Truth Tuesday:J.I. Packer on Francis Schaeffer

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J.I. Packer on Francis Schaeffer

Episode VII – The Age of Non Reason

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Episode 8: The Age Of Fragmentation

Published on Jul 24, 2012

Dr. Schaeffer’s sweeping epic on the rise and decline of Western thought and Culture

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I love the works of Francis Schaeffer and I have been on the internet reading several blogs that talk about Schaeffer’s work and the work below was really helpful. Schaeffer’s film series “How should we then live?  Wikipedia notes, “According to Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live traces Western history from Ancient Rome until the time of writing (1976) along three lines: the philosophic, scientific, and religious.[3] He also makes extensive references to art and architecture as a means of showing how these movements reflected changing patterns of thought through time. Schaeffer’s central premise is: when we base society on the Bible, on the infinite-personal God who is there and has spoken,[4] this provides an absolute by which we can conduct our lives and by which we can judge society.  Here are some posts I have done on this series: Francis Schaeffer’s “How should we then live?” Video and outline of episode 10 “Final Choices” episode 9 “The Age of Personal Peace and Affluence”episode 8 “The Age of Fragmentation”episode 7 “The Age of Non-Reason” episode 6 “The Scientific Age”  episode 5 “The Revolutionary Age” episode 4 “The Reformation” episode 3 “The Renaissance”episode 2 “The Middle Ages,”, and  episode 1 “The Roman Age,” .

In the film series “WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE HUMAN RACE?” the arguments are presented  against abortion (Episode 1),  infanticide (Episode 2),   euthanasia (Episode 3), and then there is a discussion of the Christian versus Humanist worldview concerning the issue of “the basis for human dignity” in Episode 4 and then in the last episode a close look at the truth claims of the Bible.

Francis Schaeffer

Great article.

No Little Person

By James I. Packer

From Reflections on Francis Schaeffer, Ronald W. Ruegsegger, Editor,
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986) pp. 7-17

 

He was physically small, with a bulging forehead, furrowed brow, and goatee beard. Alpine knee-breeches housed his American legs, his head sank into his shoulders, and his face bore a look of bright abstraction. Nothing special there, you would think; a serious, resolute man, no doubt, maybe a bit eccentric, but hardly unique on that account. When he spoke, his English though clear was not elegant, and his voice had no special charm; British ears found it harsh, and if stirred he would screech from the podium in a way that was hard to enjoy. Nevertheless, what he said was arresting, however he might look or sound while saying it. It had firmness, arguing vision; gentleness, arguing strength; simple clarity, arguing mental mastery; and compassion, arguing an honest and good heart. There was no guile in it, no party narrowness, no manipulation, only the passionate persuasiveness of the prophet who hurries in to share with others what he himself sees.

I knew him slightly, and admired him tremendously. I remember him as a great man, and wish I could have spent more time in his company. Yet anyone who reads his books ends up knowing him pretty well, and that at least I have done.

Francis Schaeffer was an important evangelical: that is, an evangelical of importance to evangelicals, as well as to others. He saw himself, so he tells us, as an evangelist. He has been accused (I think, unjustly) of trying to be a pioneer theoretician in philosophy and apologetics. He has been applauded (again, I think, unjustly) for trying to foster a Christian renewal of the fine arts, as if a program in aesthetics was the heart of his work. But his concern under God, it seems to me, was for people as people rather than for procedures or products. Therefore I think it is truest to call him a prophet-pastor, a well-informed Bible-based visionary who by the light of his vision sought out and shepherded the Lord’s sheep.

In that role he had influence. Under God, he changed people. Among evangelicals he became an opinion-maker, a consciousness-raiser, and a conscience-stirrer, particularly regarding abortion on demand, for which the Roe v. Wade decision laid the foundation in 1973. More than three million books have been sold, and his complete works in five volumes, first published in 1982, have gone through five printings in three years. L’Abri (French for “the shelter”), the international study center that he founded in Switzerland, has replicated itself in England, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States, and L’Abri seminars and conferences, plus the showing of L’Abri films made by his son Franky, have become a regular part of today’s Christian scene. Schaeffer himself spoke frequently to prestigious gatherings in prestigious places, and was noticed outside evangelical circles as an evangelical leader.

