Francis A. Schaeffer: The Legacy of His Life and Thought

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In October 2022, Christ Over All authors examined the ten chapters of Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto in order to explore their significance for today. Each title corresponds to the chapter name in Schaeffer’s work, which can be found here.

My family and I had the privilege of visiting L’Abri in Switzerland in July, 2019.

1. I have described the life and legacy of Francis Schaeffer in more detail in “Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984): Lessons from his Life and Thought” SBJT 6:2 (2002): 4–32 (link).

Although I never met Francis Schaeffer, the impact of his life and thought through his lectures, books, and films has been enormous in my life.[1] As a young Christian sharing the gospel with my high school friends, I was challenged to explain why I believed the Bible, and Schaeffer was of immense help. Specifically, his well-known trilogy—The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is not Silent—helped me articulate and defend the truth of the gospel to my skeptical friends. In fact, the Lord also used Schaeffer’s works to call me into the Christian ministry, especially into theological education. Schaeffer’s charge for Christians to know what they believe, to give honest answers to honest questions, and to live as “radicals for Christ ” challenged me to serve the Lord and his church.

So, given the enormous influence of Francis Schaeffer in my life, you can only imagine how excited I was finally to visit L’Abri, the community nestled in the Swiss Alps where Schaeffer lived and served. However, as I walked around L’Abri, what struck me was its size, or better, the lack thereof. In comparison with large church buildings and institutions in America, L’Abri was minuscule. It was located off the beaten path, and if you are not careful, you will drive by it! Yet as I walked among the chalets, I marveled at how God graciously and powerfully used this “little” place and Schaeffer’s life to influence so many for the sake of the gospel. In fact, as I walked around the property, one of Schaeffer’s famous sermons came to mind: “No Little People, No Little Places.”

Though we are limited and weak in talent, physical energy, and psychological strength, we are not less than a stick of wood. But as the rod of Moses had to become the rod of God, so that which is me must become the me of God. Then I can become useful in God’s hands. The Scripture emphasizes that much can come from little if the little is truly consecrated to God. There are no little people and no big people in the true spiritual sense, but only consecrated and unconsecrated people. The problem for each of us is applying the truth to ourselves . . . Those who think of themselves as little people in little places, if committed to Christ and living under His Lordship in the whole of life, may, by God’s grace, change the flow of our generation. And as we get on a bit in our lives, knowing how weak we are, if we look back and see we have been somewhat used of God, then we should be the rod ‘surprised by joy.’[2]

2. “No Little People, No Little Places” in No Little People, in Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer (5 vols., 2nd ed.; Wheaton: Crossway, 1985), 3:8, 14.

What Schaeffer preached in this sermon was true of his own life: God mightily used him in a far off place to influence the evangelical church worldwide. In fact, in thinking about Schaeffer’s influence, it is not an overstatement to say that there is no single person in the latter half of the 20th century that impacted evangelicalism more than him. After L’Abri started in 1955, for the next thirty years, its ministry expanded into a multi-directional work that reshaped evangelicalism.

Michael Hamilton rightly asserts that “perhaps no intellectual save C. S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole. Together the Schaeffers [Francis and Edith] gave currency to the idea of intentional Christian community, prodded evangelicals out of their cultural ghetto, inspired an army of evangelicals to become serious scholars, encouraged women who chose roles as mothers and homemakers, mentored the leaders of the New Christian Right, and solidified popular evangelical opposition to abortion.”[3] Or, in the words of Harold O. J. Brown who offered a similar assessment of Schaeffer’s influence: “There is no other important Christian thinker of our era who has tackled as many fundamental intellectual, philosophical, and theological issues as Schaeffer did . . . Even when dealing with the big issues that were his specialty, Schaeffer treated them not as theoretical problems to be fitted into a comprehensive world view, but as questions that individual persons needed to answer in order to find meaning in their lives.”[4]

3. Michael S. Hamilton, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer” Christianity Today, March 3, 1997, 22.

4. Harold O. J. Brown, “Standing Against the World” in Francis Schaeffer: Portraits of the Man and His Work, ed. Lane T. Dennis (Westchester: Crossway Books, 1986) 15–16.

What is also significant to remember about Schaeffer’s influence was that much of it, especially early on, occurred outside of the evangelical educational institutions and publishing houses—in other words, outside of the evangelical establishment. Instead, Schaeffer’s influence was made indirectly and in seeming obscurity, through his own personal contact with people. For Schaeffer, personal evangelism and discipleship were no cliché as L’Abri touched the lives of countless people—many of whom would later become future evangelical leaders. This is a powerful lesson for us to learn today. God can use “little people and little places” to do extraordinary work for him, if our lives are consecrated unto him. In many ways, sadly, the evangelical “establishment” has not delivered on what it promised. We don’t need big budgets and institutions to do gospel work. Instead, our triune God uses “little” people to do mighty things for him—people who are wholly devoted to him, who take him at his Word, and above all who proclaim the unsearchable riches and glory of Christ Jesus our Lord.

