by Steve Bishop
Reality is multi-aspectual. Consider a garden and a gardener. A gardener is faced with many decisions when beginning to garden. How many plants will be planted (numerical), what space will the garden take up (spatial), what changes will need to take place – what seasonal elements will need to be considered (kinematic). Will fertilisers or pesticides need to be used – will these be chemical or organic (physical)? Will the relationship between plants and insects be considered? What flowers are best for bees that will be required to pollinate plants (biotic)? Plants have different fragrances (sensitive). Consideration will need to be given to how different parts of the garden fit together and if the type of soil is suitable for the plants (analytical). Plants have names and horticulture has its own terminology (lingual). Will there be space in the garden to entertain friends (social)? Will the garden be too expensive to maintain (economic)? Are some plants becoming rare and need to be protected? How will the garden look? Is it pleasing in terms of being well proportioned, does it show beauty and harmony (aesthetic)? Will planning permission be needed to add or remove walls or outbuildings (juridical)? Will any changes made offend the neighbours? Does the garden show love for plants and animals as well as humans (ethical)? The overriding question is why do we garden? Is it to produce a symbol of wealth and expertise, or is it to bring glory to God (confessional)?
The idea of the multifacetedness of reality is to be found in the thought and writings of the Dutch lawyer and philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977). Dooyeweerd was one of the major architects of what is known as Reformational philosophy.
Dooyeweerd is one of several Dutch Calvinists who were associated with philosophy. The notable others were his brother-in-law Vollenhoven, Antheunis Janse (1890-1960), S.U. Zuidema (1906-1975), K. J. Popma (1905-1986), the S. African H. G. Stoker (1899-1993), J.P.A. Mekkes (1898-1987), and Hendrik Van Riessen (1911-2000).
The origins of this philosophy can be traced to ideas first formulated by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and the one-time Dutch prime minister Abraham Kuyper
Guillaume Groen van Prinster (1801-1876)
Groen Van Prinster was an aristocratic Dutchman. He studied at the Calvinistic University of Leyden. He became a Christian in Brussels under the preaching of J. M. Merle d’Aubigne. His Unbelief and Revolution (1847) was an important work. He argued that the elimination of Christianity from public life could only result in violent revolution. He was the founder of the Dutch Anti-revolutionary Party (the revolution in question being the French). The party never really flourished until Groen found in Abraham Kuyper a natural successor.
Some of Groen’s embryonic ideas were taken up and developed by Kuyper. These included:
- The necessity of Christian education and “the freedom of religion with respect to our children”
- Sphere sovereignty
- The need for a Christian political party
- The impact of modernism on society, and tied to this
- The negative role of the worldview behind the French Revolution
Abraham Kuyper (1837 1920)
Kuyper is perhaps the best known of those associated with the Reformational perspective. He was a church pastor and reformer; he took over the leadership of the Anti-Revolutionary party from his mentor Groen Van Prinsterer and eventually became Prime Minister (1901-05). He founded a Christian university, The Free University (VU, Amsterdam), and was editor of two newspapers. He also found time to write over 200 books and over 2000 biblical meditations.
His main works in English include The Principles of Sacred Theology (1980), The Work of the Holy Spirit (1946), Particular Grace (2001),the 1898 Stone Lectures: Lectures on Calvinism (1931) and the 12 volumes that comprise his “Collected Works on Public Theology” which have recently been completed by the Abraham Translation Society and published by Lexham Press.
In his Lectures on Calvinism, he developed the idea of Calvinism as a Weltanschauung, a whole ‘world-and-life-view’; his Calvinism was not a narrow five points.
It was Kuyper’s views on sphere sovereignty, the centrality of the heart, and Christianity as a world-and-life view that were the catalysts for Herman Dooyeweerd and others to develop a Christian philosophy.
The first generation
Sitting at what was once Kuyper’s desk at the Abraham Kuyper Stitching reading Kuyper’s meditations Dooyeweerd was struck by one of Kuyper’s insights, which changed the direction of his life. In a 1973 television interview Dooyeweerd observed:
“And what really gripped me was that Kuyper had rediscovered the Biblical truth that the centre of our human existence lies in our heart, something that had been completely lost in scholasticism. For scholasticism the heart was usually equated with our feelings and the seat of our emotions. They used expressions like, ‘Not only with the head but also with the heart’. The head represented the intellect, and the heart the emotions and feelings. But Kuyper said, I’m here talking about the heart, but I do not mean the seat of our emotions, but rather that central point of your existence where God works in you. At this focal point in your being life is still undifferentiated. He used the example of the root and the many stems and the branches that come up out of the root. He did not mean the wide-spread branches but the very root of our being. In that way the Bible uses the word heart succinctly.
