Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: January 2009


Also in this issue

Too Frank by Half: What Love Should Have Covered

When to Forgive Others

A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, by Colin Duriez. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008, 240 pages, $24.99.

This is the best account to date of the life and ministry of one of the most influential evangelicals in the last half of the twentieth century. It is also a true biography, unlike the Dostoyevsky-length, anecdotal portrait of Edith Schaeffer's The Tapestry,[1] or her L'Abri,[2], which only covers one portion of Schaeffer's life. Duriez also gives the reader new material from many interviews that he and Christopher and Paulette Catherwood conducted.[3]

It should also be noted that Duriez has written after Bryan Follis's in-depth coverage of Schaeffer's apologetics,[4] and just after Frank Schaeffer's controversial autobiography Crazy for God.[5] Follis's volume makes an excellent companion to Duriez's biography.

Duriez is emphatic in viewing Schaeffer as "undivided," as the title of the appendix "The Undivided Schaefer: A Retrospective Interview with Francis Schaeffer" attests (205-221). I find Ken Myers's distinction between an earlier "bohemian" (hippie) Schaeffer and a later "bourgeois" (activist) Schaeffer more compelling.[6] Frank Schaeffer's memoir, Crazy for God, reflects the tension between these two competing tendencies. Francis Schaeffer breaks out of the fundamentalist/evangelical mold and ministers to the counterculture generation, but ends up as a spokesman for the Christian Right. What becomes apparent in Duriez's narrative is the strong fundamentalist, separatist influence of men like Carl McIntire in Schaeffer's early Christian life and preparation for ministry. Carl McIntire was a Presbyterian separatist with a cultural transformationist lurking just beneath the surface.[7] He was seen frequently protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court on the evening news. This legacy eventually emerged in the late Schaeffer. But it was present all along.

While Schaeffer's zeal for reaching the baby boom generation was enormously fruitful in many individual lives, including my own, several important weaknesses in his theology moved him to align himself with the Christian Right in the movement to restore Christian America. Cultural transformationists successfully co-opted Schaeffer due to the weakness of his doctrines of the church and common grace. Duriez sums up Schaeffer's view of the latter doctrine nicely, "The Word of God is the ultimate authority, Schaeffer argues, both in the sciences and in the humanities" (referring to Scripture, 168). Duriez describes the impetus for the last phase of Schaeffer's ministry as "the explicit extension of his emphasis upon the lordship of Christ into the social and political realm" (182-83). This was "an idea many fundamentalists and evangelicals in America had become ready for once their quietism, cultural separatism, and pietism had been challenged by the message of Schaeffer and others" (182-83). This emphasis was articulated in How Should We Then Live? (1976), Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979), and A Christian Manifesto (1981).

The failure to adequately account for the place of general revelation and natural law in turn prevented Schaeffer from exploring cultural forms. As Ken Myers suggests, Schaeffer's analysis of culture was largely restricted to the history of ideas. Thus, his apologetic was inadequate to the task of analyzing the complexity of the cultural situation. "His account of how humanistic ideas supplanted the 'Christian consensus' relies entirely on a history of ideas approach."[8]

Ken Myers very helpfully expands this concern,

It is regrettable that Schaeffer did not tackle the harder question about why certain ideas took the turn they did. A fuller explanation of the relationship between imagination and reason, between social experience and the plausibility of certain ideas, and between political and economic structures and the experience of communal belonging would have enriched Schaeffer's explanation about how we got here, as well as the counsel he offered in how the Church should respond... . If the Church is going to sustain the faithfulness of her message among her members and encourage the plausibility of her message to those outside the Church, she will have to give greater attention to the interaction between the content of belief and the forms of life.[9]

The other major weakness in Schaeffer's thought was his ecclesiology. This weakness was a characteristic of the fundamentalist Presbyterianism in which he was trained for ministry, especially in McIntire's Faith Theological Seminary. This influence seems to have filtered out certain aspects of the thinking of his theological hero J. Gresham Machen that might have strengthened his apologetic and immunized him against the seductions of the Christian Right. A proper ecclesiology will in turn inform cultural analysis and the church's agenda relative to culture. Ken Myers explores this twin concern,

All in all, Schaeffer's writings support a more radically individualistic Christianity than the Reformers defended. In fact, Schaeffer gives the impression that any high view of Church authority amounts to an acceptance of humanistic assumptions. The early "bohemian" Schaeffer and the later "activist" Schaeffer both seem to have a low view of the Church. The concern of the "sheltering" Schaeffer is that individuals come to faith, and not be discouraged by any conventions or habits of the Church in the process. The later Schaeffer seems more concerned with Reformation of the American political order than of the Church.[10] ...

The evangelical churches in particular face the challenge of examining long-standing distortions of Christian teaching in their heritage. Their assumption of the superiority of populism over structures of authority and their embrace of the alleged virtues of authenticity at the expense of formal and deliberate patterns of shared life makes it difficult to resist the secular forms of the same confusions.[11]

The antidote to "distortions of Christian teaching in their heritage" is found in the affirmation of that heritage in the creeds of Christendom. The fundamentalists that shaped Schaeffer's early experience of ministry tended to diminish the importance of the confession in their valiant defense of a mere Christianity of the fundamentals. The formal structures of the government and liturgy of the visible church constitute the most impenetrable bulwark against American individualism and its concomitant culture wars.

