A Transcendental Analysis and Critique of Dooyeweerd’s Distinction between Na´ve and Theoretical Thought

Term Paper
AP 213: Principles of Christian Apologetics
Dr. K. Scott Oliphint
Spring 2001
Submitted by
Tim Black

In what follows I will analyze and critique Dooyeweerd’s distinction between na´ve and theoretical thought, showing how its internal dialectical tension and its antitheistic motivation make it an impossibility, and argue that only the biblical revelation in the two modes of word and deed, rooted in the relation of the universals and particulars in the Godhead, escapes this self-destructive dialectic and is itself the only possible epistemological schema a philosophy may consistently maintain.

Introductory Caveats Regarding My Ignorance, Comments on Method

I am not an expert in the system. I am sure I am misinterpreting Dooyeweerd at some points, and even imagining some connections which are not properly supported in the literature. It is nearly impossible not to do so when studying any person’s thought, especially with someone as ingenious, complex, and erudite as Dooyeweerd. But what I do think I understand of his system I have attempted to deal with from the perspective of a Christian seeking to defend the faith, and seeking to convince my opponent of the truth of the biblical position. I am attempting to show that the truth of scripture is self-attesting on precisely the points at which Dooyeweerd’s system appears to be suppressing that truth, and that Dooyeweerd’s suppression of that truth is in the end—on its own terms and on the terms which scripture presents—an impossible position to maintain. I do this with specific regard to Dooyeweerd’s treatment of universality and particularity in epistemology with regard to the function of his theoretical categories over against the function of the revealed categories of scripture. As such I attempt to argue that a biblical dimensionalism is the only tenable position, and that Dooyeweerd’s position of temporal “dimensions” or categories, what he terms modalities or aspects, is in the end a speculative philosophy which has no place in biblical Christianity, is itself motivated against God by an uncritical acceptance of the tendencies and ideas of modern pagan philosophy, and is ultimately self-destructive. The pivotal points of my analysis are both Van Tillian and biblical in content, and the whole methodology which I am employing here is Van Til’s transcendental method of analysis, critique, and apologetical argumentation. Thus even if I err in understanding Dooyeweerd, I hope to maintain a solid ground upon which to stand and from which to sustain a successful apologetic argument: the self-attesting Christ of scripture.

My method will not be as analytic in method as some might prefer. If I were aiming this paper at a readership who was not familiar with Dooyeweerd’s thought, I would spend more time attempting to define what is meant by the terms I use. However, as it stands, my professor knows more of Dooyeweerd than I do, and I will attempt to spend time on definitions when I am speaking of concepts other than what I perceive to be the standard formulations of Dooyeweerd’s perspective. So, throughout the paper I assume that I am getting much of the terminology right, and that the reader knows what the terminology means. I am basically writing this for someone who is a Dooyeweerdian, to show them how Dooyeweerd’s own critique of non-Christian thought in fact applies to itself. As such I am using the terminology as an efficient shorthand for the concepts involved. I am attempting to deal with the system, and with the people who already hold to it, and am not attempting to explain the system to those who are not familiar with it.

The Necessity of Transcendental Explanation to Theoretical Method

Dooyeweerd maintains that unless a philosophical system accounts for the necessary and sufficient conditions of its existence as a system, as well as for the existence of any other system as a system, it cannot deal adequately with its subject matter, and cannot avoid dialectical self-destruction, because it has not rooted itself in the transcendental God, Creation-Fall-Redemption motive, and human ego which alone can provide a unity to systematic thought. To give an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions for systems of thought to be systems of thought is what Dooyeweerd means by the process of transcendental explanation. His New Critique of Theoretical Thought, then, attempts to give a transcendental explanation of systems as systems in such a way that the transcendental reasons for the systematic failure of philosophies other than his own throughout the history of philosophy are laid bare. They have rejected their root in the transcendental God, biblical ground-motive, and human ego, which together are the necessary and sufficient conditions of systems as systems. As a result they attempt to absolutize one aspect of reality or another, an attempt which according to Dooyeweerd’s system is impossible to carry out in a consistent manner. It is Dooyeweerd’s belief that by means of laying bare the transcendental conditions of all systems of thought, he will have explained and reached a real point of contact with those who hold to non-Christian systems of thought. Such a point of contact will then provide a means of communication with men who believe in any system, and a means of converting someone from a non-Christian system to the true and Christian system. In regard to the point of contact here Dooyeweerd is both right and wrong.

Summary of Some Primary Features of Dooyeweerd’s Transcendental Explanation

Dooyeweerd claims that his description of the supratemporal heart (along with God and the biblical ground motive, which will not be the focus of our discussion) as it provides the transcendental unity amongst the diverse modal aspects of the temporal horizon of human experience is the transcendental, or necessary and sufficient, condition (or ground and explanation) of all theoretical thought; it is this explanation and this explained reality which accounts for the possibility of all human thought and predication, philosophical or otherwise. The heart as it integrates the modal aspects of creation and of human experiencing, provides the necessary and sufficient condition for unreflective “na´ve” thought about the world, as well as for theory-making and “theoretical” thought about the world.

