I’m Thankful for Francis Schaeffer

Note from CM: It is Thanksgiving week in the U.S., and I’d like to take each day leading up to the holiday to share a few of the blessings I’m thankful for. I’ve decided this year to focus on some people and things that have had an impact on me personally, so you may find my list a bit quirky. Nevertheless, we each have unique factors that have shaped us and made us who we are. You’ll meet a few of mine this week.

• • •

I’m Thankful for Francis Schaeffer

A quiet disposition and a heart giving thanks at any given moment is the real test of the extent to which we love God at that moment.

• Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality

I give thanks today for Francis Schaeffer.

As I was pondering this today, I came to the conclusion that he might have been my first guide out of the evangelical wilderness. Funny thing is, I came to know him through his writings when I was first entering evangelicalism, before I had any clue I might one day leave.

Schaeffer and his wife Edith founded L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1955 in their home as a “shelter” (the meaning of l’abri) where young people could come, ask questions, and learn about the Christian faith. The L’Abri Fellowship website lists four main emphases of the ministry that developed there and spread to other branches around the world:

(1) Christianity is objectively true and that the Bible is God’s written word to mankind. This means that biblical Christianity can be rationally defended and honest questions are welcome.

(2) Because Christianity is true it speaks to all of life and not to some narrowly religious sphere and much of the material produced by L’Abri has been aimed at helping develop a Christian perspective on the arts, politics and the social sciences etc.

(3) In the area of our relationship with God, true spirituality is seen in lives which by grace are free to be fully human rather than in trying to live on some higher spiritual plane or in some grey negative way.

(4) The reality of the fall is taken seriously. Until Christ returns we and the world we live in will be affected by the disfigurement of sin. Although the place of the mind is emphasized, L’Abri is not a place for “intellectuals only”.

This overview concludes with this statement from Edith Schaeffer:

We are as concerned for living as we are for thinking and from the beginning the concern has been that the truth is as much exhibited in everyday life as it is defended in discussion. We do not do this perfectly of course but depend on the Lord to bring forth a measure of reality in our daily life.

I wouldn’t sign off on all of that, but I think you can see that there are several things here which show the profound and seminal influence Schaeffer had on my own approach to faith:

First, I appreciated the idea that questions are welcome and that people should not just simply accept dogma. The Schaeffers not only said this, but modeled it by welcoming people into their home who were seeking genuine life and spirituality, and in many cases had been hurt by force-fed religion. Though Schaeffer came across as “intellectual,” in fact the points he made were usually simple and foundational, and the fact that what I read in books was actually worked out in a community of teaching and interaction gave it a special kind of life and power.

Second, Schaeffer’s emphasis on the arts, history, and culture was a breath of fresh air in my narrow fundamentalist Bible world. Again, he wasn’t always right and he often gave only a surface perspective, but compared to the separatist “Bible only” (as interpreted through dispensationalism) greenhouse where I was planted, it seemed shockingly open and broad in its awareness of and appreciation for the world of ideas and culture. There was a humanity to it that was lacking in the black and white space where I lived. Though it took me a long, long time to escape that constricted world, thank God I did. Schaeffer did for me what, for example, folks like C.S. Lewis did for so many others: he cracked the door open to a God-soaked world and what Michael Spencer called “Christian humanism.”

Third, I learned from him that true spirituality is a matter of Christian freedom in Christ as faith works through love. In a very real way, Schaeffer prepared me for engaging Luther (who reveled in Christian freedom) many years later. Note the phrase in point three above: “true spirituality is seen in lives which by grace are free to be fully human.” I think you’ve probably heard that said in several different ways here on Internet Monk. I can thank Schaeffer for introducing me to that perspective.

Now, let me be honest and say that there are many things not to like about Francis Schaeffer. Son Franky has written of his father’s dark moods, his anger, and his abusive behavior within the family. Francis Schaeffer is also one of the leaders responsible for evangelicalism becoming a culture war religion in the U.S., beginning in the late 1970s. Because of the emphasis that Schaeffer and others adopted, Michael Spencer was able to make this observation:

Every day I listen to and read Christians whose consideration of other persons is on the basis of politics and cultural conflict. Not the Gospel. Their anger and frustration dominates, not the Gospel.

