Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

Barry Hankins. Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America Eerdmans, 2008.

Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University, in this cleanly written and remarkably objective short biography of Francis Schaeffer, the so-called evangelist to intellectuals, divides Schaeffer’s public live into three distinct stages. One’s feelings about Schaeffer and his impact on “evangelical America” might be closely related to which of these stages the reader is most interested in.

The first stage would be of interest to those who want to know about one important element of the intense fundamentalist reaction toward and separation from mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States (and the subsequent conflicts among the separatist fundamentalists, especially those in the Presbyterian tradition).  The young Francis Schaeffer (he was born in 1912) began his seminary studies in 1935 at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Schaeffer’s home town). Westminster had been started in 1929 by the prominent and militantly conservative  New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen in direct opposition to what Machen and his collaborators saw as in intolerable drift toward liberalism on the part of the flagship Presbyterian seminary at Princeton.

Schaeffer studied at Westminster for two years, a time of increasing tensions within the Westminster community that culminated at Machen’s death in 1937 when another splinter seminary was formed. This new school, called Faith Seminary, was led by disenchanted Westminster faculty Allen MacRae and the infamous Carl McIntire. Schaeffer was Faith’s first student, first graduate, and was the first minister ordained in a new demonination formed by MacRae and McIntire known as the Bible Presbyterian Church.  This new group, according to Schaeffer, felt especially concerned about three issues: Westminster was seen as too extreme in its commitment to Calvinism, Westminster was too tolerant concerning the use of alcohol, and Westminster was amillennial rather than premillennial.

Between 1938 and 1948, Schaeffer served several Bible Presbyterian congregations as pastor, joining wholeheartedly in the efforts of Bible Presbyterian leaders to persuade like-minded congregations to leave the mainstream Presbyterian denominations and join with them.  He emerged as a rising star in this context, but in time felt fairly battered by the constant conflict such an approach to Christian faith seemingly required.

So when the opportunity arose in 1948 to move his family to Switzerland and undertake the task of helping to reintroduce doctrinally “orthodox” Christianity into western Europe, the exhausted young pastor accepted the call. During the 1950s, the Schaeffers struggled to make their way. Francis did find the opportunity to engage Europe’s most prominent Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in a brief dialogue. Schaeffer managed to alienate Barth fairly quickly, leading to a note from Barth calling an end to the “conversation.” Barth believed that Schaeffer had basically accused him of being a heretic, devoid of truth and logic, so what was the point of dialogue?  “The heretic has been burnt and buried for good,” Barth wrote. “Rejoice, dear Mr. Schaeffer (and you calling your-selves ‘fundamentalists’ all over the world)! Rejoice and go on to believe in your ‘logics’ and in your-selves as the only true ‘bible-believing’ people! Shout so loudly as you can! But, pray, allow me, to let you alone” (page 39).

By the summer of 1954, Schaeffer came to the end of his relationship with Carl McIntire and the Bible Presbyterian Church. The bitter break led to a loss of financial support from and formal connection with the church agencies that had sent Schaeffer to Europe. Out of this turmoil came the opportunity to begin an independent ministry, L’Abri. This constitutes the second stage in Schaeffer’s career–Hankins terms it “The Making of a European Evangelical” in distinction from the first stage, “The Making of an American Fundamentalist.”

The ministry of L’Abri led to a quite different focus for Schaeffer. Rather than struggling over the creation and sustenance of a doctrinally pure church over against other Christians, Schaeffer’s attention now was focused on offering hospitality and witness to young people, many of whom were not Christians. In this context, Schaeffer developed his apologetic approach, meant to persuade these non-Christians of the truthfulness of the faith and to lead to their conversion.

Schaeffer’s effectiveness with this work led to the gradual growth of L’Abri and of his reputation. Part of his appeal was the sincere effort to provide a non-judgmental, empathetic presence for young people struggling with hope and meaning.  Part of the appeal, added to significantly by Edith Schaeffer, was practical love and care shown to the ever-growing number of visitors. However, as Hankins suggests, part of the appeal of the Schaeffer ministry also stemmed from underlying certainty in the truthfulness of the message being delivered. Schaeffer’s break with McIntire really had nothing to do with the general theology of Presbyterian fundamentalism–especially the insistence on the perfect errorlessness (“inerrancy”) of the Bible and the utter rejection of the validity of “liberal” Christianity.

