Jerram Barrs is professor of Christian Studies and Contemporary Culture at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is also resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. In 1967 Barrs worked as a cook and gardener for Edith Schaeffer at L’Abri in Switzerland. There, he met and soon married Vicki Buxman, Francis Schaeffer’s secretary, who worked on Schaeffer’s personal correspondence and typed the manuscripts for Escape from Reason and The God Who is There. “The Schaeffers,” Barrs says, “both had a significant impact on me.”

Recently, after presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann cited Schaeffer as an influence on her life and thinking, Schaeffer has come under attack, both in The New Yorker and on NPR. Given Barrs’ close relationship with the Schaeffers, byFaith asked him to comment on these criticisms.

Many readers of byFaith have either seen or heard of the article by writer Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on Michele Bachmann that was critical of Francis Schaeffer. Some also have heard about the interview with Lizza on NPR. Others have seen the two thoughtful responses by Ross Douthat to Lizza’s attack on Schaeffer, both of which were printed in The New York Times. [See links to these and several related articles below.]

Following are the explicit criticisms and charges that Lizza made against Francis Schaeffer. The article presents a kind of “guilt by association,” so that the reader’s impression is that all the views Lizza puts forward as influences on Michele Bachmann’s thinking come from a group of people who share common convictions about a whole series of subjects: Christian belief in the Bible; Christian faith; Christians who write about government, law, and education; Christians convinced that Christ should be Lord in all of life; Christians seeking to impact society; Christians rejecting evolution … .  The effect of Lizza’s approach is that a reader who knows little or nothing about Schaeffer may come away from the interview on NPR or the article in The New Yorker deeply distressed about the kind of man Schaeffer was and the sort of views that he held and taught.

Charges Against Schaeffer

1. Lizza presents Schaeffer as a “Dominionist;” indeed, Lizza argues that Schaeffer was “a major contributor to the school of thought now known as Dominionism, which relies on Genesis 1:26, where man is urged to ‘have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’” By Dominionism, a name which will be unfamiliar to most readers of byFaith, Lizza is referring to Theonomy or Reconstructionism, a view held by Rousas John Rushdoony, a theologian often credited with being “the father of Christian Reconstructionism.” Apparently the term Dominionist was created by a sociologist named Sylvia Diamond and it appeared in her book, Spiritual Warfare, published in 1989.

2. Lizza declares that as a fundamental part of his Dominionist convictions Schaeffer believed that “Christians, and Christians alone, are biblically mandated to occupy all secular institutions until Christ returns.” (This quote is taken from Sylvia Diamond.)

3. Lizza charges Schaeffer with encouraging Christians to engage in civil disobedience, up to the level of violent overthrow of the United States government, if ordinary political and legal means do not enable us to overturn Roe v. Wade and so end the killing of unborn babies. Lizza writes,  “In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published A Christian Manifesto, a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.”

To answer these and several other implicit charges against Schaeffer, I will simply offer a personal account of what I heard Schaeffer say about these various subjects on numerous occasions. 

Was Schaeffer a Dominionist, Theonomist, or Christian Reconstructionist? He was not. He spoke about this subject on numerous occasions and wrote against the idea of a theocracy with great care in The Christian Manifesto. He did believe, of course, that God has given the human race dominion over the earth, and he argued from that text in Genesis 1:26-28 that believers should indeed seek to live all of life under the Lordship of Christ. However, he believed that dominion has been given to all humans, Christian and non-Christian alike, and he delighted in the gifts and exercise of dominion in both the arts and the sciences that we see in every human society.

Schaeffer believed that dominion has been given to all humans, Christian and non-Christian alike, and he delighted in the gifts and exercise of dominion in both the arts and the sciences that we see in every human society.

Did Schaeffer believe that only Christians should occupy all positions of authority in all secular institutions throughout this age? He did not. Schaeffer happily honored, gladly received, and cheerfully benefited from the skills of unbelievers who worked in many different kinds of secular institutions. Because Schaeffer believed so passionately that all persons are made in the image of God he was thankful for all right thinking, all practical wisdom, all faithful work in any area of human life, whether that thinking, wisdom, or work came from Christians or non-Christians.

Did Schaeffer advocate violent overthrow of the U.S. government, because of Roe v. Wade? He did not. Schaeffer often spoke about the need for political protest and for using all proper political and legal means to overturn the abortion laws. He also urged Christians to be ready to engage in civil disobedience about Roe v. Wade if that became necessary when all other attempts had failed. However, he was careful to argue for the kind of peaceful civil disobedience that was practiced by Martin Luther King over civil rights issues; and he spoke and wrote passionately against acts of violence over abortion laws. 

It is true that he believed that revolution could be appropriate in extreme circumstances, and he believed this for several reasons. First, he was convinced that the Bible teaches the overthrow of wicked governments (see the account of the end of the reign of Ahab and Jezebel as an example). Second, he knew that Calvin and the whole Reformed heritage had taught that revolution against tyrants is an obligation for those whom Calvin refers to as “the lower magistrates.” Third, he personally believed that the American Revolution was a justified revolution (as I am sure, almost all those reading this article do, and as almost all Americans do of whatever political persuasion).

The next three points represent my response to implicit criticisms that Lizza makes of Schaeffer using his “guilt by association” approach.

Was Schaeffer opposed to religious and intellectual freedom? He was not. I remember him saying with great vehemence: “I will disagree with you; but I will die for your right to disagree with me.” He said this so strongly that it often surprised and even shocked people. He believed fervently in religious and intellectual freedom. He believed that God respects our choices, and he believed that we are called to respect the choices and beliefs of others. He believed that religious and intellectual freedom were friends of the gospel of Christ. He argued that Christians do not need, and must not demand, for the state to uphold the Christian faith or Christian churches. He was opposed passionately to any union of church and state.

Was Schaeffer a man who believed in a conspiracy theory of a left-wing, secular humanist, liberal secret takeover of society? He was not. What he did believe was that “as a man thinks, so he is.” He was confident that it is true ideas that set people free (as Jesus teaches in John 8:32), and that false ideas will bring enslavement and destruction to any human society.

Was Schaeffer a pro-slavery racist who believed that the Confederacy was a Christian society? No, he was not. Schaeffer hated racism of every kind. His life personally from his earliest years as a Christian was a testimony against racism. He welcomed people of every race to L’Abri. I remember him performing very gladly the wedding ceremony of two friends: one a young English woman who was white, the other a young American man who was black. He received much criticism for this, criticism that he dismissed as ungodly nonsense. He spoke against the abomination of the slave trade and slavery, and he made only criticisms of the history of slavery in the United States.

I trust the above brief responses to Lizza’s charges against Francis Schaeffer will convince byFaith readers that the charges were unfounded. Those who wish to explore Schaeffer’s views in detail should read what he had to say on these subjects. Here is a list of recommended reading:

The Christian Manifesto, How Should We Then Live, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, Death in the City, The God Who Is There

Following is a list of the websites containing Lizza’s original article and interview, and also the responses by Douthat, Nancy Pearcey, and others:

New Yorker article

NPR interview

New York Times columnist’s first response

New York Times columnist’s second response

Dangerous Influences: The New Yorker, Michele Bachmann, and Me, by Nancy Pearcey 08/12/2011

A very thoughtful article posted by Byron Borger on August 20, 2011:
Schaeffer, Pearcey, The New Yorker, and American Grace (and other good books on faith and the public square)