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Happy Birthday to Francis Schaeffer — Leading Public Theologian of the 20th Century and Prophet Against Postmodernism

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“By God’s grace, Francis Schaeffer’s life and ministry had — and still has — a far-reaching impact on millions of Christians. He helped many better defend the faith through apologetics; he clearly argued for the fundamental and all-encompassing truth of Christian claims about reality, beginning with our Creator God; and he almost single-handedly made American evangelicals wake up to the horrors of abortion.”

WILLIAM WOLFE

You might have missed it (and understandably so), but this past Monday, January 30, was the birthday of a remarkable Christian man and minister. He’s a man who Dr. Steven Wellum, professor of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues has  “impacted evangelicalism more” than any other “single person in the latter half of the 20th century.”

That’s a big claim. But I think that Wellum is fair to issue such a laudatory analysis of how God used the work of this one man. That’s why his legacy is worth recollecting on the week of what would have been his 111th birthday (were he still walking this earth).

Who is this one man? Francis A. Schaeffer.

Schaeffer was born in 1912 and went home to be with the Lord in 1984. His ministry stretched over a pivotal period of modern history, as he witnessed the rise of postmodernism and the onset of the sexual revolution — two major movements that posed significant challenges to the Christian faith in the public arena. For thousands of Christians from the Baby Boomer and Generation X generations, he was a pivotal influence on their personal spiritual development, understanding of Christian apologetics, and theological education.

He was a pastor, an apologist, a theologian, and an author — writing over 20 books. He began his ministry in the United States but moved to Europe after World War II. He eventually settled in Switzerland, where he founded his training center, known as L’Abri (which means “The Shelter”). For a far more detailed account of his life, read A Brief Chronology of the Life of Francis A. Schaeffer at Christ Over All.

In celebration of his birthday, I wanted to introduce you to the man and then reflect on three key areas of impact from his life and work.

Honest Answers to Honest Questions: How Schaeffer Advanced Apologetics

Is the Christian faith something that you inherit, or something that you must personally believe? What does it look like to defend the faith against a rising tide of postmodernism and a world that increasingly rejects the notion of God and His rule? Schaeffer was keenly aware of the challenges facing Christians — especially young Christians — during the mid and latter part of the 20th century.

Perhaps his most notable contribution to Christian apologetics is what’s known as his “trilogy.” This is comprised of his books The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent.

Here is the Crossway summary of each book:

“In the first book, The God Who Is There, Schaeffer shows how modern thought has abandoned the idea of truth with tragic consequences in every area of culture–from philosophy, to art, to music, to theology, and within culture as a whole.”

Escape from Reason, the second book, explains especially how the disintegration of modern life and culture grows from corrupted roots that reach far into the past.”

“In the last book, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Schaeffer contrasts the silence and despair of modern life with the Christian answer that God can indeed be known because He is there and He is not silent.”

If you are looking to grow in your understanding of the essential truths of Christianity and your ability to defend them against an increasingly hostile culture, pick up this trilogy and get to work. It will be deeply rewarding.

Ideas Have Consequences: Schaeffer’s Commitment to Christianity as Capital “T” Truth

Beyond apologetics — that is, defending the truth of the Christian religion — Schaeffer was deeply committed to unfolding the all-encompassing truth claims of Christianity for all of life. He was a man gripped by the phrase, popularized by Richard Weaver, that “ideas have consequences.”

For Schaeffer, the truth of Christianity wasn’t confined to “personal salvation.” No, he realized rightly that the fact that Christ is King over all of creation means that Christianity — and its claims about reality and this world — is the only true truth out there.

Wellum, again, explains, “As Schaeffer analyzed the challenges of his day, he argued that the greatest battle the church faced was a change in the concept of truth — which we have now witnessed with the rise of what is often dubbed ‘postmodernism.’”

He then quotes from The God Who Is There, in which Schaeffer argues:

“The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth… The tragedy of our situation today is that men and women are being fundamentally affected by the new way of looking at truth, and yet they have never even analyzed the drift which has taken place… this change in the concept of the way we come to knowledge and truth is the most crucial problem, as I understand it, facing Christianity today.”

In other words, the battle for defending the Christian account of creation, morality, and life in this world was nothing less than a battle for capital “T” Truth — the truth all men must know and will be held accountable to before the Living God on the day of judgment.

