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

Category Articles
Date January 15, 1999

This article is a continuation from Part I.

There were some weaknesses in Abraham Kuyper.

1. Kuyper’s approach to the Bible was not uniformly helpful because his preaching was not that of the careful exegete. At times his sermons were more like lectures than expository addresses. He would, for example, seize on single words in a text like ‘rooted’ or ‘grounded’ and use them as the springboard for his message. He loved great themes and finding support for them throughout the Scriptures. He wrote and spoke with a wealth of imagery — remember that haunting reference to the music of Aeolian harp at the end of his Stone lectures at Princeton. That is a Kuyperism. He gave the people a taste for that sort of thing. Dogmatic reflections about the word replaced preaching the word. But of course his circle produced commentators and exegetes — think of the ‘Bible Student’s Commentary’ some of whose volumes have been translated into English

2. Kuyper was also a polemicist. He carried on controversies over the smallest issues and could (it is whispered) be economic with the truth of details to serve his end. Thus he irritated friends and foes alike. But he was never bland! It is no achievement when all men speak well of you.

3. Kuyper’s over emphasis on common grace resulted in change of balance in understanding Scripture and the confessions. There was a shifting of theological and ecclesiastical boundaries, and gradually, certainly in the next generation, a new openness towards ‘the world.’ It became easier to lower one’s guard if ‘common grace’ were pleaded. It could be occasionally used as a battering ram to break down the Antithesis. New emphases introduced into the professing church may invigorate — there is an early infatuation, and everyone thinks he is discovering these insights for himself — but the promotion of fresh ideas cannot fail to change how we understand and live out Biblical truth. Kuyper kicked onto the pitch ‘common grace;’ others dribbled it in very different directions from himself. The belief in common grace could make men gullible. For example, one of the pastors in the Reformed Churches, Barkey Wolf, visited London and heard Leslie Weatherhead. He wrote in the church paper, ‘I have a feeling that God is busy doing great things through Leslie Weatherhead.’ He ignored the fact that Weatherhead openly attacked the Bible. Weatherhead’s writings were translated into Dutch. But why did common grace become such an issue in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and in the Christian Reformed church in the USA? When men like Schilder and Hoeksema opposed it in their different countries there was an uproar. It is a secondary matter theologically. Would we ever discipline over a denial of common grace? But there was a vehemence and a church censure in those Reformed denominations. Why this deep personal investment resulting in deposition from the ministry of both Schilder and Hoeksema? Was there some hidden agenda?

4. Kuyper taught ‘the doctrine of presumed or assumptive regeneration by which he meant that a covenantal child is assumed to be a child of God until and unless the opposite becomes evident in his or her life. The 1834 seceders did not accept Kuyper’s position’ (Henry Vander Kam, Schilder: Preserver of the Faith, p. 14). There was in 1905 a denominational compromise on the subject, but in his later controversy with Kuyperian theology, ‘Schilder opposed Kuyper’s theory of ‘immediate regeneration.’ There was for him a failure to appreciate the regenerating Word’ (Always Obedient, p. 14). Schilder also opposed the theory of J. Ridderbos that God’s covenant was established in and through regeneration. One consequence of Kuyper’s teaching on baptism was that thousands of people grew up in the Reformed Churches who from the pulpit and within their Christian schools were addressed as if they were regenerate — had they not been taken to the font? Ministers baptising would think (or even say) ‘let’s hope it was a true baptism.’ This view of baptism was commended as an ‘objective’ alternative to the ‘subjectivism’ which the older Puritan-inspired preaching brought to regeneration. Yet while Schilder rejected Kuyper’s belief in the presumptive regeneration of the children of believers linked to their baptism Schilder’s own view, judged in pastoral and evangelistic terms, does not seem to be much different. Schilder linked their regeneration with the promises of God. Both emphases in the resulting groups of churches resulted in the children being treated as if they were regenerate.-

5. The effect of Kuyper’s approach to the word and sacrament was to weaken evangelistic and experimental preaching and to stress doctrinal and polemical preaching. It reminds one of the sort of ministry that one heard in England amongst Anglican evangelicals in the first half of this century. Generally they were not Puritan men though solidly conservative evangelicals. The marks they stressed as defining a Christian were well-informed orthodoxy — a man had to be ‘sound’ — and also that he was engaged in the good fight of keeping Christ in the public square. For them this meant that the Protestant Establishment was to be maintained in England. For Kuyper the pulpit was enlisted to support his Christian programme for church, family, community and nation. The older Secession view would have emphasised the distinguishing marks of love for the Lord Jesus Christ, overcoming the world, love for the brethren, maintaining the spirit of prayer to God, and personal holiness.

