Reformational Social Philosophy and Sociological Theory


Redeemer College
Ancaster, Ontario L9G 3N6

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (June 1991): 96-102.      Response: Heddendorf

In this article an argument is presented for an understanding of the social sciences as rooted in the created character of all reality including social life. Focusing on the discipline of sociology, an explanation of social reality is formulated which attempts to unfold the basic Christian position that our world was begun and continues to be held together by God's creative Word. A Biblical cosmology is presented which is relevant for academic work in the physical sciences as well as in the social sciences.

Sociology is an academic discipline with a wide variety of theoretical perspectives. Structural functionalism, conflict theory, social exchange theory, symbolic interactionism, and ethnomethodology are some of the major schools of thought that have shaped sociology as a field of study. Sociologists subscribing to these various paradigms often feel strongly about the value and importance of their particular approach. They have organized their own sociological associations, academic journals, and annual meetings. Very little cross-communication takes place between the various sociological schools of thought. When it does, it is usually acrimonious.

What can a Christian sociologist do in the midst of this theoretical pluralism? The temptation is to be eclectic. We reason that if we take what we regard as specific insights from the various theories, then we will have a composite theory which will be closer to the truth about social reality. So often, however, this effort results in a theoretical hodge-podge which creates contradiction and confusion rather than understanding and explanation. In this article I attempt to set forth the contours of a sociological theory which is neither eclectic nor inflicted with the ontological and epistemological relativism characteristic of non-Christian sociological thought. The social philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd and others working in the perspective known as "Reformational Philosophy" has been quite helpful in my attempt to develop a Christian sociological theory which is compatible with a Christian world and life view.1 In this article, then, I want to formulate the major outlines of a Christian sociological theory informed by reformational social philosophy.

Dooyeweerd makes an important distinction between philosophical sociology and empirical sociology.2
 Philosophical sociology investigates the nature of social structures and their interconnection. It seeks to uncover the various enduring, created structures which are fundamental to social life and which make social life possible. Philosophical sociology attempts to penetrate to the social structural bedrock, the ontological foundation of social life. 

Empirical sociology studies the specific social forms which have emerged in a given society in a particular period of history. It describes, analyzes, and tries to explain the social relationships and social institutions which exist in a society. An analysis of social class in Canada, the nature of urban life in the United States, and specific forms of marriage and family in Europe are examples of doing empirical sociology. Dooyeweerd and those working in this perspective have done little empirical sociology. They have written extensively, however on philosophical sociology. A number of helpful concepts have been provided for a sociologist wanting to develop a distinctively Christian sociology.

We need to begin with Scripture.3 God created the world by his word and upholds the world by his word. The entire creation is dependent on God and is subject to God's law. God's law gives structure and order to the creation. The world is held together by his law (Psalm 33:6-11; Psalm 147:15-18; Colossians 1:16,17; Hebrews 1:3). Everything which follows in this article is intended to be an implication and extrapolation of this fundamental Biblical stance.

As noted by poets, scientists, and people in general, God's creation is rich and diverse. There are many dimensions or aspects to this creation. The numerical, spatial, physical, biological, psychological, logical, social, economic, political, and ethical are some of the dimensions built into creation that we experience on a daily basis.4 Every dimension or aspect of created reality has its own specific laws or norms. There are laws functioning in physical, chemical, and biological reality. There are mathematical laws. Norms exist for language, social relations, legal, ethical, and faith dimensions of life. Norms are laws but they have to be worked out by man. They can be ignored or rejected, unlike the law of gravity and other laws for the non-human part of creation. But creational norms cannot be ignored indefinitely. To reject public justice in government, stewardship and service in business, or love in marriage, for example, will have negative, even tragic consequences for Christian and non-Christian alike.5

God's ordinances also extend to the structure of society, to the world of art, to business and commerce. Human civilization is normed throughout. Everywhere we discover limits and proprieties, standards and criteria: in every field of human affairs there are right and wrong ways of doing things. There is nothing in human life that does not belong to the created order. Everything we are and do is thoroughly creaturely.6

In formulating a sociological theory out of a Christian perspective, we want to develop a detailed understanding of God's norms for social reality. An adequate sociological theory must do at least four things. It should (1) identify and classify the various social structures which exist, (2) describe and analyze the nature of each social structure, (3) explain the function of each social structure, and (4) investigate how the various social structures in created reality are interrelated and interconnected.7 I would define social structure as an ordered pattern of human relationships and of social institutions rooted in God's created order.

Identification and Classification

Our first task, then, is to identify and classify the various social structures which exist. We are all aware of social structures such as the family, church, state, school, business organization, labor union, club, and political party. In sociological theory we want to identify and classify these various social structures. Every scientific discipline - from physics, chemistry, and biology to economics, political science, and theology - must identify and classify what it is analyzing. In sociology we need to formulate a typology of social structures. Of course, every classification scheme will be somewhat arbitrary, and there will always be things that do not fit or that seem to fit in more than one category. Nevertheless, since we cannot take in all of the complexity and diversity of an aspect of creation at the same time, we need to identify and classify what we intend to analyze in order to make our efforts conceptually manageable.8

One fundamental social structure in society can be called a natural community. Marriage, the nuclear family, and the extended family are natural communities (cf. Diagram 1). A natural community unites people in a permanent way as members of a social whole. Membership is not voluntary. We are born into families. We did not decide to become part of a given family. We do decide to become part of the marriage relationship, but, from a Christian perspective, once this decision is implemented, the bond is permanent. Another distinctive characteristic of a natural community is that the relationship is grounded in biological ties. The sexual bond between husband and wife, and the blood ties between family members, constitute the foundation on which natural communities are built.

A second type of social structure can be labelled a social institution. Although in sociology we use this term to refer to a wide variety of social groupings, I want to confine its use here to a particular form of social life for the purpose of classification. I regard the church and the state, then, as social institutions. Unlike natural communities which are grounded in the biological dimension of creation, social institutions are grounded in the historical dimension of created reality. They are a product of human effort or form-giving over time. The family was around at the beginning of creation. The church and state were not.

The church and state unite people in a more or less permanent way. We are born into a state; we are citizens by birth. We can, of course, decide to become a citizen of another country, but until we make that decision we are attached to a state by birth. Whether by baptism or some other way, we also are brought into the church at birth. Of course, in our age of secularity many parents do not respond to the call to be part of God's people, but individual practice does not destroy the norm. Rather, the norm of belief makes possible the response of disbelief. Once again, then, being part of the church is a more or less permanent social arrangement. People can decide not to be part of this social institution, but until they do, the involvement and attachment are significantly stronger than being part of a social club or soccer team.

Voluntary associations are a third type of social structure. Voluntary associations include a business enterprise, labor union, political party, clubs of all kinds, and a school. They have an organizational structure with specific goals and some form of authority structure. Of course, natural communities and social institutions have authority structures also. The parent-child, elder-member, president-citizen relationships, for example, are authority structures within these social structures. But voluntary associations also have authority structures such as the employer-employee, union executive-union member, and principal-student relationships. Membership is based on a decision to become part of the social group. Unlike the family, marriage, and the state, it is relatively easy to join and less difficult to leave these associations. Like social institutions, however, voluntary associations are grounded in the historical dimension of created reality. They are the product of human organization and decision making.
The word "voluntary" is used specifically in comparison with natural communities and social institutions. In one sense, of course, a school is not voluntary for a child who must attend by law. Nor is a labor union voluntary for one who must join the union in order to maintain a job. Nevertheless, when compared to a family or state, for example, a school or labor union is a less binding social structure. Parents can educate children at home, and a person is not legally required to work in a particular job. It must be remembered also that we are talking fundamentally about normative social structures, i.e., a structure which appears to reflect God's intention for a given aspect of His creation. Some or many empirical social structures at any given point in history may deviate significantly from the normative structure. The Christian Labor Association of Canada, for instance, has argued for over twenty-five years that compulsory unionization is anti-normative and has, instead, promoted an open shop policy of unionization. Furthermore, as stated earlier, individual practice does not destroy God's norms for social life.

We are talking fundamentally about normative social structures,
 i.e., a structure which appears to reflect God's intention 
for a given aspect of His creation.

The fourth type of social structure could be identified as a free social relation. This social structure includes a wide range of daily interaction between people. Relations such as businessman-customer, doctor-patient, neighbor-neighbor, friend-friend are encompassed within this social type. There is little or no organizational structure or authority structure. Free social relations are relationships between equals; equals in the sense that a businessman, doctor, neighbor, or friend has no organizational or normative authority over the customer, patient, neighbor, or friend. But there can be and often is inequality in the sense of expertise, knowledge, skills, and life experience. Free social relations, then, is not an egalitarian concept but a term which allows us to distinguish between a tightly structured social arrangement and one that is not.

The Nature and Function of Social Structures

This typology of social structures begins to satisfy the first requirement of doing sociological theory, which is to identify and classify the social structures that exist in created reality. The second thing a sociological theory needs to do is to describe and analyze the nature of each social structure. I want to combine this task with the third requirement, which is to explain the function of each social structure. The two tasks are closely related. Thus in this section we will be looking both at the nature and the function of social structures. This is a very comprehensive undertaking; therefore, I will focus on only one social structure, i.e., the nuclear family. What is said about the family, however, will be relevant for all other social structures that we have identified and classified. But first, a few fundamental concepts are needed. 

Individuality Structures

According to Dooyeweerd, the family, like every other "thing" in creation, is an individuality structure.9 An individuality structure is a concrete thing, event, action or process which has its own unique identity and existence. All physical objects, plants, and animals are individuality structures.10 Social structures are viewed as individuality structures also (cf. Diagram 1). Each social structure has an internal structure which holds it together. An internal structure has various components to it. One basic component is a structural principle or structural law. A structural law is not empirically verifiable. It is an ontological given which provides order and permanence to a specific social structure. A structural law is analogous to the steel girders in an office building which provide shape and permanence over time. A structural law should be seen, then, as a basic assumption of the theory I am formulating. By definition there is no empirical proof for basic assumptions no matter what the theory. Yet every theory must have some fundamental assumptions.

In reformational social philosophy, a structural law organizes 
and groups all of the aspects and functions within a social structure 
and gives it a unique and distinct existence.

In reformational social philosophy, then, a structural law organizes and groups all of the aspects and functions within a social structure and gives it a unique and distinct existence. The clearest way to understand how a structural law has organized a particular social structure is to identify what Dooyeweerd calls the leading and founding function of a social structure (cf. Diagram 2).11 As indicated above, the nuclear family will be used as an example. 

The Inner Structure of the Family

The family is rooted in the biological dimension of life. The biological provides the necessary foundation for a family. The sexual bond between a man and a woman constitutes the essential foundation for the existence of a marriage. The reality of adopted children does not negate the biological foundation of the family. On the contrary, the biological grounding of the family is the necessary legal and normative foundation for the possibility of adoption. We say, then, that the biological function is the founding function of the family. This founding function is one aspect of the inner structure of a family (cf. Diagram 3).

Another central aspect is the leading function of a family - namely, the ethical or moral love. The family can be defined as a community of love. Family life is to be led by mutual trust, respect, and self-giving, all of which give content to the concept of moral love. Again, the fact that a given family may not express this inner structure of a family, as in divorce, does not destroy the inner structure of the family as a social structure. Rather, such a failure to give expression to the structural law of the family should be viewed as an anti-normative response to the God-given call to be a family grounded in the male-female sexual union and governed by moral love.12

The inner structure of the family, then, is expressed, characterized, or qualified by its founding and leading functions. The family as a social structural type can be defined and understood as a community of love based upon the natural ties of blood between parents and children. This normative structure of the family allows for a wide variety of actual nuclear family forms. In sociology we are aware of this cultural diversity of family forms and types. This diversity, however, should not be viewed as a cultural accident, but as the result of the variety of human responses to God's normative call for the family to be a community of love rooted in biological union. There is room for rich and legitimate diversity. However, there is not infinite room. Polygamous and homosexual marriages should be viewed as disobedient responses to God's creational norm for family life. Yet even a disobedient response is a response. Living in God's creation order, no one can avoid responding to God's creation norms in one way or another.

Furthermore, if we do not have concepts such as inner structure and structural law for social structures like the family, we cannot give a theoretical account for the continuity of the family over time. This structural continuity is just as empirically apparent as is the cultural diversity of family forms. Over the centuries people have not mistaken the family for a government, church, school, business, or labor union.13 Conceptually and experientially we know the difference between these social structures. There has been continuity of the family structure and other social structures throughout the centuries. My argument, then, is that we need to give a theoretical explanation for this ontological continuity. Certainly from a Christian perspective we cannot rely on the idea of chance. The concepts of inner structure and structural law, therefore, are an attempt to provide an explanation for the observed and experienced continuity of the family as family over time and across cultures. 

External Structural Relations

We have seen how the inner structure and specifically the structural law of the family are expressed by the family's foundational and leading functions. The inner structure of the family, however, is expressed in ways related to other aspects of the creation. Family life has a legal, juridical dimension (cf. Diagram 3). Family life involves rights and obligations. Parents have the right to discipline their children, but also the obligation to nurture these children. Children have the obligation to obey parents, but children have as well the right to be supported by their parents. But family rights and obligations are to be led by love. There is an intimate connection between family law and family love. The leading function of moral love is to infuse and give direction to the rights and obligations of parents

 and children.

The family functions, then, in all aspects of the creation. The inner structure of the family expresses itself in the aesthetic dimension of created reality. We speak of harmony or balance in family life based on the mutual love of parents and children. Family relationships fit together or are interwoven like a well made tapestry. The management of a family household relates to the economic function of the family. The intimate relations within a family point to the social dimension of the inner structure of family life. We can speak of the historical dimension of a family in terms of family customs and traditions. Family faith is a crucial aspect of the structural unity of the family. The family roots its life in some ground of certainty. The family serves the God of creation or some false god. These few suggestions indicate the rich complexity of the family as a social structure which gives expression to its inner structure in a way that connects it to every dimension of God's creation.

