Donald T. Williams, PhD

P.   O.   Box   #   800807

Toccoa Falls,  Ga. 30598

                                                                                            dtw@tfc.edu            

TRUE TRUTH:

Francis Schaeffer’s Enduring Legacy

INTRODUCTION:  HOW SOON WE FORGET

“What?  Two months dead and not forgotten yet?  Why, then, there’s hope a great man’s memory may outlive him half a year!” – Hamlet.

I had a sobering moment on the second day of class in the spring of 2005.  I asked the group of 125 students in “Western Thought and Culture,” an interdisciplinary survey course thoroughly informed by Francis Schaeffer’s cultural apologetic, “How many of you had never heard of Schaeffer or L’Abri before taking this class?”  Almost every hand in the room went up.  This would not have happened ten or even five years before.  It did not even happen quite so obviously the previous year.  But the dramatic nature of the response that time, along with its continuation since, suggests that we have passed a threshold which does not bode well for the future.

Though Schaeffer has now been dead for more almost three decades, his legacy and his influence had lived on in the Christian movement—until now.   Past generations of Christian students might not have read Schaeffer, but many of them knew that he was a controversial intellectual guru of the Evangelical movement who was a stalwart champion of the inerrancy of Scripture and opponent of abortion.  Now suddenly we have a generation of Christian students for whom it is as if he never even existed.

Think for a moment about what the Christian movement, especially its Evangelical wing, was like before Schaeffer came upon the scene in the Sixties.  Most believers were unaware that there was such a thing as a “Biblical World View.”   They figured that, aside from Christians being a bit more honest and less immoral than the world and (for fundamentalists) abstaining from tobacco, alcohol, and movies, there did not need to be that much difference between them and non-believers in their whole approach to life.  They did not think the intellectual, social, and cultural issues of the day anything they needed to be concerned with.  And so they watched the Christian consensus they had come to take for granted evaporate to the point that our Supreme Court was able to legalize the mass murder of unborn children and, until it was too late, they had no idea that it was even happening.

It is hard today to remember how radical Francis Schaeffer was in the Sixties when his call for speaking historic Christianity into the Post-Christian world with intellectual integrity, his call for holistic world-view thinking, and his call for living out “the lordship of Christ over the total culture” were first sounded.  I do not claim that forgetting Schaeffer necessarily means forgetting these lessons.  Rather, my concern is over how well we ever really learned them.  Schaeffer has never been replaced by another voice of equal stature able to address these issues with equal clarity, equal power, equal doctrinal soundness, and equal biblical faithfulness, in a way that would speak to such a cross section of the Christian world.  We still need to hear that voice.  But now we must fear that it is growing very faint.

I would therefore like to highlight four elements of Schaeffer’s thought that we dare not forget, four themes that must continue to be (or become) hallmarks of faithful Christianity if it is to remain faithful, and therefore four emphases for which Schaeffer needs to continue to be remembered and honored.  Yes, he was a popularizer and therefore sometimes oversimplified certain issues.  Yes, his disciples sometimes mouthed glibly, harshly, and with even greater oversimplification ideas that for him were hard-won and held with compassion.  But no one in our time has maintained these four crucial theses all together with more clarity, force, and integrity.  Let’s hear them again:

  1.  CHRISTIANITY IS TRUTH

        Schaeffer often stressed Martin Luther’s observation that unless we are defending the faith at the point where it is being attacked in our generation, we are not defending the faith.

         If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.[1]

Luther and Schaeffer were right.  There is a Scandal of the Cross for each generation and each people, but it changes as the shifting stratagems of the Enemy vary.  For the Greeks it was the resurrection of the body; for the Jews it was the loss of their status as a privileged people defined by their keeping the Mosaic Law; for the Modernist it was the supernatural, especially the miraculous; for all men at all times it is our absolute dependence on God’s grace, his unmerited favor, for salvation.  

        What is the specific sticking point for our own time?  A good case can be made that it is the existence of objective truth, or, more subtly, the ability of human beings to know objective truth, and hence to be held responsible for knowing it and accountable to God for what they do about it.  Schaeffer was one of the first to notice the rise of this particular Scandal and speak of it to a popular audience.  “The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth. . . . This change in the concept of the way we come to knowledge about truth is the most crucial problem, as I understand it, facing Christianity today.”[2]  So important did Schaeffer consider this shift that he coined the awkward phrase “true truth” to make sure he was conveying the idea of a truth that was absolute and not relativistic, that acknowledged the presupposition that “if anything was true, the opposite was false.”[3]  The Christian needed to be committed to “antithesis” rather than relativism and to understand that the world no longer was.  The only thing that has changed since Schaeffer wrote is that now the chasm is no longer between generations (for Schaeffer’s young generation are now grandparents) or between the church and the world, but has come to cut across the Christian movement itself.

