Ordained Servant Online

Francis Schaeffer: Reformed Fundamentalist? A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, by Barry Hankins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008, 272 pages, $20.00, paper.

If we cannot see the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of our mentors we have probably not learned much from them. While there is much to emulate and admire in Schaeffer's ministry, the cautionary tales that emerge are rife with warnings for us all. Hankins is appreciative without being hagiographic. That is to say, the book is truly critical in the best literary sense of the word—"expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art."

Hankins's analysis of Schaeffer's life, thought, and impact is the most comprehensive evaluation of this influential man that I have read to date. As one who lived and studied with him in the early seventies I can identify with the sojourn Schaeffer took, but lament where he ended. I prefer the Schaeffer I knew, who transcended his fundamentalism in the context of Europe, and for a time avoided "interpreting faith through an American lens" and hitching his wagon to American exceptionalism (228). Rising to prominence from a working class background, his inquisitive and ambitious nature, along with his fundamentalist Christian roots, significantly contributed to this conclusion.

The key to understanding Schaeffer's ministry is to properly distinguish the phases that it went through. It is not "undivided" as Colin Duriez maintains in his biography's appendix titled "The Undivided Schaeffer: A Retrospective Interview with Francis Schaeffer." But Hankins has also convinced me that Schaeffer's ministry is not simply divided in two as Ken Myers asserts when he distinguishes between an earlier "bohemian" (hippie) Schaeffer and a later "bourgeois" (activist) Schaeffer. Hankins claims that Schaeffer's strength was to adapt to his environment through three distinct periods in his ministry. In the 1930s and 1940s he was an American Fundamentalist separatist; then during the 1950s and 1960s he was the European Evangelical apologist; and finally in the 1970s and 1980s he returned to America as a Christian Right activist (xiii). The book convincingly demonstrates this thesis. Because of the importance of Schaeffer's influence on American evangelicalism I intend to summarize as well as comment on the salient elements of Hankins's appraisal.

American Fundamentalist

Schaeffer's early exposure to J. Gresham Machen was soon overshadowed when Schaeffer left Westminster Theological Seminary in favor of the MacRae-McIntire influence of Faith Seminary (7, 13). There fundamentalism thrived with its militant cultural separatism, a modified non-confessional Calvinism, and the sword of the Scofield Bible (12-15). "While Schaeffer would eventually weary of McIntire's militancy, he never lost the separatist tendency ... His separatism would significantly inform the Christian critique of secular culture that he developed later in life" (15). Over the next decade Schaeffer's fundamentalist convictions would deepen through three pastorates in McIntire's Bible Presbyterian Church—Grove City and Chester, Pennsylvania, and finally St. Louis (16-21). He had little use for the cultural re-engagement proposed by neo-evangelicals in the early 1940s (21, 24-7). During this time Schaeffer aimed his intellectual guns at both modernism and the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth (23).

He brought this message to Europe under the auspices of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1947, seeking to get churches to join McIntire's American Council of Christian Churches (28-9). His thirteen-country trip impressed him with the need in Europe. In 1948 he was invited by the Independent Board to return permanently (32-3, 37). He hoped that his fundamentalism would transform Europe (27). However, Europe would, in an odd way, transform his approach to ministry.

European Evangelical

At the Second Plenary Congress of the newly formed International Council of Christian Churches, Schaeffer relied heavily on Cornelius Van Til's critique of Karl Barth and the "New Modernism" (38) to lecture on the subject. Just prior to this Schaeffer and four other ministers visited Barth, who did not appreciate their fundamentalist approach, as Hankins's quote from Barth's letter to Schaeffer painfully demonstrates (39). At this point Hankins begins to indicate both the strengths and weaknesses of Schaeffer's public ministry.

While he utilized ideas from philosophy, Schaeffer was not a professional philosopher. Here and elsewhere throughout his career, he would get some of the details wrong when discussing western intellectual history, though his overall analysis would often be helpful for Christians trying to understand the larger picture.