What gave Schaeffer his importance among evangelicals? The brief answer is that he embodied to an outstanding degree qualities of which mid-twentieth-century English-speaking evangelicalism was very short, and so brought a measure of depth to themes on which in that era of English-speaking evangelicalism was very shallow. He was not original in any far-reaching sense; he was a conservative Presbyterian who professed what was in essence the old-Princeton system of theology, with some garnishings of detail from Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til, and he had no fault to find with any part of this doctrinal heritage.

But Schaeffer was felt to be original because he did seven things (at least) that other evangelicals, by and large, were not doing.

First, with his flair for didactic communication he coined some new and pointed ways of expressing old thoughts (the “true truth” or revelation, the “mannishness” of human beings, the “upper story” and “lower story” of the divided Western mind, etc.).

Second, with his gift of empathy he listened to and dialogued with the modern secular world as it expressed itself in literature and art, which most evangelicals were too cocooned in their own subculture to do.

Third, he threw light on the things that today’s secularists take for granted by tracing them, however sketchily, to their source in the history of thought, a task for which few evangelicals outside the seminaries had the skill.

Fourth, he cherished a vivid sense of the ongoing historical process of which we are all part, and offered shrewd analysis of the Megatrends-Future Shock type concerning the likely effect of current Christian and secular developments.

Fifth, he felt, focused, and dwelt on the dignity and tragedy of sinful human beings rather than their grossness and nastiness.

Sixth, he linked the passion for orthodoxy with a life of love to others as the necessary expression of gospel truth, and censured the all-too-common unlovingness of front-line fighters for that truth, including the Presbyterian separatists with whom in the thirties he had thrown in his lot.

Seventh, he celebrated the wholeness of created reality under God, and stressed that the Christian life must be a corresponding whole—that is, a life in which truth, goodness, and beauty are valued together and sought with equal zeal. Having these emphases institutionally incarnated at L’Abri, his ministry understandably attracted attention. For it was intrinsically masterful, and it was also badly needed.

Evangelicalism (by which I mean the position of all Protestants, of whatever stripe, who combine belief in the divine truth and authority of Holy Scripture with the Reformational-Puritan-Pietist understanding of justification by faith and the new birth) reached the mid-twentieth century in a somewhat battered condition. Liberal bureaucrats and boards in most major denominations and older educational institutions had given evangelicals a bad beating, leaving them sore and suspicious, anti-intellectual and defensive, backward-looking and culturally negative, enmeshed in ideological isolationism with regard to the world of thought, and lacking all vision for the future of the church save the defiant hope that a faithful remnant would survive somewhere. Evangelism, nurture, and evangelical church life were set in a distinctly old-fashioned mold.

Evangelicals as a body seemed to their peers to be superficial, sentimental, and sometimes smug, certainly strong-minded but often shallow, apathetic on social issues, pharisaic on personal morality, philistine toward the arts, and apt to regard religion as one compartment of life rather than as a way of living it all. Young people were conditioned to believe that only overseas missionary service and full-time pastoral ministry were fully worthwhile vocations; the value of other employments was merely that the money you made could be used to support missions and churches. Beyond this, let the world go by! Separation, understood as uninterested detachment, was the only proper Christian stance in relation to it.

The upshot of all this, not surprisingly, was that young people were rebelling, congregations were aging, and despite some impressive evangelistic efforts, evangelical credibility was diminishing overall. The crude conversionist folk-religion of America, especially of its Bible Belt, and the simplistic Moodyesque pietism of England, seemed to have had their day. As a significant force in the community, evangelicalism, so it seemed, was finished.

The funeral orations that some meditated and others actually delivered proved, however, to be premature. Into this degenerate situation God sent renewers of evangelicalism, men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott in Britain, Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga in the United States, and with them, operating from his Swiss base, Francis Schaeffer.

Schaeffer was a reading, listening, thinking man who lived in the present, learned from the past, and looked to the future, and who had an unusual gift for communicating ideas at a nontechnical level. His communicative style was not that of the cautious academic who labors for a complete coverage that never exaggerates or gets proportions wrong. It was rather that of the crusading “cartoonist” whose simple sketches leave behind photographic rectitude and embrace a measure of the grotesque in order to ram home a judgment. Academics censured Schaeffer for communicating this way, but his informal cartoonist’s style was apt enough for what he was trying to do.

