An Interview with Os Guinness on the 25th Anniversary of Francis Schaeffer’s Death
Two biographies of Schaeffer have been published relatively recently: Colin Duriez’s Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life and Barry Hankins’s Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of American Evangelicalism.
I was recently able to ask Os Guinness a few questions about Schaeffer’s impact and significance.
How did you first meet Schaeffer?
I first met Francis Schaeffer in 1965 when I was a student in London. I had come to faith in Jesus through a Christian friend and through reading such writers as Dostoevsky, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. But it would be fair to say that while we had extraordinary biblical exposition and deep, rich theological teaching in England, there was almost no encouragement to think Christianly or to understand what was going on in the wider culture. So there I was as a student in the middle of ‘swinging London’ and the exploding Sixties, and no Christians that I knew understood what was going on at all. Then a friend took me to hear a strange little man in Swiss knickers, with a high-pitched voice, terms all of his own such as ‘the line of despair,’ and appalling mispronunciations and occasional malapropisms. But I was intrigued and then hooked. Schaeffer was the first Christian I met who was concerned to, and capable of connecting the dots and making sense of the extraordinary times that puzzled and dismayed most people. Two years later, I went to the Swiss l’Abri myself, and my first three weeks there in the summer of 1967 became the most revolutionary period in my entire life. I have never been the same since.
Can you describe his influence on you personally?
Later on, I had the privilege of living with Francis and Edith Schaeffer for three years in their home, so I came to know them both very well. To be honest, I adored Edith and have never met a woman like her. I can’t say quite the same about Francis, and I have my differences with him. But I also owe the world to him, and he has influenced me profoundly even where I differ from him. His main influence was not intellectual. I owe far more in that area to my real mentor, Peter Berger. In fact I have not read many of Schaeffer’s books, because I heard them all delivered in lectures and discussions before they were written. So Schaeffer has influenced me more in an unspoken way. I often say simply that I have never met anyone with such a passion for God, combined with a passion for people, combined with a passion for truth. That is an extremely rare combination, and Schaeffer embodied it. It is also why so many of his scholarly critics completely miss the heart of who he was, and why his son’s recent portrayal of his father is such a travesty and an outrage.
We all serve as examples to others—both positively and negatively. What are some of the main things in Schaeffer’s life and ministry that we should seek to emulate, and what are some cautionary lessons we can learn?
Of all his own books, Francis Schaeffer’s favorite was True Spirituality. It tells the story of his passionate, even desperate, search for reality in faith. But that was what was so great about him. There was no gap between his trust in God, his praying, his wrestling with issues, his lectures, his preaching, his love of the mountains, his sense of fun, his appreciation of beauty, and so on. With all his flaws, he was a very real man. Nietzsche used to say, “All truths are bloody truths to me,” and the same could be said of Schaeffer. He was very real.
At the same time, although he was a brilliant thinker, with an uncanny ability to connect the dots and see the significance of things, he was not a scholar and he relied too much on reading magazines rather than books. So he allowed himself, perhaps, to believe his flatterers’ hype, or at least to go along with the puffery of his publishers and others. In the end, he lost a bit of his earlier humility, and was portrayed as the great philosopher and scholar that he wasn’t – which means that real scholars have an easy time of debunking some of his ideas.
Is there something in particular that you think people today misunderstand about Schaeffer?
A host of misunderstanding swirls around Francis Schaeffer’s reputation today. The two that concern me most are about his apologetics and his significance. Many who cite his apologetic approach have a comically wooden understanding of how he approached people to win them to faith. I have yet to see the book that does justice to the sheer brilliance of his way of presenting the gospel.
As far as his influence, he had a massive impact on the lives of individuals, including me, but his wider significance was as a ‘gatekeeper,’ or a door opener. When almost no Evangelicals were thinking about culture and connecting unconnected dots, Schaeffer not only did it himself but blazed a trail for countless others to follow. Many who trumpet their disagreements with him today owe their very capacity to disagree to his influence a generation ago. A little man in stature, he was a giant in influence, and many who have gone further have done so only by standing on his shoulders. I for one owe far more to Francis Schaeffer than I can ever say, and I live daily in his debt.