Remembering Klaas Schilder

23 March 2012 by Wes Bredenhof

Nelson Kloosterman has helpfully reminded us that today is the 60th anniversary of the death of Dr. Klaas Schilder.  It would be rather odd for such a date to go unnoticed and unmentioned amongst the CanRC, whilst a PCA minister remembers, don’t you think?  Hence, let me share with you a lecture on Schilder that I recently gave to my church history class at Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers College.  The lecture is unpolished and there are some features that you won’t be able to enjoy (i.e. the page of Schilder’s sermon notes), but yet I trust it will give you a sense of the man and his significance.


The name of Schilder would undoubtedly be familiar to your grandparents or great-grandparents.  But today among younger generations his name is virtually forgotten.  When I was 18 or 19 years old, I knew basically nothing about him.  I could probably have told you that he was Dutch and that he might have had something to do with church history, but beyond that I was clueless.  To be honest, I’d never really heard anything about the Liberation of 1944 either.  If someone had ever spoken about the Liberation, I always thought of the Canadian army defeating the Nazis and liberating the Netherlands.

Back in the year-end issue of 1990, Clarion featured a few articles about Schilder.  I came across these articles a few months later and read them with interest.  Then, and in subsequent reading, I discovered that Schilder was a person of huge significance in our church history.

Many people were surprised in 1952 when they learned that Schilder died.  Most thought he would keep working well into his seventies and eighties.  He too apparently thought that he would be working for some time yet – he was writing his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism and he’d only got up to Lord’s Day 10.  This was no small commentary.  For example, volume 1 deals with Lord’s Days 1-4 and it’s about 500 pages.  However, the Lord had other plans for Schilder.  He left behind a legacy of preaching, writing, and ecclesiastical activism.  Though he was a controversial figure, he was a great blessing to the Reformed Churches.

Klaas Schilder was born on December 19, 1890 in Kampen, a son for Johannes Schilder and his wife Grietje.  Johannes died when Klaas was quite young (in 1896), so he was mostly raised by his mother.  When he was born, the family was in the Hervormde Kerk.  During his youth, somehow he made the switch from the Hervormde church to the Gereformeerde.  He became a member of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  This happened in 1894, while his father was still alive.  However, I don’t know why.  I asked Rev. Van Oene in an e-mail and he didn’t know either.

Already as a youngster, Klaas showed signs of a powerful intellect.  He once received a severe reprimand from one of his church elders for goofing off and apparently not listening in church.  The elder asked him if he had heard anything at all from the sermon.  Young Klaas then proceeded to list the points of the sermon as well as an elaborate description of each of them.  The elder was dumbfounded.  His memory and understanding proved to be of great benefit to himself and others throughout his life.

He went through the regular Dutch education that might be expected for someone with his capabilities.  He was not destined to work with his hands, but with his head.  He wrote the entrance exam for the theological seminary in Kampen in 1909 and began his studies there.  Not surprisingly, he was an outstanding student.  Among other things, he was known for being able to quote large swaths of Faust (a famous play in German by Goethe) off the top of his head.  In 1914, at the age of 24, Schilder received his candidate degree in theology, which is roughly the equivalent of a Bachelor of Divinity degree today.

He originally wanted to be a missionary, but it wasn’t to be.  Instead, he was ordained as a pastor at Ambt-Vollenhove in the province of Overijssel (near Kampen).  It was here that he also married Anna Walter in June of 1914.  He served four other churches after that and then in 1928, was installed as a minister of the church at Rotterdam-Delfshaven.

Schilder spent only a few months at this church and then was granted a sabbatical to pursue doctoral studies in Germany.  He studied philosophy at Frederick-Alexander University in Erlangen.  In 1933, he completed and defended his doctoral dissertation and received his Ph.D.  That was the end of his formal education.

After his return from Germany, he was appointed a professor of dogmatics at the seminary in Kampen.  To take up this appointment, he became a retired minister of the church at Rotterdam-Delfshaven.  Back then when a minister became a professor, he retired (or become a minister-emeritus) of the congregation he had last served.  Today in Canada, things are slightly different.  Today ministers who become seminary professors remain active ministers of the congregation they last served.  So, for example, Dr. VanVliet at our seminary last served as the minister of the Maranatha church in Surrey, BC.  He is still a minister of that church.  They are responsible for the oversight of his conduct and doctrine as a minister and professor.  If he were to start living in sin or teaching false doctrine, the Maranatha church would be responsible for putting him under discipline, and suspending or deposing him if necessary.  In the Dutch situation in the 1930s, the same was true for the church at Rotterdam-Delfshaven and Dr. Schilder.  If he were to err in doctrine or life, they were the church responsible for him.  That was the way things had been laid out in the church order – that was what the churches had agreed to.  This would become important later on in his life.  We touched on that earlier.

