Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

Herman Dooyeweerd’s Christian Philosophy

Steve Bishop


Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) was one of the foremost philosophers of the Netherlands. He developed a Christian philosophy based on the approach of Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. In this article, I provide a brief introduction to Dooyeweerd and outline the contours of his Christian philosophy. His philosophy was unique in that it started with the creator and his laws, rather than thought, reason, common sense, observation, logic or any other created aspect.

I. Introduction

Recent years have seen a resurgence in Abraham Kuyper studies. Kuyper’s legacy continues. One person who developed Kuyper’s views is Herman Dooyeweerd (7 October 1894 – 12 February 1977). Dooyeweerd was a Calvinist philosopher at the Free University, the university that Kuyper founded in 1881 (now known as the VU University Amsterdam).

Dooyeweerd is described as one of the foremost philosophers of the Netherlands. Paul B. Cliteur, president of the “Humanist League” in The Netherlands and professor of philosophy at the Technical University of Delft, wrote in 1994 in the newspaper Trouw:

Herman Dooyeweerd is undoubtedly the greatest Dutch philosopher of the twentieth century (…) a philosopher of international proportions.[1]

G.E. Langemeijer, the attorney general of the Dutch Appeal Court and chairman of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, also wrote in the newspaper Trouw that Dooyeweerd was “the most original philosopher Holland has ever produced, even Spinoza not excepted”.[2] Giorgio Del Vecchio, an Italian neo-Kantian philosopher, viewed Dooyeweerd as “the most profound, innovative, and penetrating philosopher since Kant”.[3] More recently, philosopher Alvin Plantinga stated, “Dooyeweerd’s work was comprehensive, insightful, profound, courageous, and quite properly influential”.[4] And yet, despite this applause, he is still a largely unfamiliar name.

Dooyeweerd developed, influenced by Kuyper, an integral Christian philosophy. For it to be a Christian philosophy Dooyeweerd maintains that it must abandon the autonomy of, and self-sufficiency of, reason. As Dooyeweerd stated in 1936:

Still quite young, the new [approach] has ventured to put forward a basic thesis by which it squarely opposes the traditional attitude of thought. It is this: philosophical theoretical thought is not self-sufficient in its own domain. The gist of this thesis is in the italicized words. They signify not only a radical break with the basic idea of modern humanism of the sovereignty of thought, but also a complete departure from the traditional synthetic standpoint of halfway Christian philosophy. [5]

Christian philosophy’s starting point is “creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ in communion with the Holy Spirit” and not in reason and rationality.[6] Part of the neglect of Dooyeweerd is the disbelief that such an entity as a Christian philosophy could exist. For many, Christian philosophy is an oxymoron. Before addressing this important issue, in what follows I hope to show what Dooyeweerd’s attempt to develop a Christian philosophy looks like.[7]

Dooyeweerd was the pioneer of the school of “the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea” (PCI) or more simply Reformational philosophy.[8] He originally described it as Calvinistic philosophy, but later used the term Christian to identify it.[9]

It is little known in Britain, but slightly more known in North America – partly as a result of the large Dutch immigration. Its systematic nature and the fact that a vast majority of works were written in Dutch (at least initially) has prevented it making much impact in the UK.[10]

Dooyeweerd acknowledges Kuyper’s “great and continuing influence”.[11] For Dooyeweerd, Kuyper’s greatest contribution was “to set the principle of sovereignty in its own sphere against the state absolutism that was dominant” in his time.[12] It was this notion of sphere sovereignty that Dooyeweerd developed along philosophical lines. He argues:

The way in which Kuyper worked it out was not theoretically or philosophically thought through.[13]

In his “Christian Philosophy: An Exploration” he pays tribute to Kuyper and emphasises: “Kuyper penetrated beyond the theological and philosophical issues of the day to the deepest and absolutely central spiritual forces that set human life and thought in motion”.[14]

It is worth noting that Dooyeweerd never regarded his work as the last word in philosophy:

It has been said so many times that repeating it almost becomes boring: The Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea does not pretend infallibility either in respect of its positive philosophical conceptions or with regard to its critique on traditional philosophy.[15]

A Reformed philosophy can only be philosophia reformanda. Dooyeweerd was not the only one involved in the development of Reformational philosophy. Another fundamental thinker was his brother-in-law D.H.Th. Vollenhoven (1892-1978) and a schoolteacher, Antheunis Janse (1890-1960).[16]

II. A brief biography

Dooyeweerd was born on 7th October 1894 in Amsterdam to Hermen Dooijeweerd (1850-1919), an accountant, and Maria Christina Spaling (1862-1948).[17] Dooyeweerd’s father was greatly influenced by Abraham Kuyper, consequently Dooyeweerd, from a young age, was soon immersed in Kuyperian thought and neo-Calvinism. He would have heard Kuyper’s newspaper articles read aloud at home and he attended the Gereformeerde Gymnasium in Amsterdam whose headmaster, Dr J. Woltjer (1849-1917) was an associate of Kuyper.[18]

In 1912 Dooyeweerd started attending the Vrije Universiteit (VU Universiteit Amsterdam) in Amsterdam where he studied law. However, he was disappointed with the VU as he expected to get a good grounding in the Kuyperian worldview[19] (the VU had been founded in 1880 by Kuyper, and in Dooyeweerd’s time, there were only three faculties).[20] In 1917 Dooyeweerd received his doctorate for a thesis entitled: “De Ministerraad in het Nederlandsche Staaatsrecht” (“The Cabinet of Ministers under Dutch Constitutional Law”), supervised by D. Fabius (1851-1931).

