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

Category Articles
Date January 15, 1999

There is also unease we have with Dr Klaas Schilder. These would be in these areas:

1. The polemics which finally resulted in the trial, the suspension from office, the schism and the new denomination. I am limited by not reading Dutch, but one unanswered question which comes across is that surely there was enough freedom to keep within Reformed churches all those views? There were the other errors of Barth’s neo-orthodoxy, and higher criticism, and the rise of modernism. Those had to be dealt with in the light of the Canons of Dordt. But between the Wars there were clashing personalities, some of them quite brilliant men, who were not of the same mind in the Lord. Those who loved Kuyper were naturally offended by Schilder’s judgements on some of his doctrines, but was there not massive over-reaction? Schilder made no overtures to depose such men as Wolf, H. H. Kuyper, Berkouwer, etc. yet the reverse was certainly the case. They were looking on the conservative Schilder as the number one threat.

We are always most annoyed with those nearest ourselves who yet differ with us. Consider the opposition of the Exclusive Brethren for the Open Brethren, or the Protestant Reformed for the Christian Reformed, or the Free Presbyterians for the Free Church, or the Hyper Calvinists for the Calvinists – warnings about them have for some Calvinists become a theme of the 90’s. We are surrounded by Arminian doctrine. It is everywhere. It is the natural man’s theology. Yet anyone would think from some of our conference themes and reformed magazine editorials that the biggest problem hitting Britain or North America today was an invasion of hyper-calvinists, who were planting growing churches everywhere. The fact is that you have to comb the land to find them, but there are denominations of Arminians, and sacerdotalists, and liberals, and pentecostalists of all stripes and on every street corner, yet we are devoting precious energy in dealing with the hyper-Calvinist bogey-man. This is the same mentality that drove the Reformed Churches to make Professor Schilder – who believed in a historical Adam, and in hell, and in predestination – their bête noire even in the midst of the cruelest war the Netherlands had ever experienced. Let’s pick our targets, and not build increasingly higher walls over which we fire volleys of shots towards anyone and everyone who does not see things exactly as we see them. Most importantly we have to devote our energy to building up our own congregation in love for God, and keeping our flock from the little foxes that are in our midst.

2. Schilder opposed the concept of common grace. After man falls into sin life in a fallen world goes on and there is music, poetry and various skills mentioned in the line of Cain. Kuyper says that that is due to God’s goodness to all mankind, and is not that, we ask, God’s common grace? Is the phrase that inaccurate or offensive? Schilder does not accept the phrase but simply accepts that some men in the Cainite civilisation, as God’s servants, used their time wisely and others did not. Dr Jan Douma gently differs from Schilder in places, and, though he does not support Kuyper, he commends going back to John Calvin and his view of common grace. But the actual difference between Schilder and Kuyper in their attitude to the achievements of the non-Christian is confusing. According to Kuyper there cannot and should not be a Christian culture. Christ adds his particular grace to the culture of Greece or Rome as a result of common grace. Therefore Christians should not try to make a specific Christian culture. They should further ‘Christianise’ Western culture. Schilder says that there should be Christian culture, for Christ regenerates people to renewed obedience to the original mandate and this results in a Christian culture. But what of all the work in which we are involved with people who are not Christians? Schilder states that we are building different pyramids, but are we not often co-operating with unbelievers in building the same pyramid, but from different convictions? Think of a non-Christian and a Christian scientist who co-operate together in a research programme and the publication of a joint-paper. It frequently happens. What of the two women in Matthew 24:41:- “Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left”? Are they not co-operating in the same cultural work even though one believes while the other does not? (see N.H.Gootjes, “Schilder on Christ and Culture” in “Always Obedient” especially the footnotes on pp.58ff).

