Science in Christian Perspective



Dooyeweerd's Doctrine of Science
Westminster Theological Seminary 
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


From: JASA 31 (September 1979): 209-212.

Dooyeweerd's thought always embraces a transcendental critique, in (1) the negative sense of tracking down the presuppositions of apostate or synthesis thinking; and (2) the positive sense ofshowing, by way of argumentation, the religious character of all thought. With variations, these two directions are always present in his philosophy.

Herman Dooyeweerd, the late professor emeritus of jurisprudence at the Free University of Amsterdam, believed that there is a legitimate place for science in the way God has. ordered things. He understood science to be a Godgiven means for disclosing the potentialities of the cosmos. In this conviction he echoed the views of the great Reformer of the sixteenth century, John Calvin, and the lesser known but also great Reformer of the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Abraham Kuyper.1

Abraham Kuyper, the founder in 1880 of the Free University, argued that science has its own domain, free from the constraints of ecclesiastical decisions. Indeed, upon occasion, the church had attempted to curtail science by making pronouncements and by imposing sanctions. This, Kuyper said, was unfruitful. Science is a good gift of God and should be used to his glory. In spite of the fact that he rejected its spirit entirely, Kuyper was able, therefore, to acknowledge that there were some positive fruits of the emancipation, called "secularization," both of economic life and of science that accompanied the Renaissance and the rise of bourgeois culture.2

In this regard, Kuyper was, in turn, a follower of John Calvin. The latter, trained as a lawyer, schooled in the liberal arts, had an open attitude towards the sciences3 For him science was a noble enterprise. Together with its fruits it was a benefit bestowed by God, which Christians could despise only out of ingratitude.4

Sphere Sovereignty

It was with this spirit of gratefulness that Kuyper developed his view of the sovereignty in its own sphere (or "orbit") of science. For him science is one of various spheres ordained by God, possessing a derived sovereignty within its own sphere and forming thus a terrain of legitimate, divinely ordained activity. Laboring within the sphere of science, he said, one has the obligation to submit it, together with all other spheres of life, to the kingship of Jesus Christ.5

In the line of Abraham Kuyper, consciously drawing on his legacy, Herman Dooyeweerd also held to the sovereignty in its own sphere of science. Science has its own, divinely established meaning, its own sense. Its meaning does not derive from that of any other created sphere of life, whether it be the church, the educational or business world, or any other temporal association.

That science has its own sense and possesses sovereignty in its own sphere does not mean, however, that it has its meaning of itself. It does not have meaning of itself any more than any other sphere does. Every sphere has meaning only as a creation of God, and its sovereignty is one that is subject to the absolutely sovereign God and the bounds he has set for it. The being of everything, including science, is to be in the service of God.

Dooyeweerd was particularly strict as to the last point. Everything has its meaning in its relation to God, who is the true source of meaning. That is not to say, however, that a thing, including science, first is and then must be brought into relation to God. Everything it in relation to God, either in relation to the true God or a pretended substitute for him, an idol. Dooyeweerd expressed this religious relationship in his philosophy by saying that everthing not only has meaning but is meaning.6

Dooyeweerd, therefore, was able to say that the cosmos is a structure of meaning without holding that this structure is self-sufficient, as he said, "substance." All structure is created structure, created meaning-structure, whose being is in its dependence upon God. Thus, it is possible to speak of science itself, possessing its own structure and its own sense without implying that science is of itself.

To deny this, as some have done recently, leads into an impasse in relating God to the cosmos. If one refuses to link meaning to the cosmos in such a way that the cosmos is meaning and insists that the cosmos has meaning inrelation, let us say, in relation to God, he is faced with difficulties at both termini. It is difficult for him, on the one hand, to avoid the view that to allow for structure is in some sense to allow for something that is in isolation from God. It is also difficult for him, on the other hand, to avoid isolating the God-relationship from what a thing is itself, some might even say, from what it really is. Analogously, he has difficulty avoiding the view that to refer to a thing itself is to imply that it is of itself, and having located the source of meaning in the God-relationship, to avoid the view that what in itself has no meaning obtains its meaning in relationship to God.

Dooyeweerd's own position is clear, however, with respect to the meaning of science. Science has its own sense, its own meaning of itself.