        Current “Post-Modern” pseudo-philosophies reduce all truth claims to personal perspectives and power plays, and people influenced by them refuse to participate in any discourse (“totalizing”; “logocentric”; “Eurocentric”) that does not acquiesce in those reductions.  There is therefore a strong temptation to think that we have to play by those rules in order to gain a hearing for the Gospel at all.  But if we yield to that temptation, are we still proclaiming the Gospel?  If I speak in such a way that I have already admitted by the form of discourse I adopt that the Gospel is and can be nothing more than my personal perspective on religion, have I not denied the faith, however much I may still mouth the prescribed formulae about Jesus dying for our sins?  For a Jesus who is lord only of my perspectives is not Lord of the cosmos and is therefore incapable of saving anyone.  

        It is good to be humble about our pretensions to knowledge and to admit that, while we know absolute truth, we do not know truth absolutely.  But in the current climate it is one small step from that admission to becoming intimidated about asserting that the truth claims Christ makes on our lives are absolute and come with God’s absolute authority.  That is ultimately the bottom line: is Christ Lord of all, whether any of us perceives or accepts it or not, or is He just one of my culturally bound opinions?

        Are robust truth claims offensive to our generation?  No one can doubt that they are.  Should the soldiers of Christ then tiptoe away from that breach in our battle lines, or should they flood into it lest the entire phalanx of the Gospel message advancing into our culture be subverted and swept away?  The ancestors of modern theological liberalism began by downplaying and soft-peddling the supernatural elements of Christian truth, because they thought modern men could no longer accept them.  Their intentions were (at first) good and sincere, but they left their followers with only an impotent shell of the biblical faith.  Can we afford to repeat their mistake at an even more basic level, with the epistemic elements?  Schaeffer said no:

        Once we begin to slip over into the other methodology—a failure to hold on to an absolute which can be known by the whole man, including what is logical and rational in him—historic Christianity is destroyed, even if it seems to keep going for a time.  We may not know it, but when this occurs, the marks of death are upon it, and it will soon be one more museum piece.[4]

 

        Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.  His claims on our belief are absolute.  If we flinch at this point; if our trumpet gives an uncertain sound; if we present a Christ who is inoffensive because He is after all only one perspective among many; if we allow the enemies of truth to dictate the terms of engagement; if, in other words, we compromise on the issue of truth, then we betray the next generation to unrelieved darkness.  If we do this, then may God have mercy on their souls—and, even more, on ours.

        Francis Schaeffer understood the crucial importance of this watershed.  Do we?

  1. CHRISTIAN TRUTH TOUCHES ALL OF LIFE

        If it is true truth—i.e., something corresponding to reality, not just to our finite and historically conditioned perspectives—that the world was created by the God of the Bible who has spoken to us in Scripture and entered our world through his incarnate Son, then Schaeffer’s second emphasis follows from the content as well as the nature of the truth claim being made.  If the God we worship in fact designed and created the entire space-time cosmos and has acted and spoken into it in history, then the beliefs and practices that derive from and describe that acting and speaking cannot be bottled up into some limited portion of our inner, private world that we call our “religion” or our “spirituality,” but must flow forth to touch, inform, and transform every aspect of life and every arena of culture.  

        This insight is the source of Schaeffer’s stress on “the lordship of Christ over the total culture,” his characteristic analyses of how changes in philosophical world view manifest themselves in art, music, literature, and popular culture, and the much misunderstood “turn” in his later years to an emphasis on political involvement.  In reality, it was no new departure at all, but rather a natural application of his earlier teaching to the crisis precipitated by Roe v. Wade.  The drive for integration and wholeness, which was applied in all these areas, was basic to Schaeffer’s mind, and it is a message we have not yet heard enough of.  

