by David T. Koyzis

Political theory in the Calvinist tradition

IT IS PROBABLY FAIR to say that, until recently, political theory in the Reformed Calvinist tradition was largely unknown in the mainstream of academia. Where it was known, its character and impact were often subject to misinterpretation. For example, George H. Sabine (1880-1961) discusses Calvinism very largely in the context of the seventeenth-century controversies over the right of popular revolt against tyranny.[1] Quentin Skinner takes a similar approach,[2] although both he and Sabine acknowledge that Calvin’s own views on the matter were more nuanced than those of his followers. Others, from sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) to economist R.H. Tawney (1880-1962), have sought to demonstrate a connection between the teachings of Calvin and his followers and the later development of industrial capitalism in the west.[3] Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant (1918-1988) follows in this tradition and sees the motivating “primal” of Calvinism to be bound up with liberalism and its attendant emphasis on technical mastery of the physical environment. For Grant the Calvinist impetus is inexorably activistic and has little patience for theory and contemplation of any sort, whether political or otherwise.[4]
Many observers tend to make one of two errors in their assessment of Calvinism as such. The first is to identify it almost wholly with the doctrine of predestination, despite the fact that this preoccupation arose only in the century after the Reformation. The second is to assume that, while Calvinism does have political significance, it is limited to being a kind of precursor to classical liberalism and the modern industrial society. Yet the more astute observers have understood that something more is to be found in this tradition. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff correctly argues that Calvinism is a type of “world-formative” Christianity with considerable implications, not only for the personal lives of individual Christians, but for the structures of the larger social world.[5] The Dutch statesman, Abraham Kuyper, described the Calvinist version of Christianity as a “life-system” with relevance, not only to religion, but to the arts, the sciences and politics as well.[6] Even Tawney understood that the Calvinist creed sought “to renew society by penetrating every department of life, public as well as private, with the influence of religion.”[7] This was to encompass both politics and the academic study of politics, the latter of which includes what is conventionally called political philosophy or theory.

John Calvin

In fact, the Calvinist Reformation spawned a distinctive tradition of political theorizing that finds its culmination in the writings of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), arguably the most original Christian philosopher of the twentieth century. Calvin himself devoted the last section of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (book IV, chapter XX) to civil government and its place in God’s world. Johannes Althusius (c. 1557-1638), writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, built on this tradition of political reflection and articulated a theory that can justly be called pluralist, in contrast to the mainstream of the tradition extending from Bodin through Hobbes to Rousseau, for which absolute, indivisible sovereignty is deemed an indispensable political principle. Indeed, a primary motive behind the publication of Frederick S. Carney’s English translation of Althusius’ Politics[8] was to demonstrate its influence on the subsequent development of federalism, on later understandings of limited government, and even on the increasing acceptance of popular participation in the political process. Althusius lived in the border regions between Germany and the Netherlands, and it is to the latter that we must go to trace further the development of Calvinist political theory.

By the the beginning of the nineteenth century the secularizing ideas generated by the French Revolution were having a large impact throughout Europe, including the Netherlands. In this context, many Christians were concerned over the future of their faith’s public witness in a climate where secularization was increasingly paired with a monolithic understanding of state sovereignty, thereby potentially threatening any communal attempt to live a consistently Christian way of life. The re-establishment of the Netherlands as a highly centralized monarchy after 1815 was a characteristic development in line with this trend. So was the effective nationalization of the Nederlandsch Hervormde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) by King Willem I.

Out of the believing Reformed Christian community arose two leaders who would offer some hope for the future. These were Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876) and Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), who successively led what came to be called the antirevolutionary movement in their country. Groen is best known for his classic Ongeloof en Revolutie (Unbelief and Revolution), written in 1847, just ahead of the European revolutions of the following year.[9] Although Groen’s political thought owed much to the romantic restorationist school that emerged following the defeat of Napoléon, he began to move in a strikingly different direction in his later years, paving the way for Kuyper to assume his mantle of leadership after his death.  Kuyper was an extraordinary figure who seemed uniquely capable of wearing several hats throughout his long public career. He can justly be called pastor, theologian, scholar, journalist, educator and statesman. Although he began his career in the parish ministry, he moved on to many other accomplishments. He became editor of both De Standaard and De Heraut, a Christian daily and weekly respectively. He founded the first Dutch political party, the Antirevolutionary Party in 1879, which was also the first Christian Democratic party in the world. The following year he founded the Free University, a Christian university established on Reformed principles. He was first elected to the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament in 1874 and eventually served as Prime Minister from 1901 to 1905. Kuyper’s thought was introduced to North America in 1898, when he delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary.[10]

