Francis Schaeffer represented an important tension in the 20th century PCA. The tension is perhaps best captured in his physical appearance: The distinctive white goatee, the long, scraggly hair, and the fact that he would occasionally turn up wearing Bavarian lederhosen—in public—surely made him seem a bit exotic to the heartland Presbyterians that founded Covenant College and Seminary in the mid-1950s. There could have been no starker contrast than in the clean-cut, shirt-and-tie image upheld by other church leaders in his generation. In fact, some Bible Presbyterians at the time morally opposed long hair, believing it to be a sign of worldliness. Yet the Covenant founders and multitudes of other American evangelicals considered Schaeffer one of their closest allies. He was a cobelligerent in a struggle not only to reach the world for Christ, but to preserve theological orthodoxy throughout evangelicalism.

The tension inherent in Francis Schaeffer can be traced back to the origin of the word “fundamentalism.” During the firefight among the Princeton Seminary faculty in the 1920s, professors who held to certain fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith were labeled “fundamentalists.” Among the fundamentalists’ beliefs were the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the literal, physical resurrection of Christ, and separation from unbelief in the church and in the world. The fundamentalists included J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til. Modernists like Harry Emerson Fosdick and George Johnson held a progressive view of God (meaning that the divine being changes over time) and believed the Bible to be a fallible human account of this changing being. The battle divided the Princeton faculty so profoundly that there was no possibility of a consensus. In 1929, Machen, Van Til, and others left Princeton to start a new school in Philadelphia—Westminster Theological Seminary.

A Fundamentalist Who Engaged the Culture

Six years later, a 23-year-old Francis Schaeffer enrolled in courses from both professors: under Machen he studied biblical inerrancy, and under Van Til he studied apologetics. In those classrooms Schaeffer became very conservative. By the original definition of “fundamentalist,” he was a fundamentalist. But as Schaeffer’s ministry would mature, his response to the encroachment of modernism would not be as separatistic as the original fundamentalists. He and his wife, Edith, would make it their life mission to engage, interpret, and even begin to transform human culture into something that would be pleasing to God.

The Schaeffers did not develop this vision all at once. When Schaeffer was ordained as the Bible Presbyterian Church’s first pastor in 1937, it was a denomination that had officially adopted another kind of “fundamentalism”—opposing “worldly practices” such as drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, playing cards, watching movies and dancing. And as Schaeffer’s ministry continued, he was much involved in interdenominational doctrinal battles and trying to sort things out in the theoretical sense.

Schaeffer’s move to Switzerland in 1948 did not, initially, modify his separatist stance. There is a photograph of Schaeffer in Geneva with Max Belz, my grandfather, and my great-uncle Rudolph Schmidt. It was taken during a 1950 convention of the ICCC, the International Council of Christian Churches, an organization that had been established to resist the very liberal and ecumenical World Council of Churches. Schaeffer was fully engaged in that work, and that work was primarily separatism. He reflected the kind of mentality that still leads many American evangelicals to withdraw from cultural outreach into Christian enclaves where contrary beliefs are not allowed to enter or challenge.

However, Schaeffer’s continued work in Switzerland during the 1950s allowed him to distance himself from the ecclesiastical battles that had previously isolated him from secular challenges. He and Edith opened their home, which became L’Abri, to European and American students, and he began to dialogue with atheists, druggies, hippies, homosexuals, people from every walk and worldview—without ever compromising his commitment to Scripture or Reformed theology. In fact, he saw L’Abri as a necessary and consistent expression of Reformed theology. He never broke his friendship with church and seminary leaders back in the States, because he respected them for the formal training that they were providing young pastors and missionaries. This was obviously a necessary work. But Schaeffer himself wanted to engage in a different kind of mission, applying the theology that he believed in so strongly to the philosophical challenges of Western culture. He did this to the end.

Schaeffer’s Tension: What Does It Mean To Be In the World?

Francis Schaffer made the world his practicum for Reformed theology. He believed that God was already present in culture; that it was His territory already; that he was really not in a foreign land, in that sense. He accepted everyone he met for what they were, believer or not, and respected them, developed and kept friendships with them. He strongly believed that every man and woman is made in God’s image, and that they are worthy of our deepest love and respect. He and Edith would constantly keep up a prolific letter-writing ministry with just about everyone they met, so that they could keep in touch with them personally. In the end, it was the genuineness of their love for the individual that gave them such a great life and ministry.