And then there is this: Francis Schaeffer had strong roots in fundamentalism. His first church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, was a breakaway fundamentalist branch founded by Carl McIntyre, the notorious fundamentalist and anti-Communist radio preacher. Schaeffer went to Europe on a dogmatic mission — to dissuade pastors and church leaders from the “heresies” of Karl Barth. It was only when he began to fully comprehend what he called the “ugliness” of his denomination and the way churches were splitting and separating in vividly unloving ways that he took a different course. However, when I heard him speak in the early 1980s, he sounded exactly like some cranky fundamentalist zealot associated with the likes of McIntyre. Thankfully, Francis Schaeffer was able to temper and even disavow a lot of that at L’Abri and in most of his foundational writings, but in some ways it never left him and it contributed to his stridency in the culture wars.

I owe a great deal to Schaeffer, who was able, especially in the 1960s and early 70s, to challenge the lack of love and anti-creational separatism in evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity, especially as it impacted seeking young people. But let’s admit it, he was a fundamentalist at heart.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to downplay my gratitude for how God used Francis Schaeffer as an integral part of my own spiritual formation. Early on in my adult life, he began to show me that life is bigger, richer, fuller, more God-soaked, and more relational than I could imagine.

If you’ve never read much Schaeffer, I’d suggest beginning with True Spirituality and The Mark of the Christian. These two books teach the view of spirituality and community that he came to embrace, directly countering the weaknesses and failures he saw in his fundamentalist background. I do not recommend his later books, starting with How Should We Then Live? (1976). That’s when the culture war stuff begins.


42 thoughts on “I’m Thankful for Francis Schaeffer

  1. –> “Laxatives may literally be a lifesaver, but the help they offer can be through a whole lot of unique pain and discomfort.”

    Here’s part of my story (the funnier, non-gory-detail part). I spent most of my hernia surgery recovery at my parents’ house. I was having constipation issues and called the doctor about what to do. His office made a laxative recommendation, and my mom went out and bought it. When she got home she started laughing. I asked her what was so funny, and she said it was all the potential side effects of the laxative–a list about 2 pages long and some of them crazily obscure (one example: “could cause red face”). Then she began to read them aloud.

    So here I am, constipated and in post-surgery pain just about everywhere a “laughing muscle” exists, and I’m literally rolling on the floor in both pain and laughter at the side effects, crying out for her to stop reading! Oh, we chuckled about that often.


  2. “…But I can understand how someone growing up in and/or formed by evangelical culture would’ve found some aspects of Schaeffer liberating.”

    Exactly. After you’ve crossed a wasteland even a thistle patch resembles a garden. Alas for those who never learned the difference between a thistle patch and a garden!.


  3. Presumptuous perhaps but I now look at Schaeffer the way I look at Lewis and Teilhard, necessary stops on a road to somewhere else.


  4. I don’t want to imagine what that was like, Rick. People joke about it, but constipation is no laughing matter, especially after a surgery. Laxatives may literally be a lifesaver, but the help they offer can be through a whole lot of unique pain and discomfort.


  5. I hear ya. I’m just trying to wrap my head around whether this “sorta truth” or “TRUTH truth.” 😉


  6. –> “It’s not addiction I’m afraid of, but constipation.”

    I have a post-hernia surgery experience of this that was HORRIBLE! I’ll spare the gory details, but I hear what you’re saying, Robert!


  7. I don’t want to give TMI, but I had the problem since the night of the surgery because of the opioids they gave me while I was in the recovery room. I’ve been taking something for it, but it still is a problem, and a painful one at that. It’s a balancing act, and I’ll be alright. It will just take a few days for things to straighten themselves out. Thanks for your concern, Christiane.


  8. Robert, the doctors can give you medicine for that . . . . . just call them! You don’t need to be suffering if they can help you.

    Look, I understand about the opioid crisis. My family are doctors (brother and nephew). There is much to BE concerned about, but everyone needs a pain pill sometime and I think that third day after surgery is one of those times . . . call your doctor and get some help!
    You need sleep in order to heal properly. God Bless!


