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Learning from the Life of Dr. Klaas Schilder (Part I)

Category Articles
Date January 15, 1999


‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Never was that proverb more accurate than in this self-initiated enterprise. I have about four words of Dutch. I know about Holland via North America, not because of visits to or discussions with men who live in the Netherlands today. I once exchanged houses with Professor Hans Rookmaaker, and we worshipped in Diemen, east of Amsterdam, in the liberated Reformed congregation where he had been an elder. I am a Reformed Baptist from Wales, and most Dutch Protestants rarely meet Welshmen, let alone Baptists. I am getting involved in something way over my head. Is it all worth it? I can only plead that I am ready to learn from my mistakes, and revise my judgements, but what I have learned I believe to be relevant to the situation evangelical Christianity finds itself in today in Britain, and maybe in the USA too.

The life of Klaas Schilder is fascinating, and anyone who has read his trilogy on the death of Christ will realise that in him you are confronted by a very great man. One of the preachers he influenced, Dr Cornelis Vanderwaal, said to me that he believed Schilder was greater than Karl Barth. I willingly concur with that judgment, if just for one reason, that I have never got any help from Barth to live my Christian life. But Vanderwaal’s remark indicates his disciples’ esteem of Schilder, an attitude bordering on reverence, which further fuelled his detractors’ anger. The upper classes in the establishment of the Reformed Churches never forgot the peasant stock out of which Schilder came.

We British live on an island off the coast of Europe, and the seas around us keep every European language out. We are pervasively influenced by American forms of Christianity. They dictate our agenda and Americans head-hunt our best men. The two modern Bibles most of us use are American translations. The USA is 3000 miles away. We are ignorant of what happens in the strongest Protestant nation in Europe, the Netherlands. It is as if for us its history stopped with the death of its most famous Christian, Abraham Kuyper, almost 80 years ago. Across the narrow sea that separates us from the Hook of Holland there is a vitality, vigorous piety, extraordinary generosity, and abiding interest in the Reformed faith. Their mission work is simply not reported in our papers. No other country in Europe has had such a theologically strenuous 20th century history. Nowhere else managed to escape as well from that general apostasy or ‘downgrade’ which swept through every other nation in Europe, especially my own homeland. It is an effrontery for us Calvinist parvenus to be cavalier about the Reformed Christians of the Netherlands.

For years they were on the other side of the high wall of the English language. What changed is not that John ‘Lazybones’ Bull began to learn Dutch but that in the second half of the 20th century across that wall came an immigration of hundreds of thousands of Dutch Christians, especially in the 1950’s, into the English-speaking world. This has served to make its Christians interact with a number of other traditions, and with a growing band of admiring people. Books have been written and translated to explain their particular origin. More of Holland’s history can now be known and its lessons learned.


Dr Klaas Schilder was born on December 19, 1890 in Kampen, that community which is always identified with him, and where he died in March 1952. Ten years before he was born the 43 year-old Abraham Kuyper had started the Calvinist Free University of Amsterdam (i.e. ‘free’ from church and state control). But two years earlier Kuyper had led a massive petition campaign to get state aid and full financial equity for religious schools. That poses the question, can you have truly free Christian education if all the taxpayers of a country are footing the bill? The theory has been that education can be controlled by local societies of concerned Christian parents, and before the emergence of political correctness, when there was still a basic appreciation of the Ten Commandments, that system generally worked. But parental control is not possible for education after high school. It was not long before Dr. K. Dijk was saying that ‘the golden chains that now bind us to the state are much more dangerous to our spiritual health than the iron chains in which we were confined in our house of bondage’ (‘The Reformation’, January 21, 1921). How rapidly the Free University departed from its Calvinistic foundations But the vision that started the Free University was majestically Biblical, and the speech which Kuyper made at its opening was thrilling. Someone said that single address took them along the road of Biblical reformation another twenty-five years. It was written on the side of a card with a blue pencil.

Four years before Schilder was born Kuyper was the leader of an exodus of over 100,000 people from the national or state church in the Netherlands, the Hervormde Kerk. These were called the Doleantie (the ‘Dissent’ or ‘Protestation’) and in 1892 they, together with many of an earlier group that had seceded in 1834 (the ‘Secession’), united to form the Reformed (or Calvinist) Churches, the Gereformeerde Kerken. Schilder was baptized as a baby in the national church but the family left it to join the Reformed Churches.


