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Dooyeweerd and Christian Thought

As stated, "A major motivation behind Dooyeweerd's work was to form a philosophical framework that was Christian-Biblical, or at least not anti-Christian." But those who read his work will find very few direct references to Scripture, and will find theological issues occupy only a small fraction of the text. So, in what way is it 'Christian'?

Indeed, many Christians are very sceptical and even anti-Dooyeweerd. A typical comment I received recently is:

"I am not a fan of Dooyeweerdian Sphere Sovereignty. I believe it is an artificial carving up of God's reality which He made to be basically one, and not 15 modalities. The whole universe runs on Law -- God's Law. And His Law is not divided into 15 spheres."

My reply to this is as follows: I agree - but my agreement requires explanation. The statement above misunderstands Dooyeweerd's ideas. There are several parts to this explanation.

Religious Presupposition and Ground Motives

The deepest entry of Christian belief comes into Dooyeweerd's presupposition of a transcendent Creator and Redeemer that is separate from his Creation but is what it depends on. This lead to the implication (stated explicitly in Scripture) that Creation is Good, and not subject to any antinomy nor dividable into any dualism. Taking that as the basis for philosophy means that any philosophy that allows of a dualism or any antinomy cannot be fully Christian.

Next, this led him to a ground motive of Creation-Fall-Redemption. This makes the idea of Creation even more explicit, and based on Meaning and God's Law, and says that philosophy must give an account for diversity and unity found therein and for norms of living. It also accounts for why we experience evil and suffering, which we would not expect if Creation were entirely Good: Fall. It also accounts for why and how we can have Hope: Redemption. Philosophy must provide some account for Good and Evil, and for Hope. So any attempt at Christian philosophy must provide a good account for at least these issues: Diversity and Unity, Norms, Good and Evil, Hope.

Socio-critical thinking also recognises presuppositions and normativity, even though its roots lie in Humanist thought, via Nietzsche and Marx. I believe that socio-critical and Dooyeweerdian thought are in fact bed-fellows in many senses and may benefit from each other.

When Dooyeweerd declares openly that his philosophy is intended to be 'Christian' and based on a 'Biblical' ground-motive, socio-critical theorists can accept this and be interested, and engage in dialogue. I have found some good-quality socio-critical theorists willing to engage, and have myself benefited. Especially Heinz Klein who, though a humanist, was very open in both heart and mind to discourse about Dooyeweerd and Christian ways of doing things. However, much socio-critical writing tends to exhibit an assumption that Christianity and the Church are part of the status quo, and be put off by any mention of it. This is partly the fault of Christian thinkers in the past and present, who have contented themselves with things that are largely irrelevant to the main discourses that are going on, and also because of the new dominance of cohorts of thought that see Christianity as repressive, such as the recent hegemony of homosexualism. I hope that socio-critical thinkers will find Dooyeweerd's ideas interesting and helpful.

I also recommend that good-quality Christian thinkers seriously engage immanently with socio-critical thought, despite seemingly anti-Christian stance. A previous Pope engaged with Habermas. Foucault and Bourdieu are worth truly understanding. So are Gramsci, and many others.

Unity and Diversity

(Much of this section and its sub-sections are older text, written in 1998, and is yet to be rewritten to fulfil the above needs. A.B. 6 March 2003)

What do we experience around us: both unity and diversity. We see many kinds of things and many kinds of functioning, yet it all coheres. We see coherence, yet within that there is much diversity. Dooyeweerd's interest was in how this can be so.

We can of course just say "Well, God made it all, and we must not question it." But God, it seems, delights in our curiosity and in the type of questioning that seeks answers. What he does not like is the kind of negative questioning that tries to avoid answers. So it is valid to at least "think God's thoughts after him."

The answer that Dooyeweerd came up with was the twin notions of irreducible aspects and interwoven aspects - as designed and created by God. No aspect can be reduced to others, and this proposal explains the diversity. Yet no aspect can be isolated from the others, and this explains the unity.

However, those who have found Dooyeweerdian thinking useful have tended to emphasise the irreducibility and distinctiveness of the aspects, rather than their unity. Thus it is not surprising that some come to misunderstand Dooyeweerd in the way the above quotation suggests, simply because of the emphasis of those who value his thoughts.

God's creation is one. It is a unity. Even if it contains fifteen irreducible aspects, this does not mean it is "divided".

Why irreducibility?

