Your Father’s L’Abri: Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer
The year 1968 was a momentous year for me revolution was in the air. I was a freshman architectural student in Boston. Having been raised with generally conservative morality in a liberal Congregational church there was nothing to prevent me from being radicalized. I soon joined the Boston Resistance and felt sure that I was part of a movement as important as the American Revolution. I was there in the Boston Public Garden when radical Abby Hoffman referred to the John Hancock building as that ‘hypodermic needle in the sky.’ It was the Boston Tea Party all over again. This was actually the name of a live-rock night spot – a worship place for the revolutionaries – where the hymnody of Cream and the Velvet Underground stoked us for battle.
Raised to believe that Christian ethics were attainable without the supernatural religion of the Bible, I soon affirmed the moral and spiritual relativism that came with the American countercultural amalgam of eastern religiosity and American idealism. All religions were heading for the same glorious summit. The autonomous spirit of modernity was taking on a new form in reaction to the impersonal mass cultural tendencies of the technological society. Postmodernity was emerging. The Beatles, the Grateful Dead, and the Incredible String Band were a way out of the mono-dimensional culture of the late Enlightenment in its Eisenhower military-industrial form. We were on the cutting edge of history – an avant-garde altering civilization for the better. We believed in nothing less than changing the world – but nothing more, ultimately, than ourselves.
Ironically, the same generational conceit that we exuded is present in the title of the article in the March 2008 issue of Christianity Today, ‘Not Your Father’s L’Abri.’1 Your father’s L’Abri may not be outmoded like his Oldsmobile. I lived at your father’s L’Abri for six months, so I thought a first-hand reflection to be in order.
Enter Francis Schaeffer: Cultural Apologist and Evangelist
Living in a communal setting for a summer in Oregon chastened my naïve understanding of humanity’s ability to better itself. I returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall of 1970, literally singing the blues, feeling abandoned by my own ideals. I settled into the cynical Jack Kerouac’s macabre New England temper. This is where Unitarianism and Transcendentalism lead. My forays into the I-Ching and other versions of eastern mysticism left me with a yawning emptiness of soul.
My personal bankruptcy lead me to open my Bible – the one religious book I had neglected – late one night in the winter of 1971. My blues proved themselves to be a revelation of my own sin. That was the real problem with the world – my rebellion against my Maker, and my sadness that happiness thus eluded me. My existential despair was my alienation from God. There in my basement room gospel light shone brightly on my dark soul and I realized that the Christ of Scripture was the true and only Saviour from sin and death. This was truth like no other I had ever encountered – yes, as Schaeffer would say ‘true truth,’ unlike the murky mysticism I had lost my way in. This gospel was true and all else I had believed was not. This was the living and true God – one to whom I could speak, and who spoke to me in his Word, the Bible.
I returned home to New Hampshire on weekends to attend my mother’s Baptist church. She had become a Christian just before I left for college. Still wrestling with the questions of my generation, I found little understanding of my concerns in the church, until one day a perceptive member gave me a book titled The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century by Francis Schaeffer. Here was a Christian who understood my world and spoke my language. I rapidly devoured everything Schaeffer had written up to that point, as well as Edith Schaeffer’s The L’Abri Story. These equipped me to speak with the others in my cooperative living situation about my new-found faith – a Kierkegaardian existentialist, a Vietnam vet who considered himself a warlock, a high-strung cellist, an argumentative law student, a sensitive poet, and two feminist lesbians. The exclusive claims of the gospel were offensive to most, but several became Christians, recognizing the wonder, beauty, and liberating power of Jesus Christ. By August 1971 I was at L’Abri. For someone with no theological or philosophical training this was truly a high-altitude experience.
The day after I arrived I was treated to a taped lecture given by Os Guinness on ‘Christian Truth and Verification,’ in which I learned of the demise of Logical Positivism and the influence on Schaeffer’s thinking of a theologian named Van Til. Heady stuff for a hippie. I ended up becoming the assistant host, helping Bruce Nichols greet and settle newcomers, and living in the main chalet, Les Mélèzes, where the Schaeffers lived on the second floor. Young Franky lived with his new wife, Genie, on the lower ground floor (see my review of his 2007 memoir Crazy for God).2 I took Os Guinness’s place. And while he was away getting married in the UK, I was able to use some of his books in the bookcase next to my bed. It was a dream come true, although I had no idea who Guinness was. But I knew that living in Schaeffer’s chalet would give me many opportunities to ask questions.