Schaeffer’s big breakthrough came with the idea to transcribe his lectures for publication. The books that resulted, in particular his “trilogy” (Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, and He Is There and Is Not Silent) became a bit of a sensation. They gained wide circulation among North American evangelical Christians, expanding Schaeffer’s ministry greatly–and changing the focus a bit from encounters with European atheists and agnostics more to working with doubting Christians and former Christians from North America who made the pilgrimage to L’Abri.

The third and final stage in Hankins’ story comes when Schaeffer moved from books to film in an attempt to expand his audience. How Should We Then Live?, a film series and an accompanying book that sought to provide an analysis of Western culture in service of Christian apologetics did indeed expand Schaeffer’s audience and signaled a whole new focus for his ministry. His filmmaker son Franky persuaded him to enter into North American controversies such as the struggle over biblical inerrancy and the conflict over abortion.

This entry into these issues moved Schaeffer into the political arena with both feet–and aligned him closely with the emerging Christian Right. In fact, Franky (now Frank), in his recent memoir, Crazy for God (reviewed here), makes a not far-fetched claim that his father’s final three works (How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, and A Christian Manifesto) and their attendant conferences and publicity combined with overt efforts to expand the Schaeffers’ network of allies (which included links with “co-belligerents” such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye) served as one of the founding impulses in the emergence of the Christian Right as a major political force in the United States (Frank came greatly to regret his role in this process).

Francis Schaeffer became a kind of superstar in conservative Christian circles–becoming friends with Presidents Ford and, especially, Reagan. Schaeffer suggested that Reagan’s election provided a providential “window of opportunity” for politicized Christians to move the US back to its Christian foundations via, among other things, legislation to criminalize abortion. Schaeffer contracted cancer and died in 1984, so we don’t know what his assessment of the Reagan administration might have been, but it’s hard to imagine he would not have been disappointed.

Hankins, who treats Schaeffer with a great deal of sympathy throughout the book, suggests that when looked at now in retrospect, these three stages in Schaeffer’s career provide a fairly coherent whole. During the third stage, many of those who had been ministered to through L’Abri and Schaeffer’s early books (including several such as theologian Clark Pinnock and historian Ronald Wells who went on to prominence as evangelical scholars and teachers), came sharply to critique what seemed to them a shift toward a much more militant and fundamentalist orientation. In Hankins’ telling, though, the main difference between stage two and stage three was simply the move toward a more overtly political focus–indeed a significant shift that transformed the nature of Schaeffer’s audience, but not one reflecting any philosophical or theological changes.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Schaeffer phenomenon. Any criticisms I could mention would be minor–the book is well-written, based on solid research, and tells a fascinating and coherent story. My main regret is simply that the book is too short. It is part of a series of biographies on various religious figures and clearly was required to fit in lengthwise with other books in the series.

Reading this book certainly triggered a lot of memories and reflections for me. I encountered Schaeffer’s work about the time he was making the transition from stage two to stage three. During the summer of 1975, I joined a new church and immediately became immersed in a book study group that was working through Schaeffer’s trilogy. At that point I was a self-identified fundamentalist who very much lived in a dualistic world–my Christian faith on Sunday and college studies during the week. Schaeffer’s message to me was to bring these worlds together. I swallowed that message hook, line, and sinker, and in many ways the course of the rest of my life was set.

During my senior year in college I read everything Schaeffer had published plus numerous other writings from his L’Abri colleagues such as Os Guinness, Udo Middelmann, and Hans Rookmaaker. About this time I also encountered Anabaptist writers, especially John Howard Yoder. For a brief time these two schools of thought vied for my allegiance. Very quickly, though, Yoder won a decisive victory over Schaeffer. The key issue was his attention to the story of Jesus and his utterly persuasive case for the present-day normativity for Christians of Jesus’ politics. I came to see in Schaeffer just another version of political Constantinianism and a theological (or Christological) evasion of the core elements of Jesus’ message (including, at its heart, pacifism).

