Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 22: Prof. Schilder Comes to America

Editor’s Notes—Prof. Schilder of the Netherlands was unjustly cast out from his churches over various doctrinal differences, just as Rev. Hoeksema had been from his. The two men formed a bond because of this common ground. When Dr. Schilder came to this country, as Rev. Hanko tells us, the rest of the denomination also received him as a friend and a brother, even though he differed with our churches on the covenant. This friendship later soured, but too late to save the churches a great deal of grief.

In 1939, Prof. Klaas Schilder of the Netherlands was invited by William B. Eerdmans of the well-known Eerdman’s Publishing Company, and another prominent member of the CRC to come to the USA. A rather extensive schedule had been arranged for a preaching and speaking tour through our country.

Now for some time discussions had been carried on in the Netherlands by means of pamphlets and brochures on such subjects of self examination, the two natures of Christ, the covenant and common grace. As to the last two subjects, those of common grace and the covenant, Prof. V. Hepp of the Free University of Amsterdam, who represented the segment of the followers of Dr. Abraham Kuyper, and Prof. Schilder of the Kampen Theological School, who represented the segment that followed the Afscheiding of 1834, were engaged in a discussion.

When some of the professors of Calvin Seminary became aware of Dr. Schilder’s coming, they were afraid that sleeping dogs would be aroused, especially in regard to the subject of common grace. They published a notice in the church papers, The Banner and De Wachter, warning the churches not to allow Prof. Schilder on their pulpits.

The result was that when the professor arrived in America, he discovered that most of his scheduled appointments had been canceled. Somewhat in disgust, somewhat in frustration, he called upon Rev. Hoeksema to have a talk with him, since Hoeksema did not agree either with Dr. A. Kuyper’s common grace. The result was that a conference of our ministers who were in the area, was held in Rev. Hoeksema’s living room. A very pleasant evening was spent especially in exchanging experiences in the conflict our churches had experienced here in America and the struggle that was going on in the Netherlands. Soon a number of speaking engagements were arranged by our various churches.

Thus it came about, quite unexpectedly, that Prof. Schilder came into contact with all of our ministers and congregations. He was a congenial person, pleasant to have in our homes; we all enjoyed his visit. Also the members of our congregations were impressed by his speeches. True, he had a speech impediment, which, along with the fact that he spoke in Dutch, made it a bit difficult to follow him, but it was refreshing to hear him. He was well received.

I was still in Manhattan at the time of his visit. He did come and speak for us there. In one of our conversations he said, “I despise your covenant view.” I said to him, “That’s mutual.” I figured our churches would never get along with him for any length of time. Yet it appeared that the ministers of classis west were especially impressed by his friendliness and his intelligence. One of them made the remark that it grieved him to see that a greater light than Rev. Hoeksema had risen among us even while the latter was still living.

Rev. Hoeksema was no less attracted to the professor. It should be understood that in a sense Rev. Hoeksema was a loner. True, this was partly due to his character, his determination to be well prepared for any important event, and his peculiar position in defense of the truth. He was virtually a lone warrior, and he was very much aware of it. At times he would complain, “I’m all alone. I have no intimate friend, none whatever.” His closest colleague was Rev. Ophoff. He loved him dearly, admired him for his faithful and determined stand for the truth, and would defend him when anyone tried to say anything against him. Yet Rev. Ophoff was younger than he and did not think himself equal to his colleague. All the other ministers were younger, with the possible exception of Rev. Vos, but he also was his former student.

Prof. Schilder was attracted to our pastor, who in turn was drawn to a man who was well versed in doctrine and had much in common with him, even when it came to the conflict in which Prof. Schilder was engaged in the Netherlands. There were some fundamental differences between them in regard to God’s covenant, but these fell into the background while other vital interests were discussed.

These differences on the covenant were hardly referred to in Prof. Schilder’s first visit. He regarded the covenant as a framework, a sphere in which God gathers His church in the line of successive generations of believers. He held that all baptized children of believing parents are included in the covenant and receive the covenant promise: “I will be thy God.” But this is a conditional promise. If a baptized child dies before he comes to the years of discretion, he is saved on the basis of the promise. Covenant parents often stated in the obituary of one of their children, “Our comfort rests in God’s promise.” But, having come to years of discretion, the child must embrace the promise and give expression to this by making public confession of his faith. If, after due admonition, he refuses to do so, he is regarded as a covenant breaker. The promise still stands, but, if he dies without embracing the promise, he is lost forever.

