There is no doubt that Francis A. Schaeffer (1912–1984) broadened the appeal for biblical world‑and‑life view Christianity with his popular writing style and activist philosophy. Schaeffer’s popularity was extensive enough that he was recognized by the secular media as the “Guru of Fundamentalism.” (Kenneth L. Woodward, “The Guru of Fundamentalism,” Newsweek (Nov. 1, 1982), 88.)
Schaeffer filled the intellectual gap that resided in much of fundamentalism. In a sense, he carried on the tradition of his early mentor, J. Gresham Machen and the other Princeton theologians. Prior to 1968, little was known of Schaeffer. He had isolated himself from American evangelicalism by ministering to the roaming discards of society who were trekking through Europe hoping to find answers to life’s most perplexing problems.
The publication of The God Who Is There (1968), Escape from Reason (1968), and He is There and He is Not Silent (1972), introduced him to an American evangelicalism in crisis. Schaeffer had an impact where many Christian scholars had made only a few inroads into the hearts and minds of a disenchanted and impotent Christendom. What did Schaeffer do that was different? Certainly Carl F.H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) made an impact. It was, however, more of a statement than a system of belief with worked‑out implications. Schaeffer worked at integration. His desire was to be more than just a critic of culture. This is why he asked the question, “How should we then live?”
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First, Schaeffer began at the presuppositional level. Although no credit is given to Cornelius Van Til, the Van Tillian apologetic method is evident in the first chapter of Schaeffer’s first published book. In The God Who Is There, Schaeffer introduces his readers to the importance of presuppositions in rectifying the shift from antithesis to relativism to accommodation in modern thought.
It was indeed unfortunate that our Christian “thinkers,” in the time before the shift took place and the chasm was fixed, did not teach and preach a clear grasp of presuppositions. Had they done this, they would not have been taken by surprise, and they could have helped young people to face their difficulties. The really foolish thing is that even now, years after the shift is complete, many Christians still do not know what is happening. And this is because they are still not being taught the importance of thinking in terms of presuppositions, especially concerning the truth. (Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (1968) in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, 5 vols. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 1:7.)
Second, with the fuselage of a cryptic Calvinism on the runway, Schaeffer began to design wings to get the long overdue plane off the ground to its destination: Comprehensive lordship. In the 1981 Preface to A Christian Manifesto, Schaeffer explains his methodology. He began with “the Lordship of Christ over all of life — philosophy, theology and church, art, music, literature, films, and culture in general. The books that followed dealt with and extended areas of Christ’s total Lordship in all of life….” (Schaeffer, “Preface” (1981), A Christian Manifesto (1981), Complete Works, 5:417.) In this, Schaeffer worked in the shadow of Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (1898).
Third, late in his career, Schaeffer saw extended implications to the worldview he put in motion in his early works. He expanded the areas over which he believed Jesus was Lord with the publication of How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, and A Christian Manifesto. “That led to the demand of the next logical step: What is the Christian’s relationship to government, law, and civil disobedience.” (Schaeffer, “Preface,” 5:417.) It was here that Schaeffer saw where his initial flight plan was about to take him: Christian reconstruction. A reading of A Christian Manifesto will alert the reader that Schaeffer moves from being a critic of culture—his main contribution to worldview Calvinism—to an advocate of civil disobedience. The missing step was reconstruction. To advocate civil disobedience was an admission that no constructive alternative to the humanistic system existed except the one advocated by Christian reconstructionists. Schaeffer wanted his readers to understand that he in no way wanted what reconstructionists were offering. (See Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 165–220.) His earlier works influenced many future reconstructionists because of his insistence that the whole Bible, the law of God included, was applicable to the whole of life.
Biblical Law and Francis Schaeffer
While he refused to discuss the particulars of the law of God as the “base” for authority, he knew something had to be done to confront a bold humanistic law system. Schaeffer turned to Samuel Rutherford’s doctrine of Christian resistance while ignoring Rutherford’s biblical approach to the application of the whole law to contemporary society, including, but not limited to, the civil magistrate. (Richard Flinn, “Samuel Rutherford and Puritan Political Theory,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Symposium on Puritanism and Law, ed. Gary North (Winter 1978–1979), 49–74.) The appeal to Rutherford came early in Schaeffer’s writing.
