The Rev. Herman Hoeksema felt a deep sense of friendship for Dr. Klaas Schilder, calling him as he did, Amice (Latin for “friend”). This from a number of close similarities and some striking differences.
Both of these men were masterful scholars in their own right, relying not on the opinions of others but laying their own groundwork, doing their own study, and coming to their own conclusions. And both were speakers of an extraordinary kind — but in quite different ways. With Schilder it was not his oratory (he could speak indistinctly and be difficult to hear); but he was a superb rhetorician. Artistic in nature, he could take a subject or a passage of Scripture and find within it nuances of meaning which no other had ever imagined, and with words that drew pictures in the air he would hold his audience enthralled in rapt attention no matter how long he spoke. In the eye of their imagination they could see exactly what he meant, and feel it in their heart. But with Hoeksema it was different. He was an orator by nature. His very appearance in a pulpit, or even in a room, was sufficient to draw the attention of everyone, while with a look from his piercing eyes he could pin a person to his chair; and his voice rang clear with the timbre of a trumpet which no one would fail to hear. But the rhetoric was not there. He was a logician instead. His illustrations, when he used them, were of a homely kind, used only to make a difficult point clear. His goal was to lead his audience clearly with simple words to understand the subject or text on which he spoke. Audiences loved both Hoeksema and Schilder, hanging on their every word, and remembering what they said.
As with their speaking, so was it with their theological thought, the same and yet so different. Both were deeply committed to the creeds, to Scripture, and to the Reformed faith; but their theologies were certainly not the same.
Schilder was of the Afscheiding (Secession) tradition, with its strong emphasis on bevindelijkheid (the view that with careful Christian living one would come to feel within himself the true Christian experience of the heart), together with the conviction that they, having left the apostatizing National Reformed Church, were now the true church of God and all others false. It was from this tradition that Schilder had come, and to it he spoke with his considerable rhetorical abilities to arouse within his hearers true Christian feelings, and by means of promises, warnings, and threats move them to live as Christians ought.
Hoeksema, however, was Kuyperian, having grown up under Abraham Kuyper, and as a young man having followed him admiringly about; and that was in many ways quite a different thing. Kuyper agreed with the Afgescheidenen as to their basic commitments and goals, but differed as to how it should be brought about. He was a scholar who sought his strength not in works and feelings, but in the quietness and confidence of studying and understanding the Word. And so was it with Hoeksema too. He was not opposed to feelings, and he certainly recognized the necessity of good works; but he believed those works came best from understanding God’s Word, rather than by emotional stimulation from without. His effort was to find out in his study the true meaning of Scripture, and lead his congregation through it in terms the least could understand, letting the Word then do its own work. His sermons were masterworks of careful exposition, and little else, but presented in such a way that they created a close bond between him and those who heard.
As different as these two were, they had a common bond. And both did what they did well, to the point that they aroused the envy and jealousy of their peers who could not do the same. But these colleagues held the seats of power; and both Hoeksema and Schilder in time felt the lash of their jealous sting. Hoeksema in 1924 had been deposed by those who felt his growing influence and power; and Schilder was just beginning to know what it meant when he visited America in 1939.
It had seemed a good idea to Mr. William Eerdmans, the American publisher of Schilder’s writings, to sponsor him in a lecture tour here. But already before Schilder came, his colleagues in the Netherlands had sent a warning to the leaders of the Christian Reformed Church that he should not be welcomed, and the people should not be encouraged to give him their ear. In the end, it was Hoeksema who gave him the warmest welcome, providing the large and convenient auditorium of the First Protestant Reformed Church as a place for him to speak, and on no less a subject than that of common grace, a subject on which he and Schilder disagreed. To Hoeksema it was simply a matter of openness. He believed it was better to have the subject openly discussed than suppressed as it had been by his opponents for so many years. And graciously he assured Schilder that he was free to express his honest opinion regardless of what it might be.
But the matter went deeper than that. With Schilder, Hoeksema had met, almost for a first time, a true scholar willing to discuss the basic problems of Reformed theology openly with him. This he appreciated greatly; and, when they parted, it was as friends determined to continue working together through the coming years.