His complete works are subtitled “A Christian Worldview,” and the title of each separate volume is “A Christian View of” some great reality—(1) Philosophy and Culture; (2) the Bible as Truth; (3) Spirituality; (4) the Church; (5) the West. All of them offer genetic and homiletic analyses of the relativism, irrationalism, fragmentation, and incipient nihilism of our culture and community today, with an equally comprehensive recall to the absolutes of God’s revealed truth as the only road to rationality. In these volumes Schaeffer the prophet-pastor is preaching to the post-Christian Protestant West, diagnosing its deep existential questions, detecting its drift from its former creedal moorings, and delineating the desert lands into which today’s trends have led us; after which he points up in each area the true way back—belief of the biblical system, commitment to the biblical Christ, and the hallowing of all relationships and life-activities by the light of the value-pattern revealed in creation and reinforced by redemption. It is all-compassionate, well-informed, popularly phrased pastoral evangelism, with a remarkably wide range and a very probing thrust.

Determining the shape of this one-man literary mission to the Western world was a set of perceptions which it may be helpful to list at this point.

First, Schaeffer vividly perceived the wholeness of created reality, of human life, of each person’s thinking, and of God’s revealed truth. He had a mind for first principles, for systems, and for totalities, and he would never discuss issues in isolation or let a viewpoint go till he had explored and tested its implications as a total account of reality and life. He saw fundamental analysis of this kind as clarifying, for, as he often pointed out, there are not many basic world views, and we all need to realize how much our haphazard, surface-level thoughts are actually taking for granted. Exposure of presuppositions was thus central to Schaeffer’s method of encounter with all opinions on any subject, and he always presented Christianity in terms of its own presuppositions and in theologically systematic form, as the revealed good news of our rational and holy Creator becoming our gracious and merciful redeemer within the space-time continuum of this world’s history and life.

Second, Schaeffer perceived the primacy of reason in each individual’s makeup and hence the potency of ideas in the human mind. He saw that, as it has been put, ideas have legs, so that how we think determines what we are. So the first task in evangelism, in the modern West or anywhere else, is to persuade the other person that he ought to embrace the Christian’s view of reality, and the first step in doing this would be to convince him of the nonviability of all other views, including whatever form of non-Christianity is implicit in his own thinking up to this point. This is to treat him, not as an intellectual in the sociocultural sense (he might or might not be that), but as the human being that he undoubtedly is. To address his mind in this way is to show respect for him as a human being, made for truth because he is made in God’s image.

At this point Schaeffer’s enterprise was in direct continuity with the lesson in basic theism that was Paul’s first move in his attempt to evangelize the Athenian Areopagites, before they howled him down (Acts 17:22-34). For only when a theistic frame of reference has been established can words like sin, guilt, redemption, faith, repentance, creativity, and love bear their authentic Christian meaning. One must begin at the beginning.

Third, Schaeffer perceived the Western mind as adrift on a trackless sea of relativism and irrationalism just because the notion of truth as involving exclusion of untruth, and of value as involving exclusion of dysvalue, had perished in both sophisticated and popular thinking. Into its place had crept the idea of ongoing synthesis, the idea, that is, that anything may eventually prove to be an aspect of anything else to which at present it seems to be opposed, so that infinite openness to everything, with negation of nothing and no value judgments, is the only appropriate way for anyone to go.

Now, as a result most mainstream Westerners, religious and irreligious alike, whether intellectual, anti-intellectual, or merely conventional, were held more or less firmly in the grip of this category-less “pan-everythingism” (as Schaeffer called it), from which they need to be rescued. To make people realize how this viewpoint has victimized them across the board, and thus to free them from it, Schaeffer regularly introduced all topics by a genetic historical analysis showing how Western thought about it had reached its current state of delirium. The aim of these analyses was to reestablish the notion that there is an absolute antithesis between truth and error, good and evil, beauty and the obscenely ugly, and so to refurnish our ravaged and pillaged minds in a way that makes significant thinking about life, death, personhood, and God possible for us once more.