He then took up the post of assistant inspector in the tax office in Friesland.[21] In 1918 he moved to Leiden where he acted as an assistant to a municipal councillor. He was then asked to become the deputy head of the Public Health department in The Hague.

During this time, he studied legal philosophy independently. He found there were many conflicts between the different approaches to legal philosophy and this made him convinced there was a need for a “genuinely Christian and biblically based insight and foundation”.[22]

In 1920 Dooyeweerd began to correspond with his brother-in-law D.H.Th. Vollenhoven – who was also a graduate of the Vrije Universiteit and had married Dooyeweerd’s sister in 1918[23]. In these correspondences, Dooyeweerd expressed a desire to “work out the philosophical foundations of science and of developing a theistic position, along Calvinist lines”.[24]

In May 1921 Vollenhoven became a pastor in The Hague and this gave the two more time to talk together and develop their ideas. During this time Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven made a “discovery”,[25] which helped to set them on what Vollenhoven describes as a “more Scriptural way of thinking”.[26]

In October 1922 the newly founded research institute of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the party associated with Kuyper, appointed Dooyeweerd as the first director. This gave Dooyeweerd the time and opportunity to develop his philosophical ideas. He married Jantiena Wilhelmina Fernhout on 19th September 1924.

While working at the “Kuyper Institute”, reading one of Kuyper’s meditations on Pentecost, Dooyeweerd “discovered” a new Kuyper. In a 1973 interview, Dooyeweerd comments:

I was working in Kuyper’s old office, sitting at his enormous old desk, I noticed a stack of little booklets. I picked the first one that came to hand, which was Kuyper’s meditations about Pentecost. I would never have picked up such booklets to read earlier in my life, but I thought to myself that I should take a look at what he made of such meditations. I started to read and four hours later I was still there! I was so moved by what Kuyper had to say in these meditations that I realized that this was a completely different Kuyper from the one I knew from his theological works. In theology he is scholastic but not at all in these meditations.[27]

Dooyeweerd was struck by Kuyper’s account of the role of the heart as the religious centre of human existence: “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.”[28] He goes on to note the great effect this revelation had on him:

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.[29]

It was also during this time Dooyeweerd developed the idea of the religious root of theoretical thought – the idea that all the sciences are dependent on pre-theoretical presuppositions (ultimately, religious presuppositions rooted in the human heart). Kuyper’s mainly social vision was developed into an (ontological) account of the whole of reality with the philosophical rigour Kuyper was unable to give it.[30]

Dooyeweerd worked for the “Kuyper Institute” for four profitable years. He edited the Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde (ARS), the journal of the Kuyper Foundation and published numerous papers in it, fifteen of which (from the period 1924-1927) formed the basis of The Struggle for a Christian Politics.[31] Here he sought to show how a Calvinist worldview can shape political thought.

Despite shared Christian beliefs a difference in world views must also lead to difference in political thought.[32]

Skepticism about the all-embracing Calvinist worldview – and therefore also about a Calvinist understanding of politics – is not limited to historians who study John Calvin (…) I shall attempt to demonstrate to these skeptics why they are wrong and I shall show that Calvinism as a worldview does have a distinctive starting point which determines an independent approach and an independent method of operation in every area of thought and action.[33]

Surprisingly, he doesn’t start his demonstration from the sovereignty of God but rather from his notion of a “law-idea”:

I want to demonstrate that the organon of Calvinism as a worldview is only to be found in its specific idea of law, that is, in its particular conception of a universal law of God that underlies all that exists, including human thought and action, in which all specific ordinances are anchored and determined.[34]

Dooyeweerd later reluctantly accepted an offer to become the professor of law at the VU succeeding Willem Zevenbergen.[35] Yet it was a position he held for 40 years until his retirement in 1965 at 70. Dooyeweerd’s purpose at the VU was to teach “Introduction to the Science of Law”, the “History of traditional Dutch law” and “Jurisprudence”. Dooyeweerd later replaced the “Introduction” with an “Encyclopaedia of Legal Science”.

It was at the VU that Dooyeweerd completed his De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee (1935-36). This was translated into English from 1953 to 1958 as A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. This translation contained extensive revisions of and additions to the Dutch text. His next planned project was Reformation and Scholasticism in Philosophy and then the Encyclopaedia of Legal Science.[36] He was not able to complete these fully during his lifetime. He co-founded the Vereniging voor Calvinistische Wijsbegeerte (VCW) (Association of Calvinistic Philosophy) and was editor in chief (1936-1976) of its journal Philosophia Reformata.

