The burden of this article is to offer a positive appraisal of Schaeffer’s life and ministry, and their influence on those who came into contact with him. This is in the belief that some British evangelicals may not have properly understood Schaeffer’s work.
In a recent editorial from a well-known evangelical publication, Francis Schaeffer’s 1960s’ ministry to university students was cited as an example of ‘times in the past when large numbers of young people have suddenly become intellectually enthusiastic about sound biblical doctrine, only to abandon it almost as quickly’.1
This comment could lead some to think that something was amiss in Francis Schaeffer’s approach and much of what looked like the fruit of conversion under his ministry turned out to be ephemeral.
However, Schaeffer taught others about Christ in a faithful way, in order that they might teach the next generation. This pattern of gospel transmission finds its roots in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, where the apostle desires that Timothy entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others the doctrine which Paul himself has taught (2:2).
Harold O. J. Brown has written that Schaeffer in the 1950s/60s ‘helped many to resist the opposing temptations of neo-orthodoxy and success’.2 Here ‘neo-orthodoxy’ means Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian who opposed theological liberalism but denied inerrancy, while ‘success’ represents the numerically effective ministry of men like Billy Graham whom Schaeffer criticised, Brown says, for ‘calling for an emotional (or at best volitional) decision’.
Brown and others were taken aback by the ‘vigour’ of Schaeffer’s critique of Barth, whom many evangelicals took to be an ally.
In his criticisms of Graham’s methods, Brown contends that Schaeffer stood for principle and truth, and in so doing sacrificed the opportunity to become ‘part of the renaissance’ together with the accompanying potential for ‘celebrity and wealth’.
Brown asserts that this led to Schaeffer’s impact on ‘younger evangelicals, who admired him for his consistency and for his refusal to be impressed by success alone’. Clearly Schaeffer was not aiming at transient results.
Among the ‘younger evangelicals’ of that era whose lives were shaped by the ministry of Francis Schaeffer and his wife Edith, there are three whose work impacted my own life. Through them Schaeffer has had a 2 Timothy 2:2 effect on me! These men are Ranald Macaulay, William Edgar and Jerram Barrs.
Ranald Macaulay is Schaeffer’s son-in-law. Alongside his wife Susan and Jerram Barrs, with his wife Vicky, Ranald served for many years in the English branch of the L’Abri Fellowship – the ministry which the Schaeffers began in Switzerland in the 1950s.
Macaulay has since gone on to found Cambridge Christian Heritage, whose aim is ‘to demonstrate the impact of Christianity on the intellectual and moral foundations of the West’. This is done by guiding tourists around Cambridge, particularly to the sites associated with the Reformation and the birth of science, and by offering courses on apologetics and other areas of interest for Christian leaders and laypeople.
It was at one such apologetics course that I came into contact with the second whose influence arising from Schaeffer I trace – William Edgar. Edgar is a Harvard music graduate who was converted in Switzerland through Schaeffer’s ministry.
He currently serves as Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary, where according to former colleague John Frame he has ‘put Westminster’s apologetic within the reach of thoughtful laypeople’,3 while continuing the approach of Schaeffer’s analysis of contemporary art and culture.
As a trained musician and musicologist, William Edgar has considerable authority in cultural apologetics and, like many influenced by the ‘big picture’ Schaeffer provided, he has gone on to make a more precise contribution in his chosen fields.
That Edgar is also a jazz pianist might concern some Christians, but it is certain his mentor would have approved of this employment of God-given talent for God’s glory.
This brings us to the third figure who followed on from Schaeffer – Jerram Barrs. Barrs served at the English L’Abri for seventeen years, during which time he was also a Presbyterian minister, before taking up his current teaching role at Covenant Seminary in St Louis,
He is Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture, and Resident Scholar, at the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. Barrs would trace his own conversion, at least in part, to Schaeffer’s ministry. The influence of Schaeffer upon his work is evident in books such as Learning evangelism from Jesus, as well as in the excellent courses on Schaeffer’s early and later career available for download at the Covenant Seminary website.4
Barrs has remarked on the many people with whom he has come into contact over the years whose lives were touched by Schaeffer’s ministry. Often they came from conservative Christian backgrounds, seeing Schaeffer as their only remaining hope of being persuaded to embrace Christianity.
Barrs reports that the Christian parents of young people struggling with early postmodernism were far too grateful to entertain criticisms of Schaeffer on account of supposedly questionable approaches such as his apparent intellectualism.
In fact, Schaeffer saw himself as an evangelist and Barrs’ own father, a working man with lifelong socialist convictions, was converted in the weeks leading up to his death as Schaeffer shared the gospel with him.
Schaeffer himself came from a blue collar background, and, intellectual though he was, had a rare ability to communicate to people from varied walks of life.
Here, then, are three Christian leaders who would gratefully admit Schaeffer’s influence. One could certainly cite many other examples of Christians impacted by the Schaeffers and now in positions of leadership. From these, we can also notice the international character of Schaeffer’s influence.
Os Guinness, born in China and raised in England; South African born David Wells, who has recently authored The courage to be Protestant; Vishal Mangalwadi in India, whose work has impacted many of his poverty stricken and spiritually oppressed countrymen; Nancy Pearcey of America, author of Total truth; and so on.
But to return to the three men I have exemplified as representatives of Schaeffer’s legacy, it seems to me they are united by at least two things directly traceable to Francis Schaeffer. The first is their commitment to the truth – ‘true truth’, as Schaeffer memorably put it. Listen to Francis Schaeffer’s memorial service to see this evidenced in the words of Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs.
The other key influence, I think, is the one that Barrs identified as the single most important thing he learned from Schaeffer – compassion.
Like Paul, Schaeffer taught people to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12.15). These two vital influences were encapsulated in his teaching that the Christian is to be simultaneously full of truth and full of love.
For sinners, this is impossible, he insisted. Only the Holy Spirit can enable Christians to live out both truth and love together.
Francis Schaeffer was a challenging man in many ways. Those whom he challenged in the 1960s have gone on to speak that challenge to the next generation of believers. It is over 25 years since his death in 1984, but have British evangelicals truly reckoned with the challenges he laid down? Perhaps it is time for us all to reconsider Francis Schaeffer.
1. The Sword and Trowel 2009, No. 1.
2. Harold O. J. Brown, ‘Schaeffer against the World’, Francis A. Schaeffer: Portraits of the man and his work; ed. Dennis T. Lane, Crossway.
3. John M. Frame, ‘Systematic theology and Apologetics at Westminster’, The pattern of sound doctrine; ed. David VanDrunen, P&R Publishing.