Francis Schaeffer “Christians under the Scripture”

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Christians Under the Scripture:
A Lecture by Dr. Francis Schaeffer
Notre Dame University, April 1981

Editor’s note: In a 1997 article in Christianity Today on the legacy of Francis August Schaeffer, Michael Hamilton wrote that “perhaps no intellectual save C.S. Lewis affected the thinking of [20th century] evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole.”

The long shadow cast by Francis Schaeffer over today’s evangelicals is as complex as it is significant—his words and ideas have not dimmed in the two decades since his death at age 72 in 1984; rather, they have sharpened. Although the lecture at the center of the discussion that follows was delivered in 1981, it still serves nevertheless as a penetrating analysis of our culture’s competing worldviews and as a prophetic call to authentic Christian action.

The foundations for Schaeffer’s impact on worldwide Christianity were quietly laid in the years he and his family spent working among the youth of Switzerland, welcoming them into their home, which they called L’Abri, or “shelter,” to discuss philosophy and art along with Christianity. As Schaeffer and his wife, Edith, preached the gospel through hospitality along with words, he began to realize that the philosophical presuppositions of youths raised in secularist Europe were no longer compatible with those of Christianity. In the years that followed, he also began to understand that because modern Christian thought had divided religious and material truth into separate realities, Christianity had no coherent answer to the threat of secularism. By relegating God’s truth only to the realm of religion, modern Christians had surrendered the spheres of philosophy, art, science and politics, leaving the conception of reality to be defined by those who did not believe in God.

It was from this realized dilemma that Schaeffer published his first book, The God Who Is There, in 1968. The book grew out of a series of lectures delivered at Wheaton College and addressed the seismic shift in Western culture, which traded a foundationally Christian world-view for a foundationally atheistic concept of reality, beginning with the Enlightenment and culminating in the existential despair of the 20th century. In the face of this philosophical shift, Schaeffer first introduced the concept of “pre-evangelism,” arguing that true Christianity is impossible without first establishing a correct understanding of true reality:

Before a man is ready to become a Christian, he must have a proper understanding of truth…  All people, whether they realize it or not, function in the framework of some concept of truth.  Our concept of truth will radically affect our understanding of what it means to become a Christian.  We are concerned at this point, not with the content of truth, so much as with the concept of truth – what truth is.

Schaeffer’s new ideas became enormously influential in American evangelicalism, especially among college students and members of the post-World War II generation. His arguments helped break down the walls of the “Christian ghetto” and gave new importance to a Christian understanding of nonreligious vocations, affirming the significance of a Christian view of reality in every facet of life. Schaeffer’s impact widened to encompass widely ranging expressions of Christian thought. John W. Whitehead, founder and president of The Rutherford Institute, counts himself among those upon whom Schaeffer’s life and teachings have had a tremendous influence. Notable personalities who acknowledge the same include syndicated columnist Cal Thomas; songwriter Larry Norman; religio-political figures Jerry Falwell and Randall Terry; and scholars Os Guinness and Chuck Colson.

Though some complained that Schaeffer provided an oversimplified analysis of Western philosophy, history and art, he provided a stunning view of the large picture of ideas; a meta-narrative of Western thought for evangelicals who suddenly began to understand the radical claims of the truth of Christianity for their world. With the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision, Schaeffer’s predictions about the implications of a society based on a material view of reality were realized in a horrific way. As he had argued, the importance of human life was foundationally connected to the concept of having been created in the image of God. And when that view of reality was rejected, the value of humanity itself became vulnerable to the pragmatic concerns of a culture consumed with its own hedonism. The abortion issue immediately became a focal point of Schaeffer’s call to Christian action as he encouraged the largely apathetic church to evangelize against it.

John W. Whitehead was present for Schaeffer’s lecture at Notre Dame in the spring of 1981. For this presentation of “Oldspeak,” staff writer Joshua Anderson and Rutherford Institute media coordinator Nisha Mohammed spoke with Whitehead. Their conversation frames a retrospective look at Schaeffer’s profoundly prescient observations on that evening 22 years ago in South Bend, Ind. The text of his address—with only minor edits—appears in italics and is interspersed throughout Whitehead’s interview. The first question and answer between “Oldspeak” and Whitehead introduces Schaeffer’s opening remarks. The questions and answers thereafter look back to that portion of his lecture printed immediately before them. Because of the size of this document we have provided the subtitles to assist with navigation. Click on any of them to visit the particular sections.

“True spirituality covers nothing less than the totality of life and the totality of reality.”

“Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural but, rather, truth spelled with a capital ‘T.’”

“What Is a Christian Lawyer?”

“We live in a secularized society and in a secularized sociological time of law.”

“Where have the Christian lawyers been?”

“We must stop seeing things in bits and pieces.”

“The issue is not abortion but the low view of human life.”

“There is a window that is open.”

“What is the Christian’s final relationship to the state?”

“Practicing the Christian alternatives will be costly.”

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