Schaeffer – Then and Now

Francis Schaeffer, in his own lifetime, has gained international fame and popularity. He provided a haven in the 1960‘s for many confused, disillusioned people, frustrated by decades of subjectivism and its results. The initial period of his work, the establishing of LAbri, for which he became world famous, has ended. This is an appropriate time for us to consider the questions of what his role has been and is.

How It Began

The Second World War had scarcely ended when Dr. Francis Schaeffer left his work in a flourishing congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Evangelical Synod) to move with his family to Europe. His purpose was to investigate the effects of modern philosophy and the war upon the faith and life of the church in Europe. This work took root in Switzerland and resulted in the establishment of L‘Abri (the shelter). That story, of how, from a tiny beginning of fellowship with students in their home, LAbri came to be a shelter for hundreds, mainly youth of many nationalities, is told in the book LAbri, written by Edith Schaeffer, wife of Francis Schaeffer.

Through the work centered in Switzerland, Francis Schaeffer became an international figure by means of his writings and the untold numbers who heard him and spread his message.

Six weeks at LAbri

In 1970 I had the privilege of spending six weeks at L‘Abri. At the turn of this decade, requests to stay, visit or study, far exceeded accommodations, a situation which has changed drastically. The program at LAbri was strictly educational, with one message; there are absolutes in the sea of relativism; these absolutes can only be derived from God‘s Word, the Bible, where God has spoken in propositions that can be understood. Those who came to LAbri were instructed by means of lectures, reading assignments, tapes of lectures previously given by staff, by a limited number of visiting scholars and in question and answer sessions.

Two dollars and fifty cents per day covered living expenses. This unbelievably low rate was possible because students were assigned work details, keeping the cost of labor to a minimum. From among the students, craftsmen of every trade were recruited to repair masonry, plumbing, plastering, do the gardening, cleaning and any and all chores needed in the operation of such an endeavor.

Thc period of the 60’s to 70‘s was convulsed with young people on the move. They came from all points of the globe and all strata of society. Disil1usioned and rebelling against a philosophy which made life meaningless, they came to LAbri, a place of shelter. Here, in the quaint village of Huemoz, Switzerland, in a loving, caring, and disciplined setting, the philosophical problems which effected all were analyzed and illustrated, help was offered for individual needs, and answers given to perplexing questions.

Schaeffer’s work was supported by a goodly number of talented assistants. All of these, however, were overshadowed by Francis Schaeffer himself. Generally speaking, the assistants were members of the L’Abri Foundation, a very select group which controlled the operation. Membership in the foundation was by invitation and required a period of probation before acceptance into the Foundation. The initiate, once granted full membership, was committed to carry out the wishes in service of the Foundation. Some asserted that this meant the wishes of Dr. Schaeffer. This policy was criticized as too restrictive for a Christian organization.

A very enjoyable and profitable aspect of the educational program was mealtime, especially the dinner hour. Students and counselors rotated twice daily, lunch and dinner, assignments being posted each evening. Lively, varied and beneficial discussion arose from the constant flow of questions, topics and problems raised by students from varied backgrounds and orientations. Mealtime was a truly enriching experience. We can only be thankful that many disillusioned people were given new Christian understanding and guidance in such a setting.

New Developments

Although the subsiding of the rebellion of the 60’s, with the demand for LAbri services has diminished drastically; the problem which gave rise to the “shelter” at Heumoz has not abated. The popular reaction has changed from rebellion, to acceptance of the goals of affluence and personal liberty, against which the people of the 60’s rebelled. I am of the opinion that this change has largely determined the course which Dr. Schaeffer has recently followed. Last year 10 films, and a companion book under the title How Then Should We Live, were released. This production was in the making for more than two years, and, I am informed, at a cost of over a million dollars. This series of SIms is designed to give one a perspective of contemporary history in the light of past ages, to enable the viewer to understand the problems confronted in our lifetime and to present the gospel as the only solution to these problems. The accompanying book, How Then Should We Live, and other supplemental material is well done and very helpful. Extensive reviews of this material are available for the interested. I personally have found the method of the use of film and supplemental literature profitable. Dr. and Mrs. Schaeffer have traveled extensively throughout the United States and Canada promoting these films and the large crowds which attend these appearances attest to their popularity.

