Category Archives: Biography Book Reviews

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life

Duriez, Colin.  Francis Schaeffer:  An Authentic Life.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2008.  221pp.  $24.99. Buy From Westminster Bookstore

Introduction

Colin Duriez was fortunate enough to not only have studied under Schaeffer when he was younger, but he was also able to interview him about his life when Schaeffer was near the end of his time here on earth.  In this authoritative biography of one the great philosophical minds of the 20th century, Duriez writes from much oral history from many around the world who knew Francis Schaeffer.  He also used the archives found in the Presbyterian Church of America as well as the many other writings by Francis Schaeffer and other family members.  Needless to say, the subject of this book was studied and researched exhaustively before pen was put to paper.

Colin Duriez has written numerous other books ranging from literary works (six books) to biographies (three if you include this one) and a history book entitled AD 33:  The Year that Changed the World. When Duriez writes a biography, you get the feeling that he attempted his best to walk a mile in that man’s shoes.

Summary of Francis Schaeffer:  An Authentic Life

The book is a bit different in that it approaches the earlier life and “career” of Francis Schaeffer with much more detail than most other biographies.  The chapters are broken down chronologically into eight sections.  The first six sections comprise the first forty-eight years of his life (before L’Abri) while the final two chapters blitz one through the last twenty-four years of his pilgrimage.

Colin spends a chapter detailing his childhood leading up to Schaeffer’s role as a pastor and denominationalist in what would later come to be known as the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America).  Of interest to some readers may be learning how much J. Gresham Machen influenced the young Schaeffer in his ministry.  During this time in his life, he resided in St. Louis, Missouri.

The middle chapters detail the travels of the Schaeffer family from Holland to Switzerland and stops in between.  By the end of the book, we wind up in L’Abri where Schaeffer set up a school of sorts to teach people how to wrestle with the culture and to look at situations from another’s point of view.

Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is at the very end where Duriez shares his interview with Schaeffer from 10 September 1980.  In this interview, Schaeffer takes a very introspective look back at his life.  This conversation is an interesting peek into the person we know as Francis Schaeffer.  What is most amazing is to see how Schaeffer lived what he believed and how what he believed impacted his worldview thus changing his life forever.

Critique of Francis Schaeffer:  An Authentic Life

I thought Duriez did a wonderful job of showing the early life of Francis Schaeffer to an audience that may not be aware of how the man came to be the man we know.  What I would have liked to have seen is a bit more detail on the final twenty-four years of his life.  I realize there is quite a bit of writings regarding this time frame in Schaeffer’s life, but I believe we all would have been blessed all the more to have read it from the detailed mind of Colin Duriez.

The writing style was extremely engaging.  I could tell that much of what was written down came through oral history and conversation.  Rarely was there a dry paragraph in the book.  What I mean by “dry” is that most biographers feel the need to quote extensively from the works of the person about whom they are writing.  While Duriez does quote extensively from Schaeffer, he does so strategically and with great care.

Conclusion

This is a must read for anyone who wants to know what made this prophet of the 20th century tick.  Not only is this book a quick read, but it could easily serve as a devotional of sorts.  Many Christian college students would do themselves a favor if they were to pick this book up and read it from cover to cover and plumb the depths of one of the greatest minds (not limited to just Christianity) in the 20th century.

Francis Schaeffer still helps people understand what they believe and why they believe it even 25 years after his death.  We would all do well to sit at his feet and learn how God used this man to reach so many people.

Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce by John Piper

Piper, John. Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007. 76 pp. $7.99. Purchase at Westminster books for $5.99.

Introduction and Background

John Piper, pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, has become a noted biographer in recent years because of his 4-volume Swan Series books where he takes a quick look at the lives of some of the saints that have gone before us as well as his more in depth looks at the life of Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Fuller just to name a couple. This book on the life of William Wilberforce is along the lines of the others. It is short and full of information. In no way does John Piper pretend that this is an exhaustive sketch of the life of Wilberforce.

Summary of Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

Piper introduces this biography by asking the question, “What made him tick?” The answer, “was a profound biblical allegiance to what he called the ‘peculiar doctrines’ of Christianity” (p.20). These peculiar doctrines were so important to Wilberforce that he wrote a book entitled, A Practical View of Christianity, that set forth the necessity of these doctrines for the Christian believer. He then spent the rest of his life and career seeking to establish these as a way in which one should live their life at all times.

