by Jerram Barrs

 

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 it also presents a basic Christian worldview in a more systematic way than do the other two books.  Other summaries of his apologetic approach can be found in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? How Should We then Live? Death in the City, Genesis in Space and Time and on many of the lectures that are still available on tape through L’Abri and the tape ministry “Sound Word.”

A lecture series that stands behind He Is There and He is Not Silent is entitled “Possible Answers to the Basic Philosophical Questions” which are an example of Schaeffer’s apologetic method put into practice.  These lectures were given several times at L’Abri in Switzerland during the decade of the 1960’s and that is where I first heard them.  He also gave them as a set of special lectures at Covenant Theological Seminary when he came as a visiting lecturer while I was a student there between the years of 1968 and1971.  I remember the lectures very well as I took them for 1 hour of seminary credit, and consequently took thorough notes (notes I still possess).  In fact, I have them before me as I write this.

But the primary reason I remember the lectures so well is that the lectures were open to the public (though they were not widely advertised) and all through the week a handful of visitors would join is in the tiny seminary chapel. (Covenant has grown considerably since that time and now has a much more spacious chapel.)  I remember one man, an unbeliever, who came faithfully to the whole week of lectures.  Schaeffer covered the three areas of existence, morals, and knowledge and showed how in each of these areas “modern man” or his term “modern-modern man” (today he would say “postmodern man”) is left only with the hell of alienation.  Christianity, on the other hand, gives answers in each of these areas that are satisfying both intellectually and personally.  At the end of the week he finished by saying that with the Christian answer there can be true beauty in each of these three areas.  The young man who had attended so faithfully became a Christian as the last lecture finished.

I mention this story here, both because it is a precious memory, and also because it reveals something about the way Schaeffer approached his lecturing and his writing.  The title of the lectures “Possible Answers to the Basic Philosophic Questions” probably sounds abstract.  However, Schaeffer was not interested in either abstract, or purely academic, apologetics.  He was an evangelist—that is how he thought of himself and how he spoke of his ministry.

Those particular lectures, all the other lectures he gave and all of his apologetic books were developed to answer the questions of both Christians and non-Christians who came and sat at his table in Huemoz-sur-Ollon in Switzerland, the village where he and Edith had founded the work of L’Abri.  I personally know many people who became Christians listening to his lectures, either when they were originally given, or when they listened to them on tapes as they studied at L’Abri or in other settings all over the world.  He would use the same approach that can be found in his lectures and books when he discussed the truth of Christianity with unbelievers or doubting Christians at mealtimes (as Edith served delicious food to meet their other needs).  Or, if the weather was good, as he sat on the bench outside their chalet and talked with visitors to L’Abri he would urge them to consider the truth claims of the gospel using the same approach.  Or, as he walked through the forests, fields and mountains of that lovely part of Switzerland, he would encourage his companions to raise their questions and doubts about the Christian faith and he would seek to give them answers to their questions.

 

THE GOD WHO IS THERE

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, he 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 revealed to us the truth about the world in which we live, the truth about our human existence and the truth about himself.  He 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.  Schaeffer was deeply convinced of this, and indeed every believer should be convinced of this.  When we stand up in a worship service and declare the affirmations of the Creed we are saying what we believe to be true:

 

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

Creator of heaven and earth;

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

Born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate;

Was crucified, dead and buried;

On the third day he rose again from the dead,

And ascended into heaven.

 

These affirmations are not like cartoon balloons floating loose in the air.  No, they are statements about the way things truly are.  The Christian is saying: “This is the truth about the world, about God, about history.” Schaeffer often used to say: “I am more sure of God’s existence than I am of my own!”  That may sound strange or extreme; but he was simply acknowledging that if God did not exist, then we would not exist.  His existence is prior to ours, in time of course, but also prior to ours as he is our Creator.  Human life is possible only because the Christian Triune God lives.