Put somewhat differently, that something, including science, has sovereignty in its own sphere, does not mean that it establishes its own law, that it is, in this sense, a law unto itself. It is subject to God and the law that he has given for the cosmos. In being subject, a thing has its being; its being is in its being subject to God.

Doing Science

If it indeed pertains, as Dooyeweerd says it does, to one sphere among others, science is one activity among others a person can do. A person can form a family, go to church, vote, etc. He may also "do science," if that is his calling. One may do science, among other things, according to the sense establishing the meaning of its sphere.
"Doing science" is, therefore, a typically qualified activity, typical indeed, in that it involves a number of traits drawn together in a particular pattern. It is one among other such typically qualified activities that people can do. When they are doing science, they act in accordance with the typical qualification of the sphere in which they are acting.
The meaning of science, however, is never apart from the activity of the one who "does" it and whose act transcends the scope of any of its typical qualifications. Dooyeweerd taught, particularly later in his career, that the structure of human act-life, unlike those of other creatures, is not qualified typically. Particular human acts, like painting a watercolor, presenting a gift to a friend, or giving an afterdinner speech, are indeed qualified, the first aesthetically, the second ethically, and the third socially. Human act-life, however, is not qualified in any typical fashion; it cannot be typified in terms of any of its expressions, even that of faith, but stands open before God. As one may put it, human act-life is "convenantal."

As covenantal, religious, in character, human life is life in which man is expected to subdue himself and his every act to the sovereign God. It must be clearly established, however, what is meant here by religion. It is the concentrating of all of life on its absolute origin, God, according to his command that one love him with all of his heart, soul, mind, and his neighbor as himself. Religion is, therefore, that which underlies and gives direction to every terrain of life without exception.

Science as Religiously Conditioned

Such a view that science is religiously conditioned does not mean that it is conditioned by something that must be set up against or in competition with science, so that, for instance, one is obliged to be less than scientific in order to allow the religious character of science to come to expression. Dooyeweerd's position, on the contrary, is that science is religious in an inner way, i.e., with respect to what characterizes science as science, namely, the forming of theoretical concepts.

Thus, the relevance of religion to science does not appear in a practical in contrast to a theoretical, an ethical in contrast to a metaphysical realm, or in naive in contrast to systematic thinking. Nor does it first appear as one comes up against ultimate, sometimes called "existential," questions, or as one's statements attain rapport with theological truth.

From the first, Dooyeweerd held that theoretical concepts themselves are not self-sufficient. Theoretical thinking, indeed, has its own domain, the area that is proper to it; nevertheless, theoretical thinking is not autonomous, a law unto itself.

Dooyeweerd held that theoretical thinking is a human activity, one which is logically qualified. Logic is indeed present in everyday relationships. Even a simple conversation has its logical side. In theorizing, however, the logical is abstracted out from the other aspects of reality with which it is integrally related and is set over against one of them. A psychologist, for instance, works with logically qualified concepts; but these are in turn qualified by the sense of his field of investigation. In a theoretical concept, therefore, there is at once an opposition and a conjoining of the logical and non-logical aspect.

From the first, Dooyeweerd held that a logical concept is more than logical in character. It involves, he said, a synthesis of what is logical and what is non-logical. In the concepts with which he is working, a theoretician will discover that there has already been a synthesis of the logical and the non-logical. It is impossible to think, therefore, that the general-logical concepts with which one works in science are sufficient to themselves. One must understand that a theoretical synthesis is already present in them. It is necessary, then, to sort out the concepts, and this can be accomplished only in terms of a concept of one's field of investigation.

We ourselves are acquainted with certain theoretical concepts and with lines of theoretical argumentation. Among others we are confronted with the following terms: "conscience," "emic," "etic." We have also been presented a line of argument: Inevitably one will express moral disapprobation (anger) and himself will inevitably fall short of his own moral judgment (conscience). God will judge him for not having universalized his own moral judgment.

Dooyeweerd maintained that any such forming and conjoining of concepts is possible only as it is led by an idea of an order of "modal aspects," which inhere in divinely created reality. In our discussion to this point, we have already referred to a logical, a psychical, a social, an aesthetic and an ethical aspect.

