Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality

Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality


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Exploring the views of Francis Schaeffer on the Christian life, Edgar helps readers strive after the same kind of marriage of thought and life, of orthodoxy and love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433531392
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 02/28/2013
Series: Theologians on the Christian Life Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.10(d)

About the Author

William Edgar (DTheol, University of Geneva) is professor of apologetics and John Boyer Chair of Evangelism and Culture at Westminster Theological Seminary. William lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Barbara. They have two children and three grandchildren.

Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He has written over twenty books and is an editor of the Theologians on the Christian Life series. He also hosts the weekly podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.

Justin Taylor (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher at Crossway. He has edited and contributed to several books, including A God-Entranced Vision of All Things and Reclaiming the Center, and he blogs at Between Two Worlds—hosted by the Gospel Coalition.

Read an Excerpt



Schaeffer might be dismissed as a scholar or even original thinker (though it can be argued he was both, but particularly the latter), but his realistic, existential Christianity is remarkable and perhaps unique for someone of his biblical orthodoxy in his generation and is the secret, perhaps, of his impact on many people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities.


First Impressions

I hopped off the mail bus on a warm afternoon in July 1964, having asked the driver, "Arrêtez-vous, s'il vous plaît, à L'Abri." The name L'Abri means "The Shelter," and it was first coined by Francis Schaeffer in Champéry, the village in Switzerland where the family had lived before relocating to Huémoz-sur-Ollon, a tiny village in the Protestant canton de Vaud. The name is based on Psalm 91:1:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

I was unaware of any of the history of this magical place, arriving at the Schaeffers' door as a rising college junior, aged nineteen.

My whole life was about to change. I was not a believer at the time and so was unaware of many of the claims for the Christian view of the world. Yet, thanks to a man named Joe Brown, I had become intrigued and was open to hearing about spiritual matters in a way I had never been before. A marvelous instructor at Harvard College, Harold O. J. Brown (1933–2007), presented the glories of the Christian faith to his classes during the academic year 1963–1964. By the spring Joe and I had become good friends. He saw that I was spiritually hungry, and he urged me to visit his friend Francis Schaeffer over the summer, in the hopes that I could learn more about the same worldview that he had labored to commend in his lectures. Indeed, as I would soon learn, he really sent me there in the hopes that I could embrace the Christian faith.

Joe was a teaching assistant for a large course in the history of Western epic and drama, known affectionately as "Hum 2" by the students. The main lecturer was the legendary John Finley, crafter of America's postwar general education approach to university studies. As an article about him in the Harvard Crimson put it, in appearance he combined the best traits of Henry James's English gentleman and Robert Frost's New England farmer. His concern was that a person was not truly educated if he became so specialized that he lost sight of the big picture, including issues such as meaning, fulfillment, and human flourishing. This meant students had to be much more aware than they typically were of Western history and traditional humanistic values.

Hum 2 was a large class, and so for practical reasons it was broken down into smaller groups, called sections. Here students could have a more personalized access to the material. Our section instructor was Joe, who was working in the History Department of the graduate school, writing his dissertation on Laski (Johannes Alasco), the Polish reformer of the sixteenth century. Joe was unabashed (though tactful), even brilliant, in his presentation of evangelical Christianity in contrast to various worldviews held by the ancient Greeks or the modern absurdists. All of it was new and immensely fascinating to me, a young man in my late teens. Joe and I became friends and had many long conversations about matters of faith and life.

So, on the strength of Joe's recommendation, as I traveled through Europe with my brother and a backpack full of essentials, I looked for a chance to check out Francis Schaeffer. In mid-July my brother returned to the States. Now on my own, I took the train down from Zürich, where we had been visiting a colleague of our dad's, to the beautiful city of Lausanne, on the shore of Lake Geneva. I had called in advance and got Mrs. Schaeffer on the phone. She could not have been more welcoming and said that Joe Brown was their good friend. He had no doubt alerted them to my possible visit. She invited me to stay for the weekend, which was a bit curious to me but very agreeable.

The day was Saturday, and I had some time to kill, so on the way to L'Abri I visited the Lausanne Expo 1964, a fascinating display of technology and economic opportunities, couched in the culture of the Cold War. The Swiss architect Marc Saugey had the idea of using large tents for a major part of the Lausanne exhibition. They were meant to symbolize the Swiss Alps with their snow and rocks. They involved membrane structures swinging about and housing artistic and futuristic technological offerings.

