The Doctrine of Scripture in the Dooyeweerdian Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea (I)

Conceivably, strong exception will be taken to the title of this article as betraying a basic misunderstanding of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea. It can be argued that there is no such thing as a doctrine of Scripture in the Dooyeweerdian Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea. Doctrines of Scripture are the special province of theologians, not of philosophers, although both are subject to the Scripture as central word-revelation of power. It can also be argued that even if the Philosophy did have a doctrine of Scripture, it is not the privilege of the theologian to deal with it since his field of investigation differs from that of the philosopher.

From within the system, these objections are, of course, well taken, but reactions can come from without as well as from within. When the title speaks of a “Doctrine of Scripture in the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea,” the reference is simply to the fact that in the writings of Dooyeweerd and those associated with the school of philosophy of which he is the prime mover, much is said about the Bible and the Word of Cod. Of course there are differences among Dooyeweerd and his associates in what they say about Scripture. Nevertheless, enough has been said and there is enough unity in what is said, to allow us to speak fairly of a doctrine of Scripture characteristic of the Dooyeweerdian Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea.

The word “theologian” does not refer to someone with privileged insight into the Word of God and the mysteries of religion, but to one whose calling it is to devote the major part of his time to the study of the revelation of God in Scripture and to associated disciplines. Although he seeks to develop some professional competence in his work, the work itself does not differ in principle from what any Christian does who reads and studies the Bible as the revelation of God. Therefore we could just as well speak of the reaction of one Christian to what other Christians are saying about the Scriptures. That formulation has the additional advantage of pointing out that the philosopher, too, occupies no privileged stance in formulating his doctrines.

The word “reaction” implies that it is the privilege of the theologian to criticize, positively as well as negatively, the work of the philosopher. He can do so on the basis of the revelation of Scripture, and especially in reference to a topic on which the Scripture has so much to say directly. Every doctrine of man, be he theologian or philosopher, must be open to investigation in the light of the Word of God written. This fundamental principle of Reformational and Reformed Christianity has been nowhere better formulated than in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1/10: “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to he examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

The following reactions are offered in the context of profound respect for the truly great achievement for which the name Dooyeweerd stands, and in deep sympathy with the basic thrust of his philosophy that Christians must work and live out of their allegiance to Jesus Christ and his Word, and must do so in antithetical opposition to what is not rooted in Jesus Christ. They are offered in the spirit of Dooyeweerd himself who wrote in his A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (I, 522) that “in the development of a Christian philosophy which is actually stimulated by the biblical ground-motive of the Heformation, there must be a constant striving after the reformation of philosophic thought. This precludes the canonizing of a philosophical system.”

These reactions are therefore also offered with the understanding that the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea may not be simply and exclusively identified as Reformational and Reformed in such a way that everything not aligned with it is to be stigmatized as rooted in a nature-grace, or a nature-freedom, ground-motive. We must insist as did Kuyper, and after him as do men like Dooyeweerd and Van Til, that the Reformation had reference not simply to the limited area of scriptural doctrine, but to all of life. Every area of human endeavor must be claimed for the authority of Jesus Christ. But we must not succumb to the notion that the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea alone holds title to the only viable program in terms of which a society which is truly Christian and truly Reformed may be nourished.

A Dual Concept of the Word of God

Basic to the doctrine of Scripture among the adherents of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea is a dual concept of the Word of God. The expression, Word of God, is used in two distinct senses, which, although intimately related to each other, nevertheless cannot be identified. “Word of God” may be used to refer to the Scripture in the sense of the written documents, the sixty-six books which compose the canon of Scripture. Word of God in this sense is simply Bible. As a temporal phenomenon the Bible partakes of characteristics similar to those which are associated with other temporal phenomena.

“Word of God” is used more characteristically, however, to refer to revelation in its central sense, in distinction from the Word of God as Bible. The Bible is the form which the revelation takes in the world. Word of God in this second sense does not partake of the characteristics that qualify temporal phenomena. In this sense it is not a “something,” but is motive power driving man in the central core of his being, and not impressing simply his eyes or his mind as does the Word of God in the sense of Bible.

