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

Category Articles
Date January 15, 1999

This article is a continuation of Part I and Part II


The shock waves of this action went through the country. They were at war, a nation conquered by the Nazis, and what was their General Assembly doing but virtually excommunicating one of their most famous men. Eight days later, on August 11, a meeting was convened in a church at The Hague to reflect on the deposition of Schilder. So many turned up (1100 from all over Holland) that they had to move to one of the largest churches in the city, the Lutheran, which was full to overflowing. There was present the tall figure of Schilder himself, and the elderly Greijdanus. The meeting was chaired by little Hermann Knoop, who only a year earlier had been released from Dachau concentration camp where two of his fellow ministers had died agonising deaths. The issue as defined by that congregation was the activity of the ecclesiastical hierarchy whose extra-scriptural demands had resulted in the persecution of faithful office-bearers. Hermann Knoop gave an analysis of the state of the denomination, and finally Dr Schilder read the 20-page Declaration of Liberation or Return which he had prepared. Those in sympathy were asked to sign it.

The majority of theological students from Kampen were there and thronged around Schilder in a meeting in a separate room. They did not accept the disciplinary measure that had been taken against their beloved professors. He made a speech to them and told them, ‘I am nothing but a deposed professor. . . We are like Abraham; we are called to a place that we do not know. We have to go in faith.’ All over the country ministers, elders, families and whole congregations left the Reformed Churches and formed a new denomination of Liberated Churches. Buildings had to be hired and new arrangements made. Within a few months there were 68 churches and 77 pastors, and by the appearance of their first yearbook in 1946 there were 216 churches listed which were served by 152 ministers and had 77,000 members. It was said that the liberation cost the ministers ten years of their lives. The effect upon the Reformed churches out of which they had seceded was damaging. Eventually they lost a tenth of their members — numerically larger than either of the 19th century secessions. Dr Louis Praamsma has written, ‘The Reformed churches were damaged by this event, and their power was sadly diminished. It could not longer be said of them:

‘The people held them in high esteem’ (Acts 5: 13). They had to admit — to their shame — that although their confession was pure, love had grown cold among them.’ In the long term the loss of the most conservative people made that denomination more vulnerable to the liberalism which was to engulf it in the next half a century. In 1959 some reconciliation was evident by the Reformed churches when in its Synod in Utrecht a decision was taken to set aside those doctrinal pronouncements which had been the basis of disciplining Schilder. In 1988 their Synod acknowledged that they had made a mistake in 1944 in suspending and finally deposing Schilder. Hope has been expressed that approaches made to the liberated churches might be accepted by them. But there has been too much sacrifice for any easy reconciliation, and a hardening attitude because of the increasing doctrinal laxity in the Reformed churches which they have left.

This division is one of the uglier chapters in Dutch church history. It is known as the ‘Scouring’ (‘De Schuring’) — the word used for scouring a pot. These Christians were in the midst of a brutal war, under enemy occupation, with secret police active and torture and summary executions commonplace, beloved pastors in concentration camps, fathers and brothers working in munitions’ factories in Germany. They were ill prepared to deal with the pressures of church censure and deposition. March 23, 1944 came at the slow ending of a bitter winter when people were dropping dead from hunger upon the pavements of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Those freezing months were known as the ‘time of hunger.’ The trees that lined boulevards were cut down for fuel. Public squares in the Hague looked suspicious and bare. There was no food to give to dogs and cats: pets disappeared. In the Hans Rookmaaker biography Linnette Martin records, ‘One Dutch woman I spoke to remembers how her mother dug worms from the garden to chop and fry with a little rice. “They tasted bristly.”‘ (p. 83). It was at such a black period that they were being asked to make judgements of men and high theology. The views of a national hero in hiding from the Gestapo were being attacked. Could they side with the church hierarchy in condemning him and removing him from the pulpits of the church at that time? What an unjust diversion it seemed. Consequently there was bitterness in the land. Families, friendships, churches and communities were brutally torn asunder. Some would not leave the Reformed Churches who were expected to. Erasmus once said, ‘I am not made of the stuff of reformers.’ There will always be Calvinists like that. Court cases about the Reformed Churches’ money and property went on for years. The newly liberated churches believed they had entitlement to a proportion of that.