In the same way God’s moral perfection is prior to our understanding of morality.  God’s character has always been one of holiness, goodness and justice.  It is because God is good that we can affirm that there is a difference between good and evil.  It is because God is good that we can commit ourselves to the pursuit of moral beauty.  Morals are possible for us because God is moral.

In the same way God’s love is prior to our love.  The members of the Trinity have loved each other for all eternity, from “before the beginning” as Schaeffer used to say.  Because we are made in the image of our Creator we are designed to love, designed for relationships, a relationship of love with our creator and relationships of love with one another.  Love is possible for us because God is love.

In the same way God’s knowledge is prior to our knowledge.  God knows all things truly—indeed he knows all things “exhaustively” as Schaeffer would say.  We humans are created by God to have knowledge: knowledge about the Lord, knowledge about ourselves and knowledge about our world.  We will never know exhaustively, for we are finite; but we can know truly, otherwise we would not be able to function at all in this world.  Even despite our fallen-ness we can still have true knowledge, because of God’s commitment to care for us and for all creation, and because of his kindness in granting his wisdom to the whole human race.  Knowledge is possible for us because God knows all things and because he upholds all things and he has designed us so that there is coherence between us everything around us.

 

APOLOGETICS IN PRACTICE

Because Christianity is the truth about the world in which we live and about our lives it is proper for Christian believers to encourage one another, to encourage our children and to encourage unbelievers to ask their questions, to express their doubts and to raise their objections against Christianity.  We do not need to say to the doubting Christian or to the unbeliever “don’t ask questions – just believe!”  We do not need to say when a Christian has struggles and uncertainties about their faith: “just pray harder!”  Francis Schaeffer would say “if you try to load every doubt, objection and question on the donkey of devotion – eventually the donkey will lie down and die, for it is being asked to bear a load God never intended it to bear.”

God has made himself known in his Word in such a way that we can think carefully about what he tells us – that is why, said Schaeffer, that the Reformers were so eager to get the Bible translated and into the hands of all the people – so that they could read God’s Word for themselves.   In addition God has made himself known in the created order and in human nature in such a way that we can think carefully about what he has revealed.  What God says is “true and reasonable”—to quote the apostle Paul when he is defending the message of the gospel, it is not “hidden in a corner.”

In the same way the apostle Peter encourages Christians to always be prepared to give a reasoned defense of their hope in Christ.  Schaeffer saw this calling to be able to give a reasoned defense as part of the birthright of every believer”—not just of pastors or some specially trained apologists.  He was terribly distressed when people would come to his home at the point of giving up their faith because no one in their church would take their questions seriously.

I remember one young woman who came to L’Abri filled with pain because of the response of her parents when she raised questions about the Christian message.  Her father was a pastor, but as a young teenager she began to have doubts and she wrote down some of her doubts and questions in her personal journal.  One day her mother started reading through this journal (though it was private) and was horrified to read there the struggles her daughter was having.  She shared the journal with her husband and they threw her out of her home, declaring that she must be “reprobate” because of the doubts she had expressed.  She was then just sixteen years old!

This is an extreme example, but all of us who worked in L’Abri with Francis Schaeffer could share many horror stories like this.  This kind of situation broke his heart, and he would devote himself to listening for hours to the struggles and questions of those who came to his home.  He would say: “If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first fifty-five minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last five minutes I will share something of the truth.”

I am often asked: “What about Schaeffer made the greatest impression on you?”  I think all of us who had the privilege of working with Schaeffer would respond to such a question:  “His compassion for people.”

Some who came to the Schaeffers’ home were believers struggling with doubts and deep hurts like the girl above.  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 believed and practiced the conviction that it is God who saves people.  Indeed, he would frequently encourage people to leave L’Abri for a time and go off by themselves to think through what they were hearing.  He would say that we do not have to try to push and to pressure people into the kingdom.  He loved the words of the apostle Paul: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.  On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).  Because Christianity is true, and because God is the one who delights to draw people to faith in Christ, we do not need to put emotional pressure on unbelievers, nor do we need to try to manipulate them into responding to our message.  Rather we commend the truth to them by seeking to show them that it is indeed the truth, and we pray for the Spirit to open their hearts to that truth.

