“Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church” by Rudolf van Reest

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This book provides the most comprehensive coverage of the events leading up to and including the Liberation I know of in the English language. Author Rudolf van Reest shows the forces at work leading to a decline in the spiritual life of the reformed churches in the Netherlands which culminated in the church Liberation of 1944. As such it naturally also deals with the life of Prof Dr Klaas Schilder – with whom the author was personally acquainted – providing a narrative of his tireless struggle for the truth of God’s Word and the reformed confessions. I found this a very appealing account, particularly when Mr van Reest begins the story of Schilder, and gleaned valuable insights from its pages.

If Schilder is the protagonist of the story, used by God to bring about reformation in the churches, there are also antagonists. In a way, many of these were ministers who were not deliberately against the truth, yet contributed to the decline in the churches by focussing, in their sermons, on particular characters in the Bible as examples to follow or not to follow. Instead of focussing on the promises of God to His people they tended to focus on what was inside a person. So instead of trusting in God’s promises one looked for certain qualities within oneself in order to discover whether one was really a child of God.

Moreover, influenced by the ideas of Abraham Kuyper, many ministers had sermons that were more like academic treatises dealing with doctrinal contrasts such as internal and external covenant, visible and invisible church, common grace and particular grace, church as institute and church as organism, etc. In this way the preaching did not provide true food for the souls and the sort of edification church members needed for day to day life. The absence of Christ-centred preaching that reflected the grace of our God, who revealed His greatness and kindness and justice for His covenant people and who showed them how to walk in thankfulness before Him, caused His children to lose interest and lose the assurance of faith.

The main antagonists were those leaders who sought to exploit Kuyper’s theories about the church and common grace in order to smother the antithesis between church and world, and particularly between true and false church. They sought unity at the cost of truth and saw Schilder’s exposure of Kuyper’s wrong ideas as a threat to their ideological visions of unity across church boundaries. All in all there was a decline in the Dutch Churches during much of the first half of the twentieth century, especially during the 1920s and 1930s.

SCHILDER

Mr van Reest shows how Schilder was one of the few who saw, understood, exposed and fought against this decline. In his writing, speeches and sermons Schilder exposed the wrongs in the church in the light of God’s Word. His sermons, in particular, were like a breath of fresh air to the hearers.  And this was because he simply delved into the Scriptures and let God’s Word speak.  In contrast to many sermons of that period which focussed on Biblical figures (Moses, Abraham, etc) to show how we should live, Schilder’s sermons were very much Christ centred.  He showed how everything in the old dispensation had its redemptive-historical place and meaning.  Christ was always the central figure, powerful in His majesty, glory, love, mercy and righteousness.  ‘When you heard such a sermon,’ says Mr van Reest, ‘you always got the impression that you were listening to someone who had plunged into the depths of the mine-shafts of God’s Word and had come up with unknown riches which he now laid out before the eyes of the Lord’s Bride.’

It appears that it was this willingness to read the Scripture, to explain it without prejudices, and to yield willingly and obediently to it, that set Schilder apart from the many who read the Scriptures in the light of dogmatic Kuyperian constructions. He wrote many articles and was hard to oppose because instead of taking refuge in generally accepted constructions, theories and ideas, he argued exclusively from Scripture and the confessions of the Church. This led to conflicts because, for the most part, the members of the church ‘no long lived by Scripture and the confessions but by what had come forth from Kuyperianism’.

People accused Schilder of trying to ruin Kuyper’s life’s work. Such criticisms were unjust because Schilder valued much of Kuyper.  However, because he wanted to subject everything to the Word of God he was obliged to oppose everything that was against the Scripture and the confessions.  Because of this he was undefeatable tin polemics. Schilder’s growing popularity and influence was noted with dismay by many people in leading positions. As they saw their own influence on the people deceasing, and their aims and ideology being undermined, they stimulated a campaign against Schilder accusing him of causing dissension within the churches.  A proposal was put to the Synod 1936 by certain professors to intervene in what they termed “disputes about doctrine”. This was not in accordance with the Church Order because matters may only be placed on the agenda of synod by way of the local churches.

UNDER GERMAN OCCUPATION

Mr van Reest relates that on May 10th the powerful German army marched against The Netherlands.  It was followed by the feared Nazis whose task it was to ‘Nazify’ the Dutch, control everything from press to pulpit, send men to German factories and Jews to gas chambers, bully the Dutch into the submission, and convert the Dutch nation to the Nazi cause. What the Germans found was the Reformed churches embroiled in a synodical process aimed at destroying the work of the person who most boldly provided spiritual leadership against the influence of the Dutch Nazi movement: Schilder.

For two and a half months during those first critical weeks Schilder had fearlessly enlightened the Reformed people. He had exposed the dangers of the Nazis’ national socialism and had called the people to fight against it. Hence he was one of the first ministers to be arrested and locked in a cell, although he was never convicted of any offence. Such was German justice. In the same week ‘his’ paper De Reformatie (The Reformation), was also seized and prevented from publishing.

Prayers for Schilder went up from many families and the Lord heeded them. After eighteen weeks in prison the doors swung open and Schilder was free. But, adds Mr van Reest, it was a limited freedom. He was forbidden to publish under threat of being sent to a concentration camp. He did, however, manage to speak at various meetings of men’s and young people’s societies and preach from pulpits – until the Germans again sought to arrest him. A warning from a sympathetic policeman enabled Schilder to escape and go in to hiding.

SYNOD ACTS AGAINST SCHILDER

During this terrible time of anguished cries for help, wailing sirens, police vehicles, prisons, concentration camps, gas ovens, mass executions, and the spiritual poisoning of our national life, a general synod of the Reformed (Gereformeerd) churches came together on May 26, 1942.

