Tag Archives: Klaas Schilder

Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture — Some Notes

Way back in the day (I mean way back — even before university), I got it into my head to take a Dutch course.  The greatest part of my motivation was the desire to read famous Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder in the original.  So off I went, me and a good buddy, to study Dutch at an evening course offered by the adult education department of Edmonton Public Schools.  After finishing the course, I got my hands on some books by old KS.  One of them was a slim little volume entitled Christus en cultuur.  Unfortunately, my Dutch skills were not up to snuff.  I could make little sense of it.  I gave up soon after beginning.

A few years later, I managed to get my own copy of an English translation of this book.  Translated by Rev. G. VanRongen and Dr. W. Helder, it was published by Premier in 1976.  I got more out of the English translation than I did from the Dutch, but there were large swathes that remained impenetrable.  After reading some other stuff from Schilder, I reached the conclusion that either he was the most brilliantly flawed communicator in the world or I was one of the densest readers.  He could have moments of profound insight, but it was like wading through thick brambles to access that beautiful little trout stream.

I recently discovered a new edition of Christ and Culture.  It was published in 2016 by Lucerna, the publishing arm of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  It is a new and much-improved translation by William Helder (who was involved with the first English translation) and Albert H. Oosterhoff.  It also includes helpful explanatory notes, both from the translators and from a recent Dutch edition by Jochem Douma.  As a result, many of the literary brambles have been cleared away and the insights of Schilder are more accessible.

Having read through this new edition, let me make a few notes, both of appreciation and criticism.

It is well-known that Schilder was an outspoken critic of Abraham Kuyper.  Christ and Culture allows English readers access to some of his criticisms and their rationale.  For example, in chapter 4, he critiques Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty:

…Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those “sovereigns” in all those “spheres” might be.  One single Sovereign — that is something we can accept and understand.  But as soon as one begins to speak about “sovereigns” in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.  (16)

Chapters 18 and 26 feature Schilder’s critique of Kuyper’s teaching on common grace.  When “the gifts of creation blossom and expand,” Schilder argues that it is not a matter of grace, but of nature.  Cultural activity in itself does not involve grace, but godly cultural activity does.  He agrees that there is a restraining of sin, but there is also a restraining of grace.  Schilder’s critique is worth considering.

In the last number of years, Schilder’s name has been bandied about in connection with the Federal Vision controversy.  In relation to that, it’s worth noting that chapter 14 finds Schilder affirming the active obedience of Christ.  In chapter 16, some might be surprised to find KS appear to be speaking of a pre-fall covenant as something distinct from the covenant of grace.  He even uses the common expression “covenant of works,” but places quotation marks around it — a device which indicates his discomfort with the “works” part of that expression.  Unfortunately, the annotation of Douma gives the impression here that Schilder regarded the “covenant of works” as something essentially distinct from the later covenant of grace.  In reality, Schilder elsewhere clearly regarded the covenant of grace as a continuation of the “covenant of works,” or another phase in the history of the one covenant (see here, for example).  While I wish Douma’s note was the whole story, we do have to honestly acknowledge the facts.

While generally appreciative, there are a number of places where I’ve placed question marks in this book.  In chapter 26, against Kuyper, KS argues that Calvinism should develop its own unique artistic style.  That we don’t do this is a sign of weakness, he insists.  What he means is that Dutch Calvinists should develop their own artistic style.  He has no conception of what it might look like for an African-American Calvinist to develop his own artistic style, or an Australian aboriginal, or a Calvinist from whatever other culture in the world.  This entire book, in fact, is quite insular — it was written for Dutch Reformed readers living in the 1950s who had no to little multicultural exposure.   The book is a product of its time and thus the author can’t be held too culpable for this.  When we think about Christ and culture today, however, we do need to reckon with a multicultural world.