Most of Schilder’s lectures and sermons were delivered from memory with only the help of an outline or some scribbled notes.  I have an example here from a sermon he preached in 1940 (see page 22 of Gedenkt Uw Voorgangeren).  He was well loved by students at the seminary.  He treated them respectfully and cared about their well-being.  When he would speak or preach around the Netherlands, he would always solicit donations for the seminary students for their dormitory.  As a preacher and speaker, no one has ever spoken highly of Schilder’s speaking abilities.  They say he had an odd, unclear voice that took some getting used to.  It was what he had to say that drew attention, not how he said it.  But here you can judge for yourself.  I have a recording you can listen to…this is 1951 (late in his life) and it is said that he did voice exercises his whole life to improve.  I think his voice here is clear enough and not odd at all.

In 1939, Schilder made his first visit to the United States.  By this point he was already a controversial figure.  A Christian Reformed minister in the United States had heard about what Schilder had been writing regarding Abraham Kuyper and he didn’t like it.  Rev. H. J. Kuiper (no relation to Abraham) was the editor of The Banner and he wrote an article in which he warned the Christian Reformed Church about the renegade professor from Holland.  Kuiper thought that Schilder would import all the theological unrest from overseas and the CRC didn’t need this.  But when Schilder arrived in the United States, it was to a warm reception.  A lot of folks in the CRC ignored the warning published in The Banner.  Schilder spoke and preached at many Christian Reformed congregations in Michigan and elsewhere in the eastern US.

In 1940, the Germans invaded the Netherlands.  They set up a puppet government filled with Dutch Nazis.  The Queen of the Netherlands and the royal house all fled in exile to England.  These were times of turmoil.  Many courageous Dutch citizens resisted Nazi domination.  Some fought in the Dutch underground army, others took up the pen and provided leadership that way.  Schilder was one of those who took up the pen.  He boldly criticized the Nazis and their pagan philosophy, just as he had before the invasion.  In August of 1940, it cost him his freedom.  He was arrested for his public resistance on the pages of the periodical that he edited, The Reformation (De Reformatie).  The Nazis had made it illegal to mention the Dutch Queen or anything to do with the Kingdom of the Netherlands.  As far as they were concerned, this Kingdom no longer existed.  Schilder disagreed, and through his gutsy writing he helped to stimulate a spirit of resistance in the occupied Netherlands.  He paid for this with an imprisonment that lasted several months.  In December of 1940 he was released and told not to write or speak anything against the Nazis.  They left him with the warning that should he disobey, he would face life (and possibly death) in a concentration camp.  This had already happened to a number of Dutch ministers, so this was no idle threat.  But Schilder could not be silenced and this resulted in him having to go into hiding.  He had to remain underground until 1944 and the time around which the Liberation took place.

Now this is an important place at which world history and church history are obviously intertwined.  Before and after the German invasion, there were Dutch citizens who were Nazis.  Many of them were also Reformed church members.  It is estimated that, in 1936, 8000 confessing members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were members of the Dutch Nazi movement.  It’s true that the Synod of 1936 decided that church membership was incompatible with being a Nazi, but many ignored this decision and others openly disagreed with it.  Among them was Prof. Valentine Hepp, one of the chief opponents of Schilder.  H. H. Kuyper was the son of Abraham Kuyper and another opponent of Schilder.  He too was, at the very least, accommodating to the Nazi puppet government.  His son Willem, the grandson of Abraham Kuyper, took things one step further.  He joined an SS unit and fought and died for the Third Reich on the eastern front.  There were other ministers besides Schilder who were boldly opposed to the Nazis.  But it is remarkable that many of his chief opponents in the years leading up to the Liberation were not.  The acceptance of political and national evil seemed to go naturally with the acceptance of ecclesiastical evil.

Those trying to silence him in the Reformed Churches were eager to take advantage of the political situation.  They knew that Schilder couldn’t defend himself in writing or in person.  He couldn’t just show up at a Synod to make his case or to answer questions.  If he had done that, the Germans would have arrested him right there.  He had to watch silently from his underground hiding spots while the ecclesiastical hierarchy worked towards its goal.  Eventually, as I mentioned earlier, Schilder was suspended and deposed by the synodical authorities for not falling in line with the doctrinal pronouncements of 1942.