After the visit to the expo, I caught the train over to Aigle, a sprawling town at the foot of the Chablais Alps, just beyond the lake to the east. Then, I switched to a cog railroad train up the steep mountain to the small town of Ollon. Perfectly timed, the mail bus then stopped at the station to pick up passengers on their way to Villars, a lovely ski town at the very summit. Huémoz, a tiny village situated at 2,160 feet above sea level, is about halfway to Villars. On the bus's steering wheel was a knob, used by the driver to swing his way around and up the considerably winding road with no shoulders, as he somehow managed to avoid tumbling down the precipitous hills below. The air was pure and the weather temperate, even in the middle of the summer. A couple of other students headed for L'Abri were on the bus with me. Anticipation and some nervousness inhabited my youthful soul. But these were the 1960s. I was on a most excellent adventure!

It was all quite astonishing. At the stop in Huémoz we were greeted by Coxie Priester, Dr. Schaeffer's secretary, who remains my good friend to this day. Right away Coxie asked whether I was a Christian. I wasn't sure, so I told her the question was ambiguous. With a twinkle she remarked that the answer was ambiguous, not the question. I would soon find out how right she was. I walked up the stairs to the main house, "Les Mélèzes," a magnificent old-fashioned Swiss chalet, lined, as the name suggested, with timberline larches. The building boasted two large balconies, several bedrooms, a spacious living room downstairs, and a small but functional kitchen. I was invited to enter the living room, where we were to help prepare Sunday's dinner. A young woman handed me a brown bag filled with peas in their pods, and asked if I could help remove them. The procedure took a while, as we would be feeding at least forty people. But the time passed easily because our hosts played a tape for us while we worked.

Some readers may remember the reel-to-reel tape machines we had back then. There was loud clicking whenever a section was replayed. In this case the lecturer sounded like a highly qualified woman, who was expounding on existentialism. This was a good test for me of L'Abri's authenticity, as I had actually read a good deal in this philosophy and indeed fancied myself an existentialist in the tradition of my hero, Albert Camus. Having grown up in France in the 1950s, I had gravitated toward this prophet of the absurd and was fairly convinced of his approach to life and to human justice. The speaker carefully contrasted Camus with Jean-Paul Sartre and rather impressed me with her knowledge. I had been wary of Sartre's darker approach to life and was glad to hear the lecturer side with Camus. Then she brought in the "religious" existentialists. I cannot remember which names were used. For me the outstanding exponent of religious existentialism was Paul Claudel, the Roman Catholic playwright and philosopher. However, the speaker was most concerned with Søren Kierkegaard, which she pronounced "Kerkigard" and dubbed the father of modern existentialism. I was less sure about this attribution but listened on.

Boiling it down, the Danish theologian's views were summarized as an invitation to an irrational "leap of faith." That was the basis for everything that followed, much of which was a quite negative description of the current intellectual climate. The lecturer went on to discuss a larger consideration of what was called "the existentialist methodology," an approach embraced by both philosophers and theologians. Life in this view was dichotomized between a "lower story" and an "upper story," so that matters of faith were thought to be beyond reason's reach. I was deeply impressed, though I could hardly grasp it all.

Strangely, it turned out that the lecturer was none other than Francis Schaeffer! He did have a rather high-pitched voice, but the recording made him sound quite like a woman. The content was riveting. Not only the linear analysis of trends leading to existentialism and beyond, but the vivid illustrations too were captivating.

After the peas were all removed from their pods, I went outside. Along came the man himself. I knew right away who he was, even though I had never seen a picture of him. His face was radiant. Slightly wrinkled, his visage communicated the weight of many years, years of suffering and of pondering deeply, and yet also a fundamental joy. He was fifty-two at the time. He came right up to me, obviously knowing who I was, and extended his hand for a warm greeting. I'll never forget his broad smile, so full of kindness. He was genuinely glad to see me. I felt right at home in this strange and wonderful place. Joe had not prepared me for any of this, probably wisely so. But I couldn't wait to get to know Dr. Schaeffer better and find out what the magic was.

That evening we had a cookout — American hot dogs. There I met some remarkable people, mostly non-Americans. They were at various stages of religious understanding, some from a Christian background, but many of them "seekers" (as we would later call them). One of my new friends was Jonathan Bragdon, Edith's nephew, who was at L'Abri out of curiosity for what this branch of the family had created. His mother had become a Taylorite, part of the extremist wing of the Plymouth Brethren. It called for radical separation from anyone who held to the slightest variant of the true faith. Mrs. Bragdon had even "disfellowshiped" her own husband. Needless to say, this view was not working for Jonathan. He was, and is, a practicing painter. He was quite taken with Paul Klee (1879–1940), someone whose work I loved very much. Since I was studying music at Harvard and had a strong interest in aesthetics, we enjoyed extended conversations about the arts. I had never thought of this subject from a Christian point of view, but soon would be regularly connecting faith to the arts.