Although Kuyper (left) was not an academic political theorist, he nevertheless laid the foundations for a highly original approach to politics that would come to be labelled “Kuyperian.” Its originality consisted at the outset in the fact that he sought to articulate a consistently Christian view of the place of politics in God’s world that would be free from the distortions of various nonchristian ideologies. In this respect he was the heir of Groen’s approach in Unbelief and Revolution. Yet Kuyper also understood that one cannot simply close the gates around the community of faith and pretend that those outside have nothing to offer. Because of God’s common grace (gemeene gratie), one can expect even unbelievers to offer fragmentary insights into his world. Kuyper was by no means the first Christian to understand that the sharp antithesis between belief and unbelief by no means precludes a recognition of God’s common grace. Augustine himself articulated the same fundamental truth in his De Civitate Dei. But Kuyper worked out this understanding at a time when the churches of both Europe and North America were polarizing into the two positions that H. Richard Niebuhr would come to describe as “Christ against culture” and “Christ of culture,” representing conservative and liberalizing tendencies respectively.[11]

The most characteristic feature of Kuyper’s political thought is the principle of soevereiniteit in eigen kring, usually referred to in English as “sovereignty in its own sphere,” “sovereignty in its proper orbit,” or simply “sphere sovereignty.”[12] Sphere sovereignty implies three things: (1) ultimate sovereignty belongs to God alone; (2) all earthly sovereignties are subordinate to and derivative from God’s sovereignty; and (3) there is no mediating earthly sovereignty from which others are derivative. The first two implications serve to distinguish Kuyper’s theory from those of liberal individualism, in which the individual is seen as sovereign over the array of communities he is supposed to have created, and of the various collectivisms, in which a single overarching community is deemed sovereign over other communities and individuals underneath. The third implication serves to differentiate sphere sovereignty from the principle of subsidiarity, whose roots are in the Roman Catholic tradition and whose conception of society is markedly hierarchical. Much as the Reformation had sought to emphasize the direct, unmediated access of Christians to God, so also Kuyper’s principle pointed to the direct, unmediated authority conferred by God on the various societal forms that have emerged over the course of history.

However, two problems arise out of Kuyper’s conception of sphere sovereignty, one of which is terminological and the other of which is more ontological in character. First, many observers are less than fully happy with Kuyper’s use of the word “sovereignty” in this context. For most English-speakers sovereignty has clear connotations of absolute power unchecked by anything or anyone outside of itself. In Hobbes’ Leviathan, for example, the sovereign stands above the compact and is not bound by its terms. In the United Kingdom parliamentary sovereignty means that Parliament can act without fear of intervention by a court authorized to rule on the constitutionality of one of its acts. Sovereignty means to have the last word, the final say, the ultimate authority. If this is so, then it is by no means appropriate to assign such a quality to mere human beings, whose range and scope of legitimate action are always limited in some fashion.[13]

For this reason more recent theorists in the Kuyperian tradition prefer to speak of “differentiated authority” or even “differentiated responsibility,” the latter of which is perhaps better able to capture, in addition to the authority of communities, the legitimate freedom of the person within the larger social context.[14] Yet whether one uses sovereignty, authority or responsibility, the assumption undergirding the Kuyperian approach is that society is multiform and consists of a variety of responsible agents, both communal and individual, whose legitimate range of activity is rooted immediately in God’s sovereignty and which exist within normative limits placed on them by God himself.

The second and more serious difficulty with Kuyper’s conception of sphere sovereignty is that, while it has a solid intuitive basis in actual human experience, it lacks a certain theoretical sophistication. Why, one might ask, does the state constitute a sphere distinct from that of, say, the institutional church? Why ought parents to possess the responsibility of disciplining their own children? Why should they not call in a police officer instead? Why, further, should not business enterprises and labour unions become arms of the state? To be sure, Kuyper could answer that these spheres normatively remain distinct because of God’s creation ordinances. His answer would be correct, but in itself it would not take us very far in our attempts to understand which areas of life are distinct spheres and which are not.

For example, if a federal constitution grants exclusive jurisdiction over education to the state or provincial governments, is a subsequent federal intervention in this field a violation of sphere sovereignty? Or is it merely a possible infringement of a right under positive law requiring adjudication by a constitutional court? Is a distinct ethnic, cultural or racial community a sphere in Kuyper’s sense? Does racial intermarriage constitute a violation of sphere sovereignty? These are, of course, no mere hypothetical questions, because they were discussed in South Africa during the years that the apartheid policy was being conceived and implemented. If church and state are distinct spheres, but federal and provincial governments and Ukrainian and Polish ethnic communities are not, we must find some way to account theoretically for our different assessment of these pairs.  

Dooyeweerd’s unique contribution

Here is where Dooyeweerd enters the picture. After Kuyper’s death in 1920 it fell to Dooyeweerd to develop further, with a higher degree of theoretical consistency and sophistication, the insights articulated in only seminal fashion by the former.[15] Having grown up in the Reformed Christian community in the Netherlands, Dooyeweerd studied law at the Free University where he earned his doctorate in 1917. In 1922 he became director of the Kuyper Institute in The Hague. Then from 1926 until his retirement in 1965, he taught at the Free University. He was a prolific scholar who wrote a large number of publications, culminating in 1935 with his massive three-volume work, De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee,[16] whose title was thereafter associated with the philosophical movement as a whole. The fact that he wrote largely in the Dutch language initially delayed the wider dissemination of his thought. But some twenty years later his 1935 work was translated into English, revised and given the title, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.[17]

