The Life and Influence of Francis Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer has been one of the most influential Christian thinkers in my life. I first encountered his work in seminary when I was assigned the task of writing a biographical critical evaluation of his person and work (if it sounds a little ridiculous, it’s because it was).

I was hooked to Schaeffer’s clear logic and engagement with culture. He predicted post-modernism before we were even post modern. His method of exegeting the climate of the age and filtering it through the Bible has been an inspiration for Endangered Minds.

Now I am slowly and slavishly making my way through The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer.

SHIFTY OLD MAN

It is a hard thing to ascribe a singular label to Francis Schaeffer.  He may be referred to as a philosopher, at times a theologian, a sectarian, an intellectual, an activist, a pastor, a man of God.  Michael Hamilton states, “perhaps no intellectual save C.S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole.”[1]  He was a mystery to the evangelical world, and remains somewhat of an enigma today.  He retained “strange bedfellows,” keeping company with:

“Jack Sparks; musicians Larry Norman and Mark Heard; political figures Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Chuck Colson, Randall Terry, C. Everett Koop, Cal Thomas, and Tim and Beverly LaHaye; and scholars Harold O. J. Brown, Os Guiness, Thomas Morris, Clark Pinnock, and Ronald Wells.”[2]

His impact can be felt today in the multiple L’Abris that scatter across the globe. His books are still widely read by many scholars today.  And he made the term, “Christian intellectual” not sound like an oxymoron or a punchline.

SCHAEFFER’S INFLUENCE

For a man who spent half of his entire life in residence in Europe, Francis Schaeffer had a profound impact upon Christianity in America.

He was a man who received much attention without much effort.  His appearance was—to borrow from the Prophet Isaiah—of “no beauty that we should desire him.”[3]  Instead of an expensive suit, clean-cut hair and face, Francis wore “knickers, knees socks, and walking shoes.”[4]  Added to the alpine persona and the weathered, wrinkled face was a white goatee, which “he wore later in life adding to his artistic, cultured appearance, far from the stereotype of the evangelical pastor.”[5]  He was short, around five feet and eight inches tall, and owned a screechy voice (kind of like a whiney bird), which at first notice sounded more humorous than authoritative.[6]

It is a difficult task to quantify the impact that Schaeffer had upon Christianity in America for Francis was many things to many people; critics might have even called Schaeffer a mercurial man—constantly shifting focus like a sugared-stoned five year old.  Yet it is this very quality of change and adaptation that perhaps facilitated the enormous influence Schaeffer had on American evangelical thinking.

His approach to the Christian life bridged the gap between two groups in American Christianity that usually clash with each other, the scholars and the activists.

Barry Hankins prefers to think of Francis as a sort of Christian hybrid who was, “part evangelical and part fundamentalist.”[7]  The range of Schaeffer’s impact changed and grew as Francis moved through different phases of his life, first beginning with the schisms in the Presbyterian denomination, following thereafter with the creation of L’Abri, then his growth in popularity in American evangelical culture, ending with a renewed passion for fundamentalism coupled with political activism.

Some viewed such changes as a flaw but others saw it as keeping up with the climate of the day.

SCHAEFFER’S CRITICS

As popular as Schaeffer was, he did receive a lot of criticism throughout the years.

Throughout his lectures and his descriptions of culture, Francis was accused of using too broad of strokes to interpret Western history and culture.  Hankins states that modern Christian scholars believe “his interpretation of the course of western intellectual history, what he called ‘the flow,’ was problematic in its details.”[8]  Earl Lee believes that Francis has “obvious failings as an art critic” and also as a historian.[9]  Lee also labeled the film series, How Should We Then Live?, a work that is “filled with his [Francis’s] patriarchal, high-handed pronouncements on art and philosophy.”[10]

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments made against Schaeffer by fellow Christians was that “he consistently over-emphasized the power of human reason to lead to correct conclusions about ultimate matters.”[11]  This belief seems to be in contradiction with Scripture that portrays mankind as completely lost and incapable of finding its way to the solution.[12]  1 Corinthians 2:14 states, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”[13]  Yet in spite of his shortfalls as a historian and art critic, and also his overestimation of the human intellect, Francis Schaeffer still remains one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the latter half of the twentieth century.

SCHAEFFER’S HEART

For all that Francis Schaeffer has been know for, his counter culture mindset, his faith in inerrancy, his staunch fundamentalism, it seems that his lasting legacy has not been by his mind but with his heart.

Fischer states, “Schaeffer’s work is ultimately not a call to arms, but a call to care.[14]

It was his evangelical shiftings that enabled him to reach such an influence.  He identified with the troubled youth, the elite intellectual, the middle-American worker, and the radical fundamentalist.

Francis taught Christianity how to think and feel.

Hamilton believes “clearly he was evangelicalism’s most important public intellectual in the 20 years before his death.”[15]  His secret was not to try and gather glory for his own self but to “put your feet in Jordan, and let God take care of you.”[16]  It was this reliance upon God that carried him throughout his life and to true greatness.

May we all learn from his example.


[1] Michael S. Hamilton. “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer. (Cover story).” Christianity Today 41, no. 3 (March 3, 1997): 22. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 8, 2011).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Isaiah 53:2b, ESV.

[4] Hamilton, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer,” 22.

[5] Duriez, Francis Schaeffer, 9.

[6] Fischer, “LEARNING TO CRY FOR THE CULTURE,” 40.

[7] Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America (Library of Religious Biography Series) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), xii.

[8] Ibid, xiv.

[9] Lee. “Francis Schaeffer: Prophet of the Religious Right,” 28.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hankins, Francis Schaeffer, 235.

[12] Romans 3:10-18.

[13] ESV.

[14] Fischer. “LEARNING TO CRY FOR THE CULTURE,” 40.

[15] Hamilton, “The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer,” 30.

[16] Hankins, Francis Schaeffer, 239.

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11 thoughts on “The Life and Influence of Francis Schaeffer

  1. Pingback: FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE Part 1 HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE? “The Roman Age” (Feature on artist Tracey Emin) | The Daily Hatch

  2. I have so much respect for Dr. Schaeffer and the work he did. Thank you for taking time to blog about him and I will probably reblog this article.

    I can remember when I first got to read Schaeffer’s books in the 1970’s and how eye opening they were as far as telling me what the cultural trends were in society because of humanism.

    I got to see Schaeffer’s two film series over and over and over in the late seventies. I could not get enough of the truth that I was hearing!!!

    Keep on writing about Schaeffer. You can’t go wrong by doing that!!!

    I have put in a link from my blog to this article. I hope you don’t mind.

  3. Pingback: FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE Part 4 ( Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker worked together well!!! (Feature on artist Mike Kelley Part B ) | The Daily Hatch

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  5. Pingback: FRANCIS SCHAEFFER ANALYZES ART AND CULTURE Part 6 The Adoration of the Lamb by Jan Van Eyck (Feature on artist Makoto Fujimura) | The Daily Hatch

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