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A Brief Introduction to Schilder's Theses Concerning the Church
Dr. J. Faber
[Originally published in the Canadian Reformed Magazine, August 19, 1972 (Vol. 21, No. 17)]
to Schilder's Theses Concerning the Church
Because of the fact that twenty years ago Dr. Klaas Schilder died, our magazine provided a number of articles about his life and work. We are glad that this time an English translation of Schilder's "Theses Concerning the Church" can be published. By way of introduction I would like to make some remarks about the context and content of these theses.
They were published in the year 1935, when Schilder had already brought forward his criticism about the practical implications and the application of the theory about the pluriformity of the church, developed by Dr. Abraham Kuyper. The work of home mission in "Gereformeerde Kerk" at Deventer had shown a far-reaching cooperation with other so-called denominations. Schilder was of the opinion that the work of home mission also means bringing people to the obedience of faith with regard to the Church of Christ. One is not allowed to render asunder what God has joined together.
A point at issue was also the custom to invite delegates of other "denominations" to festal church services -- the installation of a minister, the dedication of a church building -- without speaking about the differences in doctrine or church polity or without stressing the necessity that unity in faith has to be shown in unity of church gathering.
Schilder did not seek a false ecumenism; neither did he cherish a conceited "churchism." In the same year 1935 he wrote one of his best pamphlets: 'Ons aller Moeder,' anno Domini 1935 ['The Mother of us all,' in the year of the Lord 1935]. On the occasion of the commemoration of the Secession (1834-1934) some Dutch-Reformed theologians had spoken about the church as a mother who had become ill and who was not to be abandoned by her sons. Schilder noticed in this manner of speaking an institutionalized church-idea that is not in agreement with words of Scripture, "But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother" (Gal. 4:26).
Christ Jesus is gathering His Church from the beginning of the world to the end. His activity is not static, but dynamic. Therefore, we, too, cannot be immobile. Our coming together has to be an act of obedience that is repeated time and again. We are to listen to the Word of the living Christ who still gathers His Church. The Kampen dogmatician brought his opinion about the Church into the form of nineteen theses (the word "theses" here is not to be taken in a strictly scientific sense). The first thesis speaks about the fact that the Church is an article of faith: I "believe" a holy Catholic Church. Faith is the acceptance of the revealed Word of God. The contents of our belief -- also regarding the church -- has to be taken from the Bible and from nowhere else. Especially our experience is not the source of our faith and we are not allowed to build up an "idea" about the Church from what we see -- or are deemed to see -- here in the world below. There is only one church and it is being gathered to the end of this dispensation.
Therefore "the" church is not completed yet and only "parts" of the Church are to be seen. This is another argument for the fact that there cannot be the forming of an "idea" about the Church on the basis of what we may experience. But Schilder uses this argument also against the well-known distinction between a visible and an invisible church. If we cannot speak about a visible church -- because the church is not finished yet and therefore it cannot be seen in its complete formation -- then we cannot speak about an invisible church either.
In the fifth thesis Schilder lays stress on the fact that the Son of God "gathers", is gathering (present progressive tense), a Church -- Heid. Cat. A. 54. Here the dynamic, ongoing action of Christ is seen as very important. We cannot construct a static "idea" about an "essence" of the church.
In this respect Schilder takes issue with the distinctions of e.g. A. Kuyper, who in a scholastic manner taught the distinction between "visible" and "invisible church," church "as organism" and church "as institute." The main point was that these distinctions caused the eyes to be closed for continuing work of Christ (congregatio) and for the permanent calling of the belivers in their coming together (coetus). We have to be fellow-workers with Christ and are to cooperate with Him in His concrete church-gathering work. This can only be done in obedience to His command, revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
A fixation of a church-formation in an individualistic, pietistic or quietistic manner is forbidden. We are not cooperating with the living Christ anymore. He is continually busy in the gathering of His elect and we are to be obedient co-workers with Him. The church is not an "institution for salvation" (Heilsanstalt) in the manner that pietists and Methodists, Roman-Catholics and Lutherans speak about it. When we deal with the marks of the Church, we are not forget the dynamism of the gathering by Christ and our task of cooperating with Him. We cannot be anti-ecumenical. We have to be ecumenic in a Scriptural sense.
