Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984)
With the death of Francis A. Schaeffer IV from cancer at the age of 72 years, the Lord has taken from the evangelical world a man whose name had become a 20th Century legend. Stephen Board, writing in the June 15 Christianity Today, outlined his life story. Born in a nominally Lutheran home in Philadelphia, he was converted as an evangelical Christian after a short period of agnosticism. Turning from an engineering course, he enrolled in the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College, and went on to Westminster Theological Seminary. Living through Machen's conflict with Liberalism in the large Presbyterian Church and the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, he subsequently followed the Bible Presbyterians in their separation from OPC. After serving pastorates in Pennsylvania and Missouri he in 1948 went to Europe as a missionary under the Independent Board of Presbyterian Missions. A friendship with Hans Rookmaaker, Art historian at Amsterdam's Free University, markedly influenced his development as an evangelist and cultural apologist for the Christian Faith among confused students and intellectuals. Schaeffer was involved in the break with Carl McIntire, leader of the Bible Presbyterians, which brought the organization of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, later to become the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, and thereafter merge with the new Presbyterian Church in America. His lectures were taped and some of them were published to become the two probably most influential of his 25 books, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason (American editions by Intervarsity, 1968). The circulation of his tapes and books helped to swell the interest in his personal evangelistic work among a varied and growing number of confused young people who came to him at the village of Huemoz, in Switzerland, and have made his name and that of his L'Abri community, household words, among Evangelicals around the world. His wife, Edith, (nee Seville) daughter of a Presbyterian missionary to China, authored the book L'Abri.
Schaeffer's growing popularity brought with it a measure of criticism of some of his facile generalizations and inaccuracies regarding details. That is partly explainable from the fact that his books were publications of tape recordings of his popular, often rather extempore talks and discussions with confused students and intellectuals. Of such broad, extempore-style talks one can hardly expect the kind of meticulous accuracy that is demanded in a doctoral thesis.
Some of the criticism is more substantial than this, however. Rev. John Byker, writing in our March, 1978 OUTLOOK after having spent 6 weeks at L'Abri, noted certain weaknesses in his presentations, regarding the Biblical doctrines of election and creation, for example. Although Schaeffer was indebted to Dr. Cornelius Van Til in his defense of and promotion of the Christian Faith, unlike his teacher, he tended in his argument to appeal rationalistically to the natural man as judge of what was true or false.
Despite such criticisms, Dr. Schaeffer's monumental work has been characterized by emphases for which every Evangelical Christian ought to be grateful.
- He highlighted as few in our time have done God's objective revelation in the inerrant Bible, in opposition to the pervasive subjectivism that is destroying the Christian faith of many people and churches in our time.
- He stressed the antithesis between the revealed Christian Religion and the secular humanism that is attempting to destroy it, not only in our churches, but throughout our world.
- He saw the gospel as a "world and life" message that needed to be applied in every area of man's life and society.
- He endeavored to both teach and apply that message in personal and practical relations with the endless variety of people with whom he came in contact.
- Especially in his later work, notably in his book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, he sought to alert the Evangelical Christian world to the threat to its life and testimony in the way in which it is accommodating itself to the anti-Christian spirit of our age.
A Message for Christian Reformed
It may be a bit startling to observe that all of these emphases of Schaeffer have been characteristics of what is supposed to be our distinctly Reformed heritage. Yet these characteristics are exactly what we are rapidly losing today — faith in and obedience to the inerrant Bible, recognition of the antithesis between God and the devil, cultivating a style of living that is "not conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2) — these are what our churches and homes are losing and our current denominational leadership is increasingly rejecting as we become a typical part of "the great evangelical disaster." It is significant that, according to a Baptist Bulletin article appearing in the June 18 Christian News, Francis' son, Franky Schaeffer, listed among prominent nominally evangelical institutions which are currently engaged in this disastrous accommodation to the spirit of our age, Calvin College. The inclination of our present church leadership toward that kind of accommodation has perhaps never been more plainly or persistently demonstrated than it was at the recent June Synod of the Christian Reformed Church.
A Final Warning
Schaeffer's last book, The Great Evangelical Disaster, clearly written and easy reading, if a bit repetitious, describes and explains very clearly what the dying man saw as the most ominous threat to the present Christian world. Consider the way in which a few citations from Chapter 3 on "The Practice of Truth" illuminate our own current church problems.
Prior to the 1930's the Bible-believing Christians had stood together as liberalism came in to steal the churches. Then at different speeds the liberals achieved their theft of the various denominations by gaining control of the power centers of the seminaries and the bureaucracies (p. 74).
Large sections of evangelicalism act as though it makes no real difference whether one holds the historic view of Scripture, or whether one holds the existentialist methodology that says the Bible is authoritative when it teaches religious things but not when it touches on what is historic or scientific, or on such things as the male/female relationship (p. 78).
In the struggle between advocates of these two views, "Evangelicals must be aware of false victories. The liberal denominational power structure knows how to keep Bible-believing Christians off balance. There are many possible false victories they can throw to evangelicals to prevent them from making a clear stand. There are still those who say, 'Don't break up our ranks. Wait a while longer. Wait for this, wait for that.' Always wait, never act. But fifty years is a long time to wait while things are getting worse. Because of my failing health, I am in a good position to say that we do not have forever to take that courageous and costly stand for Christ we sometimes talk about" (p. 79).
Do not think that merely because a Bible believing man is elected as an executive officer ... this will give safety to a denomination. If the two power centers in modern denominations — the bureaucracy and the seminaries — remain in the control of liberals, nothing will be permanently changed" (p. 80).
Schaeffer stressed the indispensability (in a spirit of love for all) of restoring discipline. "When a denomination comes to a place where such discipline cannot operate, then before the Lord her members must consider a second step: that step, with regard to the ... purity of the visible church, is with tears to step out" (p. 87).
We, like other churches of our time, desperately need leaders with the evangelical commitment and vision of Francis Schaeffer. Let us thank God for what He has given us in Schaeffer's labors, and pray that He will give us more of such leaders.