Posted by: mattcolvin | April 23, 2013

Summary of Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture

In 2005, while preparing to teach a theology class at my old school, I read Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture. As a sort of public service and a way of attaining clarity for myself, I began a chapter-by-chapter precis of the book, with comments and thoughts that it provoked. Because these notes were posted on my old, extinct Upsaid blog, I am reposting them here on my current WordPress blog. And I’m going to try to finish them now, 8 years later. (The old entries accounted for 17 of the 29 chapters of Schilder’s book, so it shouldn’t be too hard to finish.)


(Above, Klaas Schilder in his study, from this page.)

First, the chapters I already covered:

1. Schilder recognizes that his work is about culture and history, and thus eo ipso must be an incomplete explanation, since “it doth not yet appear what we shall be” (1 Jn 3:1-3), and the creation is still groaning. Culture and history, as processes still en route, are not susceptible of final and definitive pronouncements.

2. Yet the question of Christ and Culture is a pressing one, because cultural engagement is not optional; to retreat (as into a monastery) is dereliction of duty. The question is not a merely academic one, and life is prior to the academy. Schilder is here very close to Dooyeweerd’s distinction between life on the one hand and theoretical thought on the other. Our commanded task is to live, and only then to philosophize.

3a. The philosophical conflicts that divide men both within and without the church are also operative in the discussion of culture, thus complicating the debate. Schilder’s brief remark, that the terms “church” and “world” are often used too abstractly is difficult to field here, but I would hazard that he has in mind the confusion over these terms that arises when the covenant is not understood in a Biblical (objective) way. The two terms are correlative. Very probably Schilder has in mind Abraham Kuyper as one who misunderstood their relation.

3b. The problem of Christ and Culture is also made problematic by the fact that philosophical discussion of it, in both church and world, is theoretical in nature, employing concepts like “culture”, “Christ”, “nature,” and “grace”, and relating these concepts to each other in multifarious ways. We are thus prone to all the logomachy and confusion that typically arises in philosophy.

3c. The devaluation of the name “Christ” has led to the devaluation of the concept of culture. A proper apprehension of the relation between the two cannot be had except by dealing with the full Biblical value of the name Christ and the concept culture. Much of the rest of Schilder’s book will be devoted to reclaiming a full-orbed concept of culture and meaning of the name Christ.

3d. The failure of the church in particular to answer, univocally, the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” is a telling symptom of how far we are from being able to give an authoritative and potent answer to the problem of Christ and cultural life. The Church likes to make pronouncements against the world’s sin — likes to protest that “the culture of this world is not mature and not pure” — but the Church’s power and authorization to make such pronouncements is undermined by the Church’s failure to know Christ. Ecumenical movements that try to speak authoritatively about culture are especially embarrassing on this score, since such movements are always, by their very nature, “hazy” about who Jesus Christ is. (I find that this section by Schilder explains much of the gut-level discomfort I experienced in such organizations as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He also makes clear why it is that so many people find N.T. Wright so exciting: for surely, the Church will never reach agreement on the identity of Jesus Christ apart from compelling and aithful scholarship on the New Testament.)

3e. The term “culture” suffers from similar confusion, especially because the church is more prone to follow unbelieving philosophy in defining “culture” than in identifying “Christ.” What is needed is to “take our starting point in the prejudices of faith, and that we have to accept upon authority, and consequently to act accordingly, that our positive and negative attitudes must merely and solely be a matter of faith” — with these words Schilder is preaching something very akin to Van Til’s presuppositionalism, but with this important difference: he wants to make sure that we apply such an approach also to our investigations of the concept “culture.”

3f. Schilder adumbrates the shape which the inquiry must take as it goes further. We must determine the scope of “culture”, and then understand our Christian task with regard to it. That task is a matter of obedience — “certain concrete acts in conformance to the material contents of divine commandments” — and right disposition. Recalling section 2, we see that this programme is one of living first and foremost.

4. Although many theologians have pontificated about the relation of Christ and Culture — choosing one at the expense of the other, rejecting any relation between them, or trumpeting a Kuyperian “Lord of Culture” message — none of them has contributed anything to defining what “culture” and “Christ” mean.