He was there at that meeting of August 11, 1944 in the Hague.  At that point, the Germans were still in control of that part of the Netherlands.  So how was it that he could suddenly come out of hiding for that meeting?  He couldn’t come to the synod, but he could be there for that meeting.  Some of his opponents later made a lot out of that, suggesting that Schilder was just a coward and had used the Nazis as a convenient excuse.  The reality is that the Germans were aware of what was going on at the synod.  They were also aware that they were being seen as the ones holding Schilder back.  There was a public perception problem.  So to counteract that, they felt compelled to lift the arrest warrant for Schilder.  But by the time they did that and by the time the news filtered down to Schilder, it was too late for his place in the church.

At the meeting in the Hague, Schilder was asked to oversee the training of seminary students.  There would eventually be two seminaries in Kampen, each claiming to be the continuation of the seminary of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  There would be the synodical seminary (popularly known by the street it was on, Oudestraat) and the Liberated seminary (Broederweg).  Within months, Schilder and another suspended and deposed professor, Seakle Greijdanus, were teaching the Liberated seminary students.  All of the pioneer ministers of the Canadian Reformed Churches were trained under Prof. Schilder.  For the first while, Greijdanus and Schilder were the only members of the faculty and this left Schilder extremely busy both with lectures and administrative duties.

Following the Second World War, Schilder could also again resume writing in his periodical, The Reformation.  Through his writings in this magazine and in his many books, he noticeably influenced Reformed church society in the Netherlands.  Like Abraham Kuyper, he was a prolific author – generating millions of words in his lifetime.

Schilder made a second visit to the United States in 1947.  That time he was officially persona non grata as far as the Christian Reformed Church was concerned.  On his first visit, it was just a personal editorial in The Banner that warned the CRC about Schilder.  This second time “the Synodical Committee” issued a warning to CRC congregations.  Since Schilder did not come from a sister church, CRC churches were not to have him preach or speak for them.  It was hierarchy in action.  The CRC had thrown Schilder out too – and without anything resembling a hearing or investigation.  So when Schilder came to the United States this second time, he didn’t visit any CRCs.

Instead, it was the Protestant Reformed Churches who welcomed him.  The Protestant Reformed Churches had come into being in 1924 through something like the Liberation of 1944.  The Christian Reformed Church had adopted certain doctrinal statements besides what the Three Forms of Unity state.  They bound office bearers to these statements.  Ministers like Herman Hoeksema found this unacceptable and could not agree.  They were suspended and deposed for their refusal to fall into line.  Hoeksema and Schilder were in that sense kindred spirits.  They had doctrinal differences and we’ll talk about a couple of those in the next lecture.  But then, in 1947, there was no barrier between Schilder and the Protestant Reformed Churches.  He was warmly welcomed by those churches.  He preached and lectured at Protestant Reformed congregations from Michigan to California.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw Schilder continue to teach at the seminary.  He was going full throttle with his teaching and his writing when the unexpected took place.  On March 23, 1952, he suffered a massive heart attack and was promoted to glory.  His health had been failing for a little while and his doctor had told him to slow down.  But from his last bit of writing for The Reformation he expressed his hope that this would just be a temporary set-back.  One of Schilder’s colleagues at the seminary was Prof. Benne Holwerda.  He once wrote that “The Liberation cost the ministers among us ten years of their life.”  Schilder only reached the age of 62.  Ironically, Holwerda was in the middle of writing a memorial article for Schilder when he too suddenly died – at the age of 43.  This article was still included in the memorial volume for Schilder (see page 76 of Gedenkt Uw Voorgangeren).  We saw something of this effect among our pioneer ministers as well in Canada.  Rev. J. Van Popta died at 52 years old.  Rev. F. Kouwenhoven died at 53 years old.  Rev. G. Pieffers lived to be only 62, so did Rev. H. Stel.  They too had lived through the Liberation and that, combined with immigration, may have taken some years off their lives.

