i

After becoming a Christian in 1971 out of the counterculture of the 1960s, I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and returned home to New Hampshire on weekends to attend my mother’s Baptist church.[1] She had become a Christian just before I left for college. Still wrestling with the questions of my generation, I found little understanding for my concerns in the church, until one day a perceptive member gave me a book titled The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century by Francis Schaeffer. Here was a Christian who understood my world and spoke my language. I rapidly devoured everything Schaeffer had written up to that point, as well as Edith Schaeffer’s The L’Abri Story. These books equipped me to speak with the others in my cooperative living situation about my newfound faith—a Kierkegaardian existentialist, a Vietnam vet who considered himself a warlock, a high-strung cellist, an argumentative law student, a sensitive poet, and two feminist lesbians. The exclusive claims of the gospel were offensive to most, but several became Christians, recognizing the wonder, beauty, and liberating power of Jesus Christ. In August 1971, I went to L’Abri Fellowship in Huemoz, Switzerland. For someone with no theological or philosophical training this was truly a high-altitude experience.

The day after I arrived, I was treated to a taped lecture given by Os Guinness on “Christian Truth and Verification,” in which I learned of the demise of Logical Positivism and the influence on Schaeffer’s thinking of a theologian named Van Til. Heady stuff for a hippie. I ended up becoming the assistant host, helping Bruce Nichols greet and settle newcomers, and living in the main chalet, Les Mélèzes, where the Schaeffers lived on the second floor. Young Franky lived with his new wife, Genie, on the lower ground floor (see my review of his 2007 memoir Crazy for God).[2] I took Os Guinness’s place. And while he was away getting married in the UK, I was able to use some of his books in the bookcase next to my bed. This was a dream come true, although I had no idea who Guinness was. But I knew that living in Schaeffer’s chalet would give me many opportunities to ask questions.

Apart from the breathtaking beauty of the setting, at an elevation of three thousand feet in the Swiss Alps, overlooking the Dent du Midi and the Mont Blanc Massif, three refreshing realities were present. They stood in stark contrast to my experience in the fundamentalist churches I had known briefly in America as well as my communal experience as a hippie. First, L’Abri was a genuine community where true Christian faith was practiced—where people worked, studied, and discussed together. Second, earnest engagement of the mind was fostered, but never in a merely academic way. There was no one like Schaeffer in our day. He filled a niche. Third, along with intellectual nurture, the Schaeffers encouraged a true appreciation for, and involvement in, creativity and the arts, which was part of my background. Edith’s Hidden Art helped rescue my mother from the culturally suffocating influence of her fundamentalist church. It was easy to think of L’Abri as a kind of Mecca. But as my English friend Tony Morton later reminded me, “You don’t have to go to L’Abri to enter the kingdom of God.” L’Abri wasn’t for everyone, nor was it without its faults, although it was not easy for me to see this at the time.

Living so close to the Schaeffers, I saw their imperfections—which they were usually happy to admit themselves. After leaving in early 1972, I discovered more—the dangers of celebrity and hero-worship (probably more a problem for Schaeffer’s followers than for him). And, more important in my own future thinking and ministry, I discovered the superficiality of some historical and philosophical aspects of Schaeffer’s published work. Anyone stimulated by Schaeffer’s thought, who then dug deeper into a given discipline, soon realized this. I was shocked to observe—as I helped expand the Schaeffer bedroom by cutting through the partition into Franky’s old bedroom—that the great thinker had no study and seemed to read only magazines, besides his Bible (although the stairway was lined with full bookcases). He placed a large blotter at the end of his bed, and that was his study. I realized that in order to communicate with my generation he had worked hard to understand the basic thought-forms of the postwar twentieth-century west, especially as they were manifested in popular culture, along with developing a commensurate vocabulary. Not big on primary source material, he never claimed to be a scholar, but painted in broad strokes to try to give us the big picture.

L’Abri lived up to its name for me—it was a true shelter that fortified me in the truth of historic Christianity: its intellectual heritage and its practical piety. It exhibited the reality of living before God by faith and seeking to worship and serve him as a whole person in a community of God’s people. Schaeffer’s evangelistic engagement of modern culture taught me to empathize with the predicament of modern man. This was an authentic element in Schaeffer’s thinking, despite weaknesses in his scholarship and apologetic theory.

During my return home I had occasion to meet the painter Francis Bacon in a pub in Soho on my trip home from Switzerland. Bacon’s Head IV appeared on the cover of Hans Rookmaaker’s (close friend and colleague of Schaeffer’s) Modern Art and the Death of Culture (1970). Reinterpreting Velasquez’s portrait of the pope, Bacon distorts the once dignified head and face, which is depicted being sucked upward through the top of a translucent box in which the man is sitting—his humanity is disintegrating. The futility, horror, and despair portrayed in the painting were verified in my conversation with Bacon. Hopelessness was written all over Bacon’s melancholy face. My explanation of the gospel elicited only scorn. But Schaeffer had prepared me for this encounter.

Schaeffer had a private meeting with Timothy Leary in the fall of 1971. Leary, for those who don’t remember, was a Harvard professor of psychology who dropped out, advocating the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, and became a counterculture guru. He was in Switzerland evading drug charges. Nichols and I were privy to his visit with Schaeffer because we lived in Schaeffer’s chalet (October 2, 1971 according to my journal entry). At dinner, Leary was very self-absorbed and not a little blown out from all of the LSD he had taken. He proved to be very obnoxious company. But Schaeffer had been compassionate enough to spend an afternoon in conversation with him about the gospel, telling no one of his encounter with this famous man.

