Countercultural Spirituality: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: January 2015


Also in this issue

Beautiful Truth

Lord Defender: Jesus Christ as Apologist

Renaissance by Os Guinness

Science as God’s Work: Abraham Kuyper’s Perspective on Science: A Review Article

China’s Reforming Churches edited by Bruce P. Baugus

Old and New Year Ditties

Schaeffer and the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality by William Edgar. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013, 206 pages, $17.99, paper.

Schaeffer and the Christian Life is part of a Crossway series titled “The Theologians on the Christian Life,” which “provides accessible introductions to the great teachers on the Christian life gaining wisdom from the past for life in the present.” The series includes: Augustine, Bavinck, Bonhoeffer, Calvin, Edwards, Newton, Luther, Owen, Packer, Warfield, and Wesley. What makes Schaeffer unique is the context in which he taught and lived the Christian life—L’Abri Fellowship, a community where living and learning were intimately connected.

Bill Edgar is well qualified to write on this topic since he became a Christian through Schaeffer’s ministry and lived and worked with the Schaeffers at L’Abri. Edgar himself is an important thinker and apologist in the Reformed tradition.

The book’s ten chapters are divided into three parts. Following Edgar’s “Personal Introduction to Francis Schaeffer” is the first part, “The Man and His Times,” a biographical account. The second part, “True Spirituality,” unpacks Schaeffer’s essential principles of the doctrine of the Christian life. Finally, in part three, “Trusting God for All of Life,” he focuses on prayer and guidance, affliction, life in the church, and engaging the world. Edgar’s personal biographical account is artfully woven into these topics.

Edgar begins with a personal introduction that forms an important ingredient in this account of Schaeffer’s ministry. Edgar first went to L’Abri at the urging of his Harvard professor and friend Harold O. J. Brown at the age of nineteen in 1964 (18–19). He was immediately impressed with the warm welcome he encountered. It was in the context of this inviting and intelligent community that the Lord brought him to genuine faith. He observed that prayer was not a ritual but a reality (22). Here was orthodox Christianity embodied in a true community. Furthermore, Schaeffer exhibited a love for people that attracted them to the love of God (23). “The extraordinary combination of community life and intellectual challenge was essential to the fabric of life in Huémoz” (25).

Schaeffer has often been criticized for simplistic generalization and a lack of academic carefulness. Edgar makes a strong case for his brilliance despite a lack of formal scholarship. He collected “insights from Scripture, people, articles, clippings, and his own hunches” (25).

He had a “nose” for generalizations. Occasionally they were over simple or even mistaken. But mostly he had a sense of what was reasonable and what was not, and would explore his ideas accordingly. He possessed a considerable knowledge of the arts and was able to converse about them or most any other subject with just about anybody who would come across his path. (25–26)

Edgar does not gloss over Schaeffer’s weaknesses, but emphasizes the ideas and practices that readers ought to consider and emulate. Nor is he afraid to discuss controversial aspects of Schaeffer’s thought. He recounts Edmund Clowney’s attempt at a meeting of the minds between Schaeffer and apologist Cornelius Van Til (29). Schaeffer believed Van Til did not give enough place to “evidences in arguments for the Christian faith. Van Til, on the other hand, worried that Schaeffer had slouched toward rationalism” (29). Edgar’s article “Two Christian Warriors: Cornelius Van Til and Francis A. Schaeffer Compared”[1] confirms that his appreciation for Schaeffer is not hagiographic. For example, in commenting on the documentary How Should We Then Live? which Schaeffer produced with his son, Franky, together with Billy Zeoli of Gospel Films, Edgar observes, “To be honest, it is not the best documentary ever produced. Various portions of it lack professionalism” (33). Yet, as Edgar goes on to say, nothing like this had ever been done in the evangelical world, and its wide viewing in American churches stimulated excellent discussion.

Chapter 2, “The Journey to L’Abri,” is a concise summary of Schaeffer’s development leading up to the L’Abri ministry. It is filled with many interesting and little-known tidbits like, “Machen gave his very last exam to Fran, who had to sit for it by Machen’s sick bed” (45). Most helpful is the array of influences catalogued by Edgar. Van Til, particularly in his critique of Karl Barth, shaped Schaeffer’s thinking about neoorthodoxy (44). While on an exploratory mission for the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions in 1947, Schaeffer either met or heard such luminaries as André Lamorte, Willem Visser’t Hooft, Reinhold Niebuhr, Ole Hallesby, G. C. Berkouwer, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones (49). And then there were the influence and friendship of surgeon C. Everett Koop (50) and art historian Hans Rookmaaker (51).

