Francis Schaeffer’s True Spirituality
October 29, 2005
1. The powerful presence of Francis Schaeffer in the second half of the 20th century
During the next two decades [1965-1985] the Schaeffers organized a multiple-thrust ministry that reshaped American evangelicalism. Perhaps no intellectual save C. S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole. Together the Schaeffers gave currency to the idea of intentional Christian community, prodded evangelicals out of their cultural ghetto, inspired an army of evangelicals to become serious scholars, encouraged women who chose roles as mothers and homemakers, mentored the leaders of the New Christian Right, and solidified popular opposition to abortion.
· J. I. Packer speaks of Francis Schaeffer as “one of the truly great Christians of my time.”
· Harold O. J. Brown calls Schaeffer “An Athanasius of our day” and states:
There is no other important Christian thinker of our era who has tackled a many fundamental intellectual, philosophical, and theological issues as Schaeffer did … There are not many Christian thinkers who have dealt with as many of the great issues of theology and philosophy as Schaeffer did, and no one else has so revealed their relevance to us.
· President Ronald Regan eulogized Schaeffer with these words:
He will long be remembered as one of the great Christian thinkers of our century, with a childlike faith and a profound compassion toward others. It can rarely be said of an individual that his life touched many others and affected them for the better; it will be said of Dr. Schaeffer that his life touched millions of souls and brought them to the truth of their Creator.
· Newsweek (Nov. 1, 1982) referred to Schaeffer as the “Guru of Fundamentalism”
· The Humanist (Sept/Oct 1988) had an article entitled “Francis Schaeffer: Prophet of the Religious Right”
· Schaeffer’s integral involvement in:
o International Council on Biblical Inerrancy
o Right to life issues
o Influence on numerous younger evangelical academics
· Special significance: this year  is the 50th anniversary of the founding of L’Abri in 1955
Each L’Abri is study center, rescue mission, extended family, clinic, spiritual convalescent home, monastery, and local church rolled into one: a milieu where visitors learn to be both Christian and human through being part of a community that trusts God the Creator and worships him through Christ the redeemer.
· Focus for today:
o Not a full biography of Schaeffer or analysis of his thought
o Rather: Look at one point in Schaeffer’s life prior to the founding of L’Abri in 1955.
§ In 1951 and 1952 Schaeffer faced a spiritual crisis—the resolution of which set the tone for the rest of Schaeffer’s life and ministry
2. Background material leading up to this portion of his life
· Early part of the 20th century: the raging battle between Fundamentalism and Modernism
· June 1932: Schaeffer returns from his first year of college
o At a church meeting the talk for the evening was “How I know that Jesus is not the Son of God, and how I know that the Bible is not the Word of God”
· Summer of 1935: J. Gresham Machen is defrocked from the PCUSA
· Schaeffer resigns from PCUSA and enrolls in Westminster Theological Seminary
· 1937: There is a split within WTS around the issues of Christian liberty and Premillenialism
o This leads to the formation of the Bible Presbyterian Church with a new seminary—Faith Theological Seminary—which Schaeffer joins
o 1st pastor in Bible Presbyterian Church in 1938
o 1947: He toured Europe for three months to scout out health of church
o 1948: His family moves to Switzerland to become missionaries in Europe; work focused on child evangelism
· It is during this time that Schaeffer begins to experience a profound disillusionment with the Separatist movement he is involvement with as well as recognizing a lack of reality in his own spiritual life.
3. Spiritual crisis and spiritual awakening
· Schaeffer’s preface to True Spirituality (1971)
This book was published after a number of others, but in a certain sense it should have been first. Without the material in this book there would be L’Abri. In 1951 and 1952 I faced a spiritual crisis in my own life. I had become a Christian from agnosticism many years before. After that I had become a pastor for ten years in the United States, and then for several years my wife Edith and I had been working in Europe. During this time I felt a strong burden to stand for the historical Christian position, and for the purity of the visible church. Gradually, however, a problem came to me—the problem of reality. This had two points: first, it seemed to me that among many of those who held the orthodox position, one saw little reality in the things that the Bible so clearly says should be the result of Christianity. Second, it gradually grew on me that my own reality was less than it had been in the early days after I had become a Christian. I realized that in honesty I had to go back and rethink my whole position.
We were living in Champery at that time, and I told Edith that for the sake of honesty I had to go all the way back to my agnosticism and think through the whole matter. I’m sure that this was a difficult time for her, and I’m sure that she prayed much for me in those days. I walked in the mountains when it was clear, and when it was rainy I walked backward and forward in the hayloft of the old chalet in which we lived. I walked, prayed, and thought through what the Scriptures taught, as well as reviewing my own reasons for being a Christian.
