Everything But the Knickers: The Enduring Significance of Francis Schaeffer
In a news cycle driven by the latest quotes from Rick Perry, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney, you would not expect to see Francis Schaeffer popping up on the daily ticker. The American expatriate, wearer-of-knickers, connoisseur of Swiss cosmopolitanism, and, above all, philosophically minded Calvinist public intellectual once made national headlines, to be sure. But suddenly he has returned, posthumously torturing the public square with supposed plans of a Christian political takeover, a master-strategy foiled in his day yet rising again in the phoenix of Michelle Bachmann's presidential campaign.
Bad history and considerable ink-spilling aside, all this prompts a question: did Schaeffer ever really leave? A controversy recently erupted in the Twittersphere over this very matter. Alan Jacobs, one of evangelicalism's most astute scholars, wrote in response to the aforementioned claims of Schaeffer-inspired dominionism, that he could not recall hearing the L'Abri founder's name mentioned in 25 years of teaching in Christian academic institutions. Once one acknowledged that Schaeffer inspired evangelicals to engage ideas and appreciate art, Jacobs suggested that one had to concede that the man was no longer necessary.
Surely, Jacobs was right to suggest (implicitly) that the idea that Schaeffer's work even now rouses hordes of evangelicals to attempt political takeover is ridiculous. But was Schaeffer's influence really as circumscribed as suggested?
The Man and His Work
First things first: Schaeffer is unparalleled in evangelical history. There is no one who prefigures him and no one who now perfectly emulates him. Born in 1912, Schaeffer was raised in a Protestant home and came to faith in 1930. He studied and moved in fundamentalist circles in the 1930s and 40s and was influenced early on by famed controversialist Carl McIntire. Schaeffer moved to Europe in 1948 to conduct missionary work among children. Warming quickly to the physical beauty and intellectual spirit of Switzerland, Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, established L'Abri, a shelter-turned-community-turned-waystation, in 1955.
Through a variety of unusual encounters with spiritual pilgrims, Schaeffer soon earned a reputation as an evangelical guru, one to whom skeptics or struggling Christians could go for all-night conversation that led in many cases to personal transformation. The salon-like discussions were often taped and subsequently distributed throughout the world by Schaeffer devotees as a cycle developed: more guests distributing more tapes led to more guests. Schaeffer became something of an evangelical celebrity, with stories circulating throughout evangelicalism of visits from the son of President Gerald Ford, the children of Billy Graham, and counter-cultural mystic Timothy Leary.
In the mid-50s, Schaeffer began venturing back across the pond to lecture in the United States at schools like Harvard, MIT, Wheaton, Calvin, and many more, electrifying his audiences even as he provoked them. His talks ranged over Western philosophy and theology and held his audiences spellbound. The apologist knew how not to over-conclude, to leave his hearers on the edge of a rhetorical precipice. According to Baylor historian Barry Hankins, in a 1968 Wheaton College address, Schaeffer ended on a dime:
There is death in the city; there's death in the city; there's death in the city.
He then sat down. Those who believe in the cultivation of searing oratory will find ample means of growth in the Schaefferian corpus.
Hankins suggests that the two major tenets of Schaeffer's speaking (and his broader program) were these: (1) Christianity is logically non-contradictory and (2) a system in which one can live consistently. Perhaps we could add a third: the living God reached out to a suffering world to offer it hope and salvation. Amid generous and wide-ranging engagement with major intellectual and cultural voices, Schaeffer propounded these themes in texts like He Is There and Is Not Silent, The God Who Is There, and Escape from Reason. His apologetic approach was presuppositional, but Schaeffer did not believe that this view abnegated understanding of and even affection for the non-Christian world. He practiced a rough-and-ready brand of cultural engagement but famously said that a Christian studies the world "with tears." For Schaeffer, the intellectual life of the public Christian had intrinsic value even as it was, of necessity, missiological. One studied to understand, then set out to engage and persuade.
