“Toward a Reformed Philosophy”

Young, William, TOWARD A REFORMED PHILOSOPHY. Grand Rapids, Piet Hein Publishers. 1952. 155 pp.

Reformed people in America should rejoice at the publication of this slender volume. Before its appearance there was no easy access to a survey in English of the development of the new Calvinistic philosophy, the Philosophy of the Idea of Law, which has been taking shape at the Free University of Amsterdam for nearly three decades. For all who are interested in the Calvinistic world and life view this volume offers a rapid but penetrating survey of the development and some of the problems of this new system.

In a short while some of the most important writings of this school will appear in English translation. Even with their publication, however, there will be nothing in our language to take the place of Dr. Young’s work, even though there will be abundant material for the English speaking reader who wishes to become acquainted with this philosophy. The reason for this is that Dr. Young compresses within a short compass not only a survey of the work of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven but also a review of the thought leading up to their attempt to construct a radical Christian philosophy and a treatment of both sympathetic and unsympathetic criticisms leveled at their work. Dr. Young’s book, therefore, has a unique place, and its publication in slightly modified form, even eight years after it was written as a thesis for Union Theological Seminary, New York, should be welcomed by all who are interested in the progress of Reformed thinking.

Dr. Young shows that this attempt to form a radical Christian philosophy is something novel. Because of their return to the Biblical way of thought, the Reformers, and especially Calvin, opened the way for the development of a real Protestant philosophy. However, they did not develop such a philosophy. Wherever they passed beyond exegesis of the Scriptures they fell back on philosophies which were not typically Protestant. After the period of the Reformation even the Reformed, who were in the best position to develop a philosophy because of Calvin’s pure grasp of the Christian world view, fell into a Protestant Scholasticism. Dr. Young cites the premature attempts of Ramus and Alsted to form a Christian philosophy, but by far the most were content to be Christian in their theology and to borrow from other sources when it came to philosophical questions. In England, for instance, there was a mixture of Scholasticism with Locke’s empirical method. The Reformed were not aware that their position contained the clue to a radically Christian philosophy (p. 35).

With Abraham Kuyper the situation changed. Though he did not succeed altogether in breaking with the traditional philosophy he nevertheless developed ideas that pointed the way. H e realized the need for obtaining a true, transcendent position as starting point for philosophy (p. 48): he developed the idea that sin also affects the mind of man and consequently his thought (p. 56) ; he found an organic connection between faith and knowledge, so that faith was seen as undergirding knowledge (p. 59); he originated the idea of faith as a function of human nature, which involves the position that all human life is led by faith, whether this faith be true or false (p. 59f.); he stressed the antithesis between the regenerate and unregenerate consciousness, and held that there was a two-fold development of science, Christian and non-Christian (p. 62); and he initiated the idea of sphere-sovereignty, which he did not limit to the social spheres, but regarded as a principle for other aspects of the cosmos as well (p. 68).

Between Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, notwithstanding—the greatness of Reformed thinkers in the Netherlands and the fact that they engaged in philosophical inquiry, many of the insights of Kuyper were lost to sight. Bavinck, Woltjer, and Hepp tended to synthesize with non-Christian philosophy and to obscure the antithesis that Kuyper developed. Nevertheless, Dr. Young finds them significant for the development of this new philosophy in their attempt to give Calvinism expression in terms of the modern situation. Neither could the new philosophy have developed apart from the theological work of Kuyper and Bayinck. Further, they laid great stress on Calvinism as a world and life view, and spoke for the necessity of applying this world view in all walks of life. Finally, they actually philosophized in no mean fashion. But the best of Kuyper’s followers failed to give the same incisive expression to the Reformed principles that characterized Kuyper’s Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Seminary (p. 95) .

With Dooyeweerd there began a systematic and thorough attempt to construct a typically Reformed philosophy. Since we could not hope to give even the bare outlines of this system, we must refer the reader to Dr. Young’s work itself. But we can point out the importance of the scientific labor that has gone into the formulation of this philosophy. It is the result of years of the most painstaking and concentrated intellectual effort, and its positions have been developed only after deep study of various special sciences and a vigorous wrestling with the deepest problems in several important philosophical schools. The result is a monument to sustained intellectual effort. Whether all the results of this thought are acceptable is a matter for debate. The authors themselves admit that their positions, many of which are original, are subject to revision as they meet the test by fire of public debate. The philosophy is in its in fancy though it claims to build upon the work of centuries. But they claim that their work concerns not merely particular views in a system but also the very foundations of reason itself, and involves an inner reformation of reason and its change of direction in the light of the Christian world view (p. 26).

It is for such an inner reformation of philosophy that Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven plead. They wish to oppose a fallen reason, which searches for the starting point of philosophy independently of God and his revelation. In this approach they claim to be directly in the line of Kuyper and his view of the antithesis and the twofold development of science.

How lonely such a position is can be realized only by one who earnestly tries to defend it in the face of the dominant thought of the day. Its break with modern humanism is seen in its daring attack upon the autonomy or independence of reason from revelation. It also distances itself from Roman Catholic thought, which sees philosophy as the product of natural reason and as the preamble of grace. It comes at a time when the Barthiarian theology and kindred movements are denying the possibility of a radical Christian philosophy and, under the guise of relating Christianity to our time, are trying to synthesize the Christian faith with modern existentialist philosophies, just as the Middle Ages tried to synthesize the Christian faith with Greek thought and Modernism tried to synthesize it with Idealistic philosophy. We have been reminded, too, by Dr. Van Til, who labors in the same spirit as Dooyeweerd and VoIIenhoven, that this new philosophy demands a departure from traditional means of defense of the Christian faith. Since this new thought touches many life and death questions of non-Christian positions, and since it sets itself against all the compromise which characterizes the positions of many Christian thinkers, we should expect that the reaction to it would be sharp.

T hat this philosophy is even now not without its constructive and destructive critics is indicated by Dr. Young in his closing chapter. Among the constructive critics are Prof. Stoker of South Africa and our own Dr. Van Til. Dr. Young-adds some profound criticisms of his own, and questions whether he can really be called an adherent of this system, since his thinking bears more of an Augustinian stamp. His debt to this thought is readily acknowledged, however. We would join him in raising the question as to what place this system allows for the doctrine of immortality, and we hope that DooyeweeI’ll’s future publications will throw additional light on this important question. We should also like some additional clarification of the relation of biblical statements to scientific theory. Dooyeweerd says that the Bible does not offer us scientific theories but speaks to us in a pre-theoretical way, in the language of everyday usage. Exactly what attitude is the science of history, for instance, to take toward the Bible record, if it is the case, as Dooyeweerd claims, that we are never to adduce “proof texts” to uphold or negate matters properly belonging to the sciences, at least other than theology?

Reading this volume was for the reviewer something’ of a homecoming. Much of his initial interest in the Philosophy of the Idea of Law was stimulated by reading this work in its original form as deposited in the library of Union Seminary. It is his hope that how that it has appeared in more accessible form that many Reformed people will take the opportunity of reading it, and if it be that God has given them the proper gifts, that they will be moved to join the ever widening circle of those who have realized the importance this philosophy and who have set themselves to test it, to prove it, and possibly to advance it.