As I rethought my reasons for being a Christian, I saw again that there were totally sufficient reasons to know that the infinite-personal God does exist and that Christianity is true. In going further, I saw something else which made a profound difference in my life. I searched through what the Bible said concerning reality as a Christian. Gradually I saw that the problem was that with all the teaching I had received after I was a Christian, I had heard little about what the Bible says about the meaning of the finished work of Christ for our present lives. Gradually the sun came out and the song came. Interestingly enough, although I had written no poetry for many years, in that time of joy and song I found poetry beginning to flow again—poetry of certainty, an affirmation of life, thanksgiving and praise. Admittedly, as poetry it is very poor, but it expressed a song in my heart which was wonderful to me.
This was and is a real basis of L’Abri. Teaching the historic Christian answers, and giving honest answers to honest questions are crucial, but it was out of these struggles that the reality came, without which a work like L’Abri would not have been possible, I, and we, can only be thankful.
· These brief paragraphs do not begin to capture what Schaeffer experienced and felt during the early 1950’s.
· Lane T. Dennis edited Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer (1985)
o First section of the book (pp. 31-82) contains letters from this early period during Schaeffer’s spiritual awakening
o Portrait that emerges is instructive
· Schaeffer had thrown himself into the separatist movement with great zeal and energy. Only in Switzerland did he begin to have the opportunity to re-think the movement’s trajectory. Two elements are crucial here: space and time. His environment creates the room for sustained reflection and meditation.
· In a November 1951 letter Schaeffer writes to a friend in the movemnent…
Tonight it is rainy outside, but a little higher in the mountain the snow is falling again. The wood fire is crackling with a rich personality. The children are sleeping, and Edith is typing some things which she feels she must do. In short, it is quiet here—the quiet that only the mountains can give.
As I was walking home from the post office today, where I had gone to send off a great pile of letters and some packages, I was thinking of my answer to you. And as I walked I looked up at the Dents with their swirling mists so high above me. I thought how our dear Lord comes into more proper perspective in our thinking in such a place as this—for the higher the mountains, the more understandable is the glory of Him who made them and holds them in His hand. But the other side is also true: man also comes into his proper place. As the Lord gains in greatness, in comparison to the mountains, so man diminishes.
As it is with space, it is also true of time. My letters from here go to so many countries, and in these last few years I have found friends in many of them. As I have learned the history of these lands, from those who tell the history from their hearts, time has come to mean something different to me than it ever did before, when time was measured only by the short scope of the hurrying clock or cold dates on a page of the history book. But as time falls into its proper place, again God seems to grow greater by comparison, and again it has the opposite effect on man. As the mountains shrink him down to size, so also does time.
Then too, time is getting clearer to me because more of it has passed me by. In a couple of months I’ll be forty now, and as I look at Priscilla I realized indeed that time has been passing. If God will spare me, I will have more time yet ahead than has already passed me since I came to mature thinking. But it does not seem to stretch forever as it did even when I first came to Europe four years ago.
The three and a half years since I came to Europe have been the most profitable in my life, with only one possible competitor, my three years in seminary. But certainly (with that one possible exception) no period even three times as long has marked me so.
First, the things of which I spoke above—the rectifying process of space and time—have caused my view of the Lord to grow greater, and my view of man and his works and judgments to grow proportionally smaller.
Second, for the first time since I entered college I have had a chance to think. Not that we have not been busy here; we have been, but it is a bi different from the rush of college, seminary, and then ten years in the pastorate. Gradually my thinking has changed—I have realized that in many things previously I have been mistaken.
· Schaeffer began to notice some serious problems in the movement and in his own life.
o Lack of love as seen in a constant desire to separate repeatedly
§ Separation from PCUSA
§ then from Westminster Theological Seminary and the National Association of Evangelicals (N.A.E.)
§ then the movement began turning on itself
o Failure to follow Christ as the head of the church and an ignoring of the leading of the Holy Spirit
· Continuing in the November 1951 letter mentioned above…
When I first found Christ through my Bible reading He was very real to me, and I yet remember the loving wonder of His closeness. And then came the struggle against the Old [Presbyterian] Church machine, and then against Westminster, and then against the N.A.E. [National Association of Evangelicals], and gradually “the [separatist] movement” loomed larger and larger. Do not misunderstand me: my experiences here have convinced me more than ever that each of these struggles was needed and right; but the correct perspective got mislaid in the process. And I tell you frankly, that though I realize I may be wrong, it seems to me that I was not alone in my mistake—that many are as deeply involved, or even more, than I have been. The “movement” grew in our thinking like the great bay tree until for me that wonderful closeness which I had felt to Him in previous days was lost. I wonder if that is not what happened to the Church of Ephesus in Revelation 2?
