Nineteen Theses Concerning the Church - Dr. K. Schilder (with comments by J.M. Batteau)
A Brief Introduction by Dr. J. Faber (Supplementary)
Dr. K. Schilder's 19 Theses Concerning the Church were originally published in De Reformatie in 1935 (Vol. 18, Nos. 34-37). They were republished in Dutch in Schilder's Verzamelde Geschriften: De Kerk II: 245-250 (Goes: Oosterban & Le Cointre, 1952) and also his College-dictaat on the Church, pp.123-25. They first appeared in English translation in the August 19, 1972 issue of the Canadian Reformed Magazine and then again in the July 26, 1975 issue of Clarion (the name of the translator is not given). The translation here is primarily from J.M. Batteau in his contribution to Always Obedient, J. Geertsema (ed.), Phillipsburg: P & R, 1995, pp.86-94. Batteau's translation is not complete, lacking the last part of thesis 14. This has been filled in here with the translation from Clarion. Also, Drs. Batteau's comments have been added as footnotes.
1. That a church exists -- this one cannot see, but only "believe." Every definition of the essence of the church (supposing that it is possible to speak about such an "essence") using that which one can see in the world here below, or on the grounds of other axioms than the Scripture has "revealed", is thus a work of nonbelief or unbelief -- even if many truths may be expressed. "Discovering" or "inventing" truths is pride in this case as well.1
2. "The" church has never been observed. No one has ever seen "the" church. No one has ever seen "humanity." No one has ever seen the Dutch people or any other people. For the church is vever "finished," just as little as humanity or a people are "finished." Only when the last elect person will have come to faith and will be carrying on a life of faith will "the" church have reached her pleroma [fullness]. Even then, however, the "seeing" of it, in one and the same way of "seeing," will be possible only on the other side of the boundary that divides this age from the coming one.2
3. Strictly speaking, there is thus not yet a "visible" church. There are just temporary and local "parts" and "activities" of such parts of the church to be seen. For example: certain ways of structuring and organization of the life of such parts of the church in a certain period of time (the Old Testament, the New Testament, before and after a reformation) or in a certain place (on earth; in heaven; in the Netherlands, Russia, or Java; and so on).3
4. Inasmuch as the concept of "invisible" is determined by the concept "visible," the need to speak about an "invisible church" is eliminated.4
5. The church is willed by God; the Son of God indubitably gathers for Himself a congregation, chosen to eternal life, by His Spirit and Word. He does this from the beginning of the world to its end. He is thus busy with this activity today, and tomorrow, and until the final day. He is thus at work, with this objective, in the "imperfect present" tense. Suppose that there is only one carpenter in the whole world, who needs all of history to make one table, which he will deliver at the end. Surely no one can commend the quality of the man's work, so long as the praise is based on some "phenomenologically" developed argument about the "visible" table and the "invisible" table that the carpenter is making. So, in the same way, no one should tire the Son of God with doxologies based on "phenomenologically" developed theories about "the" "visible" church" and "the" "invisible" church. How do we know what the carpenter's table will look like, supposing that there is only one carpenter in the world and only one table...and supposing that we ourselves are the wood that he cuts and carves in order to make his table? "The" church has never ever been a phenomenon; further there is only "one" Lord, and only "one" church is being made, "once". Socrates cannot form a "concept" of the church here, for there is only "one" church; and to form concepts, he needs more than one "specimen." And Plato can't do it either; already the simple fact that the church is divided over two "worlds," ever since the first expiration of breath from human nostrils (the first death), prevents Plato, with his teaching about the two worlds, from constructing an "essence" of the church. And furthermore, since no one can say anything about the church "without the Scripture", every word about the church is "bound to Scripture."5
6. As has already been said, the church is gathered (brought together) every day by the living Lord (Kurios) Jesus Christ. This activity of gathering occurs daily in the "imperfect present" tense. Every distinction between the "being" and the "well-being," between the "invisible" church and the "visible" church, between the church as "organism" and the church as "institute," is therefore false and fatal, if it disengages (abstracts) the "coming together" of believers, occurring daily in the imperfect present tense, from the "bringing together" of believers by Jesus Christ (the congregation of believers), which likewise takes place daily in the "imperfect present" tense.6
7. Christ's "work of bringing together" is the daily focus of his prayer. It is thus the way toward the completion of the world. Consequently, one can be his coworker, and thus really social, only if one accomplishes the work of gathering the church, insofar as faith can see it, in obedience to his commandments. His revealed Word alone indicates to us the paths along which His prayer proceeds and seeks to move the Father, and does indeed move Him into moving us.7
8. Making election or faith, or the demonstrable sanctification of the individual (as if this had to be "cultivated," "tended," or "strengthened") the principle of bringing together believers and holding them together, without asking whether there is an actual "coworking" with Christ, who is gathering the church together, can therefore be considered a disobedient way to determine the formation of the church. Just as the formation of the family may not be made dependent upon the question of how a particular family can find rest in an inwardly directed self-satisfaction, but must rather take place with the desire that God would bring forth the desire of His children through us, so too every church reformation, instead of asking how a particular fellowship of believers may find rest in their "given" state of being together, must continually be determined by the question "How is Christ gathering the body of His elect out of and through us?"8