At the beginning of this editorial I referred to Schaeffer’s “ministry.” This was intended as a reminder that the value of Schaeffer should be assessed in terms of his entire evangelistic endeavor. This is not to minimize the theoretical weaknesses of his approach, but only to say that apologetics proper was not the centerpiece of his ministry. His bold attempt to step outside the box of his Fundamentalism and demonstrate true compassion for sinners, by working to understand their world, in the context of a true Christian community formed in grace and truth, was a visible—if imperfect—reality. 

While studying under Gordon H. Clark at Covenant College in the 1970s, I began to recognize some theoretical weaknesses in Schaeffer’s apologetics. It would take Cornelius Van Til to clarify this discovery as he acquainted me with a profounder analysis of man’s fallen condition.

As noted above, the first time I encountered Van Til’s thought was at L’Abri in the summer of 1971. The context was a heady discussion of A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism, showing that this form of truth verification was self-refuting. The leader mentioned Van Til as an important influence on Schaffer’s thinking. A book list I was later given, titled “A Selective List of Christian Books to Start Your Library with,” recommended Van Til’s Defense of the Faith. At the time, I was unaware of the theoretical differences between Schaeffer and Van Til. When I studied at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1976 to 1979, I was privileged to meet informally with Van Til on several occasions.

“Would-be autonomous man” was a favorite Van Til description of the sinner. It was his penetration to the anthropological center of the apologetic enterprise that finally clarified the problem with Schaeffer’s apologetic. While Schaeffer often distinguished between the use of reason, as creatures made in God’s image, from rationalism, which asserts the sufficiency of reason without revelation, he also exhibited some rationalistic tendencies. As Westminster Seminary apologetics professor William Edgar points out:

There is an underlying rationalism in much of Schaeffer’s thinking. His view of truth is abstract, in that it is not strictly equated with God, but is a more general idea of which God is only the “final screen.” Furthermore, Schaeffer often spoke of Christianity conforming to “reality,” or “what is,” without clearly distinguishing between the Creator and the creature.[3]

For Van Til, the sinner must be challenged at the heart of his problem—his audacious quest for autonomy. According to Van Til (following Paul in Romans 1), the sinner’s quest involves the continual suppression of the truth that he is a creature of God, living in God’s world. Schaeffer, on the other hand, was more of an evidentialist of ideas, seeking to show the inconsistencies of the sinner on his own terms.[4] However, Schaeffer echoed many of Van Til’s  fundamental insights, and sometimes the differences between the two warriors have been exaggerated.[5] I heard Schaeffer confront sinners in their rebellion, and there is plenty in his writings that does the same, even using the term “autonomy” frequently.

The evangelical penchant is to seek to win the world on its own terms. The Pauline approach, as Van Til would insist, was to challenge the sinner on God’s terms. Thus, the profundity of Van Til’s theoretical analysis of the unbeliever cannot be overstated. But comparing him to Schaeffer is something of an “apples and oranges” enterprise (as I will explain in my review of Follis)[6] and may leave Schaeffer without the appreciation he is due in our circles. By the end of his life, Schaeffer was certainly the darling of evangelicalism, although the most important things he taught us may have been largely forgotten.

As a philosophical apologist, Van Til never saw his role to be that of a cultural critic. Schaeffer, however, was able to connect with the baby boom generation precisely because he was a cultural critic with a heart for evangelism. In the end, his apparent identification of secularism, instead of man’s would-be autonomy, as the final enemy of the gospel, amplified this theoretical weakness in terms of a cultural transformationist agenda. Perhaps this is one of the dangers of cultural criticism. As Follis points out, Schaeffer is neither presuppositionalist or evidentialist, but rather a “verificationist,” seeking to convince the unbeliever that his core beliefs (presuppositions), are inconsistent with reality, unlike the true presuppositions of Christianity.[7] William Dennison’s critique of Tim Keller’s The Reason for God [8] seems to place Keller in a similar mold. The vertical focus of the gospel takes a back seat to the horizontal concern.

The Reformed church awaits a cultural critic, evangelist, of Schaeffer’s stature, sensibilities, and energy, who is consistently Van Tilian in his approach. Until then, cultural engagement will be aligned with relevance and transformation in the place of radical engagement with the message that turns the world upside down. Whatever else might be said about the differences between Van Til and Schaeffer, they had one very important passion in common: to see sinners won to King Jesus. I will be forever grateful for the shelter provided by L’Abri as it pointed me to the only final shelter found under the wings of the Almighty, whose Son covers our sins and has inherited glory for us. This was your father’s L’Abri.

Endnotes

[1] This essay is based on excerpts from Gregory E. Reynolds, “Your Father’s L’Abri: Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer,” Ordained Servant 17 (2008): 35–40;

[2] Gregory E. Reynolds, “Too Frank by Half: What Went Wrong with Frank Schaeffer,” Ordained Servant (October 2008).

[3] William Edgar, “Two Christian Warriors: Cornelius Van Til and Francis A. Schaeffer Compared,” Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 57, No. 1 (spring 1995): 72–3.

[4] Bryan A. Follis, Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 111.

[5] Edgar, “Two Christian Warriors.”

[6] Gregory Edwards Reynolds “Francis A. Schaeffer: A Unique Evangelist,” Ordained Servant 17 (2008): 151–56.

[7] Follis, Truth with Love, 99–122.

[8] William D. Dennison, “The Reason for God,” Ordained Servant 17 (2008): 146–51.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, March 2022.

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Ordained Servant: March 2022

Current Issue: Francis Schaeffer—Reformed Evangelist

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An Honest Appreciation of Francis Schaeffer

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Genetic Engineering, Human Nature, and Human Destiny: A Review Article

The Old Testament Use of the Old Testament: A Review Article

The Cottage by the Bridge by Ivars Fridenvalds

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