Central to Dooyeweerd’s explanation of the transcendental conditions of all human thought are two primary components: on the one hand, his distinction between na´ve and theoretical thought, and on the other hand, his system of modal aspects. As Dooyeweerd conceives of them, these two components mutually entail one another. Let us examine what is meant by each of them respectively.

The Na´ve / Theoretical Distinction

For Dooyeweerd, na´ve thought is the unreflective recognition within the totality of human experiencing of the totality of creation, taking in the modal aspects of reality as an organically-unified whole, without attempting to analyze this wholeness into its constituent modal aspects. In contrast to na´ve thought, theoretical thought is the reflective opposition of the analytic aspect of thought to the non-analytic aspect of thought, meaning that it examines the totality of human experiencing and the totality of that which is experienced and analyzes that totality into its constituent modal aspects, abstracting those aspects from the wholeness from which they may be “separated” or distinguished only in thought. Na´ve thought is described by Dooyeweerd as “pre-theoretical” thought, meaning that it is the thought from which theoretical thought is derived, the totality from which the aspects of theoretical thought are abstracted. As such, it is generally true to say that all men by virtue of the epistemological construction of their heart in relation to the world thereby think in a na´ve manner, but only those men who actively engage in the process of abstracting the theoretical aspects of thought from the totality of na´ve thinking succeed in thinking theoretically.

We should note that Dooyeweerd seems to be saying that the theoretical aspects of thought are the categories men use to categorize reality when they are thinking in the clearest manner available to mankind. Theoretical thought is then careful thought; it is the epitome of philosophical or “scientific” thought. This is not to say that Dooyeweerd believes that error is inherent to na´ve thought, or that he wishes to deprecate the value and quality of na´ve thought. Rather, it is to say that in Dooyeweerd’s view, it takes effort to think theoretically, and that theoretical thought follows the most basic or most clear structures of thought of which man is capable. We may notice here that the discovery and elucidation of such clear, careful, and proper structures of thought has commonly been the ideal in philosophy.

The System of Modal Aspects

Dooyeweerd holds that whenever a person thinks, whether it be in a na´ve manner or in a theoretical manner, he recognizes (or ought to recognize) the meaning-structure of the world around him to be constructed of many “aspects.” The reason he recognizes the perceived world to be constructed of many aspects is that the world is constructed of many aspects. In other words, the structure of reality is the cause and ground of the structure of the aspects as they are abstracted in theoretical thought. Dooyeweerd believes the fact that the structures of our thought are not inherent to the construction of our epistemology but rather dependent on the construction of the surrounding world is the reason we are capable of communicating with even the unbeliever, the one who denies the religious ground-motive of creation-fall-redemption. Even though the unbeliever interprets the world in relative consistency with his antitheistic religious ground-motive, he cannot be completely consistent with that motive due to the inward epistemological pressure exerted upon him by the structures of created reality. The point of contact between the believer and the unbeliever, and the ground of “universal” or objective communication, is, then, the general revelation they share in common.

This emphasis on the external source of true and common knowledge sets Dooyeweerd off as truly distinct from Kant in an important way, and makes Dooyeweerd’s system appear to be advocating a truly revelational epistemology. Kant held that the structure of our knowledge is defined by the categories of the understanding—structures of human thought which are essential to thought itself and which provide the structure for the content derived from sense impressions generated through empirical observation of the phenomenal world, which world itself somehow was the effect of and manifestation of the noumenal “things in themselves.” Dooyeweerd dispenses with Kant’s long chain of separation between the “things in themselves” and the structures of human thought, along with the epistemological gulf thereby fixed between the knowing subject and the (somehow-) known object, and argues that the structures of the created things in the temporal horizon of human experiencing are more or less directly accessible to the human mind, and insofar as they impress themselves upon our thinking they form or generate the analytic, modal, “aspectual” structures of our thought, especially of our theoretical thought. We could say, then, that for Kant, the categories or “forms” are imposed by the mind of man onto the sense-impressions or phenomenal “content” coming in toward the epistemological subject, and that for Dooyeweerd, the categories of human thought are recognized as manifest in the phenomena perceived coming in toward the epistemological subject from within the horizon of temporal experience. The difference in view here is the source and direction of the categories relative to the mind of man. For Kant, the source is in the mind of man, the direction is outward, onto the content. For Dooyeweerd, the source is in the reality beyond the mind of man, the direction is inward, toward the epistemological subject. This difference is significant enough for us to recognize that Dooyeweerd is attempting to escape the dialectical construction in Kant which places the categories of human understanding in (ultimately utter) opposition to the content which they serve to categorize. For Kant, the categories and the content function in opposite directions, and as such are presupposed to have an initial existence apart from one another and to the exclusion of one another, which antithesis is then synthesized in the process of the human mind applying those categories by categorizing the phenomena as the content of the phenomena comes in through the senses. Further, not only do they function in opposite directions, they function with inherently opposite principles; the categories are utterly universal in nature, and have no particularity, the content is utterly particular in nature, and has no universality. The problem for Kant is that in the end, only the categories can be known, and not the content, because the two poles of this dialectical construction are construed from the outset to be mutually exclusive. In regard to their direction, the mind perceives the content exclusively through the categorical forms which it imposes, and interprets the content exclusively in terms of the forms. In regard to their functional principles, the categorical forms convert the content into universal knowledge, destroying the particularity of the content, and thereby emptying the category of content and meaning. Kant may claim that the content is known through the form, but cannot demonstrate that if the content were different, or missing, that the form would appear any different to the epistemological subject. Thus Kant’s attempt at synthesis fails. Dooyeweerd hopes to resolve this problem by allowing the categories and content to flow in the same direction as one another.1 The categories categorize the content even before the mind of man comes into contact with either the categories or the content. The categories and content then come into man’s mind bound together as a unit, a complex, flowing in the same direction inward toward the epistemological subject. Thus a systasis of meaning obtains between the knowing subject and the known object in the knowledge situation. But we may ask, has Dooyeweerd removed the principles of utter universality and utter particularity from the categories and content of knowledge? Has he removed the Kantian mutual exclusion between the two principles, leaving them in perfect harmony with one another? We will attempt to show that he has not shortly. But let us first summarize more of Dooyeweerd’s position.