None of these criticisms, which become evident as Duriez enables the reader to stand back and take the measure of Schaeffer's ministry, should diminish our appreciation for what Schaeffer contributed to the church at the end of the twentieth century. Let me mention a few of the most important contributions.

Schaeffer stood firmly for the authority of Scripture, especially opposing Barthian neo-orthodoxy in large part through the influence of Westminster Theological Seminary professor of apologetics Cornelius Van Til (40-41, 62)[12], cf. Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism). I was surprised to learn that Schaeffer was present, with several other evangelical leaders, at a long discussion with Barth in Geneva during the first Congress of the fledgling International Council of Christian Churches in 1950. Schaeffer's address delivered at the congress was critical of Barth along Van Tilian lines. The Swiss theologian was not amused (99-100). Schaeffer's final book, The Great Evangelical Disaster (1984), warns in the plainest terms of the dangers of compromising the authority of Scripture (199-201).

Schaeffer's interest in culture in general and the arts in particular was exceptional, especially within the fundamentalist wing of Presbyterianism. His long association and friendship with art historian and critic Hans Rookmaaker cultivated this interest. The broadening of his interest helped him to understand the sixties counterculture and to encourage many of us to pursue careers in the arts. Edith Schaeffer emphasized the important place of beauty in the everyday life of the Christian. Her book Hidden Art was enormously helpful to my mother as she dealt with criticisms of her interest in opera and the arts from her fundamentalist church.

Although Schaeffer was not a scholar, and despite strong pietistic influences from his fundamentalist days, he never diminished the place of the intellect or the value of formal education. This was evident throughout his life. Farel House, the study center at L'Abri, was a testimony to his broad idea of learning, involving more than merely reading and lectures. Real learning was a life long pursuit involving thoughtful discussion in a community of learners. It involved planting gardens as well as ideas.

By all accounts Schaeffer was a generalist, and as Duriez notes, "a curiously modern thinker," who anticipated postmodernism long before anyone was using the word (154-55). This led to a comprehensiveness of the L'Abri "syllabus" that really taught us students a healthy intellectual curiosity (159).[13]

The crisis that formed the initial inspiration of L'Abri injected into Schaeffer's life and ministry a new sense of the need to trust the Lord[14] and of the important place of loving community as the expression of true orthodoxy (91, 103-125). In the mid-fifties this change in Schaeffer's thinking lead to a break with Carl McIntire (121-23). Oddly this salutary departure from separatism may also have contributed to a weak ecclesiology (132). But positively, the practical importance of love made visible in community set the work of L'Abri apart from the stridency of so much of the evangelicalism with which Schaeffer was familiar. During the heyday of L'Abri, and I think the most fruitful period of Schaeffer's ministry, along with hippies seeking answers, came the evangelical wounded. Schaeffer's thoughtful and compassionate ministry to the latter is often overlooked, but I witnessed firsthand some of the healing that his pastoral care brought. The written fruit of Schaeffer's transformation was The Mark of the Christian (1970), The Church Before the Watching World (1971), and True Spirituality (1971).

Duriez's book does contain a few historical inaccuracies. For example, he says that Machen died on a trip to Baltimore to encourage support for the new church, now the OPC (43). Machen actually died in Bismarck, North Dakota and is buried in Baltimore.

The bibliography and the index are well done and very useful. Three cheers for footnotes instead of cumbersome endnotes. Crossway has done an excellent job with the physical properties of the book. The binding, typography, and sixteen pages of black and white photographs are appropriate to the book's contents and make for an altogether pleasant read.


[1] Edith Schaeffer, The Tapestry, Nashville: Word, 1981.

[2] Edith Schaeffer, L'Abri, Sussex, UK: The Norfolk Press and Henry E. Walton, 1969.

[3] Duriez conducted seventeen between 1998 and 2007; the Catherwoods

conducted ten, all in 1998.

[4]See my review in the October Ordained Servant.

[5] See Duriez's comment on Frank's Crazy for God and his Calvin Becker trilogy (117, cf. 183).

[6] Ken Myers, "The Bohemian Temptation: Francis Schaeffer and the Agenda of Cultural Apologetics" (November 2004), 2, 8. This article was originally presented at a gathering to honor the 20th anniversary of Schaeffer's death. The event was sponsored by the Witherspoon Fellows program of the Family Research Council, but the article is no longer available on their website.

[7] The influence of Hans Rookmaaker introduced a Kuyperian view of culture (79) which no doubt fed into the American transformationist agenda, already well-formed in Schaeffer's thinking. This topic should be explored further.

[8] Myers, "The Bohemian Temptation, 8. I deal more with Schaeffer's apologetics in "Francis A. Schaeffer: A Unique Evangelist," (Oct. 2008). Duriez discusses Schaeffer's rejection of "extreme presuppositionalism and evidentialism or foundationalism" as a matter of pastoral concern (168-179). He rejected the emphasis on antithesis fundamental to Van Til's apologetic.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 9-10.

[12] Cf. Cornelius Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962).

[13] See my "Your Father's L'Abri: Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer," Ordained Servant (October 2008).

[14] This renewed trust did have a pietistic flavor (131, 133), involving something close to the idea of direct guidance by putting out "fleeces," and being marked by the influence of missionary George Mueller.

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

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Ordained Servant: January 2009


Also in this issue

Too Frank by Half: What Love Should Have Covered

When to Forgive Others

A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes


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