Bavinck, Hoeksema, and Schilder

Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. 

Colossians 2:8

Few things enable us to understand better what happened between the Rev. Herman Hoeksema and Dr. Klaas Schilder during the decade of the forties than the realization of the close similarity of the covenant view of Rev. Hoeksema to that of Dr. Herman Bavinck, by every measure the greatest and most balanced scholar of the Secession, if not of all Dutch Reformed theology, and the prime example of what has been called the “confessional Reformed mentality.”1 Not to be forgotten in this is the contribution of Prof. Foppe M. Ten Hoor, professor of Dogmatics at Calvin Seminary, under whom Herman Hoeksema studied, and who perhaps more than any other was his theological mentor.2

Foppe Ten Hoor and Herman Bavinck had been classmates in school, and shared basically the same theological positions, but with a difference. Bavinck went on to study in several major European universities, and in time became a close friend of Dr. Abraham Kuyper, working with him to bring together the Afscheiding (Secessionists) and the Doleantie (Aggrieved) into the new Reformed (Gereformeerde) denomination. Their theological backgrounds and outlooks were different, but Bavinck was convinced that they could work together for the good of the Reformed faith, and to the glory of God.

This conviction, however, was not shared by Ten Hoor. Already in the Netherlands, and even more after he moved to the United States to teach and write as a professor at Calvin Seminary, he was deeply disturbed by much of what Kuyper was bringing into the churches. It was not so much what Kuyper taught as it was the way in which he approached it. Rather than extracting his views from the confessions and Scripture, Kuyper—by every measure an academician—sought to take the learning of worldly scholars, including their speculative philosophies, and use it to develop the Reformed faith. This Ten Hoor rejected—as in principle did also Bavinck. Ten Hoor constantly spoke out against it, warning that this could only end in molding the church after the image of this sinful world, as indeed it has come to do.3

It was under this influence that Herman Hoeksema received his theological education, and Ten Hoor’s warning he believed to be true. It was only that, with his clear and analytic mind, he came to focus on what he considered to be the underlying fault in it all, namely, Kuyper’s theory of common grace, by which he was excusing this bringing of the thinking of the world into the church of God.4


It was against this background that Schilder and Hoeksema met in 1939 and developed an immediate rapport. Schilder, after all, had grown up amid the results of what Kuyper had done, and he had witnessed firsthand the growing intellectualism which was enveloping the churches, as their pulpits were being filled with philosophical discourses rather than preaching from the Word. As editor of The Reformation (De Reformatie) he was writing against it, even as in his preaching he made a point of speaking to the people directly with the promises and demands of Scripture. And it was having its effect. His paper became the best read in the land, and the services at which he preached were always thronged—while to the intelligentsia which controlled the churches he had become the most non grata (unwanted) of all. In fact, even as he traveled to America the word had gone before that his speeches should be ignored, and his presence shunned.

So it was that, in their meeting, Hoeksema and Schilder were drawn together as brothers. There were differences, to be sure, in their theological viewpoints and methods; but with their mutually affirmed commitment to the confessions and Scripture, they were confident that as time went on they would be able to work constructively together — until, that is, the Second World War intervened.

The cloud of that war hung dark, long, and silent over the churches, and little was known of Schilder other than that he, as one of the few who had the courage to speak out against the Nazis, was in danger for his life. The wait was long, but finally word came through that Schilder still lived — but that under the cover of that war, when a popular uprising could hardly take place, the leaders of the churches had deposed Schilder from his office. It was hard to believe that Christians could actually do such a thing under circumstances like that; and all sympathy went out to him for that. But there was another side to the controversy in the doctrinal issue at stake. The debate was over the covenant of grace; and in it Schilder and his supporters appeared to be taking a position remarkably reminiscent of that of Prof. W. Heyns.

With this Hoeksema was familiar, for he had studied under Heyns even as he had under Ten Hoor; and the difference he knew well. Ten Hoor, like Bavinck, had always sought to remain faithful to the teachings of the confessions, including the Canons of Dordt, while the views of Heyns stood out in contrast—as can be seen still in a quick comparison between his Manual of Reformed Doctrine and Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith.