In addition to his deep compassion for people in their struggles and in their lost state, Schaeffer also had a strong sense of the dignity of all people.  The conviction that all human persons are the image of God was not simply a theoretical theological affirmation for him; nor was it just a wonderful truth to be used in apologetic discussion.  It was a passionate shout of his heart, a song of delighted praise on his lips, just as for David in Psalm 8:

 

What is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honor.

 

The truth that we are the image of God, a truth that is at the heart of all his apologetic work, is, for Schaeffer, a reason to worship God.  This conviction of the innate dignity of all human persons had many consequences for Schaeffer.  He believed and he practiced the belief that there are no little people.  He invited people into his home who were damaged in body and mind and he treated them with the same dignity and compassion as the most brilliant or accomplished visitors.  He was just as willing to spend time with the maid or the janitor in a hotel as he was to go and talk to someone considered ‘important’ in the eyes of the world or of the church.  He took a conversation with one damaged and needy young person as seriously as when he was talking with the President or lecturing before an audience of thousands.[i]

This same conviction of the dignity of people and his compassion for them led him to desire to avoid aggressive confrontation with unbelievers.  His refusal to “debate” with anyone, including a radical liberal like Bishop Pike, was an example of this.  He insisted that their meeting should be called a “dialog”.  As a consequence of this they became friends and corresponded with each other until Pike’s death while he was searching for manuscripts in the desert.

This conviction also led him and Edith into their work of child evangelism, for to the Schaeffers children were just as significant as adults, just as precious, just as worthy of receiving our time and effort.  In his article, “The Secret of Power and the Enjoyment of the Lord,” he wrote, “There is a certain gentleness about really great Christians.  There are many ways to observe this, but perhaps one of the best is to notice the tenderness for children in some of the great warriors of the past.”[ii]  While in St. Louis as a pastor in the middle years of the 1940’s he and Edith started a ministry to children “Children for Christ.”

This work eventually became international and was greatly used by God to reach many children with the gospel.  He and Edith wrote the materials for the meetings, and Edith designed flannel-graphs to be used with them.  These materials were translated into many languages and he and Edith traveled extensively teaching others how to lead children’s meetings.  They would model this by leading a study with the adults as if they were a group of children.  If one is able to find a copy of these materials (there were, for example, studies on Genesis and on the Gospel of Luke – the latter published in a different format under the title Everybody Can Know), it quickly becomes clear that Schaeffer takes the same basic approach to communicating Biblical truth to children as he does with adults.  I had the privilege of leading an evangelistic study for inner city children while I was a seminary student in St. Louis, and managed to find a copy of the studies on Genesis to use in my teaching.  The study was, in essence, a beginner’s version of “Possible Answers to the Basic Philosophical Questions” and of Genesis in Space and Time, and I found it very helpful in communicating God’s truth to those little children.

 

DO WE NEED APOLOGETICS?

Obviously in this context the communication of truth to children is taking place with the use of different language and with other appropriate adjustments—but children need precisely the same truth and ask just the same questions: indeed, some of the most difficult questions I have ever been asked were asked by little children.  In these Bible studies for children, the Schaeffers were dealing with the same fundamental questions about the nature of human existence and with the same wonderful answers that the Bible gives to these questions—the very same questions and answers that he presents in He Is There and He Is Not Silent.  This is an important point to notice for several reasons.

 

  1. Francis Schaeffer was sometimes criticized for being too intellectual. Some have said that he was dealing with issues that “ordinary people” don’t wrestle with in the course of regular life.  The fact that the same questions and truths could be used (and used very powerfully, and in a way that was greatly blessed by the Lord) to communicate the good news to little children shows the inappropriateness of such a criticism of his apologetic work.