But that was not to be. To the sorrow of them both, providence intervened in the form of the Second World War. Speaking out almost alone against evils of the Nazis, Schilder was forced to go into hiding, and meaningful communication was cut off. Try as he might, Hoeksema was able to learn little about the status of his friend, until at last, as the war came to its end, he learned that Schilder was alive and well — but that during the war he had been deposed from office and dismissed from his church. It was a shock almost too great to imagine, and yet to Hoeksema it was striking as well, for Schilder’s deposition had occurred in much the same way as Hoeksema’s — only far worse, for Schilder’s had been done even more cowardly, under the cover of a terrible war, when it would have been expected that Christians would have pulled together against this common enemy. But in a special way it drew them even closer together, except for one thing — Schilder had been deposed for defending a view of the covenant which Hoeksema had been taught in seminary by Prof. W. Heyns, and which he had opposed all of his life, because that view lay at the heart of the CRC view of common grace. Instinctively he knew that this would always limit his relations with Schilder; and yet, still he persisted in his love for this friend, and continued to long for a day when they might sit down and talk things over again — always in the hope that possibly something could be found to bring their theologies together in the end.
And then it looked as if it might happen. One day, in a round about way, Hoeksema heard that Schilder had made a speech in Kampen repudiating his former view on common grace. That was a conundrum to Hoeksema. Schilder’s view of the covenant, as he saw it, was the epitome of common grace in itself — and now he was claiming not to believe common grace at all? How could it be? It did not make sense — unless, that is, somehow he and Schilder were missing each other in a basic way. In any case, this much was clear, they had to get together once more and talk it out face to face. So Hoeksema took up his pen and invited Schilder here once again. And Schilder immediately agreed to come. There was so much to be talked through.
But neither was that to come to pass. Schilder’s trip was planned and its schedule set, when, in the summer of 1947, Hoeksema, always the picture of strength and health, was struck down by a massive stroke. It was too late for Schilder’s trip to be canceled. He came; but Hoeksema was not there to meet him or to engage in that theological dialogue they had planned. Instead, Schilder traveled among our small churches to lecture and preach, but without Hoeksema by his side to fill things out and bring them to the focus they ought to have had. That made all the difference.
The lectures and sermons Schilder gave were superb, everyone thought. Those who could understand the language came; and what he said was remembered and talked about for years. But that was not where the real action took place. It was after the public was gone, and Schilder retired to the living-rooms and offices of the local manses, that the meaningful meetings took place. Almost invariably the discussion soon gravitated to the subject of the covenant. Schilder would explain how and why he was cast out; and then came the turn of the local pastor to try in his own words to set forth the problems we saw with the Liberated covenant view which Hoeksema had so often explained, especially over against our view of common grace and the doctrine of predestination. But these men were no match for Schilder, overwhelmed by him as they were. And now the old openness was no longer there. Schilder remained calm and gracious as always; but with that a certain bitterness entered in. “I despise your view,” he is known to have said, and vehemently objected to linking the covenant to election and reprobation, or to common grace. And so it went, from place to place, until the time of his visit was over and as many as were able came to Grand Rapids for a closing conference on precisely the subject of the covenant of grace.
Almost miraculously Hoeksema had recovered sufficiently by then to take part in that conference too. He was still weak, quite naturally, and far from his old self. But he was there and able to read a paper which he had prepared. Schilder gave answer to it in a rather surprising way. First, he affirmed that he did not agree with Heyns’ view of the covenant. Secondly, he was sure that the differences between our covenant view and his was more a matter of terminology and historical background than anything else. And finally, he was convinced that we were the “true church” in America, so that anyone emigrating from the Netherlands ought to join with us.