With respect to his philosophy in general, Dooyeweerd (right) has made at least two unique contributions. To begin with, he has developed a systematic philosophy rooted in the conviction that all theoretical thought has pre-theoretical and nonfalsifiable religious underpinnings.[18] Any theory making a pretence to religious neutrality, whether on the grounds of a universal rational faculty within the person or on the basis of the objective nature of so-called facts in the surrounding world, must be seen for what it is: epistemologically naïve and unaware of its own dogmatic starting point. It is further rooted in a deficient anthropology that elevates one aspect of the total person and makes this the unifying factor of the human self. Yet far from being an apparently neutral faculty, reason can be understood, according to Dooyeweerd, only as the logical aspect of our total experience. In this respect, faith and reason are not the dialectical polarities that much of the western intellectual tradition, from Averroës and Thomas Aquinas to Hobbes and Marx, has come to think of them. Rather they are two aspects of a much richer and fuller human experience. Any effort to account theoretically for this experience is necessarily dependent on an ultimate religious commitment lying outside of and preceding the theoretical enterprise. Even the behavioural political scientist anchors her endeavour in religious convictions concerning the nature of humanity, of the world we inhabit, and of the place of politics in that world.

In the second place, Dooyeweerd’s philosophy eschews all reductionisms. Although this principled antireductionism is by no means peculiar to Dooyeweerd, his own contribution consists in (1) his placing this insight within the larger understanding that God’s creation is not a haphazard product of chance, but an orderly cosmos subject to laws and norms given by his grace; and (2) his effort to spell out those aspects of reality that are themselves irreducible but, if placed in an apostate religious context, nevertheless lend a certain plausibility to the reductionist project. These irreducible aspects of reality are called modes, and the mature Dooyeweerd posits fifteen of these, listed here in ascending order: arithmetic (number), spatial, kinematic (extensive movement), physical (energy), biotic (organic life), psychic (feeling, sensation), logical, historical (cultural, formative), lingual (symbolic), social, economic, aesthetic, juridical (justice, retribution), ethical (temporal love, loyalty) and pistical (faith). The persistent tendency of nonchristian--or perhaps nontheistic--theoretical thought is, not only to fasten onto one or more of these modal aspects and to read the rest of creation through them, but to assume that doing so provides the key to understanding the world in its totality.

The difficulty with engaging one of these reductionisms in dialogue is due, not to the supposed irrationality of the reductionist, but to the fact that her enterprise accounts for all the evidence in a way that seems to be complete but is nevertheless missing something rather crucial. The convinced materialist can easily explain such complex phenomena as anger or even romantic affection by pointing to the movement of electrical impulses through the brain. Ernst Lubitsch’s classic 1939 film, Ninotchka, plays with the materialism of a stereotypical Soviet functionary to humorous effect. To Melvyn Douglas’ amorous gestures, Greta Garbo’s Russian character replies: “Why must you bring in the wrong values? Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological—or, shall we say, chemical?—process. A lot of nonsense is written about it.” In Dooyeweerd’s language, Ninotchka has effectively reduced a complex phenomenon, in which the psychical and ethical aspects are especially prominent, to the biotic or even the physical modalities.[19

In this respect, the materialist is similar to G.K. Chesterton’s “madman,” who reasons in a way that combines logical completeness with spiritual contraction.[20] If the madman argues that there is a universal conspiracy against him, and if you point out that everyone denies it, he is likely to reply that denial is exactly what one can expect from conspirators. “His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.”[21] As Chesterton memorably concludes, the madman is not the one who has lost his reason, but the one “who has lost everything except his reason.”[22] Dooyeweerd would put the matter less colourfully perhaps, but he would agree that the materialist, who sees the entire cosmos through the narrow lenses of only one or two modal aspects, has missed the fulness of human life, if not experientially, at least theoretically.

Politics and the state

Dooyeweerd also brings into his specifically political theory these fundamental insights into the nature of theoretical thought. If reductionism is a danger in unbelieving philosophy in general, it is a continuing threat to our ability to make sense of the political realm as well. Indeed the most influential political theorists in the modern West have in some fashion attempted to reduce politics to something else. The most common error in this respect is to collapse politics into economics.

For example, John Locke argued that virtually the sole raison d’être of civil government is the protection of private property. More recent libertarians, such as F.A. von Hayek (1899-1992)[23] and Milton Friedman (1912-2006),[24] follow Locke in assuming that life revolves around the marketplace and that government is at best a necessary evil charged with the sole task of setting up procedural rules to stabilize its functioning. Even later liberals less enamoured of the economic market nevertheless tend to speak of a marketplace of ideas, as if their truth or falsehood is somehow dependent on the likes and dislikes of their would-be consumers.

Although Karl Marx and his followers can hardly be considered disciples of Locke, they are nevertheless his spiritual heirs to no small extent. For Marx politics is still reducible to economics, though in a rather different sense than for Locke. According to the former, virtually the whole of life can be seen as a series of epiphenomenal outgrowths of the concrete processes of production. Everything that appears to be noneconomic in nature is therefore qualified with a series of “merelys,” “no-more-thans” and “nothing-buts” that supposedly bring us closer to an underlying material reality. If Plato believed that the sensible world is less real than the intelligible world, Marx believes, to the contrary, that ideas are less real than the economic arrangements they reflect and the class conflicts that grow out of them. Thus “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”[25] The expectation is that, with the eventual end of the class struggle, there will be little or no need for the state as we now know it. In the words of Marx and Engels, “the public power will lose its political character.” Engels by himself is even more explicit: the state will “wither away.”