Because man has this relatively direct access to the structures of created reality, and because Dooyeweerd assumes he has properly discovered and explained the transcendental conditions of theoretical thought, Dooyeweerd takes it upon himself to build on this transcendental foundation he has laid by attempting to outline the system of categories of the human understanding which is properly derived from the structure of created reality. The result would be that he could develop the perfect philosophical system, based on the perfect (necessary and sufficient!) transcendental grounds. His goal is to develop the perfect philosophy. This attempt will, he expects, enable theoretical thinking to be properly grounded, as well as enable philosophers following in his footsteps to critique unbelieving philosophies both in regard to the manner in which they misconstrue the structure of created reality and of human thought, as well as in regard to the manner in which they misconstrue the transcendental ground of their theoretical thought.

Thus he lays out a hierarchy of fifteen modal aspects, beginning with the numerical as the lowest, and the pistic as the highest. He lists them as follows: numerical, spatial, kinematic, physical, biotic, psychical, analytical, historical, linguistic, social, economic, aesthetic, juridicial, ethical, and pistical. This has been termed Dooyeweerd’s “modal scale,” indicating that there is some principle of hierarchical organization, and connoting the possibility of a connection to the Medieval scale of being. Judging from the relation to Kant’s philosophy I implied above, my impression is that while there is a relation to the Medieval Nature-Grace polarity in Dooyeweerd’s modal scale, there is as much or more a relation to the modern Nature-Freedom polarity. The lower end of the scale is relatively characteristic of the typical categories of Kantian science: physical laws of cause and effect, logical categories, space, time, quantity, phenomena, the rational and empirical. The higher end is relatively characteristic of the typical categories of Kantian religion: the personal, freedom, emotion, ethical, the human, supra-rational belief, the noumena, the religious.

Comparison of Dooyeweerd with Kantianism

Our analysis has been leading, then, to a comparison between Dooyeweerd and Kantianism. The guiding focus of all that follows will be a certain understanding of the concepts of universality and particularity. We will trace the manner in which Dooyeweerd and Kant deal with universality and particularity in ways similar to one another. Essentially, I will argue that both construe the two principles to be in a dialectical relationship with one another, and that this dialectic is the downfall of both of their systems. This critique has already been argued in regard to Kant above; Kant need only be brought into the following in order to show the similarities between his thought and Dooyeweerd’s. First I should give a brief and inadequate definition of my key terms.2

By my distinction between universality and particularity I mean to say that 1) it is possible to construe many distinctions between two related entities such that the one side is viewed in regard to its relative universality relative to the relative particularity of the other entity being distinguished. The distinction must be understood to be relative because each of the two entities always has aspects of both universality and particularity within it. I mean to say as well that 2) the relatively universal entity considered is, by definition of its universality, relatively primary in relation to the relatively particular entity considered, which is itself thereby relatively secondary. 3) Lastly, and here we verge on imprecision, that which is relatively universal can often be described as binding together, organizing, unifying, encompassing, interpreting, objectifying, forming, causing, necessitating, etc., that which is relatively particular. That is to say, there are many kinds of relations which can be construed as relations between the relatively universal and the relatively particular, some of which are indicated by that list of verbs. That list contains commonly-found relations of the sort I have in mind. Common distinctions of this sort are part-whole, necessity-contingency, one-many, unity-diversity, cause-effect, subject-object.

