Francis Schaeffer — Honest answers to honest questions…

Schaeffer 2

He has been called a scholar, a philosopher, a theologian.  A TIME Magazine article called him a “missionary to intellectuals.”  But Francis Schaeffer described himself as a pastor and an evangelist. 


Theologian John Stackhouse describes Schaeffer’s impact on 2oth century evangelicals this way.


Many, many evangelicals—including some of the most prominent evangelical leaders—were first inspired to serious Christian thought about culture by Schaeffer’s pioneering books Escape from Reason and The God Who Is There.


Schaeffer’s influence on evangelicals was rivaled by only one other person.  Stackhouse continues,


It I perhaps fair to say, however, that one author’s books indisputably affected American evangelicals during this period more than did Francis Schaeffer’s. … And that author was neither American nor quintessentially evangelical.  I mean, of course, C. S. Lewis.


While Lewis’s legacy is still prominent, Schaeffer’s work is less known among contemporary evangelicals.  An excellent, short introduction to Schaeffer’s life and ministry is provided by former associate Jerram Barrs.  “Francis Schaeffer: The Man and His Message” begins with Schaeffer’s conversion, covers his education and entry into pastoral ministry, and discusses some of the major themes in Schaeffer’s apologetics ministry—along with several other insightful aspects of the man and his message.


Spiritual crisis


Three or four years after moving to Switzerland, Francis Schaeffer went through a profound spiritual crisis. What brought on this crisis? Going back many years to his time in college, and later in seminary, Francis and Edith were bothered by the lack of love shown between Christians, especially where there was any disagreement. …


By 1951 Schaeffer felt he had seen so much that was harsh and ugly within “the separated movement” that he was not sure he could in honesty be a Christian any longer. He saw so much that was negative, so much that defined itself primarily in terms of what it was “against.” He saw so much infighting within the circles of which he was a part, in his own denomination and across large segments of the evangelical community. … He began to despair of whether Christianity could indeed be true. …


Schaeffer was not only dissatisfied with the circles of which they were a part. He said, “Edith, I feel really torn to pieces by the lack of reality, the lack of seeing the results the Bible talks about, which should be seen in the Lord’s people. I’m not talking only about people I’m working with in ‘The Movement,’ but I’m not satisfied with myself. It seems that the only honest thing to do is to rethink, reexamine the whole matter of Christianity. Is it true? I need to go back to my agnosticism and start at the beginning.” …


He went through a period lasting several months during which he reread the Bible and thought through the most basic questions about our human situation all over again. … But, once again, just as when he first was converted, he found his answers in the unfolding of God’s revelation of himself in what he would later call “the flow of biblical history.” He recovered a delight in the truth of the biblical message and developed a confidence in Scripture which would, in God’s providence, be of enormous help to him in the work the Lord was preparing for him.


Schaeffer’s strengths


Francis Schaeffer was given many gifts by God to bring blessing on the Church, but I think that most of those who worked with him would agree that his two greatest gifts were the way he led discussions and answered people’s questions and his preaching. …


But how did he answer questions? His approach was always to look to Scripture for his answer—but not by going to individual verses to find a “proof-text.” He would go to the themes of biblical theology, and these themes would beget his answers. This was true whether he was answering a “philosophical” question about the value of human persons, the nature of history, or the problem of evil, or whether he was answering a “pastoral” question about homosexual practice, marital infidelity, caring for an elderly relative, or business ethics. …


Honest answers for honest questions


Some who came to the Schaeffers’ home were believers struggling with doubts and deep hurts like the girl I just mentioned. Some were people lost and wandering in the wasteland of twentieth-century Western intellectual thought. Some had experimented with psychedelic drugs or with religious ideas and practices that were damaging their lives. Some were so wounded and bitter because of their treatment by churches, or because of the sorrows of their lives, that their questions were hostile, and they would come seeking to attack and to discredit Christianity.


But, no matter who they were or how they spoke, Schaeffer would be filled with compassion for them. He would treat them with respect, he would take their questions seriously (even if he had heard the same question a thousand times before), and he would answer them gently. Always he would pray for them and seek to challenge them with the truth. But this challenge was never given aggressively. He would say to us (and he would model for us): “Always leave someone with a corner to retire gracefully into. You are not trying to win an argument or to knock someone down. You are seeking to win a person, a person made in the image of God. This is not about your winning; it is not about your ego. If that is your approach, all you will do is arouse their pride and make it more difficult for them to hear what you have to say.” …


Schaeffer’s apologetics


Francis Schaeffer believed passionately that Christianity is the truth about the universe in which we live. God is indeed there, and He is not silent. God, Schaeffer would say, is not an idea projected from our minds or from our longings onto the giant screen of the heavens, a kind of superhuman created to meet our needs. God is not a thought in the system of a philosopher who cannot cope with having no answers to the dilemmas of our human existence. No, God truly exists, and He has spoken to us in the Bible to tell us about Himself, about ourselves, and about our world. He has made known to us what we could never discover by ourselves in our questioning and searching. God has spoken truly to us in His Word, and therefore the message of the Bible fits with the nature of reality as we experience it. To use an image, the biblical account of human life fits like a glove on the hand of reality. Christianity is true to the way things are. …


Francis Schaeffer said himself that the heart of his apologetics can be found in the three books The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent. These three books together set out an outline of Schaeffer’s apologetic approach, the way he defended and commended the truth of Christianity. Escape from Reason and The God Who Is There are primarily an analysis and response to the dominant ideas in western thought and culture. He Is There and He Is Not Silent also deals with many of the ideas set forward today as alternatives to historic biblical Christianity, but in addition it presents a basic Christian worldview in a more systematic way than do the other two books.



Jerram Barrs is Professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture and Resident Scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.  “Francis Schaeffer: The Man and His Message” is available here.


An insightful and more extended introduction to the life and work of Francis Schaeffer can be found in Colin Duriez’s Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life.




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One Response to “Francis Schaeffer — Honest answers to honest questions…”

  1. Interesting to see how Ken Myers suggests Schaeffer’s legacy was not only positive: