Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Biography of Francis Schaeffer

On our recent holiday (a fortnight in August), which included attending a conference in Aberystwyth in Wales and a week in Ireland, I read Colin Duriez' new biography of Francis Schaeffer called Francis Schaeffer, An Authentic Life and published by IVP.

There is no doubt that Francis Schaeffer was one of the leading Christian thinkers of the twentieth century. Through his several books published between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, he enabled many Christians to assess all of life from a Christian viewpoint. As with many others who read them, his writings helped me in several ways, even if at times I did not agree with all his conclusions, and I am still grateful to God for the way Schaeffer helped me as a young Christian in the 1970s.

Since I was familiar with his books, I was quite surprised, when reading this book, to discover that I knew very little about Schaeffer apart from his work connected to L’Abri in Switzerland. I had assumed that he had always been serving Christ in the manner for which he became well-known, such as helping individuals to think through the reasons for believing in the existence of God, or working out practising faith in Christ in the changing world of ideas that marked the first decades of the second half of the twentieth century, or assessing the drift of Western society further into an anti-Christian morass which he did by analysing art and music as well as philosophy.

This volume is not an assessment of Schaeffer’s ideas. Instead it is a biographical account that surveys the various periods of his life. Inevitably, aspects of his ideas are introduced, but only as they help explain the developments in his thinking as well as other changes in his life. The main incidents in his life are explained clearly, with as much background information as is necessary. Since the author met Schaeffer during his years at L’Abri and is personally indebted to him, there is an obvious sense that the author prefers the intellectual emphases of Schaeffer during those years rather than what he stressed before he began L’Abri. Nevertheless, we are given a well-written biography of a very important Christian thinker.

This biography gives many reasons for becoming familiar with Schaeffer and his work. I will mention five that struck me as Iwas reading it.

First, the life of Schaeffer is another reminder that the Lord often takes his servants from unusual backgrounds and prepares them for future roles. Schaeffer was born into a working class family in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1912. His parents at that time were not Christians, indeed they regarded the church with suspicion; furthermore they were not interested in literature of any kind or in the arts. Yet Schaeffer as a teenager became interested in philosophy and literature and also discovered the beauty of classical music. Later in his teenage years, he became a Christian after reading through the Bible and discovered that it answered the questions about life that he was asking. It is obvious that even then God was preparing him for his future ministry among the questioning young people of the 1960s and 70s.

Second, Schaeffer shows us that it is possible to change direction in ministry and yet have an effective influence in unexpected ways. He was a respected leader in a separatist denomination in the United States (the Bible Presbyterian Church which was formed as one response to the theological liberalism of early twentieth-century American Presbyterianism; another was the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). No doubt, his thoughts had been developing even during the years that he was within that denomination, but it was a visit to post-war Europe to investigate the state of the church there that seems to have been the catalyst for his change of direction. At that time, the Protestant church was tottering against liberalism on the one hand and being misdirected on the other by the increasing influence of Karl Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians. Barth may have been asking the right questions, but he was providing the wrong answers (Schaeffer had previously studied Barth and other such theologians during his time at Westminster Theological Seminary). Schaeffer determined to provide biblical answers to the many questions arising in the minds of many people as they saw a new world appearing, especially as a consequence of the 1960s.

Third, I found this book to give a moving insight into the quality of family life that surrounded Francis Schaeffer. The involvement of his wife Edith in his work is described well, and at times it is easy to see how much she contributed to his ministry. Her missionary background in OMF, where her parents had served the Lord in China withoutadvertising for financial support and by adapting themselves to Chinese culture and language, helped the Schaeffers for the years in which they lived by faith, especially after their move to Europe.

Fourth, the volume reveals the surprising breadth of Schaeffer’s abilities. Although he is best-known for his intellectual analysis of the thought world of his time, he was also an accomplished children’s evangelist (he instigated an organisation called Children for Christ, which developed helpful practices for communicating the gospel to children). Of course, there may be an obvious lesson in this -- if we cannot explain the faith to children, will we be able to explain it to adults.

Lastly, I would suggest that Schaeffer’s life exemplifies two important principles of Christian leadership. The first is that he discovered the basic outlook of a true leader is to implement an answer to a simple question, ‘Where would God have me serve him best at this stage in my life?’ The answer for Schaeffer was demanding and required courage, but he discovered that the God who called also opened the doors and provided the means. Connected to this discovery is the emphasis Schaeffer placed on prayer, and some marvellous examples of answered prayer are given in this book. But I am not going to specify them, so if you want to know what they are, you will have to read the book.

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