“I can say that this discovery was a turning point in my life. When I began to dwell on this idea, I realized that this insight would mean a complete overturning of my view of humanity and of the whole of reality in which we live, since all reality comes to a concentrated focal point only in our humanity.”
It was this and conversations with his brother-in-law on the dunes in The Hague that led to the development of a Christian philosophy.
In 1926 Dooyeweerd became a professor of law at the VU, Amsterdam. It was there that he completed his De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee (WdW) (Amsterdam: 1935-36). This was translated into English in 1953 as The New Critique of Theoretical Thought. This was Dooyeweerd’s magnum opus and set out the basis for a Christian philosophy.
Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd’s brother-in-law, was a contemporary of Dooyeweerd at the VU, Amsterdam University (1911-1941). He studied classics, philosophy, and theology. His dissertation in Dutch was on the ‘Philosophy of mathematics from a theistic point of view” (1918).
He married Hermina Maria Dooyeweerd on 10 October 1918 and became a pastor in the Gereformeerde Kerk in Oostkappelle several days later. In May 1921 he became a pastor in The Hague and had many discussions with Dooyeweerd. Vollenhoven then on from 1926 to 1962 became professor of Philosophy at the VU, Amsterdam. There he developed an approach to the history of philosophy that became known as the Consistent Problem-Historical Method (CPHM).
A one-time student of Vollenhoven, Calvin Seerveld (b 1930), describes Vollenhoven’s approach to the history of philosophy:
“Vollenhoven’s method arose out of his long preoccupation with the Pre-Socratics. Like Heidegger he believes that the fountainhead of all philosophy lies among the early Greeks before Plato. Unlike Heidegger he does not find it to be a Garden of Eden which we must recapture; it is rather the source of theoretical misery whose sins have worked themselves out to the third and fourth and the hundredth generation. And that is Vollenhoven’s method for writing the history of philosophy: tracing the sins of the Pre-Socratics out to the hundredth generation”.
Bennie van der Walt in his biography of Janse remarks that we should see Janse as one of the founders of Reformational philosophy – unfortunately, his role has often been overlooked, perhaps because Janse was not an academic and held no post at the VU. Janse was primarily a schoolteacher. He began corresponding with Vollenhoven regarding Vollenhoven’s thesis when he sent him a long list of queries. They subsequently wrote a paper together. Janse wrote several articles in the journal De School met de Bijbel which were later published as Inheiding in de Calvinistische Filosofie [Introduction to Calvinistic Philosophy]. Janse’s work on anthropology was particularly influential among Reformational scholars. Janse not only influenced Vollenhoven but also André Troost and K.J. Popma. In 1931 Janse became a Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau.
The second generation of Reformational philosophers
J.P.A. Mekkes (1898-1987) – was an officer in the Dutch army. He was imprisoned in Stannislau prisoner war camp by the Nazis. There he introduced Hans Bookmaker to Dooyeweerd’s work. After WWII he worked for the Dutch Secret Service before being appointed in 1947 to the Chair of Reformational Philosophy at Rotterdam and then at Leiden University.
K.J. Popma (1905-1986) – from 1954 he held the Chair of Reformational philosophy in Utrecht and Groningen. He retired in 1974.
S.U. Zuidema (1906-1975) – held the chair of Calvinistic philosophy at the University of Utrecht from 1948 before teaching philosophy at the Free University (1954 onwards). He had also been a minister in the Reformed Churches (1931-1934) and a missionary in Indonesia (1935-1945). During WWII he was held at a Japanese prisoner of war camp on Java. His doctoral dissertation was on the nominalistic philosophy of William of Ockham (1936) and was completed at the VU, Amsterdam. In 1948 he took up the Chair of Christian Philosophy at the University of Utrecht and the VU.
Hendrik Van Riessen (1911-2000) studied philosophy at the VU, Amsterdam under. Before the WWII he worked for Bell Telephone. He was an active participant in the Underground Movement during the Nazi occupation. From 1951 he taught Christian philosophy at the Technological Institutes in Delft and Eindhoven. When Vollenhoven retired in 1963 Van Riessen took up the chair of systematic philosophy and the theory of culture at the VU.
H. G. Stoker (1899-1993) was born in Johannesburg and taught at the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education from 1925 to 1970. He served on the board of the journal Philosophia Reformata. He was imprisoned for his anti-England stance and his pro-Afrikaans and pro-German sympathies for a short time during WWII.