By the Spring of 1977, I was ready to leave Schaeffer behind. The process was accelerated with the film series How Should We Then Live? I co-taught a course at the University of Oregon on this series right after it was released. I have learned that the best way to become aware of the weaknesses in scholarly works is to teach them. That certainly was the case with this book and film. As we taught the class, I became increasingly disenchanted with Schaeffer’s perspective and his tendency to make highly questionable generalizations and fit everything into his apologetic box. I had numerous debates with my co-teachers, and in the end I was through with Schaeffer. When he followed up this project by moving much further to the Right politically and joining with some of the most obnoxious Christian and political leaders in our country, I realized his true colors were becoming ever more apparent.

Hankins’ book helps me understand better my experiences and perceptions of Schaeffer–and confirms most of them. As I said above, Hankins writes with great objectivity and sympathy–there is nothing here to suggest any motivation to attack Schaeffer. But he is a good enough historian to give us the information we need to assess Schaeffer’s career for ourselves.

Several elements of the story jumped out for me. I knew a bit about Schaeffer’s connection with the arch-separatist Carl McIntire, who had become quite an embarrassment by the end of his long life. It was interesting and revealing to learn how closely Schaeffer worked for McIntire and for how long they remained close allies. Schaeffer certainly remained utterly hostile toward anything that sniffed of theological liberalism throughout his career. This hostility seems especially problematic given that many of the elements of Schaeffer’s critique of anti-human aspects of Western culture have a lot of truth to them. But his antipathy toward fellow Christians who would share that critique and want to work to bring healing in our culture undermined his efforts tremendously.

A classic case, which I alluded to above, is Schaeffer’s attitude toward Karl Barth. On any reasonable theological spectrum, Barth stands pretty far to the right, pretty strongly founded on the biblical message, and pretty affirmative of the theological tradition (i.e., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et al). But Schaeffer did treat Barth as an arch-heretic, a thinker firmly below the “line of despair” who consistently leads Christians astray.

A telling comment by Hankins, which he brings up almost in passing and does not emphasize at all, puts this in perspective. “It is highly unlikely that Schaeffer ever actually read Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the other modern thinkers he would later critique in his lectures and books.  It is doubtful that he even read Barth in depth.  Schaeffer’s knowledge of these thinkers was superficial….[He] was a voracious reader of magazines and the Bible, but some who lived at L’Abri and knew him well say they never saw him read a book” (page 43).

Hankins does not go into much detail about Schaeffer’s rationale for his uncompromising stance on biblical inerrancy and his rejection of the theory of evolution. These stances were front and center through all stages of Schaeffer’s career and certainly mark him as a fundamentalist and even as, in some basic ways, anti-intellectual.

The one account of Schaeffer’s intellectual shallowness that Hankins tells in some depth is quite revealing. Schaeffer’s final book, A Christian Manifesto, centered on Schaeffer’s long-standing assertion of the United States as originally a fundamentally Christian nation. This was part of his critique of how we had lost our bearings as a culture due to losing the original Christian element. Two of evangelicalism’s most accomplished historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, challenged Schaeffer’s reading. Noll, especially, patiently devoted a great deal of time to respectfully arguing his case in a series of letter exchanges with Schaeffer. Despite being unable to marshal any evidence to support his argument, Schaeffer refused to budge–implying that the present cultural war required his argument, regardless of the evidence.

My impression, based in part on my own experience and in part on reading Hankins’ book as well as numerous other pieces over the years, is that Schaeffer (even if poorly grounded) provided evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s and 1970s with inspiration to enter the intellectual life. For some, this inspiration opened doors to a lifetime of learning and working to intergrate faith and scholarship. Perhaps he deserves our appreciation for this. However, given the enormity of his influence in encouraging powerful anti-intellectual dynamics among Christians and a politics of division and coercion that culminated in the disaster of the George W. Bush presidency, it’s hard not to conlude that ironically and tragically, the deepest legacy of Francis Schaeffer was to hasten the diminishment of the standing of Christianity in our world.

One thought on “Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

  1. Pingback: Expression: Edith Schaeffer | Veracity

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