Our concern with Schilder is that he did not go far enough from Kuyper’s views. In practical terms there was scarcely a membrane between those leaders. The views of both men tended to externalise the doctrines of grace, especially justification and regeneration. Schilder shared in the judgment of Kuyper that the pietists had a too rigid view of the Christian’s separation from the world. The Reformed faith as a result of these convictions became more hollowed out. They did not give enough attention to the needs of the individual heart and soul. This lob-sided emphasis on culture was encouraging a Christianity that was speculative and abstract, rather than one that focused upon the sovereign, spiritual, inward working of the Word. Almost a hundred years ago Herman Bavinck wrote an introduction to a Dutch translation of sermons by the Erskine brothers of Scotland, and he said, “Here we have an important element which is largely lacking among us. We miss this spiritual soul-knowledge. It seems we no longer know what sin and grace, guilt and forgiveness, regeneration and conversion are. We know these things in theory, but we no longer know them in the awful reality of life” (quoted by Cornelis Pronk in “Neo-Calvinism”, “Reformed Theological Journal”, November 1995, pp.42-56). Those sermons are still revered in Holland today. Whether it was in the name of ‘common grace’, or ‘Christ and culture’ the ‘Christianising’ of the cosmos became the deeply optimistic enterprise on which both men and their followers set out. There is a triumphalistic note in Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at Princeton on ‘Calvinism.’ It seemed to be saying, “look what we’ve done in Holland. Next … the world!” That is a fantasy. Twenty years later began the first of two world wars which came in quick succession, and the rise of Marxism and humanism which was to devastate Europe and make the Netherlands known as much for being the home of moral anarchy as it is for the European centre of the doctrines of grace. The drug culture of Amsterdam would have been something which Kuyper could never have envisaged. Yet his doctrine of the dreadful wickedness of the heart of man, the hostility of the world to Christ and his church, and the activity of the powers of darkness should have made him alert to the bleakness of the future.

Cornelis Pronk writes, “The most we can look for in the way of visible results is that the Lord will graciously enable us to erect a few signs of the coming Kingdom. That Kingdom is basically an eschatological reality, i.e., as far as its fulness and visible manifestation are concerned, it is still a future reality. During this dispensation it is basically inward, spiritual and invisible. ‘The kingdom of heaven,’ Jesus said, ‘is within you.’ Christ now rules in the hearts of his people and he is King in his church and acknowledged as such. True, Christ is also King of the world, but until his return a Christ-rejecting world continues to make Satan its god, and as long as this dispensation will last ‘the whole world lieth in wickedness’ (or in the wicked one, Satan; I John 5:19) (ibid. p.53).

3. Dr Klaas Schilder absolutized redemptive historical preaching, that is, he took one aspect of the hermeneutical task, namely, seeing a passage within its own context in the story of God’s dealing with his people, and Schilder made getting that theological interpretation the exhaustive and climactic interpretation which the preacher was to bring to the people of God. It resulted in an unbalanced and lopsided approach to sermons. Biblical theology is wonderfully helpful as a servant of the preacher. It is a bad master. Redemptive historical preaching, (also called ‘biblical theological preaching’, or ‘salvation history preaching,’ or ‘covenantal preaching’ has its champions everywhere today, not only in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated). The American Presbyterian seminaries commend it, as does the Cornhill course of the Proclamation Trust, Moore College in Sydney and the Australian Anglicans, and the conservative Anglican colleges in England.

Without covenantal understanding preaching becomes confused. One of the losses in church history was the decline of the influence of Cocceius. Had his theology prevailed the walls which dispensationalist teaching erected between different epochs in the Bible would never have been built so high or endured so long. There are ministers whom I greatly admire, whose preaching from Old Testament passages would be transformed if they only accepted biblical theological insights. I think of one in Los Angeles who has built up an enormous congregation, whose tapes go around the world, whose defence of the Lordship of Christ over the believer has cost him dearly, whose annual conferences are eagerly attended by many preachers, and who has championed Calvinistic doctrines ever more clearly, but whose approach to Old Testament passages displays an inadequate hermeneutic to the detriment of his hearers and of greater usefulness. It distorts to make America (or any nation) the theocratic covenantal Israel of God and apply his people’s promises to that nation. I believe Arthur Pink would also have gained more insight into the Old Testament if he had met some principles of the history of redemption. Compare his fine book on the life of Elijah with M.B. Van’t Veer’s “My God is Yahweh” (Paideia Press) which is quite breathtaking in its examination of Elijah and Ahab in an age of apostacy because of its biblical theological insights. Pink writes a commentary on the book of Exodus (Moody Press, 1981), but when he comes to the book of the covenant in Exodus chapters 21-13 he does not have the theology to understand and apply it to his readers today, so without any explanation he simply omits any exegesis of those chapters (cp. pp.174 and 175).