But why do we need to postulate irreducible aspects? There is no final answer to this, of course, but using the minds that God has given us we can do the best we can. Dooyeweerd's proposals of distinct aspects means that each has a fundamentally different type of: Now, suppose there was just one basic type of functioning - such as physical functioning of sub-atomic particles, or the biotic functioning of evolution. Then all other types of functioning would be explainable in those terms, and would be nothing more than an emergent property of that type of functioning plus complexity. This is reductionism. And it denies the diversity we experience, saying that what we think is diversity is merely complexity.

This is inherently anti-Christian, as far as we can see. If "the creation shows forth the glory of God" and "God's eternal nature and character are clearly displayed in what he has made" then this question becomes vitally important. In the diversity around us we can see the richness of God's character. But if the diversity is a fake, then God's character is no longer rich. If all is a single type of functioning, a single meaning, a single set of laws, and all else is nothing but a complex interplay of a single type, then this would downgrade the glory of God.

Therefore - as far as we can see, using the limited yet wonderful minds that we have received from our Creator - it is highly likely that there are a number of distinct aspects of created reality that are not reducible to each other.

Why unity?

But, we also have to ask, and answer: why unity is needed? The answer is that without it, everything breaks up, and would not reflect the basic unity of God. This is what the statement above fears.

The question is: of what type is this unity? Is it the unity of uniformity? No, for the reasons given above. Rather, it is a rich type of unity that incorporates and integrates diversity within it. We Westerners are so used to thinking of unity and diversity as implacable opposites. Yet we have both in the Living God. So why not in his creation?

Therefore the fact that Dooyeweerd proposed a set of irreducible aspects does not invalidate the unity of God or his creation. Rather, it requires that we understand the nature of the unity aright. For this, Dooyeweerd proposed analogical and other relationships among the aspects.

The role of analytical thinking

Therefore, the unity and diversity around us would seem to require aspects that are distinct. In everyday living, we function in all the aspects in an integrated manner.

However, it is the role of analytical thinking is to make distinctions. We employ this every day. And we employ it on all kinds of things. So it is not surprising to employ it on the aspects of reality.

When we do this, we start to discover the nature of the irreducibility between the aspects that makes diversity possible. The irreducibility is there, but our analytical thinking has served to make it clear to us. When it is clear to us, we can start to take it explicitly into account.

In this sense, the statement above is correct in stating that "it is an artificial carving up of God's reality". It is indeed 'artificial' in the sense of being deliberate human functioning. But it is not necessarily 'artificial' in the derogatory sense of being false. The use of analytical thinking applied to the aspects is discussed in more detail elsewhere.

Account of Norms

Norms are to be found in the aspects. For now, see summary of normativity.

Good and Evil

Good and Evil have three main meanings in Dooyeweerdian thought.

First, Good and Evil are rooted in our orientation of heart (or self), either to the True God or to some non-God. It is the most basic part of our pistic functioning, and affects all else we are, do and know.

Second, Good and Evil are our response to the laws of each aspect as subjects to those laws: good when we function in line with the laws, evil when we go against the laws.

Third, Good and Evil, can also apply to the results of such an orientation and law-response: repercussions. Our religious pistic orientation has an effect on everything else, and throughout society. Our various aspectual responses have repercussions in those aspects not on ourselves but also on others and on non-human creation.

In this wey, Dooyeweerd's account of Good and Evil avoids the dualism of assuming part of Creation is Evil.


Dooyeweerd occasionally makes explicit reference to redemption in Christ, but not often. The hope of such redemption pervades his whole work, however. First, his attempt to discern the nature of diversity, unity and norms in Creation, is a sign of hope. If no redemption were possible, such an exercise would have been futile. But there is hope that Creation will one day be restored to, or beyond, its original form, so it worth making the effort to see what it is, and guiding life with that understanding. This hope is being fulfilled, to an extent. Second, Dooyeweerd hoped for an inner reformation of philosophy itself, by virtue of having revealed its ground motives. This hope is less likely in the short term. Third, the word 'destiny' occurs throughout Dooyeweerd's writings. The destiny of everything is God, and within that each entity has its own special destiny. This destiny is related to its qualifying aspect, a notion whose development might have been motivated by this very idea of destiny.