The initial response to the promotion and showing of the films has diminished. The latest endeavor by the LAbri Foundation is the sponsoring of Travel Tours to the various sites depicted in the film and book, How Then Should We Live? I am not able to say what the precise objective of this new vcnture might be. It seems to me to have little value because a very limited number are likely to benefit and the exposure is so brief and superficial. One might more profitably remain at home and study the book or history books. Surely, if one plans to go on this tour he should definitely make an intensive study of the book and related material mentioned above to derive substantial benefit. I do not believe that this type of endeavor will enhance Schaeffer‘s image nor that of the Foundation.

A Missionary A number of reasons may be cited for the broad acceptance of the Foundation’s work The foremost, no doubt, is the charisma of Francis Schaeffer and his commandment to the cause of historical Christianity. This, coupled with his able scholarship, produces an oasis in the arid philosophical desert. He ably communicates meaning to lives rendered empty by existential philosophy. For these reasons, he has been designated “the missionary to the intellectual.” He is that indeed, but to many, many more than the intellectual.

Points of Disagreement

As a theologian, Dr. Schaeffer has made concessions which I feel confident he did not originally espouse. I recall, for example, that his view of election was unclear. God’s eJection appeared to be conditioned by man’s ignorance of God’s message. I heard nothing of a doctrine of hell. The doctrine of creation was skirted, or at best, unsatisfactorily dealt with.

Dr. Schaeffer has stated that if he were not a Christian, he would be an agnostiC. Professor Cornelius VanTil’s teaching on propositional revelation has been credited with rescuing him from agnosticism. However, two basic points of disagreement have increasingly separated the two men. Whereas Van Til teaches that no man can know God or find him out without the supernatural work of God’s Holy Spirit, Schaeffer teaches that the existence of God and Christianity is rationally demonstrable and therefore demands acceptance. However, I personally do not find Schaeffer clear in his presentation. Although he demonstrates the intenability of other systems, he does nothing which establishes Christianity on a rational basis. This poSition is set forth in his book, The God Who Is There, but more particularly in God Is There and He Is Not Silent. Some of the later writings of the author have carried him further down the line of his peculiar brand of rationalism. I am unaware of any in-depth study on this aspect of Schaeffer’s work. It is needed, and I hope we will soon see some student produce such a work for his thesis. In so far as his work is guided by a form of rationalism, it will soon pass from the scene. We are assured, however, that that which the Spirit of God initiates and blesses will prosper.

The second closely related point of disagreement is the paint of contact with the unbeliever. VanTil maintains a Christian cannot meaningfully discuss with an unbeliever by adopting his presuppositions or standing on his foundation. Schaeffer holds the opposite. These points of disagreement, have, in my judgment, led Schaeffer to some very unfortunate positions.

The Strength of Dr. Schaeffer’s Work

Those who have had contact with Francis Schaeffer cannot help but be impressed with his ability to read history. His knowledge of history, art, philosophy and Scripture, opens for him such insights. He has, for example, predicted the social revolution, and the rise of the ecological and abortion issues, beside many other presentdayevents, before they caught popular attention.

Unless there is a return to the propositional revelation of Scripture, revealing God’s objective standard outside and apart from history, Schaeffer predicts we will all experience as substitutes, totalitarianism, the death of science and further dehumanizing of man. Interestingly, Schaeffer conjectures that for the occident, more particularly the United States, the pathway to authoritarian rule or dictatorship will be by way of the courts. In that light, the issues oU.S. News and World Report, January 16 and 30, 1978, carried a very enlightening article on this subject, “Are Judges Getting too Powerful?” The article made interesting, meaningful reading in light of Schaeffer’s conjecture.

Schaeffer has more recently distinguished himself from the neoevangelicals. In 1974, the World Evangelical Conference at Lausanne produced a statement on Biblical Infallibility stating that the Bible is infallible in all it intends to teach. Dr. Schaeffer’s continuing objection to that limitation of· Bible infallibility appears to have tarnished his image for some leaders in the neo-evangelical cause. The message from the founder of LAbri, his insistence on God‘s clear, biblical propositional revelation, has basically remained the same. This message alone gives the church a right to speak to our tortured generation. For heralding this message we owe Schaeffer a debt of gratitude. Well may we pray that he and others may more clearly and loudly sound it forth and that the Holy Spirit may abundantly bless this message to a world in despair.

John Byker who has been pastor of the Second Toronto Church is on leave of absence living at Allendale, Michigan.