Why did this synod meet? Because the previous synod of 1936 had dealt with a letter from the professors Hepp and Kuyper – something they should not have done because the letter had not come from one of the churches. The letter claimed that there was a movement which questioned the ‘current teachings’ derived from Kuyper’s ideas about baptism, common grace and the pluriformity of the church and was therefore poisoning the churches. Schilder was seen as the leader of this ‘evil’ movement. Synod 1936 therefore appointed a committee to prepare a discussion on these ‘disputes’. That discussion paper was now ready to be presented to the synod of 1942.

Many churches had asked Synod not to deal with these so-called disputes because it was wartime, the church papers had been silenced by the Germans, and the churches were not in a position to follow the discussion or join in. Moreover, added many churches, an untimely treatment of this matter would lead to disunity in the churches.

Synod, however, ignored the warnings and decided to proceed. The objections from the churches, says Mr van Reest, were swept aside. Synod then proceeded to destroy Schilder’s life work at a time when Schilder could not defend himself. He was sought by the Germans and had to remain hidden. Thus, says Mr van Reest, he was ‘pursued by the external enemy, and declared an outlaw within his own camp’. Among the leaders of his own people he encountered distrust, malice and the continuation of the fatal ecclesiastical action that was being taken against him by the synodical robot.

Despite Schilder’s inability to attend synod, it went ahead with its proceedings against Schilder and kicked him out of the church.

It was indeed a dark day when, on March 23, 1944, the decision to suspend Schilder was made. The whole world was on fire, antichristian powers had the believers by the throat, our families were being torn apart, our organisations were being banned, the press was being muzzled, fright and terror were paralysing people – yet while all of this was going on, an ecclesiastical body fanatically continued to proceed against a brother who was more faithful than any of the others, even though this brother was not even able to attend the proceedings or defend himself?

In Article 29 BCF we confess that the “false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God [and] …persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed and idolatries”.

These hallmarks of the false church were reflected in the actions of the Reformed (synodical) churches in 1944 and were in line with what happened in 1834 and 1886. That is, they adopted a hierarchy, with synod forcing the people to obey extra-Scriptural decrees and persecuting those who wanted to live in faithfulness to God’s Word and the confessions.

THE LIBERATION

It is from these unscriptural actions that 1100 men and women, driven by the desire to be together at a time when the Church of the Lord was in such great need, braved the dangers of war and gathered together. This meeting became the beginning of the Church Liberation.

At the meeting of Liberated people in 1944, Rev H Knoop, who had just earlier been released from the infamous Dachau concentration camp (in which some other reformed minister perished), speaking about the situation in the church prior to the synodical actions, said that the deformation had been characterised by man-centredness wherein we place ourselves first instead of Christ. We had forgotten to uphold a spiritual antithesis in relation to those outside the church, and had lost our eschatological perspective. Instead of promoting the spiritual welfare of the congregations, ecclesiastical gatherings had been marked by a yearning for power and influence which, in turn, had led to ecclesiastical diplomacy and dishonesty, and to the imposition of a synodical yoke which bound the consciences to do things Christ had not asked of us. What was now the task of the liberated people? It was, said Rev Knoop, to allow no compromise with sin in the church, but rather to be obedient to Christ and to subject ourselves to His Word; something we could do only in God’s strength.

From such humble beginnings the Liberated (Free Reformed) churches grew. But with the humility there was also a great joyfulness, a deep gratitude. There was a genuine feeling that “God has done something wonderful among us”. To use Schilder’s words: “God had the reins in His hands…” Thus the Liberation was seen as a deed of the Lord, whereby He had graciously freed those who wanted to submit uncompromisingly to His Word, from the unscriptural oppression of a sinful synod. The words of Psalm 124 took on a personal significance as they wholeheartedly sang

As from the fowler’s net a bird may flee,

So from their broken snare did we go free.

By the time the first yearbook was published in 1946 membership of the Liberated churches had grown to a staggering 77,303, forming 216 congregations, served by some 152 ministers.

SCHILDER’S LAST YEARS

Although these events, especially those that took place during war, had sapped Schilder’s strength he continued to toil, day and night, in often difficult places and circumstances, even in times of sickness. He laboured “to make people everywhere see again the old Reformed principle of ‘Church covenant’ and ‘Church federation’, which …represented his anti-hierarchy struggle in a nutshell”.

Whilst the Liberation brought Schilder much joy because of this gracious act of God, there were also many developments that disturbed him and against which he continued to struggle. Some of those were within the Liberated churches. On the one hand there were those who did not want to break completely with the synodicals, giving rise to the “ethical crisis”. On the other hand there were those who wanted to go too far by devaluing the importance of the church federation with its broader assemblies. Schilder, however, wanted to test all streams of thought against the norms of God’s Word and the confession. “I have no desire,” he said, “to be anything other than I’ve always been – Reformed”.

Schilder died March 23 1952 eight years to the day after his suspension. As an instrument in God’s hand Schilder laboured for the truth, for the faithful preaching of God’s infallible Word. He knew that thereby the Holy Spirit promotes the unity of the church.

Mr van Reest has done the churches a great service in writing this very readable book and we are fortunate indeed to have a sound translation. The book benefits the reader with a wealth of knowledge about the struggle for the truth of God’s Word against the wrong teachings that worked at undermining Christ’s church gathering work. As well as developing a deep appreciation for God’s great work in the Liberation of His people in 1944 there is much of practical value for Christ’s churches today. As those engaged in the same great battle against Satan’s insidious attacks (Rev 12), and instructed to don spiritual armour (Eph. 6), let us reflect a common desire to learn from past strategies in the ongoing spiritual warfare in which we are caught up.

J Numan