It is a fact that many younger thinkers and artists, whose “mannishness” (instinctual craving for the absolutes of personal reality, rationality, significance, and love) was in outraged agony at fashions in their professional fields that were tyrannizing them to destruction, have found in Schaeffer’s analyses a lifeline to sanity without which they literally could not have gone on living. This fact should be borne in mind when academic criticisms of these nonacademic genetic “cartoons” are brought forward. Whether or not the cartoons satisfy the fastidious, they have in case after case spoken to the condition of real people in real trouble, and thus done the pastoral job that they were created to do. What more, one wonders, should one ask?

Fourth, Schaeffer perceived the importance of identifying in all apologetic and evangelistic discussion, and all teaching on what being a Christian involves, that which he called the antithesis and the point of tension. The antithesis is between truth and untruth, right and wrong, good and evil, the meaningful and the meaningless, Christian and non-Christian value systems, secular relativism and Christian absolutism; the point of tension is between clashing elements in incoherent world views and between the logical implications of non-Christian ontologies on the one hand and the demands of our inalienable “mannishness” on the other. He made it his business on every topic he handled to cover the “either-or” choices that have to be made (and, whether consciously or not, actually are made) at the level of first principles and to show that the biblical-Christian options for personal and community life are the only ones that are consistently rational and satisfyingly human. In this way he sought to remake disordered and disorderly minds, with regard both to ontological options facing the individual and to ethical options facing the contemporary West.

To him, as must now be evident, these two fields for persuasion ran into each other and belonged together, both historically (because, as he saw it, the West of today grew out of the Christian West as shaped by the Reformation, and the America of today grew out of Christian America as defined by the Constitution) and also theologically (because biblical truths and values derive from a single whole, a transcript of the declared thoughts of the infinite-personal, triune God).

Schaeffer’s fiercest polemics were accordingly launched against professed Christians who seemed to him to have lost sight of the true antithesis between what God tells us in the Bible and the false alternatives developed by fanciedly autonomous man in the folly of his fallenness. He berated, for instance, liberal and neo-orthodox Protestants who, as he saw it, took faith out of the realm of “true truth” into that of blind mysticism and reduced “Christ” to a vacuous “connotation word.” He was sharply critical of non-inerrantist students of Scripture who, as he thought, claimed to believe biblically while evading part of the Bible’s witness to space-time realities, thus in principle disjoining the “upper story” of faith from the “lower story” of fact just as ruinously as the liberals and neo-orthodox did. He assailed evangelicals who in his view compromised truth by declining to apply and obey it in a radical way, but instead accommodated themselves to craven unfaithfulness on the ecclesiastical front and to the cruel and callous lifestyle of the secular world.

Settling for peace at any price was never to Schaeffer’s mind a Christian way to go. The prophet-pastor could find in himself much compassion for victims of modern madness who had never encountered anything else, but little for those who, having been shown the light, dehumanized themselves to a degree by backing off from it into mental or moral semi-darkness. In his attempts to stir Christians to stand in particular for the sanctity of human life, and to pray and fight appropriately against the abortion industry, this became very plain. The broken-hearted scorn that marked his manner on these occasions made one think of Jeremiah: which statement (let my reader note) I mean as a compliment. For Schaeffer the most tragic—because the most anti-human—thing in life was willful refusal by a human being to face the antithesis, or rather the series of antitheses, with which God in Holy Scripture confronts us, and in this perception I think he was right.

Fifth, Schaeffer perceived the need to live truth as well as think it, and to demonstrate to the world through the transformed lifestyle of believing groups that—as he himself put it in the foreword to his wife Edith’s narrative L’Abri—”the Personal-Infinite God is really there in our generation.” Hence the emergence of the parent L’Abri in Huemoz, Switzerland, and of the satellite L’Abris around the Western world. Each L’Abri is study center, rescue mission, extended family, clinic, spiritual convalescent home, monastery, and local church rolled into one: a milieu where visitors learn to be both Christian and human through being part of a community that trusts God the Creator and worships him through Christ the Redeemer.