The first Secession had taken place seven years before the Scottish Disruption of 1843 and the birth of the Free Church of Scotland. They were very similar movements. The writings of Robert Murray M’Cheyne are loved almost as much in the Netherlands as in Scotland. The Secession of 1834 came out of a prolonged revival in Holland which continued in both the national church and in the Secession churches (Details of this are found in Gillies’ Accounts of Revivals, pp. 490-492, Banner of Truth). It was sparked off by a simple young minister named Hendrik De Cock of Ulrum. He was not a deep thinker or a great orator. He pastored a small village congregation in the midst of farmland near Groningen. He preached earnestly the gospel of Jesus Christ, speaking on the themes of sin and grace so freshly that people came from afar to hear him. The disapproving national church found a reason to discipline and silence him. He was fined, jailed and driven to despair, but more prominent men, stirred by his example, stood with him. These were the ones who seceded from the state church. This awakening was consciously more theological and Calvinistic, with preaching given a more central place, than in most of the 19th century revivals in England and Wales. This awakening resulted not only in many conversions but it brought back the pulpits to the Reformed faith, in a way the 1859 revival failed to achieve in England and Wales. Twenty years later these seceders founded the Kampen theological school. It was also a culturally significant work in that it reawakened the national feeling of the Dutch people and enabled them to resist the effects of the European Enlightenment and the consequences of the French Revolution.

There were many Christians who did not leave the national church. Over the years they have formed an association or alliance (‘Bond’), and today there are about 300 congregations in the state church affiliated with this modality. They claim about 400,000 members (the national church of Holland has between two and three million members) and they generally sing psalms exclusively, and stress personal conversion. It is almost a church within a church, and one always meets ministers from the ‘Bond’ at the Banner of Truth Conference in Leicester.

The stream of the more conservative Secession churches had flowed strongly through Kampen and its seminary, whereas the stream of the Doleantie men of the Kuyper reformation of 1892 gravitated to Amsterdam and the Free University. Schilder was a grandchild of the 1834 Secession. The new denomination, the Reformed Churches, with its two strains, became the second largest Protestant group in the Netherlands. Its papers were the daily ‘Standard’ and the weekly ‘Herald’. Churches and Christian schools were full. While Kuyper lived it was an inspirational time of hope (like the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in Britain when Puritanism was rediscovered, but in Holland on a vaster scale). Young people were organised and excited about the Reformed faith. They knew of the Antithesis — separation from the world and cleaving to the Lord Jesus Christ — and they accepted it. How they thought about their faith!

Though the great Kuyper had weaknesses what a force for good he was in the world. He could speak in 1913 and look back — with some hyperbole — to the achievements of the past half a century and say, ‘Fifty years ago, when I first came to know Calvinism with its steel heart and cutting sharpness, it was a pitiful phenomenon in our good fatherland. There was literally not a single theologian of any reputation who defended Calvinism. There was no company on the march that had Calvinism in its flag. In our organisational and civic life, there was no thread of Calvinism to be found. And no scholarly circle, however small, concerned with restoring the inheritance of our fathers to a position of honour. It just lay there — faded, dried out, lifeless.’ Such opinions (that Calvinism was a ‘pitiful phenomenon’) would have been resented by the people of 1834 who had maintained the testimony to confessional Christianity for years before Kuyper came on the scene. Certainly there were brilliant men who identified with Kuyper, nevertheless he underestimated the people of the Secession — rather like Anglican evangelicals virtually ignored the English Free Church ministers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although it was the common people who had taken their stand in 1834 they too had a ‘scholarly circle.’ But for Kuyper there was ‘no single theologian of any reputation’ in the national Church before himself. The Kuyper reformers believed that they now had scholars to challenge the prevailing liberalism, as if the battle were primarily intellectual. It all reminds one of England in the 1940’s and 50’s and the feeling that we were going to produce scholars. Today the assertion is, ‘Now evangelicals have scholars and also bishops who are evangelical.’ Oh that we had some common people! Kuyper’s claims to put Calvinism on the map were resented, and consequently some of the Secession people did not unite with Kuyper and join the new denomination. Certainly without Kuyper Calvinism would never have been put firmly in the academic district of the public square in Europe.


Schilder lost his father as a young boy and did not have the free time for play that many of his contemporaries had. Even in seminary days he would leave a fraternity meeting before the end to go home and turn the handle of a mangle for an hour or two for his mother. He was unconcerned and unashamed about doing this. His mother was an actual laundry woman, yet he completed his high school education at 18 and in 1909 went on to enrol in the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches across the town. He was able to write poetry in Latin, Greek, German and in his own language. From the very beginning, like every great preacher, he had an exceptional command of language. He was fascinated with literature; he wrote a book in 1927, Among Poets and Scribes which displayed his familiarity with modern writers. Its theme was the lucidity of Scripture. It was said that he knew Goethe better than anyone in Holland. He could quote long sections of Faust by heart. He also could play the organ beautifully, and after a service when visiting a church would hang around the organist hoping that he would be invited to play the instrument. At the funeral service of one of the Bavinck family he was the organist. He was a deeply educated and cultured man.

