Courses by Candlelight, Woord & Wereld #36

After the liberation of Aug. 11, 1944 in de Hague Prof. Schilder was inundated with requests to speak. On Sept 5 he was to speak in the city of Groningen but was prevented from doing so due to train scheduling. However he stayed in the area for seven months. He gave lectures many times over for different audiences from consistory members to catechism students and societies often with little preparation. In many cases like the speech below contesting wrong ideas some of which led to the liberation. (Summary of introduction to ‘Cursus bij Kaarslicht’)

The Church. (K. Schilder, Lessons by Candlelight. 1944)

When we talk about the church we are dealing with an article of faith. It is best to remember this from the beginning. Every Sunday we read the twelve articles (Apostle’s Creed) together, these discuss all kinds of matters. There is no discussion based on experience with any of them, the only basis is revelation. The church is also included in the twelve articles of faith. Therefore when there is discussion of the church it is only on the basis of revelation. But, while people steadfastly refuse to speak about all the other points on the basis of experience (or observation), in the matter of church they often force experience into the parameters. They elaborate on the church with reference to reality. Concerning all the other points I am not allowed to say: that on the basis of observation I reach a certain conclusion, but, yet I can say nothing about the church unless it agrees with experience. Pluriformity is boldly promoted: We have believed with our fathers that there was one church, but the facts have overpowered us; there are many churches. The original theory did not jive with the facts so now we have found a theory that conforms with the facts: ‘pluriformity‘. I call this a bold move, yet they do not dare present this any where else. They should also have to do this with the other contents of our faith. But if one of us would say that doing so is Barthian, ethical, modern and so forth, then we have to likewise reject this method when it concerns the church. We should say nothing but what we find in Holy Scripture. Otherwise we would be sitting on the ethical fence. Then we will irrevocably get certain meanings, which err from God’s revelation.

When we come to the question, which should be first, what is the church, how old is the church, who are the members, etc, then we must pick up the covenantal thread (of last time). All God’s works are understandable if we consider not only the time before the fall but also the time after the fall. That was also necessary in our discussion of the covenant in order to understand it better. The covenant differs from the church as much as the spoken word differs from the society in which it is spoken. Roughly speaking the church is the society of the covenant.

The church only came into existence in the crisis after the fall, but in the thoughts of God the idea was already there before the fall. I can call the church the body of Christ, or the gathering of the true Christian believers (kuriake = of the Lord, To be thought with oikia = house, so: the house of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ). If the church had fallen out of the sky after the fall it would have signified impoverishment. The church would be a necessity only after the fall. But God’s thought had been realized much earlier, before the fall. The majesty of the church is that she has received her life and foundation in Christ. Before the fall God established the city of God, the polis with it’s own politeia (1), the city with it’s own format, with it’s patriarchal authority, unforced. Much of what was before the fall will be preserved. Christ has intervened. After the fall there is the same polis, now saved by Christ’s blood from Satan. The church can therefore be called Christ’s house today, although before the fall it had the name: ‘house of God’. The city of God had its own politeia under God in paradise, without the name church. Not a shelter found after the fact, on account of sin, an emergency shelter where God can hide what is still salvageable. The church is so mighty and so great because she quiets God’s own appetite for a polis, a city of God. There is disappointment through sin but God has deepened the basis. The church is universal. She circumscribes God’s humanity because she is God’s church. But it is from the God in Christ observed humanity of God, the new humanity with new people. New means new for our perceptions, but not new for God. It is not the city of God that is new, but the way of Christ’s salvation after the fall is new. It actually is the old city of God which is reached by a new way.

In reality humanity is the church, it can be said of the church: those who belong to her are human and those who don’t belong are changed into the opposite and will be locked outside of humanity. The church has the oldest credentials because she has what is new and what is the newest.

Therefore when God lets the church, humanity after the fall, be assembled, He does it by His Word and Spirit. The Word is heard and the Spirit couples itself to that Word. When the Word of God sought out the snake and the women it said to both “I will put enmity between you and the women”. The reality of that enmity is the affect of the Word. The Word is immediately paired with the Spirit that works faith. When Adam and Eve said yes through the Spirit that yes was a fruit of faith from God’s Word, and a letting themselves be gathered as church. They said yes as individuals and they let themselves be gathered collectively as church. Two ways were set before the first family here: the way to heaven and the way to hell.