The period between the two world wars was a dangerous time, with the most subtle attacks directed towards Calvinism. One of the modernizers said, ‘We’ll cut the Reformed back down to size — but not by burning them at the stake. We’ll use champagne instead! We’ll let them drink our most exquisite wine from our finest glasses.’ So, with their world and life view, the followers of Kuyper became involved in the whole system, with some confidence because they were doing so in the name of the Christ of culture, but there they drank champagne from the offered glasses. In other words common grace and sphere sovereignty were used by the spirit of the age to rob the antithesis of its positive insistence on Christian distinctiveness. A semi-gospel, which could adapt itself to anything, was enervating the cause of Christ. There had been a period of awakening and blossoming but then the autumn of drying up and dying away had come. Berkouwer relates in his autobiography how as students he and his peers paid lip-service to the Reformed Dogmatics taught in their lectures but afterwards they enthused to one another about the material that Barth and Emil Brunner were writing. A whole generation of men schooled themselves to be undercover agents for the new modernism.

Attendance at church, Christian school and college were keeping up throughout the twenty years between the two great wars, but we all recognise that numerical strength sometimes stands in inverse proportion to actual power. The great question then is how does the prophetic word address such times? If that prognosis is ignored then you face a long winter, and that has been the European experience. In Wales men look back to the date 1904, but in Holland they were looking back to 1886 and the year of the great disruption. Certainly the prophets of the Bible were characterised by initiative, courage, determination and perseverance. But did the prophets not also address the sin of the people, and summon them via repentance to love the Lord with all the heart? Did they not believe that only the mighty acts of God could help them? Psalm 44:2, ‘With your hand you drove out the nations and planted the peoples and made our fathers flourish. It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them the victory; it was your right hand, your arm and the light of your face, for you loved them.’

Schilder worked on a Ph.D. in philosophy in the 1930’s and then in 1933 the Synod of Middleburg unanimously appointed him Professor of Dogmatics at his alma mater, the Theological School in his home town of Kampen. At the same time he became editor of the church weekly paper, The Reformation. This was an extraordinary productive period for him. The 1930’s was a decade of confident Christian expansion. They were the years of celebrations in the Netherlands. 1930 was the year of Jubilee for the Free University. 1933 was the celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Prince William of Orange. 1934 was the centenary of the Secession. 1937 was the 300th anniversary of the production of the Dutch Bible. 1938 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Reformed Young Men’s League. There is no harm in marking centenaries. The danger is this: if we spend our time commemorating the mighty acts of God in the past we have less time in costly work for God at the present. Celebration can become building the tombs of the prophets. How rarely are we stirred to the emotions of shame and fear when we hear of the life of a Spurgeon or a Machen? It is more likely to be triumph. We forget that all such faithful servants ended up crucified. I wonder if we are vicariously living our own Christian lives through the battles of great men of the past, hoping our admiration for them will excuse or at least draw attention away from the shoddiness of our own work? Celebrating the past can leave people with a false sense of security about the state of evangelicalism today. In the 2030’s — which some of you will see — what centenaries of the 1930’s, besides births and deaths, will the church be commemorating? They will be very few. Without Machen’s bravery it is a barren decade. How did the 1930’s end in the Netherlands? With the May 1940 invasion of the country by the Nazis, conquered in a week, and the loss of its liberty. Independence was gone, and the House of Orange was in exile in England. All they had celebrated in the 1930’s was overshadowed by the swastika and crushed beneath the jackboot. The 1930’s was seen as a decade of epigones — the undistinguished successors of the great. Where were the mountain-climbers? The explorers? The seafarers? The stone-throwers? The lamplighters? Who could supply the spark to make young hearts flame? Men had become mere descendants, magpie chatterers, lacking any awareness of a higher calling. All this had come from forsaking God’s Word. Nostalgia stifles when a movement is built around the person and work of a single extraordinary man. Schilder’s own supporters also were to become epigones after his days. The church is left looking at the marvellous charismata of extraordinary human beings. We all instinctively are looking back to men because there are no giants alive today to follow.