On the other hand I know that those preachers in Ireland, England and Scotland whom I never fail to profit from because of the fresh insights of their sermons are all history of redemption men, but I am not sure whether they would want to be known as such, because such preaching has not gained the reputation of being an inspirational ministry, or being enduringly attractive, or evangelistically effective.

What has happened to redemptive historical preaching? Consider a criticism made back in 1981 by Dr John R. de Witt, the pastor of Seventh Reformed Church in Grand Rapids: “It seems to me that there is a problem among many of the younger Reformed ministers at the point of the redemptive-historical approach to the Scriptures. I have read Sidney Greidanus’s “Sola Scriptura” and some of the other books on the subject, but I have yet to find in any of them a way of bringing together the redemptive-historical conception of the Scripture and warm, pointed, applicatory preaching. I do not, it should be said, question the validity of the insights of the redemptive historical method. But to warn off the ministers from the exemplary and the moralistic methods of a former time and of other schools is not as yet to have shown them how to be personal and applicatory without doing injustice to the scope and intent of the Word of God. We need some solid, helpful work here, and we need it soon. If the redemptive-historical interpretative principles robs men of power in the pulpit there is something radically wrong with it. And I fear that it has done this in not a few instances” (“Contemporary Failure in the Pulpit”, Banner of Truth, Issue 210, March 1981).

1] The lack of application. This absence of “warm pointed applicatory preaching” is one of the chief concerns being expressed today. I was talking to Dr Edmund P.Clowney at Westminster Seminary in October, and as we discussed this subject this was his fear. “Some are saying today that you must not apply the word in preaching. It is unbiblical,” he said. He is writing a revised version of his seminal book, “Preaching and Biblical Theology.” Dr Jay Adams is more forthright saying this: “In ‘Prayer and Preaching’ Karl Barth writes uncertainly about application. He maintains that a preacher need not call the congregation ‘to make decisions.’ If any decisions are made, it is through a ‘direct encounter between man and God’ – an encounter in which the preacher plays no part: ‘the decision does not depend on him’ Barth says. ‘A serious difficulty presents itself in regard to application: how to be faithful to the text and also true to life.’ To this difficulty he claims, ‘there is no solution.’ Clearly, Barth thinks it is impossible for human beings to apply Scripture; this task belongs to God alone. The preacher must speak about the text and about life today, but God must bridge the gap, applying as he pleases what he will. Application, as far as the preacher is concerned, should at most be inferential, not direct. Direct application might prejudice the decision-encounter.

“Elements of this neo-orthodox approach seem to have influenced conservatives, especially many of those who claim to do ‘biblical-theological preaching.’ I am not impuning the use of biblical theology. Indeed, biblical theology helps the preacher avoid moralizing and makes a sermon Christian. But a preacher should no more be known as a ‘biblical-theological preacher’ than he should be known as a ‘systematic-theological preacher.’ As a preacher of the Word, he is ideally both a theologian and an exegete, using both theology and exegesis in the preparation of his messages. Properly used in sermon preparation, both systematic and biblical theology play important, indeed, essential roles. But when the minister of the Word reduces a sermon to little more than a biblical-theological lecture (or meditation), he is no more preaching than if he were delivering a lecture on systematic theology” (“Truth Applied” Wakeman Trust, 1990, London, p.20). Jay Adams has in fact written a few pages on the subject of “The Proper Use of Biblical Theology in Preaching” (“The Journal of Pastoral Practice”, Vol.9, no.1, pp.47-49).

Then Dr. Adams seizes on that fine book of Geerhardus Vos’s sermons published by the Banner of Truth, “Grace and Glory”, and he says, “Although these sermons are beautifully written and full of instructive matter, there is no application in them. Sometimes young pastors are intimidated by the charge that application is ‘moralistic.’ But morality is not the same as moralism: the former is biblical and Christ-honoring: the latter is not” (ibid). Jay Adams concludes his concerns about history of redemption preaching with these words: “Conservative biblical-theological preachers, sailing in the wake of Geerhardus Vos tend to ignore (or even oppose) the use of application in a sermon. They expect the listener to make his own application (if any) of the sweeping truths they set forth on their excursions from Genesis to Revelation as they chase down a figure or a theme. Or, like Barth, they leave the application to God. The two major differences between some present-day preachers and Barth is that the former (1) do not hold to the neo-orthodox ‘encounter’, and (2) are less concerned about the contemporary scene than Barth. Abhorrence of direct application leads biblical-theological preachers of this sort into common ground with many liberals who believe that the use of the indicative alone, to the exclusion of the imperative, is adequate. At best, such preaching is applied (if at all) by implication; at worst, only by inference. Application becomes the task of the listener rather than the preacher” (op cit p.21). Jay Adams’ entire book on “Truth Applied” should be studied carefully.