The reaction of some of those who left the Reformed Churches with Schilder was that they adjudged themselves to be the ones who were keeping the faith alive in the Netherlands. They believed that they alone had seen the issues and had been prepared to sacrifice for them. They were the ones liberated from compromise, disobedience and unbelief. They started their own Christian schools and a new Christian political party. They were ‘truly reformed,’ and there are those amongst them who maintain that spirit yet, even if they are going into a new millennium and belong to liberated churches in South Africa, Australia or North America. Today there are 266 liberated churches in the Netherlands with 285 pastors and 123,000 members. They have 14,000 members in the North American churches with 40 ministers.

There are over 3,000 in Australian congregations with 9 ministers.

The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated) immediately asked Schilder, Greijdanus and Dr Dam to continue training men for the ministry, but Dr Dam was arrested and executed by German soldiers within the year, just weeks before the war ended. A few months later after VE day in the autumn of ‘45 Schilder and Greijdanus resumed teaching in Kampen in a decrepit YMCA building. A bedroom washstand functioned as the lectern for the two professors. They gave all the lectures and supervised the sermons’ sessions. There were 34 students. Three more professors were appointed at the Synod the following year. It gave this new seminary the right to grant the degree of doctor of theology (There had been an old slight when the Seminary there had been refused permission to award degrees because it was a church school and the church could not give graduate degrees. Sphere sovereignty with a vengeance!). How different is that Kampen seminary today with its beautiful buildings. There Dr Jan Douma has been the Professor of Ethics. He has written a fifteen volume series called Moral Reflection. He is most well-known in Britain for his friendly interaction with us Reformed Baptists and his visits to our churches. His book ‘The Ten Commandments‘ is a valuable volume.

The magazine ‘The Reformation’ was again published under the editorship of Schilder. The last issue had been that of August 16, 1940, when German hands had halted the printing press. That was the issue of Volume 20, Number 45. The first issue published after the five-year gap was Volume 20, Number 46. Under his editorship it was probably amongst the best theological papers in the world. There followed a few busy years of teaching, preaching and writing, and then on March 23, 1952, precisely eight years to the day after he had been suspended from his office as minister of the word and professor, Schilder died of a massive heart attack. He was 61 years of age. Amongst his last words to a friend were, ‘It is well with me. I go to Jesus.’ So died one of the great Reformed theologians of the 20th century. On the day of his funeral some 4,000 people lined the streets of Kampen. There was a simple service and at his graveside John 17 was read.


There are major contributions Dr. Klaas Schilder made to our understanding of the Christian faith.

1. Schilder recognised from the beginning the errors of the theology of neo-orthodoxy. Karl Barth was only four years older than Schilder. In 1919 Barth’s commentary on Romans appeared and fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians. Schleiermacher and Ritschl and their followers at that time controlled modernist thought — that theology which was ridiculed by Feurerbach as nothing more than a glorified anthropology. Against that Barth emphasised the transcendence of God. The Lord cannot be found in history or in human experience. Only by revelation can man know God, yet, even when God reveals himself to man, according to Karl Barth, he remains wholly hidden in that revelation. Barth did not make his point of departure from modernism the infallible Word and the sovereign God of Scriptures but the philosophical consciousness of autonomous modern man, of post-Kantian man. So Barth uses Reformed and biblical terminology but pours a radically alien content into that language. Schilder saw that, and within ten years of the appearance of Barth’s Romans had begun to sound an alarm concerning this theology. When the careers of Schilder and Berkouwer are compared you can see the detrimental consequences for the latter of coming under Barth’s influence. Cornelius Van Til, Schilder’s friend, concludes, ‘The Christ of Barth’s theology is a false Christ, a mirage, meaningless and devoid of ability to give sinners any help. But it is the only Christ that men can find if they will not submit their thinking to the obedience of Christ as he speaks in the Scriptures. A philosophy of egress and regress that covers itself with the name of Calvin, such is the theology of Karl Barth’ (Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume One, p. 586).