In a somewhat different though related vein, the American political scientist, David Easton (1917-2014), describes politics as “the authoritative allocation of values for a whole society.”[26] Similarly, Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) sees politics as basically a distributive process deciding “who gets what, when, how.”[27] Although such definitions have a certain plausibility to them, they too are unable adequately to distinguish politics from other fields of human endeavour, especially economics. The irony is that, although such accounts of politics are close to the centre of the discipline of political science, particularly in the United States, in the real world of the academy political scientists have little difficulty knowing intuitively what they are expected to study. Thus the field may be somewhat less fragmented than the diversity of definitions would seem to suggest.[28]

Even such Christian political theorists as Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) and George Parkin Grant have not avoided falling into their own brands of reductionism. Although each in his own way is severely critical of the major traditions of liberalism and socialism so influential in the past two centuries, both effectively reduce politics to some nonpolitical factor. For Ellul the state and its activities are caught up in a grand process of technological expansion that is effectively autonomous and thus virtually immune to human control and responsibility.[29] Grant is largely in agreement with Ellul and, connecting technique with the economic forces of capitalism, believes that continental economic integration must of necessity lead to political amalgamation.[30]

In recent years, however, we have witnessed something of a countermovement to the above-mentioned reductionisms, and it is useful to look at Dooyeweerd in this larger context.

We might begin with Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who is preoccupied with the recovery of politics in a world obsessed with the imposition of single-minded ideological projects. Above all, Arendt seeks to protect the public realm as a space for genuine human freedom, where citizens might come together to act and speak in the presence of their fellow citizens. Any movement that would deny what she labels the human condition of plurality risks putting an end to genuine politics and replacing it with something nonpolitical.[31] Like Ellul and Grant, Arendt too fears the monism implicit in technique, but she cannot share her contemporaries’ fatalism in believing in technique’s inevitable triumph over politics.

Arendt’s influence can be detected in the writings of Sir Bernard Crick (1929-2008), particularly his classic In Defence of Politics.[32] Crick agrees with her that politics “is not religion, ethics, law, science, history, or economics,”[33] but is a distinctive activity in its own right operating in accordance with its own imperatives. Rooted in the fact of human diversity—of the existence of different groups, interests, traditions, even truths—politics necessitates the willingness of all parties to compromise and to accept less than they might prefer to claim from the political process. Politics, in short, is the peaceful conciliation of diversity, a way of settling conflicts before they escalate into overt violence. Crick is at pains to defend politics—however precarious and untidy it may seem to those of a more dogmatic bent—from all who would impose their single idea of the common good on a diverse society.

In similar fashion, Sheldon S. Wolin (1922-2015) argues that politics is an activity centred on group competition amid conditions of change and relative scarcity whose consequences affect an entire society.[34] Political community is distinct from other communities insofar as it is uniquely concerned with that which is common to the whole of society. Such concerns include “national defense, internal order, the dispensing of justice, and economic regulation.”[35] However, the modern world has been characterized by the sublimation of politics and its replacement by an ethos of organization. This ethos is characterized by the ongoing effort to uncover scientific laws to which social phenomena might be subjected in the interest of scientific truth. Freedom and citizenship are thus deprecated in favour of order, structure and regularity.[36]

We could continue this brief survey and look at Leo Strauss (1899-1973),[37] Eric Voegelin (1901-1985),[38] Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013)[39] and many others. Each in his or her own way attempts to underscore the distinctiveness of politics in opposition to those who would, even inadvertently, reduce it to something else of a nonpolitical character. Most do so by speaking of such things as diversity, plurality, public freedom, common interest and the like. But even these factors are not sufficient to delimit politics as a unique enterprise since they can be found in a variety of contexts, ranging from business enterprises to ecclesiastical settings.

Herman Dooyeweerd, later years

Here is where Dooyeweerd makes his singular contribution to an understanding of what is and is not political. Indeed Dooyeweerd rarely uses the adjective “political” without it qualifying some noun, as in, for example, “political community.” This already gives us a strong indication of Dooyeweerd’s approach. For what distinguishes politics proper from what many are wont to call church politics, office politics and school politics is that the former occurs within the context of a particular community known as the state. In Kuyper’s view the state is one of the spheres to which a limited, differentiated share of human sovereignty is ascribed. But how can we know this? What differentiates the state from the church, the corporation, the private club, the school, the labour union? Once more we are capable of intuiting the difference without necessarily being able to account for this theoretically. Nevertheless, accounting for it theoretically helps to enrich our intuitive experience of reality and it furthermore helps to confirm or discount our hunches.