So now the question is: who are actually members of the church? If we say: the church is polis with its own politiea (city with its governing body), then some one could say: a government and what is linked to it belongs with it. Then those who serve also belong to the members administration. One could say: the people rule there and the angel is a serving figure. Perhaps you are surprised by the question: who are the members of the church, but someone who knows something of the history of theology would not be. For it is true; there were theologians in the past who were inclined to believe that also angels are members of the church. As also the Synopsis (2) wanted it: also the angels are elect (the apostate among them having been left reprobate). Also the angels share in the fruit of the electing work of Christ. Angels and people are again reunited having their own functions in the city of God, so angels also can be considered part of the church. But as far as I’m concerned a different thought deserves eminence. Members of the church are people who believe (the confession states: the true believers)(3). ‘Believers in Christ’ can not mean: people who have a good understanding of salvation. It means people who know Christ, know Him as Savior, who are renewed through Him, who are personally delivered from despair and guilt. Those who, through Christ’s own Spirit, are liberated from sin and accept Him. The first can also be said of the angels but not the second. The angels share in the fruit of redemption with all the cosmos, but the critical factor is whether men are saved from the power of sin. Although the angels are God’s servants to give Him glory, they themselves are not delivered by Christ from distress and guilt. The city of God is not deprived of its liturgy but it will not be as we often think: singing psalms, etc. The angels are officious, liturgical spirits (Heb. 1: 14). Liturgy will actually say that men, in relation to the kingdom, perform public service for the king. In the day of days it will appear that the angels at God’s command will perform service to the believers. In the polis, the city of God, the angels are indisputable, for the bible also calls them inhabitants of the kingdom of heaven. We could say: angels, although not members of the church, still have a distinguished place in the kingdom of God. They are very intimately, very narrowly, very tightly bound to it.

Now the question; what identifies the church in these times? Will I ever get a church that is perfect in the sense that satisfies the revelation of city of God? No. We will never see the church with the eyes of God, we can never picture it as a visible realization of the city of God. We will never get a perfect copy, a complete print. Also in this sense we are human, bound to what God has revealed. We only know in part. The numerous clausus of God, the serried (total) number we cannot find here.

We cannot give up seeking for a congregation that is a reflection of what is in the books of God. The church must have standards therefore in order to say: we swear that what we do is not an abandoning ourselves to religious longings, but of forming, in time, the city of God, marked out by Him. We face this enormous task every day. To accomplish this task here we strive to perform service to the Father. If the church looks for standards it must find them in the Word of God. We must never set the standard on the principle that I must have an organ for the enjoyment of my religious instincts. As if I would say; the church is the body, where my religious predisposition is nourished, for then I am mistaken. The church is never the place where what is innate in man is cultivated. I would build the following mental construction: as creature I have a religious disposition, I have come upon the grace of God and will call a church to life for fulfilling religious needs. Then man becomes the end goal of the church; then Christ does not gather but we do. The Church becomes a cultural body for fostering religious awareness. Whoever sees the church in this way, a salvation facility (Luther), turns it into a grace market wherein all kinds of religious articles are for sale. We will get a culture of the edified souls and we find true the church which best soothes our religious tendencies. You will seek those fine people who best cultivate your religious constructs. You gather with those who have unanimity with you. I would follow after my minister, or become Kuyperian, Grosheidian or Greijdanian according to what is most agreeable to my spiritual yearnings. I would get a caricature-church, and a sleeping lullaby. The catechism states that the Son of God gathers the church (4), not a minister or a synod. He is busy with it today. He does it by Word and Spirit, two powers beyond my control.

The Word is His Word; it is eternal, it bores it own tunnels through time; it is the hammer of God’s own might, in short it has escaped my control. Every day God’s son is busy with His gathering work which I cannot oversee. I can see it but cannot see into it, over it or through it. “We see it but cannot fathom it.(5) It does not concern a house, a store, a city, nor the unfolding of a religious layout, but about gathering, officially and personally by Word and Spirit, the people of God. A people that He rescues from fire and sin, gathered for and by Christ, so for God Himself, and not for us. So I have to eat my bread in the church and do God’s own will. The criteria may never be: do I find acknowledgement to my position? Who is the family of Christ? “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother, my sister and my mother”(6). That is to say: those are my family, those are the church.

The activity of the church is focused on the well known goal and strives for it by crucifying what concerns the flesh. An activation of immense power, for behind it is the thunder of Word and Spirit. Spirit and Word will put me out, but the Spirit will live in my heart and the Word will be a hammer and a builder simultaneously. We are enabled as reborn by God, as fellow workers we must be co-gatherers. The Spirit lives in my heart and fundamentally changes my heart. His Word is the hammer that breaks up my flesh and old nature and is the builder of a new man. It speaks to me as a governess to her pupil, as a father to his child, as a teacher to his student(7) (imagery is from Calvin). The Word wants an office bearer, a priest, a king, not pieces and fragments. We are not only the objects but also the subjects who assist and gather with and alongside of the gathering work of Christ, through Christ. We gather ourselves because of Christ and for Christ and he gathers us along with Himself for God.