... Neither Barth nor Hegel were relativists, but Schaeffer intuited that relativism was going to be a key problem in the second half of the twentieth century, and he began to put Christians on notice that something had gone wrong in western intellectual life and that its errors had crept into Protestant theology. (41)

As the students, invited by his oldest daughter, Priscilla, began to visit Schaeffer's Swiss chalet in the early 1950s his real understanding of modern culture began to develop. Hankins speculates, "It is highly unlikely that Schaeffer ever actually read Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the other modern thinkers he would later critique in his lectures and books" (43). These students taught him much of what he knew of modern thinking.

Schaeffer's geographical distance from his fundamentalist mentors coincided with a growing disillusionment with fundamentalism. He rejected the pride fostered by separatism. Interesting for Orthodox Presbyterians is the fact that Schaeffer defended the OPC's membership in ICCC against McIntire's wishes (48). At this crucial juncture the Schaeffers resigned from the Independent Board on June 4, 1955 in order to begin their new mission, L'Abri (French for "the shelter"). Schaeffer's rejection of the separatist paradigm of ministry combined with a passion to communicate the gospel to modern people in terms of an understanding of the thinking of modernity was unique to American evangelicalism. The community that formed as result of this new direction has proved an influence in a wider swath of western humanity than almost any other ministry in the last half of the twentieth century. Hankins's account of L'Abri's early development is a fascinating montage of this influence.

By 1960 Schaeffer's ministry was noticed by Time Magazine as a "Mission to Intellectuals" (74). In the decade that followed he would speak with students at Harvard and Boston University at the invitation of Harold Okenga (75), going on to lecture at Wheaton, Westmont, and Calvin colleges (76-8). The anomaly of his influence is accented by his becoming the first public intellectual of the evangelical movement, but without emerging from the academy. Church historian and then professor at Calvin, George Marsden observed,

For a Calvin faculty member the most startling aspect of this achievement is that Mr. Schaeffer, without displaying any particular academic credentials and with an apparent disregard for the usual academic standards and precautions, did exactly what we have always hoped to do—make Christianity appear intellectually relevant to the contemporary era. (77-8)

Then there were the books, each of which is concisely summarized and assessed along the way by Hankins. Based on his lecture notes his first books, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason, were published in 1967 by Hodder and Stoughton and in 1968 by InterVarsity in the US. Editors did the work of making lecture notes and then transcriptions from taped lectures into readable prose (79). Hankins does a masterful job of critiquing the now famous trilogy (96-105), the third volume of which was He Is There and He Is not Silent, not published until 1972. A recurrent theme of the trilogy was the "antithesis," a somewhat vague concept standing over against relativism in Schaeffer's thought (81). In the first two books, The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason, the centerpiece of Schaeffer's historical argument was the "line of despair," the historical point at which people stopped believing in absolute truth (82). Idiosyncratically, he laid the blame for promoting autonomous reason, and thus separating nature from grace, at the feet of Thomas Aquinas. Here, as elsewhere, Hankins points out Schaeffer's superficial treatment purporting to serve as proof for his apologetic assertions. In this case his understanding was out of accord with almost all Catholic and Protestant scholarship (82-4). Especially problematic was Schaeffer's misunderstanding of the relationship between the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and the Reformation. He located the problem of autonomous reason in the Renaissance rather than where it belongs in the Enlightenment (84). At this point it should dawn on the reader that one basic aspect of the fundamentalist mentality is present in Schaeffer's thought—simplistic conclusions that too easily give black and white answers that in turn define easily identifiable enemies (102). The "Reformation base" becomes the hero against the Renaissance enemy. Hankins suspects that the probable reason for this oversight is that when Schaeffer was in college, where he did most of his reading of history and philosophy, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt was the standard in Renaissance history. Since then scholars have demonstrated much more continuity between Medieval and Renaissance thinking (98-9). So, ironically, Francis Bacon ends up on the side of the angels (85). And early modern science is only possible because of the Reformation intellectual base (86). Hankins observes, "This was difficult to maintain historically or logically" (86). By the time we get to Hegel and then Kierkegaard, according to Schaeffer, nature is so divorced from grace that the only way one can find meaning is through the "leap of faith" exemplified in the existentialism of Sartre and Camus (88). At this point Hankins shows appreciation for Schaeffer's conclusion,

Schaeffer understood and made sense of the attempts of secular existentialists to find upper-story meaning, even through drug use in the counter culture of the 1960s.