Ordinarily truth and love must combine for effective evangelism and nurture. The testimony of twenty years is that in the world of L’Abri they do, and lives have been transformed as a result. Schaeffer’s varied books, as preaching on paper, show him as one who always remembered that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and that Christians living with God are the final proof of Christian truth about God. Here too his sense of wholeness and his refusal to separate what God has joined were in full evidence. Christian credibility, he saw, requires that truth be not merely defended, but practiced; not just debated, but done. The knowledge that God’s truth was being done at L’Abri sustained his boldness as he called for that same truth to be done elsewhere.

Schaeffer has been criticized as a grandiose guru, but the criticism is inept. It assumes a degree of egoism and calculation that was simply not there. Schaeffer was no more, just as he was no less, than a sensitive man of God who sought to minister the everlasting gospel to twentieth-century people, showing what it means in our time to believe it, to think it through, and to live it out. There was no grand strategy in his ministry; everything developed in a relatively haphazard way as needs, applications, and insights became clear one after another. The needs of bemused young people in the 1950s and 1960s produced L’Abri and the first books; the needs of drifting America in the 1970s and 1980s produced the seminars recalling to spiritual roots and the later books and films.

Edith Schaeffer indicated this developing, responsive quality of her husband’s ministry in 1968 as she answered the question, “Where did your husband get all this?” God, she affirmed, brought a variety of people to L’Abri not just for their own sakes but also

as a training-ground and as a means of developing, in the arena of live conversation, that which Fran is giving in his apologetic today. Rather than studying volumes in an ivory tower separated from life, and developing a theory separated from the thinking and struggling of men, Fran has been talking for thirteen years now to men and women in the very midst of their struggles. He has talked to existentialists, logical positivists, Hindus, Buddhists, liberal Protestants, liberal Roman Catholics, Reformed Jews and atheistic Jews, Muslims, members of occult cults, and people of a wide variety of religions and philosophies, as well as atheists of a variety of types. He has talked to brilliant professors, brilliant students and brilliant drop-outs! He has talked to beatniks, hippies, drug addicts, homosexuals and psychologically disturbed people. He has talked to Africans, Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, South Americans, people from the islands of the sea, from Australia and New Zealand and from all the European countries as well as from America and Canada. He has talked to people of many different political colours. He has talked to doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists, writers, engineers, research men in many fields, philosophers, businessmen, newspaper-men and actors, famous people and peasants. He has talked to both generations!

In it all God has been giving him an education which it is not possible for many people to have. The answers have been given, not out of academic research (although he does volumes of reading constantly to keep up) but out of this arena of live conversation. He answers real questions with carefully thought out answers which are the real answers. He gets excited himself as he comes to me often saying, “It really is the answer, Edith; it fits, it really fits. It really is truth, and because it is true it fits what is really there.” The excitement is genuine. This is what I mean when I say that God has given him an education in addition to unfolding a work in these past thirteen years. 1

 

What long-term significance has Schaeffer for the Christian cause? Neither this foreword nor the book that it introduces can answer that question; it is far too soon to tell. Schaeffer’s basic books still sell and are presumably being read. He left a team of trained helpers who now run the various L’Abris and who publish on their own account within what might be called Schaefferian Christian-humanist parameters. His son Franky, a self-styled activist agitator, carries the torch, rather raucously it must be said, for a Schaefferian sociocultural shift in the United States; what will come of that remains to be seen.

Perhaps the clique for whom “Schaeffer says” has long been the last word in human wisdom will disperse; or perhaps its members will now labor to build the prophet’s tomb, embalming into hallowed irrelevance thoughts that were once responses to the desperations of our time. We wait to see. The law of human fame will no doubt treat Schaeffer as it has treated others, eclipsing him temporarily now that he is dead and only allowing us to see his real stature ten or twenty years down the road; and probably then some of the things he said will seem more significant than others. My guess is that his verbal and visual cartoons, simplistic but brilliant as they appear to me to be, will outlive everything else, but I may be wrong. I am sure, however, that I shall not be at all wrong when I hail Francis Schaeffer, the little Presbyterian pastor who saw so much more of what he was looking at and agonized over it so much more tenderly than the rest of us do, as one of the truly great Christians of my time.


Notes

1 Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri (London: Norfolk, 1969), 226-27.

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