So what kind of person was Klaas Schilder?  We have numerous accounts, some from not-so-friendly sources.  His opponents thought he was aloof, cold, a coward, or that he was contentious.  They thought he liked to argue for the sake of arguing.  Others thought his plan all along was to start his own little Schilder church.  They claimed he was power hungry, a megalomaniac.  But many of these same kind of people were the ones accommodating the Nazis and engaged in abusing Reformed church polity to advance their agenda.  Slight credibility problem there.  On the other hand, we have Schilder’s supporters.  They’ve described him as “rock-solid in faith,” “patient,” “possessing sharp insight,” “a highly gifted scholar,” “courageous,” and “trusting.”  One of his students, H. Evan Runner, said, “He was a very friendly, kindly man of the people, I would say, who had a gigantic intellect, and therefore most of the people couldn’t get close enough to realize that he was a very simple man.”  One of his fellow professors said this about him, “It was not easy to get to know him well.  I was not a friend of his, but I liked him very much…Schilder was simplicity itself, a simple child of God, a tremendous fellow, a pious chap, an enormously clever man, an unusually talented person.”  Well, if Bavinck was a rock star theologian, some of Schilder’s friends seem to have thought he was almost Christ himself.  In fact, there are a few places in Rudolf Van Reest’s Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church where there are these messianic allusions.  Van Reest writes of Prof. Dijk’s praise for Schilder’s stand against the Nazis.  Then he writes, “It was the time for shouting ‘Hosanna!’  Yet when cries of ‘Crucify him!’ went up only a few years later, the voice of this professor was also heard in the cacophonous choir.”  Unfortunately, this kind of over-the-top fawning is found more often, especially in older writers.  Yes, Schilder was an imposing figure in our history, of great significance.  But he was not Christ.

Now what about his writings?  Schilder appears to have been under the impression that he was mostly writing for the common people.  For instance, he thought that his Heidelberg Catechism commentary would be generally readable even for people with no academic education.  Now it could be that people’s reading and comprehension abilities were quite a bit different in the Netherlands in the 1950s than today in Canada.  I have read some of Schilder’s writing in Dutch and I have a hard time with it.  But okay, I’m not that proficient in Dutch.  However, when I try to read him in English, it’s still often difficult to understand.  Schilder had his own unique style and vocabulary, his own way of writing.  It’s often dense and there’s a lot of artistic and technical language.  But is it clear?  Let me read to you his definition of culture from the English translation of Christ and Culture and you judge for yourself (see page 40 of Christ and Culture).  That’s pretty typical Schilder.  He’s not easy to read, certainly not easy for people who are not theologians.  The same appears to have been true for his sermons.  He could impress people with his brilliance, but that doesn’t mean he was always an effective communicator.  No one will claim that Schilder was a popularizer of Reformed theology.

So he was a theologian.  Then let’s talk about his theology for a moment.  His theology was controversial in his day and still is today.  It was controversial back in the 1930s and 1940s, because he was critical of some elements in the theology of Abraham Kuyper.  He wasn’t critical of everything that Kuyper taught, just some of it.  Today Schilder is controversial because some have associated his name with Federal Vision theology.  We don’t have time to go into the details of what Federal Vision is all about this afternoon.  Briefly, it’s a view of Reformed theology that involves some wrong ideas about the covenant and justification.  Some Federal Vision advocates have said that they got their thinking from Schilder and his colleagues.  Some of the Federal Vision critics have accepted that at face value.  However, I have argued in a series of articles that you can find online (at that this doesn’t hold much water.  Schilder was not an early Federal Vision advocate or predecessor.  There are some points of similarity, but the differences are far greater.

As a theologian, he did bring some important emphases into our heritage.  One of them is an emphasis on the covenant of grace as a dynamic relationship between God and his people.  He reminded Reformed believers of the fact that God calls his people to faith in that relationship.  Nothing is automatic.  Another important emphasis is on redemptive history.  A lot of the preaching up to the 1930s in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands was moralistic.  If the minister was preaching about Abraham, the message would be “Be like Abraham here.”  If the minister was preaching about Ahab, the message would be “Don’t be like Ahab here.”  Schilder was one of those who taught and exemplified the redemptive-historical method of preaching.  That method looks at the place of a passage in history of salvation.  It tries to understand first and foremost what God is doing in that passage.

Klaas Schilder was a man, a weak and sinful human being like we are.  He had his strengths, but also his weaknesses.  We’re not obligated to accept everything that Schilder did or taught.  He is not “our” Abraham Kuyper.  I think there are some points at which we need to be critical with regard to Schilder.  As we proceed to look at our own CanRC history and culture in a few weeks, I hope to bring up some of those points.  But there’s reason for thankfulness too when we consider the life of Schilder and his role in church history.  Here’s a man who boldly stood up against bullies – both politically and ecclesiastically.  God used this servant to preserve and defend his church through a time of major upheaval.