  9. A compassionate and generous estimation of the man. One might almost say that his appreciation of beauty, as it is known in art, saved Schaeffer from the worst in himself, his family background, and his religious tradition. Thank you, Dana.


  10. Not really what I’m saying, Rick. And not meant to be cynical at all. Just an observation (not unique to me). I’m saying when a person is a teacher and writer, he/she communicates from the heart. And when someone writes something as heartfelt and passionately stated as Schaeffer’s quote here, you know it is likely coming not just from an intellectual, conceptual place, but from a spirit that has dealt with the issue being written about.


  11. It’s not addiction I’m afraid of, but constipation. I’m prone to it, and opioids cause it big time. Lol!


  12. “Did Schaeffer have a positive appreciation of non-Western art?” The short answer is: “yes”. As Chaplain Mike said, he focused upon western civilization (that, after all, was the context in which he lived and worked). However I just ran across, as I am again re-reading “Art & The Bible”, this statement: “When I look at the pre-Columbian silver or African masks or ancient Chinese bronzes, not only do I see them as works of art but I seem them as expressions of the nature and character of humanity.” (p. 35).


  13. this too shall pass . . . you know you CAN take a pain pill if it gets too bad, especially if you need to sleep

    one pill will not cause addiction, no

    Get some good rest.


  14. I think Scaeffer wanted conservative Protestant Christians to have much influence in society as elected officials and as leaders in the arts and all other endeavors. He thought of the U.S. as a Christian nation that had gone off the rails, and wanted it to return to what he considered its heritage. He would definitely have been on the side of those today who want the U.S to become “great again” by becoming more Christian (according to their definition of that word).


  15. What they say about pain three days after surgery is true in my case. The day of surgery I felt less pain than yesterday and today. I’ll keep keeping on.


  16. > have issues with anger?

    Maybe not anger, but anxiety, dread, or covetousness. Something drives them to ponder on such a thing, even if those impulses have been mostly mastered.

    How many books would one possessing a “quiet disposition” be compelled to write?


  17. Chaplain MIke,

    I would agree with all you wrote about Schaeffer. Although I wasn’t raised in Evangelicalism, and like Robert I started out with an appreciation of Western art, I did find a lot of breathing room in Schaeffer’s work, in the midst of the Evangelicalism to which I came in my 20s. You and I (and HUG) were born within a few months of one another, so you can figure out when that was 🙂

    I later came to find out that Schaeffer grew up as an only child with an excessively strict and physically abusive father and an overbearing mother. Of course he would have anger issues… We know from Franky’s books that Fran made family life difficult, to say the least. At the same time, his letters are very kind and pastoral. Having come to Christ, he knew that his treatment of his family was wrong. At the same time, it’s very, very difficult to break away from the patterns inculcated in reaction to our parents’ treatment of us and their reactions to the world around them. Perhaps a need for order/stability, in the face of his parents’ outbursts and coldness, was what attracted him to the more fundamentalist side of things. I didn’t see his teaching as truly Fundamentalist with a capital F; Calvinist, yes, but again not like the YRR folks of the last number of years.

    Yes, he was overly rationalistic, at least in part because his parents despised intellectualism, and part and parcel of their mistreatment of him was that they did not encourage him to develop his gifts in that area; so he did start out largely self-taught, which has its limitations too. And again, his love of beauty in art and music tempered his tendency to go completely off the rails, I believe. And he was able to fathom and point to a one-storey universe. I found him very helpful at the place and time where I was in my walk with Christ. It wasn’t Schaeffer that drove me into the wilderness.



  18. From what I’ve read, Rushdoony was an outright racist, and if he’d had Calvin’s secular influence, things would have been even worse in Geneva than they were at the Reformation under Calvin’s influence.


  19. My understanding is that Schaeffer had a qualified positive appreciation of Rushdoony. He disagreed with Rushdoony’s postmillennialism, and he disagreed with Rushdoony’s desire to use the letter of the OT laws in government legislation, rather than their spirit. Aside from that, I don’t know specifics about where else he may have disagreed with Rushdoony. Going on that basis alone, though, I think Schaeffer had a lot in common with current Dominionists and culture warriors, many of whom are premillennialists and would say they are not for wholesale promulgation of OT laws in today’s world.