... He even made reference to Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilization. He interpreted Foucault's work rightly as the recognition that the Enlightenment failed to make good on its promise to provide a unified answer based on reason.

Schaeffer's analysis is not without its difficulties, to be sure, but on topics ranging from drug use to art and poetry Schaeffer was getting evangelical young people to think in a new way about their world. (88-9)

In He Is There and He Is Not Silent Schaeffer posits human rationality as the common ground between believer and unbeliever. His "coherency theory of truth" sought to prove that the triune God is a metaphysical, moral, and epistemological necessity (92-6).

Schaeffer turned his attention more directly to cultural apologetics with the publication of his 1968 Wheaton lectures in Death in the City. Wheaton professor of literature Roger Lundin was deeply impressed with the lectures as an undergraduate, "one of the early experiences for me of seeing someone attempt to apply biblical understanding and Christian truth to pressing cultural and political issues" (110). Schaeffer was among the first to speak of post-Christian culture. In retrospect it is easier to see the cultural transformationist emerging in Schaeffer's call for reformation and revival, a return of America to her Christian, Reformation base (111). In taking up these concerns, Schaeffer identified with the concerns of the counterculture. In 1970 he was one of the first evangelicals to go green with the publication of Pollution and the Death of Man.

Schaeffer rounded out his promotion of Christian worldview with an emphasis on the visual arts, especially under the influence of friend, colleague, and art historian Hans Rookmaaker (123-5). But Schaeffer's aesthetic theory could never get completely past interpreting the meaning of art in rational terms. Modern art was simply more evidence for the decline of western culture. So, too, in his analysis of music and film. But, he was the only evangelical seeking to understand Cezanne, Debussy, Antonioni, Woody Allen, and the Grateful Dead. Salvation was not just the answer for the individual, but for the culture (115). Furthermore, he exhorted Christians to identify with, rather than shout at, those caught in the "maelstrom of meaninglessness" (114).

In the mid-1970s Schaeffer would take on American materialism and racism, but his progressive bent would soon take a turn to the right (130-5). When I left L'Abri in 1972, I was convinced that I should vote for McGovern. Not long after this Schaeffer would be a leader of the American right. As Hankins says "fundamentalist concerns were never far beneath the surface of Schaeffer's thought" (136).

Christian Right Activist

In 1972 Schaeffer returned to a vigorous defense of the inerrancy of the Bible with the publication of Genesis in Space and Time. He rightly asserted that if the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not historical then biblical authority and faith are impossible to maintain (136-43). In 1975 he published two more books, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History and No Final Conflict, as his part in the battle for the Bible (143). In 1978 he was one of three hundred signers of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy (146).

In a section titled "Fundamentalist Separatism Revisited" Hankins astutely observes that Schaeffer's "working-class populism and anti-elitism can be detected in his discussion of science" (150). In his effort to discredit secular science he resisted being dogmatic about the length of the creation days or the age of the earth (151). Hankins maintains that Schaeffer, like Harold Lindsell, exaggerates the similarity of evangelicals soft on inerrancy to the liberals of the early twentieth century (157-9). For Schaeffer these were "two theaters of the same war" (159). He concludes,

It appears that L'Abri and the trilogy were more of an interlude in Schaeffer's fundamentalism, rather than a dramatic turning point for his thought. Once his campus lectures and the trilogy drew him back to the United States, he jumped into the new fundamentalist battles as if he had never been gone. (159)