Edgar’s analysis of Schaeffer’s crisis of faith is very compelling. First, as suggested by biographer Barry Hankins, Schaeffer needed to move beyond the influence of mentor professor Allan MacRae. More significantly, it began to trouble Schaeffer that disagreement among the Reformed was often not seasoned with love. “ ‘The Movement’ was stressing doctrinal gatekeeping at the expense of love” (54). Finally, a letter of sharp rebuke over Schaeffer’s critique of neoorthodoxy from Karl Barth must have troubled him, since Barth censured him for lack of an open mind and a loving attitude (54). These three elements combined to give Schaeffer a lot to think about.

Thus began a struggle to reconsider the very truth of Christianity. Over a number months he concluded that what he had believed was indeed true and began to enjoy a “newfound spiritual reality,” which formed the basis for his book True Spirituality (55).

In chapter 3, “L’Abri and Beyond,” the ministry of “The Shelter” is described. At this point especially, the writings of Edith Schaeffer become important. Her story of the founding of the ministry L’Abri, her larger history, Tapestry, and her family letters, all form an intricate and interesting picture of the life of this community. Its purpose was: “To show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God” (62). Prominent in that life were daily discussions about life’s meaning (61).

The section on Schaeffer’s eclectic, and thus unique, apologetics is a useful summary of the way he approached people with biblical truth (64–67). His understanding of history follows the pattern of decline and fall, a la Edward Gibbons, and thus has its weaknesses, especially in Schaeffer’s identification of the “line of despair.” While I have always found Van Til’s rationalist-irrationalist dynamic approach a better lens through which to view all of history and man’s place in it, Schaeffer does properly identify a shift in the nineteenth-century view of truth.[2] Edgar makes the same point in the final chapter of the book, while suggesting that Schaeffer may have had in mind the shift from modernism to the “postmodern condition” (178). Schaeffer was also prescient in identifying postmodern relativism earlier than most cultural critics. And, although not a strict transcendentalist in apologetic methodology, he did believe in the importance of presuppositions at the foundation of a person’s worldview.

Although he may not have used a fully transcendental method, he had an uncanny way of identifying the contradiction between a person’s basic commitments and that person’s real life, and thus the impossibility of living successfully in God’s world with an unbelieving philosophy. (65)

The most well-known example used by Schaeffer was the inconsistency of the chaotic atonal music of composer John Cage, whose philosophy was that life was “purposeless play,” and the orderly precision with which he picked mushrooms (26).

One area of possible disagreement with Edgar is the degree to which Schaeffer changed his views or emphases throughout his ministry.[3] Edgar tends to minimize the changes. Ken Myers distinguishes between an earlier “bohemian” (hippie) Schaeffer and a later “bourgeois” (activist) Schaeffer.[4] Biographer Barry Hankins contends that Schaeffer’s ministry was not simply divided in two, but 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). I tend to favor this taxonomy. In Edgar’s favor he gives evidence that examples of the activist phase can be seen in the apologetic phase. For example, Schaeffer lectured on theonomist Rousas John Rushdoony, favoring his “conservative assessment of the American constitution” (75). Here Edgar does hint at a change in which political themes, while present in the middle phase of ministry became more prominent in his later ministry (75). Furthermore, Edgar reminds us that in the most political of his writings, A Christian Manifesto (1981), Schaeffer “carefully warned that ‘we should not wrap Christianity in our national flag’ ” and that in his views on civil disobedience “he generally sides with the magisterial Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin)” (76).

Clearly the greatest contrast was between the early McIntire Fundamentalist phase and everything that followed. “More than ever, in his later days he insisted that church separation, if necessary, always be conducted with love and forbearance” (77).[5]

Part 2 considers true spirituality proper. The chapter titled “Fundamentals” begins with a quote from Machen, “If our doctrine be true and our lives be wrong, how terrible is our sin! For then we have brought despite upon the truth itself” (81). Schaeffer stressed the utter importance of sanctification, which is the process of growing in acting upon our knowledge of the person and the work of Christ (83).

At the foundation of the Christian life is the authority of the Bible as God’s Word (85). I remember having a conversation with a rebellious minister’s son who said Schaeffer was at heart a Fundamentalist because he believed that the Bible was infallible and that Christianity was the only way to God. I am thankful that Schaeffer never wavered from this core belief and demonstrated that legalism and a lack of biblical love, not biblical authority, were the problems with Fundamentalism.