Two of Schaeffer’s other most important books address this topic: A Christian Manifesto and How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.

For example, in How Should We Then Live, Schaeffer explains how biblical truth must be what binds our limits of political freedom, or it will devolve into chaos. He writes:

“The Reformation did not bring social or political perfection, but it did gradually bring forth a vast and unique improvement. What the Reformation’s return to biblical teaching gave society was the opportunity for tremendous freedom, but without chaos. That is, an individual had freedom because there was a consensus based on the absolute givens in the Bible, and therefore real values within which to have freedom, without these freedoms leading to chaos.”

In many ways, Schaeffer was a prophet. He could see the disastrous consequences of mankind cutting the tether on their Creator in the modern world and drifting into all sorts of diabolical syncretism (that is, incorporating worldly belief and false ideas into Christianity). And as I was reflecting on Schaeffer’s clarity on truth, I realized this (which I tweeted):

“If Francis Schaeffer had been alive in the 2010s, he wouldn’t have put up with Critical Race Theory mixing with Christianity for one second. He would’ve denounced it for the syncretism it is. And he wouldn’t have cared at all about offending evangelical special interest groups.”

Evangelicalism could use another prophet like Schaeffer in our modern moment. Thankfully, we have men like John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and Tom Ascol who are working to advance his legacy.

An Unapologetic Advocate for the Pre-Born: How Schaeffer Shaped the Pro-Life Movement

The last thing to consider in celebration of Schaeffer’s birthday is how he was an unapologetic advocate for the pre-born. In many ways, he was almost personally responsible for waking American evangelicals up to the horrors of abortion in the immediate aftermath of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Writing for First Things, Christopher Talbot explains that

Francis Schaeffer is very much the ‘father’ of the pro-life movement among protestants. Without his work and influence, Dobbs may never have come to pass. Garry Wills, in his book Under God, rightly notes that regarding the increase in pro-life activism, ‘One man deserves more credit than anyone else—Francis Schaeffer.’ It was Schaeffer who developed the vision and framework for the pro-life movement as we understand it today. And yet, he was the exception during the early post-Roe years.”

When the vast majority of American evangelical denominations were asleep at the wheel or, even worse, supporting the concept of abortion, Schaeffer immediately saw it for the horror that it was and began loudly denouncing it and speaking up for the sanctity of pre-born life.

Talbot continues:

“It was Schaeffer who developed the vision and framework for the pro-life movement as we understand it today. And yet, he was the exception during the early post-Roe years. Shortly after Roe was decided, former SBC president and pastor W. A. Criswell ‘felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.’ Evangelicals in the middle of the last century were largely unconcerned about the atrocities of abortion, and were ambivalent toward activism on the matter. Advocacy for the unborn was deemed a ‘Catholic issue,’ unimportant to many protestants. Not to Francis Schaeffer.”

Schaeffer firmly believed, as it is so clearly taught in the Scriptures, that the unborn are image-bearers of God, worthy of all the rights of the born, and of equal protection under the law in the eyes of God and man. In The Great Evangelical Disaster, he wrote, “You cannot be faithful to what the Bible teaches about the value of human life and be in favor of abortion.”

Amen. It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Schaeffer knew what so many misunderstand today — there can be no room whatsoever for a professing Christian to support abortion or pro-abortion politicians.

Conclusion

By God’s grace, Francis Schaeffer’s life and ministry had — and still has — a far-reaching impact on millions of Christians. He helped many better defend the faith through apologetics; he clearly argued for the fundamental and all-encompassing truth of Christian claims about reality, beginning with our Creator God; and he almost single-handedly made American evangelicals wake up to the horrors of abortion.

So, Happy 111th Birthday to Francis Schaeffer. He is, of course, in a much better place today — seeing Jesus Christ face to face and worshiping God, through the Spirit, in unhindered fellowship forever. Even though God has called him home, his impact lives on.

If you have never heard of him, I hope this was a compelling introduction. I reference five books in this article, any of which would serve as a great first step into reading more Schaeffer. And make sure to check out Christ Over All’s “Monthly Theme” that they did on A Christian Manifesto — it contains articles, podcasts, and a chapter-by-chapter review of the book.

And may God grant us more Francis Schaeffers for the 21st century. No doubt we will need them.


Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe

Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.

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