The importance of this distinction between universality and particularity is that there is a certain manner in which universals (= that which is relatively universal) and particulars (= that which is relatively particular) are related in the Godhead, and derivatively, in the creation which manifests God even in regard to the manner in which the universals and particulars are related in Him. That manner is that the universals and particulars are equally ultimate, with the universals remaining primary, the particulars remaining secondary. Further, the universals and particulars in the Godhead are related in perfect harmony, mutually exhausting one another, mutually coextensive with one another. Everywhere there is a universal, there is at the same point a correlative particular; everywhere there is a particular, there is at the same point a correlative universal. The prime example of this relation in the Godhead is the Trinity. The Persons are unique, and distinct from one another, and as such are particulars. They all share precisely the same being, which functions then as a universal relative to the Persons. The Persons are coextensive with the being, the being with the Persons. The being and Persons are in perfect harmony; the one cannot be found without the other. In a sense that transcends our understanding (Deut. 29:29, Is. 55:8-9), the being is the Persons, and the Persons are the being. This is why Van Til says of God at one point that “He is one person.”3 God’s mind can comprehend the inner connection between His universality and particularity; ours, however, cannot. Yet we are free to refer to God as one person; in orthodox circles, we do so every time we use the word “God.” We know that it is true, and can readily accept it in our worshipful knowledge of God, but we cannot explain it. Such remains the case with the relation of all universals and particulars, including those in creation which thereby manifest the infinity and incomprehensibility of God; all things thereby manifest the fact that He is the Great Creator, and that we are small and finite creatures. More could be said in regard to the ethics of the ontological and economic Trinities as well, that the Persons are one in love and self-denial, and that the Father exercises authority with complete self-sacrifice, and the Son submits with complete submission.

It is only when men are not willing to accept this mystery in the depths of God which transcends human understanding, which mystery is manifest in all of creation, that they then construe the relation of the universals and particulars in a dialectical manner, in an attempt to explain the relation between the universals and particulars which allows their minds to claim an exclusive ultimacy over the revelation and authority of God. Now what is meant by the term “dialectic” here? By “dialectic” I mean a structure with two poles, where one pole is a universal, and the other a particular, and where the universals and particulars are construed simultaneously to mutually presuppose one another and to mutually exclude one another.4 The mutual exclusion guarantees that the two poles can never coexist peacefully; the one will destroy the other, or there will be a constant tension and conflict. The mutual presupposition guarantees that the conflict will never stop. Even if one pole is supposedly “destroyed” or suppressed by the other, eventually it will rise again. To verge again on imprecision, universality without particularity appears “safe” from particularity at first, but then becomes either too empty or too oppressive. Particularity without universality appears full of content and free from universality’s oppression at first, but then becomes too unpredictable and treacherous. Thus the dialectic swings endlessly from an emphasis on one pole to an emphasis on the other pole, trapping people in its false structure of thought which denies the God of Scripture and His revelation.

So then, how does this speculative gobbleygook of a freshman M.Div. student relate to Dooyeweerd, and perhaps more importantly, how does Kant relate to Dooyeweerd? J In the following manner: Kant’s categories of the understanding supposedly organize the content provided by sense impressions. Thereby the categories are universal and primary relative to the content, and the content is particular and secondary relative to the categories. The categories are not categories of anything unless they are of the content, the content is not content of any intelligible kind unless it is organized by a category. Thus the categories and content mutually presuppose one another. It would appear that they are in harmony with one another, and are equally ultimate, and Kant strives to make them so, but he is not successful. No, as described above, the categories can only be understood categorically, the content only by the categories, thus the content cannot truly be known. The categories as mediators end up devouring the content they are supposed to mediate, leaving behind no traces of the particularity of the content. The result in Kant’s system is that the realm of the phenomenal is not really known, but more importantly, the noumena of which the phenomena are supposed to be a manifestation themselves cannot be known, and Kant places God, the human ego, and things-in-themselves within the realm of the noumenal. Thus nothing really can be known, most of all, the things central to biblical religion, and God Himself, cannot be known to the human mind; they are excluded by the categories of the understanding.

