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

And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him. Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.

Exodus 4:24, 25

Schilder, in the 24th chapter of his little book, Extra-Scriptural Binding, remarks, “I myself do not want to be either a supralap—sarian or an infralapsarian.” One wonders what he meant. As he certainly knew, the lapsarian controversy had been a part of Reformed theological history for a long time, having to do with the order of the decrees in the counsel of God, or, more particularly, whether among those decrees election is to be considered as above the fall or below it. Schilder seems to say that he held to neither position. But, if so, what then? Did he conceive of a third possible order in the counsel? Or, did he believe that it had no particular order at all? Or, was it simply that he did not think God has revealed the order of His counsel to us, and we should not inquire into the matter?

In all likelihood, what Schilder actually was intending was to identify himself with the position of Herman Bavinck, when—as though recalling an idea once expressed by Theodore Beza—he maintained that neither position can ever be affirmed to the exclusion of the other. Klaas Dijk, in his definitive study on this subject a few years later, put it as follows:

With all of the effort to reconcile these two positions, no one can escape the fact that there is no contradiction between Infra and Supralapsarianism. Everyone assumes one or the other of the two considerations without rejecting the other, or denying the worth of the other, which is to say, there is no supralapsarian that does not recognize the usefulness of infralapsarian terms; and there is no infralapsarian that does not finally return to the supralapsarian presentation.1

As Dijk saw it, both the supra—lapsarian and the infralapsarian positions have their place in the totality of Reformed theology, so that no one, when working in this area, can escape speaking as an infra—lapsarian on certain occasions, and as a supralapsarian at others— which was pretty much what Beza had said well before the whole controversy began.

Still, when it comes to this remark of Schilder, there would seem to have been more to it than that. All through the series of articles which make up this little book, in fact going back even further through the development of the problem between the Liberated and the Protestant Reformed Churches, one gains the impression that Schilder had developed a certain disdain for systematic theological distinctions, particularly when it came to anything relating to the doctrine of election, and even more so when it reflected a supralap—sarian viewpoint. When it came down to it, of course, Schilder in this book quotes mostly from noted supralapsarians—men like Theo—dore Beza and William Twisse—but never without making a point of it in a rather condescending manner, as though to say to Hoek—sema that he didn’t have a high regard for them himself, but would come down to his level and use the words of men who thought as Hoeksema did in the hope that that would make him listen.

The reason for this may well have been in what had happened in the Netherlands as a result of Kuyper’s redefinition of the idea of “common grace.” For Kuyper’s followers it was like a notice that they were now free to leave the historical limits of exegetical theology, and use the philosophical methods of men like Kant, which had become so popular in their day. In an amazingly short time, not only the seminary halls but also the pulpits of the church were echoing discourses which sounded more like academic lectures than the powerful proclamation of the Word of God. Strange, and not infrequently strained, abstract theories were propounded at length, based not uncommonly on the presumption that the members of the church were all elect, and should look for confirmation of this in their ability to master those theories which were being heard on every side.

It was against this that Schilder had reacted, being convinced that what was happening was undermining the spiritual life of the church. And so, in the things he wrote, and even more in the way he preached, Schilder worked hard —and hard it was, if we can judge from the phenomenal amount of sweating and drinking he is said to have done while in the pulpit— always in an effort to bring his listeners away from this bland, abstract way of thinking into the living tensions which he believed form the real content of Scripture.

Possibly few things illustrate this better than the never to be forgotten sermon Schilder preached at the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids at the beginning of his visit in 1939. The occasion was tense, for the leaders of the Christian Reformed Church had warned their people against listening to him. But their warnings, it would appear, had the opposite effect; for, when the time came for him to preach, that sizable sanctuary was filled to overflowing, with people seated everywhere, down the aisles, in the foyer, and on the platform as well. And then Schilder announced for his subject the strange account of the circumcising of Moses’ children, found in Exodus 4:24,25: “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me.” There, for at least one full hour, Dr. Schilder, in spite of his rather weak voice and often confusing sentences, held his audience in rapt attention, as with dramatic description he drew out for all to see that terrible tension which was created between Moses and his wife, Zipporah, over the demand of God that his covenant be kept through that painful sacrament of blood.

And that, in effect, was at the heart of all Schilder’s preaching. Essentially everywhere in Scripture he saw this; and every sermon he preached was in its own way an effort to draw out that tension which always exists between the promises of the covenant and its demands. Every baptized person is born to this, he thought, and through baptism is made to stand between those two spiritual forces as they focus upon his life. The promises are given him, but can be lost, should he fail to keep the demands and so fall under the curse which is also a part of the covenant. With all the ability of the orator he was, Schilder would lay this out each time in terms few could ever forget.

In fact, with Schilder, this is the essence of covenant—God’s rhetorical confrontation of man with promises and demands by which only can one be led to redemption; and there is no more awesome privilege one can have than to possess a place in the church of God where these promises and demands are laid before him again and again. Being born and baptized in the church of God means that one is to be raised in a Christian home, taught in a Christian school, and placed before the preaching and teaching of the church’s ministry in such a way that he is made fully conscious of the covenant’s blessings, and the responsibility which must be met if he is to remain within them. This is the law of God, and it constitutes the essence of the covenant.

