by Jacob Aitken
Imagine if Abraham Kuyper didn’t hold to his famous doctrine of common grace, yet still believed in Christ’s lordship over all spheres. Imagine if one believed that the church would be persecuted in the future, but nevertheless believed that the church will be on the front lines. That gives one a close approximation of the Dutch Reformed minister Klaas Schilder. It is the mark of a faithful Christian that one’s theology should match up with his life. It is even more interesting when a system of doctrine matches one’s life on the particulars.
In 1890, Klaas Schilder was born in Kampen, the Netherlands. In 1933, he was appointed professor of Dogmatics in Kampen. In August 1940, he was arrested by the Nazis for his publications in De Reformatie, a church publication. He was one of the sharpest critics of the Nazi regime. He was shortly released and told not to publish any more. He ignored that and the Nazis once against sought to arrest him. As a result, he spent the rest of the war in hiding.
During the war he was suspended from office by the Synod of Utrecht because of his opposition to the Synod’s views on presumptive regeneration, covenant, and election. This controversy goes back to earlier remarks made by the great Abraham Kuyper concerning the relationship between covenant and election. For Kuyper, one could only place the sign of the covenant, baptism, on the head of an already regenerate child. Furthermore, Kuyper believed in infant baptism. How then could he justify baptizing children who may or may not be regenerate? The answer was by looking at their lives later on, and if they seemed to be regenerate, then the baptism was a real baptism. If they didn’t show fruit, then their earlier baptism wasn’t real.
Schilder rejected all of this and was deposed in 1944. On March 23, 1952, he died to this life with the words, “It is well. I go to Jesus.”
In what is probably Schilder’s most famous phrase, the covenant is all or nothing. In the covenant God treats man as a responsible being who is either for him or against him, all or nothing. The New Covenant is bilateral. There are “threats” in it. This gives life to preaching and responsibility. God speaks to man as a responsible partner. Precisely because the covenant comes to us with God’s promises, it incites our trust in Him.
Baptism seals the promise of the Gospel. But this promise demands our faith. In my baptism I receive a concrete address from God–a message that proclaims to everyone who is baptized, personally: if you believe you will be saved (Strauss 28-29). Schilder said we make a distinction between sharing in a promise and sharing in what is promised. The former we partake of through baptism. The latter is a gift of the Spirit. This involves a vital union with Christ. This is how Schilder sought to balance the teaching of baptism’s being a sign and its also being a seal of God’s promise. These two can never be separated, but neither can they be identified.
As a good Reformed minister, Schilder held to the doctrine of election. The conclusions he drew from it, however, did not always line up with traditional formulations. For Schilder, the problem is if we identify election with the covenant of grace, then election tends to crowd out the covenant. If covenant and election are identical, then how can I claim God’s covenant promises unless I know I am one of the elect? And how can I really know I am one of the elect? I don’t have access to God’s secret counsel. Sure, I believe now but who’s to say I might not believe later on?
On the other hand, if the covenant is free from election, we have Arminianism. This is not idle speculation. Schilder wanted covenant children to have the assurance we are supposed to have for election.
Schilder’s conclusion is as daring as it is simple: election doesn’t overshadow everything; the promise does. In other words, we seek Christ and assurance where he has promised to be found: the means of grace and the nurture of the covenant church. We are back to where we began. God in his covenant speaks to man as a responsible image-bearer. A proclamation always comes with an urgent call to accept it. The covenant is a legal status “defined by the speaking God, the God of the Word” (Van Genderen 99)
True covenantal thinking in the church arises from the preached Word. It meets us with objective promises and threats. This frees us from the closed circle of morbid introspection. The covenant word is what we “hear” and respond to in obedience (Kamphuis 21). When God establishes his covenant in time, he never asks us if we are one of the secret elect, but if we accept the promises of Jesus.
Culture and Common Grace
Schilder anchors his discussion of common grace on man as God’s image-bearer. Schilder anticipated modern biblical scholarship on the image of God. Nowadays, it is commonplace to identify the image of God as man’s royal office (cf. Middleton, Heiser, etc.). Schilder saw that you could never abstract man from man’s role as an image-bearer.
Earlier models of the image of God were static. In other words, they identified the image as the soul, or will, or mind, or some faculty of man. For Schilder, and for much of the later Dutch Reformed tradition, the image is dynamic and is rooted in the Covenantal God’s Relation with man. The word “image” implies “making visible. Schilder resists any abstracting the image. The glory of the image shines forth in service to God (Berkouwer 56).