Dooyeweerd appears to be borrowing some of this same construction. He says that na´ve thought perceives all of the modal aspects as a unified totality, and theoretical thought perceives all of reality in exclusive regard to the distinctness of the modal aspects from one another. It is for this reason that Oliphint emphasizes that for Dooyeweerd, the emphasis of na´ve thought is on unity, and the emphasis of theoretical thought is on diversity. Oliphint’s analysis appears to me to be correct, and would lead one to think that na´ve thought is relatively universal, theoretical particular. I am happy to grant this analysis. However, I find it of great concern that Dooyeweerd’s system is of such close similarity to Kant along lines different from Oliphint’s analysis. Specifically, we see that theoretical thought seeks to organize the content of knowledge according to a system of categories. Oliphint is not totally opposed to this alternate analysis, because he says, “The human mind, therefore, in theoretical thought, is reduced to the logical aspect of thought.” (A Comparison and Evaluation, 127) (Admittedly Dooyeweerd’s categories do not originate from the mind of man, so there is a distinction to be made between Dooyeweerd and Kant.) Correlatively, na´ve “pre-theoretical” experience seeks to perceive reality apart from the organization given to it by the system of categories, the modal aspects. Dooyeweerd states this on p. 14 of his In the Twilight of Western Thought: “Our pre-theoretical logical concepts are only related to things and events as individual wholes, and not to the abstract modal aspects of their empirical reality.” Thus we see that theoretical thought is characterized by structured, logical, categorical organization of epistemological content, while na´ve thought is characterized by holistic, non-structured, non-logical, epistemological content apart from “related”-ness to categorical organization. Thus we may summarize by saying that theoretical thought in an important sense is characterized by universality, na´ve thought by particularity. They are often construed in Dooyeweerd to be in harmony with each other: the pre-theoretical is the necessary foundation for the theoretical; the na´ve perceives the aspects but does not analyze them; the theoretical seeks the “inner connection” between the modalities and between the modalities and the supratemporal. It can also be said that they mutually presuppose one another, in that the na´ve perceives but does not abstract what the theoretical can only abstract from na´ve experience. But it can also be said that they mutually exclude each other, and this is the all-important point. Men can think naively without thinking theoretically. The particular can be had, then, without the universal. Na´ve thought cannot perceive the analytic aspect of theoretical thought, the diversity of and distinction between—the categorical nature of—the modal aspects. That is to say, the particularity of the content of na´ve thought excludes the formal nature, the universality, of theoretical thought. Further, theoretical thought cannot perceive the unity of na´ve thought, nor can it perceive the unity provided by the transcendental conditions of theoretical thought; the unity of God, the supratemporal heart, or the biblical ground-motive. It can categorize none of those bits of content. Thus there is no true “meeting of the minds” between man’s theoretical thought and man’s na´ve thought, nor can there be. The universality of the theoretical excludes the particularity of the na´ve. They are in utter conflict; they are not in harmony. There is, then, a dialectic in Dooyeweerd’s distinction between na´ve and theoretical thought. If such a dialectic-ravaged philosophical system stands as the judge over theology, it will make mincemeat of the Triune God.

And such is the case. When God is considered, He is supratemporal, meaning beyond the system of categorization provided by the modal aspects, which provide the careful or most clear method of thoughtful analysis man has available within his epistemological grasp. In the most important of senses, then, man cannot know God. Dooyeweerd says as much in Twilight, p. 6: “theoretical thought is bound to the temporal horizon of human experience and moves within this horizon,” and in “Cornelius Van Til,” p. 87: “the genuine conceptual contents of these transcendental limiting ideas do not transcend the modal dimension of our temporal horizon of experience. The same applies to the theological limiting concepts relating to the so-called attributes of God.” Similarly, Dooyeweerd places the central message of Scripture beyond the grasp of man’s careful thought. Frame says on pp. 375-376 of his Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, “Dooyeweerd sees the ‘central message’ of Scripture as having no ‘conceptual’ content,” and on p. 385, “Dooyeweerd admits that there are ‘genuine conceptual contents’ of God and the human ego, but he insists that these conceptual contents ‘do not transcend the modal dimension of our temporal horizon of experience.’” “What Dooyeweerd seems to be saying is that if anything in Scripture is ‘conceptual,’ then it describes only the world, not God.” That is to say, the content of scripture does not fit within the categories of theoretical “concepts,” and the categories of scripture have no intersection with the categories of theoretical reason. Scripture speaks of the transcendental, supratemporal realities, and theoretical reason conceives only of temporal realities. Na´ve reason can fare no better for reading scripture, for it cannot bring together the aspects of theoretical thought with the categories and contents of scripture, nor can it have an analytic aspect, so that if there are categories in scripture, they are lost to its grasp. And with no categories from scripture, the content of scripture is lost as well. Frame comments on p. 17 of his The Amsterdam Philosophy (which he warns later was a bit immature in its criticisms) that Dooyeweerd’s philosophy is a “quasi-Kantian formulation,” and opines on pp. 33 and 37 that Dooyeweerd’s view of the Word of God is similar to the views of neo-orthodoxy and New Hermeneutic, which draw on Kant’s form-content and Nature-Freedom dialectics in much the same way as I have here described Dooyeweerd’s similarity to these dialectics. Dooyeweerd’s dialectical construction between the na´ve and theoretical has made the theoretical exclude the knowledge of God and His revelation, because the universality of the theoretical aspects is defined in exclusion of the particularity of the content of knowledge. The categories of the human understanding have risen up to engulf the freedom of the noumenal realm. Neither God nor the supratemporal self can be known, nor, it appears, can the message of scripture. Frame concludes on p. 39 that “We believe that the approach of some Amsterdam philosophers to Scriptural authority which we have discussed above in fact eliminates that authority in the historic sense and elevates human reason as the ultimate rule for Christian faith and life.”

