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Klaas Schilder - Schism in the Name of Unity?
Part 1/4 - The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings
Otto von Bismark
When I lived in Germany, I would often visit the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Whenever I visited I would take time to stand under a painting by Anton von Werner with the incredibly catchy title:
“THE OPENING OF THE GERMAN REICHSTAG IN THE WHITE HALL OF THE BERLIN SCHLOSS BY KAISER WILHELM II ON JUNE 25, 1888.”
It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
The central figure in this painting wasn’t Wilhelm II, but Otto von Bismark, a man widely accepted as the catalyst of German unity in the late 1800s and the forerunner of the Third Reich. Bismark wasn’t a diplomat, nor was he a politician vying for peace, he’d united the disparate German nations at the barrel end of a Dreyse-Zündnadelgewehr, arguably the most significant firearm in the world at the time.
Unity isn’t always forged but conquered.
For this reason, though Bismark is the principal character in Werner’s painting, set apart both by position and his unique white uniform, not a single person present has their eyes on him. It’s almost painful to look at, there are around a hundred people represented, all huddled together with little room to move, yet Bismark stands alone, approaching the Kaiser by ascending the stairs, but with one foot still firmly on the ground.
That which he had created was not his to claim.
52 years later, Klaas Schilder—Dutch National and Neo-Calvinist1 theologian—was imprisoned by the Nazis for opposing their war. Though eventually released, Schilder, it seems, was deeply affected by experience and, in the Nazi’s view, the further spread of German Unity.
Over the past decade or so we’ve been blessed to see a resurgence in the prominence of dutch theological work from the 1800s, as well as fresh translations previously unavailable to the English-speaking world. Kuyper and Bavinck are no doubt the most significant names in this roster, with Geerhardus Vos and Groen van Prinsterer playing vital contextual roles. Klaas Schilder takes us further into the 20th century than any of these men, and a new translation and collection by Lexham Press does the hard work of distilling his huge corpus into an essential reader. This volume presents us with his theological rigour, as well as some of his more difficult work—some of which people might consider schismatic2. Over the course of four articles, we’ll cover everything in this reader, what we can gain from reading yet another dead theologian, and look at some of the key ways we can interact well with a work like this one.
An Enemy Who Sticks as Close as a Brother
Neither my brother nor I have kids at the moment, but when we finally do, we have promised one another to be each other’s harshest critics. Alongside this, we have also promised to always say goodbye to one another with the refrain, “I love and respect you.”
These two promises are not in contention with one another, they are in direct correlation. It is because we love one another—and by extension each other’s families—that we will not stand by if the other falls short of the high standard for fatherhood we hope to hold each other to. We both know what it’s like when that standard isn’t upheld, and because of our own experience, the danger that we will fall into that same failing is high. To counteract that, we need an ‘enemy’ in our camp who is as close as a brother, who loves us, who respects us, and whom we trust to oppose and restore us with those two things in mind. Klaas Schilder was such a brother to the church of his time and place, pointing out the faults and failings of his brothers in arms, he hadn’t intended to create Schism but to incite unity. His writings, though polemic, are undoubtedly loving and these first two sections of the reader are a great place to start to begin understanding Schilder’s heart for the Church.
The first two sections of the Klaas Schilder Reader contain his American Lectures in 1939, as well as various essays on culture and common grace written between 1925 and 1939. All of these were written prior to his imprisonment and so are helpful for us to gather information about the man before his direct experience with the war.
With Twitter being what it is, Theological polemicism and difference is not hard to find, but stepping outside our own culture, outside our own time, allows us to evaluate theological critique in a different light. I’ve spoken at length about Bavinck and his unbelievable ability to steelman other viewpoints before dismantling them, all whilst being on good terms with those he critiqued. Though Schilder, in my opinion, doesn’t possess half of his conscientiousness, an argument could be made that he doesn’t need it. Where Bavinck is usually contending with those in other camps, Schilder, in the name of Unity, is seeking to guide and reshape those in his own camp—Neo-Calvinism—even going so far as to critique Kuyper himself.
“Schilder, writing a generation after Kuyper, rejected Kuyper’s accounting for human cultural life in common grace…”3
— DENNIS GREESON
If my brother ever comes to me, puts his hand on the table and says, “what do you think you’re playing at?” it’s okay. Why? He is my brother, I love him and he loves me. Where a stranger might need to be more cautious, like Bavinck was, Schilder—a brother—was able to be more on the nose.
