Essay / Theology

"Come, Christian Triune God Who Lives" (Francis Schaeffer)

Listen to Francis Schaeffer’s words from his 1972 book True Spirituality. In the chapter entitled “The Supernatural Universe,” he says:

Little by little, many Christians in this generation find the reality slipping away. The reality tends to get covered by the barnacles of naturalistic thought. Indeed, I suppose this is one of half a dozen questions that are most often presented to me by young people from Christian backgrounds: where is the reality? Where has the reality gone? I have heard it spoken in honest, open desperation by fine young Christians in many countries. As the ceiling of the naturalistic comes down upon us, as it invades by injection or by connotation, reality gradually slips away.

Schaeffer was in earnest about this cry for reality. He was not just reporting the “honest, open desperation” of “fine young Christians” who came to him in the early seventies; he had also asked these questions himself, in almost the same language, twenty years before. In the very next sentence he gives the answer as he had found it:

But the fact that Christ as the Bridegroom brings forth fruit through me as the bride, through the agency of the indwelling Holy Spirit by faith –this fact opens the way for me as a Christian to begin to know in the present life the reality of the supernatural. This is where the Christian is to live. Doctrine is important, but it is not an end in itself. There is to be an experiential reality, moment by moment. (True Spirituality, from Schaeffer’s Works volume III, p. 264)

It would be easy to overlook one of the most important elements in this answer: the Trinitarian element. The road to spiritual reality, according to Schaeffer, is through an experienced reality of God, but specifically of the fact “that Christ … brings forth fruit through me … through the agency of the indwelling Holy Spirit.” The reality Schaeffer invites us to understand and experience is a trinitarian reality, an experience of God the Father through the Son and the Spirit. And the God who Schaeffer points to in all his most popular writings, the God who is there and is not silent, is not God in general, but God the Holy Trinity. Schaeffer goes on, becoming more insistently trinitarian as he develops the thought:

This experiential result, however, is not just an experience of ‘bare’ supernaturalism, without content, without our being able to describe and communicate it. It is much more. It is a moment-by-moment, increasing, experiential relationship to Christ and to the whole Trinity. We are to be in a relationship with the whole Trinity. The doors are open now: the intellectual doors, and also the doors to reality. (True Spirituality, Works III:264)

Schaeffer attributes his effectiveness in later ministry to his encounter with the Trinity. In his 1974 position paper for the Lausanne congress on evangelization, Schaeffer tells the story of the deep period of doubt and perplexity in his life in 1951 and 1952. Troubled by the lack of spiritual reality in the Christian groups he worked with, Schaeffer began asking why. He thought his way all the way back to his original agnosticism, and put all of his beliefs and commitments back on the table for re-negotiation. He paced back and forth for months, or took long walks when the weather permitted. He notified his wife Edith that if he didn’t find what he needed in Christianity, he would reject it and then do something else with his life. His conclusion:

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, among 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.” (III:416-417).

Writing about this turning point in his life, Schaeffer later said: “Gradually the sun came out and the song came. Interestingly enough, although I had written no poetry for many years, in that time of joy and song I found poetry beginning to flow again … admittedly, as poetry it is very poor, but it expressed a song in my heart which was wonderful to me.” (preface to True Spirituality, Works III:196). And there is a bit of poetry, first published in 1960 and later reprinted in the preface to 1974’s No Little People, which captures what Schaeffer was seeking and what he found:

To eat, to breathe
to beget
Is this all there is
Chance configuration of atom against atom
of god against god
I cannot believe it.
Come, Christian Triune God who lives,
Here am I
Shake the world again.

“The Christian Triune God who lives” did answer that prayer, and shook the world through Schaeffer’s ministry.

(There is more to say about Schaeffer’s encounter with the Trinity; it will be in a later post)

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