Prof. Schilder spoke to a large audience in the First Church Grand Rapids, which had a seating capacity of over 1200 persons. The auditorium was packed, all available space was taken, people sat on the platform and some listened by means of loud speakers in the basement.

Prof. Schilder felt that there was a possibility that the breach between us and the Christian Reformed Churches could be healed, if only there could be an open discussion. So a conference was arranged in the Pantlind Hotel of Grand Rapids to which all the ministers of our denomination and all the ministers of the CRC that were in the area were invited. Our ministers came out in goodly number, but there were only a few CRC ministers. The meeting was opened and the question arose as to how to proceed. Rev. Hoeksema suggested that he had prepared a paper that he would like to read at this conference, thus setting some guidelines. A committee was appointed to decide whether or not this paper should be read. When it was finally decided that this should be allowed, Rev. Hoeksema read his paper, addressing the question whether a reunion of the two denominations was desirable and profitable. He went on to explain that if this were to be attempted, common grace should be discussed. A silence followed. Dr. Schilder urged the ministers of the CRC to respond, but the silence hung heavy in the air. A few voices of warning were raised that they would be opening a can of worms, or something similar to that. No matter how much Prof. Schilder pleaded with the ministers of the CRC, they refused to speak for or against what was read. Finally, the suggestion was made that we should adjourn and give the ministers of the CRC opportunity to prepare an answer. This second meeting never happened.

In 1939, World War II broke out and all communication with the Netherlands was broken off, especially after the German invasion of the Lowlands. Nothing was heard of Prof. Schilder, nor about him, except that Rev. Hoeksema received a card on which was written only the words: “Our friend is Acts 16:23.” This could mean but one thing. Prof. Schilder, who had strongly opposed the Nazis, even comparing them to the Antichrist, was incarcerated by the Germans. Later we were to learn that he had been released but that he had gone underground to escape further persecution by the Nazis. It was when he was underground that the Synod of Sneek-Utrecht deposed him from office in the Gereformeerde (Reformed) Church of the Netherlands. This was the beginning of the churches that we now know as the Liberated Churches, of which Prof. Schilder was the leader.

At our synod meeting of 1947, the name of Prof. Schilder was brought up again. Some correspondence had been restored after the war and Rev. Hoeksema, eager to meet his friend again, made a motion on the floor of synod that he be invited by our churches to speak for us. An objection was raised that we did not agree with him on his view of the covenant, but Rev. Hoeksema said that he had full confidence in our men that they could certainly hold their ground, if the matter of the covenant would be brought up.

Prof. Schilder came, visited and spoke in all of our churches. He was even given permission to preach in some of our pulpits. He had gone through some bitter experiences during the invasion of the Nazis in the Netherlands, and in many ways enjoyed our way of life. On one occasion he was asked just before sitting down for a meal, “Are you hungry, Professor?” To which he responded, “No, I have never been hungry again, not after being in the concentration camp.” He even talked of coming again, the Lord willing, at which time he would like to learn to drive an automobile.

A conference was held in First Church, which was attended by a number of our ministers. The subject of the covenant was brought up on this occasion, but Rev. Hoeksema was still recovering from the stroke he had experienced in June, which hindered him greatly in speaking. Prof. Schilder did not seem to think that our opposition to his covenant view would deter immigrants from his churches from joining us.

Rev. Hoeksema and Prof. Schilder addressed each other as Herman and Klaas. When the latter was ready to return to his homeland, Rev. Hoeksema and his wife accompanied him to New York.

But all this changed soon afterward. When Prof. Schilder was back in the Netherlands, he wrote an article in De Reformatie, in which he expressed his agreement with Prof. Heyns in regard to the covenant, a view which Rev. Hoeksema in previous years had strongly condemned as Arminianism applied to the covenant. You can find Hoeksema’s disagreement with Heyns discussed in the book The Believers and Their Seed.