5. Rather than triangulating or otherwise reacting to the various “Christ and Culture” theorists mentioned in §4 above, Schilder proposes that we instead “put ourselves under the preaching of the Scriptures.” The Scriptures are not about “Christianity and cultural life” — not about an “ism” and its achievements. Nor are the Scriptures even about “Jesus and cultural life” unless Jesus is rightly known as God’s anointed. So the Scriptures are, rather, about “Jesus Christ and cultural life.” Schilder then proposes to examine what is wrong with talking about “Christianity and culture” and “Jesus and culture.”

6. First, then, the question is not one of “Christianity and cultural life”. And this, no matter what sense of “Christianity” we understand. For if we take “Christianity” as the “community” of Christians, we are begging the question of what ‘community” means. Schilder distinguishes between two different sorts of communion, denominating them by Greek terms. Sunousia is, as its roots indicate, mere “being together.” This is the sort of fellowship that holds even between believers and unbelievers: insofar as both are “in the world”, cheek by jowl, they have sunousia. Lot and the men of Sodom had sunousia. So too do believers and hypocrites in the church. So the effects upon cultural life of Christian sunousia with the world could be discussed.

Alternatively, we might ask about the effects of a different sort of communion, namely koinonia, which is not merely cheek-by-jowl coexistence, but is “unity in conformity with God’s Word.” And if so, who does the bringing together? If it is Man’s autonomous task to bring about this fellowship, then we are dependent on Man’s actions for the existence of Christianity-as-koinonia. If, on the other hand, it is God’s doing, then he has already made koinonia both in principle and in fact. In principle: he has set forth the only lasting means of unity, to be fully realized at the consummation, but yet partially and progressively over time. In fact: the church is a present reality.

Or perhaps by “Christianity” we mean the visible result of Christian communion. Again Schilder wonders how this is to be understood. By what standard are we to select the “communion” that we identify as Christian and inspect for results? Are we bound to history and tradition? Or are we at the mercy of the ever-changing present, so that there is a new “Christianity” with every era, and these various “Christianities” have nothing to do with each other because there is no connection with what went before?

Schilder then gives reasons why it is impossible to take “Christianity” as the starting point in an investigation of cultural life:

6a. It is impossible first because “Christianity” — considered either as the community of Christians, or its results — is a mere factual datum, and not a standard. “Christianity” does not command or direct us in fashioning our cultural material. For such direction we need the speaking Christ known to us in Scripture. He interprets the Law for us, and explains God to us. He does so perfectly because he is sinless, and thus provides an unblemished standard for behavior and action.

“Christianity” on the other hand, whether as a historical datum or a idea, without Christ, must result in sin and the violation of the Law, establishing a Tower of Babel. (This is, appropriately enough, Schilder’s symbol for cultural endeavor that is against Christ, and therefore destined for futility and destruction.) The various philosophies that have dared to talk about Christianity and culture — historical materialism, positivism, (Kantian) idealism, Barthianism — have all made this same mistake of discussing Christianity without the Christ who commands and directs. Christianity is thus a mere fact, a datum, from which no doctrine follows. It is like a thunderstorm, a datum to be accounted for in theories. The worshippers of Wodan (Odin) and the meteorologist have utterly different theories, yet both account for the fact of thunder. So too has Christianity fared at the hands of the philosophical theorists. Far from serving as a normative and commanding foundation for cultural life, Christianity has been a mere datum to be accounted for.

And besides being a mere datum, such Christianity always looks very different depending on its contemporary cultural processes. Schilder gives an example from the history of the Netherlands: during the Nazi domination, Christianity was a matter for the “Department of Culture”, to which all artists had to report. This was a situation in which Christianity might have appeared to be narrowly concerned with Europe, and wholly subordinate to the larger concerns of National Socialism. Other scenarious and circumstances have of course been less offensive and more congenial, but in all of them Christianity is no less conditioned by “local, national, anthropological, and even climatological types.” The result is that there is no possible definition of “Christianity.” It is “a sphinx.”