Dooyeweerd believes we can account for the state’s uniqueness by analyzing what he calls its “structural principle.” This is the subject of the second essay in this volume. Following Kuyper, Dooyeweerd’s vision of society is one in which different God-given norms operate in distinct spheres of human responsibility. One of the principal norms governing the process of historical development is that of societal differentiation. In undifferentiated societies a number of functions related to its on-going existence are concentrated in a few hands. In such contexts a chieftain is at once political leader, cultic religious leader, head of a clan or kinship community and so forth. But as the society develops and becomes more complex, these functions come to be performed by distinct communities and institutions defined in some sense by these functions. Thus, whereas at one time the family was simultaneously a biological, economic and educational unit, the process of differentiation eventually led to the formation of economic enterprises and schools distinct from the family unit. In similar fashion, though at one time cultic religious functions and political functions were often combined in the same institution, differentiation has led to the separation of these into distinct church and state institutions. In a mature, differentiated society, each of these institutions is subject to specific creational norms governing its activities and rooted in a relationship between two of the modal aspects, as we shall further explain below.  

Power and justice: transcending another false polarity

Even among those theorists who understand that politics has something to do with power and justice—or with what Dooyeweerd labels the historical and juridical modalities respectively—there is a persistent tendency to play these two aspects off against each other as though they were, once again, polarities. Much as the mainstream of the western intellectual tradition has perceived a dialectical relationship between faith and reason, so has it struggled to articulate a theory of political community and governmental authority within the context of a dialectical interplay between power and justice.

Political realists, for example, are quite willing to admit that politics has to do with power. In fact, political realism is defined by its reduction of politics to the possession of and struggle for power. Hans Morgenthau, perhaps the greatest twentieth-century proponent of this position, is easily able to see that politics ought not to be confused with, or reduced to, other activities, including economics. Yet he is unable to see that justice is a norm with any relevance to politics. Justice is properly confined to the realm of personal morality, and one cannot reasonably expect of a state what one can of an individual person. Hence the overriding norm for political action is not justice, but a prudence that judges political decisions in accordance with the norm of success in achieving goals. Consequences are all-important for the political realist.[40] Morgenthau stands in the tradition of Augustine, who also deemed it necessary, for apparently solid empirical reasons, to abandon justice as a defining feature of the commonwealth.[41] However, like Augustine and his political realist successors, even Morgenthau is not willing to allow power to remain unguided by some norm. Peace and stability are all-important to political realists, but they are unable to see that these might be significant elements of justice itself. 

Not all political realists are enthusiasts for power, however, and this brings something of a paradoxical quality to their enterprise. For example, Lord Acton famously argues that power corrupts. Glenn Tinder further notes the “moral dubiousness” of power and admits that it may even be “evil in essence.”[42] From a reformational perspective, such observations effectively ontologize evil by ascribing it, not to human disobedience to God’s will, but to something defective in the very structure of creation itself.[43] Other realists, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, are willing to admit that power itself is not evil, though it is continually in danger of fostering evil if it is not hedged about with effective limitations rooted in a balance of competing powers.[44] Indeed, the moment of truth in the political realist position stems from its understanding that all human power must be contained within such limits.

Where political realism errs, however, is in its somewhat facile assumption that all power is simply self-interested and undifferentiated. We begin with self-interest. At first blush, it would seem safe to assume, along Hobbesian lines, that our fellow human beings are out to get us than to expect them to act beneficently towards us. Indeed, it would be unwise to imagine that no one is willing to harm us, and for this reason many people quite sensibly lock their doors at night as a precaution. However, our own experience of life does not vindicate the worst fears of a Hobbes. Parental authority, for example, is not simply exercised in the self-interest of the parents but in the interest of the children. As even Plato understood, if political power were exercised only in the interest of rulers, it would not be necessary to compensate them for the inconvenience of ruling. To be sure, parents and rulers sometimes abuse their respective offices, but doing so constitutes a perversion of the norm. In short, power is capable of being abused, but this abuse is the perversion of something good.

Nor is power simply an undifferentiated human capacity, as the realists further tend to assume. For example, although Stephen Charles Mott understands that power is a good capable of being abused, he is able only to discern what he labels defensive, exploitative and intervening powers.[45] He is less able to account for authority in its legitimate and pluriform manifestations throughout the broad array of human communities.[46] Parental authority is much more than raw, arbitrary power, being inextricably linked, as it is, to the raising of children. Magisterial authority is distinguished from political authority insofar as the former is intrinsically related to the educational task of the teacher in the school. Political authority is obviously different from other forms of authority, as we can already sense at an intuitive level. However, political realism is incapable of making sense of this difference, because of its tendency to see power as little more than an undifferentiated capacity to make things happen. Mott comes close to understanding the nature of at least political authority in his account of an intervening power acting to restore some sort of missing balance.[47] Even Morgenthau and Niebuhr understand the language of “balance of powers,” which they apply in both domestic and international arenas. In other words, even if political realists eschew talk of justice as subjective and moralistic, their need to distinguish state and government from other communities inevitably pushes them in the direction of acknowledging something like justice, which finds its way in, as it were, through the back door.

