When I read Colin Duriez’s biography of Francis Schaeffer, a number of things struck me about the life of this extraordinary man: I was impressed by his intellectual devotion to orthodox and reformation theology and his sincerity in evangelism and ministry. What struck me most, however, was the impact Schaeffer had on doubters and agnostics; the impact stems from Schaeffer’s commitment to the historical reality of the Christian faith in the past, future and PRESENT. Throughout Schaeffer’s ministry, he emphasized the reality of Christianity in time and space, not merely intellectual propositions, but true, tangible reality.
He came to understand this reality during the period in Schaeffer’s life that he referred to as the crisis. In 1955, Schaeffer was serving as a missionary while living with his wife and family in Switzerland. He was struck by the incongruity between the power spoken of in the Scriptures the lack of power experienced in his own Christian life. He was also distressed by the seeming impotence of the Christian church in general. Despite the devotion to truth and doctrine, the most disturbing observation Schaeffer made about Christianity was the lack of love shown by many professing believers for each other and for the lost. It seemed to him that intellectual ascent to purity of doctrine did not—by mere default—lead to God honouring lives in practice. Something more is needed. If the Bible is true, then it must be true in reality, not just in the realm of the abstract. The Bible speaks of “power” in the lives of believers, but why was there so little power evident in real life? He spent many months hiking the roads and trails in the Swiss Alps, as well as pacing the upper floor hay loft of his chalet, pondering the reality of Christianity. He returned to a state of agnosticism. Edith was distressed by this, but she prayed fervently for her husband during his time of doubt.
Thankfully he came out of this period of doubt with a deeper understanding of Truth. After reflecting on Christianity, he concluded that it is truth; what he also discovered was the reality of this truth. Christianity is more than doctrine, intellectual suppositions, theological musings… it is reality…. Later in Schaeffer’s ministry, his own experience of honest doubt would make him well suited in addressing---with compassion and love---the doubts of hundreds of Christians and non-Christians who would visit L’Abri. In Jude, Paul writes, “Be merciful to doubters”---this verse encapsulates Schaeffer’s ministry. It calls to mind the way Christ handled Thomas’s doubt---with compassionate but unwavering truth, real truth, truth in space and time, truth in the PRESENT---“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” This is how Schaeffer spoke to the doubts of so many people. He compels people to come to terms with the historical, future and present reality of God in the universe. Christianity is not just a philosophy, a moral compass or a collection of “good ideas” to guide us through life. God is real in space and time and His power and presence can be experienced in space and time.
When I pondered the impact Schaeffer had on doubters, I became aware of how little the evangelical church openly addresses doubt. Doubt is certainly something we must overcome, but in order to do so, doubt should not be ignored; doubt must be addressed, prayed about and preached on. It takes faith to address doubt; we need to believe that God will answer doubters. Even though Christians may question their faith, He will not remain silent. The end result is always a deeper faith.
Schaeffer’s thoughts on spirituality materialized in a series of talks centred on the Book of Romans. He shared these reflections with the many visitors who came to L’Abri. Later, he organized the talks into a taped lecture series, and eventually, a published book entitled, True Spirituality. Although this book was published later in his ministry, the ideas in it form the heart of his work and the raison d’etre for L’Abri. For those interested in discovering the writings and thought of Francis Schaeffer, this book is an excellent place to start.