When Schilder began his work of reformation he did not have an agenda. There was no programme or strategy coming from Kampen. He spoke and wrote on issues as they emerged, and in a sense that was enough. He was like Luther who tackled one abuse and nailed up the 95 Theses. He never dreamed what would become of that action. Thus God the Holy Spirit uses a Calvin, a Whitefield, a Chalmers, a Spurgeon, a Machen. What we see in their lives is not the story of men’s great deeds but a report of the mighty works of God. Then you meet Christians who will protest about what these reformers are doing, saying, ‘That is not the issue. That is peripheral and divisive. Let us unite to support the great matters. And, anyway, this is not the right moment.’ But God may raise up people to address a point that was not even on the agenda at the beginning of a meeting. True reformation is just like revival. It is a sovereign work of God. We can discipline. Only God can reform. The chief of staff is the Lord — not any man. We preacher/pastors are foot soldiers who have not been filled in with the battle plan. We are not strategists pushing out cardboard battalions on a huge map in an underground bunker. We are not diplomats and bureaucrats. We are blind servants listening to our Master’s voice and following him.


Schilder began his teaching in Kampen, and soon the students arranged the publication of his lecture notes. Their shape was the classical Reformed approach to systematic theology. Schilder further lectured on the church and on the covenant. To support his position he appealed increasingly to the theologians and confessions of Calvin’s generation, as well as to the Church fathers. His criticism of Kuyper for ‘scholasticism’ increased, and in his book on heaven Schilder opposed Kuyper’s views of common grace and the covenant. This stirred up opposition in the church to his views, especially in Kuyper’s own son, Professor H. H. Kuyper and there was an acrimonious Church Synod in Amsterdam in 1936 and a series of pamphlets were written against Schilder by Dr Hepp. These things must be noted because of the repercussions in his subsequent censure, church discipline, the division, and the new denomination. But all that was a few years off, and as the theological controversies of the 1930’s rolled on, so was spreading the philosophy of National Socialism and Nazism.

At the Kampen Seminary Dr. Schilder had other duties besides his lecturing such as raising and collecting money to maintain and improve the school, but much of his time was occupied as the editor of The Reformation, and in the pages of this weekly he locked in combat with those aspects of Kuyperianism which he opposed, and Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy then sweeping Holland, and especially all forms of individualism and inwardness. Whether it was the Plymouth Brethren, Pentecostalism or what he judged to be Reformed forms of subjectivism in the pietism of the second Dutch reformation his opposition to them was based on the conviction that mysticism made the work of Christ done in men’s own hearts and lives central, rather than what he insisted upon, namely, the work of God done outside of men. These religious movements were drawing attention to men’s own experience at the expense of the church’s calling to exalt the history of redemption wrought by Christ. He judged the mystics’ approach to the Bible to be individualistic, reductionistic and psychologistic. This conviction was his passion. On his first visit to the USA he lectured here and there in Michigan on ‘Christ and Mysticism.’ His position was very similar to the theme of the Australian magazine called ‘Present Truth’ which rose and fell twenty years ago.

The modernists were worse. Having discounted the truthfulness of the Scripture they were left emphasising the religious and moral values of the text of the Bible, so that their sermons were at the level of human ethics and personality. Modernism cleans up and improves Jesus. ‘With this approach, you can portray Jesus any way you like; as an illustration of Buddhist patience, an exhibition of human suffering, the prototypical philanthropist, the personification of love, the symbol of the soul’s sorrowful tribulation, the example of pure humanity. When you do, however, you turn the Lion from Judah’s tribe into a kitten. You isolate Jesus from his God, and from his most terrifying commission; you separate the suffering man of Golgotha from the exalted Lord of Easter and Pentecost’ (Preaching and the History of Salvation, C. Trimp, Scarsdale, 1996, p. 79).

Schilder was soon alone in the editor’s chair of ‘The Reformation’; there was no unity amongst the other contributors, fellow editors left and the owner decided to stick with Schilder. He was left carrying the burden, writing for it even from hotels and private houses in the midst of all his travels across Europe. His scripts were all hand-written with his indecipherable writing. Once while standing in the aisle of a full train he is supposed to have asked the man standing in front of him whether he could use his back as a desk for writing. Some of the editors who left ‘The Reformation’ founded their own papers which presented the more so-called ‘progressive’ views to the Reformed churches. But ‘The Reformation’ went from strength to strength selling between 3500 and 4,000 copies a week. As Barth was gaining a following so was Schilder. Even more remarkable was that a number of the church’s other conservative papers began to share the same judgments as Schilder. Others dissented: Professor H. H. Kuyper wrote a very personal article in ‘The Herald’ of May 24 1936 insinuating that Schilder was deliberately shaking the trust of the Reformed people in the Free University of Amsterdam. So church polemics went on, and the denomination officially admonished the men about continuing disputes about doctrine. Schilder concurred, but added, ‘only lack of clarity will harm us.’ But then this overwhelming issue of the spread of Nazism began to dominate. How were Christians to respond?