Apart from the breathtaking beauty of the setting, at an elevation of three thousand feet in the Swiss Alps, overlooking the Dent du Midi and the Mont Blanc Massif, three refreshing realities were present, which in many ways stood in stark contrast to my experience in the fundamentalist churches I had briefly known in America and my communal experience as a hippie. First, L’Abri was a genuine community where true Christian faith was practiced – where people worked, studied, and discussed together. Second, earnest engagement of the mind was fostered, but never in a merely academic way. There was no one like Schaeffer in our day. He filled a niche. Third, along with intellectual nurture, the Schaeffers encouraged a true appreciation for, and involvement in, creativity and the arts. Edith’s Hidden Art helped rescue my mother from the culturally suffocating influence of her fundamentalist church. It was easy to think of L’Abri as a kind of Mecca. But as my English friend Tony Morton later reminded me, ‘You don’t have to go to L’Abri to enter the kingdom of God.’ L’Abri wasn’t for everyone, nor was it without its faults, although it was not easy for me to see this at the time.
Living so close to the Schaeffers I saw their imperfections – which they were usually happy to admit themselves. After leaving in early 1972, I discovered more – the dangers of celebrity and hero-worship (probably more a problem for Schaeffer’s followers than for him). And, more important in my own future thinking and ministry, I discovered the superficiality of some historical and philosophical aspects of Schaeffer’s published work. Anyone stimulated by Schaeffer’s thought, who then dug deeper into a given discipline, soon realized this. I was shocked to observe – as I helped expand the Schaeffer bedroom by cutting through the partition into Franky’s old room – that the great thinker had no study and seemed to read only magazines, besides his Bible (although the stairway was lined with full bookcases). He placed a large blotter at the end of his bed, and that was his study. I realized that in order to communicate with my generation he had worked hard to understand the basic thought-forms of the postwar twentieth-century west, especially as they were manifested in popular culture, along with developing a commensurate vocabulary. Not big on primary source material, he never claimed to be a scholar, but painted in broad strokes to try to give us the big picture.
L’Abri lived up to its name for me – it was a true shelter that fortified me in the truth of historic Christianity: its intellectual heritage and its practical piety. It exhibited the reality of living before God by faith, and seeking to worship and serve him as a whole person in the community of God’s people. Schaeffer’s evangelistic engagement of modern culture taught me to empathize with the predicament of modern man. This was an authentic element in Schaeffer’s thinking, despite weaknesses in his scholarship and apologetic theory. I had occasion to meet the painter Francis Bacon in a pub in Soho on my trip home from Switzerland. Bacon’s Head IV appeared on the cover of Hans Rookmaaker’s (close friend and colleague of Schaeffer’s) Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (1970). Reinterpreting Velasquez’s portrait of the pope, Bacon distorts the once dignified head and face, which is depicted being sucked upward through the top of a translucent box in which the man is sitting – his humanity is disintegrating. The futility, horror, and despair portrayed in the painting were verified in my conversation with Bacon. Hopelessness was written all over Bacon’s melancholy face. My explanation of the gospel elicited only scorn. But Schaeffer had prepared me for this encounter.
Schaeffer had a private meeting with Timothy Leary in the fall of 1971. Leary, for those who don’t remember, was a Harvard professor of psychology who dropped out, advocating the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, and became a counterculture guru. He was in Switzerland evading drug charges. Nichols and I were privy to his visit with Schaeffer because we lived in Schaeffer’s chalet (October 2, 1971 according to my journal entry). At dinner, Leary was very self-absorbed and not a little blown out from all of the LSD he had taken. He proved to be very obnoxious company. But Schaeffer had been compassionate enough to spend an afternoon in conversation with him about the gospel, telling no one of his encounter with this famous man.
At the beginning of this editorial I referred to Schaeffer’s ‘ministry.’ This was intended as a reminder that the value of Schaeffer should be assessed in terms of his entire evangelistic endeavour. This is not to minimize the theoretical weaknesses of his approach, but only to say that apologetics proper was not the centrepiece of his ministry. His bold attempt to step outside the box of his Fundamentalism and demonstrate true compassion for sinners, by working to understand their world, in the context of a true Christian community formed in grace and truth, was a visible – if imperfect – reality.
