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

If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? 

I Corinthians 14:8

There is something troubling about this little book of Dr. Schilder’s entitled, Extra-Scriptural Binding — A New Danger. Clearly it was intended to be a response to our Brief Declaration of Principles; and Dr. Schilder has the reputation of having been a keen polemicist who could zero in on the heart of a problem and analyze it decisively. Here, however, we find something quite different, an almost uncertain groping about for some issue which could be met.

As we have seen, the Declaration was basically a very simple, straightforward document, consisting mostly of confessional quotations with a few brief conclusions as to what they teach, and what we in our churches must accordingly maintain. It was a natural approach, for one thing, in which Rev. Hoeksema and Dr. Schilder had always agreed was the need for a faithful commitment to the Reformed creeds as the common ground (the loci communes, or place of communion) on which Reformed churches and people everywhere should be able to meet. It was not that they were in any way thought to be superior or even equal to the Scriptures, for they were based upon them, and from them received their strength. But among Reformed believers there should be no need always to be going back to reexamine and reestablish whether these be true. In matters of doctrinal difference the creeds should be a standard to which Reformed believers might mutually appeal. And this was what the Declaration sought to do.

Here in Schilder’s book, however, already the very second sentence tells us that this was not to be his approach, for he writes, “Because this document, in our opinion, is not clear, our members cannot and may not bind themselves to it.” Amazingly, for Hoeksema was acknowledged to be a clear and concise writer also by Schilder, the accuracy of expression in the Declaration was to be the point of attack. It did not give Schilder much to work with, for the non-confessional statements in the Declaration were very few. But this he did to the very end.

He started with this statement from the Declaration, “Seeing then that this is the clear teaching of our confession, we repudiate the teaching that the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all that are baptized.” Now in itself it is hard to conceive of a more clear and direct statement of the problem which had been troubling the relationships between the Protestant Reformed and Liberated Churches, than this. For several years a debate had been raging over the questions of conditionality in the covenant of grace; and one might well expect that Schilder would set his pen to that; but that was not to be. His whole contention was that the Declaration was unclear; and he was out to demonstrate this to be so.

Before doing this, however, he presents us with several preparatory chapters. The first contains reflections on II Timothy 2:15 and the need for rightly dividing the word of truth, based on a very strained illustration, supposedly taken from Theodore Beza, about a mother cutting and dividing food to various member of her family. Next he turns to a quotation from the old Dutch Staten Bijbel1 which spoke of conditions in the covenant, and challenging Hoeksema to dismiss those men as not being Reformed. And then there is a chapter entitled, Be Careful with Dictionaries, which in itself could have led into the real issue; for he presents four possible definitions of the word condition in a questioning form. He writes:

a.By condition do you mean something which would bind GOD? Then we say unconditionally: “unconditional is the password!” 

b.By condition do you mean something for which God has to wait before He can go on? Then we say unconditionally: “unconditional is the password.”

c.By condition do you mean something we have to fulfill, in order to merit something? Then we say unconditionally: “unconditional is the password!”

d. Do you mean by condition something which God has joined to something else, to make clear to

us that the one cannot come without the other and that we cannot be sure of the one, unless we are at the same time assured of the other? Then we say unconditionally: “conditional is the password!”

Now all of this sounds very good. Three of the four definitions Schilder rejects, as though agreeing with us that they are to be rejected; and the fourth is made to sound so innocuous as though to ask, how could one possibly object to that? And if there is one possible good use, should we not accept that as what the Liberated had in mind when they used that word? The problem is that this supposedly good definition, “something which God has joined to something else, to make clear to us that the one cannot come without the other and that we cannot be sure of the one, unless we are at the same time assured of the other,” is really no definition at all. As Hoeksema was to point out, there are many things which are inseparably tied together which are nevertheless not conditions to each other, and when a definition can be applied to other things than that for which it is intended, it is not a proper definition.

But there is here a more serious matter in the fact that one definition is missing from Schilder’s list, and that is the one about which the debate had been going on. In a way, the third comes close to it, when it reads, “By condition do you mean something we have to fulfill, in order to merit something?” And that is the problem. This definition interjects the matter of merit, and there had never been any debate about that. Even the Arminians had never claimed that the fulfillment of conditions were meritorious; and thus when he adds the element of merit into this inquiry, it is very easy to answer emphatically, “Then we say unconditionally: ‘unconditional is the password!'” But the question was and is, if that word merit is removed, and the question is asked, “By condition do you mean something we have to do in order to gain something?” then what would be the answer? With much flourish, Schilder avoided a real answer to that question.

And so Schilder moves on to his real point, his claim that it is the Declaration which was unclear, ambiguous, and obscure. This he starts to do with the statement of the Declaration, “That election, which is the unconditional and unchangeable decree of God to redeem in Christ a certain number of persons, is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation, whence flow all the gifts of grace, including faith.” This Schilder points out might be said by some in passing, but it is certainly not a clear statement of fact that “election … is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation.” Such words as cause and fountain, he claims, are words that belong to time and are not properly used with reference to the counsel of God. The statement should be that “election is the grounds of our salvation,” not cause and fountain as the Declaration says.

With this, however, there are problems. As Hoeksema was to point out, the grounds for our salvation are to be found in the death of Christ, an action which very really takes place in time, while the words cause and fountain are taken from the Canons of Dordt themselves [I. A.]