Dooyeweerd's conviction in this regard came to a refined systematic expression in an important monograph published in 1954.7 Every general-logical concept, he argued, is multivocal, or "analogical." This multivocality cannot be eliminated by means of further logical clarification, as if it were simple logical ambiguity. If there is to be clarity in theoretical concept-formation, the general-logical concepts, the analogical concepts, must be related to an order of modal aspects, which, themselves not definable, because they are ultimately generic concepts, lie at the foundation of the possibility of all conceptualization.8

That the general-logical concepts used in theory are in need of modal qualification shows that they are not sufficient to themselves. They are dependent upon an order of

Religion is the concentration of all of life on its absolute origin, God, according to His command that one love Him with all of his heart, soul, mind, and his neighbor as himself. Religion is, therefore, that which underlies and gives direction to every terrain of life without exception.

reality- Dooyeweerd said, a divinely ordained order of reality-in terms of which they have their meaning. Theoretical thought depends in its execution on a created order of reality which is itself not of the nature of theory and not even of the nature of logic.

A major portion of the original inspiration that led to the formation of his philosophy was that this concept-formation was led by an idea, what he called a "law idea." And a law-idea is founded, not in theoretical thinking itself, but in a true or supposed origin of truth, to which one is related religiously, in an ultimate commitment.

According to Dooyeweerd, however, as we have already pointed out, that science is religiously determined does not mean that it is any less science. An objection voiced against such a position as his, of course, is that it hands over science to a limitless arbitrariness. That is not at all the effect of Dooyeweerd's position. Science, he insists, must answer to the strictest canons as to method, etc.

It is characteristic of the idea of sphere-sovereignty, that a sphere (the state, the home, science, etc.) has its own character, its own structure, but is nevertheless completely dependent religiously. Thus, whoever is active within a particular sphere is obliged, to God's glory, to serve him according to the law he has ordained for that sphere.
The religious determination of science, therefore, is not manifest only as one departs science for something else; it is manifest within science, in its actual practice. Dooyeweerd always sought for an inner connection between science and religion.

The Triadic Idea

Reflection on the religious impulse at work in science is, as we have pointed out, a reflection on what is actually going on in the process of the formation of concepts in scientific activity. From the first, Dooyeweerd claimed that theoretical thought is led by an idea. Early in his career he said that this is an idea of the coherence and origin of the cosmos. Soon, however, he added a third term. All theoretical conceptualization is led by an idea of the coherence, deeper unity, and origin of the cosmos. In all theoretical thinking one or another such triadic idea will be present. It is necessary to bring it to awareness, because apart from the true one theory cannot embark on a proper course.

We have to this point given some attention to the dependence of concept-formation on the idea of the coherence of meaning of the cosmos, the first term of the triadic idea. Now, drawing on an observation we made

  Dooyeweerd always insisted that his philosophy was incapable of popular expression.

earlier, we may direct our attention to the second term of the triad. We already observed that, according to Dooyeweerd, a person in his act-life is more than any of his typically qualified acts.

In theoretical concept-formation there is always an implicit or explicit reflecting on humanity. That is to say, theorizing is always led, whether one is aware of it or not, by an idea of who the human being is. Reflection upon the religious foundation of science proceeds, therefore, by way of a reflection on the human being in his integrality and wholeness, on the one who acts in ways that are variously qualified.

In addition, Dooyeweerd claimed, it is always the case that the idea of humanity is correlate with an idea of God. Thus, in every theoretical judgment, in the activity of forming concepts itself, there will already be a triadic idea at work that can be obtained only by way of taking position religiously.

Life Is Religion

Dooyeweerd's view, like that of Abraham Kuyper, was that life is religion. This religiousness manifests itself according to the specific sphere in which a person acts. It is manifest, for example, in worship, in play, in conversation, and in the communion of husband and wife. In science this religious orientation becomes manifest in reflection on what itself is a process of thought, namely, the process of theoretical concept-formation.

The above statement reflects the transcendental character of Dooyeweerd's thinking. The presuppositions of science are not discovered by stepping out of science, by appealing, e.g., to a set of metaphysical postulates; they are discovered by giving attention to what is already at the background of the actual course of scientific inquiry. It is only by way of such a critique of thought that the inner connection between theory and science can be found.

