Your Father’s L’Abri, Reflections on the Ministry of Francis Schaeffer, by Gregory Edward Reynolds, Manchester, NH: Monadnock Press, 2023, 105 pp.
There is some challenge in reviewing a book that is largely a review of other books. (All but the first chapter of Your Father’s L’Abri is the author’s reviews of other volumes on Francis Schaeffer.) Nevertheless, I think it might be valuable for me to offer some comments on this new book.
I had corresponded with the author, Greg Reynolds, some years ago when I was writing The Presbyterian Philosopher, The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark. Reynolds had been a student of Clark’s at Covenant College and the two had written letters to one another including in them the notation of chess moves in ongoing games between them. In the present book I was fascinated to learn that Reynolds had also spent time with Francis Schaeffer; some six months at L’Abri in 1971-1972. Reynolds mentions Bill Edgar as another who had visited L’Abri and came to the faith there. (p. 81) I’d like to note another person that came to faith at L’Abri but has been largely overlooked. That is Marc Mailloux. I believe it is in Mailloux’s book Discovery on the Katmandu Trail that he speaks of his time at L’Abri. Both that and the present volume are well worth reading.
Reynolds notes a number of things he appreciates about Francis Schaeffer along with a number of criticisms. His criticisms are fair and likely shared by many. While Schaeffer’s was “a thoughtful Christianity” (p. 12) and “Schaeffer was also prescient in identifying postmodern relativism earlier than most cultural critics” (p. 85), Reynolds “discovered the superficiality of some historical and philosophical aspects of Schaeffer’s published works” (p. 19). Reynolds also notes “theoretical weaknesses in Schaeffer’s apologetics” (p. 22), favoring himself the views of Cornelius Van Til.
The title of the volume, “Your Father’s L’Abri” instantly struck my attention. It was after my two and half month stay at L’Abri in 2016 that, disillusioned with the experience, I found the 2008 Christianity Today article “Not Your Father’s L’Abri” by Molly Worthen which mirrored the assessment of L’Abri I had already made. When I received a copy of Your Father’s L’Abri from a friend of mine I had assumed that it was an earlier volume and that Worthen had played on its title. But I quickly realized that the book is recently published and in fact its title references the article. Reynolds notes that “If Molly Worthen’s reportage on the present state of Swiss L’Abri is accurate then student ambivalence about Schaeffer’s legacy is tragic, if partially understandable.” (p. 26) Part of Reynolds’s criticism of Schaeffer regards the latter’s “alignment with the Christian right.” Reynolds agrees with Hankins who divides Schaeffer’s ministry into three distinct periods: (1) 1930s-1940s American fundamentalist separatist, (2) 1950s-1960s European evangelical apologist, and (3) 1970s-1980s Christian right activist. Reynolds favors the middle period of Schaeffer’s ministry, and I must agree that it is by far the most interesting. Reynolds seems to disapprove of the third period, even expressing surprise that Schaeffer would be a leader of the American right when Reynolds himself came away from L’Abri in 1972 convinced that he should vote for McGovern. (p. 73)
He also notes that “More serious is the presence of an apparently postmodernist epistemology among the staff, as evinced by John Sandri’s statement, ‘I’m not an inerrantist, but I’m not an errantist either.'” On my visit to L’Abri in 2016 I was told that Sandri (one of Francis Schaeffer’s sons-in-law) was not officially on staff, though I saw him spending much time there, especially helping out with the laundry. Unfortunately, my conversations with Sandri confirmed that he was some kind of unitarian, which was quite a shock for me to find out.
I found interesting also Reynolds’s statements that “a major weakness in Schaeffer’s thought was his ecclesiology” (p. 58), that there was an absence at L’Abri of “the importance of the confessional Reformed church” (p. 26) and that his asking questions about Calvinism and the five points were not warmly received. (See my article on Francis Schaeffer – Pseudo Calvinist). Yet Reynolds speaks of “Schaeffer’s essential Calvinistic instincts.” (p. 40) Are the five points of Calvinism not to be included in those instincts?
Overall, this small volume may get lost in the bookshelf of literature written on Francis Schaeffer and L’Abri. However, because of the author’s first-hand experience at L’Abri in the good old days of “your father” and because of his insights as a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, it is valuable book that I heartily recommend.