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Last year, the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (“Liberated”) and their sister churches in North America, the Canadian and American Reformed Churches, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Professor Dr. Klaas Schilder. The Dutch religious magazines made plain that much was made of this celebration all year long. The October 6, 1990 issue of De Refoumatie (The Reformation), magazine of the “Liberated” Churches, was devoted to the life and work of Dr. Schilder.

Klaas Schilder was a notable Reformed theologian and churchman in The Netherlands. Many American preachers know him through his profound trilogy on the suffering of Christ. Schilder died in 1952.

Spokesmen from other Reformed churches joined in the commemoration. One intriguing instance was the appearance of the aged Dr. G. C. Berkouwer at a gathering that was intended to honor the memory and work of Dr. Schilder. Berkouwer was president of the 1944 synod of the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (GKN) that deposed Schilder and, thus, occasioned the split in that denomination that resulted in the “Liberated” Churches.

There is something to be said for celebrations of this kind as long as they do not degenerate into the worship of a man. The “Liberated” used this commemoration to good advantage. They reminded their people of their history; refreshed themselves in the theology of Schilder; taught their youth what the “Liberated” Churches stand for; published books by and about Schilder; and promoted the cause of the “Liberated” Churches in the wider Reformed community.

It is to be regretted that the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) allowed the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rev. Herman Hoeksema to pass by in 1986 without such a celebration. Perhaps the European churches have more of a heart for this than do American churches.

The Schilder Connection

It is fitting that there be some contribution to the Schilder commemoration from the side of the PRC. In important respects, there is agreement between the PRC and the theology of Klaas Schilder. Schilder was a staunch defender and ardent advocate of the Reformed confessions. He insisted that the “Three Forms of Unity” are the basis of the faith and work of Reformed believers and their children, not only in church but also in all of earthly life. Schilder would have repudiated the notion that the Reformed confessions are an inadequate basis of the Christian school and that a separate “school creed” must be drawn up for this purpose.

In his church struggles in the 1930s, Schilder stood for the antithesis against encroaching worldliness and against the encouragement of this worldliness by theologians who wanted to bring together “culture and Christianity.” Schilder warned against Abraham Kuyper’s theory of common grace as a threat to the antithesis. In a book published as part of the Schilder commemoration, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, the author remarks on Schilder’s conviction that the Kuyper of common grace was destroying the Kuyper of the antithesis (cf. pp. 57, 73, and 181). Common grace was contributing to a process in The Netherlands in which “the Secession and the Doleantie (reformations of the Dutch Reformed church in 1834 and in 1886 – DJE) were denied, and also the Synod of Dort” (p. 104). This conviction, of course, Herman Hoeksema had come to some years earlier, as the author of Schilder’s Struggle also notes (cf. pp. 57ff.).

The PRC are also in agreement with Schilder in their rejection of synodical hierarchy. The church is the local congregation. The congregation is autonomous. It is a real danger, and a grievous sin, that synods usurp power over the congregations. One outstanding instance of this usurpation of power is synod’s exercise of the keys of the kingdom of heaven in deposing officebearers.

It is also appropriate that there be some participation in the Schilder celebration from the side of the PRC because Schilder became part of the history of the PRC. When Schilder visited the United States in 1938 and 1939, Herman Hoeksema and the PRC gave him a warm welcome. Schilder was instrumental at that time to arrange a meeting of Protestant Reformed and Christian Reformed officebearers to discuss the reunion of the two denominations.

The friendly relationship between Dr. Schilder and the PRC is reflected in the “Acts of the Synod 1940 of the PRC.” Almost the first decision of this synod was an expression of concern for the welfare of Schilder, who by this time had run afoul of the Nazi invaders of The Netherlands:

In view of the invasion of The Netherlands, concern has been expressed regarding the welfare of Dr. K. Schilder, and especially whereas there are rumors afloat of such a nature as to increase such concern, the Synod decides that the moderamen shall, through the proper office in Washington, D.C., send a cablegram to The Netherlands, requesting information as to the condition, welfare and whereabouts of Dr. K. Schilder (Art. 16).

Also in 1947, when Schilder returned to the States, the PRC were open to the Dutch theologian, whereas the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) closed all doors to him. As the author of Schilder’s Struggle observes in another book, Terugzien Na Vijfentwintig Jaren (Looking Back after Twenty-Five Years):

If the Protestant Reformed Churches had not welcomed Dr. Schilder in North America, people would have known little or nothing of what had taken place in The Netherlands during the war- years. At best, they would have known about it merely in a very one-sided light (p. 59, my translation of the Dutch – DJE).