The concept, that we also gather, and not God only from His side, we find in the Belgic Confession, article 27, namely within the terms coetus and congregatio(8). Coetus means to say: coming together, going together, coire, going up together forming a collective. In coetus the church is depicted as our deed. Congregatio is derived from grex, that is flock. A shepherd opens the barn doors. God is the chief shepherd, the flock is brought together. This gathering is primary, but it keeps working in the church: the congregatio awakens the will to coetus formation in the church. The church can therefore never be a republic, formed by the ambition of the citizens. Yet it may carry the name republic in so far as everything rests on the renewed free will (coetus formation).

When we take hold of both of these ideas the question arises, what then do we do with what people call the active and the passive nature of the church. The question is answered with the just mentioned; coetus-congregatio. ‘Active’ suggests that people actively participate in church gathering work.

Nobody marvels that a tension occurs. Barth says that whoever gives God the honor will not give man the power to do God’s work. Karl Barth will end up denying that the church is the body of Christ. He says that the church is on earth and occurs in human contexts, and so can only be the work of men. He claims the word church is not derived from kuriake, but from “church” meaning circa, round (Ez. 16: 1-14). The church is the area where God speaks. The church is wherever God invades with His word. The church then is not dependent on faith, as God’s power on one hand and the power of love from our side.

We say on the contrary: we gladly give in that God and man are totally different. If we do form a coetus when we gather that is because it pleases God to work with the thunder of His Word, with the lightening of His Spirit, the hammer of the gospel, the scythe of the law. God exposes man and God calls to life the thunder of the Word.

Then we find His transcendent act, His congregatio, precipitates into our coetus. Godly and human factors are distinct but not separate. Now I can say; work out your salvation with fear and trembling (coetus), do it according to the standard you find in the bible; because it is God who works it in you (congregatio) Philippians 2: 12-13. The tension between the act of God and that of man is maintained here.

God and man live together, God’s state is born, the kingdom of God for eternal joy. The picture of a tension between the Godly and human factor is now not justified. The relationship between God and man, the Word says in Ez. 16, is as that between husband and wife. God is the husband, the church is the bride. This is not active-passive but active-receptive. For if I say active and passive the problem is approached in such a way that the godly factor on one hand, and the human factor in assembling opposite, become a contrast. People have often said we do poorly with our church gathering, we will never get a church where everyone is unified. God has good books without false names, our books are full of false names, in other words God’s book and our books are contradictory. This is unjustified because the matter is active-receptive. It is actually foolish to speak of the contradictory active-passive.

People swear to three distinctions today; a militant and triumphant church; a visible and invisible church; a church as organism and the church as institute.

As far as the first distinction is concerned people say; today there is struggle and later we will triumph. There are in the church on earth also hypocrites but in heaven there will be none. Here on earth there are only militant churches (fighting against the devil, sin and our own flesh), in other words imperfect, but in heaven the church is perfect. Only there will we ultimately see the true church. The claim, as men have said in the past, that the militant church is only a church by degrees, only so so, the real one is above, is the consequence of having made such distinctions.

The well known remark: in heaven you will not be asked what church you belonged to, is a consequence of such thinking. I am opposed to these distinctions because they are actually Roman catholic, scholastic. Rome said there are three churches: the militant on earth, the suffering one in purgatory and the triumphant in heaven. Rome’s error is that this church concept is made in connection with the experiences of individuals. We say, if the church is all about the Word of God, then this distinction is unfounded. You cannot turn the three branched tree of Rome into a two branched reformed tree by chopping one of the branches off, then the tree is damaged. Rome says the unity of the church must also be sought on earth, but with them the gathering principle is not validated. We should not forget that the church on earth is not only militant but also triumphant. John says: ‘our faith overcomes the world’ (1 John 5: 4). God’s people overcome the world everyday, (look what happened in the concentration camps!) And also the triumphant church is above, but still battles along with us. See Revelation 6:9-11; in the opening of the fifth seal, where the saints in heaven cry; ‘how long oh Lord before Thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who live upon the earth?’ That is sympathizing with the faithful on the earth. All the tension of Christ’s return disappears if men say: ‘one step and I am there, the warfare is over. Say rather: ‘ fortunately one more step and I can fight along with church in heaven. I am saved in principle, but remain in anticipation along with the angels, delivery is not yet realized completely. The churches definite triumph will be final on the day of days.

