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Dooyeweerd and Rushdoony

The Reformed faith has had many champions. Not only has it been blessed with theologians and preachers, it has also had a host of writers and thinkers who applied foundational Reformed truths to every area of life.

  • Ben House,
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The Reformed faith has had many champions. Not only has it been blessed with theologians and preachers, it has also had a host of writers and thinkers who applied foundational Reformed truths to every area of life. Some of these men have had an influence of such a degree that they not only—through the power of God—changed the minds and hearts of individual people, they changed the direction of whole cultures, communities, and nations. Such men, usually without specific intent, founded movements. Some such men founded institutions, such as seminaries or universities, but movements go beyond the college campus and reach out to a wider community.

These movement men would include such pillars of the faith as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Knox. In American history, the ministries of Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon, Charles Hodge, and J. Gresham Machen grew into movements. While the successful church is often built around a powerful preacher, such as Charles Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle, a movement is built around ideas, and that means ideas that have been preserved in print, hence books.

Within the parameters of Biblical theology, a movement does not grow out of the pure originality of its founders. Rather, it is a rethinking of basic orthodoxy, a shift back to the Bible, an intellectual categorizing of ideas along scriptural norms. The defense used by Luther, Calvin, and Machen against their enemies was that they were simply returning to the historic Christian faith. They were correct about the goal—a return to Biblical thinking. But such men never were mere reactionaries, for they brought greater clarity in Biblical understanding and application to the issues and conflicts of their day.

Quite often, the heart of a movement is directed toward restoring a right view of God, salvation, and His worship. So, even though Luther and Calvin were academics, they never aimed at merely establishing Christian universities. Reformation in the lecture halls of the university at Wittenberg would have been powerless without Luther’s doctrine of salvation being proclaimed in Sunday worship. Likewise, the big names in American Reformed theology included men well-versed in literature, politics, and other fields, but with the exception of John Witherspoon, most of them were primarily centered on theology and ecclesiology.

Abraham Kuyper,
the Father of a Movement

One of history’s most amazing movement men was the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper. Like Luther, he broke with the corrupt church of his day. Like Calvin, he worked to establish a thoroughgoing systematic theology. Like Knox, he worked to bring reformation to his whole country. Like Edwards, he both pondered the deeper theological and philosophical issues and promoted evangelical piety. Like Witherspoon, he took direct political action and actually formed a political party, which ultimately resulted in his being the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Like Hodge and Machen, he established and advanced a great educational institution.

Kuyper distilled the many facets of his theological framework into six lectures he delivered at Princeton University in 1898. This profound summary of his vision is still in print under the title Lectures on Calvinism. In these lectures, he addressed the issues of the Reformed faith, politics, science, art, and the future. Kuyper, to a large degree, formulated what would become commonly known as Christian worldview thinking. Along with the Dutch institutions he founded and the books he wrote, he fathered a movement. The terms Kuyperian and neo-Calvinist are still used to define his ideas and identify his many present-day followers.

Many who built upon Kuyperian foundations have achieved renown for theological and intellectual accomplishments. Some have created movements of their own. Two such men who stood on Kuyper’s shoulders were Herman Dooyeweerd and Rousas J. Rushdoony.

On Kuyper’s Shoulders,
Two More Giants

Dooyeweerd (1894–1977) was a Dutch philosopher and law professor at the Free University of Amsterdam. Rushdoony (1916–2001) was a pastor, theologian, and writer and founder of Chalcedon, a Christian think tank. It is not clear to me if they were personal acquaintances, but they shared a mutual friendship with Cornelius Van Til. Van Til found a deep affinity for the work of Dooyeweerd. Since both were Reformed believers of Dutch stock, they had a kindred spirit on matters of theology. Both leaned heavily upon the work of Kuyper. Van Til largely agreed with Dooyeweerd’s emphasis on the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian presuppositions. He also appreciated Dooyeweerd’s bold quest to bring all of philosophy captive to Christ. There were strong points of difference between the two men, and these can be painstakingly discovered by reading from Van Til’s Festschrift titled Jerusalem and Athens.1 But any philosophical conflict between the two was a lovers’ quarrel between two great thinkers who were brothers in Christ and seekers after the mind of God.