While studying under Gordon H. Clark at Covenant College in the 1970s, I began to recognize some theoretical weaknesses in Schaeffer’s apologetics. It would take Van Til to clarify this discovery as he acquainted me with a profounder analysis of man’s fallen condition.
Enter Cornelius Van Til: Theological Apologetics
One Sunday evening in New Rochelle, New York in the early eighties our little mission work, which met in a dingy little room with rickety chairs, had the unusual privilege of hearing the famous professor. In his mid eighties, Van Til was a bit rickety on his feet, but as he rose to preach he leapt from his chair with an energy and enthusiasm that demonstrated that preaching and the church were first in heart.3 He counted his most important degree to be his V.D.M. (Verbum Dei Minister).4 All of his theological acumen was used in the service of the church and was focused in the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven.5
As noted above, the first time I encountered Van Til’s thought was at L’Abri in the summer of 1971. The context was a heady discussion of A. J. Ayer’s logical positivism, showing that this form of truth verification was self-refuting. The leader mentioned Van Til as an important influence on Schaffer’s thinking. A book list I was later given, titled ‘A Selective List of Christian Books to Start Your Library With,’ recommended Van Til’s Defense of the Faith. At the time I was unaware of the theoretical differences between Schaeffer and Van Til. When I studied at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1976 to 1979, I was privileged to meet informally with Van Til on several occasions. Van Til’s essential writings were required reading in the classes of Professor John Frame.
‘Would-be autonomous man’ was a favourite Van Til description of the sinner. It was his penetration to the anthropological centre of the apologetic enterprise that finally clarified the problem with Schaeffer’s apologetic. While Schaeffer often distinguished between the use of reason, as creatures made in God’s image, from rationalism, which asserts the sufficiency of reason without revelation, he also exhibited some rationalistic tendencies. As William Edgar points out:
There is an underlying rationalism in much of Schaeffer’s thinking. His view of truth is abstract, in that it is not strictly equated with God, but is a more general idea of which God is only the ‘final screen.’ Furthermore, Schaeffer often spoke of Christianity conforming to ‘reality,’ or ‘what is,’ without clearly distinguishing between the Creator and the creature.6
For Van Til, the sinner must be challenged at the heart of his problem – his audacious quest for autonomy. According to Van Til (following Paul in Romans 1), the sinner’s quest involves the continual suppression of the truth that he is a creature of God, living in God’s world. Schaeffer, on the other hand, was more of an evidentialist of ideas, seeking to show the inconsistencies of the sinner on his own terms.7 However, Schaeffer echoed many of the fundamental insights of Van Til, and sometimes the differences between the two warriors have been exaggerated.8 I heard Schaeffer confront sinners in their rebellion, and there is plenty in his writings that do the same, even using the term ‘autonomy’ frequently.
When it comes to the basics of a Pauline trajectory, Van Til’s theoretical and theological consistency are peerless. And apart from his academic calling, and his often turgid writing style, there may be more to evangelicalism’s present neglect of Van Til than meets the eye. His approach does not comport well with an agenda of cultural transformation. There appears also to be a logical connection between Schaeffer’s shift in the transformationist direction in the last decade of his ministry and the weaknesses in his apologetics. This is a theme worth exploring.
It is, therefore, not surprising that there is no mention of Van Til’s apologetics in a recent article in Christianity Today on the state of contemporary Christian philosophy and apologetics.9 William Lane Craig contends that there is no essential difference between modernism and postmodernism, but holds out for a version of the evidentialist approach – high probability at best. Surely he is correct in his contention that modernism and postmodernism are children born of the same parent. However, his analysis and alternative are not sufficient to meet the challenge. The would-be autonomy of man is the common element in both versions of man’s autonomous hubris. What evidentialism fails to do is to challenge sinful people at the root of their own rebellious covenant commitments. Van Til understood this clearly. The evangelical penchant is to seek to win the world on its own terms. The Pauline approach, as Van Til would insist, was to challenge the sinner on God’s terms. Thus the profundity of Van Til’s theoretical analysis of the unbeliever cannot be overstated. But comparing him to Schaeffer is something of an apples and oranges enterprise and may leave Schaeffer without something of the appreciation he is due in our circles. By the end of his life, Schaeffer was certainly the darling of evangelicalism, although the most important things he taught us may have been largely forgotten.