6b. And even to the extent that Christianity is not a “sphinx,” but can be clearly and precisely identified, when we look to see how it has engaged in cultural life, we find that it has done so “in a high-handed and arbitrary way and with many shortcomings and sins.” The papacy has at various times tried to become “a real and direct cultural force.” Its sins and failings are evident. (I expect Schilder wants to remind us of the abuses especially of the Renaissance papacy, which had a very direct and aggressive cultural role, but a corrupt one.) On the other hand, there is pietistic Christianity with its cultural retreatism. Which sort, then, is to be the standard? It will not do to say, “The one which represents the majority!” For “justice, power, health, healing gifts” can all belong to a minority.

So we get nowhere by trying to take “Christianity” as our starting point, because to do so is at best to consider a body without a head directing it. Or rather, it is to consider many different bodies and many different ideas of the body, none of which can lay any claim to exclusive consideration. In the next section, Schilder will show that the conception of Jesus apart from his title as Christ is likewise wholly inadequate to answer any questions about cultural life.

7. So we cannot discuss “Christianity and cultural life” without involving ourselves in a morass of unanswered problems about what “Christianity” is. But we also cannot discuss “Jesus and cultural life” unless we accept his self-explanation in the Scriptures on his authority. Otherwise, we make him into no less a sphinx than “Christianity” was.

That is to say, faith is required for the proper apprehension of Jesus. The rejection of his Messiahship is itself the most fundamental and total misapprehension of his person. Schilder briefly treats the relationship between faith and knowledge by repudiating the rhyming maxim Ubi vides, non est fides (“Where you see, there is not faith”). Even when he was on earth bodily, those who saw the “historical jesus” misunderstood him if they did not have faith. Schilder thus proposes instead Ubi vides, ibi fides. Visio quaerit fidem. Fides quaerit intellectum. “Where you see, there is faith. [Proper] seeing demands faith. [Proper] faith demands understanding.” The Gospel is not concerned with a biography of the “historical Jesus”, because such a Jesus is a mere object of intellectual inquiry for believers and unbelievers alike. Rather, the Jesus of the gospels speaks in parables, and he reveals the meaning of these parables only to those who afterwards ask him in faith.

The requirement that we understand Jesus as Messiah actually precedes Jesus’ arrival on the scene, for the OT revealed his office before the New Testament revealed his human person. More than that, his office as Messiah was defined before the culturally and historically conditioned circumstances of his human appearance. (In a footnote, Schilder explains that both Christos, “Messiah” and Jesus/Joshua, “savior”, are really office-names, but that “Christ” has more specific reference to His suitability and legitimacy in his task as savior. All this is straight Heidelberg Catechism.)

“No one is able to characterize the work of ‘Jesus’ in a faithful way, as long as it has not become clear to him from the whole of the Scriptures what Jesus came to accomplish as the Christ and therefore, as God’s office-bearer par excellence, he has to do in, and for, and also with the cosmos.” This sentence is momentous. It has a converse that is just as momentous: Anyone who mischaracterizes the work of Jesus Christ in, and for, and with the cosmos must for that very reason misunderstand the whole of the Scriptures.

8. Schilder catalogues the shipwrecks of Jesus-concepts, all of which consider him as something other than the Messiah as that title is explained in the Scriptures. Marxists, Ernst Haeckel, Constantine the Great, Oswald Spengler, Hegel, various churchmen from Lambeth… all have their Jesus-concepts. But all are mistaken, are using Jesus for their own purposes, rather than bowing to His purposes.

9. This chapter might be one of Schilder’s most controversial. In it, he has squarely in his sights the use of the gospels’ accounts of Jesus by other (especially Reformed) writers on “Christ and Culture.”

