Book Review: Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life
The historical significance of recently occurring events is rarely understood in the present or even for several years-or decades-later. (For that matter, historians are still debating the meaning and significance of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and so on). A biblical writer can capture the ultimate significance of an act and put it into both a cosmic and theological context of perennial value, given divine inspiration. But the uninspired historian is, of course, differently situated and imperiled by sins of omission, commission, and misinterpretation. Even the best hindsight of professional historians is less than 20/20, being somewhat tentative and open to revision.
Francis A. Schaeffer, evangelist, apologist, pastor, author, and social critic, died at the age of 72 in 1984 after a long and heroic battle with cancer. In approximately the last twenty years of his life, Schaeffer attained notoriety as one who knew how to speak Christian truth to those experiencing the upheavals of the counterculture. Although his first book, The God Who is There (1968), was not published until he was in his late fifties, Schaeffer and his inestimable wife Edith (a writer herself), had pioneered a Christian community in the Swiss Alps in 1955 called L'Abri that became a hub for Christian hospitality, conversation, apologetics and evangelism in the modern world. His lecture tours around Europe and the United States, such as at Wheaton College, were also becoming widely known and respected. In 1960, Time Magazine called him a "missionary to intellectuals." Schaeffer went on to write over twenty books on apologetics, theology, and ethics. Most of these were developed from lecture transcripts or were aided by considerable editorial assistance. Schaeffer's great strength was discussion and lecturing, not crafting the academic manuscript. In fact, for all his status as a Christian intellectual, Schaeffer did not hold an earned doctorate and never held a full-time academic post, although he taught as an adjunct periodically at Covenant Seminary.
Colin Duriez is a freelance writer and biography and, importantly, was a student at the Schaeffer's Swiss L'Abri Ministry. Duriez has a firm grasp of the considerable Schaeffer corpus, but there is so much more to Schaeffer than his books, which were, in some ways, an afterthought that came after many years of ministry in the United States and Europe. Duriez makes very good use of extensive interviews with members of the Schaeffer family and of his associates such as Os Guinness, and Schaeffer's students. Duriez says he was "guided by over 180,000 words of oral history concerning Francis Schaeffer" (10). Edith Schaeffer, who is now in her mid-nineties, was, Duriez writes, "not well enough to give me more than a warm smile and a greeting" (13). This deep resource of oral history helps fill out the biography of Schaeffer in existentially significant ways.
Duriez enters into some of the charges made against Schaeffer's understanding of the history of philosophy and pulls in an interesting ally: C.S. Lewis. Schaeffer famously credited Aquinas as opening the door to autonomous human reasoning by his distinction of nature from grace. Nature is what can be known through unaided human reason and grace provides knowledge from a supernatural source, the Bible. Schaeffer argued (albeit very briefly) that Aquinas's way of construing these two sources of knowledge paved the way for nature to "eat up grace"-that is, autonomous human reasoning would set itself up against biblical revelation and end us secularizing our Western worldview. Duriez notes that C.S. Lewis, an Oxford Don and scholar of much higher rank than Schaeffer, made much the same point in The Allegory of Love (172-73). Although Duriez does not mention it, the controversial Catholic theologian, Hans Kung made the same point about Aquinas in his book, Does God Exist in 1980.
This book provides a rich account of the full gamut of Schaeffer's life and teachings. Schaeffer was born into a humble, working class and nonintellectual family in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He surprised his parents by becoming a serious Christian and attending college and seminary. After pastoring in America, he ventured to Europe to examine the state of the churches after the devastation of World War II. He eventually settled in Switzerland where his home became a center for evangelism and hospitality. Out of this ministry eventually came Schaeffer's books and in the final decade of his life, his unexpected and largely unwanted celebrity as a culture warrior of the New Christian Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Duriez argues that here was a continuity to Schaeffer's life. Although in the early 1950's he left the cultural isolationism and incessant in-fighting of his early Fundamentalist days, just before starting L'Abri, Schaeffer would not sacrifice what he took to be the essentials of biblical orthodoxy for popularity or for anything else. Nevertheless, he did not treat people as objects on which to protect truth. His early pastoral ministry as well as his work at L'Abri and even into his last stage as something of a Christian luminary were marked by a profound concern for human beings, who (as he never ceased emphasizing) were made "in the image and likeness of God." In his later years, through his book and film series, "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" (co-written with C. Everett Koop, who went on to become Surgeon General under President Ronald Reagan), he led the way for evangelicals to join and sustain the pro-life movement. Given Schaeffer's theology of the person (divinely created, fallen, and in need of Christ's redemption), he took their intellectual questions, their art, and their God-forsaking lives very seriously. Schaeffer was also a man of the Bible (and of the Reformation) until the end. He was not interested in academic apologetics per se, but wanted souls to know the God revealed in Holy Scripture. He consistently taught and preached from the Bible and wrote books commenting on Scripture (such as Genesis in Space and Time and Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History).
