L’Abri a Way of Life for the Church Part 2: Francis Schaeffer Encounters the Trinity

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Have you ever wondered why Christians struggle, or just don’t, live what they believe? Francis Schaeffer questioned that to the extreme:  he let go of everything he believed and started from square one to ask “is any of  Christianity true?” This search for truth led him to experience the beating center of the Christian faith: the reality that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loves and saves humanity. One could go so far as to say, that the Trinity is the center of all of Schaeffer’s thought.

In my first post about L’Abri, I talked about the foundational reality of life at L’Abri: trusting and dependent prayer. I also pointed to the reason for this way of life: Schaeffer’s desire to live life in total trust in God’s existence and providence.

What are the grounds for this belief? Especially in a world that is immersed in a cynical distance from faith in the supernatural, combined with the suppression of anything that smells of transcendence concerning real things. We are allowed to believe in some kind of transcendence for personal experience, or in the movies, but not in life. Life is brutishly natural. Schaeffer wants to offer a view of reality that is diametrically opposed to this suppression of transcendence.

In this post, I want to show the content of Schaeffer’s belief in supernatural reality with the help of Fred Sanders. I argue that Schaeffer’s life and the life of L’Abri as a witness to the existence of God is grounded in the reality and experience of the Triune God of Christianity.

Fred Sanders, in his book The Deep Things of God, demonstrates a deep, though often implicit, Trinitarian grounding in a broad swath of evangelicals throughout Church history (As an aside, I found this book very healing in my own struggle with evangelicalism. In short, I discovered the doctrine of the Trinity outside of evangelicalism, but this book helped me see the implicit Trinitarian theology at work in evangelical pastors and theologians). Sanders profiles several evangelical theologians and pastors throughout the book, one of those profiles is of Francis Schaeffer (pages 181-189). 

After pastoring for several years, Schaeffer had a crisis of faith. He stepped back from his faith and started exploring it again, to discover whether it was really true and real, and what the implications of Christianity are if it really is true. After wrestling for months. This is what Schaeffer concluded:

I came to realize that indeed I had been right in becoming a Christian. But then I went on further and wrestled deeper and asked, “But then where is the spiritual reality, Lord, amongst most of that which calls itself orthodoxy?” And gradually i found something. I found something that I had not been taught, a simple thing, but profound. I discovered the meaning of the work of Christ, the meaning of the blood of Christ, moment by moment in our lives after we are Christians – the moment-by-moment work of the whole Trinity in our lives because as Christians we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. That is true Spirituality. (Schaeffer, “Two Contents, Two Realities,” in Works vol. 3 (416-417). 

Of course, this quote leaves us wondering, what does this ‘moment-by-moment work of the whole Trinity” look like? What does the supernatural reality of the Trinity look like in our daily lives?

The Holy Spirit indwelling the individual Christian is not only the agent of Christ, but he is also the agent of the Father. Consequently, when I accept Christ as my Savior, my guilt is gone, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and I am in communication with the Father and the Son as well as of the Holy Spirit – the entire Trinity.  Thus now, in the present life, if I am justified, I am in a personal relationship with each of the members of the Trinity. God the Father is my Father; I am in union with the Son, and I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is not just meant to be a doctrine, it is what i have now (True Spirituality, 271). 

Schaeffer’s point is that the Doctrine of the Trinity is not something to merely be believed, it is the warp and woof of the Christian life. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit inseparably work to bring about our salvation; they meet us in a real and personal encounter, and live with us in daily communion, as the triune God.  That is the Christian life.  True to evangelical form, Schaeffer emphasizes that this encounter is an experience of personal relationship, personal relationship with the whole Trinity.

Our relationship is never mechanical and not primarily legal. It is personal and vital. God the Father is my Father; I am united and identified with God the Son, God the Holy Spirit dwells within me. The Bible tells us that his threefold relationship is a present fact, just as it tells us that justification and Heaven are facts (Basic Bible Studies, 362). 

This personal and vital relationship with the Triune God of the universe is the heart of the Christian life and the center of the Gospel. Evangelicals summarize the personal encounter of the Gospel that leads to conversion with the phrase, “accept Christ as Savior.” Schaeffer uses this phrase and reveals its Trinitarian depth: “When I accept Christ as my Savior, my guilt is gone, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and I am in communication with the Father and the Son, as well as the Holy Spirit  – the entire Trinity.” (True Spirituality, 269). This is the Christian life, nothing less than life in God.

In a world that lives under the suppressive exclusion of transcendence, Christianity declares that the God of the universe dwells in every Christian who puts their faith and trust in Christ. The reality of the Trinity in the Christian life, True Spirituality, subverts and rebels against the oppression of transcendence. God offers “a moment-by-moment, increasing, experiential relationship to Christ and to the whole Trinity” (True Spirituality, 264). The Transcendent personal triune God breaks upon our brutish naturalism and reveals a whole way of life, real belonging, real wisdom and knowledge, and real joy: life in the happy land of the Trinity.

