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Klaas Schilder - Wise as a Serpent
Part 2/4 - The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings
Thanks so much to everyone who shared last week’s article—the first in this series—your support is much appreciated and I hope this week’s article will bless you once again. 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. With that said, if you haven’t read last week’s article, you won’t need to have done so to understand this one, but I would still recommend going back and reading that one for more context on who Schilder is and the context within which he was writing.
Wise as a Serpent
“…Schilder stresses that it is of utmost importance for the church to remain the church of Christ. This implies for Schilder first of all…that the church is a church of the Word. This is what Schilder calls the ‘objective’ element in his ecclesiology. Without an objective connection to the Word of God, the church is no longer [the] church of Christ and in fact no longer church at all.”
Johannes Marinus de Jong - The Church is the Means, the World is the End
The more I read of Schilder, the more I’m convinced that he clung to the word of God for dear life whilst all the world was a storm around him. He could have, like many around him, let go and allow the storm to take him, but against all odds, he stayed put. With that said, the storm certainly affected him. We’ll look at this in more detail in the fourth and final article of this series, but it’s worth remembering that Schilder was left battered by:
The unintended consequences of Neo-Calvinism in the late 1800s and early 1900s
The Nazi Party and subsequent second world war
Schism in the Church as well as ex-communication
Failed attempts at ecumenism which had led, in his mind at least, to capitulation to the culture/s of the world.
It seems to me that these experiences, as well as a strict love of the word, left him as wise as a serpent, though perhaps not as innocent as a dove. I don’t say that disparagingly though, given the circumstances, I could only hope to have come out as well as Schilder did.
The articles included in the section on the church span thirty years from 1918-1948, it’s, therefore, all the more impressive that the word was kept central in each of these articles. Though diagnosing a variety of maladies facing the church at the time, Schilder's heart that the church should be, as de Jong says, “[The] church of Christ,… church of the Word”, is clear and ever-present.
Given the storm currently going on in the world around us, it’s to be expected that some of the same issues facing Schilder at the time, face us once again in the church today. This isn’t unusual when reading historical/theological works, but rather a constant experience for anyone studying church history. Early in 2020, for instance, I read through the journal of my great-great-grandfather—who was a Minister around the same time Schilder was born—he was at seminary when the Russian Flu hit, and his response influenced my own when our own pandemic took over. 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.
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Following in Schilders Footsteps
Throughout this series, we’ll explore some ways to get the most out of each section of the Klaas Schilder reader, as is normal for the ‘reviews’ I write. I’m almost never interested in convincing you to read a book, my hope instead is that if you pick it up and read it, you do so well and take not just knowledge away with you, but wisdom.
This week in particular though I feel it would be good to lay out some general guidelines to help readers understand how to follow in the footsteps of those who have run our race before us.
“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Christian Standard Bible, (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Heb 12:1–2.
In Hebrews 12 we’re encouraged to cast our eyes on two things:
The large cloud of witnesses surrounding us
Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith
To that end, when we read a book like this, and especially chapters/articles concerning the Church, we should do so with these two objects in mind. To do so well we need to be aware of a few things, but above everything else, we need to keep in mind that one of these parties ran his race perfectly, with no sin, and nothing we can disagree with, the other did not. Though the men and women who have gone before us are meant to encourage us on, to help guide us—and in cases to post-humously correct, rebuke, and train us—they were not perfect. If you begin to read a biography of any saint which seems to say otherwise, lay it aside, that will not help you. We must be principally aware that as much as we’d love for the church to have been perfect once upon a time and that if we just got back to that time then everything would be okay, no such time exists.
With that in mind, imagine for a second that you’re training for a 5k race, today is the first day of training and you’ve turned up to the park ready to go. As you begin to run someone flags you down and says, “Hiya, look I’m no expert, but I started running last year and I wish I’d learned this tip earlier. I hope that helps, have a great day.”
Do you take the advice? Do you at least trust that the person might know more than you do?
Don’t get me wrong, they may well be wrong, perhaps you try running only on your heels and realise they were a fool! The reality is though that most of the time we’d do well to at least approach the advice with a pinch of humility, and to read as though we don’t know best all of the time.