In seeking to capture something of the legacy of Schaeffer’s life and thought, let us focus on four truths that he taught which are imperative for the evangelical church to recapture today.

1. The Truth of the Gospel Must be Central to Our Lives

Throughout his life and ministry, Schaeffer taught us that the truth of the gospel and the triune God of the gospel must be central in our lives. Schaeffer was probably best known for his calling the evangelical church to live under the Lordship of Christ and to bring our entire lives and thoughts captive to Christ. Schaeffer was keenly aware that the “times” in which he lived were characterized by a massive loss of objective truth due to the waning influence of Christianity on the larger culture. This is why he called for the church to emphasize that the Scripture gives us “true truth” in contrast to the subjective, pragmatic, and constructivist “truth” of our day. This is why Schaeffer championed the need for the evangelical church to affirm without equivocation the full authority and inerrancy of Scripture. Schaeffer knew that apart from the triune God who plans, creates, and speaks there is zero epistemological warrant for objective truth, and thus we have no foundation to know God, to do theology, and to answer the basic questions of life.

This is also why Schaeffer grew increasingly alarmed at evangelicals who were rapidly denying or undercutting a high view of Scripture. Schaeffer was specifically concerned that evangelicals were compromising the historicity of Genesis 1-11, a move that eroded a strong view of creation, an affirmation of an historical Adam, and recognition of a fall into sin. For Schaeffer, a compromise on these key points would ultimately undermine the entirety of the Christian view and leave the church tossed back and forth by every wind of doctrine. In fact, in his last work, The Great Evangelical Disaster (1984)—a book he literally wrote as he was dying of cancer—he warned and pleaded with the evangelical church not to compromise biblical authority.[5] In the book, Schaeffer even named people and institutions he believed either had or were in danger of undermining the full authority and inerrancy of Scripture, while at the same time calling for a new generation of Christians to take a stand as “radicals for truth.”

5. The Great Evangelical Disaster was re-published in The Complete Works, 4:301-411.

Nearly forty years later, some of Schaeffer’s warnings were followed, but many were not. Schaeffer warned the evangelical church not to embrace the thought of the culture and to “mix” it with biblical truth. Yet, sadly, this warning has not been heeded. For example, the influence of the LGBTQ+ Movement, which is a religion unto itself, has in certain quarters of evangelicalism led to a compromise of biblical teaching on human sexuality, marriage, family, and so on. Such syncretism has also paved the way for other Christians to embrace of some aspects of “critical theory.” Schaeffer did not directly face these issues in his day, but he certainly warned the church that any embrace of such views that stand opposed to the objective truth of Scripture only results in unfaithfulness to our Lord and disaster for the church.

In addition, Schaeffer’s call to live under the Lordship of Christ was not merely theoretical but practical. This is how we should understand his call for the evangelical church in the 1970s to stand for the sanctity of life against the Roe v. Wade decision. In the 1970s, evangelicals were doing little on the social front, and Schaeffer almost single-handedly challenged millions of evangelicals to take an active role in shaping their society and its values.[6] Yet, it’s vital to note that Schaeffer’s call for the church to live out the truth of Scripture was first centered in the truth of the gospel. In this way, Schaeffer rightly knew that evangelism and practical action were done together, but that evangelism always had the priority for the mission of the church—again, a lesson the evangelical church must recapture anew in our day.

6. On this subject especially see How Should We Then Live?; Whatever Happened to the Human Race?; and A Christian Manifesto in in The Complete Works, vol. 5.

2. Ideas Have Consequences

7. This theme runs throughout Schaeffer’s books, but especially see The God Who is There; Escape From Reason; He is There and He is not Silent; How Should We Then Live?; and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in The Complete Works, vols. 1 & 5.

Schaeffer also realized that because truth matters then “ideas have consequences”—indeed, life and death consequences.[7] Although sometimes scholars quibble over some of Schaeffer’s analysis of intellectual history, he was exactly right that Western society has witnessed a “line of despair”—a slow process by which “ideas” trickle down from philosophy to art, music, the general culture and, finally, theology. The cultural mess and spiritual battles we face did not come from nowhere; rather they have a long history. And as Schaeffer reminded us repeatedly, there is a flow to history as “ideas” work themselves out—both for good or ill.

Building on this point, Schaeffer rightly stressed that to understand our present time, we must grasp the flow of intellectual history that has preceded us, and the effects it has had and will have on us, since people eventually act on their beliefs. In fact, Schaeffer warned us that if we do not think through this intellectual history, we will not only misunderstand our own times, but we will also have nothing constructive to say to our present age. We will inevitably be like the proverbial frog in the kettle that is sadly oblivious to the fact that the water is being slowly heated, so that if he does not jump out of the water he will be boiled to death.