  20. thanks Robert F,

    hope you are doing well today and there is less pain and discomfort . . . . they say the worst pain occurs three days after major surgery, and I have found that to be true, so you have my prayers and the prayers of many here . . . be encouraged

    I looked up your link, and followed the breadcrumbs down to footnote 35 with its reference to Rushdoony’s ‘1973
    The Institutes of Biblical Law’;
    which I then looked up on this site:

    and found this evaluation from a William Edgar, which is interesting and rather sad:
    “Rushdoony’s most extensive and thorough treatment of the law can be found in his Institutes of Biblical Law , a massive, two“volume work that includes an exhaustive study of the Ten Commandments followed by detailed treatments of taxation, government, virtue, oaths, penal sanctions, property, and nearly every domain of jurisprudence. . . . . .
    . . . . . these pages tend to confirm the accusations of harshness often brought against Rushdoony. His Institutes conveys a stern message, and one senses in it a certain deficit of grace and forgiveness.”

    But Robert,
    we do know that Schaeffer studied Rushdoony closely, but my question would be specifically, did Schaeffer praise Rushdoony’s conclusions which are extreme, we all agree. In truth, did Schaeffer, like Wm. Edgar, also see Rushdoony’s writings as having ‘a certain deficit of grace and forgiveness’?

    Studying a tyrant and praising a tyrant are two very different things. Apparently Edgar noted that Rushdoony even criticized Calvin himself in these terms:
    “Also revealing is the fact that Rushdoony’s Institutes ”despite the reference to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its title”reproaches the reformer for refusing to advocate the complete submission of the state to the Mosaic law. ”

    I know Schaeffer ‘journeyed’ through some deep, rather dark, philosophies, but how closely did he align himself with them, and yes, I accept that for a time as Chaplain Mike has said that Schaeffer sought to move more towards the Light, but then apparently fell back into old habits with the coming of ‘The Culture Wars’ . . . .

    my, how deeply interconnected is the influence of darkness in neo-Calvinism that finds meaning in some of the supposedly ‘new’ forms of ‘white supremacy’ . . . . . if I did some kind of graph that linked all of these philosophies together, where would I find the ‘source’ of the darkness? . . . Eden, likely? 🙂

    Thanks again for that link. 🙂


  21. ” aggressive imposition of evangelical values”

    wow, Eeyore, that is a good description of what the Christian far-right calls ‘freedom of religion’ in our country . . . . problem being, some ‘evangelical values’ are not classically evangelical at all when they attack our citizens who are not ‘like them’ and these so-called ‘evangelical values’ more seem imprinted with hatred, contempt, and nothing ‘of Christ’ to be seen in that contempt . . . . the words of the Pharisee in the temple are more in tune with the ‘aggressive imposition of evangelical values’ than the words of the Publican, whom God favored:
    ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner’

    So how did ‘aggressive imposition of evangelical values’ finally morph into ‘The Trump Prophecy’ espoused by Liberty University leader, Falwell, Jr.???
    . . . what we sow, we will harvest . . . maybe it takes a Trump prophet to wake up some of our decent and faithful followers of Christ who have given a past nod to the Trump . . . . ? Maybe some good will come from this after all, if people begin to see that the ’emperor has no clothes’

    or not


  22. As a young adult Christian whom God had called very early in life to the realm of the arts, I found Schaeffer’s “Art & The Bible” (essentially two essays bound together in one small volume) to be foundational for my approach to the Arts and to Christians’ relationship to the Arts. Many years later, it still is. I, too, am thankful for Francis Schaeffer.


  23. Hmm…your comment strikes me as more cynical than you actually are…LOL!! Personally, I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when “messages” are offered up in kind, gentle and warm ways. It’s usually not until I hear a pastor/preacher focusing on a particular issue and using it to CLUB PEOPLE OVER THE HEAD that I begin to think it’s an issue in THEIR life. (Example: MacArthur’s “Grace to You” rants against specific issues tend to lead me to think he’s got a problem with grace.)