The Failure of Dooyeweerd’s Transcendental Philosophy

It appears, then, that Dooyeweerd has not given an explanation of the transcendental conditions of theoretical thought, nor has he done so for na´ve thought. If he truly does know what na´ve and theoretical thought are, he cannot bridge the chasm between the two, and cannot relate either of them to God, the self, or to God’s self-revelation. He cannot know God by means of his philosophy. On his own terms, if he cannot know God as the transcendental explanation for his theoretical thought, he has not justified his system, and can no longer believe in his system. His system is an impossibility, precisely because of its rejection of God.

But how, you ask, does his system reject God? It is not merely the result of his system that he cannot know God or His revelation. No, rather, it is the first presupposition of his na´ve/theoretical distinction and his system of modal aspects as categories of human thought, and it is the heart-motivation within that presupposition which is to blame. At the outset Dooyeweerd was borrowing the Nature-Freedom dialectic of modern thought which ironically he so brilliantly clarified and critiqued for us all to see. The modal aspects are the structure of nature; they are universalistic in character, the transcendetal and supratemporal are free from the structure of nature; they are particularistic in character. This dialectic presupposes that the universals and particulars are inherently opposed to one another; that they are mutually exclusive of one another. As a result when defined as such from the outset, in the end they can never be thought together, try as man might, nor can they be brought together in the playing field of human ethical activity. But this dialectical construction is motivated against God; this we must note above all that has been discussed above. God reveals the mystery of His universality and particularity by the relation of the universals and particulars in creation. The only reason man denies the harmonious equal ultimacy and primary-secondary relation of the universals in creation is that at some level in the sin of his heart he hates the glory of God in its revelation through creation. Thus he rebels against God and His revelation, and suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. He considers his own ability to understand and to explain to be the standard, and thereby excludes God’s revelation from its rightful place of authority over his thought. The only way out of this regrettable situation is for man to repent of his rebellion, believe the promise of salvation through Christ—even epistemological renewal—and submit to God according to His word.

This is the transcendental point of contact for which Dooyeweerd sought: the gospel call to repent and believe. The point of contact is the point of rebellion and conversion. This is where the truth of God meets us, where scripture addresses us, where the unbeliever hears the gospel and is transformed by the renewing of his mind, receiving the mind of Christ, and is converted from the philosophy of the deceitful traditions of men to the philosophy which is according to Christ. We must then build the church in our teaching activity with the “gold, silver, and precious stones” which are the excellent materials of truth which God provides by revelation through His covenantal words and deeds, and not the “wood, hay, and straw” which our sinful minds construct, which is destructive and self-destructive, and which in the end will be burned.

The Fully Biblical Position

Does Scripture then present an epistemology which accounts for its own thinking by reference to the transcendental, necessary and sufficient conditions of its thought as thought? It does. Scripture states that God’s knowledge is higher than our knowledge, God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Only as such can they be the necessary and sufficient conditions for our thinking. Of necessity we cannot explain the relation of the universals and particulars in our epistemology, but God explains to us that in His own mind their relation is fully explained. He says this by implication when He says that He knows all things, and that the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. Our role then in transcendental argumentation is to let God be God, and to let man be man in worship before God. The great mystery of His nature drives us not to reject Him and construct a new god of our own making, but rather it drives us to worship Him as the Name above all names, the King of kings, and Lord of lords. All is derivative from Him; this is His explanation to us of the necessary and sufficient conditions for human thought and predication. Thus our epistemology must follow the structure of His revelation.

What is that structure? God reveals His knowledge to us in two modes: by means of His word(s) and by means of His deed(s).5 God’s words are verbal, linguistic. God’s deeds are His works of creation, providence, and redemption. Word-revelation interprets the content of deed-revelation; thus word-revelation is relatively universal, deed-revelation relatively particular. Word and deed are never separate from one another in God’s revelation, because epistemological content and interpretation are never separate from one another in God’s mind. He knows (interpretation) all things (content). The word is primary relative to the deed. It is the word that interprets the deed, not the deed that interprets the word. This is the burden of the second Commandment: worship God in accord with what He SAYS, for the word must interpret the deed, and the deed may not be used to generate an interpretation of the word. They are equally ultimate. The word has no referent without the deed; the deed has no message without the word. They are in perfect harmony. The word says what the deed manifests, the deed manifests what the word says. Thus there is no dialectical relation between the central universals and particulars in the biblical epistemology, because there is no dialectical relation among the universals and particulars of God’s epistemology.