We have been engaged in a preliminary way with a structural analysis of the family. It is possible to extend and deepen this analysis of family life considerably. It is also possible to carry out a structural analysis of all the social structures of created reality. We can do a structural analysis of the church, state, school, labor union, and a business enterprise, for example, by identifying the founding and leading functions of each respective social structure and relating these central functions to the internal and external functions and relationships which exist with all other dimensions of creation. Such an analysis is a life-time task and obviously beyond the scope of this article. Our extended example using the family as a social structure, however, is suggestive of the deepened understanding possible as we analyze the nature and function of social structures using the concepts of internal structure, structural law, leading function, and founding function.

The Interconnection of Social Structure

We have dealt with three of the four areas which are important in developing an adequate social theory. We have attempted to identify and classify the various social structures which exist. We have talked about the nature and the function of social structures. A fourth requirement is to investigate the interconnection between the various social structures. How do social structures interrelate or hang together?

Dooyeweerd talks about enkapsis 
as the interwovenness between two or more social structures 
to form a more complex social whole.

Dooyeweerd uses an unusual term for the mutual coherence of social structures. He speaks of "enkapsis."14 This word is from the Greek word enkaptein which means to swallow up, but this is not the meaning that Dooyeweerd wants to give to this word. Dooyeweerd talks about enkapsis as the interwovenness between two or more social structures to form a more complex social whole. He stresses that in enkaptic relationships the identity of a social structure is not lost, dissolved, or swallowed up by another social structure. We are not talking about a part/whole relationship such as the relation of the liver, kidney, and heart to the human body. Rather, each enkaptically interwoven social structure has its own independent identity and existence yet is bound together in a mutual dependence on another social structure. For example, marriage and family are enkaptically interwoven. The family depends on the sexual union of husband and wife for its existence. Marriage is enriched and deepened by the family. The state and church are enkaptically interwoven. The state provides protection for church worship, and the church nurtures people to be responsible citizens of the state. Mutual dependence and interwovenness of social structures is an experienced and ongoing reality.


We have identified four important tasks for the Christian sociologist who wants to formulate sociological theory. We need to identify and classify social structure, describe and analyze the nature and function of these structures, and determine how the various structures are interconnected. It has been stressed also that if we are to do Christian sociology, this effort must be rooted in the confession that God has created the world by his word and daily upholds his creation by that word. Whatever we say needs to be an outworking of that confession. Reformational social philosophy provides an ontological framework and various concepts for the analytical unfolding of this confessional position. It provides insight and direction for Christian scholarship that attempts to avoid eclecticism and relativism. 



1Dooyeweerd had a distinguished academic career as a professor of law at the Free University of Amsterdam from 1926-1965. His writings have influenced numerous scholars in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. Cf. C.T. McIntire (ed.), The Legacy of Herman Dooyeweerd (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985).
2Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. III, (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1959), pp. 157-160, 262-265.
3Cf. Bernard Zylstra, "Thy Word Our Life," in Robert Carvill (ed.) Will All the Kings Men (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1972); Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), pp. 12-43.
4Cf. L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1975), pp. 95-103.
5Cf. Wolters, Creation Regained, pp. 14-17, 21-24, for a concise explanation of the distinction between laws of nature and norms and for the nature of norms in society.
6Wolters, Creation Regained, p. 22.
7Herman Dooyeweerd, A Christian Theory of Social Instructions, (La Jolla, CA: The Herman Dooyeweerd Foundation, 1986), pp. 18, 19.
8For a more complex and detailed typology of social structures cf. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy, pp. 196-204.
9Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. III, pp. 262-345.
10In Dooyeweerd's thought a human being is not an individuality structure but an act-structure. This distinction is complex and is not critical for our present discussion. Cf. Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. III, pp. 87-89.
11Each physical object, plant, and animal has an internal structure also according to Dooyeweerd. This idea can be a useful integrating concept for physical scientists as they investigate the structure of living and non-living things.
12J.M. Spier, An Introduction to Christian Philosophy, (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1954), pp. 168-178, 194-206.
13In primitive, undifferentiated societies there were few if any social structures except the family, clan, or tribe which did perform school, government, religious, and work functions. But the family, clan, tribe were not mistaken for the state, school, church or labor union. These social structures in most cases did not yet exist. Where they did exist, they were fully integrated into the family-tribal structure and, therefore, were not yet distinct social institutions. My argument is that once the school, church, state, and labor union fully emerged in history as distinct, independent social structures, they were not confused with the family. People have an intuitive, pre-theoretical grasp of the difference between the family, church, school and state.
14Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. III, pp. 627-693.