9. Hence the view of the church as "Heilanstalt" (institution for salvation) is absolutely condemned.
10. Hereby it has also been acknowledged that the will to gather and the deed of gathering the believers into "one" body form a constitutive "mark" of the church of the first order. "The will to ecumenism" is the primary mark of the church; the question as to "how" and "when" a church formation is truly ecumenical can be answered only by the declared, revealed, expressed will of God.9
11. Since the "will to gather believers" from all places in every moment of history is the first mark of the church (because in this Christ's work is carried out in our working together with Him), it is a basic mistake of the first order to attempt to establish "marks" of the church or "divisions" of the church, if these criteria either contradict or are abstracted from this first mark.10
12. A mistake of this sort is made when, for example, marks of the "church" (a "society" of people) are defined in the categories of "strictly personal" events or experiences. For "personal" experiences are not real criteria for a gathering, the formation of a community, "as such".11
13. This objectionable method is followed, for example, in many cases when distinctions are made between the "invisible" and the "visible" church or between the "militant" church and the "triumphant" church. In the case of the first distinction, it is indubitably so that often people think of the question of whether somone has faith or not; and in the case of second distinction, the question often arises as to whether someone still has to fight against sins and the disasters of this dispensation or not. But both questions are addressing strictly "personal" matters of biography.12
14. Naturally, such strictly personal matters have significance in the further development or degeneration of the life of the church. But this is certainly no reason to make such distinctions special principles of division or principles of recognition with respect to the CHURCH. It is easy to see that such distinctions are similarly applicable to the life and fortunes of nonchurch organizations. "Every" Christian organizations suffers if there are hypocrites in it. Every organization of believing people, including "nonecclesiastical" ones, is "invisible," insofar as one cannot "see" faith (any more than one can "see" the power of thought or melancholy, for example), and "visible," insofar as faith cannot "avoid" expressing itself openly (any more than the power of thought or melancholy can avoid expressing itself openly).13 As for the "militant and triumphant" "church," the triumphant "church" is understood to be about the same thing as the community of those saved and brought to heaven. However, those who belong to it have lived on earth also in other than specifically ecclesiastical relationships. Also in these did they struggle (against sin), and now they triumph (i.e. they have in principle overcome sin). Thus, "insofar as" the distinction "militant -- triumphant" "does make sense", it also applies to e.g. a Christian labour association, a Christian circle of friends, a Christian music club, etc.14
15. Such criteria, which do not take into consideration the (church) "gathering" factor, are the cause of much misunderstanding with regard to the church.
16. So, the distinction between "visible" church and the "invisible" church, which has developed in "this" way, has often had the consequence that whole societies of sectarian origin and practice were nevertheless regarded as "true churches," for the simple reason that that which is invisible (faith) was expected from their members. But of course this also is the case with every "conventicle" of pious believers...and with every Christian sport club! However, the question about what one did to GATHER with Christ was no longer seen to be an issue of primary importance for one's conscience. The primary stipulation of the law of the CHURCH was neglected.
17. Indeed, a church-in-heaven that sins in a similar way was even invented: the so-called triumphant church above, as opposed to the militant one here below. The triumph of the (only initially) blessed ones was then distinguished from the "struggle" in which the same persons, now blessed, had been engaged on earth. On the basis of this strictly "personal" experience, a scheme of "church"-classification was then given. But precisely because the church is still church in the making (divided over two places, "above" and "below") it can never say that in its work of gathering it already has arrived at the stage of communal triumph. Triumphing (in the present-"perfect" tense) is done only by one who is finished. Christ as Gatherer of the church is as yet not finished by far. Hence also the church in its church-affairs is not yet ready or completed by far. Christ is indeed triumphing daily in the present-"progressive" tense; but this also applies (through Him) to the so-called militant church (more than conquerors; faith conquers the world). Christ is triumphing in the present-progressive tense. (His struggle is a "prospering" struggle). But the same thing applies also to the so-called triumphant church. It struggles daily in its prayers (by far the keenest weapon, according to Revelation 6 and 11). So it, too, seeks to have the church reach completion. A "triumphant church" that would abstract (separate) its triumph from the one concrete church struggle (divided over both divisions, above and below) would be sectarian, just like the "society for mutual upbuilding," the schismatic church, and the conventicle (see thesis 16).