 

  1. In similar fashion Schaeffer was accused of making the gospel too complicated. Why did he not simply tell people the ABC of the gospel: You are a sinner; Christ died for you; repent and believe in Him?  His response was that all people (including little children) have to understand and respond to the truths of the Biblical worldview, and to turn from their idols and from whatever false ideas they have put in place of God’s truth.  They have to believe “that God exists” (Heb. 11:6), to accept the truth of who God is and who they are as human persons before they can understand that they are sinners and that Christ died for them.

 

If people already share a Christian worldview because of growing up with a church background and with knowledge of the Bible, then, of course, we may begin with the ABC, for this ABC will make sense to them.  But, if they are like the people of Athens whom Paul addresses (Acts 17:16-34), then we will have to start with the true nature of God, and with the false ideas and idolatry of the pagan thinkers if we desire to make Christ known to them.

Schaeffer recognized that there are fewer and fewer people who truly hold to a Biblical worldview.  Consequently he saw that it is absolutely essential with the majority of people we meet to begin at the beginning.  The beginning for modern and postmodern people is denial or doubt about the existence of God and denial or doubt about the existence of truth.  While these might seem like abstract issues, they are not in fact abstract.  Rather, they are very practical.  Nothing is more practical, nothing is more basic, than the conviction that there is truth that can be known.  Without this conviction life becomes more and more intolerable and more and more filled with alienation—the more consistently people live with the loss of truth.

Another response that should be made to this criticism—that he was making the simple gospel too complicated—is that he did not develop his apologetic approach in a study far removed from the lives of real people.  He developed the answers he gives in all his apologetic writings and lectures in the heat of battle, so to speak.  His home was filled with people seeking answers to the questions of existence, morals and knowledge.

I worked for almost twenty years in L’Abri, many of those while Francis Schaeffer was still alive.  Our pattern was to tell those who came to our homes that “no questions are off limits.”  For, if we believe that Christianity is indeed the truth, we do not need to be afraid of any questions or objections.  Consequently, almost all the lectures that were given (and that still are given at the various branches of L’Abri) were given in response to the questions, doubts and struggles of those staying with us.  The issues addressed in Schaeffer’s apologetic works are the questions of real people. My own conversion bears on this issue.  As a non-Christian I wrestled with several of the problems that are addressed repeatedly by Schaeffer.  I wondered how any meaning and value can be given to human life.  “Who am I, and is there any ultimate meaning to my life?” were questions that plagued my soul.  I did not see any basis for being able to make a distinction between good and evil.  I felt there was a difference, and I longed for there to be a difference, but I could find no reason for such a difference.  Does not the same end come to those who seem morally upright and those who devote themselves to wickedness?  Does it ultimately matter, or is it just an illusion to think that moral integrity is important?  I was haunted by the reality of suffering.  Is there any reason for suffering, any ultimate explanation for it, or is it meaningless in the end?  Is it just that we live and die, we win some and lose some, we have fleeting moments of joy and longer periods of sorrow, but none of it makes any sense?  And is there any resolution to suffering?  Or do we simply have to endure it, either with passive resignation or bitter rage—as Dylan Thomas urged us: “to rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was a teenager growing up in England in the sixties, many of my friends struggled with such questions; but most of them attempted to drown their anxious thoughts with alcohol, drugs or promiscuous sexual encounters, or to bury themselves in trying to find a life which would give them “personal peace and affluence” (to use Schaeffer’s expression).  I found myself unwilling to take either of these routes, for both seemed a betrayal of everything I treasured (largely thanks to my parents who were truly good people and were excellent parents with a genuinely happy marriage).  For me, the lack of answers drove me to the very edge of suicide.  I was prevented (Thank God!) from throwing myself over a cliff one January day by the glory of creation even in the middle of winter.  I felt constrained to keep searching just a little longer before taking such a final step.