Pierre Marcel (1910—1992) was a leading French Reformed Christian theologian. He was influenced by Auguste Lecerf (1873–1943), who had suggested that Marcel study Herman Dooyeweerd’s Christian philosophy. Marcel was a pastor of the Reformed Church of France at St. Germain-en-Laye for about fifty years. He was for a while the secretary of the French Bible Society. In 1950 he founded La Revue Réformée and was its editor. Marcel was also an associate professor at the Free Faculty of Reformed Theology in Aix-en-Provence.
H. Evan Runner (1918-2002) – studied under Vollenhoven at the VU, Amsterdam. He was the professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids until his retirement in 1981. He was influential in spreading Reformational Philosophy in North America and Mexico.
You Should Know Reformational Philosophy
THE CONTOURS OF REFORMATIONAL PHILOSOPHY
Reformational philosophy has provided many important applied insights in, for example, aesthetics, art, dogmatics, economics, education, evangelism, feminism, football (soccer), landscape planning, law, mathematics, natural sciences, philosophy, psychology, technology, social sciences … .  This alone provides ample evidence of the comprehensiveness of this perspective.
The number of technical terms used by Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven and others has added to the opacity of their ideas. Although as with any academic science, specialised terminology is only to be expected. Dooyeweerd recognised that he was deviating from what were traditional approaches and as such understanding it may need a “paradigm shift”.
The starting point of Reformational philosophy is in the creator rather than in the creation. It starts from the sovereignty of God rather than reason, thought, logic, observation, common sense, or any other created aspect. Several themes dominate Reformational philosophy most of these arise out of the sovereignty of God, sphere sovereignty and the necessary distinction between creator and creation.
Bernard Zysla in his introduction in Kalsbeek’s Contours of Christian Philosophy (1975, p. 31) writes: “the most important premise of this philosophy lies in its assumption that reality is created by God whose will is the sovereign and redeeming law for reality”.
An Emphasis on God’s sovereignty
Abraham Kuyper famously said: ‘There is no square inch in the whole domain of human existence, of which Christ, the sovereign Lord of all, does not say, “Mine”.’ Across the spectrum of life and culture, Reformational philosophy is motivated to assert the lordship of Christ in scholarly fashion.
Following Scripture, Kuyper acknowledged that ALL authority has been conferred on Christ. No human authority, wherever it is exercised, is original or total, but always: delegated and specific. Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty recognises diverse, independent, interwoven spheres in human life – and God sovereign over them all.
This means that the norms for a church are different to the norms for a business. The church should not be run as a business and a business should not be run as a church.
Kuyper’s square inch quote embodies the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 and Genesis 2:15. This “subdue, rule, till and keep” is a command to develop culture, to unfold potentialities latent in the good cosmos God created. It is about expressing the kingdom of Christ in all areas of life; no areas are exempt. It implies that although the creation is good, it needs to be developed and opened up; as someone once put it: the garden is to be developed into a city.
Through common grace shown to creation as creation, that dominion over nature mandated before the fall can be realised after it. Common grace has a twofold effect: on the one hand, it curbs the effects of sin and restrains the deeds of fallen humanity; on the other hand, it upholds the ordinances of creation and provides the basis for Christian cultural involvement. Common grace provides the foundation for culture. The cultural mandate to develop and fill the earth was not rescinded after the fall into sin. Therefore, cultural withdrawal is not an option for Christians.
The antithesis marks a difference between those who held to a Christian starting point and those who did not. The kingdom-rule of God is everywhere contested by the parasitic rebellion of Satan. A cosmic, spiritual struggle rages even within an individual believer’s heart! A common commitment to Jesus Christ marks out the people of God, but this is no private and individual matter. Living in the world, they are not willingly ruled by the world’s values. A difference in worldview attaches to their hold on Christ. Principles diverge. There is a noetic (relating to knowledge) antithesis between those who start with submission to God and those who do not.
This is, in part, one reason for Kuyper’s advocacy of other Christian institutions than the church. A Christian political party has different starting points than one based on naturalistic lines. Different foundations require different out-workings. Commitment to Christ can’t be accommodated to naturalism or any other non-Christian philosophy.
Church as institute and as organism
Kuyper used these metaphors to illustrate an important distinction in our experience. As institution, the church is organisation, sacraments, ministers; as organism it invades the world: Christians, the body of Christ, at work in society, strengthened and served by the church as institute. The church as institute does not run schools, universities, coffee shops or trade unions; the church as organism may. For Kuyper, church is not just about Sunday services or missions; it has every facet of life and culture to reform.
For the church to be truly both institution and organism, the role of the institutional leaders must be to equip the church as organism to do works of service in the marketplace, the classroom, business, politics, laboratory and so forth.
