Francis A. Schaeffer: A Unique Evangelist

Gregory E. Reynolds

Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer, by Bryan A. Follis. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006, 206 pages, $15.99, paper.

As the title of Bryan Follis's book suggests, he explores the full range of Schaeffer's ministry. Schaeffer was as much a cultural critic as an apologist—and, as each of these, he was an evangelist. He developed a wide-ranging generalist's knowledge of western culture in order to serve the purposes of his calling. This is what made him unique.

In reviewing my journals and notes from L'Abri in the fall of 1971,[1] I am astonished at the range of material that was covered in just a few months. A sample of the topics covered in a combination of live and taped lectures, beginning the day after my arrival includes: logical positivism, the significance of the blood of Christ, prayer, common grace, "The East No Exit," Huxley's humanism, assurance, apologetics, McLuhan, "Basic Answers," the influence of Kant on modern culture, taped lectures by Os Guinness on the history of the counterculture,[2] Thomas Mann, art in the Bible, existentialism, and lectures on Romans 1-8 (mandatory for all students)—and I'm only three weeks into my stay. It was an intellectual and spiritual feast. I also heard about Hodge, Warfield, Van Til, and Robert Dick Wilson. I think of myself as having been born again with a silver spoon in my mouth. So Schaeffer was not only an evangelist to the lost, but a pastor to those who needed to learn how to understand and communicate with the modern world.

An example of how Schaeffer used cultural observation to serve the ministry occurred the week after I arrived in late August. The Ollon-Villars Grande Prix ran directly through the L'Abri community. Formula One cars sped past chalet Les Mélèzes on the perfectly paved switchbacks leading up the mountain. It was an astonishing sight—drivers flirting with death as the cowbells clanged their bucolic sounds. I shall never forget the sermon Schaeffer preached that Sunday. He lamented the death-wish of modern culture exemplified by the quest for speed, and pointed us to the Christ of Scripture.

Painting in broad strokes of cultural assessment was just what many of us needed. Unlike any evangelical Protestant of his time, he spoke our language. Having been raised in a liberal Congregational home where the arts were appreciated; and having imbibed the thinking of the sixties as an architectural student in Boston, I discovered that Schaeffer understood where I'd been in a way that no one else did.

Follis captures the range of Schaeffer's ministry, a ministry that left an indelible impression on this reviewer. While the years have revealed the weaknesses of Schaeffer's thinking and ministry, my appreciation for the part he played in my early development as a Christian has only increased. "Truth with love" captures Schaeffer's ministry nicely. Follis does a masterful job in covering the terrain.

Apologetics: "Truth"

At the outset Follis observes a continuity between Calvin and Schaeffer in the area of respect for the place of reason, common grace, and natural law; and in understanding humanity, even in its fallen condition, as still, in a broad sense, imaging God (17-25). He goes on to posit the genetic influence of Jonathan Edwards and B. B. Warfield in the Scottish Common Sense philosophical tradition. He further notes the Dutch continental challenge to that tradition with Abraham Kuyper's insistence that traditional apologetics could not prove the existence of God (29). Follis makes the questionable assertion that Van Til's "presuppositional apologetics has become the majority view within contemporary Reformed apologetics" (29). He then proposes a similarity between Schaeffer and Van Til in the evangelistic technique of "placing yourself on your opponent's ground for the sake of argument" (29). He goes on to observe Machen's profound influence on Schaeffer, who continued the "Old Princetonian approach of rational apologetical argument." (30).[3] Follis concludes this introductory section by stating his thesis that Schaeffer was neither a presuppositionalist nor a traditional evidentialist. He later makes a case for Schaeffer's being a "verificationist," seeking to convince the unbeliever that his core beliefs (presuppositions), are inconsistent with reality, unlike the true presuppositions of Christianity (99-122).

Follis does not shy away from dealing with Schaeffer's critics, focusing in detail on Cornelius Van Til, Edward Carnell, Clark Pinnock, Thomas Morris, and others. He is to be highly commended for the fairness of his account of these critics. His interaction with Van Til will prove of most interest to readers of this journal.