While some claims Schaeffer’s apologetics is out of date, they are wrong. Schaeffer anticipated much of postmodern thinking-for example, critiquing Foucault in 1971-and realized that many in the sixties and seventies had already made "the escape from reason" (the title of his second book.) His apologetic was as much one for the importance of reason as it was as a reasonable apologetic. Moreover, Schaeffer was never an arid rationalist who unloaded his apologetic system on unsuspecting unbelievers (something which might be said for some of the followers of fellow Reformed philosophers Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til). Schaeffer's writings always engaged humans as cultural and individual beings, not disembodied intellects; hence, his emphasis on painting, music, architecture, and literature as revealing the conditions of non-Christian individuals and cultures. Further, Schaeffer was renowned for his ability to make Christianity pertinent in one-on-one and small group conversations, which involved much give and take and creativity. Schaeffer was no mere logic chopper. Schaeffer believed in the necessity of reason for a coherent, cogent, and livable worldview, but he did not affirm the sufficiency of reason. We finite and fallible humans need God's propositional revelation in Scripture to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our God.
While Schaeffer admitted that he was not an academic philosopher-and even wrote in a letter to Duriez that his thin book, He is There, He is Not Silent, would probably be his last philosophy book (174)-Schaeffer's basic apologetic insights hold up well today, even if we must refine his method address ideas he did not tackle. Let me mention two basic ideas that I (as a professional philosopher, unlike Schaeffer) find profound and helpful.
First, Schaeffer taught that worldviews need to be compared on the basis of objective criteria. That is, one does not simply presuppose one's worldview apart from rational testing. Every worldview-or basic perspective on life's deepest questions-needs to pass three individually necessary and jointly sufficient tests. First, it must be internally consistent. That is, its defining beliefs must cohere with one another. Second, a worldview needs to fit the facts of reality; it must be "true to what is," as Schaeffer put it. A worldview needs to match the external facts of history and science. Third, a worldview needs to be livable to be credible. This means that it must pass the existential test of fitting the facts of the internal world. For example, any worldview that denies the objective reality of evil (such as secular relativism or Eastern monism) cannot be lived out consistently, since we intuitively know that rape, murder, and racism are wrong. These three apologetic criteria can be nuanced and made much more sophisticated, but they form the backbone of any solid apologetic method. These truths are far from outdated!
Second, Schaeffer repeatedly emphasized that the God of Christianity was an "infinite and personal" being, and that humans were not machines or little gods, but made in the image of this infinite-personal God. In other words, for Christianity, personality is the deepest and most profound ontological category of reality-not impersonal time, space, law, chance, matter or some impersonal sense of deity held by Eastern religions. Schaeffer's apologetic capitalizes on this uniquely personal sense of reality held by Christianity. Persons, though fallen, have objective and eternal meaning on this scheme-as does community, since God himself is a Trinity: a relationship of divine persons coexisting in one Godhead from eternity.
I fear that the younger generation of evangelicals does not know enough about the remarkable life and achievements of Francis Schaefer; instead they are opting for the trendy but intellectually barren hype of much of the emergent church movement-which claims to be "authentic." ("Authentic" often means little more than emotional, unconventional, and obsessively autobiographical.) Many older evangelicals may have forgotten many of the salient lessons from his life and teachings as well. Reading this biography can help rectify this problem. But better yet, one can read or reread Schaeffer's own books and watch his two film series (the ten-part, "How Should We Then Live?" and five-part, "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?" which are both available on DVD). Indeed, Schaeffer did live an "authentic" life-a life of piety, truth, and courage-worthy of our attention and of our thanksgiving to God.