Spiritual Reality: Francis Schaeffer on the Christian Life
Rev. Dr. William Edgar, professor of apologetics, recently contributed an article to Credo Magazine on Francis Schaeffer's teaching on the Christian life. Rev. Dr. K. Scott Oliphint also contributed to this issue of Credo.
Dr. Edgar writes in this issue (p. 10): "Francis Schaeffer led me to the Lord. I stumbled up the mountain to l'Abri and after a long conversation with this remarkable advocate, I knew Christianity was true. Even to the present, when I am explaining the Gospel to someone, I rehearse in my mind's eye Dr. Schaeffer's incisive way of getting to the question-behind-the-question and try to do likewise. Most of all, it was his radiant love for the heavenly Father that has stayed with me and continues to inspire me to this day."
Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) is most often remembered for his apologetics. He had a unique way of persuading all comers that the Christian Faith is true and ought to be embraced. He could expose the inner contradictions of the most rationalistic materialist or the most irrational mystic. Fewer people remember him for his teaching on sanctification, or the Christian life. Regrettably so, because according to Schaeffer himself it was his convictions and practice about spirituality that were at the heart of the work of l’Abri, where so many lives, including my own, were turned around.
The Schaeffers moved to Europe in 1948, believing that the crucial battle lines were there. While teaching churches at home and abroad about the dangers of the surrounding culture, its parallels in modern theology, and the urgent need to stand clearly for the gospel, Schaeffer came to discover that something was missing in his life. The way he often put it, he found himself severely deficient in reality. He was a believer, but the present work of the Lord in his life was not being felt. As he describes the problem, which he does throughout his writings, his letters and his speeches, the fervor and warmth he had known as a new Christian were on the wane. He entered a serious crisis. In the Introduction to True Spirituality he says it this way:
Gradually, however, a problem came to me – the problem of reality. This had two parts: 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.1
We do not know all the causes that brought him to such a point of crisis. No doubt, there was a cumulative effect. Schaeffer was unsettled by the criticism launched at him for moving to Europe by his mentor Allan MacRae. Professor MacRae had wished for him not to move to Europe, and had also begun to differ with Schaeffer’s hard-line. But Schaeffer was increasingly drawn to the European theater for a number of reasons, including his sense that the historic heartland of Western Christianity was flagging, and leading the rest of the world in an unhealthy direction.2
A more significant lead-up to his crisis was an increasing concern that “The Movement” of which he was a part was not treating outsiders, or even colleagues, with love and respect. While studying at Westminster Theological Seminary, the Schaeffers were drawn to a group that held a strong position on premillennialism as well as a commitment to eschew the so-called “liberties,” smoking, drinking, dancing, gambling, and the theater. They were swayed by the leadership of Allan MacRae, J. Oliver Buswell, and the fiery Carl McIntire. Schaeffer joined “The Movement,” finished seminary at their newly founded Faith Theological Seminary in Wilmington Delaware, and became the first ordained minister in the new Bible Presbyterian Church. McIntire was the founder of both the ACCC (American Council of Christian Churches, 1941) and the ICCC, (International Council of Christian Churches, 1948), counterparts to the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, which were deemed apostate. But later, they would come to believe their position was overly harsh.
In August, 1948, Schaeffer was an organizing delegate to the ICCC in Amsterdam, which would become the headquarters. Significantly, it was during the meetings of the ICCC that he met Hans Rookmaaker, whose fiancée, Anky Huitker was one of the administrators. Francis and Hans would become the closest of friends. As their friendship grew, they both expressed a growing concern for their mutual spiritual coldness. No doubt some of that stemmed from the separatist mentality of their church traditions. Rookmaaker had joined the Vrijgemaakt (Liberated) Churches as a new Christian in 1945. Although he would always be faithful to that denomination there were times when he experienced some of the same kinds of dryness as his new friend coming from America. At any rate, this growing conviction about the lack of reality in “The Movement” simmered, until it finally burst into a serious crisis of faith.