After the Second World War, he travelled extensively to Switzerland, South Africa, France, Belgium, the United States – several times to Harvard University – and Canada. It was the lectures during one of the tours to North America that formed the basis of In the Twilight of Western Thought (1960). He never lectured in the UK, this may be one reason why he is not more well-known there. Francis Schaeffer who imbibed much of Dooyeweerd, via Hans Rookmaaker, was more widely known in the UK.[37]

Dooyeweerd was a prolific author and wrote around 200 articles and books. The last article he wrote was for Philosophia Reformata in 1975.[38] In 1948 he was inducted into the Royal Academy of Dutch Sciences.

The two main influences on Dooyeweerd were Dutch neo-Calvinism and contemporary German philosophy.[39] A few observations on the latter will suffice before outlining Dooyeweerd’s philosophical approach in a little more detail.

The main German philosophical influences were neo-Kantianism and phenomenology. Dooyeweerd writes: “originally I was strongly under the influence first of Kantian philosophy, later on of Husserl’s phenomenology”.[40] Of the neo-Kantians Dooyeweerd had “particular affinities” with Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915) and Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936) of the Heidelberg school. This is particularly visible in the distinction between norms and laws of nature.[41]

The neo-Calvinist influence on Dooyeweerd is more marked. This is particularly visible in his emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the necessary distinction between creator and creation and his development of Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty.

III. Key Dooyeweerdian themes

1. Biblical contours of Reformational philosophy

Dooyeweerd’s main work is the four-volume text A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. The main thesis of the first volume is that “an intrinsic connection exists between a philosopher’s theoretical activity and his religious faith”.[42] The subsequent volumes developed a systematic philosophy based on the Christian framework of creation, fall and redemption.

Several themes dominate his Reformational philosophy most of these arising out of the sovereignty of God, sphere sovereignty and the necessary distinction between creator and creation.

2. The sovereignty of God

It was Abraham Kuyper who declared: “there is not a single square inch of the entire cosmos of which Christ the sovereign Lord of all does not say, ‘This is mine’”. This sums up the motivation of Reformational philosophy: to reassert the lordship of Christ in every area of life. God’s sovereignty means that he is lord of all including art, history, philosophy, theology, business, politics, mathematics, science and so forth. In Clouser’s terms, this is expressed by stating the “principle of pan-creation”.[43] Everything apart from God is created; this means that nothing is independent of God but is on the contrary subjected to his sovereignty.

3. Sphere sovereignty

Dooyeweerd saw that one of Kuyper’s greatest contributions was the notion of sphere sovereignty. Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty was a social one; Dooyeweerd developed it philosophically (ontologically). Dooyeweerd’s development of sphere sovereignty is perhaps better called modal irreducibility[44] in that none of the fifteen modal aspects (see below) he identified within reality can be reduced to another. No aspect should be regarded as the only real or genuine aspect; no aspect should be regarded as making possible or actual the existence of other aspects. This reflects the biblical teaching that all creatures depend on God directly and equally.

4. Law as the boundary between Creator and creation

In Reformational philosophy, a strong emphasis is placed on the idea of law. So much so that it is sometimes called the philosophy of the law idea, or cosmonomic philosophy. For Dooyeweerd, there is a law side and a factual side to reality. Dooyeweerd saw the law as the boundary between God and his creation. This is sometimes interpreted as a kind of barrier preventing the Christian from “reaching out” to God. It should be remembered, however, that (no matter what limitations are intrinsic to the creational status) nothing prevents God from “reaching” his creatures, hearing them, knowing them and so forth. The law is a boundary for creatures, not for God. God transcends the law; he does not violate it though he is not subjected to his own laws. This idea was aptly summed up in Latin in the Calvinian motto: Deus legibus solutus est sed non exlex (God is not subjected to laws but is not law-less).

5. Archimedean points, immanent and transcendent philosophies

Archimedes placed so much faith in the principle of the lever that he is reported to have asserted “give me a place to stand and I will move the world”. In Reformational circles, this place is called the Archimedean point. All philosophies need an “Archimedean point”, a point of reference from which to base their ultimate support. According to Dooyeweerd, two fundamental classes of philosophy can be distinguished: the immanent and the transcendent ones. Immanence philosophies place their Archimedean point within philosophy or creation; transcendent philosophies place it outside philosophy and creation.

An example may help in clarifying the distinction. Immanence philosophers include Descartes and Kant. Their starting points were thought and reason – both thought and reason are created. Reformational philosophy is a transcendent philosophy, its Archimedean point is Christ, who is the source and sustainer of all things. Immanence philosophies are inherently reductionist in nature; i.e. they are inclined to “deify” an aspect of creation by making it self-existent.