Schaeffer's foray into filmmaking with activist son Franky is a sad chapter in the book and in Schaeffer's life, as the undisciplined young "genius" led his father into the world of evangelical filmmaker Billy Zeoli. Despite the many problems with the film, Hankins declares How Should We Then Live Schaeffer's "best book" as it was better written and had a "better command of the great philosophers and artists" (167). However, as in the trilogy, Schaeffer located the roots of the modern problem of human autonomy in the Renaissance, leaving the European Reformation as a pristine model to be emulated today (169). But a new element was added—the link between the Reformation and American democracy, a link that would be amplified in A Christian Manifesto. Hankins helpfully points out the problematic straight line logic Schaeffer employed. Whatever is good in thought and culture had a Christian influence or origin (170). Hence, modern science was "attributed primarily to Christianity" (171).

The final new ingredient in How Should We Then Live was a call to culture war. Franky cajoled his father from his hitherto apolitical stance to the fundamentalist militancy of the culture warrior (175). According to Schaeffer, the new relativistic sociological ethic led to the legalization of abortion in 1973. The potential for a humanist elite to take over was an ever present Orwellian danger (176-9). Whatever Happened to the Human Race (1979) was a logical next step for the countercultural prophet. Teaming up with Dr. C. Everett Koop, Schaeffer launched a four-month, twenty-city film tour in 1979, accompanied by a book. Abortion was the result of American culture leaving its Christian base (183). Christians must resist this dehumanizing tendency, because man is not a machine. At this point Hankins points out a fundamental flaw in Schaefer's analysis: his "tendency to interpret the actions of human beings as direct products of their thinking ... a surprising emphasis for a Calvinist," ignoring as it does the natural selfishness of even those with a correct worldview, as if Christians believe that the Bible is true because it offers the best explanation of the world (186-9).

The culture warrior came to full gallop with the publication of The Christian Manifesto in 1981. Under the influence of lawyer John Whitehead and Christian Reconstructionist Rousas John Rushdoony, Schaeffer, while rejecting the idea of a theocracy, embraced the idea that a Christian consensus was the basis for America's founding. Democracy is rooted in the Reformation (193-4, 197). The Enlightenment influence is not mentioned here or anywhere in Schaeffer's works (198). The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 offered a window of opportunity for Christians to assert a Christian worldview over against secular humanism (200). Schaeffer was soon befriended by those in power, like congressman Jack Kemp and Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell (201-2). Despite public reservations about Constantinianism and private disgust for the belligerence of Falwell, Schaeffer was happy to be identified as a fundamentalist, regardless of William Edgar's friendly caution (203).

Illuminating is the conflict that erupted over the first Creation Science court case (207-8). Schaeffer cited the court's ruling against the teaching of Creation Science along side evolution as evidence of judicial tyranny. George Marsden testified in the same case on the side of the ACLU, attracting the wrath of Franky Schaeffer. Marsden challenged Francis on the inconsistency of rejecting theocracy, while at the same time maintaining that the relationship between church and state in Calvin was correct, when in fact the Reformers sought state establishment of Calvinism (209). Marsden's and Noll's pleas to get the history right were responded to with criticism that they were weak on inerrancy. Gone was Schaeffer's distaste for McIntire's attacks on fellow Christians (215). In the end the transformation of culture drove historical interpretation (220). As Marsden was to warn Schaeffer, political causes tend to "obscure the Gospel and divide the church if they are put into the forefront of a ministry" (223).

It is ironic, as Hankins observes, that many whom Schaeffer inspired to intellectual pursuits discovered the superficiality of much of his analysis. But, however, problematic in the details, the broad outlines were compelling (96). Hankins repeats this theme throughout all of the critical sections of his account in a quest to be truly appreciative without ignoring critical analysis.