Comparing Van Til to Schaeffer is not an easy task as they were each very complex with very different temperaments and backgrounds. Van Til was a brilliant and rigorously consistent academic apologist, whereas Schaeffer was an evangelist dealing with the ideas of late-twentieth-century westerners at his dining room table. This distinction, however, should not be pressed too far for two reasons. First, I think some have failed to appreciate what the two had theologically and apologetically in common. Second, I think Schaeffer would have been all the sharper had he interacted more with Van Til, when invited to by Van Til in his correspondence. Follis seeks graciously to excuse Schaeffer on this point. William Edgar helpfully enumerates the agreements and disagreements of Schaeffer and Van Til in his article "Two Christian Warriors."[4] Furthermore, as Scott Oliphint demonstrates, Van Til was an ardent evangelist himself within his own circle of neighbors and friends. Each, as Edgar says was a "Christian warrior," functioning in very different callings, in different settings, and with very different gifts.

In a lecture in 1981, Schaeffer said of Van Til, "I highly honor him." He went on to express his indebtedness to Van Til for his courageous, profound, and ground-breaking critique of Barth. But then, when asked about the difference between his and Van Til's apologetics, Schaeffer demonstrated a serious misunderstanding of Van Til by insisting that Van Til left no place for discussion with the unbeliever. He stated that "apologetics must lead to evangelism,"[5] as if Van Til's apologetics failed to do so. As Scott Oliphint correctly observes, for Van Til apologetics is evangelism.[6] Follis comments, "Schaeffer did not believe that you have to require the non-Christian to presuppose God before you can have a meaningful discussion with him" (109). He goes on to accurately record Edgar's objection to Schaeffer's account of Van Til on this point, as well as the significant difference in Schaeffer's and Van Til's uses of the term "presupposition" (110-111).

It seems clear that it is exactly at this point—the different concepts of "presupposition"—that Schaeffer seriously misunderstood Van Til. Van Til never required that non-Christians presuppose God—he insisted that they already do and are vigorously suppressing this fact of consciousness. Rather than avoid discussion, he sought to bring the unbeliever to recognize his suppressing activity. For Schaeffer, the unbeliever holds to assumptions about reality that are inconsistent with the way things really are, but is capable of understanding the true nature of facts and reason (112). It seems to me that Van Til was simply more profound in describing in Pauline fashion the way things really are in relationship to God. His is a more penetrating Reformed anthropology and epistemology.

Schaeffer certainly understood "presuppositions" in a way quite different from Van Til. Van Til's concept was rooted in the epistemological givenness of man's knowledge of God—the sensus divinitatus. No human thought or conversation can take place without the existence of God and the revelation of him to the consciousness of man. Man's problem is his moral rebellion, which is expressed in his continual attempt to suppress this knowledge. "Schaeffer genuinely believed that Van Til's apologetics prevented meaningful discussion" (110). This is precisely what I heard at L'Abri, and heard reiterated in the 1981 lecture mentioned above. Since I had never heard of Van Til, I accepted Schaeffer's statement in 1971.

Schaeffer, on the other hand, defines presuppositions as the core beliefs of the unbeliever, which are inconsistent with the way things really are in God's world. The apologist-preacher must show the unbeliever this inconsistency and present the alternative of the gospel. Schaeffer, like Van Til, exposed the presumption of autonomy, But, he seemed to limit this to a problem on this side of the historical "line of despair," which accords a positive place to reason prior to the Kantian-Hegelian shift (a shift that Van Til wisely denied). Human sinfulness is the fundamental problem of man, not irrationality (112).

Schaeffer insists that affirming the importance of reason as an acknowledgement of the unique human ability to think logically in "antithesis," is not the same as rationalism. Rationalism asserts reason's ability to figure out "final answers" to the questions raised by the reality of "what is." Schaeffer was surely not a rationalist in this sense. I must differ with Follis by suggesting that there is a rationalistic tendency in Schaeffer's approach, along lines noted in my editorial.[7] Schaeffer often referred to the "revelation of the universe,"[8] including the truth of what man is (the "mannishness of man"). This gives the impression of an abstract reality apart from God. It also underestimates the sinfulness of man on man's ability to verify the credibility of the evidence for the truth of Christianity (114-16). Schaeffer insisted that Christianity is not a "probable" answer to the "questions posed by reality," but the only final answer, which is given in the revelation of the Bible.[9] With respect to irrationalism, Follis points out the importance of Schaeffer's insistence on the intellectual content of biblical faith (82-85).

