Francis Schaeffer (1912–1984) was a Presbyterian pastor and evangelical theologian from the United States. He is considered one of the most influential evangelicals of the twentieth century, particularly known for his creation of L'Abri Fellowship, a sort of retreat-seminary-community hybrid, in Huémoz, Switzerland. Schaeffer is touted as having a keen ability to engage secular culture while remaining fundamental in his biblical beliefs. He encouraged Christians to allow truth to influence every part of their lives and to engage the culture in both truth and love. Schaeffer wrote, “The local church or Christian group should be right, but it should also be beautiful. The local group should be the example of the supernatural, of the substantially healed relationship in this present life between men and men.”
Francis Schaeffer was married to Edith, the daughter of missionaries to China, in 1935. He then attended seminary and was the first to be ordained in the Bible Presbyterian Church. In 1948 he and Edith moved to Switzerland to work as missionaries. They began opening their alpine home to female students in the Alps on holiday and had religious conversations at night. More and more students began coming until hosting became full-time, and L'Abri (French for “The Shelter”) was opened in 1955. Today L'Abri Fellowship has several locations around the world. Each location is unique, but the general focus of studying and working alongside one another in community remains the same.
Francis Schaeffer saw that people viewed the world in two separate realities—the material and the spiritual. Schaeffer affirmed the unity of truth. He held firmly to the inerrancy of Scripture. But he saw that, while his fundamentalist beliefs were right, they were not being adequately communicated to the world with love, and his own spiritual journey had become joyless. He saw “that the real battle for men is the world of ideas.”
At L'Abri, students of all types were welcomed. It was meant to be a community where religion and philosophy were discussed and where Christianity was lived out. Schaeffer was exposed to the post-Christian thought of thinkers like Hegel, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Camus by his guests. He also saw firsthand that these humanistic philosophies led to destructive lives. Schaeffer wanted to help people see the logical conclusions of their own thinking. He also wanted to offer a true Christian community. His interest was not solely in truth, but in how truth influences our daily lives. He did not want to merely know what was right but to live it out.
In 1965 the Schaeffers came back to the United States where Francis began speaking tours; many of his lectures were later published in book form. At Wheaton College many were impressed with the way Schaeffer was fluent in cultural matters—secular thought, art, and music—while at the same time orthodox in his beliefs. Schaeffer enjoyed the arts and also saw them as indicative of a society’s philosophy. In his day, the arts and sciences betrayed the societal presupposition that humans are essentially biological accidents of an impersonal universe. Yet they also, contradictorily, demonstrated a hope for purpose, love, beauty, communication, and morality. If humans truly are biological mishaps, then there is no purpose, love, beauty, or morality. As a result, humans can either escape into mysticism or become nihilistic and reduce humanity to the level of machines. But Christianity lines up with our lived experience and makes sense of human existence. Schaeffer’s talks at Wheaton were later published as The God Who Is There.
Schaeffer’s apologetic was midway between evidentialism and presuppositional apologetics; he called his approach “taking the roof off.” His goal was to have people look at the logical conclusions of their belief systems. He also recognized the importance of speaking the language of non-Christians in order to engage with them and help them examine their own thoughts and beliefs. Rather than separate from culture, he believed Christians should understand the culture and genuinely love others through communicating the truth in a way that would be received.
Francis Schaeffer is also known for his political activism, particularly as related to his opposition to abortion. In line with his concept of the unity of truth, his teaching that our beliefs are to impact our lives, and his firm conviction of the dignity of all human life, he spoke out against abortion and co-authored Whatever Happened to the Human Race with pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop, who later became Surgeon General of the United States.
Schaeffer believed truth and love cannot exist apart from one another. He was a patron of the arts and interested in philosophical thought. Though critics and supporters alike admit he at times over-generalized and over-simplified philosophical thought, Schaeffer showed evangelical Christians the importance of scholarship and engaging our culture in the realm of ideas. He also demonstrated the importance of daily life and how what we say we believe should be united to how we go about our lives. Schaeffer recognized a culture falling away from God and an increasingly separatist Christianity, and he challenged the church to be more engaged. He encouraged Christians to appreciate the arts and the inherently beautiful things in the world as well as to know and advocate for truth and human dignity. In a world fleeing God, Schaeffer called evangelicals to take a meaningful stand.