Schilder appears to believe that the only worthwhile cultural endeavours result in educational outcomes.  So, for example, he is rather critical of movies (he’s writing in the 1950s!) because though they exhibit technical excellence, they do not educate people.  Hence, they are breaking down, rather than building up (page 119).  But why is a pedagogical purpose the defining feature of what builds up?  Why can’t a cleverly told story (whether on the screen or in a book) that’s written to delight not also be a worthwhile cultural endeavour?  Is there no place for simple delight and enjoyment in a Christian conception of culture, or must everything have an educational purpose? I’m not convinced by Schilder here.

Though easier than before, this book is still not accessible reading for average church-goers.  Sometimes I write about books and I get people asking me, “Should we buy this for our church library?”  Umm….no, sorry.  Even with all the helpful annotations, this remains rather thick theology.  As such it’s best-suited for pastors, theologians, and academics.  They’ll be challenged and enriched by its contents.  I’m glad that we have this new improved edition and I commend CRTS for getting behind it.


Personal Responsibility

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Does calling for personal responsibility make one into an Arminian?  Some Reformed people have real trouble with holding people accountable for the spiritual choices they make.  Some get uncomfortable when Reformed preachers make a distinct call to faith and repentance.  They feel that this somehow undermines God’s sovereignty.  After all, if God wants to save someone, he will do so in his own time and in his own way.  Calling for people to respond with repentance and faith seems to say that human beings may be trying to do something contrary to God’s purposes.  In fact, once I was even told by a Reformed church member that the Heidelberg Catechism is Arminian when it says that justification is mine, “if only I accept this gift with a believing heart” (QA 60).  Apparently, the Catechism is also Arminian when it says that forgiveness belongs to believers, “as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel” (QA 84).  Some folks really stumble over that word “accept.”  How can that be Reformed?

Leaving aside any popular misunderstandings of what constitutes Arminianism, can we speak about the need for all of us to personally accept God’s gospel promises?  Does an acknowledgement of human responsibility add up to a denial of divine sovereignty?  Or, to put it another way, does divine sovereignty mean that we are mere puppets on a string or perhaps pre-programmed robots who can only follow the Programmer’s wishes?  These are important questions and they’ve been wrestled with many times throughout church history.

One path we might take in exploring these questions could take us back to Klaas Schilder (see here for a short bio).  Personal responsibility in the covenant of grace was one of Schilder’s emphases.  Against the background of others who placed everything under the umbrella of divine sovereignty, Schilder sought to drive home the reality of the covenant as a relationship between God and his people, a relationship where human beings are treated as completely responsible for how they respond to divine overtures.

A good summary of Schilder’s approach can be found in the essay of S.A. Strauss in the book Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr. Klaas Schilder (yes, as noted before, an infelicitous title).  Strauss noted that Schilder was contending with the covenant views of two theologians in particular:  Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth.  Writes Strauss:

Schilder observed the same weakness in both schools of thought, even though this weakness arose from different motives.  With regard to the doctrine of the covenant, both reasoned so strongly from the perspective of the eternal decrees of God that man’s responsibility in the covenant was underemphasized.  In contrast, this responsibility was a basic motive in Schilder’s theology: in the covenant God treats man as a responsible being and confronts him with the choice of “all or nothing,” for God or against him!  Schilder therefore did everything in his power always to define the covenant in such a way that justice was done to man’s responsibility. (Always Obedient, 21)

Schilder’s point of departure in this approach was not God’s inscrutable eternal decrees, but his dealings with humanity in history.  God’s decrees are certainly behind all he does, but what is accessible to us and what we experience are his dealings here and now.

There are consequences that follow from this and one of the most marked is going to be found in preaching.  Reformed preaching which acknowledges this reality is not going to allow for or encourage passivity amongst God’s people.  Covenant preaching of this sort will not countenance fatalism.  Strauss elaborates:

…it is Schilder’s view that true “covenant preaching presents the strongest appeal to human responsibility.  This is why such preaching is also so tremendously serious, and revealing…comforting, but destroying all excuses for idleness [maar het stuksnijding van alle duivels-oorkussens].”  Such covenant preaching is a prohibition against imagining going to hell while being on the way to heaven, and it is a prevention against imagining going to heaven while being on the way to hell. (Always Obedient, 25)

Taking Schilder’s approach means that a Reformed preacher is not going to be soft on human responsibility.  In fact, you should expect a preacher who has learned covenant theology from Schilder to emphasize this rather strongly.