Three types of critique
Dooyeweerd in 1960 in his In the Twilight of Western Thought discusses the need for a radical critique of the autonomy of theoretical thought. He maintains that the neutrality of theoretical thought and reason have become dogma. It has become unchallenged.
To get to the root of the issue Dooyeweerd proposes what he terms “a transcendental critique”, a critique into the inner structure of thought, to examine the necessary conditions for thought and reason.
Dooyeweerd identifies three types of critique. These are transcendent, immanent, and transcendental critiques.
Transcendent critique – this approach takes one’s own view and identifies where other views differ, it is a view from the outside. A transcendent critique of Marxism from a Christian perspective would identify where Marxism differs from Christianity, for example, a Marxist may deny the incarnation of Christ. A transcendent critique begins from one’s own starting position.
Immanent critique – this is a critique from the inside. This is an approach that would produce much more of a dialogue. It assumes that the view is correct and then identifies where, for example, the view may be inconstant or incoherent.
A transcendental critique – this examines the conditions that makes something possible. What makes thought possible? What conditions are needed for theoretical thought? What Dooyeweerd does in his transcendental critique is to show that the conditions that make thought possible are religious in nature. Theoretical thought cannot have a starting point in theoretical thought itself! It cannot originate from reason. Dooyeweerd identifies this starting point in what he describes as religious ground-motives.
As part of his transcendental critique, Dooyeweerd introduces some important distinctions such as naïve or pre-theoretical thought and theoretical thought and subject and object. On subject and object – see below. Simply put pre-theoretical thinking takes in reality as a whole but theoretical thinking analyses reality from one aspect. For example, a gardener may look at a plant in its unity as a plant; whereas a biologist may analyse the plant in terms of its biotic aspect. When we see a sunset, we admire it as a sunset rather than in terms of the movement of the earth on its axis and its movement around the sun.
Dooyeweerd identified four religious ground-motives that have shaped the development of Western culture. These ground motives are
- form-matter (Greek)
- nature-grace (Mediaeval)
- nature-freedom (Enlightenment) and
- creation-fall-redemption (Biblical Christian).
These will be dealt with in more detail in a further piece.
To describe the observed unity and diversity of reality, Dooyeweerd identified fifteen different modal aspects. They can be detected in the task of gardening as illustrated in part one. F. Nigel Lee suggests we can see these aspects in the creation story. He writes:
“Primordial man [sic], the earthly lord of nature, created as the image of the Lord God of nature, was to analyze natural phenomena. Man was to dominate and therefore also to count and to measure the fowl and the fish and every living thing—a mathematical task; he was to proceed from Eden and to replenish or fill the earth—a spatial as well as a kinematical (or movemental) task; he was to subdue and to have dominion over the earth (a physical task), over the plants (a botanical task), and over the animals (a zoological task). And man was also to react to his own natural feelings, such as his desire for a mate when he saw the animals pairing off together—a psychological task.
“But primordial man, the image of the Lord God of culture, was also to cultivate creation and himself as a part thereof. And this he would do in his pursuit of the humanitarian sciences, amongst other things. For man would pursue logic as, for example, he reflected on the differences between the various kinds of trees; he would make history as he multiplied and filled the earth; he would develop linguistics as he gave names to the animals, and he would expand his social life in his companionship with his wife.
“Furthermore, man would practice economics in his exploitation of gold and bdellium and the onyx stone; he would develop the art of aesthetics as he dressed the garden of Eden and the discipline of law as he kept it safely from the illegal transgression of the devil. And finally, we also see Adam’s ethical task in his love of his wife. In every respect, then, primordial man was a wise philosopher in his total-view of all created reality” (F. N. Lee, A Christian Introduction to the History of Philosophy Craig Press, 1975, p. 7 – italics added).
They are not arbitrary. The order of them is also significant. The higher modes presuppose the lower. For example, the economic mode presupposes a social and a lingual mode. Without the social mode what point an economic, and without a lingual how could economic values be communicated? This is not to suggest that the higher modes are more important or that the lower modes are more basic. Each mode equally depends on God. They are successive rather than hierarchical.
Each thing has one aspect that is so important that it characterises it, this is called its leading function. The leading function of humans is faith; for animals, sensitive; for plants, biotic; for rocks physical and so forth.
Subject and object
A distinction is made between subject and object. Every thing has a leading function or a qualifying aspect. In modes higher than its leading function (sometimes called its superstratum) it has an object function. For all aspects lower than its leading function (sometimes called the substratum) it has a subject function.