6. The role of religious presuppositions

One of the main themes of Dooyeweerd’s approach is that all thought is based on presuppositions that are inherently religious in character. In the 1935 Foreword to De Wijsbegerte der Wetsidee republished in A New Critique of Theoretical Thought he writes: The great turning point in my thought was marked by the discovery of the religious root of thought itself.[45] This is Dooyeweerd’s transcendental critique: religious presuppositions are inherent in all theorising. If this is the case, then Christian philosophy is valid and necessary. Dooyeweerd has called this the “entrance” to his philosophy. Elsewhere he commented:

The “transcendental critique of theoretical thought,” which is the key to understanding the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea, aims to serve the purpose of this dialogue. It is also the means by which this philosophy seeks to approach the diametrically opposed camps of philosophy in terms of their own respective deepest spiritual backgrounds.[46]

Dooyeweerd developed two forms of transcendental critique. The first, developed in his De Wijsbegerte der Wetsidee, sought to show that it was in the nature of philosophy, dealing with the integrality and totality of reality, to depend on ultimate religious presuppositions. To avoid some objections to this first approach he developed his second way: this time rather than focusing on philosophical thought he showed that all theoretical thought depended on ultimate religious presuppositions.

Dooyeweerd’s approach is transcendent in that it sees everything in creation pointing back to its origin, to the will of the sovereign creator God. Nothing, including thought and thinking, is self-sufficient; as Dooyeweerd put it “meaning is the being of all that has been created; it is religiously rooted and is of divine Origin”.[47] All things are dependent on a God-given ordered reality. This reality manifests itself in experience.

7. The nature of theoretical and pre-theoretical thought

Naïve thought is pre-theoretical thought – everyday experience. Many scholars underestimate pre-theoretical thought, but not Dooyeweerd. For Dooyeweerd, pre-theoretical thought or naïve experience is important. It takes in reality, its richness and diversity, as a whole. There is no contradiction between naïve experience and theoretical thought. Theoretical thought is based on pre-theoretical thought. Theoretical thought studies reality from the point of view of one (or a few) of the modal aspects (see table 1 below); pre-theoretical thought experiences the modal aspects as a whole, fully integrated in things and events.[48]

8. The nature and relation of theology and philosophy

For Dooyeweerd philosophy does not arise from theology. It is not a theological basis that makes a philosophy Christian. He makes a clear distinction between Christian philosophy and theology.[49] Both theology and philosophy, according to Dooyeweerd, arise out of what he terms “ground-motives”. Christian philosophy is not theology and philosophy is not merely non-Christian theology. Theology is one of the special sciences, such as physics, mathematics, law or sociology; theology has the faith aspect as its entry point to the study of reality. In the same way as sociology, as a special science, cannot provide a total view of reality, neither can theology. Theology does not give a total view of reality or the relation between the special sciences and so must be a special science.

Theology, like all of the special sciences, needs a philosophical foundation. Philosophy can provide theoretical insight into the inner structure and mutual coherence of the different modal aspects. The question is, will the chosen philosophy be subject to a biblical or a non-biblical religious starting point?[50] Non-Christian philosophical views cannot be rendered harmless by theological or ecclesiastical accommodation – such as Thomism tried with Aristotelianism. In response to the question: “just what is philosophy”? Dooyeweerd responded:

I believe that a responsible position on philosophy assumes a basic vision of the whole reality, or the totality of reality. While specific sciences only show us certain aspects of our reality, which can undoubtedly be differentiated, none can tackle the totality of our reality.[51]

Theologians who deny the possibility of a “biblically-founded philosophy” inevitably take their philosophical presuppositions from “autonomous” philosophy. This has the consequence of inadvertently importing non-biblical concepts into theology, such as the immortality of the soul or the notion that humans are spirits, with a soul imprisoned in the body. According to Dooyeweerd, a certain philosophy cannot be “more” (or less) biblical than another – the biblical position is either accepted or not.[52] This does not mean that there are no elements of truth in these philosophies, but the total view which they present is ruled by religious basic motives that are not biblical.

9. Modal aspects

In an endeavour to describe the unity and diversity of reality, Dooyeweerd identified fifteen different modal aspects or law spheres.[53] With some justification Strauss, citing a comment Dooyeweerd made, has described the theory of modal aspects as “the best known but least understood part of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy”.[54]

Each thing (entity) that exists is subjected to all God’s laws and functions (either as object or subject – see below) in each of these modal aspects. Each of the modal aspects has certain laws or norms associated with it. In order of earlier to later, these modal aspects are: numerical, spatial, kinematic, physical, biotic, sensitive, analytical, cultural, linguistic, social, economic, aesthetic, juridical, ethical and pistic/certitudinal (see Table 1 below). All of these dimensions are present in reality and none can be reduced to another, i.e. they are irreducible.

These modal aspects can be illustrated, for example, in the simple task of buying a bottle of wine. A theologian might ask: should a Christian buy and drink alcohol? He may want to discuss the issue from the point of view of faith. Why do I want a bottle of wine? Is it to drown my sorrows or is it to use in the breaking of bread at a church service? Is it to drink it to the glory of God? If an ethicist were watching, he might ask: where is the best place to buy the wine; should I buy fair trade wine, is it better to pay more for a wine that is produced without oppressing the workforce? A jurist might discuss the times when it is legal to buy the bottle and ask whether it is legitimate that so much of the price of a bottle of wine (in the UK) is tax. An aesthetician would consider the size and shape of the bottle and the colour and smell of the wine, or the way it is packaged. An economist might be primarily interested in the cost and value of the bottle. A sociologist looking on might consider the impact of alcohol on society and she might also look at the interaction between the shopkeeper and the buyer. The ways of communicating between the customers and the shopkeeper would come under consideration by the linguist. A psychologist might think about what drives some people to want a drink of wine and what motivates the shopkeeper to please the customer?[55]

The bottle of wine itself also has several aspects: there are a certain number of bottles on the shelf, each takes up a certain amount of space, and the wine in the bottle could be described by a chemical formula and analysed using chemical analyses, but of course it is more than that; the wine stays on the shelf because it obeys the laws of motion explored by Isaac Newton and so on.