    Do you think most people who think/believe “A quiet disposition and a heart giving thanks at any given moment is the real test of the extent to which we love God at that moment” have issues with anger?


  24. Rick, I tend to think that all writing and preaching is autobiographical. Therefore when I read something like what Schaeffer said about a quiet, contented, and grateful heart, I usually assume that that is something this particular person has a problem with.


  25. –> “He was a flawed person, to be sure, but then again, so am I, and so is everyone else God has seen fit to work in and through.”

    I’m not familiar with Schaeffer, but in reading CM’s post that was all I could think: Wow, this guy is a flawed hypocrite. I mean, we have a guy who apparently said, “A quiet disposition and a heart giving thanks at any given moment is the real test of the extent to which we love God at that moment,” while also exhibiting anger and abuse with others and his family.

    And this line alone is a head-scratcher: “This means that biblical Christianity can be rationally defended and honest questions are welcome.” Maybe it wasn’t the intention, but that sounds a lot like “Feel free to come with your questions! We’ve got the answers!”

    Guess he’s not too unlike some of the other church leaders we’ve had issues with.

    Oh, and yes…I’m a flawed hypocrite, too.


  26. Chaplain Mike,
    it sounds like Schaeffer (Sr.) journeyed in his lifetime through a number of forests and wrote as he journeyed, not unlike Augustine who wrote prolifically during his various wanderings through the strange theologies of his day . . . and so now, when we come upon a quote, we have to examine ‘when’ and under what influence the author was, when the quote was written . . . .

    that is a difficult thing to do, but it would only be fair to the man to try to sort it out, if we wanted some clarification as to what he was meaning at the time

    it’s sad he seemed to venture back into the darker realms of the Culture Wars . . . . my goodness, I’ve seen over at SBCtoday how badly that can get and the effect of the negativity on the participants


  27. Hello Robert F,

    do you recall what it was about Rushdoony that Schaeffer (Sr.) was impressed with?

    I find Rushdoony a very difficult dark character and wonder why he drew so much of a following . . . . is there something in Calvinism that demands ‘control’ and ‘order’ and obedience to ‘authority’ beyond what we see in most of Western Christianity?

    seems to me that full-blown dominionism would follow that ‘prophetic’ word of that crazy Trump Prophet, Mark Taylor who is followed by Fallwell Jr. of Liberty University. . . . .

    all this stuff about ‘control’ seems to feed into the same sewer OR from the same sewer . . . . .

    An image that predicts how we will all may be wired to seek to free ourselves from the muck of the Fall:
    in Judaism it is said that Adam sat down in one of the streams that flowed out of Eden, and he wept


  28. Thank you for this, CHAPLAIN MIKE:

    “If you’ve never read much Schaeffer, I’d suggest beginning with True Spirituality and The Mark of the Christian. These two books teach the view of spirituality and community that he came to embrace, directly countering the weaknesses and failures he saw in his fundamentalist background. I do not recommend his later books, starting with How Should We Then Live? (1976). That’s when the culture war stuff begins.”


  29. Thanks for these reflections on Schaeffer. I too owe him some debts, although not uncritically.

    I’m now inclined to think that he over-sold rationality, and I suspect that’s the result of his fundamentalist Calvinism, which has to have an answer for everything, even if it’s a bad answer.

    He was a flawed person, to be sure, but then again, so am I, and so is everyone else God has seen fit to work in and through.


  30. As a member of a nominal Roman Catholic family who grew up immersed in and accepting of secular culture at the time I read the little bit of Schaeffer that I did, I remember that his appreciation of the arts left no impression on me, since I already had a more positive appreciation of the arts, non-Western arts too, than was presented in what he had to say. His evaluations seemed derivative and lacking nuance to me, as I remember now; they also seemed narrow. But I can understand how someone growing up in and/or formed by evangelical culture would’ve found some aspects of Schaeffer liberating.


  31. As I remember, Robert, Schaeffer focused mostly upon western civilization. I find a lot of his views about art a bit philistine today, but at the time he was the only one, seemingly, who was talking about art at all.


