Questions for the CanRC (2)

Clark's second question is:

2. In reaction to problems (real and perceived) in the Netherlands, Schilder formulated an idiosyncratic version of covenant theology that is at odds with much of the Reformed tradition and which helped to lay the groundwork for the contemporary federal vision movement. How do the CanRCs see Schilder’s relations to the Shepherdite and FV theologies How influential is the Federal Vision theology in the CanRCs?

Answer: Once again, the preface to the question is imprecise and somewhat pregnant with assumptions. I suspect, first of all, that Schilder himself would be offended by this caricature. He believed that his version of covenant theology was very much in line with that of his fathers in the Afscheiding tradition of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. I suspect, secondly, that he would be surprised to be judged one who is at odds with much of the Reformed tradition. It's quite clear from my reading of Schilder that he prized the Reformed tradition and that he saw himself as a theologian working in this tradition.

On the other hand, Schilder did not see himself bound to "much of the Reformed tradition." He would probably question how one would go about determining such a thing. He saw himself as a theologian bound to the Three Forms of Unity and therefore somewhat free to deviate from Luther, Calvin, Vermigli or Witsius, etc. in areas not governed by the confessions. Schilder's homiletics (redemptive-historical preaching) represented a (positive) shift from Calvin's homiletics. I imagine that if one were to identify 600 Reformed theologians who insisted that Christ is the Head of the covenant (and not the Mediator), Schilder would say, "That's an impressive list. But I'm not bound in my theology by 'the great multitude' (Belgic, article 7). Show me where in the confessions I must believe that Christ is the head of the covenant."

Whether Schilder laid the groundwork for the so-called federal vision movement is debatable. Schilder is somewhat of a hero to John Barach and Barach's talk at the Auburn Avenue Pastor's Conference was very much in line with Schilder's emphases. In the end, I suspect that Barach's views owe more to Schilder's colleague, Benne Holwerda, and Schilder's disciple, Cornelis Trimp. I doubt that Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins know much about Schilder's covenantal theology. More significant figures in the evolution of FV would probably be: Rousas J. Rushdoony, Cornelius Van Til, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, twentieth century neo-Calvinist writers and perhaps on the periphery, John Nevin, Philip Schaff, Gordon Wenham, John Millbank, Rene Girard and a handful of others.

There are clearly areas where Schilder would disagree with FV thought. Neither Schilder nor any prominent figure in the Liberated theological tradition, so far as I know, holds to paedo-communion. Moreover, Schilder's eschatology, unlike the postmillennialism of prominent FV players, was remarkably pessimistic, almost defeatist -- as was the case for many who endured two world wars.

The FV view of the covenant of works and the invisible/visible church, though similar to Schilder's views, probably derives more from John Murray and Anthony Hoekema. The FV emphasis on the centrality of union with Christ as the matrix through which to understand aspects of salvation probably derives more from John Calvin, Richard Gaffin, Anthony Hoekema and Sinclair Ferguson. The FV liturgical emphases are informed by various Reformed, Lutheran and Anglican liturgists.

The name of Norman Shepherd has always been respected in Canadian Reformed circles. Shepherd studied at the Free University of Amsterdam (where he had prepared to write a doctoral dissertation on Zanchius) and is fluent in Dutch. His facility with Dutch gave him access to the theological literature of the Dutch Reformed and Shepherd became quite fond of S.G. De Graaf, in particular. I have a slight recollection of Shepherd telling me that his views on the covenant of works were derived in part from reading De Graaf's book on the Heidelberg Catechism, entitled, Het Ware Geloof. Shepherd prized the Liberated tradition of Schilder, Holwerda and company and was thrilled with the translation and publication of Kamphuis's An Everlasting Covenant.

When Shepherd was dismissed from Westminster Theological Seminary for political and not theological reasons, Jelle Faber wrote a series of editorials in Clarion lamenting this, defending Shepherd, but not uncritically. I suspect Shepherd's more recent books are not widely read in Canadian Reformed circles.

Though I respect Norman Shepherd a great deal, and cherish him as a Reformed father and a brother in Christ, I do demur from some of his positions. In my mind he tends to over-accentuate continuity between old and new covenants. I'm not convinced either by his arguments against the imputation of Christ's active obedience in justification. That said, I'm not entirely comfortable with the theology of many of his critics either. I share with Shepherd the conviction, on exegetical grounds, that Romans 4 is not about the imputation of Christ's righteousness. I agree with Shepherd that faith is the sole instrument of justification and that faith without works is dead. I find it deeply regrettable and irresponsible that his name is so cavalierly tarnished in segments of the Reformed community.

Dr. Cornelis Van Dam, who teaches Old Testament at the Theological College, recently wrote a blurb on the back of Shepherd's new book on justification. I suspect he shares my fondness for Shepherd; I also suspect that he shares my unwillingness to endorse everything Shepherd says.

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