Clouser notes that these modal aspects were arrived at by taking every large-scale kind of properties and laws which has been distinguished in the history of philosophy and science.[56] They are not identified in an arbitrary manner. Their order is also significant: the later modes presuppose the earlier. For example, the economic mode presupposes a social and a lingual mode. Without the social mode then there is no purpose for an economic mode, and without a lingual mode how could economic values be communicated? This is not to suggest that the later modes are more important or that the earlier modes are more fundamental. The earlier modes are “foundational” for the latter. Each mode equally depends on God.

Each modal aspect – among other things – is characterised by the following:

  • a meaning nucleus or modal kernel – these indicate the core nature of each aspect. Table 1 indicates these kernels;
  • a law side – this is God’s ordinances or laws for creation;
  • a factual or subject side – which is the totality of created reality subject to God’s laws i.e. the cosmos; and
  • relations with the other modal aspects in terms of anticipatory and retrocipatory analogies (anticipations and retrocipations).[57]

TABLE 1. The kernels of each modal aspect.

Modal aspect

Modal kernel




Continuous extension




Energy and matter


Life and vitality






Formative power


Symbolic representation


Social intercourse






What is due


Love (self-giving)

Pistic/ certitudinal

Faith and vision

Strauss identifies several misunderstandings that are prevalent regarding these modal aspects, including the following:[58]

  • Aspects are sometimes viewed as “cuts” or “layers” within reality, in the sense that they are seen as a way in which reality could be “divided”.
  • Aspects are interpreted by some as mere properties of entities.
  • Aspects are sometimes regarded as mental constructs.
  • Aspects are confused by some as the fields of study of the various disciplines (Strauss, 2006a:61-62).

To this we could also add:

  • The aspects are seen in terms of lower and higher. This implies some aspects are more important than others, this is not the case, all are equally important. Basden suggests using the description earlier and later to avoid this type of misconception.[59]
  • That the aspects are seen only as a checklist.

Basden notes that the aspects can provide insight when asking questions such as when considering some entity or theory, for example, which aspect does it focus on as being meaningful? Does it do that to the detriment of the other aspects? Which aspects are ignored or minimised?[60]

10. Qualifying functions

Each entity has one aspect that is so important that it characterises it; this is called its qualifying function. The grey bar in Figure 1 represents this qualifying function in the societal structures. The qualifying function for animals is sensory; for plants, biotic; for rocks physical. In other words, the qualifying function is the highest aspect in which an entity functions actively or as a “subject”.[61]

FIGURE 1. A diagrammatic representation of Dooyeweerd’s modal aspects and some qualifying functions of social institutions. (Adapted from E.L. Hebden Taylor, Reformation or Revolution, Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1970), 626.


11. Subject and object functions

In Reformational philosophy, a distinction is made between subject and object functions. Every “thing” (entity, event or process) has a qualifying aspect. In (animal or human) artefacts or social institutions, this qualifying function is constituted by a foundational and a leading function. In modes later than its qualifying or leading function (sometimes called its superstratum) the entity or institution has object functions (indicated in Figure 1). For all aspects earlier than its leading function (sometimes called the substratum) it has a subject function.

For a tree, for example, the qualifying aspect is biotic. Hence, in aspects earlier than the biotic (i.e. numerical, spatial, kinematic and physical) the tree 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 and it is a living thing. In the later modes, it has an object function, it functions “passively”: its size, type and colour can be perceived, but the tree cannot perceive (sensitive), it cannot name 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 aspect), it can be possessed but it cannot possess or sue anyone (juridical) etc.

Hence, all things have either a subject or object functions in all modal aspects. Humans alone function actively as subjects in all modal aspects:

An axe is subject to the law of gravity; so is man. But humanity’s humanness is more apparent in their being subject to moral, analytical or juridical norms. Think of the roles and responsibilities of man and an axe in a court session. The axe lies on the table as an exhibit in a murder case. The defendant has violated moral and juridical norms, but the axe has not. Still, the axe plays a role in these normative aspects; it is important in the hearing as legal evidence. Its role is that of an object function in the moral and juridical aspects; its subject function ends with the physical.[62]

According to Clouser the value of this analysis has multiple sides.[63] First of all, it allows constructing a theory of reality that is non-reductionist. It also avoids philosophising along the lines of the substance-approach, which is problematic insofar as it attributes a degree of independence to the “being” of created entities. Furthermore, it avoids the traps of both objectivism (e.g. Aristotle) and subjectivism (e.g. Kant). Objectivists and subjectivists are inclined to place the source of the order that is experienced in creation either in objects or subjects. In so doing they bypass the role of modal laws. For these and other reasons, this approach opens the door to sound Christian philosophising, as an alternative to both Scholastic and Humanist trends.