Once again, the singular virtue of Dooyeweerd’s political theory is that it can account for both power and justice as indispensable and complementary elements in understanding the nature of the state and of governing authority within the state. In this respect, Dooyeweerd’s approach is better rooted in empirical reality than that of political realism. Like faith and reason, power and justice are not entities in themselves co-existing in dialectical tension. Rather they are integral aspects—modal aspects, in Dooyeweerd’s language—of a larger reality that must be acknowledged to be complementary and not antithetical to each other. Every entity, including human communities, is characterized by a peculiar relationship between two interrelated modal aspects which Dooyeweerd labels founding and leading or qualifying functions. The qualifying function is “the ultimate functional point of reference for the entire internal structural coherence of the individual whole in the typical groupage of its aspects.”[48] In other words, it is that function which most specifically characterizes the unique structure of an entity and already points us to its unique internal task.

Dooyeweerd does not define founding function explicitly, but illustrates its meaning through a number of examples. L. Kalsbeek describes it as the “lower of the two modalities which characterize certain types of structural wholes.”[49] The founding function may also be defined as that modal aspect at which point an entity begins to take on its unique character as a particular entity—or perhaps the modal point at which something begins to be differentiated from other entities at a basic level. States, universities, orchestras, professional associations, fraternal societies and charitable organizations all share the same founding historical function but have different qualifying functions.

On the other hand, parliaments, cabinets, government departments, courts, and regulatory agencies share both founding and qualifying functions, which indicates that they are manifestations of the larger category of state, or political community. Among these entities there can be no relation of sphere sovereignty as such; rather the relationships among what are commonly called the “branches” of government are subject to positive legal arrangements of a constitutional nature which properly differ from one country to the next. Thus whether a country is governed by an American-style separation of powers or by a more British form of responsible government is not an issue of maintaining versus departing from sphere sovereignty, but of prudential considerations rooted in the unique traditions of a particular political community.[50]

The following graph illustrates Dooyeweerd’s modal analysis of several social entities:[51

How does Dooyeweerd’s structural analysis serve to improve on the approach of, say, political realism? Using Dooyeweerd’s language, political realists are able to account only for the founding function of the state, which is in the historical mode—that mode having to do with technique and cultural-formative power. Because state, institutional church, political party and business enterprise are all alike brought into being through human formative power, political realism is unable adequately to distinguish them from each other because it fails to discern their typical leading functions. Once again, at a pretheoretical experiential level we can easily tell the differences among these institutions. Ironically, then, Dooyeweerd’s theory accounts for this reality better than the various forms of political realism. It also serves to flesh out theoretically Kuyper’s principle of sphere sovereignty by answering the questions posed above as to what does and does not constitute a sovereign sphere.

What is the state then? Dooyeweerd defines it at its foundational level as “an internal monopolistic organization of the power of the sword over a particular cultural area within territorial boundaries.”[52] But this swordpower is always inextricably tied to the state’s character as “a public legal relationship uniting government, people and territory into a politico-juridical whole.”[53] This further implies that the state’s activity must always be led by its central task of doing justice, that is, of harmonizing the various interests within a territory, weighing their respective claims, and doing so in such a way as to recognize their intrinsic limitations and their proper places within the larger social context. In particular, the state is called upon to interrelate justly the various spheres, ensuring through its coercive power that they do not overreach themselves and encroach upon other legitimate areas of responsibility. In short, justice requires the state to uphold the principle of sphere sovereignty.

One might ask, of course, what happens when the state itself overreaches its legitimate sphere of responsibility and begins to encroach on the nongovernmental spheres in unwarranted fashion. Dooyeweerd says little on this issue, except to express the hope that public office-bearers might “keep alive an awareness of the inner limits of their competence.”[54] Failing this, one can offer a possible answer to this thorny question with reference to existing constitutional governments and the mechanisms they employ to prevent this danger. Indeed popular elections held on a regular basis help to maintain government accountability, as do the entrenched laws, ordinary statutes and unwritten conventions that form a country’s constitution in the full sense. Furthermore, Yves R. Simon (1903-1961) believes that the very existence and vitality of nonstate institutions, often referred to collectively as “civil society” or “mediating structures,” offer a certain resistance to state absolutism.[55] Other theorists, from Thomas Aquinas to Calvin and Althusius, believe that a remedy against tyranny might be found in lower magistrates authorized to check the power of a supreme magistrate. This points once again to a constitutional remedy, the precise nature of which would need to be worked out in each polity. It is perhaps not too speculative to assume that Dooyeweerd would likely agree with this general approach, which is consistent with his larger view of the state as upholder of public justice.

With respect to justice itself, there is, of course, much disagreement among political theorists as to whether it is rooted ultimately in the human will or in something outside of it. Is justice something which takes into account the desires of the members of a community or is it an objective standard whose validity rests in something higher than the community? Justice finds its way into the reflections of a variety of philosophers, ranging from Augustine himself down to John Rawls in our own day. But, predictably, each has articulated a different basis for it, including Plato’s forms, Aristotle’s virtue, Thomas Aquinas’ natural law, Rousseau’s general will, and Rawls’ pure, self-interested rationality.