Bavinck’s book, in its original Dutch version, was entitled, Magnalia Dei (The Wonderful Works of God), which represented exactly what it sought to be. While covering all of the basic doctrines of Christianity, it focused on what God does, or, as expressed in its opening line, “God, and God alone, is the Highest good.” Nowhere does that become more evident than in his great chapter on “The Covenant of Grace.”5 There, after pointing out the futility of all human attempts to escape judgment by man’s own works, Bavinck looks upon the covenant as God’s wonderful provision of grace by which He takes those whom He has chosen in Christ and establishes an organic relationship of fellowship with them, without any dependence upon the works which man by himself can never fulfill. It is Soli Deo Gloria throughout, just as Hoeksema had learned from Ten Hoor and continued to develop and defend in all that he did.

It was exactly that which was missing in Heyns’ Manual of Reformed Doctrine,6 opening as it does with this drab and academic question, “What is Reformed Doctrine?—By a doctrine of faith is meant a compendium of the truths concerning salvation which are revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures, and which we have to know and believe as participants in the Covenant of Grace, since this knowledge is indispensable in order to walk in the way of the Covenant, and to inherit its benefits.”7 But the message is there. Heyns’ concern is with the works of man, not those of God, and everything is focused toward that. Thus, when he comes to his treatment of the covenant, where Bavinck had sought to establish a close unity between it and God’s counsel, Heyns seeks to drive a wedge between them: “The Covenant of Grace and that of Redemption are not one and the same, but two Covenants, differing essentially from one another.”

His intent is clear: Heyns wants a separation between the elective decrees of God and the covenant of grace, so that the latter may be applied to each and every one of the “natural seed.”8 So he proceeds, in the form of a continuing scholastic disputation, to mark out various aspects of the covenant which are recognized as Reformed, only to twist them around to include the opposite as well. He acknowledges, for example, that the covenant is “one-sided,” but in such a way that it depends on man accepting it “believingly.”9 He admits the covenant to be “unbreakable,” but not so that “it is impossible to break it, i.e., to break our personal covenant relation.”10 And so, “likewise it is to be designated as an Unconditional Covenant, although there are what are usually called ‘conditions’ in it.”11 All this has as its end “that Covenant salvation can be given, not only to the elect, but to the non-elect.”12 Step by step, rather than seeking out the unity of God’s working as in the confessions and Scripture, Heyns was fragmenting these teachings so as to set the doctrines of Dordt aside and make room for the works of man.13 This Hoeksema had seen, and the fact that it was included in the three points of common grace in 1924 was what had made them particularly unacceptable to him.

But now the same sound was being heard, if not clearly from Klaas Schilder himself, certainly from those who were with him. It was distinctly disconcerting to Hoeksema, who did not want to believe it, as he carefully held final judgment in abeyance in the hope that something would come up to change this. And something did, but in a way that made it even more confusing. A report was received concerning a speech Schilder had given at Kampen in which he stated that he no longer held to common grace. But how could that be? If his covenant views were as much like Heyns’ as they appeared to be, how could he repudiate common grace? And, if he was indeed rejecting common grace, why did he not reject the views of Heyns as well? The whole thing did not come together; and in a determined effort to resolve the impasse, Hoeksema invited Schilder to the United States once again, confident that they would be able to sit down together and determine where they actually stood over against each other.

Schilder came, but not with the results Hoeksema had planned. For the first time in his life his strong physique was left totally incapacitated by a massive stroke. Alone, therefore, Schilder traveled the length and the breadth of our little denomination, holding extensive conversations with nearly every one of our clergy — except Hoeksema himself. Only at the very end, as Schilder was about to leave, was Hoeksema recovered sufficiently to attend a special conference set up to discuss the covenant of grace. Hoeksema actually was able to read a paper, and Schilder spoke. But the hard questions were not met. Rather, Schilder simply assured everyone that, having considered our positions, he could assure us that he did not share the views of Heyns, and that the differences between his views and ours were for the most part only a matter of terminology and emphasis due to our varied histories. The meeting was pleasant; and all parted as friends. But the real purpose of his coming had not been achieved.