One of Schaeffer’s great strengths was his “worldview spirituality.” Free of Christian jargon Schaeffer was able to communicate the Christian worldview in seven basic ways. 1) The triune God existed before creation, 2) the visible and invisible universe is God’s creation, 3) the Fall radically changed the course of history, 4) the incarnate Son is central to all biblical truth, 5) people receive Jesus Christ as Savior, once-for-all, by bringing nothing but faith to trust him, 6) the Christian life of sanctification is a process, 7) that process ends in glory (88–91). “All in all,” Edgar concludes, “Schaeffer was a Reformed eclectic” (92).

Schaeffer was above all a biblical realist. He believed that the Bible teaches us the way things really are in the visible and invisible realms, God being the final reality (92–94). “He was deeply concerned to experience the presence of God and then show others the way to live in that same reality” (95).

Among the realities, for Schaeffer, was freedom in the Christian life. Here is where he parted company from Fundamentalism in the sharpest way. But in emphasizing freedom, he did not wander into the perilous territory of antinomianism as the two sections of the thirteenth chapter, True Spirituality, reveal: 1) “Freedom Now from the Bonds of Sin,” 2) “Freedom Now from the Results of the Bonds of Sin” (98). The Ten Commandments, therefore “represent the law of love” (99). Growing in sanctification means that we become what God intended us to be as his image bearers (105). Here Edgar perceptively shows that Schaeffer could have used a strong dose of the eschatology of Geerhardus Vos. Schaffer was unclear that redemption is not a mere restoration, but an eschatological giant step forward in the maturity of God’s image bearer. The new heavens and the new earth are far more than a return to the original Edenic state, but rather a consummation of God’s original purposes beyond Eden, as symbolized in the tree of life (105–6).

In the final chapter of this second section, “Applications,” Edgar fleshes out five implications of true spirituality. While eschewing perfectionism, Schaeffer believed that the separation from self cause by sin can be substantially overcome through the application of the finished work of Christ. But this does not mean that we should take sin lightly. We may achieve practical victory now (110–11). Schaeffer praised John Wesley’s serious quest for holiness of life, but he rejected his perfectionism. He was also critical of what he called “cold orthodoxy” in some Reformed people. Although Edgar understands what Schaeffer was getting at, he wisely corrects misunderstanding when he cites the Reformed ideal as “a marvelous marriage of high orthodoxy and warm piety” (112).

A second implication is the importance of the inner life. The centrality of the mind in Schaeffer’s view of the Christian life at times “seems an over-reach” observes Edgar. However, he also emphasized that truth is more than merely rational and that even the mind has been effected by sin (113). Although Schaeffer does not comment on the effect of cultural forms in influencing the thought-life in terms of the sociology of knowledge, his emphasis on the importance of community and the church in Christian formation demonstrated that he understood the Christian life to be an embodied life (115).

Along with the importance of living concretely in the present (a third implication), while trusting God, we may also learn from unbelievers. While Schaeffer does not use the term “common grace,” he does refer to having common cause on certain issues with unbelievers, that is, “cobelligerence” (117).

After a fourth implication on “substantial healing” psychologically, he concludes with the importance of loving our neighbor. Schaeffer detested the impersonal approach of much evangelical evangelism. He believed that that each person should be treated as a human being, made in God’s image (121). Only an authentic spirituality will have any worthwhile effect on the culture in which we live (122).

In Part 3, “Trusting God for All of Life,” Edgar covers the major terrain of prayer and guidance, affliction, the church, and the world.

Edgar’s devotion of an entire chapter to the subject of prayer is simply a reflection of its importance in Schaeffer’s life and ministry. “Besides the intellectual content and warmth of the community, what struck most visitors, including this one, in the early days of L’Abri was that everything was bathed in an atmosphere of prayer” (125). This was especially notable in the writings of Edith Schaeffer, but something that both she and Fran believed to be foundational to the Christian life, and the only explanation for L’Abri’s existence, because prayer connects the believer with the “God who is there.” Prayer is a constant and urgent necessity (129). But it must not be reduced to a psychological reality (130).

Directly connected with prayer is guidance. The Schaeffers believed that God would guide them in particular situations, not with direct revelation, but by giving them wisdom to act in particular ways (136). This was always mixed with simply trusting God in what they were doing. At times the Schaeffers’ approach to funding seems pietistic, but it was probably more a reaction to some of the gimmicky fund raising techniques they had observed and soundly rejected. Furthermore, they did not recommend their way of approaching funding as the only way, but set a profound example of the importance of really trusting God to provide the means of ministry (137).