Sometimes a distinction is drawn between the Bible itself and the message of the Bible, or between the written Word and the Word proclaimed. Message of the Bible and Word proclaimed would then refer to the Word of God in this second sense as word of revelation.  We must be careful however not to misunderstand the meaning of “message” and “proclamation.” Used this way, they do not refer to a precis or summary of the Word, or to the words of the sermon. Message and proclamation as summary or sermon would fall into the first category of Word of God as written Scripture. Word of God in the second category refers to the central core of the Bible, and to the central core of its proclamation or message. This central core cannot be grasped in words, but can only be listened to. The form of words which in fact it does take on in human experience is Word of God in the first sense, of Bible, or written text of Scripture. For the sake of convenience, we shall refer to Word of God in these two senses as “text-word” and “power-word,” for the first and second senses, respectively.

This dual concept of Word of God is basic and all-pervasive. We shall take account of several passages in order to render the nature of the distinction clearer.

In a significant article on the relation between philosophy and theology (Philosophia Reformata, XXIII [1958], 55, trans. by N.S.) Dooyeweerd writes: “In the community of faith the norm of faith demands that it be given positive form through organs clothed with the power of faith, organs which can derive this power only from the gift of divine inspiration. Therefore, the sure norm of faith of divine word-revelation necessarily has a pistical creational form…The divine revelation necessarily has such pistical creational forms or sources whose divine authority is received in faith because they are confirmed in the hearts of believers by the witness of the Spirit of God.”

Our concern is not with the meaning of this pas· sage in its context, but simply to note the reference on the one hand to the norm of faith or divine revelation, and on the other hand, to its pistical creational form or source. The former is the power-word and the latter is the text-word. In the same context the same distinction is drawn when Dooyeweerd speaks of faith-documents in which the divine revelation takes on an historically founded definite form.

In 1958, Dooyeweerd delivered a series of lectures in the United States that were subsequently published under the title Tn the Twilight of Western Thought. This book was republished in 1968 with only minor corrections. Dooyeweerd says in this book (p. 143): “We must now try to realize the significance of the distinction between the Word of God in its full and actual reality and its restricted sense as the object of theological thought.” In this sentence not only is the distinction which we have signalized insisted upon, but it is reinforced with the observation that only the text-word can become the object of theological thought. The power-word is not open to such reflection. This point is basic and is consequently frequently repeated. For example (p. 136): “As to theology this means that the divine word-revelation can never become the theoretical object of theological research in the full reality wherein it presents itself to us….within the temporal order of our experience this Word-revelation manifests itself in the same modal diversity of aspects, which we find in our own temporal horizon, just as it has become flesh in Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And it is only within the temporal diversity of experiential aspects that the divine revelation can become an object of theological thought.”

In Dooyeweerd’s estimation, it is just the confusion of the text-word with the power-word that has been a major source of confusion in the development of theology in relation to philosophy. The English summary of his article on the relation between philosophy and theology (Philosophia Reformata, XXIII [19581. 18) says: “But from the very beginning there was a fatal confusion between the Word-revelation in the sense of the central principle of true knowledge of God and ourselves, and the theoretical object of dogmatical theology.” And again (Twilight of Western Thought, pp. 119 f.), “The lack of sharp distinction between the Word revelation as the central principle of knowledge and the proper scientific object of dogmatic theology has maintained itself in the later discussions concerning the relation between dogmatic theology and philosophy, both in Roman Catholic and in Protestant circles.”

This distinction between text-word and power-word which Dooyeweerd himself so vigorously insists upon has been maintained and, if anything, has been sharpened by younger disciples in the school of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea. It begins to be a distinction amounting to a disjunction.

A striking example is found in Hendrik Hart’s book, The Challenge of Our Age, when he makes the observation that one can indeed sell cheap editions of the Bible, but one cannot sell cheap editions of God’s word (p. 130). Hart denominates the view that fails to distinguish between text-word and power-word “biblicism,” and describes it as a view which is essentially a form of idolatry because it reduces the Word of Cod to Bible texts (p. 120).

Arnold De Graaff and Calvin Seerveld have cooperated in producing a hook with the title, Understanding the Scriptures. In the first part of the book (p. 2) De Graaff offers as his main thesis the idea that the Bible must be read as the book of the acts of God and that it contains man’s response to God’s revelation. He speaks of the kerygmatic nature of the Word of God which excludes the idea that Scripture is a collection of propositional truths. He speaks also of the Word of God as religious directive which excludes the idea that Scripture is a collection of moral lessons. We are asked to see that in and through the inscripturated account of God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, God himself speaks to us (p. 17). Thus we are warned of the terrible distortion involved in the reduction of the Word of God to a collection of propositional truths and moral lessons and the reduction of the knowledge of the Word to an intellectual understanding of doctrines (p. 18).