But the result of the close contact between Schilder and the PRC was the most severe internal struggle that the PRC have ever endured – the split in the Churches of 1953 in which the PRC lost the majority of their congregations and membership. As the book, Schilder’s Struggle, observes, “Schilder . . . played a role (without intending to do so) in the split that took place in the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1953” (p. 422). For this reason too the PRC ought to be heard from on the occasion of the celebration of the anniversary of Schilder’s birth.

A Notable Book

My contribution takes the form of a hearty recommendation to our readers of the book referred to above, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, by Rudolf van Reest (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1990). The book is Theodore Plantinga’s fine translation in one easy-reading volume of vanReest’s two-volume work, Opdat zij allen een zijn (That They All May Be One), originally published in 1962 and 1963. The price is $26.60 (U.S.) or $29.95 (CN).

Schilder’s Struggle presents a fascinating description of a powerful, gifted Christian personality and an important Reformed theologian. The book also sketches Schilder’s life and work.

The most valuable aspect of the book is its account of Schilder’s struggle for the reformation of the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands that ended with his deposition in 1944 and with the founding of the “Liberated” Churches. The background of this church split included the appearance of sheer modernism in the church, e.g., J. G. Geelkerken’s denial of the historical of Genesis 3; the growing influence in the GKN of the theology of Karl Barth (firmly opposed by Schilder from the very beginning); and the opposition by Schilder and others to what they viewed as the “scholastic theology” of Abraham Kuyper. Specifically, the leaders of the “Liberation” objected to Kuyper’s doctrines of common grace; the pluriformity of the church; and the covenant and infant baptism. The doctrine of the covenant became the issue that split the churches.

At the same time that the church struggle was raging, from 1940 to 1944, The Netherlands suffered under the invasion and occupation of Nazi Germany. Because of his courageous warning to Reformed Christians against the Nazi movement, especially in the church paper of which he was editor, De Reformatie (The Reformation), Schilder was imprisoned for several months. Soon after his release from prison, he was forced to go “underground,” a fugitive from the Nazis. During this time, the synod of the Reformed Churches deposed him from office both as a professor and as a minister of the gospel.

Our Protestant Reformed readers will appreciate the frequent references in Schilder’s Struggle to Herman Hoeksema and the PRC. Schilder and Hoeksema were good friends. The author, Rudolf van Reest (pen name for K. C. van Spronsen), was also a friend of Hoeksema and sympathetic to the PRC. Translator Theodore Plantinga has added a 25-page appendix detailing the contact between Schilder and the PRC that makes the book even more interesting to the Protestant Reformed reader. Plantinga’s treatment is fair and for the most part accurate.

Another appendix gives Schilder’s article, “The Stocking is Finished,” on the rupture of relations with the PRC, as well as excerpts from Hoeksema’s response. Schilder concluded his article with a comment on the “beautiful life” of Hoeksema and with a farewell to “our friend Hoeksema.” Hoeksema on his part responded by questioning whether the stocking of relations between the “Liberated” and the PRC was indeed finished. He suggested that the two denominations begin knitting anew, establishing some form of official contact. In case Schilder did not desire this, Hoeksema would bid friend Schilder farewell (“Vale, Amice Schilder”).

Serious Differences

The warm personal friendship between the two Reformed theologians and church leaders must not hide the serious theological and church political differences between the “Liberated” and the PRC. The PRC have objections to “Liberated” doctrine and church polity that touch the very heart of the “Liberation” of 1944. The contribution of the PRC to the Schilder commemoration is by no means pure celebration.

There is the question whether the “Liberated” have so reacted to synodical hierarchy as to repudiate the real authority ascribed to the broader assemblies by the Church Order of Dordt. That the synod of the GKN acted hierarchically in the years leading up to and including 1944 is beyond dispute. Synod took up the matter of doctrinal differences in the churches on its own, without any appeal or overture from the churches. It continued itself in existence year after year. It treated the matters leading to Schilder’s deposition in secrecy. It condemned Schilder without giving him a hearing, indeed during the time when he could not defend himself because of his hiding from the Nazis. The grossest usurpation of authority was synod’s deposition of officebearers.

But Schilder reacted to synodical decisions, prior to his deposition, by publicly declaring to all the consistories that he would not be bound by the decisions of synod and by agitating against the decisions of synod. This violated Article 31 of the Church Order of Dordt. The “Liberated” Churches have incessantly referred to synodical authority as “synodocracy,” as though there is no legitimate authority of synod over the consistory.

