Review of "Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer"

Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, ed. Lane T. Dennis, Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1985, 264 pp.
In about the year 2009 I met a man at my church who was a philosophy professor at the University of Texas. Interested in his course on “Christian Philosophy” I asked him for  a copy of his syllabus. Receiving the syllabus, I found that it included Francis Schaeffer’s He Is There and He is Not Silent. (as well as Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil). In the following years I read a number of Schaeffer’s books and ultimately visited his L’Abri Fellowship for two months in 2016.
I was much impressed with Schaeffer’s writings when I first began reading them. But while I found that he had some interesting insights I also came to believe that he was a bit sloppy in his thinking. In particular I am thinking of Schaeffer’s term “the mannishness of man.” This, for Schaeffer, was an appeal to the “brute factuality” (to use a term of his former professor Cornelius Van Til) of man’s nature. For Schaeffer the nature of man (as a rational being created by God) it seems was somehow obvious. But such an appeal is not much of an argument for the Christian worldview. A person in another culture (say Buddhist or Australian Aborigine) might equally find it obvious that man is of some completely other nature. And so we are left with the childish back-and-forth arguments of “no” and “yes.”
From about 2012 to 2016 I worked on researching and writing The Presbyterian Philosopher, The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark. In that time I came to learn more about the history of the presbyterian church and of Francis Schaeffer’s involvement in the Bible Presbyterian Church. Schaeffer had studied at Westminster Theological Seminary with Van Til (and others) but left after his first year to attend the new Faith Theological Seminary with the BPC. He was their first graduate and their first ordained minister.
In my visit to L’Abri in 2016 I was shocked to find the state of Schaeffer’s ministry. There was no Presbyterianism there. The staff was all explicitly Arminian. There was little church attendance (Granted English-speaking churches are not plentiful in Switzerland), and it seemed to me that while officially opposed to post-modernism the leaders of L’Abri were greatly influenced by it (and perhaps oblivious to the fact). The greatest efforts were made to let the more fundamentalist Christians know that their views were “their interpretation.” Unbelievers were rarely challenged to consider the superiority (and exclusive truth I might add) of the Christian worldview.
Some of my conclusions on Schaeffer were written in this post:
Now I’ve turned to reading the Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer in hopes to understand more of the man and the history of his ministry with an eye to the ways in which its setup might have allowed it to go so wrong.
Though I came into reading this book with some cynicism, I must say that I was greatly moved by Schaeffer’s writing. Something similar to what was happening to him in the 1950s has been happening to me in the recent year or so. That is, I’ve been finding interest in the importance of the doctrine of Sanctification, and more greatly realizing that in emphasizing sanctification one can avoid legalism / works righteousness.
For those who are hoping to understand the history more exactly, Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer might be a disappointment. Since the “names are changed to protect the innocent” some of the letters’ historical value has been lost. Yet other valuable pieces of historical information remain. Of interest to me was in seeing that Schaeffer disconnected himself from the separationist movement in about 1955. That is when he left the Independent Board for Fundamentalist Missions. Schaeffer explains in his letters that while he continues to agree with the doctrine of the separationists, he believes that they lack charity with other Christians. Considering the types like Carl McIntire in the movement, it is hard to blame Schaeffer. But there is a certain irony in separating from the separationists. Nevertheless, I wonder if Schaeffer retained his ordination within the Bible Presbyterian Church because I know in the later history that he is involved with the denominations it merged into — the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod and the Presbyterian Church in America.
Something must be said about the introduction to this book by its editor Lane T. Dennis. Dennis, it is clear, is a supporter of Schaeffer. His ill-defined use of the term “spiritual reality” in the introduction and for section titles reminded me of Schaeffer’s use of the phrase “mannishness of man.” But while in one letter Schaeffer uses the term “spiritual reality” once, Dennis uses it twenty-four times in the introduction alone! Nowhere, however, is it clear what Dennis hopes to convey by the term. It sounds nice, and the readers will certainly like it. (Who could oppose “spiritual reality”?) But will the readers all have in mind the same idea?
But, getting back to the topic of sanctification, I found much of interest on that topic in Schaeffer’s letters. He writes for one, “It seems to me indeed that we have put so much emphasis on justification that we forget that as God’s people we are called unto holiness.” (p. 88) And, “More and more it seems to me that there is no such thing as an abstract Christian dogma—that each Christian dogma can be experienced on some level.” (p. 76). And again, “Doctrinal rightness and rightness of ecclesiastical position are important, but only as a starting point to go on into a living relationship—and not as ends in themselves.” (p. 46). In all this reading I thought that Schaeffer would be appalled to see the aggressive online “apologists” for the Christian faith today.
Though there are some questionable (or just sloppy) doctrinal statements in Schaeffer’s letters there is also much to be appreciated. Many of the letters are Schaeffer’s responses to cries for help from former L’Abri students who were dealing with various spiritual issues back in their home lives. Schaeffer’s patience in writing them and his emphasis on Biblical answers is refreshing. The extent to which he cared for his friends is plainly evident. In putting Christianity into practice there are few equals to Francis Schaeffer.