Schaeffer rightly decried a de facto sociological law — “law based only on what the majority of society thinks is in its best interests at a given moment” — but offered no worked‑out worldview to counter and replace it. He writes about a “Christian consensus” and how that consensus is found in the Bible, but he does not inform us of its biblical content as it relates to a comprehensive biblical worldview in the particulars. (Schaeffer was more comfortable with historical and logical argumentation than with biblical exposition. Consider how he argues against abortion: “Schaeffer claims to base his arguments against abortion on both logical and moral grounds, but it is interesting that he accentuates the logical side. In fact, he never appeals specifically to Scripture to buttress his position. The major logical argument employed involves the impossibility of saying when a developing fetus becomes viable (able to live outside the womb), for smaller and smaller premature infants are being saved. Since the eventual possibilities for viability are staggering, ‘The logical approach is to go back to the sperm and the egg.’” Dennis P. Hollinger, “Schaeffer on Ethics,” Reflections on Francis Schaeffer, ed. Ronald W. Ruegsegger (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Academie, 1986), 250. Emphasis added.)
There are times, however, when Schaeffer closely resembles a reconstructionist. This is best demonstrated in his repeated references to Paul Robert’s painting Justice Instructing the Judges.
Down in the foreground of the large mural the artist depicts many sorts of litigation — the wife against the husband, the architect against the builder, and so on. How are the judges going to judge between them? This is the way we judge in a Reformation country, says Paul Robert. He has portrayed Justice pointing with her sword to a book upon which are the words, “The Law of God.” For Reformation man there was a basis for law. Modern man has not only thrown away Christian theology; he has thrown away the possibility of what our forefathers had as a basis for morality and law. (Schaeffer, Escape from Reason (1968) in Complete Works, 1:262–263.)
The emphasis on the law continued to play a part in Schaeffer’s worldview theology. “In Reformation countries,” Schaeffer wrote, “the Old Testament civil law has been the basis of our civil law.” Of course, he quickly reminded his readers that “we are not a theocracy, (Many people are confused over what theocracy actually means. “To the modern ear the word ‘theocracy’ has distinctly pejorative overtones, suggesting the rule of some oppressive priestly caste, ‘government of a state by immediate Divine guidance or by officials regarded as divinely guided,’ to quote a standard definition. Yet, unlike certain other systems known in antiquity, ‘the “Theocracy” was not a government by priests, as opposed to kings; it was a government by God Himself, as opposed to the government by priests or kings’” (Dean Arthur Stanley, A History of the Jewish Church, 1862). The U.S. jurist and statesman Oscar Straus, a close associate of President Theodore Roosevelt, also stressed this point in his study of American culture’s indebtedness to the Hebraic concept: ‘The very fact that . . . with the single exception of Eli, no priest was ever elected to the magistracy during the entire period of the Commonwealth, decidedly negatives any such interpretation' (The Origin of the Republican Form of Government in the United States of America, 1887).” Gabriel Sivan, The Bible and Civilization (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1973), 145.) it is true; nevertheless, when Reformation Christianity provided the consensus, men naturally looked back to the civil law that God gave Israel, not to carry it out in every detail, but to see it as a pattern and a base.” (Schaeffer, Joshua in the Flow of Biblical History (1975) in Complete Works, 2:298.) Schaeffer saw the book of Joshua as “a link between the Pentateuch (the writings of Moses) and the rest of Scripture. It is crucial for understanding the unity the Pentateuch has with all that follows it, including the New Testament.” (Schaeffer, Joshua in the Flow of Biblical History, 2:153.) It was the law of the Pentateuch that was linked by Joshua with the New Testament.
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Schaeffer would continue this theme in How Should We Then Live? “Paul Robert understood what the Reformation was all about in the area of law. It is the Bible which gives a base to law.” (Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? in Complete Works, 5:136.) In A Christian Manifesto Schaeffer maintained that justice was based on “God’s written Law, back through the New Testament to Moses' written Law; and the content and authority of that written Law is rooted back to Him who is the final reality. Thus, neither church nor state were equal to, let alone above, that Law. The base for law is not divided, and no one has the right to place anything, including king, state or church, above the content of God’s Law.” (Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto in Complete Works, 5:430.)
Unfortunately, Schaeffer left behind an unfinished legacy. He knew where the answer was, but he was unable, within the confines of his own methodology and his premillennial eschatology, to see it through. It’s a shame that Schaeffer will best be remembered for his advocation of Christian resistance and not Christian reconstruction.
How influential have the Schaeffer disciples been? Not very. They continue to offer incomplete critiques of culture, but as of yet, except for musings about how pluralism is the answer, little that is constructive and specific has come from them.
The Schaeffer crowd talks a lot about social involvement but little is said in terms of details. Of course, they are not alone in their ambiguity. Few Christian leaders want to get down to the nitty gritty of really applying the Bible they say they believe in. To do so will bring back stoning with a vengeance, that is, being stoned by the ideological powerbrokers so they can’t get work at the bastions of Christian higher education. Ouch! It does not help that his son Frank has squandered his father’s legacy.