The tension inherent in Francis Schaeffer is one that continues in our day. What does it mean to be “in the world but not of the world”? What does it mean to “come out from among them,” and how does that relate to loving one’s neighbor as oneself? For Presbyterians, Schaeffer was a tactical agent, exploring these questions in the real world. When I saw him speak at Covenant Seminary’s graduation in 1981, just three years before his death, he appeared as an elder statesman on matters of apologetics. He still had the signature beard and flock of white hair, as well as a cane and a small entourage of followers.

The Francis Schaeffer Institute: The Legacy Continues

Francis Schaeffer’s ties to the St. Louis community extend back to when he was a relatively young Christian in his early 30s. In 1943, he was installed as the pastor of First Bible Presbyterian Church on Union Avenue downtown (now Covenant Presbyterian on Ballas Road), one of the flagship congregations in the bustling Missouri Presbytery. Schaeffer left for Switzerland in 1947, but his presence could still be felt through the 1950s, when L’Abri, Covenant Seminary, and Covenant College were founded within a year of each other. In 1965 Schaeffer began teaching apologetics courses at the seminary every other year, and from that point until his death he continued to be an integral part of the community, returning frequently to lecture, speak at important occasions, and visit his many friends.

St. Louis has changed quite a bit since Schaeffer’s heyday. The seminary campus, once a rustic plot of land with only an estate house and a log cabin, is now a prime piece of real estate in the middle of the West County suburbs. There are 22 buildings, including a chapel, ample student housing, and the beautiful new Buswell Library. Courses are taught by 40 full- and part-time faculty members and, during the past 15 years, the student population has grown from around 150 to more than 1,100—a testament to the Seminary’s effectiveness in preparing pastors for active ministry.

Schaeffer’s mission lives on—as does the tension he embodied—in the form of the Francis Schaeffer Institute (FSI). Established in 1989 as a “tribute to and continuation of his legacy,” the Institute has taken Schaeffer’s vision and turned it into a series of lectures, evening discussions, and apologetics courses. Two men sit at FSI’s helm, Luke Bobo, who serves as its director, and Jerram Barrs, its resident scholar. Their mission is “to demonstrate compassionately and defend reasonably the claims of Christ upon the whole of life.”

Luke Bobo recalls one student putting it more succinctly: “FSI is leaven for the seminary.” It is an apt analogy in more ways than one. Jesus’s parable in Matthew 13 compares the kingdom of God to a few grains of leaven—or yeast—that “works all through the dough.” The expansion of the Seminary’s offerings to include thoughtful, well-informed cultural analysis might work through the dough of the rest of the curriculum. However, even in this analogy, one begins to see the tension embodied by Francis Schaeffer. Most of the occurrences of “leaven” in the Bible refer to something evil, insidious. The teaching of the Pharisees is called leaven. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, refers to the “yeast of malice.” Doubtless the original saying, to which Jesus alludes in his parable, refers to something small that becomes a big problem.

For many Christians, an isolationist, self-protective stance is still the only legitimate response to Paul’s stern warning against “human tradition and the basic principles of this world” (Colossians 2). What is the purpose, they might wonder, of FSI programs such as “Art at the Institute” and “Movies at the Institute”?

“Often we want to demonize cultural artifacts,” notes Bobo, but FSI wants students to know that “they should be students of culture and, from a biblical worldview, value the contributions of our culture.” This is the claim Schaeffer made that set him apart, in a certain sense at least, from his brethren in the Bible Presbyterian Church. It is a claim, in fact, that still sets him apart from some Evangelicals, in practice if not in theory.

The official literature about FSI, however, places central emphasis on evangelism, rather than on Christian investigation of human culture: “The goal of the Schaeffer Institute is to assist Christians in breaking down [cultural barriers between the church and the world], to become more faithful and effective in evangelism, and to become more obedient to God’s Word in all areas of life.”

Covenant Seminary president Bryan Chapell’s view of FSI is nuanced even more toward gospel presentation: “FSI equips students to understand the presuppositions and philosophies of our culture in order to discern the avenues that will allow us to present the faith effectively. As we equip the leaders of the church, [they must] always be ready to give the reason for their hope with gentleness and respect.”

Understanding the Value of Culture

Although becoming a smart apologist is an important benefit of learning about culture, especially for pastors, one gets the impression that Schaeffer’s engagement with people outside the church was slightly less programmatic. There was often something valuable about human culture per se that Schaeffer believed reflected God’s personality and priorities, even if that culture came in the form of a surrealist readymade hanging in the Guggenheim, a late night Miles Davis performance, or a Fellini movie. In the same sense, he believed that it was important to befriend all sorts of people, whether or not they would eventually enter heaven.