After the meal, following cleanup, we went into the living room for the Saturday night discussion group. In fact, "discussion" meant someone would ask a question, and then Dr. Schaeffer would answer it, often taking a good long time to construct his response. We all arrived a bit weary from the day's adventures and sat cross-legged on the floor; then after a bit of a wait, Fran walked in. He greeted various ones, then sat down on a quaint little red stool Edith had made from a barrel, and opened with, "Yes, then, who would like to begin?" He almost always began his discourses with "yes, then," or "well, then," followed by the subject at hand. That night, most of the discussion revolved around the subject of prayer.

I had never heard anything remotely like this. The only prayers I knew about were from the Episcopal liturgy said every day in my boarding-school chapel services. Most of us chapel attendees either did not listen or pretended not to listen. In point of fact, those prayers were actually embedded in my psyche somewhere, so that when I did come to faith, they came up to the surface and, I am sure, helped me progress more rapidly than if I had never heard them. Here at L'Abri, prayer was not a ritual. It was utterly real. Prayer was practiced as though, were there no God, this would have been the most absurd performance possible. Schaeffer continued for a good long time, explaining that when we prayed, God heard. Indeed, God perfected our "poor prayers" and made them acceptable to himself. Then God would answer. Sometimes the answer was affirmative, giving us what we had asked. Often, though, the answer was in a different direction from what we had intended, but always for our greater good.

Schaeffer gave some moving examples about the effectiveness of prayer. For instance, on an airplane trip he took to the States, two engines on the same wing failed. The plane descended rapidly until it was just about to crash into the waves, when suddenly the power came back on. Schaeffer had been praying, he explained. So had his family back home, having heard a newsflash on the radio about a struggling plane. There was a sort of prayer triangle, he argued — plane-to-God, home-to-God, and then the answer, God-to-plane. On the way out, Schaeffer greeted the astonished pilot, who could find no reason for the sudden reigniting. "Prayer," Fran affirmed confidently. Of course, I did not absorb or fully understand all of this. It was all too new and quite exotic for me. I would later understand that the Holy Spirit was prompting me, moving me toward the Savior. But for now, it was simply something from another world.

After the long evening of discussion on prayer as well as a few other topics, someone was asked to close in prayer. A sleepy-eyed student came to and uttered some sort of parting words of thanksgiving. Then Schaeffer got up, headed straight my way, and said something a bit strange, but which made perfect sense in retrospect. He told me he was not preaching the next day, so he would not be completely exhausted after the morning worship. He could therefore spend some time with me before lunch. Please, could I think of a key question I needed to ask concerning the faith when I came for this visit? I went to bed cogitating on what my question might be. I am somewhat ashamed to say it was a sophisticated-sounding version of so what? I think my formulation was something like this: what is the relevance of this Christian faith, even if it could be proved to be true?

The next day we held a church service. Again, I had never experienced anything like this. Chairs were brought in to the Les Mélèzes living room, where we had enjoyed the discussion the night before. We sat there and, after some opening words, began to sing Bach chorales in four-part harmony. How good could it get? As a music student, I had spent two years at Harvard analyzing Bach. Indeed, a thorough knowledge of these chorales was a prerequisite for our theory courses. And here we were, not studying them but singing them, and believing them. Then came the message. Ranald Macaulay, today my dear friend, preached in his kilt, the Macaulay tartan. It was a stirring sermon about reconciling Paul and James on their apparent differences over the relation of justification and good works. Rather than withdrawing or cynically thinking, so glad he's excited about this, I tried to enter into the issue and the arguments. Over an hour later, Ranald appeared to have concluded, and he certainly convinced me, even though I did not know much about what was involved. Only later, in theological seminary, would I be introduced at the scholarly level to the conundrum about the book of James's rhetorical arguments concerning salvation by good works. My professors confirmed that Paul and James were on the same page. But I already knew this, through Ranald!

So then the moment arrived. I made my way upstairs to the little chamber outside the bedrooms where Francis Schaeffer liked to counsel people. With that same profound face, its warm grin, and the clear sense that he really cared about me as well as the issues we needed to discuss, he asked whether I had thought of my question. I spouted out my question about relevance, and he came back with an extensive, thoughtful reply. His answer included the "free-will defense" for the problem of evil, and the importance of human significance, owing to our being made after God's image. We went back and forth. After a couple of hours, I just knew this was all true. If it is possible to feel the Holy Spirit come into one's heart, I could, and I did. I was a Christian!