Dr Schilder at the early emergence of Nazism understood its roots and philosophy. He wrote a brochure entitled, Not One Square Inch! (Kuyper’s famous phrase about the dominion of Christ over all the world) which was a response to a series of leaflets put out by the Dutch Nazi movement. He said that National Socialism ‘is in a good measure inspired by the same philosophical paganism which seized hold of Marx and Engels at the beginning of their development, the consequence of which is now seen in Russia.’ He lectured on the threat of Nazism wherever he invited. A fellow spirit, J. E. Vokenberg, reminded the people of Holland that Kuyper had taught them that Calvinism had taken root not in Lutheran Germany but in Scotland and America. Why should their sympathies now turn to the east in this conflict? He abhorred the traitorous German invasion of Belgium (a neutral country). But soon the pull of Nazism in the decadent thirties grew stronger. Young men from the reformed churches were attracted and certain prominent Christians were leaving the Christian political party, the Antirevolutionary party, to become members of the Dutch Nazi party. In the ‘Calvinist Weekly’ (begun by those who could not work with Schilder in ‘The Reformation’), an extraordinary interview with Mussolini appeared referring to this ‘deeply religious man whom we now know as the Duce. . . May God grant this great man, who realises his personal dependence on Him, as we all must do, and who always has a Bible lying within reach, the wisdom to carry out his awesome task, namely, to see to the material and spiritual welfare of his millions of people, and also to co-operate with other heads of state to seek the welfare of our poor confused world.’ (quoted Van Reest, p.185). In fact a book came out in the 1930’s called The German Church Struggle — Truth or Lie? which contained alleged interviews with leaders of the German Nazi party, which put them all in a favourable light, and this book also claimed that Hitler kept a Bible on his desk. Later it was admitted that all the interviews were fakes. The book was withdrawn, but there were those in every denomination in Holland who sympathised with National Socialism. When the Germans invaded and took Holland in 1940 there were members of the Reformed Churches at hand to become advisers of the Germans. Some hoped to be made the Minister of Religion. The Dutch had been pro-Boer in the British war in South Africa, and the resentment about how the British treated the Boers lived on for forty years. The Dutch were culturally pro-German. It was their experience of Hitler and the Nazis that changed that.

Schilder’s response was not to plead submission in the name of Romans 13. Other churches, like the Netherlands Reformed congregations, reluctantly did. Schilder constantly opposed the Nazis, one of his final articles having the headline, ‘Leave your hiding-place. Don your uniform.’ Schilder appealed to international law to oppose them, and he used his pen constantly, especially from May to August 1940 to point out the anti-Christian ideology of national socialism. The magazine had earlier been put on the black list in Germany and censored, but in Holland it was sold at station kiosks. The last straw was when he wrote in that ‘Don your uniform’ article in August 1940 these words, ‘Authority and power, fortunately, remain two different things. Eventually the antichrist shall keep the latter and the church the former. And after that, the day of the great harvest comes. Come, Lord of the harvest, yes come quickly, come over the English Channel and over the Brenner Pass, come via Malta and Japan, yes, come from the ends of the earth, and bring along your pruning-knife, and be merciful to your people; it is well authorised, but only through you, through you alone, at your eternal good pleasure.’

Following the entry into the Netherlands of German bombers and tanks came the Nazis, and everything came under their strict control. Spiritual freedom was lost. Even sermons were monitored carefully by the Nazis. The churches’ young people’s organisations were closed. 100,000 Jews lived peacefully in Holland and soon they were being hauled away to the gas-chambers. Tens of thousands of Dutch men were deported to Germany to work in factories for the war effort. Hostages were taken; torturing prisoners and concentration camps became common. The Germans had bombed Rotterdam and destroyed the old city.

Schilder had lived through one war. He was ordained in 1914 and had preached a sermon on the outbreak of the first World War on Matthew 18:7 ‘Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offences cometh!’ Now in May 1940 he chose the same text. He said, ‘May that text remain in the minds of all of us, for it will keep us from hiding behind the mass of people and evading our own individual responsibility.’ Schilder had opposed the Nazis during the 1930’s how could he be different now that they were in control of the country? The Reformed pulpit must never get involved in politics, but it must lay out principles which are derived from God’s word. Schilder counselled his readers that the most important thing of all was not to deny their God. He said this sort of thing in his editorials: ‘Don’t preach every single Sunday about the differences between National Socialist doctrine and Reformed doctrine, yet when the occasion arises in the course of your ordinary work do not deliberately remain silent. For example, in preaching a sermon on the first commandment can you be silent? If we are forced to sell certain books we will refuse. We will do no harm to Nazis personally, but not overlook the difference between what they are as people and what they do as Dutch Nazis. So we will not use physical weapons but will not cease using spiritual weapons. We will continue to pray for the Jews and if they come to us confessing Christ we will not turn them away.’ He also raised the vexed question about the legal position of the usurping Nazi government. He counselled keeping the Dutch Nazis at arm’s length, but respecting the German army personnel.