Edith’s book Affliction, which articulates the Schaeffers’ convictions on this difficult subject, deals in biblical realism, affirming both God’s sovereignty and human freedom. One thing is certain, “evil is utterly real” (142). Schaeffer challenges modern existentialist thinking in his first book, The God Who Is There (1968), as Edgar explains:

In a manner suggestive of Cornelius Van Til, Schaeffer states that there are really only two possible explanations for the problem of evil. The first is that evil has a metaphysical cause. That is, our basic problem is our finitude. The other is that it is a moral issue. If our problem truly is a metaphysical one, then we are without hope, for there is no real way out of finitude, and no real cure for cruelty, because there is no way to identify something as cruel or not cruel. (142–43)

For Schaeffer this was a life and death issue. There can be no social justice without absolutes (144). But this denial of the historic Fall, which leaves people stuck in the reality of man in his fallenness, should lead us to compassionate humility. We should weep for sinners. The world the way it is is not normal, Schaeffer insisted (145). While some may think Schaeffer’s Calvinistic diagnosis of humanity’s fallen condition is harsh, “the effect is really just the opposite. The new theology’s approach and the pantheistic response, in which evil is an illusion, are in fact the cruel ones, offering no way out” (146). This aspect of Schaeffer’s apologetic is one of his greatest strengths.

The penultimate chapter deals with life in the church. While Schaeffer’s ecclesiology was not perfect, nor was it systematically articulated, he was seeking the church’s return to spiritual authenticity. He called the church to do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way, which is the title of one of his most famous sermons. He criticized the American church for compromising its identity with middle class affluence and lifestyle (148). He was also critical of the church’s lack of appreciation for beauty in worship and everyday life. He demonstrated that orthodoxy and creativity are not at odds (149–50). Furthermore, the church is a community of loving fellowship in which honest questions may be asked and should be answered, where genuine love is exhibited, especially through the exercise of forgiveness as an attitude toward others, and the ability to deal graciously with differences (151–54).

The message of the church must be biblical truth. “For Schaeffer, liberal theology resulted from following the trends in secular culture, only using religious language to express them” (155). “True truth,” a Schaeffer coinage, was central to his quest for reform. Ever since the Western world had crossed the “line of despair,” especially with the synthetic dialectical approach of philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, truth became relative (156). So Schaeffer believed that it was important to make sure people understand what we mean by truth as we set forth the claims of historic Christianity. Otherwise faith is meaningless (157).

While Schaeffer was not a theonomist, he did believe that the Mosaic civil law provides “a pattern and a base” for modern countries. Edgar observes that Schaeffer is less supersessionist than the Westminster Confession, which refers to the expiration of the Mosaic civil laws (159). Thus, I would contend, when back in the American context, he became something of a moderate transformationist.

For the structure of the church Schaeffer believed that there must be freedom within the bounds of biblical form (160–61). Edgar goes on to enumerate eight “structural norms that govern the visible church” in Schaeffer’s thinking (161–63). “His main interest ... is minimalism, that is, finding a few rules so as not to bind the Holy Spirit’s work in giving us freedom.... liberty to innovate wherever the Scripture does not speak” (163). The international church he helped found in 1954 was essentially New School Presbyterianism, although Edgar does not use this historical label for what he describes. I would agree with Edgar’s plea that we should not evaluate Schaeffer’s work by his ecclesiology, as Edgar suggests that Schaeffer was a revivalist and an evangelist first and foremost. But perhaps the Old School’s stricter ecclesiology, which does not compromise its principles in the face of the exigencies of the mission field, would have made a very good thing even better. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has sought to do this in both the foreign and home mission fields.

The book concludes with Schaeffer’s engagement with the modern world. Schaeffer helped liberate many from the Bible believing church’s separatist disdain for cultural and creative activity. The Schaeffers embraced the natural and eschewed plastic. Creativity in everyday life was encouraged. Edith’s book Hidden Art beautifully portrayed and encouraged such a life. For those raised with these values, acquired by common grace, it was very important to learn that the Bible didn’t require us to reject those sensibilities (167–69).

Under the heading “Revolutionary Christianity,” Edgar compares and contrasts Schaffer with Kuyper, but most helpful is his description of Schaeffer’s revolutionary Christianity. First, it must be “hot,” as Marshall McLuhan defined that term. Rather than the cool, suggestive, subliminal messages of Madison Avenue, it must communicate simply and directly the historical, factual truth of the Bible (172–73). Edgar mistakenly claims that McLuhan “touted” cool communication (173), whereas he was actually a critic; after The Mechanical Bride he claimed to be a mere observer of culture, simply seeking to navigate the new electronic world, and not a critic. Second, revolutionary Christianity must be compassionate. Schaeffer was especially concerned with racism among white evangelicals (174–75).