Now just two nights ago, I finished Dave Hegeman’s Plowing in Hope. I enjoyed it greatly, and am in large sympathy with its view of culture, and its program for Christians to participate faithfully in making a new Christian culture on the ashes of the one which Modernism has confounded. I found particularly stirring Hegeman’s Biblical treatment of the salvation of our works, so that we will indeed hear Händel’s music and see Rembrandt’s paintings after God raises us from the dead. And if we have been faithful, we may find some of our own works have accompanied us. This is something I have believed for a while now, and it was delightful to read Hegeman’s defense of the idea. Plowing in Hope is an excellent presentation of a Kuyperian worldview without the most objectionable elements of Kuyper himself. (It is thankfully free of western-centrism, for instance.)

NOTE: Kate Seredy – Hungarian children’s story, The Good Master, in which a certain town is inhabited only by people who have made something lasting.

But I fear Schilder has it in for someone in this chapter of Christ and Culture, and near as I can tell, that someone is probably Kuyper and his followers to this day. Schilder has little patience with the use of the details of the gospels as proof for the licitness of “spoiling the Egyptians.” That is not the significance of details like the costly perfume with which Mary Magdalene anoints him, nor of the gifts of the Magi. For by mining these details to get warrant for various ideas about culture, we miss the real point of them, which is also the real point culturally speaking: namely, Jesus is the Christ.

It is as Christ that Jesus impacts culture, and not as a Kuyperian culture-theoretician avant la lettre. By way of driving this point home, Schilder reminds us of the generally Kuyperian tendency to form Christian associations for various purposes (Christian labor unions, hospitals, political parties, …the Work Research Foundation?), and points out that Jesus did not establish anything of this sort. Not that such associations are bad, but that Schilder wants to focus on what the gospels actually teach regarding Jesus Christ and culture.

Schilder calls attention to the momentary nature of Christ’s ministry, as it were: “He heals lepers sporadically, but does not establish leper houses.” Not even the apostles can be characterized as great culture-makers in the “high” sense of that word, according to Schilder: they “issue books, gospels, that show a complete lack of any artistic style and that are written in the common language of the people.” (I would take issue with this characterization, as for the past 5 years, I have seen more and more that the gospels are magnificently written from a stylistic and artistic point of view. Daube and Wright, inter alios, have taught me this. It might not be a stretch to say that there is no ancient literature of comparable length that is so rich.)

10. Having shown the deficiency of any attempt to derive specific mandates about culture from the details of Christ’s earthly ministry, Schilder goes on to show the deficiency of any attempt to derive anything from the totality or big picture of His ministry as well. For Christ was born and lived in a time of frightful syncretism and Hellenism in the arts. Herod’s temple, we well recall, was a monstrosity of Roman architecture, with its Corinthian columns. Hellenic music was on the rise. The Jews were contributing little or nothing to “the plastic arts.” Must not He have been grieved in his Jewish, proto-Kuyperian heart when He beheld these things? No, we get not a word of it. He is not concerned with even the biggest cultural picture, any more than He is with the cultural details — or not in the way we Kuyperians would have it.

He does not propound any theory of culture that might be taught and discussed as Jesus-ism (Kuyperism?). He does not, indeed, teach anything new at all. He is the greatest of the prophets of Israel, speaking only what is given Him from above, come to fulfill the Torah, not to destroy or to add to it.

We must stop asking such questions, Schilder says. For it is only as the Messiah — and not as a teacher on culture! — that Jesus can be understood in His own proper relation to culture.

11. So the problem is Jesus Christ and cultural life. We are concerned with Jesus, the savior; but more, Jesus the anointed savior, i.e. the one set apart specifically for this task, and who always attains His goal in His task. And it is when we have understood Jesus the Christ that we will also be able to understand the concept of culture (recall that this concept was shown to be a sphinx in 3e-f).

Schilder has spent an amazing amount of time hammering on this point, but I believe it is all warranted. I also believe that N.T. Wright’s approach to the Christian worldview is the most successful answer to Schilder’s demands here: we start by understanding Jesus as the Christ, i.e. in terms of His calling, defined by the OT Scriptures. (For an excellent discussion of this, see NTW’s MP3 audio lecture, Jesus and God.) As Wright says, “Whenever the church forgets its call to engage in the task of understanding more and more fully who Jesus actually was, idolatry and ideology lie close at hand.”

