Francis Schaeffer – An Authentic Life

Colin Duriez (2008), Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham
240 pages; £12.99.  ISBN: 978-1-84474-310-0

This book is surprisingly (because the author was once a commissioning editor for IVP) not well written.  There are too many repetitions, wittering interviews and cul-de-sac statements – indeed, it reminded me of Francis Schaeffer’s own writing!  Yet, despite these shortcomings, the book is a fascinating account of the life and times of the Rev Dr Francis August Schaeffer IV (born 30 January 1912, died 15 May 1984), first and foremost a Gospel minister, but also the author of twenty-plus books, a film maker and famously, the founder of L’Abri in Switzerland. 

I have read about ten of Schaeffer’s books (contrary to most reviewers, I think his Genesis in Space and Time is his best), seen (and presented to audiences) both of his film series and heard him speak in England and the USA.  While I would not consider myself a Schaefferite – for instance, I’ve visited, but never studied at any of the various L’Abri locations – he has influenced my thinking more than perhaps any other modern man.  His daring analyses of art, politics, music and philosophy; his dual insistence upon the need of Christ as Saviour plus the Lordship of Christ in the whole of life; his unforgettable phrases (‘true truth’, ‘existential methodology’, ‘personal peace and affluence’, among many others); his confident apologetic rooted in the Bible as well as the imminent culture, gave me a deep and enduring assurance of the truth of orthodox, evangelical Christianity during my student days and ever since.

The man with the hangdog expression, Swiss breeches and the high-pitched voice was always an easy target for his detractors.  For me, these aspects of (minor) personal unattractiveness merely served to heighten the significance of his message.  Here was no slick operator with well-honed orations.  Here was a Bible-believing man who had thought long and hard and who had laboured, often in adverse circumstances, for the benefit of his less gifted/lazier readers/hearers.  He gave a generation or two the wherewithal to stand foursquare for biblical truth and not be ashamed of their Saviour.  Where are such men today?

Duriez’s book is brimful of Schaefferite detail as well as the broad brushstrokes of his life story, which was both considerably heroic and boldly pioneering.  But you can read all of that for yourself.  Here are fourteen fascinating facets of Francis Schaeffer’s life, in approximate chronological order, which I, and maybe you, knew nothing about:

1]  After reading the Bible as a teenager, he thought he was alone in discovering its answers to his deepest nagging questions.  But on 19 August 1930, he ‘stumbled’ upon a tent meeting and realised that the preacher also knew those same answers.  He wrote in his diary that night, ‘… have decided to give my whole life to Christ unconditionally.’

2]  He suffered from severe dyslexia – so the fashion designer became Mary Quaint and the black comedy film was known as Dr Strangeglove. 

3]  He had struggled through most of his schooldays and in 1931 he started pre-ministerial studies at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.  Early on the morning of his departure from the family home, his father confronted him at the front door, ‘I don’t want a son who is a minister, and – I don’t want you to go.’  ‘Pop, give me a few moments to go down in the cellar and pray’, was his reply.  He emerged to his silently-waiting father, ‘Dad, I've got to go.’  And he did.  Years later, Schaeffer senior came to share his son's faith. 

4]  In his early years as a Christian he had been increasingly separatist, both denominationally and educationally – he left the Presbyterian Church of America for the Bible Presbyterian Church, and then Westminster Theological Seminary for Faith Theological Seminary. 

5]  He met Edith Seville (whom he married in 1935) during his first summer vacation – they were mutually intrigued and she soon encouraged him to read Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen.  After graduating in June 1935, he entered the ‘new’ Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, with its staff from the ‘dead’ Princeton Seminary, including Machen, Van Til, Kuiper, Stonehouse and Woolley. 

6]  As a married man, he never owned a car. 

7]  He had three pastorates in the USA – Grove City, Pennsylvania (three years long), Chester, on the Delaware River (less than two years) and St Louis (five years).  During those years, he and Edith developed Summer Bible Schools and a so-called Miracle Book Club in their home – these were the forerunners of their Children for Christ work, which eventually took them to Europe. 

8]  He was five feet and six inches tall. 

9]  He initially visited Europe on a three-month fact-finding tour in 1947 for two principal reasons.  First, to expand the evangelistic Children for Christ work and second, because he was deeply concerned about European theological liberalism – neo-orthodoxy – which was infecting America.  The rigours of the tour almost broke his health.  The following year, 1948, the Schaeffers (including their daughters, Priscilla, Susan and Deborah), moved to Holland and then to Switzerland. 

10]  His characteristic L’Abri-style Q & A sessions started with visiting students from nearby Swiss finishing schools and later with one of his daughter’s University of Lausanne friends. 

11]  In 1955, Schaeffer resigned from the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions and thus became a ‘freelance evangelist’.  The same year the family moved into a new home, Chalet les Mélèzes, which they renamed as L’Abri, at Huémoz, over 3000 feet above sea level. 

12]  He corresponded and eventually met, argued and still disagreed with Karl Barth at the latter's home. 

13]  He never planned to produce any of his books, tapes or films. 

14]  When he got away from the pressure of work, he loved to relax at an espresso bar, walk a city’s streets in the early hours, eat at a little restaurant and enjoy the live music.

And the rest is, by and large, well-known history punctuated by several key events, such as the crisis of his ‘hayloft experience’ during the early 1950s, which left an indelible God-given mark on the rest of his life; the expansion of L’Abri into the L’Abri Fellowship International, which today exists in ten countries. and finally, the cancer, which was first detected in 1978 and which finally killed him six years later.  During those last years he fought death as the last enemy and he continued to write extensively, including the revision of his five-volume Complete Works, he also gave seminars, and he again turned to the great theme of the authority and inerrancy of the Bible with his last book, written with dying energy, The Great Evangelical Disaster.  For him, this issue was not merely academic or even theological, but rather it was centred on obeying the Book.  Francis Schaeffer was a man who sought to live that obedient life.  It is what Duriez calls in his book’s subtitle, An Authentic Life.


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