Workshop 4B reformational philosophy

Prof. Dr. Danie Strauss – Philosophy, Theology and the Future of our Societies

Plato believed that only philosophers approach the divine (the race of Gods) while Aristotle saw philosophy as the handmaiden of the queen of the sciences, theology. However, their view that matter is formless introduced a dialectical understanding of creation. Both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas confessed that primary matter was created, but not without form.

According to Milbank it was Duns Scotus who “for the first time established a radical separation of philosophy from theology.” In the context of the “best Catholic tradition” theology for Radical Orthodoxy cannot be a “specialism” as for “Kuyper and Dooyeweerd.” Viewing theology as a “specialism” amounts to something “idolatrous,” for according to Milbank “theology concerns not one area, not one ontic item among others, but esse as such, the ground of all beings, and all in relation to this ground and source.”

In an equally serious tone Dooyeweerd warns that “dogmatic theology is a very dangerous science.” While continuing the nature-grace split Radical Orthodoxy holds that both philosophy and theology investigate being qua being but only theology has the task to relate being to God. For the “inhabitants of the altera civitas” theology is “the queen of the sciences” and in addition Milbank claims that “every Christian is a theologian.”

Falling back onto an altera civitas (the church) implicitly continues the nature-grace dualism and at once precludes an appreciation of creational normativity. It will be argued that acknowledging creational normativity presupposes a biblically informed non-reductionist ontology guiding both philosophy and theology. Moreover, such a non-reductionist ontology ought to account for the nature of modal and typical principles avoiding the extremes of rationalistic natural law as well as a historicistic relativism and legal positivism. Principles are always dependent on human intervention in order to obtain a positive shape.

An assessment of the differences between sphere-sovereignty and subsidiarity should also account for the important distinction between typical and a-typical tasks, side-stepping the dominant role which individualistic (atomistic) and universalistic (holistic) views of human society played throughout the history. The Greek polis was supposed to lead its citizens to moral perfection – an idea continued in the medieval ideal of the Corpus Christianum as the societas perfecta. Modern political theories at most advanced a formal idea of the “just state” (“Rechtsstaat” – Rousseau) but never succeeded in arriving at a material idea of the just state. (Mekkes remarks in his work on Humanistic Theories of the Rechtsstaat that in the thought of Rousseau the humanistic democratic ideal reached its culmination-point, but at once also its deepest downfall.

Escaping from the grip of global terrorist threats to the future of our societies will be crucially dependent upon the pursuit for public justice and the protection of civil freedoms, societal freedoms and political freedoms within all societies. That the modern “Rechtsstaat” is an outcome of the Reformation was already realized by Abraham Kuyper in 1874: “Het calvinisme, oorsprong en waarborg onzer constitutioneele vrijheden: een Nederlandsche gedachte.”

Selected Sources

Dooyeweerd, H. 2008. The Struggle for a Christian Politics, Series B, Volume 5, General Editor D.F.M. Strauss, Grand Rapids: Paideia Press.

Dooyeweerd, H. 2012. Reformation and Scholasticism in Philosophy, Collected Works of Herman Dooyeweerd, Series A, Volume 5/1, General Editor D.F.M. Strauss, Grand Rapids: Paideia Press.

Milbank, J. 2006. Theology and Social Theory. Beyond Secular Reson. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ouweneel, W.J. 2014. What then is Theology? Grand Rapids: Paideia Press.

Smith, J.K.A. & Olthuis, J.H. (Eds.) 2005. Radical orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Prof. Dr. Andrew Basden – 20 Ways in which Dooyeweerd’s Ideas Can Engage with Mainstream Thinking

Christian thinking, including Reformational Philosophy, tends to be carried out in isolation from mainstream thinking. This prevents Christian thought having its proper effect on society. The isolation arises partly from the sacred-secular divide, and, in Reformational thinking, from mis-application of that thought. Dooyeweerd explored the deep presuppositions in both his own and mainstream philosophy, exposing differences between them, summarised in Table 1 (to be explained in the paper)

Mainstream philosophies Dooyeweerd
Standpoint Immanence (self-sufficiency) Transcendence (all is created)
Ground-motive Nature-Freedom, or other dualistic Creation, Fall, Redemption
Starting point in thought Theoretical attitude Pre-theoretical (everyday) attitude
Starting point in ontology Things or processes
(Subject-object divide)
Response to diversity 1 Tendency to reduction of meaning Explored distinct aspects
Response to diversity 2 Fragmentation Coherence

His aim, however, was not to isolate Reformational thought from the mainstream but bring them into dialogue, and he provided a philosophically sound basis for mutual understanding and engagement. Given such deep differences, how can Dooyeweerdian thinking engage with mainstream thinking?