2. Hostility to Exemplary Preaching. Why did this absence of application emerge particularly in history of salvation sermons? You have to remember the struggle in Holland out of which this preaching arose. It was a controversy which raged in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands during the 1930’s and early 1940’s between exemplary and redemptive historical preaching. As we have seen, Schilder was one of the leaders of the latter group. Speaking on behalf of the tradition of exemplary preaching one Dr J. Douma said, “Our fathers knew very well that redemptive history is a unified structure with Christ at its centre, but they still felt free to treat separately (using biblical givens) certain persons described in Scripture, to picture them psychologically, to speak of their struggles and trials, their strengths and weaknesses, and then to draw parallels between the experiences of the Bible saints and the struggles of the biblical persons as an example to all, but also their sins and weaknesses as a warning” (“Sola Scriptura”, Sidney Greidanus, Wedge, Toronto, 1970, p.43). It was the absence of exemplary preaching that encouraged the lack of application.

“Cannot we have both?” is the obvious question. Surely we can, but there are those biblical-theology preachers who judge that exemplary preaching “cannot rightly be called ‘ministry of the Word’” (Van Dijk). We who will use exemplary application object to the exclusiveness of the redemptive historical method. Why was there such militancy with some of the redemptive historical preachers? One reason was their growing hostility to ‘subjectivism.’ Schilder’s theology was called ‘anti-subjectivistic.’ He looked at Dutch congregations and he saw those where people were seeking for assurance in self-examination, a simplistic psychology, a lack of joy, an individualistic reading of the Bible rather than seeing it as God’s dealings with the covenant people of God. Schilder felt the whole focus was on man rather than on God and his redemption. It was ‘self-willed religion’ which led to introversion, and he called for the “simple acceptance of the Christ of God’s promises, by faith, by immediate, unconditional faith.” So history of redemption preaching came into prominent relief against that evaluation of Dutch Reformed church life. Schilder wrote, “Experience teaches us that the preaching of historical texts often reveals the tendency to present results of psychology by describing various ‘soul conditions,’ to picture types of godliness, to present illustrations for the well-known ‘doctrine of salvation’”, and he spoke of a “menacing and almost automatic psychologizing of historical texts.” The language was strong and there was a virtual dismissive attitude to any exemplary preaching. It was put in the same basket as Barth and the liberals. There was much to concern Schilder. Liberals are undoctrinal as much as they are unexegetical. How much preaching that is considered inspirational is little more than lots of imagination and human interest, superficial psychologising, pretty words, but very little exposition or application of what the text says. Think of those Scottish preachers who made sermons on odd bits of texts. One of my predecessors in this church, who became the Principal of the North Wales Baptist College, would preach on such texts as silence in heaven for half an hour or “coat it with pitch inside and out.” Think of Macartney’s famous sermon on “Come before Winter.” Dutch churches where the free offer of the gospel is rejected do create an ethos of congregations waiting for lightening to strike.

Preachers needed to understand the history of redemption, but not at the cost of jettisoning exemplary preaching. However, in that climate of church conflict and controversy, with so many lines being drawn, if a follower of Schilder, a true biblical theological preacher should be heard applying the word to the congregation it seemed a betrayal. Was he slipping into exemplary preaching and encouraging subjectivism? What a bondage! This whole polarising and categorising of preaching resulted in fear, a restriction of preaching and a narrow strait-jacketing of sermons. It inhibited diversity, flexibility and the content of the messages. Redemptive-historical exclusivism resulted in a virtual elitism of men who had ‘insights’ and who could share them with the in-group. There arose the danger of Christomonistic preaching replacing biblical trinitarianism. To claim that every verse in the Bible has a Christological message of its own results in allegorical preaching. Some history of redemption sermons, Richard Gaffin says, “seem to be a hermeneutical scavenger hunt for who can discover most Christological types and allusions.” Is Christ present in every sentence of the Old Testament? The answer is yes and no. Not in an atomistic sense is he there in each verse, but certainly as that text is in a context and ultimately in a history which leads to the redemption of men by Christ alone then he is implicated in every portion of the Bible.