Follis is very helpful in exploring the historical roots of Schaeffer's apologetics and the nature of his synthesis of Van Tilian presuppositionalism and evidentialism (99-129). The notes in my journal entry for the August 26, 1971, lecture on apologetics record, "Schaeffer's apologetics are classical and presuppositional."[10] Barry Seagren, one of the leaders at L'Abri when I was there, accurately suggests that Schaeffer should be seen as "an evidentialist of ideas" (111).

One thing is notably absent in Follis's account. It was also absent in my experience at L'Abri: the importance of the confessional Reformed church. Schaeffer reacted to his fundamentalist past and the lack of love in his experience with Carl McIntire at Faith Seminary by not emphasizing Reformed faith as such. I remember that my naively asked questions about Calvinism—particularly the five points—were not warmly received. Thus it is not surprising that Schaeffer would be gun-shy about Van Til's insistence that a Reformed theology demands a Reformed apologetic. Scott Oliphint rightly insists that "no other apologetic is worth the time or the effort."[11] But where Van Til was theologically consistent and apologetically profound, Schaeffer was culturally and evangelistically perceptive. For all of their differences, their similarities are perhaps as important for us to appreciate as we face the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Follis does not deal with Schaeffer's alignment with the Christian Right in the last decade of his ministry. However, the theme of this last decade of his ministry provides a cautionary tale. It is ironic that one who had worked so hard at cultivating cosmopolitan, international sensibilities should confine himself to the uniquely American Christian notion that America is a Christian nation. Follis blames this imbalance on Schaeffer's son, Franky (123). But perhaps something in Schaeffer's approach to history propelled him in this direction. The "rise and fall of nations" approach lead him to emphasize the place of a Christian "consensus," while underestimating the importance of common grace. When asked a question along these lines after his 1981 lecture on apologetics, he did say that the reason certain great nations became dominant without any Christian influence was based on their inconsistency with their autonomous presuppositions.[12]

While Follis treats Van Til, as well as other critics, fairly, and has clearly done his homework in assessing the critics and letting them speak accurately, in the end Follis believes that Schaeffer was correct in his approach and has been either misrepresented or misunderstood by those who disagree. He argues that Schaeffer should be viewed as a "verificationist," thus not fitting the transcendental approach of presuppositionalism or the foundationalist rationalism of classic evidentialism (99-122).

Community: "with Love"

My journal entry on the day of my arrival at L'Abri on August 20, 1971, reads "I feel so welcome." Community forms people in profound and subtle ways. L'Abri had a formative influence as a community living out a shared truth. It's weakness was that the idea of the church was not as strong as it is in the Reformed tradition. Thus the importance of creeds and confessions, as well as worship, were never serious matters of discussion, although Schaeffer demonstrated a high view of worship in practice. He preached in a tuxedo; and the Lord's Day was taken seriously. Ecclesiastically, there was a session that admitted members to the local church, which was part of a denomination started by various L'Abri ministers throughout Europe called the International Church.[13]

The last half of the book deals with love as the final apologetic. Oddly, the first few pages deal with postmodernism, emphasizing the correctness of Schaeffer's opposition to relativism and irrationalism (131-35). Missing is the more trenchant Van Tilian critique of the would-be autonomy of man manifested with the polarity between rationalism and irrationalism. However, the value of this section lies elsewhere. Schaeffer believed that apologetics must be imbued with pastoral compassion and wisdom (136). This means a willingness to answer the questions of sinners, having carefully listened to their concerns (138-41). Furthermore, demonstrable love within the Christian community, was for Schaeffer, the "final apologetic" (137). This was plainly evident in Schaeffer's life.

There are several lessons that we Reformed officers should take from Schaeffer's remarkable ministry. Schaeffer rightly reacted to a mechanical approach to evangelism, especially the mass evangelism of our day. His emphasis on the uniqueness of persons, both in evangelism and in the church, is a crying need in our impersonal times.

Schaeffer met people on their own ground, outside the walls of the church, all-the-while knowing and affirming that they live in God's world and are made in his image. His compassion for sinners was exemplary. So, as we make accurate criticisms of Schaeffer's theoretical apologetic, let us also make sure that we are willing to do the hard work of identifying with sinners, so that we may call them away from their tragic rebellion and blindness. Schaeffer feared that apologetics can be used to create a safe house to live in, a fortress rather than a means of ministry (161). While I believe that one legitimate purpose of apologetics is to fortify Christians in their faith, I also believe that we have a penchant to rest on the truth, rather than ardently spread it.