It seems to me all things became grist for the movement’s mill … And if things or people got in the way, they were blasted. The Presbyterian Church fight [in the early and mid 1930’s] was a rough school of battle. First at unbelief, and then as time went on, at that which represented unbelief, the Federal Council [of Churches]. We threw everything which came to hand. And then as “the movement” grew, the N.A.E. stood in the way … and it seems to me we continued to throw everything we had at hand. Again, don’t misunderstand me: from my perspective here [in Europe] I am sure that we were correct in saying that the N.A.E. was wrong. But we could have remembered that, wrong though they are, they are for the most part brothers in Christ …
But “the movement” rolls on, and now differences arise between us. Quickly the pattern repeats itself; the habit is too well learned. The movement is in jeopardy! So everything is thrown again [this time at one another within the movement] … And who is wounded? We are and our Lord …
I am sure “separation” is correct, but it is only one principle. There are others to be kept as well. The command to love should mean something … [I am not suggesting that] I have learned to live in the light of Christ’s command of love—first toward God, then the brethren, and then the lost. I know I have not. But I want to learn, and I know I must if I am to have that closeness to the Lord I wish to have, with its accompanying joy and spiritual power…
…God willing, I will push and politick no more… The mountains are too high, history is too long, and eternity is longer. God is too great, man is too small, there are many of God’s dear children, and all around there are men going to Hell. And if one man and a small group of men do not approve of where I am and what I do, does it prove I’ve missed success? No; only one thing will determine that—whether this day I’m where the Lord of lords and King of kings wants me to be. To win as many as I can, to help strengthen the hands of those who fight unbelief in the historical setting in which they are placed, to know the reality of “the Lord is my song,” and to be committed to the Holy Spirit—that is what I wish I could know to be the reality of each day as it closes.
· Looking at Schaeffer’s letters and actions of this time it becomes clear that he was questing for a more experiential life of faith.
· Schaeffer never left the objective Word of God nor did he ever compromise with liberalism.
· The three concentric circles of the Christian life (November 1954)
I believe most strongly … that our efforts in Christian service fall into three concentric circles: the outer circle is the apologetic and defensive. This is an important portion of Christian activity and should never be minimized, but it is not the heart … The middle circle is inside the outer one and is more central. This is the intellectual statement of the doctrines of the Christian faith in a positive way. (This to me is an even more important portion of Christian activity, but if it stands alone, it still is not Christianity.)
The innermost circle is the spiritual—the personal relationship of the individual soul with a personal God, including all that is meant in the apostolic benediction when we say, “The communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” It is this last, innermost circle with which the devotional deals and without which Christianity is not really Bible-believing.
To me there is no alternative but to ask for God’s grace to keep these three circles in proper position in my own life—to meditate upon this and wrestle with its complete meaning and practice in my own life as I have not wrestled with anything since I wrestled as an agnostic with the claims of Christ as Savior …
· In a letter dated February 12th 1955 Schaeffer writes:
I have not changed my mind in the need for purity in the visible church. And yet I see that a combat for the faith must flow from an ever closer walk with God and not take the place of it. I do feel that there is a growing number of the Lord’s children who feel a deep need for spiritual reality. It can only be my prayer that somehow the Holy Spirit will move to bring forth an abundance of life.
· Themes found in Schaeffer’s writing and teaching of this time:
o Experiential life of Christ—“moment by moment” application of the work of Christ by faith
o Following the leading of the Holy Spirit
· The following are snippets from letters written between 1956-1958:
[When it comes to] waiting in a practical way for the moving of the Spirit … I do feel there has been something wrong with our whole theological system—not just recently, but extending back to old Princeton and the old Dutch schools when they were completely orthodox. It is something difficult to put into words, but there seems to be a certain academic outlook, or perhaps a limiting of the Biblical truths to the speculative realm.
It is my belief that the Reformation itself, with certain notable exceptions, made a basic error … (By the word Spiritual with a capital “S” we are referring to nothing less than a commitment to the Holy Spirit)… I think it is the “pendulum psychology” again.