There must be exemplary preaching. Consider how the New Testament uses the men of faith in the Old Testament. Think of Hebrews 11, or of James 5: 17 & 18: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Elijah is being appealed to precisely as an example – “just like us.” A subordinate, even incidental, aspect of the Old Testament narrative is taken by James and is used to encourage New Testament Christians to continue patiently in praying. Of course, James has a fine biblical theological grasp of the Scriptures and he would know that it was quite permissable to give an incidental point of the Old Testament a major emphasis in a sermon. But his theology would have helped him distinguish the major from the subordinate. James knew that Elijah was a prophet with a role in the history of redemption, but he also knew that he was a man just like us, a sinner saved by grace, who battled to pray aright.

Exemplary preaching delivers men from the tyranny of history of redemption preaching which drives them always to seek for those unique typological moments in the history of God’s people in their movement towards their fulfillment in Christ. James is saying that those believers under the old covenant were just “like us” responding with faith and doubt, obedience and disobedience to the word of God. They were full-blooded people wrestling with their existence in fellowship with Christ. Was there self-examination and struggle and doubt amongst the psalmists? Then why is it a mark of godliness to drive it out of our churches? Of course the main point of Scripture is not the Christian but Christ, and not our experience but his promises, and not our need but God’s triune glory. But we must beware of our own polarising. As ever in Scripture truth is found on both extremes, the Lordship of God and the responsibility of man. Believers do have needs, and part of true preaching is to awaken sinners to see their needs and to flee to Christ for refuge, and also to come to full assurance that though they display but the beginnings of a new obedience yet God has loved them with an everlasting love. Is it healthy, spiritually, to weaken the exercises of self-examination and growth in assurance?

Preaching the history of redemption has to take its place within a healthy spiritual context, evangelistic, prayerful, serious-minded, Christ-centred, where there is unity between pulpit and pew that God is present and blessing when we tremble at the Word of God. It is not enough to preach a series of messages on one of the prophetic books, so that the congregation has fine fresh insights and knowledge of what that prophet was saying. It is not enough to feel that a certain book has been ‘done.’ Have we had an encounter with the Word of God? Has it perhaps devastated us and well-nigh killed us so that we are left thinking if it were not for the mercy of God in Jesus Christ we wretched men would this night be shrieking in the flames of hell in agony, because that is what we deserve? That was the purpose of the preaching of most of the prophets, but the response they got from the people was that they had done their Sabbath journey and gone to hear the prophet declare his message. It had been a fascinating experience and they would not have missed it, but now home they were going for their equivalent of crumpets and coffee.

The great awakening in the Netherlands in 1834 touched the lives of thousands of ordinary working men and women. Today preaching is touching the bourgeoisie, and the common people are not coming under the power of the Word of God. Too much ministry is by a would-be academic to other academics, all of them believing what a ‘thoughtful’ approach they displayed to Christianity – not like those pietists. Where is the saving and sanctifying energy of the word? For that we need to inquire of the living God.


The Schilder Trilogy – ‘Christ in His Suffering’, ‘Christ on Trial’, ‘Christ Crucified’, Baker.

Klaas Schilder ‘Christ and Culture’, Premier, 88 pp. Rudolf Van Reest ‘Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church’, Inheritance Publications, 470pp. ed. J. Geertsema ‘Always Obedient: Essays on the Teachings of Dr Klaas Schilder’, P.&R Pub,137 Henry Vander Kam ‘Schilder Preserver of the Faith’, Vantage Press, New York, 1996, 104 pp J. deJong ‘Accommodatio Dei: a theme in Schilder’s theology of revelation’, Kampen, 306 pp.

William Masselink ‘General Revelation and Common Grace’, Eerdmans, 1953, 407 pp.

Sidney Greidanus ‘Sola Scriptura’, Wedge, 1970, p.251.

C.Trimp ‘Preaching and the History of Salvation’, Scarsdale, 1996, 150 pp.

ed. Theodore Plantinga, ‘Seeking Our Brothers in the Light’, Inheritance, 1992, 142 pp.


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