About two weeks after this, I met a Canadian, Mike Tymchak, a doctoral student at Manchester University where I was an undergraduate.  He had studied under Francis Schaeffer at the Swiss L’Abri and had discussions, Bible studies and sessions listening to Schaeffer’s tapes in his apartment each week.  The first evening he led a reading and reflection on the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes.  It pierced me to the heart, for here was a man, Mike, and here was a book, the Bible, that took my questions seriously and began to give them answers.  Over the next months Mike played tapes by Francis Schaeffer that covered some of the ground retraced in the book He Is There and He Is Not Silent.  Mike’s own approach to my questions was the approach that Schaeffer takes.  Within a little over a year and a half Mike, led me in a prayer of commitment one Tuesday evening in November 1966 as we knelt side by side on his kitchen floor.  God had brought another reluctant sinner to Himself!

  1. A third criticism that is sometimes made of Schaeffer’s apologetic approach is that he believed that he could argue people into the kingdom of God. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  He stated categorically many times that argument alone will not save people.  He did not acknowledge this because the reasons that demonstrate the truth of Christianity are inadequate.  They are not inadequate; rather they are fully sufficient to persuade an open-minded person.  People, however, are not open-minded.  We are all rebels against God, with wills resistant to his truth.  Schaeffer would say, as he says in several of his lectures, that to come to the truth men and women have to bow before God three times.

 

We have to bow as creatures, acknowledging that God is God, and that we are not the source and origin of our own life. Rather, we are dependent.  Our hearts resist this.

We have to bow morally, acknowledging that we are to see God as the Law-giver, that we are people who consistently have disobeyed his commandments and that we deserve His judgment. We are dependent utterly on his mercy in Jesus Christ.

We have to bow in the area of knowledge. God is the source of truth and we are not.  We are dependent on him for understanding the world and even our own existence.

 In addition to this recognition of the problem of the hard heart, Schaeffer understood that there are three elements, all equally important, to the demonstration of the truth of Christianity: persuasion, life, and prayer.  This understanding was not merely theoretical.  His life’s work was built around the practice of these three elements.

We are called by God to make his truth known, and to demonstrate that truth to unbelievers, by giving them compelling reasons for faith. These reasons are found in God’s own revelation in Scripture and in Creation.  They are not the clever inventions of our minds.  Schaeffer believed his apologetic method was faithful to Scripture and that he was using the approach of Scripture.

We are called by God to live the truth, to demonstrate the truth of the gospel by our lives. Schaeffer called the life of the Christian “our final apologetic”—and he sought to show in his own life, ‘in some poor way’ as he put it, the reality of “supernaturally restored relationships.”  He believed that the New Testament teaches us that the non-Christian ought to be able to see a difference in our lives and thereby draw conclusions about the truth of the message of Christ that we proclaim.

We are called by God to pray that he would demonstrate his existence in the reality of his answers to our prayers. The Schaeffers prayed that God would bring the people in whose hearts he was at work to L’Abri.  Schaeffer knew, and constantly repeated to those who worked with him, that the work of saving people is impossible for us, but it is indeed possible for God.  He was a man of prayer, who humbly believed that without the work of God in the hearts and minds of people all our labors are in vain.

Actually I ought to have set these three points in the reverse order, for Francis Schaeffer believed, and spent his life practicing the belief that prayer is the most important work that we do whether in the task of apologetics or in any other area of our Christian obedience.  In one sense he would say, “prayer is a work that we must do”—but he would quickly add—“in prayer we are holding out the empty hands of faith to the God who is there and who can do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine!”

 

Jerram Barrs is Professor of Christianity and Contemporary Culture and Resident Scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.

(This article was originally published in the May-June 2006 Areopagus Journal)

NOTES

[i] See his sermon with the title “No Little People, No Little Places” in the book of his sermons, No Little People, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 3, A Christian View of Spirituality, (Westchester: Crossway, 1982).

 

[ii] Published in The Sunday School Times in 1951.