Dooyeweerd’s magnum opus was a lengthy multivolume work known in the Dutch language as De wijsbegeerte der wetsidee (in three volumes) and translated into an English version, starting in 1953, titled A New Critique of Theoretical Thought.2 His philosophical concept was called “the philosophy of the idea of law” or the cosmonomic philosophy. The main contours of Dooyeweerd’s writing and thought were formed when he was quite young. In the years that followed, his further writings built upon, clarified, and perhaps revised portions of his original work. Philosophical scholars, both Christian and secular, both friend and foe, noted and praised the vast accomplishment of Dooyeweerd.3

Van Til, upon the occasion of Dooyeweerd’s death, honored him as a mentor and referred to his philosophy as a “marvelously beautiful sight to behold.” Van Til himself was a mentor to R. J. Rushdoony. From his early years, Rushdoony began a rigorous program of reading widely and deeply in a vast range of subject areas. He was already well into this monumental intellectual feat of incorporating a vast array of theological, philosophical, and intellectual books and ideas into his own thought when he discovered Van Til’s work. When Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics was imposed upon Rushdoony’s reading repertoire, it was like applying the Dewey decimal system to a vast collection of books. Van Til solidified Rushdoony’s theology. With his vast network of reading, his prodigious memory of books, and his synthesizing intellect, Rushdoony would have been a formidable thinker without his having read Van Til.4 But he would not have been the same thinker he became.

Rushdoony was one of the first and most articulate interpreters, defenders, and expounders of Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics. The book By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til, published in 1958, raised high the banner of Van Til’s school of thought at a time when it was all too often opposed or ignored.

But to use an expanded metaphor, Rushdoony did not seek to build a cathedral upon the foundations of Van Til’s thought. He took Van Til’s premises beyond the scope of Van Til’s writings and sought to build a city upon the implications of every fact being a God-created and God-interpreted fact.5 Therefore, two subsequent books by Rushdoony explored American history in light of presuppositional Christian thinking. Another work looked at church councils and creeds in the same perspective. Rushdoony went on to write books in the fields of education, science, politics, and philosophy that continued to expand Van Til’s presuppositionalism into all areas of life and thought.

The culmination of Rushdoony’s work was the publication of The Institutes of Biblical Law in 1973. The book is a stunning proof of evolution, not the Darwinian kind, but the kind worked by the Holy Spirit, where Biblical thinking is developed slowly and sequentially and then brought back to engulf more and more of the Bible and then applied to more and more areas of life. Chalcedon the organization existed before Rushdoony’s Institutes, but it was that publication that solidified his role as a movement leader. Rushdoony applied the word Reconstruction to his vision of rethinking all areas of life and thought in terms of the Bible, the whole Bible. The term Christian Reconstruction and sometimes terms like dominion theology have been used to describe Rushdoony’s writings and those of his followers and fellow travelers.

Brilliant, but Different

So what are the common features of this deeply profound Dutch philosopher and this Armenian Calvinist thinker? To call Dooyeweerd a Dutch Rushdoony or to call Rushdoony an American Dooyeweerd really does not clarify their roles. (Besides, it makes two unusual names more confusing.6) Dooyeweerd’s work, and indeed the culture he lived in, was on a different plane than that of Rushdoony. Living in the Netherlands before, during, and after World War II constitutes a totally different set of circumstances than that of living in America and ministering, writing, and teaching primarily in the second half of the twentieth century.

The similarities begin with the minds of the two men. Both were incredibly brilliant thinkers with hearts consumed by devotion to Jesus Christ. It wasn’t just the kind of smarts that gets you into a good college; both men had minds that reached real depths of thought. Dooyeweerd was the greater analytical and philosophical thinker, while Rushdoony was the greater theological and synthetic thinker. Neither was confined to any particular narrow academic track, but rather both seemed to have taken on the universe itself—the whole of God’s creation—as their specialties in learning.

Dooyeweerd’s career kept him in the university classroom where he was a professor of law and philosophy. His writings and endeavors were largely focused upon issues relating to jurisprudence and philosophy. But as C. T. McIntire notes, Dooyeweerd “published more than 200 books and articles in the fields of law, political theory, and philosophy. His thought touched a wide range of areas—ontology, epistemology, social philosophy, philosophy of history, aesthetics, philosophy of science, legal theory, political philosophy, the history of law, theology, and the history of philosophy. He was a comprehensive thinker with an amazing versatility, and his ideas were capable of inspiring thought in almost any field of learning.”7

Being a professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, Dooyeweerd’s classroom lectures and academic publications had an impact on the greater Christian intellectual community in the Netherlands, the rest of Europe, and the United States.8 In the context of America’s religious educational institutions, had Rushdoony spent his career on a university campus, he would have never reached his potential. He would have likely been more often footnoted for his expertise in some narrow field of theology or thought, but there would have likely been no Christian Reconstruction movement. So Rushdoony’s classroom became the taped lectures on cassette, Chalcedon Report articles, or the courtroom testimonies where he defended Christian educators and parents.