Schilder himself opposed the tendency of the “Liberated” Churches to throw out the baby of synodical authority with the bathwater of hierarchy by declaring, in characteristically striking language, that Christ shed His blood also for the church federation. But if vanReest is correct, that it is the church polity of the “Liberated” Churches that for a decision of synod to be considered settled and binding the decision must first be ratified by the consistory, the “Liberated” have abandoned Reformed church government for independency (cf. Schilder’s Struggle, p. 330). In this case, the split from the “Liberated” Churches in the 1960s by a group that flatly denied all synodical authority and that virtually rejected the denominational bond was the bitter harvest of seed sown in the “Liberation” of 1944.

Leaving out of consideration the difficulty that the “Liberated” seem to have to make clear that they do not claim to be the only true churches of Christ on earth, as well as their apparent rejection of the church invisible, the doctrinal controversy of the PRC with the “Liberated” Churches concerns the doctrine that was for the “Liberated” the very heart of the Liberation”: the covenant and infant baptism.

The PRC judge the “Liberated” covenant doctrine to be a serious departure from the truth of sovereign, particular grace as confessed in the Canons of Dordt. A “no” to Abraham Kuyper’s theory of the presupposed regeneration of every baptized child does not imply a “yes” to the “Liberated” doctrine of a conditional promise to every baptized child.

Inaccuracies and a False Charge

The chapter by Professor Plantinga on Schilder’s contacts with the CRC and especially with the PRC does contain two inaccuracies. One is the statement that the CRC set aside, or substantially loosened, her decisions on common grace when the large group of formerly Protestant Reformed people returned to the CRC in the early 1960s. The “Acts of Synod 1962” of the CRC shows that the CRC expressly maintained the binding character of the decisions of the synod of 1924 on common grace, in spite of the plea of the returning group that the “Three Points” be “without further binding force.” The erstwhile Protestant Reformed people capitulated totally, declaring that they no longer considered the “Three Points” to be Pelagian and Arminian. Indeed, they publicly declared that they “do not contend that they (the “Three Points” – DJE) are in conflict with Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity.” The CRC on its part merely recognized and bore with “scruples you may have.” But they prohibited the returning group from agitating against the doctrine of common grace. The “Three Points of Common Grace” are still binding in the CRC! (Cf. the “CRC Acts of Synod 1962,” pp. 456 ff.)

Misleading is Plantinga’s statement that the ‘Declaration of Principles,” adopted by the PRC in 1951 to set forth the Protestant Reformed covenant view against the “Liberated,” is a document “to which one had to assent as a Protestant Reformed officebearer” (p. 426). In fact, Protestant Reformed officebearers are required only to subscribe to the “Three Forms of Unity.” The “Preamble” itself of the “Declaration of Principles” states that the document is “to be used only by the Mission Committee and the missionaries for the organization of prospective churches . . . .”

Plantinga is not to be faulted for the false charge against the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the covenant by “Liberated” theologian Jelle Faber included in a quotation of Faber by Plantinga. In the book, Interviews over 25 jaarvrijmaking, Dr. Faber has characterized the covenant conception of the PRC as “fatalism grounded in election” (quoted in Schilder’s Struggle, p. 428). On the contrary, the covenant conception of the PRC is nothing more or less than the Canons of Dordt’s doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation applied to the covenant. If the doctrine of the Canons is gospel, so also is the covenant conception of the PRC gospel. If the covenant conception of the PRC is fatalism, so also is the doctrine of the Canons fatalism.

A Question about Contact

Commemorating the anniversaries of our Reformed fathers is pleasant, easy work. More difficult is the task of maintaining and developing in our own time the Reformed theology that our fathers loved and handed down to us. Especially difficult is this task when, at certain points, we must correct the theological work of our fathers themselves. The possibility is a love for Reformed truth that outstrips love for our fathers. Amicus Socrates, sed magis amicus veritas.

Both the “Liberated” Churches and the PRC profess to be committed to this difficult task.

In this connection, I pose a question. The “Liberated” Churches have taken the lead in creating a new Reformed ecumenical body, the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC). The Conference was constituted at Groningen, The Netherlands in 1982.

Is it possible for the “Liberated” Churches to invite the PRC to participate?

If the “Liberated” invite, are the PRC able to accept?

Or is the stocking really finished?

– DJE