12. Theory of entities

Dooyeweerd maintains that societal structures, for example, church, state, political parties, families and so forth, are humanly established but are governed by transcendent conditions, by structural principles. These societal structures function in all the modal aspects, but they are more than the sum of their modal aspects. They are rooted in the order of cosmic time and so are subject to the law side of reality. They are not merely human creations but are governed and constrained by lawful, normative principles that are rooted in the creation order. They are shaped by structural principles. These structural principles have qualifying functions (leading and foundational).

The state, for example, functions in all the modal aspects (see Table 2). However, these aspects do not provide the unique structural identity of the state. This is provided by its leading function (i.e. the juridical function).

TABLE 2. The modal aspects of the state.[64]

Modal aspect

Applied to the state


There are a certain number of citizens in the state


The territory of the state takes up a certain geographical area


There is (usually) freedom of movement in the state


The state has the power of the sword – the use of force is permitted


The state comprises people


There is a sense of belonging to a state


It constructs a realm of public discourse


There is a national identity


There is (usually) a common language within a state


It respects diplomatic protocols


The state has a budget that it needs to balance


It should work for harmony within its social groups


It has the responsibility of maintaining public justice


There must be trust between the different departments of the state

Pistic/ certitudinal

The state’s authority arises out of some confessional view

Dooyeweerd distinguishes several different social relationships; these are shown in Figure 2 below. Natural institutions are distinguished by having the biotic aspect as their founding function; most of the others have a historical (cultural) foundation (see Table 2 above). For the family the leading function is the ethical aspect; for the state it is the juridical; for the institutional church the founding function is the historical aspect and the leading function, the pistical aspect. It is the leading function that characterises each institution and guides the role of all the other modal functions.

FIGURE 2. Dooyeweerd’s classification of human relationships. (Based on information from Dooyeweerd, A Christian Theory of Social Institutions)

13. Ground-motives

Dooyeweerd identified four religious ground-motives that have shaped the development of Western culture. These are:

  • form-matter;
  • grace-nature;
  • freedom-nature; and
  • creation-fall-redemption.

The first three are “internally dualistic and fragmentary”,[65] and the latter is, he maintains, biblical.[66]

Ground-motives were a relatively late development in Dooyeweerd’s work.[67] They were first mentioned in De Wijsbegerte der Wetsidee (1935-1937), they were developed in much greater detail in Vernieuwing en Bezinning (1959) which was translated into English as Roots of Western Culture.

In Roots Dooyeweerd comments as follows:

The development of western culture has been controlled by several religious ground motives. These motives acquired their central influence upon the historical development of mankind via certain cultural powers, which over the centuries, successively gained leadership in the historical process. The most important of these powers have been the spirit of ancient civilisation (Greece and Rome), Christendom, and modern humanism.[68]

He also elucidates some of the elements of a ground-motive. It:

  • is a spiritual force
  • acts as the absolute cultural mainspring of society
  • governs all of life’s expressions from the religious centre of life and directs them to a true or supposed origin of existence
  • places an indelible stamp on the whole of culture and society
  • determines one’s whole worldview
  • is driven by a spirit that is either the Spirit of God or that of an idol
  • is a communal motive (not simply personal)
  • can never be the object of study of a special science [or of philosophy]
  • provides the point of departure for scientific theorising – hence science and scholarship can never be neutral with respect to religion.[69]

The form-matter motive is the fundamental motive of Greek thought and culture. It originates, according to Dooyeweerd, from a meeting of two conflicting views the pre-Homeric natural religion – corresponding to the pole of matter – and the Olympian gods’ cultural religion – corresponding to the pole of form.[70]

Creation, fall and redemption is the biblical ground-motive. This is the genuine starting point for a Christian philosophy and scholarship.

The nature—grace motive is typical of Roman Catholicism. It was an attempt to reconcile the opposed religious motives of Greek and Christian thought.[71]

The fourth ground-motive developed out of the Renaissance desire for a rebirth of humankind through a participating in the heroic ideal of human initiative found in Greco-Roman culture. It takes two forms: one gives priority to the freedom-motive, with its emphasis on liberty and autonomy; the other gives priority to the nature-motive with its emphasis on the domination of nature through science and mathematics. It entails a dualism of freedom and nature.

The two poles of nature and freedom resulted in two cultural ideals: the science ideal and the (freedom of the autonomous) personality ideal. The science ideal emphasises nature and the personality ideal emphasises freedom. The science ideal resulted in rationalism and modernism and in a mathematisation of nature; mathematics became the origin of all laws and temporal life. The personality ideal did not become popular until the eighteenth century. It resulted in Romanticism and more recently post-modernism.