For Christian leaders, pastors, teachers, as well as the evangelical church more broadly, this lesson is of utmost importance. If we are to remain faithful to our Lord and to his people; if we are to have something worthwhile to say to our generation; if we are to be those who truly understand their times and speak to the pressing issues of our day, then it will require a profound understanding of the day we are called to serve and minister in, as well as a wholehearted devotion to the Lord and his Word. Too often, we live as if we exist in some previous era of the church instead of addressing the challenges we face in our own day.

As Schaeffer analyzed the challenges of his day, he argued that the greatest battle the church faced was a change in the concept of truth—which we have now witnessed with the rise of what is often dubbed “postmodernism.” As Schaeffer presciently wrote: “The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth . . . The tragedy of our situation today is that men and women are being fundamentally affected by the new way of looking at truth, and yet they have never even analyzed the drift which has taken place … this change in the concept of the way we come to knowledge and truth is the most crucial problem, as I understand it, facing Christianity today.”[8]

8. The God Who is There, 1:5-6 (emphasis his).

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Schaeffer warned the church of what was coming down the road due to this change in the concept of truth. What we now identify as a subjective, pragmatic, constructivist view of truth funneled through the lens of “critical theory” is exactly what he said would happen. Since people always act on their “ideas,” false ideas will always lead to disaster, specifically the devaluation of human life, the destruction of the family, the perversion of human sexuality, and the increasing rise of the power of the State.

Recently, I re-watched an episode from his documentary, “How Should We Then Live?” In this YouTube video, Schaeffer predicted in the 1970s where our society would go, and incredibly, it was like watching the evening news. Ideas truly have consequences, and this is a lesson the church must learn again, otherwise, as Schaeffer warned, the church will embrace the mindset of the culture and lose its prophetic voice. Unfortunately, this is what we are witnessing in many segments of the larger evangelical world. To remain faithful to the Lord today; to proclaim the gospel in such a way that effectively communicates to people; to prepare Christians to understand their world and live in it in such a way that they are not molded by it; we need to learn from Schaeffer at this point.

3. Ultimate Differences are Worldview Differences

Given that “ideas have consequences,” Schaeffer also reminded us that the crucial “ideas” are ultimately differences in worldview. This is not a new observation, but sadly it is often forgotten. Given the tremendous shifts that have taken place in society, it is important to realize that we are engaged in a battle not merely over this or that point, but over entire competing worldviews.

Schaeffer spoke of these worldview differences in terms of presuppositional differences. He argued that in the West, at the beginning of the 20th century, most people—Christian and non-Christian alike—worked from similar assumptions about the world. In God’s common grace, the West was strongly influenced by a Christian view of reality. Even though it could be argued that the non-Christian had no right to act on the presuppositions he acted on given his rejection of Christianity, there was still something common in their thinking. However, as people began to act on their presuppositions in a more consistent fashion, which led them further away from a Christian view of reality, many Christians did not notice what had happened. For this reason, as Schaeffer notes, “The flood-waters of secular thought and liberal theology overwhelmed the Church because the leaders did not understand the importance of combating a false set of presuppositions. They largely fought the battle on the wrong ground and so, instead of being ahead in both defense and communication, they lagged woefully behind. This was a real weakness which it is hard, even today, to rectify among evangelicals.”[9]

9. The God Who is There, 1:7.

Furthermore, Schaeffer also argued that this lack of worldview thinking was due to the kind of education we received, whether Christian or secular. He astutely noted that in our education we often tend towards specialization without seeing the interrelationships between disciplines and the “bigger picture.” We tend to think in “pieces” but not in terms of the “whole.”[10] Thus, we fail to “see” the consequences of false ideas. Schaeffer stated it this way:

10. Strikingly, this is how he begins his A Christian Manifesto.

Today we have a weakness in our educational process in failing to understand the natural associations between the disciplines. We tend to study all our disciplines in unrelated parallel lines. This tends to be true in both Christian and secular education. This is one of the reasons why evangelical Christians have been taken by surprise at the tremendous shift that has come in our generation. We have studied our exegesis as exegesis, our theology as theology, our philosophy as philosophy; we study something about art as art; we study music as music, without understanding that these are things of man, and the things of man are never unrelated parallel lines.[11]

11. Escape From Reason, 1:211.

This is a very important point. The fight today is rarely over this or that point; instead, the debate is over systems of thought (i.e., worldviews). This is why in our teaching and preaching we must labor to show people how the pieces of Scripture “hold together” as a coherent whole, and how various pieces lead to worldview formation. But even more: in speaking to a culture that increasingly operates with false worldviews and knows little of the Bible, we must learn anew to communicate the gospel within its own worldview structure, beginning with the triune God who is there. Schaeffer did this effectively and trained a whole generation of Christian leaders. Today, we must do this again, if we are to learn from Schaeffer’s example.