The Christian must engage the culture because he is a prophet, priest, king. It is our task. As we cannot abstract man from the image of God, neither can we isolate “Jesus” from “Christ.” We gain knowledge of our cultural task from the office of Christ. As the Heidelberg Catechism, question 32 says, “By faith I am a member of Christ and share his anointing.” Christ’s offices are connected to his anointing, his name as Christ. Because he is Christ and has been anointed and rules as prophet, priest, and king, we share in that anointing because we are in him by faith.
Schilder thinks the language of “common grace” is too abstract. Kuyper began with the obvious truth that man isn’t as wicked as he could be. Indeed, he is capable of great cultural endeavors. No one disputes that. Schilder says we can’t call it “grace,” though. Grace is taken to mean something different than what it normally means. No one denies, of course, that God restrains unbelievers, nor do we deny that unbelievers can produce cultural endeavors. It is true that sin is being restrained. But by similar logic the fullness of Christ’s eschaton is not fully experienced. Apparently, it is restrained. If the first restraining is “grace,” then we must–if one is consistent–call the restraining of the blessing “judgment.” This seems paradoxical, but Schilder’s argument is that there is a relationship between grace and judgment in a culture. God is restraining the sin of pagans, what Kuyper calls common grace. However, the full blessings of the second coming haven’t happened yet, either. These “blessings” are also being restrained. If the first restraining can be called grace, then the second restraining—Christ’s blessings—should also be called judgment.
I think that is what Schilder means. His method of arguing isn’t always clear. Fortunately, new material on this topic has finally been translated in English. (J. Douma, Common Grace in Calvin, Kuyper, and Schilder, Crts Publishing).
There is indeed “common” grace in culture (grace for more than one person). But there is no universal (or general) grace for all men, as grace is commonly understood in the Reformed confessions.There is indeed also a “common” curse in cultural life (a curse shared by more than one person). But there is no universal (or general) curse. “Common” can sometimes be the same as universal, but it is not necessarily always so. Something can be common to all people, but it can also be common to more than one person, not to all. In the present scheme “common” is intended to mean: shared by many, not by all people. There is a common (not: universal) grace in culture, as far as the redeeming work of Christ is shared by all those who are His.
Bottom line: common grace is common to the elect, not to all. They share the common grace in culture.
While Schilder’s life was often heroic and he provided the church with rich, theological reflection, we must note some tensions in his project. His rejection of the internal/external distinction in the covenant of grace marks a difference between him and traditional Reformed theology. Earlier Reformed writers said we make a distinction in the covenant of grace. All who receive the sign of the covenant are in the external sphere of the covenant. Those who believe by faith are in the internal sphere. Further, the Reformed identified election with the covenant of grace (Bavinck 230-232). Schilder did not. He thought this moved God’s covenant dealings away from history and back into eternity, to which man didn’t have access.
Another tension involves Schilder’s eschatology with his understanding of Christian culture. Whether the label is fair or not, his eschatology was “pessimistic” and amillennial. He believed the church would get smaller while being attacked by Antichrist (De Jong 65). On the other hand, Schilder notes that if Jesus is king, then the world should be brought back to its rightful owner. Christ regenerates his people back to obedience. The result should be a Christian culture. How can we then have a Christian culture if the world is getting worse.
Bavinck, Herman, John Bolt, and John Vriend. Reformed Dogmatics: sin and salvation in Christ. Vol. 3. Baker Academic, 2003.
Berkouwer, Gerrit Cornelis. Man: the image of God. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1962.
Jong, Marinus de. “The church is the means, the world is the end: the development of Klaas Schilder’s thought on the relationship between the church and the world.” PhD diss., 2019.
Geertsema, Jacob. Always obedient: essays on the teaching of Dr. Klaas Schilder. P&R Publishing, 1995.
Heiser, Michael S. The unseen realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the bible. Lexham Press, 2015.
Middleton, J. Richard. The liberating image: The imago Dei in Genesis 1. Brazos Press, 2005.
Genderen, J. van. Covenant and election. Inheritance Publ., 1995.
Van Reest, Rudolf. Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church. Inheritance Publications, 1990.
Jacob Aitken teaches middle school in northeast Louisiana. He is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He is a husband and a father. He got his B.A. and M.A. at Louisiana College and studied at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. He blogs at tentsofshem.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @2kingdomz4life