        The Lordship of Christ over the whole of life means that there are no platonic areas in Christianity, no dichotomy or hierarchy between the body and the soul. . . . If Christianity is really true, then it involves the whole man, including his intellect and creativeness. . . . A work of art has value in itself. . . . The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.[5]

        Christians do not live in quite the intellectual ghetto that they tended to occupy a generation ago, but whether we have increased our engagement with the world or just our accommodation to the world is an open question.  With the exception of a greater level of political involvement—often more shrill and less nuanced than what Schaeffer actually called for—we seem to have learned little.  A few scholars or artists may have moved on to greater engagement, but what effect do they have on the culture at large?  And flagship Evangelical magazines (like Christianity Today) that used to publish original poetry in the Seventies do so no more.  There is then as much evidence of retreat from culture as engagement with it.[6]

        Schaeffer’s message of holistic engagement is still a hard sell.  Many of my students are frustrated by Schaeffer’s critique of modern art, but for varying reasons.  Some of them don’t understand why he is giving so much attention to works that are clearly beyond the pale or just trivial and silly; after all, culture is just part of “the world” anyway.  Others vilify him for his negative view of kinds of expression they take for granted as part of their world—usually without really understanding what he was saying.  Schaeffer never says that abstraction or non-realism or dissonance in art are evil in themselves; he does say that the techniques of modern art and music became the vehicle for the expression of the modern world view with its loss of meaning and its consequent despair.  And they did.  After pointing out over and over the difference between these students’ misreading of Schaeffer and what he actually said, I am convinced that the problem is not in any lack of clarity on his part,[7] but rather in the fact that there is a resistance on theirs to applying any kind of standard to their consumption of culture and media, a lack of comfort with any serious Christian critique that might threaten their own complacency as citizens of the (Post)Modern world.  

         Scholars are sometimes little different.  Instead of appreciating the comprehensiveness of Schaeffer’s vision, many Christian scholars find it fashionable to patronize him as overextended because he lacked the nuance their expertise gives them in their own narrow field.  Yes, sometimes he did.  But which of his critics can help us see the forest for the trees as Schaeffer did?  We continue to need his warning:

        In our modern forms of specialized education there is a tendency to lose the whole in the parts, and in this sense we can say that our generation produces few truly educated men.  True education means thinking by association across the various disciplines, and not just being highly qualified in one field as a technician might be.[8] 

  1.  CHRISTIAN LIFE MUST SHOW THE WHOLE CHARACTER OF GOD: “HOLINESS AND LOVE.”

Schaeffer was discipled and began his ministry in the Bible Presbyterian Church, surrounded by people who practiced what is called “secondary separation”:  they separated not only from liberal churches but also from their fellow believers who did not separate as far as they did.  Schaeffer later repudiated the harsh and legalistic judgmentalism of this group and joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod, which eventually merged with the Presbyterian Church in America.  One of Schaeffer’s most important decisions was to refuse the lack of love that had characterized the fundamentalism of his youth without departing from its uncompromising commitment to biblical truth and godly living.  It was one of those points of balance that made his voice a rare and important one, in his own day and still in ours:

We must realize that love is not the end of the matter.  It [our approach to life and ministry] rests upon the character of God, and God is the God who is Holy and the God who is Love.  We would not choose between love and holiness, for to forget either is equally vicious. . . . It is not that we do one and then the other, like keeping a ball in the air between two ping-pong paddles.  Both God’s holiness and his love must be exhibited simultaneously, or we have fallen off one cliff or the other.[9] 

The end result was a powerful emphasis, lived out in practice, on speaking the truth in love.

"Speaking the truth in love" is a phrase we have come to parrot all too comfortably.  If we truly understood it, we would realize that the Apostle's exhortation to do so in Eph. 4:15 impales the contemporary church on the horns of a dilemma designed to make its dependence on its own strength and wisdom self-destruct.  When we are thus impaled, we have the opportunity to discover, as Schaeffer did, how little we understand of either truth or love.

The truth in a fallen world is often harsh and always hostile to human pride.  When human beings--even redeemed ones--try in their own wisdom to combine that truth with love, their natural tendency is to blunt the edges and soften the blows of this terrible two-edged Sword.  Thus is born theological liberalism and political correctness.  But eschewing those betrayals of truth, some of us run the opposite way only to find ourselves not with Christ's flock but with the cruel Pharisees.  Thus is born legalism and self righteousness.  In neither case does either truth or love—love or holiness—really come through.

History is replete with illustrative examples.  The American Fundamentalist Movement and its Evangelical heirs have provided more than their fair share of them.  Carl MacIntyre and Bob Jones might have had a point when they argued in the 1950's that Billy Graham was taking insufficient care to see that his converts ended up in churches that stood without compromise for the Gospel he preached.  But instead of a loving critique of a brother, they launched a savage attack on an enemy.  The cause of a balanced and biblical approach to ecclesiastical separation and theological integrity has still not recovered from the bad taste that episode left in our collective mouths.  