With that in mind, there are three main things I would look out for as you read the first two sections of this reader:
Which arguments does Klaas Schilder raise which are once again in the limelight?
Whether you agree or disagree with his thoughts, what do you appreciate in the way he approaches theological differences?
Do you approach theological discussion/arguments with at least as much understanding as Schilder does? If not why?
With all of this in mind, it’s worth saying that even with the best of intentions, Schilder’s polemicism still led to Schism. New churches were planted, emigration occurred, and still to this day those churches are wrestling with Schilder’s ecclesiology4. Schilder was no Bismark though, he hadn’t threatened at the end of a theological machine gun, rather he’d brought to the table serious theological critique. Rebuke is not an attack. Schilder was excommunicated, but not because he succeeded in bringing unity, but because he failed.
Reading this book has been eye-opening for me in these three ways:
I have been confronted by Schilder’s arguments against my own views.
I have been saddened by the fact that these views caused disunity.
I am surprised that, given the foul nature of most of the theological division in our discourse today that there isn’t more division.
Schilder’s work reminds me of Matthew Barrett’s Simply Trinity, which was a work meant to bring unity around one of the most important doctrines in Christianity, the Trinity. Though that has certainly happened in certain circles, the response from those he lovingly rebuked has been harsh and divisive, to say the least.
I said earlier in this article that unity isn’t always forged but conquered, but it would be equally true to say that Schism isn’t always intended, but is necessitated. Throughout Church history we’ve seen many cases of this, the reformation, for instance, was originally intended to bring change to the existing Catholic church, but instead, schism, or division, occurred. Schilder loved the Church and sought to reform those elements of Neo-Calvinism which had, in his view, failed to be proven true. Whether or not we agree with him is far less important than the question:
“Would I have disowned Schilder for these views?”
My guess is that after reading this volume your answer will be a resounding no. If that’s the case, it may be time to reevaluate the relationship we have with those we disagree with who are currently in the Church today.5
Why Buy This Book?
When I was sent this book by Lexham Press I didn’t know how long it was, I was a little surprised and wondered what I was getting myself into. I’ve read much longer volumes, but I tend to review shorter more accessible works for this newsletter. I began working on a review anyhow but was soon convinced that this volume needed more time and care than I usually give to a book review. If you’ve been reading my reviews for a while you’ll know that I don’t often recommend books so to speak, instead, I give advice on how to read books should they be relevant to you.
This whole newsletter is centred around two questions:
How do I become a better reader?
How do I become a better reader of the Bible?
With that said, I do think it’s important to build a library—whether physical or digital—of books and volumes from throughout Church history, and this particular time in Church history is one of the least well trafficked times of the last 500 years. Other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the early 1900s—and especially the second world war—has been left untouched in favour of secular retellings of wartime narratives. Theology essentially pauses between Kuyper and Lewis for some people.
This volume is a way of bridging that gap, addressing the hurt experienced by those in that period, as well as identifying why unity in the Church is so important even if it’s hard to achieve. In a time when disunity reigns, it’s important to look back on those times which echo our own. War is once again on our doorsteps, the political division is at the highest it’s been in over a generation, and we’re seeing and hearing about huge division within major church denominations. All of these are above us and the truth is there’s not much any of us can do to change them, but we do have a decision to make about how we will respond. I believe this reader will help us to do that.
Over the coming weeks we’ll look at:
Interacting with other Theologians
and Schilder’s experience and critique of the German Occupation
I sincerely hope you’ll pick up this book, and that throughout the next few weeks, as you read through the different sections, you’ll be able to better understand both the world of the early 1900s, as well as the world of the early 2000s, i.e. the world we live in today.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
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“Neo-Calvinism… is world-transformative, focused not only on the church, but on society at large, and is committed to the common good.”
“[The word schism] is ordinarily employed to designate a division or separation in a church or denomination of Christians because of some diversity of opinion”
Thomas J. Shepherd, The Westminster Bible Dictionary, 1880, 456–457.
Simply put, Schism means serious division over theological opinion, usually leading to a church or denominational split. - Adsum Try Ravenhill
Theology of the Church, what it/she is and how it/she functions.
For further reading, see O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing published by Gospel Centered Discipleship by Adsum Try Ravenhill