Francis Schaeffer was one of the most well-known Presbyterian leaders of the 20th century. But other than his vow to the Westminster Confession of Faith as a Presbyterian minister, what evidence is there that he was a Calvinist? That is, did Francis Schaeffer hold to Calvinist soteriology?
Nowhere in Schaeffer’s writings does he give a positive appraisal of the Calvinist views of election, predestination, or divine determinism. In fact, it seems he avoided the topics entirely. Scott R. Burson and Jerry L. Walls in C.S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer note “A quick glance at the index to The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer reveals more than fifty references to freedom but no references to predestination or election.” (p. 279 n23)
Rather, in multiple places both Francis and his wife Edith Schaeffer show their antipathy towards Calvinism:
“I am so glad that I increasingly am against any form of theological determinism which turns people into a zero and choices into delusions.” – Francis Schaeffer to Dr. Robert Rayburn, March 1981.
“The second thing that bothered us was what Fran today would call ‘a deterministic view of the Reformed Faith.’ This was more present then in Westminster than it is now, and the way some of the professors taught these things greatly troubled Fran.” – Edith Schaeffer, The Tapestry, p. 189.
“Whosoever will”, is true and is not limited even as the atonement is not limited. I do not believe in a limited atonement. I don’t believe in irresistible grace either. I believe God gave choice to human beings, and that choice is real. He respects the negative as well as the positive choice. He made human beings, not by accident, with minds that could think and chose even after the fall. – Edith Schaeffer to Bill Edgar, July 2nd, 2002
Burson and Walls have also argued that Schaeffer’s soteriology was not Reformed. They note:
R.K McGregor Wright, author of No Place for Sovereignty: What’s Wrong with Freewill Theism? recalls a time when he confronted Schaeffer with this inconsistency. Wright asked Schaeffer why, as a confessing Calvinist, he would teach “a version of ‘free will’ that looked much like Arminianism. Schaeffer said he wanted students to clearly see that Christianity is different from “the ‘determinism’ emphasized in the psychology and sociology courses of the secular campus.” This response, however, did not satisfy Wright, who believed Schaeffer’s view of freedom could not harmonize with a Reformed understanding of sovereignty. (p. 92)
They further note that Schaeffer’s former professor at Westminster Seminary, Cornelius Van Til, challenged Schaeffer’s soteriological views in a number of personal letters.
Van Til wrote to Schaeffer:
“When you say that man is not caught in the wheels of determinism you do not mean for one moment to deny that God has determined whatsoever comes to pass in history, including the thoughts and acts of man, do you?” (p. 92)
Burson and Walls continue:
“Like a bloodhound on the trail of its prey, Van Til sniffs out a view of freedom that is inconsistent with Reformed theology. Indeed, the internal logic of Calvinism demands some form of soft determinism if its account of God’s sovereignty and human freedom is to be coherent. Schaeffer presumably was unwilling to live with the inherent problems of five-point Calvinism and consequently opted for first-cause freedom, a maneuver that put him not only at odds with classic Reformed theology but also at odds with his own passionate commitment to the law of noncontradiction.” (p. 92)
“Simply put, Schaeffer’s view of predestination and human freedom is logically incoherent. To suggest that God is the first cause of everything that comes to pass (total unconditional predestination) and humans are the first cause of many of their choices (libertarian freedom) is nothing short of a flat-out contradiction, a nonsensical statement. It is a logical impossibility.” (p. 93)
This all leads me to wonder, how could Francis Schaeffer take a vow to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document which affirms Calvinist soteriology (Chapter III), when he doesn’t believe in it? Was Schaeffer a hypocrite or just ignorant of what the Confession actually taught?
It seems that Schaeffer did hold to the Calvinist view earlier in life. Writing in The Bible Today, (A Review of a Review, Oct 1948) Schaeffer said, “It is not apart from the Holy Spirit, nor could it be possible without the predestination of the Sovereign God” and referred to the woman at the well as “one of the elect.” But, Bryan A. Follis in Truth with Love; The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer notes in reference to Schaeffer’s 1948 article:
“It is fascinating to note that by 1963 the reference to “predestination” and “the elect” had been dropped and that by 1968 the sentence referring to God’s mercy in saving men had been cut out. Was Schaeffer becoming more rationalist?”
The question Follis should have asked is, “Was Schaeffer becoming more Arminian?
Follis, writing favorable on Schaeffer, answers that Schaeffer was just tailoring his speech to his audience. That might be so. Schaeffer only stopped speaking “Calvinistic” because of his audience. But, look what that has brought. His son joined the Greek Orthodox Church, and L’Abri today, from my own personal experience in a 2-month visit, is thoroughly Arminian as explicitly confirmed by a number of the staff I spoke to there.