Perhaps the most instructive recent example is Jerry Falwell's infamous attribution of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to God's judgment on America's tolerance of homosexuality, pornography, and abortion.  As a factual statement, it may not have been so far wrong as many would like to assume.  Frustration with America's decadence and its use of its media to disseminate what is perceived as moral filth is one of the explicit motivations that lie behind Islamic terrorism.  Islamic fundamentalists believe that our iniquity, like that of the Amorites, is full, and that therefore our destruction by Islam, like that of the Amorites by Israel in the Old Testament, is justified.  Had Falwell asked us to consider whether we might have given Islamic extremists more than a little excuse for holding this arrogant error, he might have performed a useful service.  Instead, all that most people heard was anger, indignation, arrogance, and self righteousness.  The apparent absence of compassion in his finger-pointing tone not only hindered and obscured, it buried and even twisted the grains of truth that really were there in his pronouncement.

The problem is not simply an insufficient grasp of either contemporary fact or biblical content (though no doubt there are many who do inadequate homework in both areas).  The problem is much deeper.  It is our failure to understand that truth is more than factual correctness; it is a Person, the eternal Logos, whose perspectives on those facts are essential to any truth that is whole and wholesome.  And love is more than just being nice; it is a willingness to die for one's enemies that flows, like truth itself, from only one place:  that same Person.

As the descendants of the Fundamentalist Movement, Evangelicals continue to wrestle with the legacy of its failures, sometimes distancing themselves from it to the point that they forget what they owe to it.  If only we could avoid its vices without losing its virtues!  (That would not be a bad summary of Schaeffer’s achievement, by the way.) I've tried to summarize the history of those struggles in the following sonnet:

THE RISE AND FALL OF PROTESTANT FUNDAMENTALISM

Sonnet XCVI

"Christ's Virgin Birth, his Deity, his Cross,

His Word, his Resurrection, his Return:

Could these be given up without the loss

Of Christian faith itself?" was the concern

Of those first known as "Fundamentalist."

If their descendants' words have proved uncouth

As if the mind had closed up like a fist,

At least they started caring for the Truth.

It's one of mankind's greatest tragedies

Beyond the power of the tongue to tell,

This hardening of mental arteries

Within a movement that began so well.

What they forgot should be like hand in glove:

Truth is not Truth unless we speak in love.

Yes: what they forgot, Schaeffer remembered.  Truth without love is truth distorted; it is ultimately deceptive.  And love without truth is love perverted; it is ultimately destructive.  This is so even when the truth is factually correct and the love emotionally sincere.  Thus are vitiated all merely human attempts either to speak or to serve.  Nevertheless, healing speech and true action become possible even for sinful human beings like us when--and only when--we are actively indwelt by the One who is both Logos and Love.  Then, speaking the truth in love, we may indeed grow up in all aspects unto Him who is the head, even Christ.

  1.  CHRISTIAN TRUTH MUST BE DEMONSTRATED BOTH INTELLECTUALLY AND PRACTICALLY THROUGH A LIFE OF FAITH.

Francis Schaeffer did not just write and preach.  He was, before he ever became widely known as a writer or a thinker, the leader of a Christian community, L’Abri.  Its stated purpose was “To show forth, by demonstration in our life and work, the existence of God.”[10]  One of the things that made L’Abri powerful was the fact that it strove to overcome in its whole internal culture the typical dichotomy between the intellectual life and a life of practical faith.  At L’Abri one heard “honest answers to honest questions” and, just as importantly, pondered those answers as part of a community that lived by prayer.  They did no fundraising in any of the traditional ways; they simply brought their needs to God.  If God did not exist and answer prayer, they could not exist.  Yet there they were.  Their purpose was to demonstrate the existence of God, not by creating one more ivory tower for apologetic philosophizing, not by creating one more faith mission, but by bringing together these two emphases in a living community that was neither merely intellectual nor merely pietistic but whole.  It was the same drive for integration that caused Schaeffer’s apologetic to be known as “cultural” and drove his emphasis on living out both God’s holiness and his love, now applied to the practical business of life and ministry.

The effectiveness of Schaeffer’s apologetic arguments has been much discussed.[11]  Insufficient emphasis in many of those discussions has been given to what Schaeffer himself called “the final apologetic,” which joins those intellectual arguments with a life lived in accordance with their conclusions.  