The Roman Catholic Church had come to teach the wrong doctrines. And I feel that most of the Reformation then let the pendulum swing and thought if only the right doctrines were taught that all would be automatically well. Thus, to a large extent, the Reformation concentrated almost exclusively on the “teaching ministry of the Church.” In other words almost all the emphasis was placed on teaching right doctrines. In this I fell the fatal error had already been made. It is not for a moment that we can begin to get anywhere until the right doctrines are taught. But the right doctrines mentally assented to are not an end in themselves, but should only be the vestibule to a personal and loving communion with God…
Personally I believe church history shows that as this basic weakness in Protestantism developed into a completely dead orthodoxy, then liberalism came forth. Thus, the solution is not to intellectually and coldly just shout out the right doctrines and try to shout down the false liberal doctrines. It is to go back to a cure of the basic error. It is to say “yes” to the right doctrines, and, without compromise, “no” to the wrong doctrines of both Romanism and liberalism—and then to commit our lives to the practical moment by moment headship of Christ and communion of the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, the danger of orthodoxy, even true orthodoxy, is in falling of the other side of the knife blade: that is, in stating the intellectual position and then placing a period. What we must ask the Lord for is a work of the Spirit… to stand on a very thin line: in other words, to state intellectually (as well as understand, though not completely) the intellectual reality of that which God is and what God has revealed in the objectively inspired Bible; and then to live moment by moment in the reality of a restored relationship with the God who is there, and to act in faith upon what we believe in our daily lives.
Now I am sure that this cannot be done in the flesh: it is possible to fall of the knife blade on either side in the flesh. To stand on the knife blade can only be accomplished on the basis of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ, through moment by moment faith in the power of the Spirit.
The practical problem for us individually is to find a point at which we can begin to live moment by moment in reality. Many people in the past have emphasized that the beginning point for them was the reality of victory over sin. With many others (such as Andrew Murray), the beginning point has been the reality of the individual’s prayer life. For myself I must say that in wrestling with this problem about nine years ago in our hayloft in Champery… my own personal point of beginning was the reality of bringing specific sin under the blood of Christ moment by moment and knowing the reality of forgiveness and a restored relationship…
· Schaeffer was in the U.S. from April 1953 to September 1954: in 515 days he spoke 346 times on “the deeper spiritual life.”
· February 12, 1955 letter: “I have been working on a book. The Lord willing, its title will be Living in the Supernatural Now.”
· It would be sixteen years later when this book would come forth as True Spirituality.
· L’Abri starts April 1, 1955 “without our realizing it” with the first meal in their new home in Switzerland.
· June 4, 1955 the Schaeffers resign as missionaries supported by the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions.
· No plan for the future but praying for the direct leading of God in all they did.
o Children: Priscilla—18; Susan—14; Debbie—10; Franky—almost 3
o Francis and Edith in their 40’s
· L’Abri had its formation in the midst of this formative time in Schaeffer’s life. This spiritual crisis and awakening was crucial for the future tone of L’Abri.
· This is not always remembered or understood. One recent writer has written:
In the 1950’s and 1960’s disillusioned young people were searching for something that they did not find in the traditional church. In that climate, Francis Schaeffer founded L’Abri to give rational, Biblical answers that counteracted the despair of twentieth century philosophy, dominated as it was by both religious and secular existentialism. The answer he proposed was a return to the Reformation understanding of the Scriptures.
· This is lopsided at best. L’Abri was to be demonstration of the reality of God in his holiness and love. A demonstration in thought, to be sure, but also a demonstration in community and in trust of God’s practical leading. It was meant to be (and was) much more holistic than the author quoted above recognized.
4. The continuing reality and impact of Francis Schaeffer’s spiritual awakening
· Was this emphasis on spiritual awakening eclipsed by later ministry concerns? No. Consider four pieces of evidence:
o Schaeffer’s own comments about his book True Spirituality in the preface of that book.
o Schaeffer’s letters throughout his life point people to either the tapes (before 1971) or the book True Spirituality.
o Schaeffer’s writings contain these thoughts interspersed with his ideas about philosophy, history, etc.
o Louis Gifford Parkhurst Jr. (Schaeffer’s pastor in the last years of his life) quotes Schaeffer as saying, “True Spirituality is the only one of my books that I read over and over again.”
5. Conclusion: What can we learn?
· I read Schaeffer as a young man (the Trilogy: The God Who Is There; Escape From Reason; He Is There and He Is Not Silent) and was impressed with his thought and apologetic. I was impressed with his mind (one aspect of him).
· I read him now impressed with him as a person.
· The reality and power of Schaeffer’s ministry is found in the dynamism of his interactive and existential walk with the Triune God.
· One of my early teachers told me: “Focus on the depth of your relationship with the Lord and the let the Lord determine the breadth of your ministry.” (2 Chronicles 16.9)
· Francis Schaeffer was a man deeply immersed in the life of God in Christ and God used him mightily. May we learn the lessons of his life and so be used by God.