Concerning the second distinction, the visible church, men say it is a fellowship that can never be fully adequate because it is made up of hypocrites and upright believers. However the invisible church is the church as it is known before the eyes of God, consisting of those with real faith, the true elect. From this comes the conclusion that the visible church is something less valuable but the invisible church is prime, is the cream of the crop.

Opposed to this we say: naturally the church has many invisible things; faith, love, prayer. Because faith is not seen and prayers are not heard. Also many of the spiritual qualities are often invisible and only known to God. Beside these there are many visible things; the service of the Word, the liturgy, the public prayers, etc. Can I therefore say there are two churches? No. Every person has something visible and some things invisible about themselves and no one says there are two people. A person has body and soul. You see nothing of the soul, and of the body only a part, yet it is one person. When I say that which is visible in the church is the visible church and what is invisible is the invisible church, I could say it about any human institution. A choral society as such also has visible and invisible aspects. Can I say there is a visible and an invisible choral society because some come to practice their voices and some come because of the girls? That is not allowed, naturally. The same goes for the church. Then you would have a legalized hypocrisy: they legitimize the place of people who are members of the church and don’t mean it. But the hypocrites in the church are Fremdkorper (a foreign body), strange elements. We must continue to see it that way, otherwise we are lulled to sleep: you are a member of the visible church and that’s it.

The same objection applies to the third distinction: the church as organism and the church as institute. Organism is a term from the philosophy of Schelling, (9) who did much harm in Germany. This term was taken over by Kuyper. He defined it as something that grows up by itself and has power in it, a fetus, a plant. The plant grows from seed into something mature. That is the organism. But, says Kuyper, the institute is prepared from man’s side, something mechanical. The church is rooted (organic) and substantiated (mechanical). (10)

The conclusion is that the church is organism in so far as she has an urge toward coetus, the urge to meet each other and the institute is the church that is gemaszregelt (ruled?) from above. Kuyper said that only the church as institute has the offices. From these are the building, address, elders and deacons, books etc. And everything that is built from faith (Christian trade unions, press, universities, etc) becomes organism according to Kuyper. As organism the church is broad, but as institute much narrower. A song of praise will be sung for the organism and a shrug of the shoulders for the institute. In this way the church is degraded and the gathering work of Christ made low. But these distinction are insufferable. Take marriage for an example. Marriage is a love relationship in a legal setting, marriage as institute. Whoever says that the urge for love is able to form a marriage itself; in other words love recognized through the legal setting is lesser, but love that has grown naturally is greater. This leads to patent fornication. Institution is the natural (organic) work in the church of Christ. If God’s communion works in me organically then I will institute. Then there is no contradiction between doctrine and life. If Christian science is put within the organism, then where is the church? Then I will be in church as institute on Sunday and in the church as organism when I visit the Christian university or Christian political party on Monday.

Will you ever find a church that is complete (perfect)? No. But the call to pursue it remains in effect. Often people see it from the aspect of; what can I attain? But I really cannot attain anything that is offered in the world. Yet I must pursue it. The church will always be kept under this strain. The tension disappears if we do not maintain that it is Christ who is gathering the church.

If we say that the institute is only what is within the scope of the consistory members then we can throw someone out of A and gladly receive him in B. I have to hunt the unity of the church. Our confession says that the church is not something that is completed. Christ gathers; it is incomplete at present. He is doing it now, He is busy (now). But also: He will continue to do it (not yet complete). We therefore must deal with the word ‘institute’ carefully. For institute means: set, something that is finished (complete now), indicating certain established boundaries. When the confession pictures a true and a false church, it goes from the view that both are being gathered today. They are not pictured as being in a finished state, but as: Christ gathers, He is busy with it. Unity of the church signifies: the members come together where Christ is. Remember the well known text, dear to our fathers, “where the body is, there the eagles will gather.” (Mat. 24: 28, Luke 17: 37) The true and the false church are never finished instituting. The church also is an instituuendum (under process of): the work of instituting must continue. We cannot say, on account of it’s incompleteness, let it run, for we must pursue it’s completeness (perfection). Satan will, at the end of days bludgeon us together (Rev. 11). A church will appear in which all the faithful are assembled. Oh shame that the anti-Christ will achieve this sooner then we with our theology.