Some of our ministers felt very strongly drawn to Prof. Schilder and his conditional promise in the covenant. There were various reasons for that.

There was a growing resentment against Rev. Hoeksema and his leadership. Some, while realizing that his advice on many matters was needed, took offense that he usually took the leadership in discussions, and that his opinions were rarely challenged. Some even secretly considered him a dictator.

Although Rev. Hoeksema had suffered a severe stroke in June of 1947, he had recovered sufficiently that he could carry on his work in the churches. He preached once a Sunday, expounding the truth of the Heidelberg Catechism. He also continued to write in the Standard Bearerand performed many  of his former duties. God had remarkably restored him.

There was unrest and dissatisfaction among many of our ministers. They were unhappy about the lack of growth in the congregations, eager to have their flocks increase in numbers. They took offense from much that Rev. Hoeksema wrote, particularly when he spoke of being distinctively reformed. That term no longer appealed to them. They resented his leadership, desiring to assert themselves in many ways.

There was also a spirit of complacency among the members of the churches, an attitude of having attained, with nothing more for which to strive. Among others there was discontent. The preaching was too doctrinal, the sermons too long, the society meetings too dry. They wanted more life, more entertainment, more relaxing companionship.

As a result, many ministers were avoiding doctrine in their preaching. They chose texts and prepared sermons that were more practical, more appealing, yet at the same time lacking in distinctiveness. One could not say that the sermons contained heresy, but neither were they positively Reformed in content. As a result, every effort toward starting our own Christian schools was stifled.

There was also a desire among some to assert one’s self, to be independent. The synod had adopted catechism books to be used in our churches, but one minister made his own catechism books. In Michigan we had our weekly church paper called “The Church News” which was sent throughout the churches. The mid-west started their Concordia. In Michigan we had our “Reformed Witness Hour” with stations added throughout the country; they began their “Sovereign Grace Hour.”

In First Church, those who were supporters of Rev. De Wolf tried to isolate a part of the congregation that they thought was theirs. And there was a time too, when they talked about withdrawing peaceably. They had a proposal to start a new congregation, but we were afraid that if we let them withdraw, we’d have a congregation that wasn’t reformed and nothing could be done about it.

In 1948, two of our ministers paid a visit to the Netherlands and met there with the contact committee of the Liberated. They informed this committee that the immigrants were welcome in our churches, because we had no official stand on the doctrine of the covenant. Thus, their view of the covenant would be accepted in our churches. It is true that we had never officially adopted the covenant view developed by Rev. Hoeksema, but it is also true that this view is based on the fundamental truth of the sovereignty of our God. This means that there is no room in our doctrinal stand for a conditional promise in the covenant.

But as a result of the statement of those two ministers, a professor in the Netherlands wrote to the immigrants in Chatham and Hamilton, Canada, that they should join our churches because they would be allowed to maintain their covenant view.

I labored among them during one summer. These folk were very willing to receive visitors who could speak Dutch, because they felt like strangers in a new country. They also freely talked about their Liberated views, which weighed heavily with them because of their recent struggle in their home land. I was welcome in all their homes, was served many cups of tea, and had no difficulty in stirring up a discussion on our differences in regard to the covenant.

It rather surprised me, and yet I accepted it as being sincerely meant, that when a certain man went out with me to meet new immigrants he would say: “You know, we are now Protestant Reformed. In our covenant view we completely lost sight of predestination. The PR ministers have opened our eyes to that fact, so that now we also embrace God’s sovereign predestination.” On another occasion another man was speaking about the true church. They had so strongly maintained that the Liberated Churches were the only true church. But now he said that the PR Churches were the true church in America. I asked him what he would do, if he were to return to the Netherlands, in regard to the true church. He informed me that then he would be compelled to organize a PR church in his homeland.

I made one interesting visit to a new arrival, a woman, who said as soon as I introduced myself, “You speak a good Dutch, but you were not born in the Netherlands.” She invited me in, but immediately demanded an answer to three questions. “Did the CRC refuse their pulpits to Dr. Schilder?” “Did the PRCs open their pulpits to him?” “Do the PRCs disagree with him on the covenant?” When I answered each question in the affirmative, she said, “You are an honest man. I’ll serve you a cup of tea.” It appears as if she had spoken to some people who had not been honest with her.