4. The Importance of a Godly Life for Christian Leadership

Finally, Schaeffer modeled what it means to be a godly leader and God-centered man. This too is something today’s church leaders must recapture. Critically, Schaeffer was a godly man not only in his thinking but also his living. Whether you read Schaeffer’s works, listen to his lectures, or watch his films, a deep devotion for the Lord is clearly evident. He not only talks about gospel truth; he also knows the Lord deeply. Even the start of L’Abri was born in a spiritual crisis to know God in a deeper way. Schaeffer recounts in True Spirituality how he himself faced a spiritual crisis in 1951-52, and out of that crisis the birth of L’Abri took place. He discovered during this time what it meant to rely upon the finished work of Christ in our present lives and in moment-to-moment dependence upon the Spirit of God in prayer. And this was not mere rhetoric for him. L’Abri was grounded in prayer, a visible testimony to the existence, power, and grace of God.

Those who knew Schaeffer best testify to his deep love for the Lord and for people. For example, in a recent article, Schaeffer’s son-in-law, Ranald Macaulay, recounts that “whether with Christians or with sceptics, Truth was his burden. He hammered home the message that Christianity isn’t primarily about ‘religious experiences,’ but about Truth.”[12] But alongside Schaeffer’s burden for proclaiming and defending the truth of God’s Word, Macaulay also reminds us that “he was careful to contend with gentleness and compassion. He was always tender and winsome . . . He sympathized with our intellectual and practical difficulties and seemed to understand not just our spoken questions but the longings that lay behind them.”[13] In so doing, Schaeffer sought “to practice simultaneously the holiness of God and the love of God.”[14]

12. Ranald Macaulay, “Contending for the Lamb,” SBJT 24.2 (2020): 13.

13. Macaulay, “Contending for the Lamb,” 13.

14. Macaulay, “Contending for the Lamb,” 13.

15. Dick Keyes, “The Spiritual Integrity of Francis Schaeffer,” SBJT 24.2 (2020): 79.

Dick Keyes, who worked for many years at L’Abri, makes the same point about Schaeffer. For Keyes, Schaeffer was a man of “spiritual integrity.” He recounts how Schaeffer exhibited in his life and ministry a “sense that God is really ‘there,’ true and present with us here and now in every area of our lives, making a difference.”[15] For Schaeffer, his relationship with the Lord was real, and as Keyes recounts, “[m]any of us who knew him remarked that what he believed with firm confidence and followed with extraordinary commitment, he also experienced emotionally in great depth. He felt God’s truth—whether it was the wonder of God’s glory and grace for himself and others, the suffering of individual people or compassion for the lostness of the non-Christian world.”[16] Schaeffer truly modeled what a godly leader and God-centered man looked like to countless people who came to L’Abri and sat under his ministry.

16. Keyes, “The Spiritual Integrity of Francis Schaeffer,” 79-80.

Concluding Reflection

As we think of the legacy of Francis Schaeffer and the ministry of L’Abri, we have a challenge today for the church to recapture the truth of God’s Word and to live it out in our daily lives. Although Schaeffer was only a sinner saved by God’s sovereign grace, the Lord mightily used him to proclaim Christ to countless people. In his life, he sought to exhibit simultaneously the holiness and the love of God, as a man of courage and compassion, both in his thought and life.

For large numbers who came to L’Abri, Francis (and Edith) Schaeffer spent countless hours giving honest answers to honest questions. Unlike many today in the academy or even leaders in our churches, they were not too busy to give their lives for others. This self-sacrifice is a valuable lesson Christian leaders, pastors, and teachers must re-learn. The Schaeffers opened up their home as they sought to reach people for Christ, and they gave their lives in service of the Lord and his church. They stood firm for the truth of the gospel and trained a generation of people and evangelical leaders to do likewise.

Scripture often holds out role models for us to emulate. Paul encourages Timothy to follow his example, as he follows Christ (2 Tim. 3:10-13), and the author of Hebrews encourages fellow believers with the “Hall of Faith” in order to challenge the church (and us) to press on in our devotion and service to Christ (see Hebrews 11). As we examine the lives of godly men and women from the past, we too learn how to better serve our Lord today. And often as we do so, we are awakened from our spiritual lethargy by unique servants of the Lord who sought, in their lives and thought, to serve the Lord in their generation. Francis Schaeffer is one such example we can learn from, especially in regard to how we may live under Christ’s Lordship in our day. May we learn from his example to bring every thought captive to Christ and to stand against the “spirit of the age,” as we proclaim, teach, and live out the truth of gospel in our day.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Stephen Wellum

    Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).