You will understand that I will not have a discussion about pluriformity. People say that all these distinctions show that we cannot manage to deal with the truth. The truth of God is too much, too rich and too broad for us to cope with. Each will have only one aspect of the truth, there are many forms but there is only one essence. Bavinck said: the confession does not actually teach pluriformity, but the facts constrain us to yield to it.(4) The result is that men say that all these churches can be considered relatively equal. God makes them pluriform. But if that is so I am required to see the sins of people as a healing act of God. A Godly virtue covers my church sin of imperfect insight into the truth and poor discipline. Naturally, I will admit that everything in the world differs, no two leaves on one tree are equal, and if I see a field of flowering bulbs there is much variation. But if one church contradicts another I cannot say that is consequent of the fact that every church does not see the truth of God adequately. God does not say yes and no at the same time. Then the church becomes like a university, a place where different theological opinions are raised. I have to acknowledge the factor of sin. God builds His church with the truth. The concept of pluriformity exists within the contradiction between form and essence. They say the essence is good but the form is imperfect. They agree with the confession: that church unity must become visible. They say the unity is invisible, there is an invisible that has many forms. The forms are in the plural, the church is singular. The form is touchable, the essence untouchable. This is pagan philosophy which claims that the essence is abstract, the forms concrete. But it is scriptural to make the invisible of God visible in confession and walk (doctrine and life).

By claiming Article 27 speaks about the invisible church and the following one about the visible, people apply subterfuge to what the confession says about the church . However this is not true. In all these articles the church speaks about what is invisible and what is visible in it. We must join the visible church and from there must make visible what is invisible in confession and life. We must reject the thought that the unity of the church is invisible. People say ubi vides non est fides (where you see, there is no faith) but I say that is an incomprehensible theory. The disciples saw Jesus, faith saw in Him both God and man in one person. I believe in invisible qualities but I see a visible church. There is one unity founded in Christ, (also here in Groningen), for the unity exists in Christ. The unity must be revealed, demonstrated in assembling to the one church.

Watch out for the distinction: body of Christ and institute. By that people say the church is only an institution but the elect form Christ’s body. If men say that the elect only are members of the church, the question comes; when do they come into the church? Do they join it when they come to faith? Do they come to it if they have believed in the cross of Christ? Whoever makes the church to be the assembly of the elect are confused with the origin of the church, in eternity or in time. No, those who have professed their faith and walk accordingly with their children afterwards are members of the church. His body we are, in Christ (1 Cor. 12)). Every local church is the body of Christ. There is an obligation to walk in unity with other churches. But the body of Christ has no power above it, no pope, no government, no synod. No one has command over it.

A time will come when we will behold the church in perfect glory. We must look with longing for that expectation, we must pursue it. In that future God will be all in all.


Translated by John van Laar

1) Polis: city, Politea: citizenry, citizenship, civil administration, etc

2) SYNOPSIS PURIORIS THEOLOGIAE, famous reformed textbook, compounded by the Leiden Professors Joh. Polyander, Andr. Rivetus, Ant Walaeus and Ant. Thysius after the Synod of Dordt in 1625. See G.P. van Itterzon, HET GEREFORMEERD LEERBOEK DER 17DE EEUW “SYNOPSIS PURIORUS THEOLOGIAE” s-Gravenhage 1931. Dr. H. Bavinck last released this work in Latin (6th printing), Leiden 1881. A translation in Dutch by ds. Dirk van Dijk was published in two volumes, Enshede 1964, 1966. CONCERNING THE POSOTION OF THE ANGELS(eng): DISPUTATIO XI, ‘DE ECCLESIA’ ed. Bavinck, page 438; in the mentioned Dutch translation.

3) The word Christgelovigen (Christian believers) appeared in the older Belgic Confession (Dutch) . The words were changed to ’ware gelovigen’ (true believers) by the Synod GKN Arnhem 1981.

4)H. Bavinck, GEREFORMEERDE DOGMATIEK, IV, KAMPEN 1930, PG. 274-304. See also: H. Bavinck, The Catholicity of Christendom and church, speech with the transfer of rectors at the Theological University of Kampen on Dec. 18, 1888, at Lampen.

4) Heidelberg Cat. L.D. 21, ans. 54

5) Ps. 118 vs. 8, rhymed version of that time. Ps 118 vs. 11 in later editions.

6) See Mat. 12: 50; Mark 3: 33; according to Luke 8:21


8) look for Latin text: J.N. Bakhuizen van den Brink, The Belgic Confession in authentic texts (Dutch), Amsterdam 1976, pg. 123; “Credimus quod cum Sanctus coetus et congregatio servandorum sit coetus, atque extra eam nulla sit salus.”

9) Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-18540. German sage and professor at Jena, Berlin.

10) A. Kuyper, GEWORTELD EN GEGROND, The church as organism and institute, inaugural speech in the New Church at Amsterdam, Aug. 10, 1870.