Most troubling, however, was Schaeffer's "deep sensitivity to criticism from Christian scholars" (104), and his consequent unwillingness to listen to friendly critics like Ronald Nash, Cornelius Van Til, Harry Schat, Thomas Morris, William Edgar, Mark Noll, and George Marsden. The problem was his isolation from Christian scholars. He was left placing history on the "procrustean bed of American fundamentalism," and to view it in terms of decline and fall (101).


Heavily referenced and well-indexed the book merits careful study by anyone interested in understanding one of the major influences in evangelicalism in the last half of the twentieth century and beyond.

Despite the fundamentalist myopia that characterized Schaeffer's "monolithic interpretation" of history, Hankins believes that his "signal achievement and most lasting influence" was calling "Christians to think in Christian ways about all of life and culture" (227).

One wonders, however, if developing a Christian worldview isn't part of the problem. Then, doesn't everything have to have a Christian base? Is there any room for common grace as the sovereign work of God's Spirit in his providence in such a quest? If "engaging the culture" is a sincere quest to understand the various aspects of culture—this is a worldview worth developing—then we may earn the unbeliever's respect and thus perhaps a hearing. But, if it means transformation of the culture, then I wonder what such a project looks like in light of the text of the New Testament. At least Schaeffer stimulated us to think carefully and deeply about this subject of understanding culture.

This book has helped clarify a basic conclusion I have been coming to as I assess Schaeffer's ministry. I would argue that we see the fruit of the later Schaeffer in the cultural militancy of some of the Reformed community today. Late in the last phase of Schaeffer's life and ministry, Professor Ronald Wells of Calvin College wrote two penetrating critiques of Schaeffer's A Christian Manifesto (1981). Wells perceptively places Schaeffer's jeremiad within the ancient tradition of answering the question, What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Wells concludes his first article, "It is truly ironic that evangelicalism's philosopher, who spent so much of his time on 'the antithesis,' winds up a synthesizer after all." As helpful as Wells's critique of Schaeffer's intellectual project was, he ends up sharing Schaeffer's longing for the transformation of American culture. Of course, every Christian longs for a better country, but the Bible locates it in a different realm.

Like Wells and Hankins and so many others of my generation, I can trace my enthusiasm for developing the Christian mind to Francis Schaeffer. But for me this was the beginning, not the end, of a great journey. I am especially grateful that it was the middle, or "European evangelical," Schaeffer that sent me on my way.

It should be no surprise that where ecclesiology, especially that of a confessional church, is weak the reformation of culture tends to take center stage, and in the absence of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, the reality of common grace tends to be diminished. Add to this a simplistic reading of Reformation and American history and you have a dangerous formula for understanding culture and the church's role in it. This sounds familiar to anyone observing the so-called "culture wars." So, I answer, Yes, to the question in my title. Schaeffer was a reformed fundamentalist, perhaps always underneath the surface, but certainly in the end, and now the church must live with his children. Would that the culture warriors should beat their swords into plowshares to plant the gospel in the hearts of a needy world. Or perhaps in good Pauline fashion, would that they should put down their carnal swords and take up the spiritual sword of the good news of Jesus Christ for sinners. As Hankins concludes, "look to Schaeffer as an example of one who lived deeply within his own time ... while somehow keeping his eye on what was ultimate" (239).

For all of the superficial, and sometimes grossly inaccurate, treatment of history and philosophy, Schaeffer gave many of us hope in the face of the despair we had encountered in the modern world. It was just such despair that drove me to faith. He rightly identified the problem of autonomous thought. Schaeffer was the only Christian leader I knew who was addressing the modern world with any kind of penetration, and in the cultural language that I understood. Many of us would learn that within specific disciplines there are better scholars, but he was our pastor, and a deeply compassionate man, as Hankins acknowledges (107-8). Oddly his apologetics focused on ideas as the only element in people's presuppositions, excluding other dimensions of human commitment and loyalty. Yet in his own practice he demonstrated his claim that love was the "final apologetic."

Gregory Reynolds serves as pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC), Manchester, New Hampshire, and is editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant, December 2009.

Return to Formatted Page