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Klaas Schilder and Karl Barth
Part 3/4 - The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings
This is the third in a four-part series based on the Klaas Schilder Reader from Lexham Press, which covers decades of his life, works, and theology, many of which have been translated into English for the very first time for this publication. In Part I, we looked at Schilder’s lectures in America and last week we talked about why Schilder might seem more on the nose than other theologians and what it looks like to be respectfully critical of one’s own camp. This week is in some ways an expansion upon last week’s theme, looking at Schilder’s criticisms and warnings about the Barthian leanings of some within the reformed camp in his time. Before I begin, just a reminder that though Lexham Press provided me with this copy at no cost, I am under no obligation to write anything other than my own thoughts and opinions.
Lessons from History
“That was very long ago, but it still has a good lesson to teach us.”
Klaas Schilder, Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings
Part of the way into one of these essays I was struck by how applicable it was to certain divisions and theological positions today. It was then that I read this line. I’ve talked before at length—throughout multiple reviews of various different books, both new and old—about the importance of learning from the past to be prepared for the present. I even said the following in the last instalment of this series:
“Whatever we are going through and whatever is ahead might surprise us, but it will never surprise God or the men and women who have run this race ahead of us. There is no such thing as an untravelled path in the life of the church or the Christian, there are only well-worn tracks.”
With that said, when reading texts like this one, which is arguing against a particular person or school of thought which is either not as prominent now, or has been long since forgotten, it’s useful to bring a couple of tools with us into the book, both to take apart what’s complicated, as well as to help us build up our own positions.
Lost in Translation
When I used to work in translation, there were times when the subject would say something which either wasn't translatable or was otherwise said in a way which I then had to purposely obfuscate in order to keep the conversation civil. On other occasions, it was simply that a better way of saying the same thing existed in German or English, in which case I opted to use that phrase or word for clarity's sake. The same can be true when we are reading historical documents, in which a particular word or phrase is used to describe a theological camp, a church denomination, or even a heresy. For that reason, when we are reading these documents or books it's useful to go in assuming that you’ll have to do some measure of cultural translation in order that what is being said will be applicable today.
There are terms used throughout these essays and letters which will only be familiar to a very particular group of people, they are generally explained, which is helpful, but if you were to quote them to, or at, someone—even in the right context—they’d be unlikely to have any kind of effect. To take it a step further it may even be that without doing this translation early on in your reading, you'll handicap yourself from being able to get as much of the text as possible. My recommendation, in this case, is to read the editor’s notes, make your own notes and be fastidious about making everything as clear as you possibly can post to yourself and also for others.
When speaking about the musical Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda has often talked about his decision to use different kinds of music to represent different groups of people. He spoke about why he included references to modern-day rappers and hip-hop icons saying:
“They write so brilliantly that they transcend their circumstances and they change the world literally through their power of their pen and their delivery and their oratory. That’s the fundamental idea in it. That’s why it’s such a love letter to hip hop…”
There’s a mutual respect Miranda feels for both the founding fathers and his musical heroes which led to his masterpiece, and that’s something we could learn from here. So often when I hear people talk about history, especially when it comes to those who don’t read broadly, they come out with questions or statements like:
How on earth could they have done that?
I never would have trusted him!
There’s no way that would happen today
Thank goodness we live in the 21st century
The more of history I read, the more I’m convinced that we just recycling the same arguements and tendencies over and again and that we’ll continue to do so until the second advent. There’s a reason why Ian Kershaw was able to write a two volume biography of Hitler, and that’s because so many people have been wrecked by the question, “How could he have done what he did, and why did people follow him?” They ask that question not just out of a fascination with history, but also because of a hope that it will never happen again.
Though we should always be cautious about comparing people to the worst figures or even the best figures in history, it our own private study it can be helpful to take time to compare and contrast figures from history with those in the world today so as to cement in our minds the relatability of the texts we’re reading. Always start with yourself, not your own opponents, what similarities, temptations, or even previous ways of thinking do you share with the various parties?
Sidenote: I won’t give examples because I feel that would probably distract from whats central in this article, plus, I want you to find your own examples not just steal mine.
The Theory not the Person
What about the way that still there writes in these essays and letters is that in 90% of cases he goes after the theory or theology and not the person in fact what was interesting about this section of the book is that though it's entitled, “Karl Barth” each letter is directed towards a different party. Each are Barthian in thier thinking, but it’s clear that Schilder isn’t interested in just taking down a theological opponent. Throughout each text he seeks to explain the failures of Barthianism, and it’s distinctive difference from calvinism/reformedom, by accurately representing them and then taking them on at their strongest.
He also—it seems to me—does his best to establish what is praise-worthy about Barth, though it’s not done with anything like the tact and genuine respect we would expect from Bavinck. Here’s one example:
“With all due respect for the contribution Barth did make in his context, and in full recognition of the fact that he has had many good things to say against that hideous religious eroticism, against the beatification of the biological, emotional, and erotic elements of an arrogant humanity, and in the awareness that he is the one who posed the question of the paradox in religion in the clearest terms—nevertheless, we have to say that it is not only the arrogance of the human race he touches upon, but also the condescending love of God. For God does not just cast lightning bolts down upon this horizontal world.”
Klaas Schilder, Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings
What does that mean for reading this section of the book? Honestly, I think I’m at least as angry as Schilder about some of the things going on in my own theological camps today, or outside of them in the name of Jesus or the church. As someone writing publicly, I have to watch myself diligently so as to make sure that my heart is in the right place, that I’m being as gracious as I can, and when I can’t to just keep my tongue in my mouth. The best piece of advice I can give you going into this section is this:
Unless you can tweet/say/write that at least as tactfully as Schilder did, it might be best you don’t.
“That is where the theology of the cross [theologia crucis] is, not specifically of Golgotha’s cross, but rather the cross of the theologians. The theologian should not desire to escape from under that cross. If he does, he lapses immediately into the theology of glory [theologia gloriae], the theology of the false glory, as if he knows all and has conquered God.”
With that said, whilst reading these polemics is important to help us dismatle the incorrect theology of our own time, I must revisit a point I made in the first section.
First things first, check yourself.
You don’t own God, nor are you the sole proprietor of the ultimate understanding of the word, in fact, you’re actually wrong about some things. Me too. Whether it’s this book, a tiny handbook on prayer, a three-volume Systematic Theology, or even this article, do so under the shadow of the cross. For the Christian there is no escape from it, and while to the sinner it might inspire fear, to saints it should be the brightest light we could hope for, illumating those truths in the words we read which are of paramount importance and will not just endow us with knowledge, but help us to grow in wisdom. The point of reading books like this is not to be the most well-read scholar/theologian, but to carry out the chief end of man all the better.
Quest. 1. What is the chief end of man?
Answ. Man’s chief end is to glorify God,a and to enjoy him for ever.
Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition, (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), 387.
I have an article coming soon which will explain better how to do this and why, but here’s the TL;DR version:
Be rooted in the word
Humble yourself before, during, and after you read anything
That’s a good place to start.
Grace and Peace,
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