectual history and denominational decline. In the 1970s and 1980s, audiences packed auditoriums across America to hear him speak. He died of cancer in 1984.

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