Anniversary: The First 25 years of Prof. Herman Dooyeweerd

It is with a good deal of diffidence that I undertake, at long last to write a short article to note the twenty fifth anniversary of Doctor Herman Dooyeweerd’s professorship at the Free University of Amsterdam. This hesitation stems from the fact that it will soon be thirty years ago that Prof. Dooyeweerd was appointed on October 15, 1924, and here I am almost three years late! My reluctance and shame at such procrastination is, however, overcome by the assurance that in some things it is belter to be late than not to be at all. And, further, it is my firm confidence that the task itself has a renewed timeliness. The only excuse I can offer is that the anniversary volume itself came a year after the event.

It is a custom in The Netherlands not only for a new professor to give all inaugural oration, which is usually printed and given wide distribution, but when he has finished twenty five years of distinguished service he is offered, by his appreciative disciples, a volume of essays which they have written for the occasion and which in a measure reflect the influence of the master on their intellectual development, The volume dedicated to Dooyeweerd is entitled: Rechtsgeleerde Opstellen. (Essays in Jurisprudence), to which sixteen scholars have contributed. It is impossible to reflect at the present upon the concerns of this volume, and it is beyond the competence of this reviewer to do so with any show of justice since they are in the field of the juridical. Suffice it to list just a few of the titles, to indicate the relevance and the appeal of this book. Dr. W. P. Berghuis has an essay on “Democracy,” while Dr. F. T . Diemer writes on “Artificial Insemination in Man.” Professor J. D. A. Mekkes sets forth the historic Calvinistic doctrine on “The Right of Resistance,” and to mention no more, Dr. J. D. Dengerink discusses a few aspects of the concept “Ordnung” in E. Brunner. The last ten pages of the book present a list of the publications of Dr. Dooyeweerd beginning with his dissertation for the doctorate in 1917 and ending with an article in the Free University Quarterly of 1951 on, “The Contest about the Concept of Sovereignty in Modern Jurisprudence and Political Science.” Since that time, however, Dr. Dooyeweerd’s magnum opus (Volume I) has been published in English, of which more later.

From the dating of the dissertation it may be seen that Prof. Dooyeweerd will soon (1957) count forty years since his promotie (receiving the doctorate) in 1917. At the time he was only twenty-one years of age, which even in Holland is a very precocious age for anyone to have finished his work for a doctorate in jurisprudence, To appreciate fully Dr. Dooyeweerd’s genial personality one has to sit at his feet in the classroom or to meet him in his parlor and sit at his table, for he is a superb host and one of the finest conversationalists that one may meet. His ready wit and friendly spirit have made him a great favorite with the Reformed students of The Netherlands. Dooyeweerd has the fine art of making out of students disciples and friends. This is accomplished as much by his religious fervor as his persuasive manner and brilliant mind.



It is impossible within the short compass of this article to give the history of the rise of Calvinistic Philosophy in The Netherlands. For nearly forty years Dooyeweerd has been occupied with giving a criticism of all immanentistic (those systems which have the final norm of thought within the universe) philosophic systems. For a while he was the executive secretary of the Dr. Abraham Kuyper Stichting at The Hague, where he initiated the Quarterly: Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde. After his appointment at the Free University to the chair of Philosophy of Jurisprudence and Encyclopedia of Juridical Science he devoted himself in collaboration with Prof. D. H. Th. Vollenhoven to building up a system of philosophic thought based upon the Scriptures. He insists that God as the creator of the world must always be properly distinguished from his creation, and that the laws of thought or any other aspect of reality are not eternal but are created. Both Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven unashamedly point their students and critics to the Scriptures as the final and absolute authority in philosophy. No interpretation of reality that makes man the end-all and be-all of existence, that is “lost in this round globe,” to use Calvin’s phrase, can be the ultimate answer since man is finite and his reason cannot plumb the depths or the mysterious universe. Man by searching, cannot find out God.

Dr. Dooyeweerd insists that all thinking is conditioned thinking, that is, conditioned by the person who does the thinking. And every person is either a lover or hater of God, a covenant-breaker or a covenant-keeper. Out of the heart are the issues of life and faith is the function of the heart. -Man in his heart either lives by faith in the Son of God (Christ is the root of the renewed humanity in the covenant of grace) or a man lives out of his apostate faith in human reason, human power or some other created reality. A religiously neutral, objective, a so-called scientific philosophy is for Dooyeweerd a contradiction and an intrinsic impossibility.

In all of this the author claims no originality but holds that he is merely following the footsteps of that great genius of the Reformed faith, Abraham Kuyper, founder of the Free University. Kuyper in his Stone Lectures, delivered at Princeton in 1898, had maintained the duality of the human race. He allowed for no common human consciousness out of which a common scientific edifice could be erected, but he held that those born again are “abnormalists” who see everything in this world as changed because of sin and therefore in need of restoration through Christ. The “normalists,” on the other hand, will not allow the proposition that nature and man are not normal, neither the claim of the Christian philosopher that he has a right to his own presuppositions. Now Kuyper began to show that the normalist makes his own assumptions, which are of a religious nature. He posited the idea that all men live by faith, and philosophize out of their faith. This root idea of Kuyper has been thoroughly applied by Dr. Dooyeweerd in the first volume of his life’s work, which came out in English translation last year.*