Art. 6. That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree … (which, if not literally, has the same idea as that of a fountain).

Art. 9. Election is the fountain of every saving good … (where the expression literally appears).

Art. 10. The good pleasure of God is the cause of this gracious election … (where we have the idea of cause ascribed to the good pleasure of God, which gives rise to election and what flows from it).

Actually, very soon after Schilder first published this claim, one of his readers in the Netherlands pointed this out to him; and it would have been far more gracious if he had acknowledged his error on this point. But he didn’t. Rather he went on to claim he had not really written what he had, and continued to claim that nonetheless he was correct in claiming that this expression was not what was meant. In fact, he went on to write about the word cause with the claim that it was in itself a very unclear and ambiguous term which should not be used.

Next Schilder turns to another section of the Declaration, that which reads as follows (at least in the copy from which he worked):

a. that all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone.

b. that the promise of the gospel … concerns only the believers, that is, the elect.

c. If the promise of God is for them (the little children), then the promise has to be infallible and unconditional and can therefore only concern the elect. 

d. Hence, that promise is surely only for the elect.

To us this might seem rather simple and direct, but Schilder finds all kinds of vagaries and uncertain expressions in it.

To him, for example, the expression “are for” in the sentence, “that all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone,” comes up as a very vague way of expressing oneself. One marvels. Here is a phrase consisting of the plural form of the copula is, certainly the most basic and common verb in all of language, and “for,” a very simple and direct preposition relating a subject to its object. And the word promise requires that it be told to whom it is directed. But to Schilder it is not clear. Actually what comes out is that what he wishes to have is a certain legal aspect added to the idea of the promise—a favorite area of thought with him—and when the Declaration does not do this, it being completely missing from the confessions as well, he would maintain that something is wrong.

And so he goes on. With the next sentence it is the word concerns that he finds unclear; and in the next it is the word infallible. Ordinary words they are, used every day without difficulty; but Schilder finds them inadequate for coming to the conclusion, “Hence, that promise is surely only for the elect.” And it is to be observed that the matters involved in these sentences are important and were worthy of discussion. In fact, there was nothing Hoeksema would have desired more than a serious, forthright discussion of them. But this? What was he to say?

In the end, Hoeksema did write very little in answer to what we find in this book, in part perhaps because of the response he received when he tried. For some time Hoeksema waited, with the intention of responding in length after Schilder was through. But Schilder was going on, and there were pressures on Hoeksema to answer, which at last he began to do. Without going into all of the condescending slurs Schilder had made regarding his supposedly hasty and poor composition, Hoeksema rather graciously simply remarked, “several points of Schilder’s articles are not to the point.” When, however, this was seen by Schilder, he was piqued; and, in spite of his claim not to be angry, could not resist retorting, “But in this case I feel like saying, ‘All right, if that is what you think, I had better stop.'” And in effect he did. Little more was written; and soon the exchange was over.

In total, this book constitutes a strange set of documents built around the claim that the Declaration was too poorly written to be worthy of consideration. But it also makes one wonder at the troubled spirit it seems to reflect. Why did a man of Schilder’s brilliance and scholarly ability spend his time with such superficial criticisms as these? Why didn’t he deal with the real questions at hand, and the quotations from the creeds? Why had he not long before carried out his promise to deal with our differences? And why now, when the alienation between the two sides was all but complete, did he begin at last to write? To these questions we will never really know the answers, of course, and yet there are indications as to what they might have been.

The first is already detected in the book’s opening sentence, “When we mentioned the text of the Declaration we forthwith expressed our opinion that our members who emigrated to America or Canada cannot and may not bind themselves to the Brief Declaration.” Clearly the Declaration had to be rejected at its very start. By that time Dr. Holwerda had destroyed any real possibility of a working relationship between us by posting his letter to Canada instructing his people to join our churches but to have nothing to do with the theological convictions on which they were built, and a Liberated minister was already going about in Canada encouraging those who had joined our churches to leave and form churches of their own. The result was that the Declaration served their purposes very well, providing something on which the division could be blamed. And so it has been used ever since.

But still there are Schilder’s lingering remarks, such as, “For as long as possible we want to keep the newly developed ties from being needlessly severed. Therefore we are very careful. Wherever possible we want to avoid saying, ‘This is wrong.'” One gains the impression that in certain ways he regretted making this break; and it may well have been so.

Just recently it has been brought to our attention that there were serious differences among the followers of Schilder from the start, particularly over the doctrine of predestination. Schilder had been raised under the theology of Herman Bavinck, just as Hoeksema had, with its high regard for the teachings of Dordt; but many of the young men who followed him, including particularly Professors Holwerda and Veenhof, had gained their exposure to these doctrines in the highly philosophical and speculative form that they were given by the followers of Abraham Kuyper. Against this they had reacted, by rejecting not just the system, but the historical form of the doctrines themselves. For a time Schilder had managed to keep things together with his claim that these differences were just in terminology; but the fact was that these men had no real place for the things he shared with us. What we may well have in this book, therefore, is a last effort on Schilder’s part to hold things together with this strained effort to focus not on the substance of the problem, but on the language and terms in which it is found. But it was not to be, as he sensed in bringing this book to its faltering end.

But there is more in it still to which we must return. 

1 The Dutch “State Bible,” authorized by the Synod of Dordt, contains rather extensive commentary on the meaning of the texts as well.