  32. Did Schaeffer have a positive appreciation of non-Western art? Or were his eyes for Christian civilization and its art, and the classical predecessors to it (Greece, Rome), only? In other words, was his aesthetic and appreciation Eurocentric and parochial?


  33. Francis Schaeffer’s influence on my thinking was less profound that it probably should have been, but I am truly thankful for the book True Spirituality, which pointed out to me the efficacy of ‘A Long Obedience In The Same Direction’ rather than the ‘Bolt-a-Jeezus-Light’ning’ that was my primary template for spiritual growth in those long-departed days.

    In the late 70s and early 80s, Schaeffer took a back seat to Solzhenitsyn as the primary informer of my political and philosophical thought. Even then, I was beginning to have issues with the way Fundamentalists/Evangelicals handled the Scriptures, and I thought that Dr. Schaeffer was on shaky ground basing his whole argument on a rationalist, positivist reading of the Bible.

    Franky seems to have inherited his father’s angry streak, but his books about his upbringing as a horny Fundamentalist-church-camp-kid in godless Europe are hilarious. Maybe not coincidentally, I have always considered the earnest, leggy, dark-haired siren they grabbed for the cover of IVP’s first USA edition of Escape From Reason as pretty close to a feminine ideal.


  34. As I’ve been reading about him online this last hour, I see that Schaeffer was much impressed with Rushdoony, which means that he was impressed with Christian Reconstructionism. In its popularized Reconstructionism is sometimes called Dominionism. Isn’t Dominionism and its offshoots the source of much of the religious culture war, and its current political metastasis? If so, where does that position Schaeffer as a possible causative factor?


  35. I don’t know much about Schaeffer. Back in the 1980s, at someone or other’s suggestion, I read something he wrote, though now I couldn’t tell you what it was titled or what it had to say. I do remember that he had more positive things to say about the arts than most evangelicals, and that he was very “right to life”(antiabortion, anti-euthanasia). In the intervening decades, I’ve have only seen a quote or two of his here and there, and maybe seen a video clip of him being interviewed a few times. The video clips left me with the impression that he was a very angry man, that he was sitting on tremendous anger that he barely kept in control. That is the impression of him that prevails when I think about him at all, which is not often. I don’t remember much about his ideas; what appeared to me to be his suppressed anger is foremost in my memory.


  36. “…Schaeffer’s emphasis on the arts, history, and culture was a breath of fresh air in my narrow fundamentalist Bible world.”

    Exactly the effect he had on me! Coming along when I did it just seemed wrong, not to mention well nigh impossible, to not engage the wider world. Here was a committed, intellectual Christian who didn’t get the vapors when he considered Michelangelo’s David. I didn’t learn about the “dark side” until much later and by then it wasn’t so much disillusioning as confirming of my own experience.


  37. I came to Francis Schaeffer writings a little too late. And he couldn’t rescue me. But he did play an important role in my developing thoughtworld. It was the fall of ’72. I’d just started grad school and had come to the conclusion that the faith of my childhood did not match reality. Was earnestly searching to replace the empty space that left. Had just spent the summer knocking on doors in four different states to engage people in Bible study. The goal was to convert and baptize them into our church. Had started the summer hoping the experience would answer my doubts but it didn’t. I read The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason. It was an introduction to some Christian history and philosophy which was informative and enjoyable. He set me on a path toward further reading and exploration along that path. He explained the mystery of the generation gap to me, how it was due to younger folks being the first generation raised with TV. Later, Marshall McLuhan and others would clarify that further for me. Something I keep thinking about as our forms of communication to each other continues to abruptly change. I take it as well established that communication technology modifies our brains and therefore who and what we are and how we view the world. Later I read He is There and He is Not Silent. Did not make sense to me.


  38. I went through a “Francis Schaeffer” phase in the late 90s-early 00s. I loved his appreciation of art and the life of the mind – and unfortunately, I also loved his later works, which gave intellectual cover to aggressive imposition of evangelical values on the wider culture. Ironically, it was the early works of his son Frank (who as is often the case took his teacher’s premises to the utmost conclusion) who helped wean me off him.


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