At the end of his life Schilder spoke about our ecumenical task. There is a Dutch record of that speech (also translated into English, "Your Ecumenical Task"). In 1951 -- a year before his death -- he elaborated, as it were, on the remark of his theses of 1935: The question "how" and "when" the church-formation is truly ecumenical can be answered only in agreement with the revealed will of God.
The church is a gathering. Therefore we may not determine the marks of the church from the point of view of strictly personal events or experiences (thesis 12). Schilder objected to the distinctions between "visible" and "invisible" Church, "militant" and "triumphant" Church, not only because the dynamism of our permanent call to obedience in the work of church gathering was impaired, but also because those distinctions take their starting point in the situation of believing "persons" instead of in the work of gathering and the preliminary result of it (the church as an assembly). In this respect the church can be compared to every Christian organization and thus "as far as" the distinction "militant-triumphant" "makes sense", it also applies to those organizations.
Thesis 16 makes clear that Schilder was afraid that the distinction between a "visible" and an "invisible" church -- in which division the personal faith of believing individuals often is the criterion -- takes away the "critical" question whether we really are cooperators with the church-gathering Christ.
A "triumphant church" in heaven that would abstract its triumph from the one concrete Church struggle would be sectarian too. But sectarianism runs counter to the command, the work, and the prayers of Christ!
Schilder's theses concerning the church became the object of a violent attack in the dissertation of P.J. Richel, "Het Kerkbegrip van Calvijn" [Calvin's Conception of the Church] (1942). Richel was a pupil of Dr. V. Hepp at the Free University in Amsterdam. He came to the astounding statement that Schilder's theses showed a striking similarity -- at least formally -- with the dialectical theology. With both Barth and Schilder the being was swallowed up by the becoming, the static by the dynamic. Richel also alleged that Schilder had abandoned the theological - theocentric point of view, in order to take his position in the experience (op. cit., 71).
It is manifest that Richel, whose dissertation had more the character of a defense of the ideas of Kuyper than of an exposition of the doctrine of Calvin, completely misunderstood the purpose or direction of Schilder's theses. Schilder fought against Barth's undermining of the authority and perspicuity of Holy Scripture and also in his theses concerning the church he pleaded for the obedience to the revealed will of God. It is remarkable that G.C. Berkouwer, the successor of V. Hepp at the Free University, in the first volume of his Studies in Dogmatics about the Church -- De Kerk I (1970) -- writes about the ecclesiology of Schilder in a very sympathetic way. Berkhouwer regards the warning against a static thinking about the church to be the central motive in Schilder's doctrine of the church. In such a static thinking, attributes and marks of the church are placed in the sphere of the establishment of matters of fact without the tension of the daily obedience by which we bow our necks under the yoke of Christ (op. cit., 21). Berkouwer speaks in this respect in his own way about a correlation between the being of the church and the faith that trusts in the Word and that therefore closes the way to ecclesiastical quietism.
Schilder objected to the legalization of the status quo, and to a thoughtless pluriformity of denominations. In the same way that one can ask whether Richel had an open eye for the connotations of Schilder's theses, because Richel was biased by his "Kuyperianism," one can also wonder whether Berkouwer does full justice to these theses. Berkouwer tries to make use of Schilder's stress on the dynamism in the gathering of the church in favour of what Schilder himself would have regarded as false ecumenicalism. But our introduction shows that we can be happy with the publication of these theses. Especially in an American context, where thoughtless pluriformity of denominations is adhered to, these theses can direct our attention to the permanent calling of all the believers to cooperate with the living Christ in His continuing gathering of those whom the Father has given to Him, the Mediator and Head of the Church.