The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings, eds. George Harinck, Marinus DeJong and Richard Mouw (Bellingham: Lexham Academic, 2022). Hardcover, 608 pages.
Until the publication of this volume, little of Klaas Schilder’s extensive body of writings had been translated into English. Given his importance in church history, this has always been mysterious to me. However, this new collection of writings from Schilder has shed some light on why most of his corpus remains in Dutch.
The reality is that most of this book is going to soar over the heads of people in the pew. There could be different reasons for that. One of them is a problem acknowledged by one of the editors in the General Introduction. Marinus DeJong writes, “Readers will soon note that Schilder’s style is baroque, his argument rather implicit, and the meaning often opaque” (p.18). Not only that, but many of his writings are tightly connected to his context. For example, he wrote countless articles for the periodical De Reformatie. These articles dealt with particular issues at a particular time, much of which will be lost on English readers today. The editors have added many footnotes to the readings here and each one has an introduction – these help a lot – but there’s still a massive historical gap to be bridged.
It’s published by Lexham Academic and that’s appropriate. It’s more of a book directed to theologians, particularly historical theologians. They’ll appreciate the light shed here on the mind of one of the Netherlands’ most important 20th century theologians. Historical theologians will be intrigued by the development of Schilder’s theology – from a more appreciative stance of Abraham Kuyper to a highly critical one; from a casual admiration for Karl Barth to a realization of the danger he posed; from an embryonic redemptive-historical preaching method to one more robust.
Let’s survey the content and some of the highlights.
Part I contains the lectures that Schilder delivered in the United States in 1939. Some of Schilder’s distinct covenant theology is laid out in chapter 2, “The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.” His view is often described (and critiqued) as monocovenantalism because he merges the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. However, strictly speaking, Schilder isn’t a monocovenantalist because he also affirms the separate existence of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis), the intra-Trinitarian pact established for the salvation of the elect in eternity.
Part II deals with “Common Grace and Culture.” Schilder was critical of the concept of common grace, especially as developed by Abraham Kuyper. One of his concerns is that “we will come to regard the cultural terrain as a kind of neutral territory…” (p.157). Sadly, history has proven that concern to be warranted.
Part III is about the doctrine of the church. A noteworthy reading in this section was “The Church Locked Up: A Critique of Sphere Sovereignty.” In recent times, some have argued that Kuyper’s idea of Sphere Sovereignty is worth recovering. Schilder shows how you may get more than you bargained for – our thinking on this has to go beyond the superficial.
Part IV features some of Schilder’s interactions with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. As mentioned, Schilder was initially uncritical of Barth, but as time went on he became aware of how dangerous his theology was. Barth could be verbose and opaque too, but Schilder saw through what he was saying and warned the Reformed churches about him. There are sections in the reading “The Paradox in Religion” that are both (uncharacteristically) clear and brilliant. Schilder demonstrates a biblical approach to instances where God’s revelation appears contradictory.
Schilder is remembered as a pioneering advocate for redemptive-historical preaching. Part V gives three readings on that topic: a meditation, a sermon, and a lecture. The sermon, from 1941, is genuine old-school redemptive-historical. The theme flies at 35,000 feet over the biblical landscape: “The revelation of the Lord in the meeting between the type of Christ, Melchizedek, and Christ’s father, Abraham.” Yes, it’s an interesting sermon. He showed how Genesis 14 pointed ahead to Christ. But like many old-school redemptive-historical sermons, application to the congregation was virtually non-existent. The good old days weren’t good in every respect.
The most historically interesting section was Part VI dealing with the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. There are four articles, all published in 1940. Schilder was an outspoken critic of the Nazis before the war. He continued his criticisms after the invasion, at least until his arrest in August 1940. Sadly, there were other Reformed leaders supportive of the Nazis. One of them was Dr. H.W. Van der Vaart Smit. Schilder takes him to the woodshed in “The Reformed Confession in Times of War.” He says, “National Socialism (as a doctrine) conflicts with the Reformed confession” (p.526).
This Reader has given us a larger helping of Schilder in English. The editors and translators deserve our thanks for opening more access to our Dutch Reformed heritage. However, I doubt it will create an appetite for more. It reminds me of the overcooked pork chops sometimes put on my plate as a child. I chewed and chewed and sometimes got it down, but other times I just couldn’t. When I got it down, it was good for me and helped me grow. I’m glad for that, even though it wasn’t enjoyable. You see, sometimes writers, like cooks, don’t make digestion easy. I do wonder if, in Schilder’s case, a good copy editor could have changed that.