One might do well to bear in mind that, unlike L’Abri, FSI is on a seminary campus, so it bears a special burden of being relevant to the seminary’s primary objective, which is to train pastors. Toward that end, FSI supplies course electives on subjects such as Jane Austen, film and theology, and other liberal arts subjects that might seem outside the purview of the future pastor, but which can become important points of engagement with congregants. FSI does sometimes push the envelope. Perhaps because of its yeast-like size within the seminary—two professors, one small building—FSI is allowed a certain amount of freedom in pursuing its objective.

An Approach That’s Changing Lives

Recent FSI lecturer Cal DeWitt might strike some conservative Christians as something outside the norm. “In many of our churches, it is as though we were praising Rembrandt,” he says from the lectern at Covenant Seminary’s Rayburn Chapel, “while destroying one of his paintings.” He explains that he is speaking of God and His creation metaphorically. DeWitt is speaking with concern for our environment, and he supports his position from Scripture.

On this blustery November evening, 37 people sit in the audience, listening attentively—some with Bibles open, some with notebooks, one with a laptop. The science teacher from a local Christian high school is among them, studiously taking notes.

DeWitt surveys the many biblical passages that instruct humans to be good stewards of creation. DeWitt’s enthusiasm is infectious. He’s a man with a heart for God’s creation. He concludes this portion of the program with a quote from Schaeffer: “If I love the lover, I love what the lover has made… If I don’t love what the lover has made, do I really love the lover at all?” He reads it again, more slowly.

This is the first night of a weekend lecture series titled “Caretakers of God’s Creation,” which will include two other speakers, Tim Keyes and Greg Pitchford, and conclude with a field trip to Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, a 4,000 acre preserve nestled along the Mississippi north of St. Louis. Eventually the attendees will have to submit written reports to complete the requirements for attending the series.

Outside the auditorium, the lobby is flanked with folding tables covered in white tablecloths. They bear cookies, brownies, M&Ms, coffee, books and other literature for attendees to peruse when the lecture is over. After a short break, many of the attendees reconvene in the sanctuary for a Q&A session.

Even in this small sampling, the potential reach of FSI can be seen. One of the audience members has traveled from Indiana to attend the weekend lectures. Another is a businessman from the community; another, a teacher. Most of the rest are students and friends of students.

Even more are reached through the online audio archives of the Schaeffer Lectures, which can be found among the “Ministry Resources” on the seminary Web site. Within a week of DeWitt’s visit, a database search for “Caretakers” brings up MP3s of each of the weekend’s lectures. David Scott, who lives in North Carolina and attends a Reformed Baptist church, regularly downloads audio files—in fact, recently purchased an iPod to keep up with Jerram Barr’s lectures. “I like to listen to them in the car,” says Scott.

Add to this weekend a number of shorter-range programs, such as Friday Nights @ the Institute—which features evenings devoted to issues as diverse as human cloning, Sudanese genocide, biblical hospitality, creative non-fiction, Mark Twain, and heroine culture—and frequent “Movie Nights” followed by discussions, plus viewings of Francis Schaeffer’s own videotaped lectures, and it becomes apparent that FSI is doing something quite important. In concert with the normal seminary curriculum of homiletics, Greek, Hebrew, and systematics, FSI’s programs stand out as an extraordinary effort to engage people where they are.

And the approach is changing lives. Greg Pitchford, for example, has come a long way, from nearly giving up on his faith to speaking at the seminary. A fisheries biologist for the state of Missouri, he does not have the luxury of spending his working hours reading and applying Scripture.

“Five years ago I had never heard of Francis Schaeffer,” says Pitchford. “At that point in my life (age 37) I was completely disillusioned with evangelical Christianity and considered walking away from the faith. I was introduced to Schaeffer’s writings on a Reformed Web site. I Googled Francis Schaeffer and found out FSI was in St. Louis.” After a brief meeting with Bobo, Pitchford began studying under Barrs and turned a sharp corner in his thinking. He began, as he puts it, “to develop a biblical worldview that could stand up to the issues I was dealing with both inside and outside the Church.”

This, it seems, is precisely what Francis Schaeffer envisioned. He knew that people needed to see that the gospel is relevant to their experience, and not just in terms of their personal salvation and walk with the Lord. Schaeffer wanted to come alongside people in the world, befriend them, and talk intelligently with them.

Aaron Belz has written essays and reviews for Christian History, World magazine, Books and Culture, and St. Louis Magazine. He teaches English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Comments are closed.