The final apologetic, along with the rational, logical defense and presentation, is what the world sees in the individual Christian and in our corporate relationships together. . . . What we are called to do, upon the basis of the finished work of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit through faith, is to exhibit a substantial healing, individual and then corporate, so that men may observe it.  Here too is a portion of the apologetic: a presentation which gives at least some demonstration that these things are neither theoretical nor a new dialectic but real; not perfect, yet substantial.[12]

Schaeffer’s “final apologetic” was effective with a generation because it was the culmination of his emphasis on truth, integration, and wholeness.  What can we say to this generation but “Go thou and do likewise”?

CONCLUSION

        Christianity is truth.  As truth it touches all of life.  Our presentation of that truth must reflect the whole character of God, both his holiness and his love, and be demonstrated both through intellectual argument and a practical life of faith.  I don’t suppose most Christians would exactly deny any of these propositions today; but neither can we exactly be said to embody this set of emphases as a holistic package central and essential to real and faithful Christianity in the way that Francis Schaeffer did.  And for many of us, the very first proposition (“Christianity it truth”), from which that whole package flows, is rapidly dying the death of a thousand qualifications.

It is therefore nothing less than tragic to read that even in today’s L’Abri “Those few students who have read any of Schaeffer’s books consider him largely obsolete.”[13]  Nothing could be more shortsighted, unless it be the fact that the current staff, according to the same report, seems itself to have largely acquiesced in the same judgment.  If the analysis in this essay has any validity at all, there is no greater need in the Christian world today than to reintroduce the upcoming generation to Francis Schaeffer.  Those of us in academic professorships or church leadership who have the opportunity to do so should seize it with all our might.

In doing so we should remember Schaeffer’s oft repeated assertion that The God Who is There was his most basic book and the foundation of all the others, and that people should read it first.  People sometimes form hasty judgments about Schaeffer from reading the more controversial and provocative A Christian Manifesto or The Great Evangelical Disaster[14] or watching the more popularized and sometimes poorly produced film series How Should We Then Live without having laid that foundation.  These works read very differently as extensions and applications of the arguments in The God Who is There than they do on their own.  Schaeffer was no doubt naïve to think he could assume that people would approach his books in the order he preferred.  But friends of his work today will serve the next generation of readers well by encouraging them to read The God Who is There first and often.  

        Francis Schaeffer would be the first to say that he himself was not important.  The truths he stood for are what matter.  And he would be right, of course.  But precisely because those truths matter, he remains important as a man who embodied an essential set of emphases with earnest integrity in a way we have seldom seen.  Let us do what we can to ensure that his voice does not disappear.

   


[1] Quoted in Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There: Speaking Historic Christianity into the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968): 18.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Francis A Schaeffer, Art and the Bible: Two Essays (Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973): 7, 9, 33, 5.

[6] See Donald T. Williams, “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone 20:7 (September 2007): 15-18 for a treatment of Evangelicalism’s weakness in its engagement with one of the arts.

[7] See Art and the Bible, ibid., for a finely balanced and nuanced statement of those principles.

[8] The God Who is There, op cit., 19.

[9] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church before the Watching World: A Practical Ecclesiology (Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1971): 96.

[10] The God Who is There, op. cit., 175.  

[11] From Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), 260-67, to Scott R. Burson and Jerry L. Walls, C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer: Lesson for a New Century from the Most Influential Apologists of our Time (Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998).

[12] The God Who is There, op. cit., 152-3; cf. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (Downers Grove, Il.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970).

[13] Molly Worthen, “Not Your Father’s L’Abri,” Christianity Today, March 2008, 60-65.  

[14] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Westchester, Il.: Crossway, 1981); The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, Il.: Crossway, 1984).

Donald T. Williams holds a BA in English from Taylor University, an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a PhD in Medieval and Renaissance Literature from the University of Georgia.  He is the author of six books:  The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (Broadman, 1994), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters (Toccoa Falls College Press, 1996), The Disciple's Prayer (Christian Publications, 1999), Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Credo: An Exposition of the Nicene Creed  (Chalice Press, 2007), and The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice Press, 2008).  He has also contributed essays, poems, and reviews to such journals as National Review, Christianity Today, Touchstone, Modern Reformation, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Philosophia Christi, Theology Today, Christianity and Literature, Christian Scholar's Review, Mythlore, SEVEN: An Anglo-American Review, Christian Educator's Journal, Preaching, and Christian Research Journal.  An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America with many years of pastoral experience, he has spent several summers in Africa training local pastors for Church Planting International, and currently serves as Professor of English and Chair of the Department of Humanities and Natural Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of NE Georgia.  Material on literature, theology, the Inklings, and other topics can be found at his website, http://doulomen.tripod.com.  He blogs at www.journalofformalpoetry.com.