18. In the light of these thoughts one discerns the abhorrent nature of sectarianism. It runs counter to the prayers of Christ and of the (initially) blessed ones. It turns the weapon of the division of the believers that are below against the weapon of the (also still) believing ones that are above. It is therefore the "abomination of desolation" in the very place where it least belongs.
19. The so-called militant church therefore triumphs daily; the so-called triumphant church is daily engaged in struggle. In all its locations (on earth and in heaven) the church struggles and triumphs from moment to moment and proves thereby that it sees its cooperation with the gathering Christ as the distinguishing mark of its life.
<RETURN> 1 Here Schilder is in clear continuity with the entire Reformed tradition. Although that tradition quickly goes on to speak of an "invisible church," which Schilder does not want to do, he expresses by his proposition solidarity with the Reformed tradition in opposing a Roman Catholic absolutizing of the church institute, as well as rejecting the empirical approach of modern theology to the church. What we believe about the church must be determined by Scripture and nothing else.
<RETURN> 2 Here again Schilder is guarding himself against naively positing a simplistic visible church to replace the old invisible/visible church theory. His orientation to the future is evident.
<RETURN> 3 Schilder is very careful in the way in which he is structuring his alternative to the Kuyperian ecclesiology. He does this by paying attention to the time-bound character of our ability to see the church, and to the eschatological orientation of the church's existence ("not "yet" a 'visible' church"). That "the church" is not visible, and that we derive all we know of the church's essence from Scripture, does not prevent us from talking meaningfully about parts and activities of the church on earth in our time, which we can indeed observe.
<RETURN> 4 Schilder phrases his criticism of scholastic Reformed and Kuyperian orthodoxy in such a way as to disarm his critics. Instead of totally rejecting the invisible church, he denies the existence of the visible church, and thereby the need to create an artificial theory of the invisible church.
<RETURN> 5 This is the first proposition that mentions God's gathering of the church, Schilder's alternative to the invisible/visible church theory, building on the language of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 21. He continues this rejection of "empirically" based church theories by rejecting also the philosophical concept of a church constructed with the help of Platonic distinction between the higher world of the ideas and the lower world of the phenomena.
<RETURN> 6 Schilder here presents his alternative to Kuyperian ecclesiology, at the same time rejecting scholastic Reformed dualities. They are inadequate because they do not take into account Christ's actual ongoing work of gathering the church. If they would do this, and thus would not abstract the human responsibility to come together from the divine activity of bringing together, Schilder implies that such dualities might still be able to be used.
<RETURN> 7 A typical Schilderian playing with words and concepts! And the meaning is key to Schilder's ecclesiology. Believers are Christ's coworkers in a real sense, if they gather with Him in obedience. Divine power engages human energy in the one work of church gathering. Scripture reveals how Christ prays (for example, in John 17), and this is the source of the dynamism for the reality of the church.
<RETURN> 8 Again we see Schilder reorienting the doctrine of the church to the activity of Christ and the activity of believers in cooperation with Him. The emphasis is not on individual salvation but on obedience and corporate responsibility in the actual formation of actual local churches.
<RETURN> 9 Schilder shows how his alternative to Kuyperian ecclesiology is not pietistic, quietistic or passive. He is even willing to take the daring step of creating a "primary mark" of the true church above the marks in Belgic Confession, article 29, to do this. Reformed ecumenism, living out of the will of God, is a living reality.
10 <RETURN> Here, in a manner similar to that in which he connects the scholastic terminology to the gathering of Christ, Schilder connects the traditional marks and divisions to this dynamic priority of the will to ecumenism.
11 <RETURN> A reiteration of Schilder's rejection of personal soteriological categories as central to the church.
12 <RETURN> Here Schilder is more directly attacking the views of the "experiential" groups that reject church union on the grounds of the priority of individual conversion.
13 <RETURN> The translation of Batteau ends here and that of Clarion begins.
14 <RETURN> Schilder is pointing out the need for specifically ecclesiastical categories in talking about the church.