My final piece of advice is to look out for both the subjects which are back in vogue and those which aren’t. That should cover everything I know, but it’s worth at least taking a second to think about before just drifting through the pages. If the subject is back—probably on Twitter— then why? If it’s not, are there hints of it, has it been debated in the last decade/two decades? Having a good idea of what’s been before, even if it’s not hot off the press right now is incredibly helpful. A great example from a book I reviewed recently mentioned C.S Lewis’ views on war. The author, having written the book at the start of the pandemic, mentioned that the views may be applicable to that situation, but oddly enough, mere days before the book was released Russia declared war on Ukraine. What hadn’t been even a glimmer of a talking point one year was incredibly relatable the next. We don’t know what’s ahead, church history does.
Here are a couple of examples from the Reader for you to be looking out for.
“…We are—if I may put it a bit crudely—in deep trouble. We are in the middle of a Babel-like confusion of tongues. Each of us has been assigned work in his own sphere. And so we began to work separately of each other. We became more and more individualistic, or snobbish, or sectarian… we identify things according to the latest fashion. And therefore we call our confusion of tongues tolerance.”
Klaas Schilder, The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings, eds. George Harinck, Marinus De Jong, and Richard Mouw, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022), 255.
This could have been written yesterday.
Tolerance in Schilder’s day was, of course, centred around other subjects than the ones we are currently seeing doled out, but the core issue remains the same.
“You do you.”
“Each to their own.”
“This is my truth.”
Throughout the articles, this same theme pops up, though under a variety of names. It’s worth taking the time, therefore, to look out for the arguments Schilder makes against this issue, and to find out which of them might still apply today.
“That I had good reason to challenge making the church “static” is clear. I already stated my objection to the pluriformity theories of some in 1932 …It was this: people first remove the actual aspect of Christ’s continuing act of gathering from the concept of the church. Then they make “the church” into a society of people with certain religious qualities. After that they go round to search everywhere for persons with those qualities, and say: “See, there is a church. You can apply our list of marks to it with greater or lesser comprehensiveness.””
Klaas Schilder, The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings, eds. George Harinck, Marinus De Jong, and Richard Mouw, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022), 332.
Perhaps I’m simply unaware of it, but I don’t think the issue of “Which church tradition is correct?”1 is being debated among the orthodox denominations. In fact, partly due to organisations like the Gospel Coalition, I would say we’re about as united as we could be in a lot of ways. With that being said, knowing what causes a denominational split, and beyond that, what can go wrong after a schism will be necessary again at some point in the future—though I pray that I’m wrong.
This issue is just one example of many throughout the historical record which thought they might seem trivial now, were an issue once for a reason. From heresies to persecution, division to all-out war, we need to know what’s come before to know what’s ahead.
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” is often said and often ignored, but we as Christians have no excuses on this front. We need the cloud of witnesses, and if we choose to ignore them, we do so at our peril. We should be thankful that the record of the church’s past victories and failures has been preserved for us, and either we listen, look to Jesus as our final example, and we grow in wisdom, or we believe that we’re already the ultimate source of wisdom and we need no help from our forefathers. There is no middle ground.
Back to the Future
Next week we will be looking at Schilder’s work on Karl Barth, I’ll be honest now and say that if there’s one section I’m not looking forward to covering, it’s this one. I’m quite happy to admit that it’s a daunting task. Frankly, I gave myself four weeks for a series. I could easily have spent a whole year, on, but I digress. I would love to have your feedback on the series so far, so if you could drop a comment that would be hugely appreciated.
I’m mentioning next weeks article, however, to say that I am no expert on Barth and that if what you read is lacking nuance you would otherwise have hoped for, please do get in touch and send me a “letter to the editor” style email which will make up for any of my failings. I would be incredibly share them.
That’s all for today, I hope this has been helpful and if you haven’t already, go pick up the Klaas Schilder Reader from Lexham Press and if you haven’t already, check out last week’s article!
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
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Which is, I admit, somewhat of an oversimplification