In view of man’s finite epistemology, as well as man’s sinfulness, we can recognize that God alone is capable of determining the deepest issue of whether or not the relation between the universals and particulars in the epistemological arena are in fact harmoniously connected. We humans can recognize the lack of tension and the true harmony that obtains, but we cannot explain the means of that harmony; the “inner connection” by which that harmony is sustained. Thus we must conclude that only if God fits together the universals and particulars in His deeds, the universals and particulars in His words, and then His words and His deeds, can they truly obtain in a manner that is not deemed impossible by the self-destructive dialectic. Further, it is only if God reveals this epistemological complex of properly fitted-together universals and particulars, and only if He works the submissive and believing reception of that epistemological complex in our hearts that we can ever have a knowledge of the universals and particulars of divine and created reality. As a result we see that only the word-deed revelation of God can inform our epistemology; it is the only (general) means of proper knowledge-acquisition; only those subordinate means subsumed within it can give us true knowledge. The further implication is that only those concepts and categories which are given in God’s word-deed revelation can form the proper categories of our thought, whatever other sub-divisions we may find necessary to distinguish the different modes of human thought. So, then, the dimensions of God’s actions are the dimensions of God’s words, and vice versa. Van Til’s ideal of a “Biblical Dimensionalism” is then the only epistemology; even the only philosophical system, which is tenable.6 Categories which are not taken captive to the categories of scripture are not philosophy according to Christ; rather, they are the “basic principles of this world,” the vain imaginations of men, the “profane and idle babblings and contradictions that are falsely called knowledge; by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith.” We must guard what has been committed to our trust; it is the word of life, which is able to make us wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ. All of Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.


The history of unbelieving philosophy, including the history of unbelieving epistemology, has been victimized by the dialectic set up by men’s philosophical rebellion against God. Dooyeweerd has done a great service to us all by showing us the manner in which this is true. He has done us a disservice by failing to remove from his own philosophy the traces of unbelief. The remedy for his philosophy, and for ours, is the gospel of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. As my dear professor Henry Krabbendam is fond of saying, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.7 Will Dooyeweerd submit to the teaching of God in scripture, or will he rebel against God and His teaching? He has passed on—we trust into glory rather than perdition—which leaves us to consider our own philosophy, and in particular the followers of Dooyeweerd’s. What is to be done with their errors and ours?

All men stand at the foot of the Cross, condemned for their sinful rebellion against God, epistemological and otherwise. The point of contact which scripture offers to Christians is touched on by the call to repent from sin and self and believe the gospel of Christ, that He died and rose for our salvation. It is the point of rebellion, the point of conversion, the point of salvation. And so we command all men everywhere to repent. The reason that some men continue to suppress the truth of the Christian system when they hear that command to repent and believe is that they continue their rebellion against God; the reason others believe the truth of the Christian system is that God gives them new, believing hearts in regeneration and they submit to God by believing His promises in faith and obeying His commands in repentance. So the only hope for our epistemology and for any Dooyeweerdian's is in Christ and His salvation, as He has revealed it to us in scripture. We, and the Dooyeweerdians, must take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, letting the word of God dwell richly in even our theoretical thought, considering the teaching of scripture to be essential equipment for our epistemology and for us as God's philosophers, so that we may be equipped for every good work which God has prepared beforehand for us to do. This is the task of the Christian philosopher, and this is his method. So then let us flee to Christ and His word with all our mind as well as with all our heart!


Choi, Yong_Joon. Dialogue and Antithesis: A Philosophical Study on the Significance of Herman Dooyeweerd’s Transcendental Critique. (Thesis, Potchefstrooms Universiteit vir Christelike Hoer Onderwys, 2000).

Clouser, Roy A. The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).

Dooyeweerd, Herman. A New Critique of Theoretical Thought. Trans. David Hugh Freeman and William Young. (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1953).

Dooyeweerd, Herman. In The Twilight of Western Thought. (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1968). I have read this in full.

Douma, Jochem. Another Look at Dooyeweerd: Some Critical Notes Regarding the Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea. (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Premier Publishing, n.d.).

Frame, John. Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995).

Frame, John M., and Leonard J. Coppes. The Amsterdam Philosophy: A Preliminary Critique. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Harmony Press, n.d.).

Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. Ed. E. R. Geehan. (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971). I have read the chapter by Dooyeweerd and Van Til’s response, as well as other chapters.

Knudsen, Robert D. Reflections on the Philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd. (Paper, 1968/9?).

Morey, Robert A. The Dooyeweerdian Concept of the Word of God. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974).

Nash, Ronald H. Dooyeweerd and the Amsterdam Philosophy. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962).

Oliphint, K. Scott. A Comparison and Evaluation of the Transcendental Methods of Cornelius Van Til and Herman Dooyeweerd. (Thesis, Glenside, PA: Westmister Theological Seminary, 1984). I did not read chapters 3 or 5 of this thesis.

Oliphint, K. Scott. “Jerusalem and Athens Revisited.” Westminster Theological Journal 49 (1987) 65-90.

Poythress, Vern S. Philosophy, Science, and the Sovereignty of God. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976).

Van Til, Cornelius. Christianity in Conflict. (Unpublished syllabus). The version I examined was on the Van Til CD, which is referred to as follows: Van Til, Cornelius, The Works of Cornelius Van Til, (New York: Labels Army Co., 1997).