In the meantime, the mission committee was confronted with the fact that many of these immigrants from the Liberated Churches were seeking admission into our churches. It was also evident that they stood firmly on their idea of the covenant and the conditional promise to all baptized children. Therefore the mission committee presented a request to the Synod of 1950 to make a declaration that would define in no uncertain terms our convictions in regard to common grace, the general and well-meant offer of salvation and God’s covenant. As was later clearly expressed in the document, this was intended to assist in mission labors.

This Declaration of Principles was drawn up and accepted, with but one dissenting vote, by the Synod of 1950 to be presented to the churches for approbation. Our missionary declared that he could work with it, although he later opposed it. This one person who voted against it felt very strongly about it, even to the extent that immediately after the session he said to some of his colleagues, “Now you have put a noose around your necks, and they are going to hang you.”

Some of our other ministers opposed it as a fourth form in addition to our other three creeds, complaining that they were being restricted in their preaching. They began to preach the error of conditions unto salvation.

At the 1952 Synod, this Declaration of Principles was ratified by the churches by a very narrow margin. At this time, we had twenty five churches and twenty eight ministers.

I was present when Rev. Herman Veldman was chosen to be minister of the Hamilton congregation from a duo that also included Rev. John Heys. Judging by the conversations I overheard, I thought Rev. Heys would receive the call. Some seemed very vehement about not calling Rev. Veldman. Yet when the votes were counted, Rev. Veldman was chosen. He labored there a year, and by that time it became evident that they wanted to break away from us. Many troubles arose there.

It so happened that Rev. John Blankespoor and I had been appointed as church visitors that year. As we were traveling to Hamilton, John asked: “What will you report to classis if we find that Rev. Veldman is responsible for the trouble there?” I assured him that we would report exactly according to our findings. The consistory was fully prepared for our coming. They had evidently decided to be very frank and open to the church visitors. I led the meeting. Soon an elder, the man who said they had become PR, read a paper in which he strongly defended the Liberated view of the covenant over against our view. When he was finished, I asked him, “When were you lying, when you went out with me and told the people you had become PR, or now?” He boldly answered: “Then, of course.” Another elder also had a paper he wanted to read. This was another long document in defense of the Liberated doctrine of the covenant. When he finished, I reminded him of what he had said about the true church. He heartily agreed, but admitted that he never meant what he said.

Finally, after it had grown late, I asked them, “Is Rev. Veldman to blame for the disagreement here?” To that they answered, “Actually, not at all. He told us in advance that he would preach most emphatically the truth of the covenant as he believed it. He gave us double barrel, but we could have expected that.” Obviously, they had deceived us because they wanted to use us until they were able to organize a congregation that maintained the Liberated view. Not Rev. Veldman, but the Declaration had soured them.

There was also a strong reaction against this Declaration in the Liberated Churches in the Netherlands. Much to Rev. Hoeksema’s dismay, Prof. Schilder immediately and publicly declared that his friendship with our pastor had come to an end.

Various ministers from our churches began to defend a conditional theology, stating that Scripture taught conditions unto salvation. An article appeared in the Concordia, which defended a so-called teaching of conditions in Scripture. Ultimately an article appeared that defended faith as a condition unto salvation. The writer had not only completely ignored the teachings of Scripture that faith is a gift of God’s grace, but also ignored our Confessions, particularly Canons of Dordt III, IV, 14, which states:

“Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure; but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him; or even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his free will, consent to the terms of salvation, and actually believe in Christ; but because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also.”

A serious conflict had arisen within our churches.

Editor’s Notes—The year 1953 was a trying one for the PRC and its members. The cost of schism is high. Rev. Hanko paid with his own health. The stress of dealing with a divided consistory and congregation took its toll. His son remembers that after consistory meetings, his father sat up late at night, munching on soda crackers to calm his churning stomach. Was the cost too high? Rev. Hanko answers that question with a resounding “NO.” After the split, the churches could confess with Job, “But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”