Christian Allusions in Dooyeweerd's Text

In his New Critique, Dooyeweerd made many references to what shape a 'Christian' philosophy should take. He used the word as more-or-less synonymous with his own ideas (though he acknowledged others as being of the same stream, and saw himself as not so much defining Christian philosophy but rather point the general direction it should take).

But these references were often involved in making suggestions about what the content of such a philosophy should be. For example, in [NC II:187], after defining social institutions, he said "According to the Christian view their differentiated basic types are founded in a special divine institution." If we accept this, several things follow from this for our philosophical thinking:

We might or might not agree with this reasoning, but it does illustrate how one can weave Christian ideas into philosophy in a way that is not fundamentalist, nor theological.

Philosophy and the Gospel

(Much of this sub-section is older text, written in 1998, and is yet to be rewritten to fulfil the needs outlined at the start. A.B. 6 March 2003)

Many Christians mistake Dooyeweerd's ideas to be theology, whereas in fact they are philosophy. Van Til is one that does this, and has generated, perhaps without meaning to, much anti-Dooyeweerdian comment especially in the United States. Part of the problem is the dualism that infects the thinking of many Christians - the dualism that separates sacred from secular.

We need first to see what is the proper relationship between the Christian gospel and philosophy (and indeed any theoretical thinking). Recently I heard David Hanson (WYSOCS) put it something like this:

We try to use philosophy to strengthen the Gospel (by using it to devise proofs for the truth of the Gospel). In fact we should be using the Gospel to enrich philosophy.

His argument would go something like this - though it is not really a logical argument (in fact it is not logically watertight), more of a thoughtful saying to lend clarity to our thinking.

In the Middle Ages various so-called 'proofs' were devised for God, many of which came from philosophy. e.g. the argument from design, the argument from first cause, the argument of the infinite. Doing this rests on the assumption that the Gospel is, in itself, insufficient. The Gospel needs extra proof, and this can be supplied by philosophy.

But the Gospel (the Truth of God), it could be argued, should be sufficient in its own right. Roy Clouser is soon to bring out a book which argues that both Science and the Gospel rest on beliefs that are 'self-evident' - a bit like "We take these truths to be self-evident ...".

If this is so, then it is philosophy that is limited, not the Gospel. And the Gospel can enrich philosophy. Sadly, Christians do not seem to have grasped this.

Some Christians - of the fundamentalist sort - try to bring the Gospel into philosophy in the form of a set of basic axioms with which all philosophical propositions must agree. But this elevates reason and logic no less than rationalism does: who says that all propositions must agree? After all, first logic is itself only part of created reality and thus cannot be absolute, and second, propositions are just linguistic devices and thus also can never be absolute, even if they are Biblical propositions. The Bible is the Word of God (singular) whereas the fundamentalists would make it the words of God (plural) and give absoluteness to words.

I find Dooyeweerdian ideas useful

(Much of this section is older text, written in 1998, and is yet to be rewritten to fulfil the needs outlined at the start. A.B. 6 March 2003)

Dooyeweerdian ideas are just an hypothesis (or theory). However, I do find them extremely useful, and in particular the clear distinction of the aspects.

In these days of the decline of rationalism and rise of interpretivism, I find Dooyeweerd's aspects a useful corrective to both. Rationalism says there is only one aspect, and all others are merely emergent from it. Dooyeweerd's aspects counter this. Interpretivism says that there are no aspects at all, and all is merely interpretation. So the world gets fragmented. Dooyeweerd's aspects counter this too.

I find this useful in both information technology, to ensure that I do not ignore some important factor in a situation. It is also useful in sustainability, to ensure that no factor will crop up later to destroy sustainability. In both these ways I am using Dooyeweerd's aspects as a checklist, and very useful it has proved. Not only that, but in research with Mike Winfield, we have found that the aspects can be understood intuitively by lay people, and thus seem to accord with what people find in their daily lives.

Frame and Coppes

Some years ago, Frame and Coppes wrote what they thought was a strong criticism of Dooyeweerdian thinking from a Christian point of view. I believe they misunderstood, and have written a detailed draft rebuttal. I heard the other day that Frame now realises that his criticism was flawed.

This is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 9 June 1998. Last updated: 7 February 2001 copyright, email. 20 November 2002 frame.coppes moved to ext/. 6 March 2003 revamped, with extra material; the older has been marked as such; .nav. 21 November 2005 .end. 20 September 2008 corrected link to qual.asp. 11 March 2016 box about socio-critical thought; new .end, .nav.