A third cause, surely not incidental, came as the result of Schaeffer’s encounters with Karl Barth, no doubt the twentieth century’s most influential theologian. Barth distinguished himself by strongly opposing theological liberalism. Liberalism in all its varieties horizontalised the Gospel, making it all too human. Instead, Barth and the Neo-orthodox movement aspired to reemphasize God’s full transcendence, to the point where at least Barth himself rejected anything resembling natural theology. Schaeffer had been concerned to combat liberalism. But he had not found Neo-orthodoxy (as Europeans tended to call it, “Dialectical Theology” or, sometimes, “Crisis Theology”) to be any improvement. Neo-orthodox theology differed in a number of crucial ways from the historic Christian position. Whereas the traditional Reformed view of election is that God from all eternity graciously chooses his people for salvation, Barth taught that divine election as well as reprobation are not of individual humans. Instead, both center in Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for all people, and who became condemned for the sake of all people. For all intents and purposes, this had the feeling of universalism about it, something evangelicals at the time rejected. Furthermore, whereas the traditional view of the Bible is that it is God’s inspired Word, without error in all that it affirms, Barth held that only Christ is the true Word, and while the Bible contains God’s Word, it is not to be equated in any literal sense with God’s verbal revelation.3 Though he recognized the differences, Schaeffer characterized both liberalism and Neo-orthodoxy as belonging to “The New Theology,” finding that their “existentialist methodology” is basically the same. If the Bible cannot be equated with the Word of God, then we can only meet him, in effect, by a leap into the dark, a mystical step of faith.4
Schaeffer visited Barth with his friend James O. Buswell in August of 1950. Later, he sent Barth a copy of a paper he had written for the congress in Amsterdam on Neo-orthodoxy, requesting a follow-up visit. Barth refused and wrote a stinging letter accusing the two of “criminology” rather than any authentic attempt at dialogue. Go ahead and accuse me of heresy and repudiate my life-work as a whole, “But why and to what purpose do you wish for conversation? ...Why bother yourselves anymore about the man from Basle, whom you have finished off so splendidly and so totally?” And it goes downhill from there!5 Although Schaeffer would stand by his critique, such a condemnation by Karl Barth had to have shaken him profoundly.
Whatever else led up to his crisis, in the early spring of 1951 he put everything into question, and for at least two months he busied himself with rethinking “the whole matter of Christianity.”6 He either walked outside or paced up and down the large hayloft in their chalet in Villars, Switzerland, thinking everything through, as though for the first time. He emerged knowing the Gospel was true and that he could have his longed-for reality. “Finally the sun came out. I saw that my earlier decision to step from agnosticism to Bible-believing Christianity was right.”7 Eventually the Schaeffers left “The Movement.” L’Abri became an independent faith mission in 1955. The following year Schaeffer realigned to the new RPCES (Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod).8
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1 Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality, The Complete Works, vol. III (Wheaton: Crossway, 1985), 195.
2 See Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America (Grand rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 26.
3 Some seasoned Barth scholars find this distinction over-simple. But a look at Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/2, tr. and ed. by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), 457, 520, ad loc., shows us the relationship of the Lord himself to his Word is at least ambiguous.
4 See The God Who Is There (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1968), 51-62. For those wishing to explore the details and perhaps some of the critical response to this approach, see the sympathetic biography by Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 170-173. For a slightly less sympathetic but still useful examination, see, Ronald W. Ruegsegger, “Francis Schaeffer on Philosophy,” in Reflections on Francis Schaeffer, ed. Ronald W. Ruegsegger (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 115-120.
5 The letter is dated, September 3, 1950, cited in Duriez, Francis Schaeffer, 101.
6 He did not describe this crisis in any kind of detail, partly because he was not given to a lot of autobiography, and partly because the heart of his experience was deeply personal. See Edith Schaeffer, The Tapestry (Waco: Word, 1981), 354-355.
7 Francis A. Schaeffer, “Why and How I Write My Books,” in Eternity Magazine, March 24, 1973, 64.
8 The Bible Presbyterians had split in two; Carl McIntire led one group into the “Collingswood Synod,” and the other was the RPCES, which group eventually merged with the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) in 1982. The Schaeffers created a new body, the IPC (International Presbyterian Church) in order to have a solid denomination available to Europeans. Francis Schaeffer had ministerial credentials in both the RPCES and the IPC.