12. The Scriptures are the only way we can identify Jesus Christ as both saviour and anointed one. His pleromatic anointing (i.e. his anointing as the fulfillment of history) together with his unique dyophysite Person, made him unique in all of history and different from every other man. Thus his office was to be the second Adam, to establish a new humanity, not from one blood as a living soul, but from one Spirit as a quickening pneuma, a πνεῦμα ζῳοποιον (1 Cor. 15). He rules over men because He purchased them with His blood sacrifice.

Thus, all the details that are riddles, and bound to be misinterpreted when we come to them looking for guidance about cultural matters — the gifts of the Magi, His anointing with perfume, etc. — make sense and become clear when seen as part of Christ’s unique office. He did not live in order to provide an example, but rather, in order that He might be become the King of a new humanity. We are now, says Schilder the postmillenialist, in the “thousand years” between his Ascension and his Second Coming. Now Jesus Christ works through His disciples to bring about Christian culture in the midst of the world. In this period of history, Christ will complete and perfect His work.

13. This concept of office that is so essential to understanding Jesus Christ also turns out to be essential to understanding the first Adam as well. Schilder stresses that Adam received relevation from God within the communion of His covenant, and that by this special revelation — God’s spoken instructions — Adam was made a purposeful office-bearer, “God’s fellow-worker.” Thus, Christ as office-bearer returns to the principles given to Adam in order to begin history again, returning to the stoicheia, the elements, the “ABC” of the world order. He does this in order to intervene, to keep the “plot” of history from being worked out to the conclusion determined by the action of the first Adam at the beginning, and direct it to a better ending. He is thus very much the hinge on which history turns.

I wonder whether Schilder had the work of K. Sietsma, The Idea of Office in mind when he made these remarks.

14. Schilder now discusses the two-fold activity of Christ. First, he talks about the reconciliation (καταλλαγή) which God was in Christ bringing about (2 Cor. 5:19). Schilder says that God’s hatred of sin cannot comport with his eternal mercy unless there is both punishment meted out for sin and obedience rendered to the decrees. This is a very careful way of putting things — one which represents a marked advance over much popular TULIP-Calvinist talk about the atonement. Mark Horne has blogged about this recently: some seem to think that the most basic fact about God is his holiness, which demands that sin be punished, and that God could have simply destroyed the creation and damned Adam and Eve, and still would have been no less God. But Horne suggests that on this view the holiness of God steamrolls His love. Schilder very wisely portrays the attributes as being in harmony, and properly suggests that Christ’s atoning death is the manifestation of this harmony of attributes. After all, the Apostle John did not write, “For God was so ticked off at the world that He sent His only-begotten Son…”

Second, Christ’s activity after His judicial offering of Himself as ransom is the activity of His Holy Spirit. By the Spirit, he condemns the cultural endeavors of the wicked to destruction, and at the same time, by the same Spirit, he empowers the righteous to be the true Humanity and fulfill the cultural mandate given once to Adam. That task is nothing less than the maturation of the world. Note well that Schilder does not think that world-maturation is a mere matter of “time like an ever-rolling stream”, or something that God causes to happen to the world willy-nilly (volens, nolens — i.e. “whether it likes it or not”). No, the ripening of the world to maturity is something that Schilder speaks of as the activity of the Son of God by His Spirit — an activity of the totus Christus, thus of the Christ and His righteous people – and not equally of the wicked. (Note that this undercuts the basic assumptions of Kuyper’s formulation of “common grace.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use the term, or be thankful to Kuyper for his work in discussing the idea. But it does represent a significant correction to Kuyper’s system.)

Schilder thus distinguishes the two phases of Christ’s two-fold activity. He is satisfying God’s justice and mercy by bringing about punishment and faithful obedience; He did this on the cross, and He does it still by the Spirit.

Thus far, the old posts from 8 years ago. Good to have them in an accessible place online, since Upsaid seems to be completely gone. Now, as I have time, I will attempt to add to this until I finish summarizing Schilder’s book.


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