Little is revealed about his early experience of the grace of God. Dr Jacobus de Jong speaks about ‘some struggle and turmoil’ but no details are given. Dr de Jong is more interested in his teaching. We are impoverished by this silence, and also wary that a suspicion of what his circle are quick to detect as ‘subjectivism’ or ‘pietism’ (or what Schilder would refer to as ‘mysticism’), is already evidenced in this deliberate muteness. Should not every minister have a testimony to life in Christ (even if it is over a period of years), and a strong persuasion that God is calling him to the office of preacher of the gospel, and is not such a conviction tested by Providence? Is that mysticism? But we are told nothing of such things. The Reformed Churches were humbly reticent about sacred things: they had a great view of God, a profound consciousness of the desperate deceit of the human heart, and they were fearful of bearing false witness. But there was also this developing anti-subjectivism. But we do respect the silence about the way Schilder came to assurance of faith and was called to the ministry. He had a withdrawn personality, not easily giving himself to other people. He considered a vocation on the mission field. That would have been his preference. He certainly knew he was called to be a preacher of the Bible, and he never turned from that path. His mighty labours are sufficient testimony to his divine vocation. He did not have a lazy bone in his body and he drove himself throughout his life. He summed up his own convictions like this: ‘God commands! We may do nothing else. Our own heart impels us! We do not want to do anything else!’

Schilder graduated from seminary in 1914. He was ordained in his first congregation in June that year just after marrying his wife Anna Johanna Walter. They were to have two sons and two daughters, and Schilder was to pastor five churches for periods of about three years each in the next 14 years until he went to one of the largest congregations in the denomination in Rotterdam in 1928 where he stayed for five years. During this period he wrote his first books, in 1919 What is Hell?; in 1923 Church Language and Life (a plea to end mystical old-fashioned church language); also in 1923 he published two collections of articles, one of which was on the relevance of the book of Revelation. In 1926 he wrote a book in defence of the historicity of Genesis 3 which chapter had come under attack. If Adam were not a historical character then it becomes impossible to know and understand Christ, for Christ is the last Adam. Protology (the doctrine of the first things) is decisive for Christology. Christ and Adam both share this — each is a man. True man. Real man. Not almost man. Not man in other history. Not man in holy history or higher history. Both Adam and Christ are men who have entered into and are dealing with the reality of being servants of God in God’s creation. In 1927 he wrote the first of his books against Karl Barth’s theology, and the second in 1929 entitled Between Yes and No. Schilder was probably the first man to warn the churches of the danger of this dialectical theology. His work drew together a group of younger men and through them there were the beginnings of exegetical and biblical theological preaching in the Reformed Churches in Holland. The climax of his writing at this period was the trilogy on the sufferings of Christ in 1930 when he was in his 40th year.

His disciple, Dr. Vanderwaal, did not esteem the trilogy as the best of his work. He said to me, ‘In those books Schilder tells you how Jesus felt. In the New Testament it tells you what Jesus did.’ That is a generalisation. Schilder is a conundrum: he writes a book early in his career about the dangers of mystical, that is, Puritan-influenced language, but his own book on the sufferings of Christ is replete with such musings! He would have done better, as would his followers, if the Puritan approach had not been so comprehensively jettisoned. If contemporary and academic language replaces the heart language of Puritanism then preaching and hymns are inevitably more cerebral and less affectionate. That is the last change reformed churches need. Schilder’s trilogy was followed in the same year by his other book translated into English (much briefer in size but more dense and forbidding), Christ and Culture. His final book before he became a professor was his doctoral dissertation which was on the concept of the paradox with special reference to Kieerkegaard and Barth. He studied from 1930 to 1933 in Erlangen, one of the older universities of Germany, and his thesis won the highest honour the university could give. They had not awarded that honour for a century. His writings were prodigious. There were evenings when he worked until dawn at his typewriter. Some saw him walking to the post-box very early in the morning. ‘An early start?’ they said to him. ‘A late night,’ said K.S. in his crumpled suit.


