Schaeffer, the witness
Isaac Newton said: ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.
Our fascination with novelty can lead many of us to end up reinventing the wheel. An awareness of those saints who have gone before us can help us see further and grow taller in our spiritual walk. One such giant was born just over a 101 years ago, in 1912, and became a pioneer missionary to Europe. Francis Schaeffer studied theology at Westminster Theological Seminary under Cornelius Van Til. He arrived in Switzerland in 1948 to church plant in post-war Europe.
Crisis of faith
It was in Switzerland that Schaeffer experienced a crisis of faith and developed his own approach to apologetics, learning the best from other masters, but integrating them with a genuine evangelist’s heart. He believed that the evangelical church was out of touch with contemporary culture. He had the foresight to recognise that cultural changes in central Europe, by then long established, were sweeping the entire West. Schaeffer identified a shift that happened in Europe when people gave up on a coherent worldview of rational thought and abandoned values to being nothing more than matters of taste. Passing beyond a line of despair, people were led by their cultural elites into an era of anti-rational thought with no basis for values or meaning.
This shift was on display in art galleries and cinemas across the continent. As a missionary, Schaeffer saw clearly the failure of the church. Christians were not understanding the worldview of this new era. Continuing to preach and evangelise with the language and concepts of a previous generation, the church was failing to engage. He used the expression ‘taking the roof off’ to describe part of the task of evangelism. Rather than simply preaching the gospel, we need to take time to understand the pagan worldviews of contemporary culture and then demonstrate their weakness or incoherence (2 Corinthians 10.3-5). This is not done out of spite or arrogance, but out of love for those deluded by non-Christian worldviews.
Time at L’Abri
Schaeffer died in 1984 and I first came across his work a few years later. I was studying Philosophy at Southampton University. As a Christian I found it difficult to locate evangelical responses to some of the things I was being taught. But someone put me in touch with a little known local Christian ministry called L’Abri. I remember trying to describe it to my parents when I went to stay there and could not really explain what it was. A study centre? A retreat? A college? A community? A house of prayer? Whatever it was, I knew that it had been founded by Francis Schaeffer, and he was one of the few evangelical writers who cared about things like philosophy.
L’Abri (meaning ‘the shelter’) was established by Schaeffer in Switzerland and provided a place for people to think about and experience Christianity in community. L’Abri fellowships have sprung up all around the world, but my own experience in England helped me understand the vision of Francis Schaeffer. Christianity was ‘true truth’, both to be understood as a philosophy and practised as a lifestyle. This holistic view of Christianity as a complete way of living inspired Schaeffer to engage with ethical issues like abortion and environmental change. He taught extensively on Christian apologetics, but never lost sight of the need for the church to live out this apologetic in community; ‘after we have done our best to communicate to a lost world, still we must never forget that the final apologetic which Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians’.
I would maintain that the evangelical church must continue to value the work of Schaeffer. His main published books have been available as a rather intimidating multi-volume set, The Complete Works. If you want to know where to start, I would encourage anyone to read Escape from Reason along with Genesis in Space and Time and Pollution and the Death of Man to give a broad view of how this giant practised apologetics. Colin Duriez has recently written a fine biography, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as we run the race before us (Hebrews 12.1), and Schaeffer is one of those.
Chris Sinkinson is pastor of Alderholt Chapel and lectures in Apologetics at Moorlands College, Christchurch.