From Dooyeweerd’s perspective, justice is rooted in a higher standard but it is also rooted in the normal aspirations of a community of persons. On the one hand, Scripture tells us that God himself is a God of justice and commands us to act accordingly.[56] Justice, then, cannot be reduced to mere human preferences. We are not being just simply because we are obeying the laws of the land as expressed by the will of a legislator. Against the likes of Hobbes, who asserts that justice is whatever flows from the lips of the sovereign, we must recognize that positive laws are themselves sometimes unjust. In this respect we must affirm that justice is an objective standard or, better, a creational norm that cannot be reduced to mere human will.

At the same time, justice cannot be disconnected from human activity, including the normal wishes, aspirations and desires of people. Justice requires human agents both to put it into effect and, as important, to articulate the claims which it attempts to adjudicate. This means that it cannot be conceived as an abstract ideal imposed from on high, but is instead a real response to actual human yearnings, needs and goals. It is this connection with the real world that many “objective” notions of justice are lacking. Justice is not a Platonic idea which we must strive to bring down from heaven to earth. Nor is it rooted in a sort of static nature—even a human nature—antecedent to concrete human beings. Among God’s commandments is that to do justice. We are not instructed to struggle to achieve justice. We are not to try to bring it into being, as if it were a kind of substantial entity that we have to fabricate in accordance with an as yet undetermined blueprint. It is not a goal that we strive to reach, any more than loving our daughters and sons is a kind of vague aspiration for the future. Dooyeweerd’s political theory helps us to see that justice, far from being a goal for the future, is an intrinsic aspect—indeed one of the defining features—of the state’s structure.  

This essay is adapted from the “Introductory Essay,” in Daniël F. M. Strauss, ed., Political Philosophy by Herman Dooyeweerd (Ancaster, Ontario and Lewiston, New York: The Dooyeweerd Centre and the Edwin Mellen Press, 2004), pp. 1-16, The Collected Works of Herman Dooyeweerd, series D, volume 1.



    1. George Sabine and Thomas L. Thorson, A History of Political Theory (Hinsdale, Illinois: The Dryden Press, 1973, 4th ed.), pp. 339 ff, 352 ff.

    2. Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume Two: The Age of the Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 189 ff.

    3. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958); and R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1926).

    4. George Parkin Grant, Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1969).

    5. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).

    6. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), originally presented as the Stone Lectures in 1898 at Princeton Theological Seminary.

    7. Tawney, p. 91.

    8. The Politics of Johannes Althusius (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).

    9. See Harry Van Dyke, Groen van Prinsterer’s Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution (Jordan Station, Ontario: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1989) for an abridged English translation of this work with an interpretive essay. Groen's work has been published separately as Unbelief and Revolution (Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018).

    10. See Peter S. Heslam, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). For the best biography of Kuyper in English, see James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

    11. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951).

    12. See Kuyper, “The Antirevolutionary Program,” James W. Skillen and Rockne M. McCarthy, ed., Political Order and the Plural Structure of Society (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1991), especially pp. 257 ff.

    13. Dooyeweerd himself believes that sovereignty can and must be saved from those who would attach absolutist connotations to it.

    14. To understand better the meaning and implications of differentiated responsibility, see James W. Skillen, The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), and Recharging the American Experiment: Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994); and Paul Marshall, “Politics Not Ethics: A Christian Perspective on the State,” Servant or Tyrant: The Task and Limits of Government (Mississauga, Ontario: Christian Labour Association of Canada and Work Research Foundation, 1989), pp. 5-24.

    15. For more detailed accounts of Dooyeweerd’s activities and influence, see Bernard Zylstra’s introduction to L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s thought (Toronto: Wedge, 1975), pp. 14-33; and Albert M. Wolters, “The Intellectual Milieu of Herman Dooyeweerd,” C. T. MacIntire, ed., The Legacy of Herman Dooyeweerd: Reflections on critical philosophy in the Christian Tradition (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1985). See also Marcel E. Verburg, Herman Dooyeweerd: The Life and Work of a Christian Philosopher (Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia Press, 2015), which is less a biography than a tracing of the development of his thought over the course of his life. See also Jonathan Chaplin, Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), for an excellent analysis of Dooyeweerd's political theory. The principal difficulty with Chaplin's approach is that he is too ready to dispense with Dooyeweerd's crucial founding function in the structural analysis of individuality structures.

    16. Dooyeweerd, De Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee (Amsterdam: H. J. Paris, 1935-36).

    17. Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought (Amsterdam: H. J. Paris; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1953-58).

    18. See Dooyeweerd, In the Twilight of Western Thought: Studies in the Pretended Autonomy of Philosophical Thought (Nutley, New Jersey: The Craig Press, 1960).

    19.  Located at <>, last modified 21 April 1998, quoting the script by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, based on the story by Melchior Lengyel.

    20. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1994), especially pp. 9 ff.

    21. Chesterton, p. 15.

    22. Ibid.

    23. See F. A. von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944).

    24. See Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962); and, with Rose Friedman, Free to Choose (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980).

    25. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).