The first two differences show a religious antithesis, which has been emphasised since the work of Kuyper. Emphasising religious antithesis incites isolation of Reformational from mainstream thought. This author has found that starting differently, with the everyday attitude and meaningfulness, can engender a more fruitful dialogue with mainstream thinking. This can be at two levels.

At the level of philosophy, this is can be fruitful, because the ideas of everyday experience and meaningfulness have attracted relatively little interest until recently. Everyday experience is, however, studied theoretically, rather than truly understood from its own pre-theoretical perspective. Meaningfulness is usually reduced to meaning-attribution by subjective or intersubjective fiat, and ignores the kind of ‘oceanic’ meaningfulness we experience pre-theoretically. These are serious gaps, and Dooyeweerd made it possible to fill them. These gaps offer Reformational philosophy an important opportunity to engage with the mainstream, which has so far has seldom, if ever, been taken.

At the level of the sciences, disciplines or fields, Dooyeweerd provides even more opportunities for engagement. In the social sciences and human practice, the notion of everyday life and its diversity of aspects, is increasingly recognised as important. In this author’s experience, Dooyeweerd’s ideas, especially his delineation of fifteen aspects, are widely welcomed in such fields – paradoxically, more so by those without a Christian faith.

In the natural sciences, the diversity of everyday experience is of less interest, so appeal to it is less fruitful. Instead, Dooyeweerd’s idea of an irreducibly distinct kernel meaning and set of laws for each aspect can clarify thinking in the various sciences and avoid category errors and the undue importation of meaningfulness from other aspects.

This approach has been worked out partially in systems thinking and engineering, and in more detail in the fields of sustainability, ICT and information systems, and in analytical methods.

Dr. Rob Nijhoff – Dooyeweerd and the ‘Accomodation’ by his Neo-Calvinist Predecessors

Absolutisation of reason is not only one of the alleged causes of what some nowadays would call scientism, but it was one of Herman Dooyeweerd’s primary concerns, too. This absolutisation was one of the concerns that led him into his sharp analysis and broad overview of the history of ‘Western’ philosophy. Dooyeweerd saw this absolutisation at work in antiquity, subsequently in Christian scholasticism, and in humanistic, modern philosophical work, too.

The hypothesis I want to submit is that this approach tended to blind him to the merits of the idea of reason present in his predecessors at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, especially that of Abraham Kuyper and his colleague in the humanities, Jan Woltjer. Both of them (and Herman Bavinck) had built their philosophical outlook with the help of traditional, Christianized, metaphysical thought and (Medieval and Reformed) scholasticism. In their metaphysics and epistemology they assumed, and elaborated on, a ‘reasoning of the heart’ that within Dooyeweerd’s duality of ‘naïve experience’ and theoretical thought would belong to the former.

According to Dooyeweerd his neo-Calvinist predecessors, like their scholastic examples, are ‘accomodating’ concepts that originated in a non-Christian and reason-absolutizing world, to a Christian conceptual world. However, Dooyeweerd’s own duality of naïve experience and theoretical thought can have been one of the reasons that led him to distrust the ‘accomodation’ by his predecessors.

A close reading of Dooyeweerd’s 1939 article about Kuyper’s doctrine of science reveals both his penetrating questions to traditional metaphysical thought and his rhetorical strategy to distinguish within the thought of the early neoCalvinists a pure biblical or Calvinist line and contaminations from other sources. Usually Dooyeweerd’s philosophy is interpreted as a radical break with ‘the metaphysical tradition’, allegedly marked by rationalism. In order to assess the status of both the early neo-Calvinists and Dooyeweerd within the broader traditions of Christian philosophical thought, it is necessary to pay attention to both the continuities and the discontinuities between the different styles of philosophising.

Unlike Cornelius van Til (O’Donnell 2011, 221) Dooyeweerd does analyse the thoughts of his predecessors. My point is, however, that in order to apply his transcendental critique in a methodologically sound way, one would have to postpone any conclusions about sufficient radicality or possible ‘accomodation’ until the critical dialogue has reached its concluding stage.


Laurence R. O’Donnell III, Kees Van Til als Nederlandse-Amerikaanse, Neo-Calvinistisch-Presbyteriaan apologeticus: An Analysis of Cornelius Van Til’s Presupposition of Reformed Dogmatics with special reference to Herman Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Grand Rapids MI: Calvin Theological Seminary 2011 [unpublished M Thesis])

Herman Dooyeweerd, ‘Kuyper’s Wetenschapsleer’ [Kuyper’s Doctrine of Science], in: Philosophia Reformata 4/4 (1939) 193-232

Herman Dooyeweerd, New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Paris/ Presb. & Ref. Publ. Co., 1953–1958)

Herman Dooyeweerd, Reformation and Scholasticism in Philosophy. Volume II: The Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea and the Scholastic Tradition in Christian Thought. Collected works 5/2 (Grand Rapids MI: Paideia 2013)

Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology. Its Principles (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1898 [rev. ed. 2008])