Van Til, Cornelius. In Defense of the Faith: Volume V: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978).

Van Til, Cornelius. Herman Dooyeweerd and Reformed Apologetics. (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary mimeo, 1974) Syllabus, 140 pp. The version I examined was on the Van Til CD, which is referred to as follows: Van Til, Cornelius, The Works of Cornelius Van Til, (New York: Labels Army Co., 1997). I only read parts of this, but this is Van Til's last major response to Dooyeweerd's thought, and is more extensive than any of his prior treatments of Dooyeweerd's thought. My paper is in its essential points the same as Van Til's in this document, though I attempt greater clarity through the use of the universality-particularity terminology borrowed from Krabbendam, and through focusing the issue on the Nature-Freedom dialectic, and on the centrality of the word- and deed-modes in human epistemology.

Walsh, Brian, and Jon Chaplin. Dooyeweerd’s Contribution to a Christian Philosophical Paradigm. (Toronto, Ontario: AACS Academic Papers, 1982).

1This is Oliphint’s point (A Comparison and Evaluation, 32) when he summarizes Dooyeweerd (in New Critique, I:161-162, which Oliphint references here), saying, “It is not the case that when we say, ‘The rose is red’, we are making mere subjective judgments. The redness of the rose, as we saw in our explanation of the first transcendental question, is a quality inherent within the rose itself and thus possesses universal validity. Kant’s mistake was to ascribe secondary importance to the so-called sensory qualities and thus to relativize them.” Confer on this point with Oliphint, A Comparison and Evaluation, 30, 29-33, and 24-26.

2These key terms are borrowed from Henry Krabbendam, and are so far as I can tell derived from the substance of Van Til’s thought, with an important dependence in Van Til on Dooyeweerd’s analysis of the history of philosophy, the Idealists’ use of the terms, and the expressions of the existentialists and neo-orthodox theologians.

3Van Til, Cornelius, In Defense of the Faith: Volume V: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978) 229, cf. 230, 220.

4This, especially, is Krabbendam’s terminology and concept.

5I see that Oliphint uses this terminology of verbal and non-verbal “modes” as well; I am not getting the terminology from Oliphint, but am very happy to see him using it. My terminology of “modes” is what I see as a clarification of the concepts found in Van Til and Krabbendam.

6While I have not studied it in depth, Vern Poythress’ Philosophy, Science, and the Sovereignty of God appears to be a valiant attempt to do just this—to develop philosophical categories according to the categories presented in scripture. I might mention my own work on the full-orbed definition of the covenant (which underlies the thesis of this paper) as another similar attempt, though only in its seminal stages at this point. It outlines the covenant as follows: Metaphysical Construction: Two Components: Commitment (Promise) and Requirement (Law); Epistemological Expression: Two Modes: Word and Deed; Ethical Activity: Two Dynamics: God’s Sovereign Administration and Man’s Responsible Reception. In each case, the first of the two paired items is the universal, the second the particular. There are very interesting parallels between this definition and the structure of the first three commandments: Honor God in accord with who He IS, Honor God in accord with what He SAYS, Honor God in accord with what He DOES. This last summary of the commandments is taken from Krabbendam, Christian Ethics, privately published syllabus. The first three commandments then instruct us to keep the universal elements in the covenant primary, and the particular elements secondary, relative to one another. I first presented this structure in my The Biblical Hermeneutics of Geerhardus Vos: An Analysis, Critique, and Reconstruction, as an improvement to Vos's hermeneutical view of the nature of scripture, solving some of the problems in both the systematic and historical aspects of his hermeneutics. I have argued in a paper titled The Glory of God in the Covenant that this structure of the covenant is the structure of the doctrine of the glory of God in scripture, and as such comprehends the whole of theology and biblical religion, and as such is further the sum and substance of Christian philosophy; this last point is manifest in that this structure of the covenant highlights the points described in the biblical perspective to be the central issues in the three main areas of philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. In an upcoming exegetical/redemptive-historical paper on the teaching of the first 4 commandments, I will show how this structure of the covenant underlies and is taught in commandments 1-3 (and is summed up in # 4), and that the commandments promulgated in the Old Covenant thus required what only would be provided in the New Covenant's central blessings of regeneration (our metaphysics in accord with God's), justification (our epistemology in accord with God's), and sanctification (our ethics in accord with God's).

7I suppose in this context it may be wise to qualify what Krabbendam means by the heart, to relate him properly to Dooyeweerd on the point. Krabbendam does not believe the heart is supratemporal. He describes it, on the basis of exegesis, as the spiritual core of man, which is the seat of man’s thinking, willing, and feeling, which function in two dimensions: the moral and social, and which flow out into two kinds of activities: speaking and acting. The heart for Krabbendam then is more than just the seat of motivations, more than just the seat of faith, and as such both participates in the intelligible aspects of creation and thinks in terms of them.