Remembering Francis Schaeffer: On The Occasion of His 100th Birthday

Francis Schaeffer—100? Who can believe it?! Schaeffer (1912-1984) was born 100 years ago on January 30th. On this special occasion, it’s worth taking a few minutes to remember his important legacy. Many of us were greatly blessed by his life.

Schaeffer was a Presbyterian pastor, then missionary, then apologist, prolific author, evangelist, film maker and activist . He was one of six evangelical leaders (along with Billy Graham, John Stott, J.I. Packer, Carl F. H. Henry, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones) who profoundly shaped the evangelical movement in the second half of the 20th century.

His life
Francis Schaeffer was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. As a student he attended Westminster Theological Seminary where he studied under Cornelius Van Til and J. Gresham Machen. He then went to Faith Theological Seminary. Schaeffer had pastorates in Grove City and Chester, Pennsylvania, and also in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1948, he and his wife Edith moved to Switzerland as missionaries. There they later established the community called L’Abri (French for “the shelter”). During the 1960s and 1970s, L’Abri became a study center that attracted thousands of students and professionals from all over the world promoting the relevance of Christian truth. A constant stream of books flowed from both Francis and Edith including: The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, He is There He is Not Silent, Art and the Bible, The Mark of the Christian, Pollution and the Death of Man, How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, Death in the City, L’Abri, What is a Family, The Tapestry, A Christian Manifesto, etc..

His influence
I first encountered Francis Schaeffer’s books as a high school student. Here’s what impressed me.

First, Schaeffer understood the times. He began talking about “great, titanic shifts” taking in place in the second half of the 20th century when few others were even aware of it. From his European vantage point he saw the suffocating effects of post war Western materialism. He also realized that the Christian base of Western society was being quickly eroded, and that this would have immense consequences. He tried to describe how the modern world came to distance itself from the God of the Bible, and how, in this rejection, our society began to lose contact with reason, reality and even our own humanness.

Schaeffer saw that a new secular, post Christian materialistic humanism would take our culture in a very different direction—abortion on demand was only an early manifestation. Modernity, he said, had thrown away Christian theology and in so doing we have thrown away the possibility of what our forebearers had as the basis for morality and law.

Second, Francis Schaeffer believed in truth and made truth understandable to average lay people. He introduced us to many different philosophers and world views and helped us catch the broad currents of Western philosophy.

But Schaeffer also knew the power of truth. He understood that a new subjective view of truth was emerging. He insisted that God created us in his image and has spoken to us—hence we have a groundwork for knowing truth. As the idea of truth was being relativized, Schaeffer talked about “true truth” and truth spelled with a capital “T.”

Yet Schaeffer wasn’t content to simply argue for truth, he went further saying that Biblical Christianity provides a unified answer for the whole of life. And that truth is ultimately found in Jesus Christ. Discovering Christ and his truth leads us back to freedom and dignity.

Third, I learned about the lordship of Christ from Schaeffer. Raised in a pietistic Christian tradition, I grew up living in two worlds. There was the very important spiritual and religious world. And then there was everything else. That “everything else” did not seem all that important to me…..until “Schaeffer came into my life.”

Schaeffer understood the sweeping implications of the lordship of Christ. He had a reformed, and ultimately Biblical vision of the wholeness of life. Schaeffer once said that if he had a common unifying theme it was “the Lordship of Christ in the totality of life.” If Christ is indeed Lord, he is lord of spiritual matters, but just as much, he is lord across the whole spectrum of life—including the areas of culture, law and government.

This opened up a whole new world for many of us. We saw that culture matters. Literature, ideas, art, music, painting and film all of a sudden became interesting to us. This unconventional theologian with his gotee and knickers helped us make connections. For me, he expanded my view of Christ, but also sparked a kind of Christian liberal arts revolution in my mind. Many of us now wanted to “think Christianly” about, not just Christian things, but about everything.

Fourth, Francis Schaeffer was prophetic. In understanding the immense forces shifting western culture, he issued prophetic books and films affirming the dignity of human beings based on Biblical values. He was actually articulating the vision of a Christian humanism, though I don’t recall him ever using that phrase. Consequently, Francis Schaeffer became one of the first evangelical Protestants to speak out on the abortion issue. When Southern Baptists and some northern evangelicals were silent, or even going along with the liberalizing tendencies, Schaeffer thundered that abortion and euthanasia were not just Roman Catholic issues (even though Catholics were speaking out about these issues first) but they were life issues that should concern all Christians. In his book and film series What Ever Happened to the Human Race, Schaeffer called on evangelicals to join the pro-life movement.

Schaeffer was also one of the first to see the rise of a new statism that was beginning to challenge religious freedom. At the end of his life he believed that statism was actually one of the greatest problems facing America.

Consequently, Schaeffer called evangelicals to move away from their preoccupation with personal peace and affluence. He called them to a new social activism that did not neglect the gospel, or confuse the kingdom of God with a social agenda, but that refused to be content with a privatized Christianity. He called evangelicals to a co-belligerency with other groups (such as Roman Catholics) but in a way that did not promote deep alliances or compromise Biblical convictions.

Fifth, with all his outspokenness and advocacy, Schaeffer insisted that it was not just truth that mattered but also love. The mark of the Christian, he said, must be love. He understood that Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is very ugly. I suspect he said this because he saw a lot of ugly Christianity while growing up.

Where are you Francis Schaeffer?
Reflecting on Schaeffer’s influence in my own life, I can’t help but think that the American church still needs his voice, especially in the election year of 2012. The same huge historical currents are still at work. Many Christians are passive about our society and stuck in what Chuck Colson calls a “spiral of silence.” And in our polarized society, many Christians have lost that important balance that Schaeffer prized—the balance of truth and love.

Fact is, it has been 28 years since Schaeffer’s death, and we still need him.
Some have inaccurately cast Schaeffer as a a dominionist, theonomist or Christian reconstructionist. He was not.

Of course, Francis Schaeffer had his flaws. His son says he was sometimes impatient, angry and depressed. I reply—who hasn’t been, especially in his line of work! Also, in Schaeffer’s concern to highlight sweeping historical trends, he sometimes got details wrong. But then, that happens to most of us who write and try to grasp the big picture.

Schaeffer was the first to admit that he needed the righteousness of another—which is why he never gave up on his Biblical and reformed convictions.

As we reflect on his life and remember what he was, we dare not forget what has happened since Francis Schaeffer’s departure. Because today, along with all who die in Christ, he is glorified. What he saw through a glass dimly, he now more clearly understands. In the presence of his savior, he knows present glory and unimaginable joy. What is more—the world he longed for is on its way.

For more information on Francis Schaeffer, read the Crossway biography written by Colin Duriez–Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life

Dr. Don Sweeting is the president of the Orlando Campus of Reformed Theological Seminary and professor of church history. He is an ordained minister of the word in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). This article is taken from his blog,What Is The Chief End of Man, and is used with permission.


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