For a tree, its leading function, or qualifying aspect, is biotic. Hence, for aspects lower than the biotic (i.e. numerical, spatial, kinematic and physical) it has a subject function, it functions ‘actively’: it has a size which can be measured, it takes up an amount of space, it sways in the breeze, it has certain physical properties, it is a living thing. In the higher modes, it has an object function, it functions ‘passively’: it can have certain things done to it, but it of itself cannot do them. Its size, type and colour can be perceived, but it cannot perceive itself (sensitive); it cannot name itself but it can be named (lingual); it cannot think, but it can be thought about (analytical); it has a certain economic value but it cannot engage in economics (economic); it can be possessed but it cannot possess (juridicial); and so on.
Hence, all things have either a subject or an object function in all modal aspects. Humans alone function actively as subjects in all modal aspects.
Contemporary idols are not things we put on the mantelpiece; they tend to be ideas or concepts rather than objects. Think of: economic growth (at all costs); material prosperity; exam success; family; nation; the idea that science and technology will solve all our problems; the list is almost endless.
Dooyeweerd’s modal aspects reveal much about modern idolatry: the –isms. Idolatry is probably at play when one or more of them is given a priority over the rest. Marxism, for example, overemphasises the economic aspect, materialism the physical, radical feminism the biotic, rationalism the logical and so on.
Idolatry comes from our being worshippers: we are created with a need for worship. Be we Christian, Buddhist, new agers, modernist, postmodernist, agnostic or atheist, we can’t escape it; it’s the way God made us. There may be no public or ceremonial aspect to our worship, but it is worship nonetheless. Anything that’s taken to be “just there”, (a non-dependent reality on which the rest of reality depends like matter, number or logic) is thereby given the status of divinity according to the reformational philosopher, Roy Clouser.
One of the biggest problems for Christians who want to develop and embrace a biblical worldview is dualism: we tend to split life into two structural levels, higher and lower and to blame the lower (and not ourselves) for the world’s evils. Examples are sacred/ profane, spiritual/ secular, grace/ nature. Reformational philosophy sees creation as integrally comprised in God’s purpose of redemption and restitution.
Structure and direction
The structure/ direction distinction is an important insight. Structure refers to the modal make-up of created things; direction refers to the pull of sin or grace on it. In fall and redemption, only the direction and not the structure of creation has altered.
Much more could be said – writing a summary of Reformational philosophy is rather like trying to put the ocean in a bucket! Several introductions to Dooyeweerd have been written – see further reading below – but there is no substitute for reading Dooyeweerd himself. The best introductory works by Dooyeweerd would include:
- “Christian Philosophy: An Exploration” from Christian Philosophy and the Meaning of History (Series B, Volume 13)
- Roots of Western Culture
- Part 1 of Encyclopedia of the Science of Law (Series A, Volume 8/1)
- In the Twilight of Western Thought
Some of these are available from https://herman-dooyeweerd.blogspot.com/
Bishop, Steve 2022. Herman Dooyeweerd’s Christian Philosophy Foundations at press
Clouser, Roy 2002. Is there a Christian view of everything from nuts to soup?
Clouser, Roy A. 2005 (2nd edn). The Myth of Religious Neutrality. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press
Clouser, R. A 2010. Brief Sketch of the Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd. Axiomathes 20:3–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-009-9075-2 available here: https://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/Clouser/RCBriefSketch.pdf
Hayward, Rudi 2020. Tasks and Cosmos: An Introduction to Reformational Philosophy. Available at http://reformationalintermezzo.blogspot.com/2018/01/contents-for-introduction-to.html
Kalsbeek, L. 1975. Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought. Toronto: Wedge.
Ouweneel, Willem 2014. Wisdom for Thinkers. Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia Press.
Spier, J.M. 1973. An Introduction to Christian Philosophy. Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press.
Roques, Mark (no date) Crocodiles and philosophy
Strauss, D.F.M. 2021. The Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd. Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia Press. An earlier version of this is accessible at: https://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/Strauss/DFMS2015Dooyeweerd.pdf
Troost, Andree 2012. What is Reformational Philosophy? An Introduction to the Cosmonomic Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd. Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia Press.
Van der Walt, B.J. At the Cradle of Christian Philosophy. Potchefstroom: ICCA.
 Some of the material draws upon my “Herman Dooyeweerd’s Christian Philosophy” Foundations – at press.
 See, for instance, the lists here: https://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/subjects.htm
 This is not to suggest that modal aspects are derived directly from the Scriptures.
Steve Bishop is an independent researcher based in Wales, UK. He maintains the neo-Calvinist website www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk. He is a trustee of Thinking Faith Network and an Associate Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology. He earned his doctorate at the North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa (2019), supervised by Renato Coletto. He is the co-editor of On Kuyper: A Collection of Readings on the Life, Work & Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (Dordt Press, 2013).