Fran then directed me to pray, which I had never done, at least in any sort of personal manner. What should I say, I asked? Just "thank you" will do very nicely, he replied. So, my face bathed in tears, I thanked the good Lord for leading me into his family. Fran frequently accompanied my phrases with groans of agreement, which I would later learn is a standard evangelical way of praying together. He then prayed for me, and we prayed together for Joe and for many other things we seemed to care about mutually.

Less than twenty-four hours after my arrival at L'Abri my life was completely turned upside down. Or was it right side up? I went down to the marvelous Sunday lunch, complete with my fresh peas, served outside on a large table that could fit at least thirty people. A rather long grace was said. I would have to get used to smelling the excellent savors of the great cooking at L'Abri while the praying person went from Genesis to Revelation, then the cosmos, then the rich and the poor, and so on. During the meal, more wonderful conversation ensued. Most of us who frequented L'Abri in those days would likely affirm that we learned more around the table, or during the walks afterward, than in the official seminars, good as they were. I decided I desperately needed to stay here longer. I asked Fran if that were possible. Well, he said, they were unusually crowded: thirty- five students plus staff. But he would see what he could do. Little did any of us know that a few years later the Vaudois government would have to put a cap on the community at 130 people!


Excerpted from "Schaeffer on the Christian Life"
by .
Copyright © 2013 William Edgar.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Series Preface 11

Preface 13

1 A Personal Introduction to Francis Schaeffer 17

Part 1 The Man and His Times

2 The Journey to L'Abri 39

3 L'Abri and Beyond 61

Part 2 True Spirituality

4 Fundamentals 81

5 Freedom in the Christian Life 97

6 Applications 109

Part 3 Trusting God for All of Life

7 Prayer and Guidance 125

8 Affliction 139

9 Life in the Church 147

10 Engaging the World 167

Afterword: Concluding Reflections on Francis Schaeffer 189

Appendix: Titles in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer 193

General Index 195

Scripture Index 205

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Friendly, passionate, intellectual, and constantly engaged with people as well as ideas and contemporary affairs, Francis Schaeffer comes alive in Edgar's objective but affectionate portrait. Rescued from the distortions of both lionisers and demonizers, here is 'FAS' as so many of us knew him in the great years of L'Abri—and with so much to contribute to our world today."
Os Guinness, author, The Call

“This book by Dr. Edgar on countercultural spirituality is much needed as a trustworthy guide in the dark confusion of the postmodern world.”
Wim Rietkerk, Chairman, L’Abri Fellowship International Board of Trustees

“An engaging, fascinating account, seasoned with unusual insight into one of the truly original apologists of our time.”
David F. Wells, Senior Distinguished Research Professor of Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

“For many years I hoped that I could spend some time at L’Abri, but that was not God’s plan for me. Instead, God enabled me to become friends with many L’Abri alumni, of whom Bill Edgar was one. I have been impressed with the intellectual caliber of those men and women, but even more with their godly character. L’Abri evidently had a way of leading people from intellectual atheism, to conversion, to spiritual maturity. Bill’s book focuses, more than other L’Abri books, on theis process of what we now call spiritual formation. The whole church can learn much from it. I commend this excellent book to all hwo seek to draw nearer to God.”
John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary

“Francis Schaeffer was small of stature but a giant in his tenacious concern for truth, for God, for people, and for reality. He became convinced that Christian faith was the radical path for our own day, the realistic answer to the hard questions of a modern, troubled world. William Edgar’s compulsively readable study of Francis Schaeffer’s thought is set in the context of his rough-edged life and his brilliantly-inspired work in the L’Abri community he established with his remarkable wife, Edith. L’Abri, perched high on the slopes of a remote alpine valley, drew a motley procession of mainly young travellers from the ends of the earth. Schaeffer’s own, sometimes anguished, quest to communicate the ancient biblical text in a century of unprecedented historical changes attracted and opened doors for a generation of Christians. It also convinced many outside the faith with honest questions (like Bill Edgar himself) to follow the way of Christ. This engaging book captures the fire of Francis Schaeffer’s thought and concerns, and revisits and reinvigorates the still urgent challenge he presented to the church in the modern world.”
Colin Duriez, author, C. S. Lewis: A Biography of Friendship and Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship

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