Schaeffer believed that the world could only be effectively transformed through revival and reformation. He often cited the social benefits that the revivals of Wesley and Whitefield produced. Reformation itself is a deeper transformation of culture (175). For Schaeffer did not envision a theocracy but a cultural consensus that respected God’s law (176). Edgar points out that Schaeffer’s contrast between the benefits of the Reformation and the liabilities of the Renaissance, which depended heavily on Jacob Burckhardt’s historiography, has been challenged by recent historians (176, n. 33).

Edgar’s section titled “Revival and Reformation” is a very helpful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Schaeffer’s apologetic, especially his critique of the situation on this side of what Schaeffer called “the line of despair.” Schaeffer’s main burden was to prophesy against the decline in Western civilization (177). Rather that placing religion at the center of this decline, as Abraham Kuyper did (171), he begins with philosophy (178). Science comes next, with existentialism and art following close behind (179). Then society itself breaks down. Edgar points out the difficulty of verifying Schaeffer’s taxonomy of decline, especially in the arts (179). However Schaeffer’s analysis of particular problematic themes, such as relativism and the dangers of social engineering, has proved very helpful in alerting the church to its need of developing critical skills. Schaeffer, unlike Van Til was a non-academic cultural critic and prophet, not an academic philosophical apologist.

Edgar points out that while Schaeffer was not fully Kuyperian in his approach, they did share the recognition of “the need for every portion of life to be redeemed” (181). He goes on to briefly describe Schaeffer’s application of this idea to the spheres of family, business, the arts, the sciences, and politics (182–86). Schaeffer was “remarkably prescient about the contextualization in the arts,” encouraging artists to develop a style “appropriate to one’s own culture” (183). Regarding politics Edgar observes, “Because he is a prophet, not a social analyst, Schaeffer’s material borders on the alarmist” (185). But in the end Schaeffer is most concerned generally about “the increasing loss of humanness.” Schaeffer never wanted people to “be divided into a spiritual and a secular self” (186). While I balk at the idea of redeeming anything but people, I think Schaeffer was speaking in a more general way about thinking and living as Christians in every arena of life, rather than seeking to make the arena of life Christian.

What we should take away from the Schaeffers’ teaching and example, and indeed from the ongoing work of L’Abri around the world, is that Christ is Lord of all of life, and because of that, there is no realm of life not subject to our scrutiny and to our calling as Christians in the world. For many, this message and this practice represent what is so wonderful, so exciting, about the Schaeffer legacy. (187)

The afterword concludes with six essential aspects of this legacy (189–92). 1) “He loved his family.” 2) “He was passionate about serving the Lord.” 3) “Cultural interests and pursuits” are an important part of life. 4) He had the “uncanny ability to look deeply into a person’s heart” in order to “carry out the principles of presuppositional apologetics in actual practice.” 5) His “greatest spiritual rediscovery was the present value of the blood of Christ.” 6) “He cared very deeply about human beings.” Schaeffer was not without his faults. “He was human, very human, in the worst way and the very best way ... Truly, Francis Schaeffer’s life was authentic, and his legacy will endure. He was no little person” (192).  

This lovely book is the best all around introduction to the life and ministry of Francis Schaeffer of which I am aware. Edgar’s personal knowledge of Schaeffer along with his critical assessment of his life, ministry, and thought provide a thorough primer on Schaeffer. What Schaeffer set out to do, and what the Lord molded him to achieve, was truly remarkable. Edgar captures this in a most admirable composite of what made him what he was—a spokesman, uniquely suited to our generation of confused radicals, and who introduced so many to the Reformed tradition. For this I am in his eternal debt.


[1] Westminster Theological Journal 57, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 57–80.

[2] Edgar, “Two Christian Warriors,” 70. Edgar cites Robert Knudsen’s balanced assessment of Schaeffer’s view of history. Knudsen acknowledges the shift toward irrationalism in Hegel and Kierkegaard, but wonders why apostate philosophy was any better before the employment of dialectic.

[3] Gregory E. Reynolds, “Francis Schaeffer: Reformed Fundamentalist?” OS 18 (2009): 152–58 [OSO Oct. 2009], a review article based on Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[4] Ken Myers, “The Bohemian Temptation: Francis Schaeffer and the Agenda of Cultural Apologetics,” (November 2004), 2, 8.

[5] Schaeffer’s vocal opposition to the merger of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1975 indicates that the separatist impulse had not entirely disappeared.

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, January 2015.

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Ordained Servant: January 2015


Also in this issue

Beautiful Truth

Lord Defender: Jesus Christ as Apologist

Renaissance by Os Guinness

Science as God’s Work: Abraham Kuyper’s Perspective on Science: A Review Article

China’s Reforming Churches edited by Bruce P. Baugus

Old and New Year Ditties

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