Schilder’s longest pastorate was in the church on the Tidemanstraat in Rotterdam. This big church building was always full to overflowing. The aisles and steps to the pulpit were occupied, and KS (as he was known familiarly throughout the churches) noticed everyone in the congregation. Once when some were listening to him preach they heard him repeating a sentence. They asked him why he had done that. He told them that he had seen someone sitting over there (he gestured) turn to his wife and say something to her. Believing that he had asked her what the preacher had just said he repeated the point. The church in Rotterdam was full of the little people, and they hung onto every word. The Amen always came too soon for them. There were those who found him difficult to follow, especially when he played with words. Those who listened to his sermons reckoned him to be amongst the greatest preachers they had heard. He must have personally exegeted the entire Scripture in its original languages and had an opinion on it all. He had texts always at hand to quote, and he never wrote out a sermon. He had a piece of paper with a few notes, but he was always very ordered, coming to a fine conclusion. Small flashes punctuated the sermon which you never forgot. He never failed to point to the Christ of the Scriptures. His voice was strong but thick, and you had to listen to him carefully. Like most outstanding preachers he did not have a natural orator’s voice. He did voice exercises all his life. He preferred to preach in the afternoon or evening than Sunday mornings. In the pulpit he could be sensitive to such things as the clothes people might be wearing in church, and to the impression the congregation was making on him. He did not mix Articles of the day with his sermons to make them sound up-to-date, or in order try to get the interest of the young people, or to ‘make God relevant.’ His sermons often ended with a mighty symphony. His church services ran for two hours. He didn’t know what it was to preach a short sermon. Sometimes he spoke quickly to get everything said. He couldn’t get things done in less than a two hour service. For example, if he were dealing with a sin, he dealt with it comprehensively to destroy its power in the lives of the congregation. Professor Vollenhoven once came out of one of his services and said simply to someone, ‘That was powerful.’ People were constrained to talk about his sermons afterwards. He became a channel for the word of God coming to the assembly. As he preached how he perspired; he couldn’t get through a sermon without a pitcher of water. He had to change his clothes after the service. His wife put them on a line to dry out for the evening service. In everything he did he was characterised by boundless enthusiasm.


Let us leave Schilder for a moment and sketch the context of his labours.

In 1920 Abraham Kuyper had died and a period in Dutch history, both ecclesiastical and cultural came to an end. The war did not help the cause of the gospel anywhere in Europe. Men were hardened. War profiteers had abounded in the Netherlands. In the 20’s travel became more common. The literature of France, England and Germany was freely available, and a new spirit was evident. When things go wrong in the church they go wrong everywhere. The old confidence in the spread of the gospel declined. The Christian faith came under attack. New religious magazines were launched. Socialism spread, and with it the social gospel in the professing church.

Karl Barth became the new hero and Kuyper was looked on as yesterday’s man. Church leaders began to say such things as ‘the ordinary citizen going to vote in an election was as much an instrument of Christ as a church-worker. Youth work done in the schools and sports clubs could build up young people as much as Christian fellowships.’

A religious organisation amongst university students called the Dutch Christian Student Union became increasingly liberal. It was equivalent to the British SCM. Theological students from the Reformed Churches joined it, and professors at the Free University like Herman Bavinck never ceased supporting it. Yet the Dutch CSU buried Kuyper and Bavinck spiritually.

They did this by three emphases:–

1. They said that they were interested in Christianity and culture — modern man and contemporary life — rather than ‘looking back’. They were rejecting the Kuyper of the Antithesis between the church and the world, but they were eagerly embracing the Kuyper of common grace.

2. Barth had presented them with his ‘Christ’ as the churches’ unifying figure — not the Bible or confessions of faith. There was an obvious tension being erected between Christ and the Scriptures. ‘Not truth, but Christ the truth, was central,’ they said. But what if Christ taught a specific high doctrine of Scripture?

3. A great stress on religious experience. The Oxford Movement of moral-rearmament gained influence in Dutch churches. This resulted in a much freer stance in an attitude to the Bible, especially to Christian doctrine. As one of the men who went through that period has said, ‘they often reduced the Scriptures to the testimony they contained concerning Christ. Moreover, that Scriptural testimony had to reverberate in the hearts and consciences of the believers. As for the rest of the Bible’s contents, they had no great objection to historical-critical investigation of them, even if such investigation ended in far-reaching negative results’ (Brillenburg Wurth, quoted in ‘Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church,’ Rudolf van Reest, p. 45).

So the theme was not doctrine, but life. Not the form, but the spirit. Not faith, but fruit. Not words, but deeds. Not so much a preoccupation with justification but it was sanctification that was deemed more important. University clubs and Christian movements are always the forerunners of emerging denominations and church unions. The SCM is the mother of the Ecumenical Movement. The men of the Evangelical Movement of Wales become the men of the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales.

Continued in part II

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