    26. David Easton, A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York: Wiley, 1965).

    27. Harold Lasswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How (New York: Meridian Books, 1958).

    28. For an excellent survey and analysis of the discipline of political science, see James W. Skillen, “Toward a Comprehensive Science of Politics,” Jonathan Chaplin and Paul Marshall, ed., Political Theory and Christian Vision: Essays in Memory of Bernard Zylstra (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1994), pp. 57 ff.

    29. Ellul’s writings are too numerous to list in full. Among his better known works are The Technological Society (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1964) and The Political Illusion (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1967). See also The Technological System (New York: Seabury, 1980).

    30. See Grant’s argument in Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1965), concerning the fate of Canada in an American-dominated North American economy. Although the rise of NAFTA and the European Union might seem on the surface to vindicate his fears, it is telling that, at the precise moment continental economic integration is occurring, separatist movements, such as those in Québec, Scotland and Kosovo are also making their impact in these same regions.

    31. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

    32. Fourth edition (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992), first published in 1962.

    33. Crick, p. 15.

    34. Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), pp. 10-11.

    35. Wolin, pp. 2-3.

    36. Wolin, pp. 352 ff.

    37. See, for example, Leo Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? and Other Studies (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1959), and particularly the title essay.

    38. See Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), and Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1968.

    39. See especially Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

    40. Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948).

    41. Augustine tested Cicero’s definition of a res publica as a community bound together by ties of justice and found it wanting. After all, he reasoned, the old Roman republic was certainly a res publica, yet, by withholding from God the worship due him, it was lacking in justice. Thus if a known res publica lacks justice, we must exclude justice from any empirical definition of this phenomenon (De Civitate Dei, XIX, 21). The flaw in Augustine’s reasoning comes from his failure to understand the modal juridical character of the res publica and his concomitant tendency instead to view justice as a substantial entity that is either present in toto or absent in toto.

    42. Glenn Tinder, Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions, 5th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 95.

    43. For a lucid, nontechnical discussion of the distinction between creation structure and spiritual direction, see Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985, 2nd ed., 2005).

    44. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. II, Human Destiny (New York: Scribners, 1943), p. 22.

    45. See Stephen Charles Mott, A Christian Perspective on Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), esp. pp. 13 ff.

    46. The very word “authority” occurs on only two pages in his book, pp. 61 and 192, as revealed in the index. There is, in fact, a central contradiction in his account of authority. On the one hand, he admits that “Authority, corporate responsibility, and collective decision making are essential to every form of human life” (p. 61), which implies a creational basis for authority. Yet on the other hand, he argues that “Authority means that power is voluntarily granted to an actor by the subjects for purposes supported by their values” (Ibid.), which implies that authority might perhaps be dispensed with if the will of the subjects is not supportive. To be sure, consent of the subjects is a necessary component of authority, but authority itself cannot be reduced to such consent. See my own We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2014), for an alternative account of authority and its place in human life.

    47. To be fair, although Mott is influenced by the Niebuhrian tradition of political realism, he is able to acknowledge the claims of justice and treats this concept repeatedly in his book (pp. 74 ff), as does Niebuhr in his own writings. See Niebuhr, especially pp. 244 ff.

    48. Dooyeweerd, New Critique, III, p. 58.

    49. L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian philosophy: An introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s thought (Toronto: Wedge, 1975), p. 348.

    50. This said, however, positive legal-constitutional arrangements are not simply arbitrary. Although one cannot speak of sphere sovereignty in the proper sense among the various branches of government, there are differences between, say, a legislature and a court that are anchored in our experience and appear to be rooted in something creational. A comparative political scientist has no difficulty distinguishing between a legislature and a court when he encounters them in several political systems. Each has a central task that appears to be related to its inner nature. A legislature makes law, while a court adjudicates cases arising under the law. If a court appears to be encroaching on the legislative task, numerous citizens are likely to conclude that something is amiss in the system as a whole. (See, e.g., the controversial symposium, “The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics,” First Things, no. 67, November 1996, pp. 18 ff, concerning the alleged overreaching of judicial authority by the American courts.) Similarly, when a military junta seizes power from a civilian government, there is a general sense, even in a nondemocratic or partially democratic constitution, that the situation is anomalous and that a return to normality entails a return to civilian rule. Dooyeweerd attempts to treat the issue of institutional differences internal to government in his Encyclopedia of the Science of Law, the first volume of which, the Introduction, has been published in English (Grand Rapids: Paideia Press / Reformational Publishing Project, 2012), with later volumes forthcoming.

    51. Dooyeweerd changed his mind in his modal analysis of the political party. In the first edition (Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee, or WdW) he saw the political party as pistically qualified, while in the second edition (New Critique, or NC) he saw it as ethically qualified.

    52. NC, III, p. 414.

    53. NC, III, p. 437.

    54. Dooyeweerd, "The relation of the individual and community," Essays in Legal, Social, and Political Philosophy, translated by D. F. M. Strauss, edited by Alan M. Cameron (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), p. 98.

    55. See Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 136 ff.

    56. See Jan Dengerink, The Idea of Justice in Christian Perspective (Toronto: Wedge, 1978), for a survey of the different notions of justice advanced since the time of Plato.

A Spanish translation of this article can be found here: INTRODUCCION A LA TEORIA POLITICA DE HERMAN DOOYEWEERD.


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