Several reviews have already appeared this year from which I offer the reader a few samples. In The Review of Metaphysics Dr. Richard Kroner of Union Theological Seminary has this to say: “The book deals with an important and extremely timely problem, in a most interesting and arresting fashion.” Then, after telling us what Dooyeweerd is trying to do—and this reviewer is of the opinion that Kroner has understood Dooyeweerd very well—he goes on: “One cannot deny that this whole undertaking is as bold as it is urgently needed. The author has a penetrating and subtle mind. He exhibits a stupendous learning in many fields. He illuminates many dark corners or thought. His system is like that of Calvin, centered in the sovereignty and glory or God, and he is convinced that this central faith is entitled and able to serve as the basis of a new philosophic fabric which would efficiently and sufficiently supersede the defective modern trends of thought. Instead of being unconsciously and uncritically dependent upon a semi-religious creed, this philosophy will consciously and therefore critically admit the inescapability of an original connection between religious faith and theoretical thought, and it will make this inner unity the cornerstone of the whole building” (pp. 321,322). It is also striking, in view of the premature criticism and supercilious attitude to be found in certain quarters, that Kroner writes: “A definite judgment about the philosophic value of Dooyeweerd’s system has to be postponed, until the other volumes have been published It seems to me that the most difficult question concerning the relation between Christian confessional theology and a Christian philosophy aiming at universal validity is not yet sufficiently answered, perhaps not even fully understood or recognized by the author. He rejects the name of Calvinistic philosophy now, which he had formerly adopted. This shows an uncertainty with respect to the most crucial point whatever may be the ultimate place of Dooyeweerd in the history of philosophy, the great significance and consequence o( his work are already to be seen” (pp. 323, 324).

The Christian Century under the title “Finding a Fulcrum for Reason’s Lever,” (June 2, 1954, Maurice Natanson as reviewer) has the following positive evaluation, although admitting that it is “not possible within the compass of this review to attempt a serious philosophical analysis of Dooyeweerd’s contribution to philosophy in the present work, or even to evaluate the single theme we have selected for emphasis, that of the ‘Archimedean point’” adds: “The philosophic scholarship exhibited is prodigious and deep. The author moves from system to system without sacrificing the quality of his insight and penetration.”

For those who are willing to make a sustained mental effort, this book will be a rewarding venture on several scores: it presents a responsible inquiry into root-problems of philosophy which are not well known in this country, and it presents the author’s philosophic-religious concept, which he terms the “cosmonomic idea.”

Rather than enter into a discussion of the philosophical meaning and implications of the ‘cosmonomic idea,’ let us turn to Dooyeweerd’s conception of its religious aspect. “The problem of the ‘Archimedean point’ finds its resolution in a religious ground: ‘the totality of meaning of our whole temporal cosmos is to be found in Christ, with respect to his human nature, as the root or the reborn human race.’ The thought of Calvin is taken as the point of departure for ‘a real reformation of philosophic thought.’” (p. 672).

This certainly gives some idea of the reception in America, but, since the detractors and scorners, like the poor, are always with us, and some rather flippant, unscientific and indefensible characterizations have been making the rounds in certain circles to the effect that “whatever is good in the system is not new, and whatever is new is not good,” allow me just one more very interesting witness as to the profundity and gigantic scope of Dooyeweerd’s contribution. In The journal of Religion, Oct. 1951, Dr. Charles Hartshorne of the Federated Theological Faculty, Chicago University, makes this honest confession in his opening statement, “To judge this book calls for an immense effort, which I shall not undertake. One must read several other volumes by the author, in which he expounds his ‘philosophy of the cosmonomic idea.’ One must meditate persistently upon his basic themes. Dooyeweerd holds that the fundamental issue in philosophy is between the immanence standpoint and Christian transcendentalism Detailed and learned examinations of Liebnitz, Hume, Kant, and Fichte, among others, are offered in support of this conclusion…This volume often reads almost like a history o( modern philosophy—a good history, incidentally…This is an extraordinary work, as it stands, to me a rather battling one. However, the writing is often clear and illuminating, for example, in the denial that ‘naive realism’ is a theory of reality.”

Hanshorne disagrees with Dooyeweerd’s evaluation of German idealism as being the last great embodiment of speculative philosophy in view of the achievements of Whitehead. No doubt he has a point there as Dooyeweerd does scant justice to any but continental thinkers, a fault he has in common with most Netherlanders. And after Hartshorne pleads “not guilty” in behalf of Whitehead on the count of absolutizing law with the rationalists or individuality with the irrationalists he concludes: “It will be a pleasure to greet the appearance of the second and third volume of this amazing work” (pp. 297, 298).

Amazing is the word! Especially when we consider that this scholar has written scores of scientific articles of high calibre during the last thirty years and published a dozen books, among them many large volumes on philosophy. And yet this man’s scientific field is jurisprudence! He has continued to fulfill his duties in that field and in the chair to which he was appointed. Moreover, he has been invited to lecture in Switzerland, France, Germany and South Africa. It is certainly to be deplored that his spiritual kindred in the new world have thus far not had the opportunity of hearing Dooyeweerd lecture, and it would be an unfortunate mistake should he not be secured for an American lectureship soon!

My personal appreciation for Dr. Dooyeweerd as a leacher and as a Christian philosopher is profound. I feel something like Keats when first he discovered Chapman’s translation of Homer. Having read most of it the first night, he responded with these immortal lines:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne:

Yet never I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez, when with wondering eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

* Cf. A new Critique of Theological Thought by Herman Dooyeweerd, Dr. Jur., translated by David H. Freeman and William S. Young, Vol. I, The Necessary Presuppositions of Philosophy. This book may be obtained from The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Philadelphia.