Francis Schaeffer: Pastor, Evangelist, Apologist, Prophet
By Douglas Groothuis
In the fall of 1976, I bought a medium-sized paperback book with an odd abstract cover in the University of Oregon bookstore in Eugene. I was back in school, trying to get my intellectual bearings as a fledgling and intellectually confused Christian. The book was The God Who Is There: Speaking Christianity into the Twentieth Century by Francis Schaeffer. He courageously ranged over philosophy, theology, painting, poetry, and all things cultural to demonstrate that the Christian worldview offers the best answers to life’s deepest questions. This was Christianity with backbone, brain, muscle, guts, and heart.
It is no cliché to say the book changed my life for the better and helped define my calling. This smallish man with a high-pitched voice was the mentor I never met. The history of evangelicalism in the twentieth century cannot be written without careful attention to his body of work.
The God Who Is There was published when Schaeffer was fifty-six years old. It was the first of more than twenty books he would write before he died in 1984 at age seventy-two. These books were timely, biblical, and compelling. Through his writing, preaching, and counseling, Schaeffer left a deep, wide, and true mark on the world. Humans make ripples that go on for eternity. Schaeffer was no mere pebble dropped into a pond but a huge boulder thrown into the great lake of human history. We feel the waves of his influence still through those influenced by him, including Os Guinness, Nancy Pearcey, Willian Edgar, Michael Card, John Whitehead, and many others.
This wide man cannot be narrowly categorized. Schaeffer was large in gifts and ministry and heart. Before finding the right descriptions for Francis Schaeffer, let us consider the outlines of his life.1
Schaeffer was an only child born in 1912 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, to working-class stock. He attended a liberal church in his youth, but saw that the theology had neither weight nor substance. Being intellectually honest (as he always was), he stopped attending and became an agnostic.
But after reading various philosophers along with the Bible, he decided that Christianity explained the most important matters of life and that other worldviews did not. He then became a Christian at age seventeen and soon discerned a call to be a pastor.
Young Schaeffer attended a college to prepare for ministry. After completing his ministerial training degree, he attended Westminster Theological Seminary, where he studied with the influential apologists Cornelius Van Til and J. Gresham Machen. After Schaeffer’s first year, Faith Seminary split from Westminster, and he went with it. Schaeffer finished his degree at Faith Seminary and began to pastor effectively at several churches in the United States.
A turning point came when his small Reformed denomination requested that Schaeffer travel to Europe to investigate the state of the church just after World War II. After a long and exhausting trip, Schaeffer returned with deep concern for Christianity’s influence on Europe. He and his young family traveled to Switzerland to bring the gospel to an arid landscape. But due to the sectarianism and a lack of love for God and man he found in his denomination, Schaeffer left it and even questioned the truth of Christianity.2 He and his wife Edith persevered in faith through prayer and waited on God for direction. God led them in 1955 to start L’Abri (French for shelter) as a safe place for doubters and seekers. Hundreds found their way to a few humble cabins in the Swiss Alps over the years. They worked, studied, dialogued, and experienced deep hospitality, largely through the ministry of Edith. From this platform, Schaeffer engaged in ministry projects that took him around the world.
We may sum up Francis Schaeffer’s contributions according to four roles he played. He was a pastor, evangelist, apologist, and prophet…