The kind of language De Graaff has employed, including, what is in the judgment of this writer, a distorted representation of the historic Reformed doctrine of Scripture, is familiar enough from the writings of neo-modernist theologians. It appears that De Graaff finds this language so convenient for his purpose because he shares with the spectrum of modern theology the distinction between Word of God and Bible, or between power-word and text-word.

In an article with the title “Holy Scripture and Its Key” (International Reformed Bulletin, Jan./April, 1968, p. 51) S. U. Zuidema writes: “There are, to be sure, significant differences between Barthians and Bultmannians. But both, in common with the prevailing trend in theology, drive a wedge between the Bible and the Word of God, between the Word of God in Christ and Holy Scripture.” Zuidema has correctly signalized the problem with respect to the prevailing trend in theology. Modern theology operates in terms of the principle that nothing in this world can be directly identified with an immediate revelation of God. Zuidema goes on to explain (p. 58) that in terms of this principle “it remains axiomatic that Scripture as such differs in no way from any other literature and certainly not from other religious literature. This acknowledgment is also the driving force for the claim that Scripture can merely be God’s Word indirectly, but in no sense directly.”

In other words, there is involved in this approach a direct denial that the Scripture is itself the revelation of God. At the most, the Scripture can point to God. Revelation is not to be found here, or there, or anywhere; revelation is said to occur.

This modern view of Scripture has not only become the password to respectability among the vast majority of theologians, but it has now been written into the constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. In order for that church to make progress as it conceived of progress, it was necessary once and for all to sever legally binding ties with the doctrine of Scripture found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, because that Confession of Faith says in as many words that the revelation of God has been committed unto writing.

The modern view of Scripture is not, of course, a view derived from Scripture itself. Rather, it is an attempt to withdraw from the authority of the Word of God which confronts modern man directly in Scripture. By doing away with the historic Reformed doctrine of Scripture which claims to be nothing more or less than Scripture’s own view of itself, sinful man is better able to assert his independence from God, and his supposed right to autonomous self-government.

In the light of this analysis, one would expect to find in a philosophy which claims to be Scripturally directed, a doctrine of Scripture which would at every point distance itself from the modern principle with its distinction between Word of God and Bible. But in paint of fact, has not this philosophy along with the spectrum of modern theology driven a wedge between Word of God and Bible just with its rigorously maintained distinction between power-word and text-word?

Without doubt, adherents of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea would answer this question with a resounding, “No!”

We may refer once again to the article by Zuidema in which he describes the modern conception of the relation between Word of God and Bible: “Hence essential to the entire view of someone like O. Weber is the view that the Bezugsganze, the Bezugsmitte of Holy Scripture, lies outside of Holy Scripture and that Scripture itself, in its totality and in each of its parts, is a contingent and disunified phenomenon” (p. 58). This modem conception does not want to disqualify the Scripture as hook altogether; but, to quote Zuidema again: “On the basis of such an approach, Scripture accidentally becomes necessary and necessarily becomes accidental” (p. 51).

Adherents of the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea do not appear to share with the modern view the notion that the shape of the written Bible is a matter of pure contingency. On the contrary to speak of the Bible as the creational form of the faith norm is designed to eliminate the element of contingency. Dooyeweerd would employ the notion that the divine Word-revelation has entered our temporal horizon, that the “Yard was made flesh and dwelt among us (Twilight of Western Thought, p. 143), in a fundamentally different way than Barth. Over against Barth for whom Dooyeweerd says Christian belief has no single point of contact with human nature, Dooyeweerd asks, “how could we believe without having heard the Word with the ear of sense, or without having perceived the written words of the Bible with the eye of sense, and having understood the lingual meaning of the words?” (p. 154)

Nevertheless, with the vigorous disjunction that has been made between power-word and text-word, will it prove possible to rescue the authoritative character of the inscripturated Word of God, or will it prove to be the case that with the notion of central revelation as distinct from Bible, the Bezugsganze, the Bezugsmitte, of Holy Scripture is shifted outside of Holy Scripture?

(To be continued)

Norman Shepherd is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His article to appear in installments is a slightly revised version of a lecture delivered in March 1970 at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.