Schaeffer in Contemporary Evangelical Life
We cannot fully reconstruct the sweeping events, the great struggles and victories, of the evangelical icon in this piece. Such has been attempted, with a good deal of success, by two recent biographies, the first by British writer Colin Duriez entitled Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Crossway, 2008), the second by Hankins entitled Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Eerdmans, 2009). These books---one popular, the other academic (but each valuable for either audience)---suggest by way of mere existence that Francis Schaeffer is an important figure for the contemporary evangelical movement. The same goes for prior works by authors including Lane Dennis, Scott Burson and Jerry Walls, and Christopher Catherwood. In 2008, Christianity Today published a cover story on L'Abri, noting by way of title that it was "Not Your Father's L'Abri." Whatever one of thinks of him---whether savant or kook---Schaeffer's name is still on our lips.
Schaeffer's legacy lives on in institutional form at Covenant Theological Seminary, which houses the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. Headed by academic Jerram Barrs, a disciple of the apologist, the institute offers an annual lectureship, colloquia, and a fellows program that has drawn some of the brightest evangelical minds. Led by Bruce Little, the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary recently acquired the Schaeffer papers and held a major conference in Schaeffer's honor. The World Journalism Institute, affiliated with prominent evangelical writer Marvin Olasky, has a Francis Schaeffer Chair of Apologetics.
Prominent evangelical leaders and theologians who count (or counted) themselves deeply influenced by Schaeffer include William Brown, president of Cedarville University; David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; William Edgar of Westminster Theological Seminary; James Sire of the University of Missouri; Harold O. J. Brown, late of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Lane Dennis of Crossway Books; Os Guinness; Udo Middleman; Barrs; Douglas Wilson; and Nancy Pearcey. Schaeffer's books---and books about Schaeffer---are assigned reading at a wide range of evangelical schools, including TEDS (I read Hankins's text in a doctoral seminar), The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (several of Schaeffer's works were assigned in my systematic theology classes taught by Al Mohler), Covenant Theological Seminary, Biola University, Southeastern Seminary, and many others. L'Abri shelters operate in 11 locations around the world and have grown in the last several decades, even if the movement seems in places to have distanced itself from Schaeffer (there is little about him on the L'Abri website, a quixotic reality).
Though he has won his eternal reward, Schaeffer's ideas continue to animate Christians adhering to the conservative tradition, whether his defense of inerrancy, his care for the unborn, his love for art, film, and literature, or his belief in "true truth." His 27 books continue to find an international audience. The "worldview thinking" that Schaeffer and other figures such as Carl F. H. Henry championed and popularized has essentially won the day as the dominant intellectual approach of evangelicalism, whether in the basement of the home-school consortium or the cavernous halls of the top-tier Christian university. Popular speakers and apologists like Chuck Colson, Josh McDowell, James Dobson, and Ravi Zacharias all promote this theocentric integration of intellectual and spiritual concerns, even if none of them has followed true Schaefferian suit and adopted knickers or a walking stick.
Schaeffer's effect on evangelicalism, whether academic or popular, extends widely enough that it is difficult in the final analysis to quantify his influence. The number of pastors, scholars, missionaries, and other leaders affected by Francis Schaeffer number in the thousands, to be sure. Many of them frequent this site; some of them owe their love for theology and cultural engagement to Schaeffer, and others may credit their very salvation to him.
Was Schaeffer necessary? Is he relevant beyond a basic apprehension of the importance of ideas and art? Does his legacy endure and spread in our day? The answer to all three of these questions seems to be a decisive yes. Schaeffer was not a perfect man to his wife or family. He was not and did not present himself as an academic scholar, so one can find holes or mischaracterizations in his work. H did not seem to have a strong doctrine of the local church. He is not appreciated or even known by all evangelicals. Despite his flaws and the passage of time, however, we can conclude that Francis Schaeffer was a brilliant apologist who helped midcentury evangelicals by pioneering worldview thinking, cultural engagement, and robustly theological outreach to intellectuals, artists, and others whom Christians struggled to evangelize. He is worth studying, reading, and appreciating.
D. A. Carson has engaged the life and thought of Schaeffer with nuance. His work offers a fitting conclusion to our brief tour of the significance of the apologist: "In the aeons to come, there will be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of redeemed men and women who will rise up and call him blessed for helping them to escape from various intellectual and moral quagmires." May that number only increase.