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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Dooyeweerd's The Crisis in Humanist Political Theory review by Bruce Wearne

Guest post by Bruce Wearne. This review first appeared in Sight - used here by permission of the author.

The Crisis in Humanist Political Theory: as seen from a Calvinist cosmology and epistemology
Herman Dooyeweerd (Translated M. Verbrugge, edited by D.F.M. Strauss, co-edited Harry van Dyke)
Paideia Press, 2010
ISBN-13 9780888152121

This volume is the translation of an early work of Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977), originally written and published in Dutch in 1931. It is the summation of extensive study made while he was a policy researcher for the Abraham Kuyper Foundation, think-tank of the major Calvinist political party in The Netherlands. It contains an initial systematic formulation of the Christian philosophy that is associated with his name.

The term Calvinist in the book's title, will for some suggest a political justification of the doctrine of predestination and the Biblical teaching of the "chosen people". Such a suspicion is not entirely unwarranted, given for example the historic connections between Dutch reformed theology and the apartheid ideology in South Africa. But readers of Dooyeweerd's work will discover that his "reformational" perspective is cut from another cloth. This is no work of Protestant triumphalism. It self-critically maintains a critical distance from the worldly pride that has repeatedly dogged many political contributions of those claiming a Calvinistic inheritance since the 16th and 17th centuries.

Indeed, in his line by line analysis of the then current body of political thought - an incredible library of weighty scholarly tomes from the German historical tradition, in the tradition of humanistic idealism of Kant and Hegel (and many more) - Dooyeweerd presents himself as a reformer of the intellectual tradition. He sifts and evaluates the theories and analyses of those who had formed, and those who were shaping, the contours of political science.

Political theory is assumed to be an important, though not totally indispensable, scholarly contribution to the work of those called to political office in the administration of public justice. Led by the concept of public justice, this is the discussion of a reformer of political theory. He does not proceed to the articulation of his own contribution before "doing yeoman's duty" as one who has mastered the strengths and weaknesses, twists and turns, and most importantly the underlying "ground principles" (what he would later come to refer to as "religious ground-motives"), of the prominent political theories of the day.

It is also important to note that this is a work that was written to be appreciated by a predominantly German post-World War I readership. The Netherlands had remained neutral in the Great War and this analysis was penned during the years of the Weimar Republic, said to have been sympathetic to the neo-Kantian democratic perspectives of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. This was a few years before Hitler became Chancellor of the Reichstag in 1933. Of interest to historians of political theory will be Dooyeweerd's analysis of the apologia for dictatorship from Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt's theory, forged in the heat of the inner spiritual crisis of humanism, prepared the way for the Fuhrerstaat.

The second half of the book provides Dooyeweerd's (neo-Calvinist) view of the way the State must function if it is to carry out its calling "under heaven", and "do" public justice. Dooyeweerd, the professor of jurisprudence, was keen to appropriate positive aspects of Abraham Kuyper's vision of "sphere sovereignty". But that also meant avoiding some of the dogmatic concepts implicit in Kuyper's uncritical view of science and scholarship. For Dooyeweerd, political theory in the Calvinistic line (from Johannes Althusius (1563-1638), required its own Christian philosophical critique of the scientific task, and those a radical critique of any theological endorsement of science's autonomy that go all the way back to Aristotle and Plato.

For Dooyeweerd, Christian political theory is born outside any attempt to bring Christian and pagan thought into a synthesis. Such an attempted marriage has diverted Christian scientific endeavour since the days of the early church. That is not to say that Dooyeweerd's argument defaults to a triumphalist view of Calvinism's contribution to world-history. Not at all. Calvinism as much as other strands of Christianity have all been implicated in this attempted "monster marriage". Calvinism's distinctiveness is to be found in its idea of law centred on God's will for His creation. Dooyeweerd's "philosophy of the idea of cosmic law" thus is a signpost to Christians "doing political theory" that they need to exercise self-critical discernment about the concepts they develop and avoid presuming on their "purity".

The significance of Dooyeweerd's contribution to political theory is in his comprehensive definition of the State's task in the promotion and maintenance of public justice. His analysis rejects any view that suggests the State should impose or justify any nationalist, ethno-supremacist or religious community's ideology. This "neo-Calvinistic" political theory also decisively rejects any presumption of its "manifest destiny" to succeed where all other world-views have failed. The implication is that it is not only neo-pagan America which fails but also any neo-pagan Calvinism! Calvinism's decisive contribution to political theory is thus interpreted from the standpoint of a Christian world-view which promotes scientific engagement motivated by the Christian-Biblical ground-motive of creation, fall and redemption in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

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