2. Schilder was right to see the dangers of justification being moved away from its central place in the gospel to be replaced by sanctification. The good news of Christianity is about what the Son of God by himself accomplished in his blameless life and royal death. It was not our feelings, our faith, our repentance that suffered and rose from the grace. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who completed the work which the Father gave him to do. The theme of the church’s testimony to the world is to be the story of God’s work on earth. What is central, because it is saving, is what was accomplished by the Saviour. We draw men’s attention away from our own experience to the redemption fashioned by Christ. Yes, there can be a petrified orthodoxy, but the answer to that is not, ‘Emphasise more of your own experience of the indwelling Saviour’ but to appreciate more the magnificent achievements of the Lord Jesus. The great spread of the faith recorded for us in the book of Acts centres upon the preaching of the mighty works of Christ. Salvation isn’t based partly or even mostly on God’s grace; we are saved by grace alone. We don’t relate to God partly, or even mostly, on the basis of faith; we are justified through faith alone. Forgiveness and freedom aren’t based partly or even mostly on Christ; forgiveness and freedom are based on Christ alone. Christians are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. That, and that alone, is the foundation for spiritual freedom.

3. Fascination with the history of redemption has always characterised preachers and theologians. The German reformer Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) in his major work Summa doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei presented an outline of the scriptural teaching of salvation which has become the quarry from which all later biblical theologians have dug riches. Jonathan Edwards was born exactly a century after Cocceius and he wrote the first work on this theme in North America, A History of the Work of Redemption. Schilder was the European pioneer of 20th century Biblical Theology, while Geerhardus Vos, who was 28 years older than Schilder, became the American leader. They were both Secession men. Vos’s father had been one of the pastors to have led a Secession church in the 1834 Awakening. Geerhardus graduated from a school in Amsterdam and went with his family to Grand Rapids when his father accepted the call of a church. Geerhardus Vos turned down Kuyper’s invitation to teach at the Free University and, after a brief spell in Calvin Seminary, became in 1894 professor of biblical theology at Princeton. So the two men seem to have had little contact with one another, yet their roots in the second Dutch Reformation brought them to a similar understanding of redemptive history.

When Vos gave his inauguration lecture at Princeton he enumerates some of the benefits that come from being trained in biblical theology (‘The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline’ in Richard Gaffin (ed.), P&R, 1980, p. 21ff.). First, biblical theology gives to the student a sense of the exquisite structure of the Bible, of its great diversity which is yet brought together by the Spirit of God into one unified truth. Secondly, biblical theology is ‘a most effective antidote to the destructive critical views now prevailing’. Thirdly, biblical theology is of great value in the study of systematic theology. Vos had a high view of systematics. He said that dogmatics was ‘the crown which grows out of all the work that Biblical Theology can accomplish.’ To understand the insights of John Murray (a grandson of the Scottish Disruption) you must realise how deeply he himself had drunk at the spring of biblical theology. He taught a most stimulating course at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, on Old Testament Biblical Theology. His teaching showed how much he owed to his old teacher Geerhardus Vos. A grasp of redemptive history is one of the greatest ways of maintaining a gospel-perspective in preaching. It also helps parents to teach their children how to understand the Bible (cp. the four volumes of S.G. De Graaf’s Promise and Deliverance [Paideia Press, 1977]’ which were originally written for the Sunday Schools of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands).

Dr Graeme Goldsworthy has written some useful books on biblical theology especially, According to Plan (IVP, 1991). In an essay in Interpreting God’s Plan (ed. R. J. Gibson, Paternoster Press, 1998) entitled ‘The Pastor as Biblical Theologian’ he shows how biblical theology promotes high views of the Bible, of Jesus, of the gospel, of the ministerial task, and of the people of God (pp. 113-124). He writes the following (which expresses the sentiments of Schilder exactly), ‘One of the more exciting aspects of doing biblical theology is the way the interconnectedness of biblical texts keep surfacing. The more we understand the structure of revelation within its historical framework, without forgetting the variety of its literary expressions, the more we will understand the relevance of any given text to us as Christians. Quite simply, if we can see how any text relates to Jesus Christ, then, since we also study to know how we as the people of God relate to him, we can grow in understanding of how any text relates to us. Biblical theology helps us to see the unity of the Bible within the complexity and diversity of texts. Having something of the big picture enables us to avoid the wrong application of texts’ (p. 116). So the history of redemption is important because of what it does to the church — it puts us inside that story, in the ‘this is that’ era, under the apostolic commission, and expecting the parousia of Christ. It serves to make every part of the Bible immediate to us. There can be no living, growing preaching today which does not take advantage of the insights that salvation history provides.

Continued in part IV

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