The term ground-motive is a translation of the Dutch grondmotief. In the 1940s Dooyeweerd had been using the term grondthema (see, for example, his 1941 article in Philosophia Reformata). It was in a series of lectures at the Technical University of Delft in 1946-1947 that he used the term grondmotief.[72] Wolters suggests that the term motive in Dooyeweerd is used to suggest a dual meaning of “a recurrent pattern in philosophical thought” and “a deeper and more encompassing religious power which motivates human life in general”.[73]

Not all Reformational scholars are completely convinced by the notion of religious ground-motives. Vollenhoven, according to Klapwijk “found it unfeasible to summarize the richness of the biblical message in ‘such a formula’ (he meant Dooyeweerd’s Christian religious ground-motive)”.[74] Vollenhoven developed his own ways of analysing the history of philosophy.[75]

Chaplin identifies some critical questions regarding the ground-motives.[76] These include the charge of acting like an interpretative grid, which can be misleading; if they are rooted in religious presuppositions it poses the issue as to if genuine philosophical communication can take place; and they can give the impression that they are the product of theoretical debate.

Bos has expressed doubts over the Dooyeweerd’s description of the origin of the form-matter ground-motive but nevertheless maintains it “contains a valid perspective on the inherent dialectic of Greek thought”.[77]

IV. Objections to Reformational Philosophy

Despite the fruitfulness, the comprehensiveness, and the consistency of this approach it is not without its detractors.[78] Several criticisms have been made. These include:

  • Lack of wide acceptance
  • Issues in attitude; these include

    • confrontational approach
    • dogmatic arrogance
    • triumphalism

  • Modal aspects are a straitjacket imposed on reality (Diller)
  • Promotes subjectivism and idealism
  • Minimising of Scripture
  • A low view of the church (Douma)
  • There is no such thing as Christian philosophy (Diller, Barclay, VanDrunen, and many others)
  • It is rooted in Kantianism/ idealism/ phenomenology (Fesko, Doornbos, Jaeger[79])
  • It is fideistic (Meynell, Doornbos)
  • Lack of piety
  • Unscriptural approach to the Word of God (Morey)
  • Supratemporal heart (many)
  • Its view of the relationship between philosophy and theology (Douma, Barclay)
  • It downplays the role of theology (Barclay[80])
  • The arbitrariness of the fifteen modal aspects (Poythress)

In the following I cannot address all these issues – some comments will have to suffice. Several of the criticisms come from those who are seeking to resuscitate a form of Reformed Scholasticism and a two kingdoms approach.[81] Dooyeweerd was opposed to both and so it is not surprising that they disagree with him – I will leave a critique of their criticisms to another time.

One criticism is its lack of wide acceptance. This is hardly a valid objection: democracy is hardly an arbiter of truth. Reasons for its lack of popularity have at least in the UK included the inroads of logical positivism, the influence of a Scholasticism, and perhaps an (unconscious) antipathy towards the Dutch dating from the Anglo-Dutch wars in the seventeenth century. In the past, the prevalence and impact of logical positivism have denied the place and role of religion and metaphysics in theorising.

That Dooyeweerd was indebted to both Kant and Husserl’s phenomenology is well documented. This does not, however, mean that he was reliant on them or that his approach is coloured by their views. Both Kant and Husserl accepted the autonomy or neutrality of theoretical thought – this is fully critiqued and shown to be faulty by Dooyeweerd and illustrates a marked contrast between his view and theirs.

Jochen Douma (b. 1931)[82] in his Another look at Dooyeweerd[83] originally presented to the Association of Calvinistic Philosophy in September 1976, provides what he describes as an inventory of “valuable criticism” of the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea primarily from members of the Liberated church.[84] His criticism falls into the following categories: the role of the confession, the church, the pistical function, creational revelation, the role of the heart as a concentration point and as being supra-temporal, ground motive, sphere sovereignty and the relationship of philosophy and theology. Most of these objections are framed by the issues the Liberated church had with the Kuyperian influences on the Reformed Church in the Netherlands.

The role of the heart and its supra-temporality has been a contentious issue among Reformational advocates. Some such as Pete Steen object to it,[85] whereas others such as Glenn Friesen see it as being central to Dooyeweerd’s position.[86] Such debate is healthy, but it should not be used as an excuse to ignore the whole of Dooyeweerd’s work. That some Reformational scholars disagree over this may suggest that it is not an integral part of Dooyeweerd’s approach.

Several criticisms are to do with presentation and its difficulty. There is no doubt Dooyeweerd is difficult to understand. Yet, in 1928 Dooyeweerd is alleged to have said: “If I am incomprehensible to a simple shoemaker, then my philosophical work is useless”.[87] Unfortunately, this goal has not yet been achieved. One challenge that faces Reformational scholars is to translate the difficult concepts and ideas into a way that can be understood more clearly by “simple shoemakers”. The use of unusual terms (for example, retrocipations and enkapsis) and how common terms (for example, analogies, subject and object) are given specific meanings adds to the difficulty. Though in defence most schools of philosophy have their own jargon.[88]

The modal aspects have been accused, of being a straitjacket imposed on reality (Diller). Whereas Dooyeweerd would see them as being reality-imposed; the modal spheres have arisen out of reality. The fact that there are fifteen of them is not written on tablets of stone; indeed, some Dooyeweerdians argue over the number and position of them. Dooyeweerd initially identified fourteen aspects but then separated the kinematic aspect from the physical aspect.[89]