Schaeffer's emphasis on the importance of the believing community of the church as the arena to demonstrate the reality of the truth of historic Christianity is much needed in our day. While the doctrine of the church and the nature of Reformed confessionalism were not priorities in Schaeffer's ministry, the imperfect, but genuine, beauty of the community of L'Abri was an important dimension of Schaeffer's message. Divorcing doctrinal accuracy from the life of God's people was a danger Schaeffer sought to avoid, especially given his painful experiences in his early ministry. While this may have contributed to the eclipse of certain doctrines, for Schaeffer both truth and people mattered (57). Also, inherent in Schaeffer's belief in God as infinite and personal was his practice of prayer (167-69). This was always an integral part of daily life at L'Abri.

Despite the lack of detailed, explicit Reformed teaching, Schaeffer's essential Calvinistic instincts are present throughout his writings. In his 1981 apologetics lecture, he said that Christianity is the easiest of religions because the triune God does everything in creation and redemption. On the other hand, it is the most difficult religion because man must give up his autonomy to become a Christian. It struck me as I was listening to the recorded lecture, the first time I had heard Schaeffer since the seventies, that what was compelling about his presentation was first, his ability to sum up important things in understandable terms that were not the usual Christian jargon, and then his utter seriousness in presenting historic Christianity as the only ultimate truth or way of salvation. I have come away from this summer of reacquainting myself with Schaeffer profoundly thankful for his ministry. Follis finishes his fine book on that very note.

A few minor criticisms of the format. The lack of an index is a serious omission of the publisher for a popular academic treatment that covers such a wide range of subjects and authors. The end notes are very numerous and difficult to access since there are no page range headings. Footnotes would have been a much better option. Finally, the typography of the headings is unique, but the numbers are nearly illegible, a bad sign for something—type face—meant to be, above all, legible.

For those who wish to read more about Schaeffer's cultural apologetics, The God Who Is There is an excellent place to start. As I checked the end notes along the way I was amazed at how many times they lead to this one book. True Spirituality best exemplifies the other theme of Follis's book, love as the final apologetic.

I highly recommend Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis A Schaeffer. Follis has a fine sensibility for his subject. While many Ordained Servant readers will not entirely share Schaeffer's apologetical approach, Follis gives a balanced and accurate picture of Schaeffer's ministry and his apologetics, a ministry from which we may all profit.


[1] I was there from August 20, 1971 to February 1972, spending several weeks in Madrid assisting an International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (InterVarsity International) missionary with English ministry at the University of Madrid.

[2] The lectures given by Os Guinness during this period would eventually be published as The Dust of Death: A Critique of the Establishment and the Counter Culture—and a Proposal for a Third Way (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press 1973).

[3] I first encountered Machen at L'Abri where I read "Christianity and Culture," republished by L'Abri Fellowship in 1969.

[4] William Edgar, "Two Christian Warriors: Cornelius Van Til and Francis A. Schaeffer Compared," Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 57, No. 1 (spring 1995): 57-80.

[5] Francis Schaeffer, "Apologetics," The L'Abri Audio Library (Chesterton, IN: Sound Word, n.d. ca. 1981), CD X483. In this lecture Schaeffer comments on the appendix on apologetics in the Collected Works version of The God Who Is There. This was intended to answer critics.

[6] K. Scott Oliphint, "Van Til the Evangelist," Ordained Servant (October 2008).

[7] Gregory E. Reynolds, "Your Father's L'Abri: Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer," Ordained Servant (October 2008).

[8] Schaeffer, "Apologetics."

[9] Ibid.

[10] This may have been a tape in Farel House, titled "Apologetics," from 1963.

[11] Oliphint, "Van Til the Evangelist."

[12] Schaeffer, "Apologetics."

[13] Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 129.

Gregory Reynolds is the editor of Ordained Servant, and serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant, October 2008.

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Ordained Servant: October 2008

Apologetics: The Value of Van Til

Also in this issue

Your Father's L'Abri: Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer

Van Til the Evangelist

Cornelius Van Til: A Review Article

The Reason for God: A Review Article

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