We know about the Nazi’s ecclesiastical strategy. Hitler had said about the German churches, ‘I will not give them the pleasure of persecution. The churches must be rooted out by making them laughable in the eyes of the masses. Our movie theatres will help us in this effort. We will need films which make it clear just how laughable the priests and parsons are, as parasites preying on the people. In the meantime we must hollow out the ecclesiastical system as much as possible from within.’ Unfortunately there was little leadership opposing the Nazis from such church papers as ‘The Standard,’ ‘The Herald’ (which became a German paper), or ‘The Credo’. The religious press quickly came to the conclusion that the best and Christian way was the way of heroic silence. How smoothly that becomes a counsel of looking the other way and pretending one does not know what Christians did know only too well. Ministers were warned by church papers not to seek martyrdom — that was not much help to the women whose faithful husbands were arrested. There were Christians who worked for the resistance. Hans Rookmaaker was arrested and imprisoned for distributing forbidden anti-Nazi underground papers. Others risked their lives by taking Jews into their homes hiding them throughout the whole course of the war. There were many men such as Dr Herman Veldkamp of Vriesland, that outstanding preacher and author, who wrote and spoke out boldly against the Nazis’ creed. There were even papers who ceased publishing — better no paper at all than publishing a Christian paper and serve the lies of the Dutch Nazi movement. Other faithful ministers were sent to Dachau concentration camp.

But there was also a terrible servility. There was a national sense of the inevitability of German victory over Europe. H. H. Kuyper’s son Willem was amongst many young Dutch men who volunteered and joined the German SS. There was a Dutch brigade. He died on the eastern front fighting for Germany against Russia in the winter of 1942-43. No denomination, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic, had a clean sheet. There was a lot of heart-searching and guilt after the war ended. Today over fifty years later wounds are raw in Holland about that terrible time.

When the German police finally knocked on Schilder’s door in August 1940 and hauled him away from home they suggested that he would be going to Farnham for a little time of interrogation. He was given a half-hour’s hearing in the Security Police building, and then he was locked in a cell for four and a half months. The door had the letter ‘P’ on it presuming him as someone in transit (a ‘passant’), probably on his way to a concentration camp. ‘The Reformation’ was seized and no further publications were permitted. Fortunately, the collected issues of back copies of the paper and list of subscribers were not destroyed. There were Dutch Christian papers that said that Schilder deserved this for going too far in his opposition to the Nazis and ‘desire for a British victory.’ One professor at the Free University said, ‘Schilder could have avoided it. Daniel didn’t pull the tails of the lions when he sat in their den.’ Much prayer was made for his safety and deliverance, and a moving poem was secretly circulated.

In December Schilder was released and for two more years he concentrated on teaching at the Kampen Seminary. Then on July 13 1942, just after dawn, a police truck pulled up outside his house. The bell rang, but no one answer the door and a Dutch policeman persuaded the German police that Schilder was away preaching. Schilder took the opportunity of leaving town and going to Amsterdam for a few weeks. But a month later the order to arrest him was repeated and the Kampen police came and seized his ration book. The situation was then desperate. Schilder knew that there was no way he could avoid arrest and so he went into hiding in the home of a friend. He was in a dark depression, and he didn’t even know that the Germans had plundered his library. Schilder went from that friend to live with a family on an out-of-the-way farm near Giessendam on the Merwede river. The only way it could be reached was by a rowing boat. Not even his closest circle of friends knew where he was. He had to remain in hiding for two whole years. He was dependent on radio reports as to what was happening. The news that reached him was appalling. He had been brought to trial in the church for opposing the doctrinal statement of 1942 concerning such matters as covenant and baptism, and presumed regeneration, and because he opposed what he believed to be the hierarchical actions of the synods held in 1939-43 and 1943-45. He and his fellow professor S. Greijdanus were accused of sinning against the fifth and ninth commandments. In their absence, on March 23 1944, both he and Greijdanus were suspended by the synod of the Reformed Churches at Utrecht as ministers and professors. They were called ‘publicly schismatic.’ They were deposed on August 3, 1944. Men like Barkey Wolf supported it, the leadership of these events being in the hands of Dr. G. C. Berkouwer of the Free University who presided over the synod, but later came to regret the whole business.

Continued in part III

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