Dooyeweerd is clear:

This philosophy is not a closed system. It does not claim to have a monopoly on truth in the sphere of philosophical reflection, nor that the provisional conclusions of its inquiries have been made sacrosanct because of the central biblical motive which motivates and controls it. As a philosophy it does not in any way demand a privileged position for itself; on the contrary, it seeks to create a real basis for philosophical dialogue among the different movements – movements which often isolate themselves and which can only lead to stagnation and overestimation of one’s own ideas.[90]

Diller’s other objections arise primarily over the question of the relationship between philosophy and Christianity.[91] Diller denies that there is a distinctively Christian approach: “I tend to side with those people [including Heidegger and Barth] who deny the possibility of Christian philosophy”.[92] The Reformational view affirms the existence of Christian philosophy. And for many commentators, there is the rub. A denial of the existence of distinctively Christian philosophy implies antagonism to the Reformational philosophy as it claims to be a Christian philosophy.

Two important questions must then be addressed and answered affirmatively if the Reformational perspective is not to flounder: these were questions raised at the beginning regarding the existence of a Christian philosophy. I will offer some brief tentative answers to the questions is a distinctively Christian philosophy possible? And is the Reformational perspective distinctively Christian?

1. Is a distinctively Christian philosophy possible?

Most contemporary philosophers of science agree that neutrality and objectivity is a fallacy. Our perception of reality is coloured by our worldview. Facts are theory dependent, and theories are worldview dependent.

If Christianity is a worldview, then as with any worldview, it determines the shape and framework of theories and consequently facts. It must then mean that a distinctively Christian approach to, the sciences and to philosophy is feasible. If there is a Marxist philosophy, a feminist philosophy, a naturalist philosophy, the list could go on, then why not a Christian philosophy?

2. Is the Reformational perspective distinctively Christian?

Could not a non-Christian accept the main contours of the Reformational approach? If so, does it undermine its claim to be distinctively Christian? I believe the answer to be yes and no, respectively. Non-Christian philosophies tend to make some or other aspect of creation (usually one of the modal spheres) self-existent; they are therefore at heart reductionist. Modal theory rejects reductionism. It asserts that no one aspect of creation is the only genuine aspect or makes the existence of other aspects possible. All creation, each modal aspect, equally depends on God. None is reducible to another.[93]

To accept a Reformational perspective, one needs to accept the biblical distinction between the creator and creation. Everything other than God is creation. Nothing in creation is therefore self-existent; to declare it to be so, implies that something is uncreated, which gives it the status of divinity. The Reformational approach, therefore, comports well with Christian presuppositions.

A Reformational approach is at least prima facie a Christian approach. It should be stressed however that it is a Christian approach and not the Christian approach. Other perspectives may also be Christian.[94] To accept a plurality of Christian approaches does not deny the validity of any one of them.

V. Final comments

Dooyeweerd was ahead of his time in many ways; philosophers are slow in catching up. This is what Henk Hart has to say:

Philosophically these religious and social impulses come into focus in Dooyeweerd’s lifelong struggle with the philosophical dogma, as he referred to it, of the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought. What is called foundationalism today, which Dooyeweerd referred to as the autonomy of reason, was really he argued, an uncritically adopted prejudice. Long before that tradition of centuries became widely untenable for philosophers in general – as it had for the last two decades – Dooyeweerd developed the Gegensatnd theory in order to expose the fallacies of this unexamined dogma. Michael Polanyi’s theory of the scientist’s indwelling in his framework of commitment, Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the role of human interest in science, Gerald Radnitzky’s theory of steering fields internal to science, and Thomas Kuhn’s theory of the role of paradigms in the natural sciences are all prefigured in the way Dooyeweerd worked out his theory. He not only saw the problems connected with belief in rational autonomy very early, but he also was one of the first to formulate a comprehensive theory to deal with these problems.[95]

And as Alvin Plantinga has observed:

Christian philosophy at the end of the 20th century is doing rather well along some dimensions, less well along others. And of course its work of properly relating to the Civitas Mundi is never done: as the latter constantly changes, so must the Christian response. But the Christian philosophical community must also offer its own accounts of the main philosophical topics and concerns. Herman Dooyeweerd made a determined and powerful effort to do precisely this: for that we are thankful. We must continue in the spirit of his work, offering our own accounts of these areas. This task is challenging, formidable, difficult, frustrating; it is also fascinating, beguiling, fulfilling. Most of all, it is the service we Christian philosophers owe to the Lord and our community.[96]

These observations provide evidence enough that Dooyeweerd’s Reformational philosophy deserves wider attention. Dooyeweerd’s conclusion to his “Secularization of Science” provides a suitable warning and a hope:

For the children of the Calvinistic Reformation, there should be no question of wasting time in long scholastic discussions about whether science and philosophy also pertain to the kingdom of Jesus Christ or whether they belong instead to a domain of natural reason. This discussion need not go on, because, as we have shown, there is no natural reason that is independent of the religious driving force which controls the head of human existence.[97]


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