These were kind words, and far from the “I despise your view” which he had privately expressed. Whether it was out of consideration for Hoeksema, or politeness, or because he had not really come to terms with our differences, it is hard to say. But everyone was pleased — except, that is, Prof. Ophoff, who was convinced the real problems were simply not being addressed. He therefore gave to Dr. Schilder a meaningful list of questions which needed answers. Such insistence at that point, however, had little general sympathy, and Schilder merely thrust the list into his pocket, promising to answer it in De Reformatie, which he really never did. In fact, once he arrived back in the Netherlands, very little was heard from him as to our doctrinal differences. His only concern was to urge the Liberated Churches to establish a sister-church relation with us, and their emigrants to settle down in our midst.
Here it was different. Rev. Hoeksema did return to nearly full strength amazingly soon, and took up his old duties again. But the satisfaction in this was in many instances muted. Things had changed. Clearly, with many, the old respect was slipping away. It was as though they had taken a new mentor; and a kind of open testiness toward Hoeksema and his views had set in. They, after all, it seemed to be thought, had come of age; and, having matched wits with no less a figure than Schilder, were as worthy of being heard as he — as the privately expressed reflections of Schilder began to pour from their lips. Hoeksema was too doctrinal. He talked about predestination too much. More practical preaching was needed, with promises and threats and conditions which must be met. Our distinctives were really not as essential as we had thought, but merely a matter of terminology and words. All across the denomination, the privately expressed thoughts of Schilder were being echoed again. The fruit of his visit was a division deep through the heart of our churches.
And then the Netherlands was heard. In spite of the silence of Schilder, our doctrines were not being ignored over there, so that finally a pastor, ashamed to let us think everything was going well, wrote concerning Hoeksema’s covenant view, “I am going to oppose that view, my colleague, because I am of the opinion that this view is untenable on the basis of the Word of God and the accepted Confessions…. We accept the doctrine of Prof. Heyns. (There may be a difference in conception here and there: in the main, all our ministers are thinking in that direction).”
To Hoeksema it was almost a relief, for here was confirmation of what he had always thought, but which Schilder at their meeting had denied; and so he replied, “We do not want Heynsians in our churches, still less, to organize Heynsian churches in Canada. If your members are really Heynsians, they must either become thoroughly Reformed, or they had better join the Christian Reformed Churches. In them there is plenty of room. Or, better still, they could organize churches of their own, and call their own ministers from the Old Country.” Clearly, Prof. Ophoff had been right: the problems were real and had not been met.
But by this time a ball was rolling — or, to borrow Schilder’s figure, the knitting of a common stocking was begun — howbeit not in the way that had been planned. It is impossible for us to know what was said privately between Schilder and the various parties with whom he met in his visit here. And we have no idea what communications might have been carried on with him and other Liberated leaders later on. But at this point we cannot but take seriously what Prof. Holwerda reported concerning a visit of two of them, “They said this: Indeed, we have much to be grateful for to Rev. Hoeksema. But his conception regarding election, etc. is not church doctrine. No one is bound by it. Some are emitting a totally different sound. Their opinion was that most (of the Prot. Ref.) do not think as Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff. And sympathy for the Liberated was great also in the matter of their doctrine of the covenant. They do accentuate differently in America, considering their history, but for the conception of the Liberated there is ample room.”
One may suppose that he had misunderstood; and by many it was maintained that he had. But history has pretty much borne out that what he said was the way it finally fell out to be. In the end a division had been driven by Schilder’s visit through the heart of our churches which only the Declaration of Principles could set straight, maintaining as it did that, given our rejection of common grace, the Liberated view of the covenant could never have a place in our midst. And, sadly, only then in 1951 did Schilder begin to write publicly what he thought of our covenant view, in a bitterly crafted series of articles entitled, Boven Schriftuurlike Binding: Een Nieuw Gevaar (Above Scripture Binding: A New Peril). It was almost as though he was offended that, with the tenacity he had held to his views in 1944, Hoeksema and the PRC should hold to theirs.
And yet, through it all Hoeksema maintained a certain affection for Schilder, to the point that (almost ruefully, as though if the old openness they had known originally could be regained, things might still be worked out) his last words to him were — so shortly before Schilder’s death — “Vale, Amice Schilder” (Farewell, Friend Schilder). And one has to wonder whether, from his visit here on, Schilder had actually done the part of a true friend.