This is the vision of God and reality that grounds the continued ministry of L’Abri. Should the church seek to live in this reality? yes. Will it? It is my prayer and my pursuit.

 

L’Abri: A way of life for the Church? Part 1

This blog post is the first part of a series of reflections on my experience with L’Abri and how its vision can help the church in the 21st century. For more on L’Abri: http://labri.org/ 

Francis Schaeffer’s thoughts and writings were the warp and woof of my high school years and my life today. Francis’s book, True Spirituality, punctuates my memory as a turning point in understanding the Christian faith. I still regularly listen to an album of Bach cello solos I heard at an L’Abri Fellowship conference. But above all, the vision of L’Abri as a place of hospitality, prayer, and gospel living is in my mind almost daily.  It was only natural that I would eventually find myself at L’Abri.

After graduating from Taylor University, I went to L’Abri England to explore my vocation and calling. What I experienced was a peculiar way of life: a life that sought to live the Good News of Christ in the everyday habits of hospitality, honest conversation, and practiced community. Francis founded L’Abri in Switzerland with this vision and purpose: “To show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God” (Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri, 15-16).  This vision worked itself out in several ways, but most striking to me – and the point I want to reflect on for the rest of this post – is the total dependence on God as a way of witnessing to God’s existence.

Francis did not shy from the radical truth claims of Scripture. But what he did, that so few people do, is live them. I can’t remember where I read this, or if it was something that someone said at L’Abri, but it struck me as a perfect description of L’Abri: it is the Gospel intentionally on display in the lives of everyday people. This display included meals together, lots of tea, open, honest, and life-giving conversations, and a Tuesday morning time of prayer.

Every Tuesday morning the community would gather and pray for its daily, weekly, and yearly needs. They don’t ask for help; they don’t advertise their needs, they pray and trust that God will provide, and God does. This belief in God’s good, loving, and providential provision for everything, I suggest, is one of the most significant witnesses to God’s existence that L’Abri offers. Their prayer-filled trust in God’s provision endures as a witness to God’s existence under the suffocating weight of secularity’s imposition of a world voided of transcendence.  L’Abri witnesses to the rest of the Church and the world that there is a God who is real and actively at work in the ordering of all of life, including the provision of food and basic needs.

L’Abri’s radical reliance on God to provide everything needed, when compared to the Scriptures, is not very radical at all. It is made strange by the fact that so few people live this way. So few people live in total reliance on God for their daily needs. The question that continues to prod me is whether the Anglican Church could live in a way similar to L’Abri?

Since we are both submitted to the same God of the same Holy Scriptures, I desire to say yes; the church can live such a witness. I dream of seeing the Church as a place where God’s existence is demonstrated through its’ life and work; God’s existence demonstrated through lives that are entirely dependent on God for everything. What would that look like in the church? It would mean a profound change in our vision of the good life and our sense of purpose in life. It would mean being oriented towards God and his kingdom, not our wants and consumeristic desires.

I am convinced that we must begin with knowing and believing in the God who provides for what we need. This means we must both seek his face in prayer and take a good look at how we define what we need. But believing and knowing is not enough, we must put into practice the habits of praying for what we need. What would it look like for a church, at their vestry, to honestly and earnestly pray for their needs?

What would it look like for a church to pray and truly rely on God for its financial and material needs, and for the people God wants in the church? What would it look like if we prayed for our daily needs and did the small tasks of faithfully trusting God to provide in our every day lives? If we believe God is the God who he says he is, then we must be on our knees in prayer for his good provision and direction. I really can see no way around it. What is the end goal of this trust? Nothing less than the witness to God’s reality and existence.

I struggle with trusting God the way that the people at L’Abri do. But I also see no other way forward; I believe the way that L’Abri prays is the way the church should pray. “We pray that God will plan the work, and unfold his plan to us (guide us and lead us) day by day, rather than planning the future in some clever or efficient way in committee meetings” (Schaeffer, L’Abri, 16). Some may object that this leads to passivity, I would suggest that it does not. Because when we rely on God to provide everything we need, that includes the energy, will, strength and ability to do the next thing in front of us. We pray that God will provide for everything, and he will.

One afternoon I joined a veteran L’Abri Worker for a cup of green tea. As we looked out his window on the English countryside sipping our tea we talked about life, the sacramental nature of reality, and the absolute good providence of God. I confess to him that I was struggling to trust God, the worker pointed me to Philippians 4:6-7 as a passage to meditate on.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

This passage stays with me because I saw it lived out L’Abri.
I believe that the way forward for the Anglican church in America today is living with this kind of faith, trust, and hope; a total abandonment to God’s loving care and providence. This way of living, unlike any evangelistic strategy, will demonstrate the existence, love, and power of our Triune God.