What about baptism?  Where does that fit in here?  Strauss explains that Schilder taught that all who are baptized receive a concrete address from God, “a message that God proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally:  if you believe, you will be saved.” (28-29).  However, if a baptized covenant member rejects God’s overtures in unbelief, such a person will come under God’s covenant wrath and curses.  Greater blessings and promises imply greater responsibility and accountability.  Strauss concludes about what Schilder wanted to emphasize most strongly:

…that the covenant should never be allowed to lead to a false sense of security.  People of the covenant may never think that salvation is already theirs because they have received the promise.  The promises of the covenant are not predictions; they imply demands…

This is, then, the great and lasting signifance of what Schilder taught us about the covenant.  When God establishes his covenant with human persons, he treats them as responsible beings.  As Schilder characteristically put it, the covenant stands or falls by its rule “all or nothing.”  (Always Obedient, 30-31)

The fact of the matter is that no one, least of all covenant members, can use God’s sovereignty to evade their personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, to do so would be to give in to a Satanic way of thinking.  Satan wants people to stand idly by and be passive before God — because passivity before God always means plenty of activity that pleases the evil one.

So is it Arminian to insist on human responsibility?  If it is, then not only am I guilty, but so is Klaas Schilder.  Of course, the Protestant Reformed allege exactly that.  Followers of Herman Hoeksema, most notably David Engelsma, have insisted that we are essentially Arminians because we hold to the view that there are conditions in the covenant of grace.  This is not the time to enter into a full rebuttal of that view.  Only let me say that their position is the result of viewing everything, and especially the covenant, through the lens of election.  Everything has to fit in a neat system that we humans can comprehend.  Against that, I acknowledge God’s full and complete sovereignty in our salvation in line with everything in the Canons of Dort, but at the same time I stress the human responsibility to repent and believe found in the Heidelberg Catechism and elsewhere.  That is a responsibility far more weighty for those who have been included by God in the covenant of grace.  In the covenant, God treats us as responsible creatures and, as such, calls each one of us to repent from sins and accept the gospel promises in true faith.


Two Items on Klaas Schilder

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Considering how much he wrote, there is relatively little available in English from Dr. Klaas Schilder.  For those who don’t know, Schilder was an important theologian in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  He played a significant role in the Liberation of 1944 — a church struggle wherein the Canadian Reformed Churches have their origins.  The other day, I rediscovered a letter written by Schilder to one of his cousins about life after death.  This letter was first published in English in Diakonia in September 1994.  There’s no information included on who translated it, but when I asked the editor of Diakonia he suggested that it was probably done by the late br. Rienk Koat.  He was translating it as it appeared in the Dutch periodical De Reformatie, with an introduction by Dr. W. G. de Vries.  The letter is interesting for its theological content — notice the careful distinctions that Schilder draws — but also for its personal and pastoral character.  You can read it here.

Also with regard to Schilder, the other day Scott Swain published this post on Reformation21 dealing with Geerhardus Vos and membership in the covenant of grace.  I could not help but notice the similarities to what Schilder taught on this subject.  I am not the first to reach this conclusion.  Nelson Kloosterman drew attention to it in this article from a few years ago as well.  One thing that Kloosterman didn’t touch on, but would be interesting to research, is how Vos and Schilder are related to each other on this point.  Did they develop this view independently?  Were they drawing on a common source?  Did one influence the other (though I suspect if so, considering their dates, it would have to be Vos influencing Schilder)?


Some Recommended Resources on the Doctrine of the Covenant of Grace

As mentioned here previously, I’ve been preaching a series of catechetical sermons on the doctrine of the covenant of grace.  Someone asked me to provide a list of recommended resources.  First, some caveats.  The list is not comprehensive, not by far.  These resources are in no particular order.  My mentioning them does not mean that I agree with every single detail, term, or formulation in them — indeed, some of them do contradict each other at certain points.  In sharing them, all I mean to say is that I have learned something valuable from them and perhaps you can too.

