Questions for the CanRC (11)

Scott's eleventh question: Schilder was known to say that everyone is in “the covenant” “head for head” and that “the covenant” is “all or nothing.” The effect of such formulations seems to deny the historic and confessional Reformed distinction between the two ways of being in the one covenant of grace, i.e., the distinction between the internal relation and the external relation to the covenant of grace. How widespread is the “head for head” and “all or nothing” view in the CanRCs?"

Answer: It would have been helpful here if Scott had provided some documentation for Schilder's use of these expressions. The language of "all or nothing" recalls the title of Sybrand Strauss' Th.D dissertation on Schilder, but leaves us wondering where and in what sense Schilder used this expression.

Dr. Nelson Kloosterman wrote an article for Christian Renewal (vol.25. no.15) offering a corrective to Scott's published remarks about Schilderian theology. Kloosterman writes, "Rather than distinguish between an internal aspect and an external aspect of the covenant of grace, Schilder preferred to speak of the legal aspect and the vital aspect of this covenant. Using this latter distinction, he taught that all baptized children are legally in the covenant of grace, and therefore all children are genuinely addressed by its promises, demands, and threats."

Since then numerous people have latched on to this quote, alleging that Schilder's view of the covenant was no different from that of Louis Berkhof or Geerhardus Vos, both of whom distinguished between the covenant as a purely legal relationship and the covenant as a communion of life.

This much is sure: Berkhof's and Vos's views of the covenant were not embraced by the late Dr. Jelle Faber. Dr. Faber questions, first, whether Berkhof's position on the dual aspect of the covenant doesn't present "a confusing ambiguity"? (American Secession Theologians, p.43). The ambiguity Faber detects lies in Berkhof insisting, on the one hand, that the promises of the covenant are extended collectively and not individually and, on the other hand, that each covenant child has the responsibility to lay hold of God's promises. In the words of Faber, "Berkhof does not answer the question how one may lay claim to promises that are not given individually" (p.42).

For Vos (see, Dogmatiek), the distinction between legal relationship (rechtsverbintenis) and fellowship of life (levensgemeenschap) can be rephrased as a distinction between being "under the covenant" and being "in the covenant." Vos restricts being "in" the covenant only to the elect, and this, according to Faber, does not do justice to Lord's Day 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Berkhof's and Vos's positions don't seem to be Schilder's either. Schilder nowhere distinguishes between the covenant as purely legal relationship and the covenant as communion of life. Kloosterman's detection of a legal/vital distinction in Schilder may be accurate, but Schilder himself never phrased it exactly that way (and certainly not in the way Berkhof or Vos did).

In the section of Schilder's writings (his monograph, Looze Kalk) Kloosterman has in mind, Schilder writes (p.44), "To be sanctified in Christ means that by our participation in the covenant we are entitled (recht hebben) to the promises of justification by Christ's blood. When by faith the baptized person accepts the promise of being washed in Christ's blood, and thereby in fact receives justification, then this implies his being washed by Christ's Spirit --- his sanctification not 'in Christ' but 'through the Spirit.' And what we have 'in Christ' (by covenantal right, as promise; Dutch: naar verbondsrecht, in belofte) is therefore the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives (what our elders called regeneration, the resurrection of the new man, etc.), which must be seen as including our conversion in principle (principieele omzetting)."

Schilder makes an interesting distinction between "washing through Christ's blood" ("IN Christ") and the "washing through Christ's Spirit" (THROUGH the Spirit). In Schilder's mind, these two phrases from the Form for the Baptism of Infants mean different things, though his opponents alleged they were synonymous. The former, for Schilder, refers to the promise which belongs by right to every baptized child and the latter to the appropriation by faith of that which is promised, which only some enjoy.

In De Reformatie (18 [March 22, 1947] p.185) Schilder writes, "Participation in a promise is a right (Deelen in een belofte is een recht). He who bases himself on it . . . has a legally valid ground (een rechts-grondslag) for his 'assuming' and 'acting.' But participation in an active grace, a grace that is already active, is a fact (Maar deelen in een werkzame genade, een reeds werkende genade, dat is een feit). He who bases himself on it has a factual basis (een feitelijken grondslag) for his 'assuming' and 'acting.' The Synodicals jump from a sure and certain statement (stellige uitspraak) which creates a legally valid ground (een rechts-grondslag) to a presumptive fiction (onderstellende fictie), which only fantasizes a valid ground (een feitelijken grondslag)."

Whereas the Kuyperians alleged that "sanctified in Christ" means all covenant children are presumed to be regenerate (and on that basis baptized), Schilder argued that this phrase means that the promises of the covenant are legally (not fictitiously) the possession of all covenant children. On the other hand, those who embrace the promises of the covenant are not simply the legal recipients of the promises of justification, but are factually justified.

In his article, therefore, Dr. Kloosterman used the term "legal" to denote Schilder's rechts-grondslag and "vital" to denote Schilder's feitelijk grondslag. That strikes me as an appropriate description of the distinction so long as readers do not equate Schilder's views with those of Vos or Berkhof.

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