In this connection, we may observe how central the transcendental direction is in Dooyeweerd's thinking and how important it was to him even from the first. Transcendental criticism, for instance, was not, as some think, a later development. As we have already suggested, the transcendental direction of thought and a kind of transcendental criticism lay at the heart of his thinking, as he concluded that all theorizing is led by a tripartite idea, which itself is religiously conditioned.

His thought always embraced transcendental critique, in the sense of tracking down the presuppositions of apostate or synthesis thinking. It always embraced this criticism, too, in the positive sense of showing, by way of argumentation, the religious character of all thought.

Soon after the publication in 1935-1936 of his Philosophy of the Idea of Law,9 however, Dooyeweerd began to develop his transcendental critique in a more formal way, in the step-by-step form in which it is now for the most part known. This kind of presentation first appeared in an article of 1939, in the periodical Synthese.10 This formalized version he sets forth in a series of three or four questions, answers to which any theorizing must assume. Every line of theoretical thinking must assume an answer to the question as to the kind of abstraction that characterizes theory: theory abstracts from the coherence of meaning of the cosmos, articulating its various aspects. It must assume an answer to the question as to how these aspects are again unified in a theoretical synthesis (every concept, as we say, involves one): it is possible to sort out the aspects correctly only when there is a reflection on the concentration of meaning of the cosmos in the self. It must assume an answer, finally, to the question as to whence this true understanding of the self may be obtained: it is gotten as one is carried along in the religious community in the grip of the revelation of God, that he is creator, that the human being, created in his image, has fallen into sin, and that redemption is in Christ Jesus.

A cornerstone of the critique, Dooyeweerd claimed, particularly in his later development, is that these questions are forced upon one by the structure itself of theoretical thought.11 It has become widespread, even fashionable, among some who believe themselves to stand within the tradition of Dooyeweerd, to minimize, or even to eliminate, the transcendental critique of thought. One view contributing to such a rejection is that religious involvement is a practical matter, a matter of practical, or "existential," concern. Theoretical thinking, then, is regarded to be, e.g., an articulation or systematization of what are sometimes called "gut reactions." It is, therefore, only as we move from theoretical expression to pre-theoretical involvement that we again enter the domain of religious conviction. On this view, some are claiming that we must depart theory and resort to popular expression if we are to see the religious thrust of Dooyeweerd's philosophy.

It must be observed, in contrast, that Dooyeweerd always insisted that his philosophy was incapable of popular expression. He also continually emphasized the central place in his philosophizing of transcendental criticism.

On February 12, 1977, Herman Dooyeweerd went to be with his Lord, full, I am led to understand, of trust and peace. I am confident that his works will live after him.


11837-1920. A recognized biography of Kuyper is that of P. Kasteel, Abraham Kuyper (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1938).
2Cf. Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1931; 1943); cf. also William Young, Toward a Reformed Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Piet Hem Publishers, 1952), especially chapter 1.
3 Note the extensive discussion in Josef Bohatec, Budd und Calvin: Studien cur Gedankenwelt desfranzsischen 
Fruhhumanismus (Gras: Hermann Bohlaus, 1950).
4Calvin, Institutes 11: 2:16.
5There is she famous, oft-quoted saying of Kuyper, "There is not a square inch of life, of which Christ does not say, 'It is mine'."
6 'Meaning is the being of all that has been created and the nature even of our selfhood .. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Amsterdam: H. J. Paris and Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.), 1(1953), 4.
7Hcrman Dooyeweerd, De analogische grondbegrippen der vakwetenschappen en hun belrekking tot de structuur van den menselijken ervaringshorizon (Amsterdam: Noord-Hallandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1954). Tr., Robert D. Kundsen, "The " Analogical Concepts" (mimeographed, 1968). 
8Cf. Dooyeweerd, A New Critique. 11 (1955, 55ff.
9De wsjsbegeerte dee wetsidee (3 vols.; Amsterdam: H. J. Paris 1935-1936). The New Critique is a revised and enlarged edition of this work in English translation.
10Herman Dooyeweerd, "De transcendentale critiek van het wijsgerig denken, Synthese, IV, 314-339,
11Herman Dooeweerd, Transcendental Problems of Philosophic Thought (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), pp. vi-viii, 19, 22, 25.