In all of this, of course, there is a great deal which may be appreciated. Beyond question, those who are born, baptized, and raised within the church of God are privileged to participate in the life of this church as it is manifest on the earth, which does include their being confronted regularly with God’s words of promise and demand. Covenant children are to be raised in homes where the presence of God is known, and the responsibilities of living unto Him in prayer, obedience, and godly fear are expected and required every day. From childhood on, they are to be nurtured in God’s Word by the parents in the home, teachers in the school, and pastors in the teaching and preaching of the Christian church, where they also take part in Christian worship, and are called to participate in the ordinances and disciplines which the church observes.

These are the advantages spoke of by Paul in Romans 9:4, 5, “the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.” And to which the epistle to the Hebrews refers in chapter 6:4, 5 when it speaks of “those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come.” These are experiences which leave impressions on the soul which can never be erased, as Solomon noted in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” They go with one all through life—with either positive or negative effects.

But, when all of this is said and done, the heart of the covenant is more than that—as Schilder might well have come to understand had he taken more time and given more effort to interacting with Hoeksema constructively when the opportunity was there.

To begin with, he might have come to see that the covenant is more than just law. As it was, of course, Schilder had lived his life in the middle of Kuyperian preoccupation with the importance of law, arising perhaps from Kuyper’s view of sphere sovereignty, in which everyone was to be concerned with his rights and responsibilities; and apparently, as emphatically as he rejected Kuyper’s philosophical ways, and especially his view of presupposed regeneration, he could give up the hold which the idea of law had all about him.

But not so with Hoeksema. Hoeksema was certainly aware of Kuyper’s teachings; but his theological roots were more traditional; and his own studies in Romans and Hebrews, both of which he had preached through in close detail, had brought him clearly to the conclusion that, while the law has indeed a real and important place in relationship to the covenant, it cannot be the covenant itself, as Schilder in essence claimed.

And so also, Schilder might have come to understand the consequence which would certainly come from making the covenant conditional. It was nothing new. Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian with whom Schilder so often sought to identify himself, had said it quite clearly:

if … salvation is not the sheer gift of grace but in some way depends upon the conduct of men, then the covenant of grace is converted into a covenant of works. Man must then satisfy some condition in order to inherit eternal life. In this, grace and works stand at opposite poles from each other and are mutually exclusive. If salvation is by grace it is no longer by works, or otherwise grace is no longer grace. And if it is by works, it is not by grace, or otherwise works are not works (Rom. 11:6).2

Undoubtedly Schilder had read this at some point, but apparently ignored it, repressed it, or simply passed it by. And it was that which finally caused the break between him and Hoeksema, and between the Liberated and Protestant Reformed Churches. It was simply not something which could be accepted as part of the teaching of the Protestant Reformed, as the Liberated insisted it must if we were to continue working together.

But finally, and above all, what Schilder had missed, by confining the covenant to a rhetorical pronouncement of law, was the real nature of the covenant, the fact that it is not just a legal statement, but life itself, an organic union between God and man, which lives and grows from generation to generation, uniting all of His elect people as they are joined together into one church. As Bavinck had once said, “The second peculiarity or remarkable characteristic of the covenant of grace is that in all of its dispensations it has an organic character.”3 This the law cannot be, and cannot give. Law may serve the purpose of life, but by itself it kills, as Paul said in II Corinthians 3:6, “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament (or “covenant,” BW); not of the letter (the law, BW), but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” The covenant is not a dead “letter,” but a living, functioning relationship, as Hoeksema went on to point out, of friendship—reaching back to a thought of the old seventeenth century Dutch theologian of the covenant, Johannas Cocceius. Hoeksema spent his life reflecting on this concept of friendship, and how it is indeed the underlying principle of the covenant, which should infect the whole of our theology—a thoroughly biblical and rich concept which James related so graphically to the covenant with Abraham in James 2:23: “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.”

In the end what Schilder missed was the fact that such an amazing reality as God’s covenant with man, His taking man into a living relationship of friendship with Him, can only be a matter of pure grace. Only He can bring it to be, for it is literally life from the dead (Rom 4:17): the pure grace, spoken of by Jeremiah, 31:33, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” It is not a conditional requirement man must meet, but that which God establishes with those whom He chosen, His elect:

“After all, when the covenant of grace is separated from election, it ceases to be a covenant of grace and becomes again a covenant of works. Election implies that God grants man freely and out of grace the salvation which man has forfeited and which he can never again achieve in his own strength.”4

Having known Hoeksema personally, and as a young man watched him through the course of this long and painful controversy, I find it hard to believe that for him there was any greater disappointment than to find that Schilder and, through Schilder’s influence, so many who had learned their theology under Hoeksema, were not really interested in dealing with this whole matter of the covenant theologically. From the time they first met, Hoeksema had believed that in Schilder he had found an established theologian who was willing to interact with him seriously about the deep truths of the Reformed faith. And, after the dark curtain of the Second World War finally lifted, he waited in expectation that this would be done. But wait as he might, the most that ever came was this rhetorical diatribe over words, long after any real possibility of constructive dialogue was past. The Liberated had made it quite clear that, unless we were willing to take their law inspired view of the covenant into our churches, they had no real interest in interacting with us further. Sadly, for many of our leaders and those who followed them, this was acceptable; but for Hoeksema, such ignoring of theological problems was not. And I am sure that inwardly, as he read these articles, Hoeksema must have wept. 

1 Dijk, Klaas. De strijd over Intra- en Supralapsarisme in de Gereformeeerde Kerken van Nederland, J.H. Kok, Kampen, 1912 p. 50.

2 Bavinck, Herman, Our Reasonable Faith, W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, p. 272.

3 Ibid. p. 276.

4 Ibid. p. 272.