Wilberforce’s early life was a bit troubling. He was orphaned at age nine and sent to live with his aunt and uncle. It turned out that God was in this, as Wilberforce would later acknowledge, because one of the family friends wound up being a man they called “Old Newton.” This was none other than John Newton.

The story of how he met his wife is impressive to read because of how fast it happened. He had been a believer for about 12 years when he met a woman named Barbara on 15 April 1797. “He fell immediately in love. Within eight days he proposed to her, and on May 30 they were married, about six weeks after they met” (p.28). They stayed married until William passed away. “In the first eight years of their marriage they had four sons and two daughters” (p.28).

His conversion came about during a time of travel with a friend, Isaac Milner, in 1784. It was at this time that Wilberforce reached a biblical view of man, God and Jesus at an intellectual level. However, his intellectual assent slowly became deep conviction. He later referred to this move from intellectual assent to deep conviction as “the Great Change.” After his conversion, Wilberforce struggled with whether or not he should leave politics altogether and go into the ministry.

A visit to “Old Newton” helped him to see that he was better able to serve God in politics than if he were to leave politics. Through this meeting, Wilberforce began the process of the abolition of slavery in Britain. Though this is what he is most noted for, Wilberforce was involved in much, much more. He was active at one point in his career in sixty-nine different initiatives. He also sought to evangelize his fellow politicians with the gospel.

Getting back to the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce began his quest in 1787. After numerous defeats, he witnessed the abolition of slave trade in 1807. He was able to see a complete abolition of slavery in 1833 just before his death in the British colonies. Thus, William Wilberforce was allowed, by the grace of God, to begin and see the completion of the total abolition of slavery in Britain.

Critique of Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

Though this short biography was very informational, I did note two areas that I thought detracted from the book as a whole. First, there is a discrepancy in terms of the timing of the complete abolition of slavery and the death of Wilberforce. Jonathan Aitken, who writes the foreward says that Wilberforce died three months after slavery was outlawed (p. 15). John Piper says that his death took place three days after the abolition of slavery (p. 19).

I do not believe this would have been noticed had it not been for the mere four pages between the two statements. However, since it occurs so close to the beginning of the biography, it can cause a little bit of concern as to the historicity of all the facts presented. This is especially true because Aitken is Wilberforce’s biographer and Piper has become known for his biographies. I was unable to find much resolution as to the date of the abolition of slavery in relation to Wilberforce’s death, but am not too concerned because they all have the same year (1833).

I offer the second critique with the qualifier that I completely agree with the doctrine of Calvinism that John Piper discusses in the context of his biography. However, I do not see why he believed this to be necessary to insert into the biography-especially in the context that he did. In discussing what other people thought about William Wilberforce, John Piper says the following:

Hannah More, his wealthy friend and a co-worker in many of his schemes for doing good, said to him, ‘I declare I think you are serving God by being yourself agreeable…to worldly but well-disposed people, who would never be attracted to religion by grave and severe divines, even if such fell in their way’ (p.61).

Piper continues,

In fact, I think one of the reasons Wilberforce did not like to use the word “Calvinist,” is although the faith and doctrines he expresses seem to line up with the Calvinism of Whitefield and Newton, was this very thing: Calvinists had the reputation of being joyless (p. 61-62).

Piper gives a lengthy footnote as to the use of the word Calvinist as well as to the friends Wilberforce kept. The last sentence of footnote 17 found on page 62 says, “As I completed his book, A Practical View of Christianity, I could not recall a single sentence that a Calvinist like John Newton or George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon could not agree with” (p. 62).

As I said, I am in complete agreement with these doctrines myself; however, I do not see how this is important to the context of the life of William Wilberforce given that this is only a 76 page introductory biography. It gives an appearance that John Piper wants Wilberforce to be a Calvinist even though he never came out and said as such.

Conclusion

As a short biography of one of the great Christian men in the history of the world, I would recommend this book. It is extremely readable and can be read in one sitting perhaps during an evening. I also think it would serve in a school situation where a student is learning about slavery and/or a history of Britain.

This book has whet my appetite personally to learn more about William Wilberforce and to read his book A Practical View of Christianity. This short biography can also interest the reader into wanting to know more about great men (and women) of the faith throughout history. Piper’s writing style is just conversational enough and full of just enough historical information that you feel as though you are dialoguing with a historian.