The Covenant of Grace, John Murray (Philippsburg: P&R, 1953, 1988).

This was the very first thing I ever read about covenant theology.  It’s a dense little booklet of 32 pages.  It’s not included in Murray’s 4 volume Collected Writings.

The Main Points of the Covenant of Grace — Klaas Schilder.

This was a speech delivered by Schilder in 1944.  It’s a fairly good summary of his covenant theology.  He emphasizes the dynamic and relational nature of the covenant of grace.

Covenant and Election, J. Van Genderen (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995). 

A good overview of the history of this topic.  The author also proposes helpful ways of outlining the similarities and differences between covenant and election.  This was one of our textbooks in seminary.

Teaching and Preaching the Word: Studies in Dogmatics and Homiletics, Nicolaas H. Gootjes (Winnipeg: Premier, 2010).

Here I’m thinking especially of chapters 4 (Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience), chapter 8 (Sign and Seal), chapter 9 (The Promises of Baptism) and chapter 17 (Can Parents Be Sure?  Background and Meaning of Canons of Dort, I, 17).  Dr. Gootjes was my dogmatics professor in seminary and probably the biggest single influence on the way I think about the covenant of grace.  I hope that his material on covenant theology in the Reformed confessions will someday yet be published.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

Bavinck tackles the covenant of grace in volume 3 and he’s worthy of careful study.  In volume 2, he also has a notable discussion of the covenant of works.

An Everlasting Covenant, J. Kamphuis (Launceston: Publication Organisation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, 1985).

This is a more technical work which traces some of the finer details in the debates over covenant theology leading up to the Liberation of 1944.

Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007).

This is a collection of essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary California.  There are some important cautionary notes sounded in this volume directed against the false teachings of Federal Vision theology.  In a series of articles in The Outlook, I addressed the question of whether some of the authors mentioned above should be condemned with the Federal Visionists.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.  It’s also available in Korean here.


Baptized Children “Sanctified in Christ”

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I’m doing a series of sermons on the covenant of grace and so I’ve been doing some reading again on this subject.  A lot has been written about the doctrine of the covenant in Reformed circles.  J. Kamphuis wrote a little book called An Everlasting Covenant.  It was originally written in Dutch and then translated and published in Australia in 1985.

In our Form for Infant Baptism, the first question asks whether parents confess that our children “though conceived and born in sin, and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation, are sanctified in Christ and thus as members of his church ought to be baptized?”  The words in bold have been controversial and Kamphuis discusses this in his book.  Let me quote what he writes about the views of Klaas Schilder:

K. Schilder…expounded the view of the old Reformed theologians such as Petrus Dathenus and Marten Micronius, and also that of the baptismal form as follows:

a.  ‘Sanctified in Christ’ means: by virtue of the participating in the Covenant, being entitled to the promises of justification by Christ’s blood;

b. This justification, however, in time becomes our share through faith.

c. When by faith the promise of the washing by Christ’s blood is accepted, and in this way the baptized person indeed participates in justification, then the washing by Christ’s Spirit springs from it, sanctification not ‘IN Christ‘ but ‘THROUGH the Spirit.’

d. This is why at baptism — which has the participation in the promise as the foundation of its administration, and itself seals that promise — the baptized person is put under the obligation to believe the promise.

e.  It belongs to the contents of the promise that has to be embraced in faith, that the Holy Spirit desires to sanctify us, (indeed) imparting to us that which we have in Christ (in the promise, by rights). (80)

In other words, baptism does not actually convey the gift of justification, as if all those who are baptized are automatically justified and then might later lose it.  It conveys the promise, but what is promised is only received through faith.  All covenant children are recipients of the promises and all are obligated to believe those promises.  The gospel call to faith and repentance needs to be sounded amongst the covenant people!