Still there was hope; and Schilder’s writings were followed in the expectation that now he would begin to draw out the similarities he had found between our views and his. But nothing came.14 In turn, it began to come out that what Schilder had said in public was not always the same as he had expressed to individuals alone, as the time, when in the midst of a friendly but determined discussion, he exclaimed, “I loathe your covenant view.”15 But his influence had been felt; and voices were beginning to be heard echoing his thoughts that prominence should not be given to election in our doctrinal positions, and place should be found for conditionality in all aspects of Christian life. In turn, from the Netherlands we were informed that, regardless of what Schilder had said, most of the Liberated ministers were quite in agreement with Heyns regarding the covenant.

Then came the letter of Prof. Holwerda, written to those who were joining our churches in Canada, instructing them never to accept Hoeksema’s theology, but instead, inasmuch as assurance had been given that many of our ministers were sympathetic to Liberated thought, they should join our churches and get their material circulated among us. Next came Dr. C. Veenhof’s brochure, “Appeal!,” so filled with common grace that even those most sympathetic to the Liberated were embarrassed. And finally it was learned that a Rev. Hettinga was going about in our Canadian churches encouraging members to leave us and form their own Liberated churches (in Liberated terms, a de facto declaration that we were a “false church”). Clearly matters were not being treated in the open, but underneath.

So it was, when at the Synod of 1950 a request came from the Mission Committee for a clear declaration as to our covenant view, it was concluded that the time had come to lay out distinctly where we stood. Thus the “Declaration of Principles” was born, a direct statement of the fact that we had always considered common grace to be contrary to the confessions, along with all views of the covenant of grace in which it was implied. Then Schilder began to write, pouring out a series of ill-tempered articles which have now been published in the book, Extra-Scriptural Binding — A New Danger. This we appreciate, for it provides us with one of the clearest indications of the difference between Hoeksema and Schilder which we are seeking to understand. 

1 Prof. Henry Zwaanstra distinguishes this as a category of early CRC theologians, over against two other groups, the “Separatist Calvinists” and the “American Calvinists,” in his book Reformed Thought and Experience in a New World, J. H. Kok, Kampen, 1973, pp. 68-70

2A copy of the unpublished thesis has been sent us by Rev. Cornelis Pronk, entitled, F. M. Ten Hoor, Defender of Reformed Principles Against Abraham Kuyper’s Doleantie Views, which sheds some very interesting light on this matter. 

3There is a story carried on by the descendants of Ten Hoor to the effect that shortly before Abraham Kuyper died he was visited by J. H. Kok, the famous Dutch publisher, to whom he is reported to have said as they discussed the state of the churches, “Ten Hoor had toch gelijk,” or, “Ten Hoor had it right after all.”

4Rev. Hoeksema would often tell the story of how, at the Synod of 1924, Ten Hoor remarked, “I have studied common grace for forty years and, although I believe there is such a thing, I still do not know what it could be.” Just what he meant by this it is hard to say, but it would seem to imply that he had a great deal more sympathy for Hoeksema’s position than he dared say at that time.

5As we mentioned in our last articles, we have been granted permission by the Eerdmans Publishing Co. to distribute a limited number of copies of this chapter to those who request them by calling 616-345-4556, by writing me at 1355 Bretton Dr. Kalamazoo, MI 49006, or by e-mail, Bwoudenberg@CompuServe.com.

6Heyns, W., Manual of Reformed Doctrine, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, 1926.

7Ibid. p. 123

8Ibid. p. 124

9Ibid. p. 128

10Ibid. p. 130

11Ibid. p. 131

12Ibid. p. 133

13In all of which his arguments hold a close parallel to the approach used by Arminius in his debate with Junius, where he repeatedly would affirm accepted doctrines of the Reformed faith, only to contradict them completely by proceeding to affirm the opposite as well.

14We may note that in the publisher’s preface to the book, Secession Theologians…, Mr. R. Janssen writes, “Rev. B. Woudenberg has written several articles in the Standard Bearer in which he repeatedly stated that Schilder was not inclined to give definite answers on the differences between Hoeksema and himself.” My reference, however, was to this period before relationships had broken down and there was still hope of working together, while Schilder’s writing did not come until this was no longer so. 

15Literally what Schilder said was, “Ik walg jullie verbonds beschouwing.”