As a philosophical apologist Van Til never saw his role to be that of a cultural critic. Schaeffer, however, was able to connect with the baby boom generation precisely because he was a cultural critic with a heart for evangelism. In the end, his apparent identification of secularism, instead of man’s would-be autonomy, as the final enemy of the gospel, amplified this theoretical weakness in terms of a cultural transformationist agenda. Perhaps this is one of the dangers of cultural criticism. As Follis points out, Schaeffer is neither presuppositionalist or evidentialist, but rather a ‘verificationist,’ seeking to convince the unbeliever that his core beliefs (presuppositions), are inconsistent with reality, unlike the true presuppositions of Christianity.10 William Dennison’s critique of Keller’s The Reason for God seems to place Keller in a similar mould. The vertical focus of the gospel takes a back seat to the horizontal concern.
If Molly Worthen’s reportage on the present state of Swiss L’Abri is accurate then student ambivalence about Schaeffer’s legacy is tragic, if partially understandable.11 His alignment with the Christian Right in his later ministry is truly problematic, as even the present leadership admits.12 Perhaps it was even a logical outcome of his apologetics, as I have suggested above. But it is tragic to miss the thrust of his earlier two decades of ministry (1955-1973) in which he was countercultural in the best sense.
In true postmodern fashion, it seems that Schaeffer’s approach – which the Worthen article connects with Van Til – was to challenge sinners with the inconsistencies of their own assumptions about reality. One present student opined ‘Now the question is, Is there truth at all?’13 Anyone who reads the Schaeffer of their father’s L’Abri will soon discover that this was an not an unknown question in our day. More serious is the presence of an apparently postmodern epistemology among the staff, evinced by John Sandri’s statement, ‘I’m not an inerrantist, but I’m not an “errantist” either . . . The modernist agenda is behind them both.’14 This is not liable to encourage the certitude that present students at the Swiss L’Abri seem sadly to lack. They might profit from some of their father’s L’Abri. As Follis argues, Schaeffer rejected evidentialism precisely because it is ‘rooted in classical foundationalism.’15 Whether one agrees with this assessment or not, no one will doubt Schaeffer’s staunch defence of the absolute truth of historic Christianity.
The Reformed church awaits a cultural critic, evangelist, of Schaeffer’s stature, sensibilities, and energy, who is consistently Van Tilian in his approach. Until then, cultural engagement will be aligned with relevance and transformation in the place of radical engagement with the message that turns the world upside down. Whatever else might be said about the differences between Van Til and Schaeffer, they had one very important passion in common: to see sinners won to King Jesus. I will be forever grateful for the shelter provided by L’Abri as it pointed me to the only final shelter found under the wings of the Almighty, whose Son covers our sins and has inherited glory for us. This was your father’s L’Abri.
- Molly Worthen, ‘Not Your Father’s L’Abri,’ Christianity Today (March 2008), 60-65.
- Gregory E. Reynolds, ‘Too Frank by Half: What Went Wrong with Frank Schaeffer,’ Ordained Servant (October 2008).
- As Scott Oliphint observes: ‘The central point of Van Til’s teaching and ministry is this: for Van Til, there could be no separation between a defense of the Christian faith, on the one hand, and the preaching of the gospel, on the other.’ K. Scott Oliphint, ‘Van Til the Evangelist,’ Ordained Servant (October 2008).
- Edmund P. Clowney, ‘Preaching the Word of the Lord: Cornelius Van Til, V.D.M.,’ Westminster Theological Journal 46.2 (fall 1984), 239-40.
- As John Muether proves in his recent biography Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008).
- William Edgar, ‘Two Christian Warriors: Cornelius Van Til and Francis A. Schaeffer Compared,’ Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 57, No. 1 (spring 1995), 72-3.
- Bryan A. Follis, Truth with Love: The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 111.
- Edgar, ‘Two Christian Warriors’.
- William Lane Craig, ‘God Is Not Dead Yet,’ Christianity Today (July 2008).
- Follis, Truth with Love, 99-122.
- Worthen, ‘Not Your Father’s L’Abri’, 60.
- Ken Myers, ‘The Bohemian Temptation: Francis Schaeffer and the Agenda of Cultural Apologetics.’ Myers helpfully distinguishes the bohemian from the bourgeois Schaeffer.
- Worthen, 64.
- Ibid., 63.
- Follis, Truth with Love, 103.
Gregory Reynolds is the editor of Ordained Servant, and serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire. The above is taken from Ordained Servant, October 2008. A printed version of Ordained Servant can be ordered here.
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