Both men were educational revolutionaries and visionaries. Both, whether subtly or not, changed the way Christians viewed God’s world. Such a powerful paradigm shift always brings out devoted followers, fellow travelers, and opponents. Such critical thinking always produces infighting over the details and applications by the movement followers. And it always produces directions in the line of thought that the movement founders never considered or envisioned.

At almost all points in his writings, Dooyeweerd is quite difficult to read. His wide-ranging personal familiarity with philosophy, his devising of special technical terms and neologisms, and his repeated use of his own philosophical concepts makes Dooyeweerdian texts quite difficult for the beginner to navigate. Much of Rushdoony’s work, especially in the early years, was quite challenging. Rushdoony would often quote more serious books in one chapter of his writings than most people ever read. His interaction with authors in both agreement and disagreement heavily laded his books for many readers.

Like the pain of toughening the tips of the fingers by playing a guitar, the only easy way to read Rushdoony and Dooyeweerd is by opening a book and plunging in. The task is a little easier in reading Rushdoony since he wrote quite a few short articles for newspapers and the Chalcedon Report that prep the mind to understand him. So such works as Law and Liberty and Bread upon the Waters make for the best introduction to Rushdoony. The Roots of Reconstruction, a massive collection of articles and reviews from the early years of the Chalcedon Report, is a good second step toward understanding Rushdoony.

Dooyeweerd also wrote some shorter articles that originally appeared in a newspaper format. These articles have been put in book form under the title Roots of Western Culture. Don’t wade in unprepared, for these newspaper articles assume a knowledge of history, philosophy, theology, and Dutch social issues. Yet, Roots may well be the best entrance into the writings of Dooyeweerd. C. T. McIntire says, “Once the effort is made to become acquainted with Dooyeweerd’s work, the character of his creativity is evident.”9 But be assured that reading Dooyeweerd will take effort.

Both men shared many points of common belief, but in order to focus on a central theme that connects the two thinkers, both worshipped a mighty God. It is appropriate to read their most scholarly writings as testimonies of worship. The sovereignty of God in their minds went way beyond just five points of soteriology or certain patterns of Sunday morning worship. As Paul notes, “[I]n him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Philosophy, history, culture, science, economics, politics, and every other area of life find meaning and purpose only in the God of Scripture. So in the writings of Dooyeweerd and Rushdoony, some of the most abstract points of thought are followed by incredibly simple and moving testimonies to the centrality of Christ’s redemption. Both men are models of how to love God with all of the mind.

The Fallacy of “Neutrality”

In particular, what most often drew words of praise by Rushdoony for Dooyeweerd and others in his school of thought10 was their insistence on recognizing the impossibility of human autonomy or neutrality. Dooyeweerd’s philosophical “conversion experience” came about when he realized and acknowledged the impossibility of the Christian faith and philosophy being “rooted in faith in the self-sufficiency of human reason.” Instead, Dooyeweerd explains, “I came to understand the central significance of the ‘heart,’ repeatedly proclaimed by Holy Scripture to be the religious root of human existence.”11

From this foundation, every topic that Dooyeweerd approached as a philosopher, he examined from Christian presuppositions. He, like Kuyper before him and Van Til and Rushdoony in his own time, emphasized Christian thought being applied to all areas of life. He warns Christian scholars, saying, “All Christians who in their scientific work are ashamed of the Name of Jesus Christ, because they desire honor among people, will be totally useless in the mighty struggle to recapture science, one of the great powers of Western culture, for the Kingdom of God.”12 Then with a confidence that echoes Rushdoony’s postmillennial expectations, Dooyeweerd continues, “This struggle is not hopeless, however, so long as it is waged in the full armor of faith in Him who has said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me,’ and again, ‘Take heart! I have overcome the world.’”13

No wonder then that Rushdoony favorably quotes, references, praises, and acknowledges Dooyeweerd in a number of his books. Sometimes, as in By What Standard? he gives sweeping testimonies to the work of Dooyeweerd and the Amsterdam school of thought. In some cases, such as his books The One and the Many and The Politics of Guilt and Pity, he quotes and applies specific insights from Dooyeweerd. Especially in his writings in the 1960s, Rushdoony envisions a broad-based coalition of Christian scholarship. Rushdoony, in conjunction with Charles Craig of Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company,14 exhibited a true ecumenical and catholic (little c) vision for Christian intellectual global war. For that reason, Rushdoony was instrumental in getting The Genesis Flood, written by two men who were dispensationalists and generally Arminian, published. Rushdoony promoted works by both Van Til and Gordon Clark, even though those men held strong disagreements.

Rushdoony then was an excellent choice for writing the introductions for two of Dooyeweerd’s books that were published by Presbyterian and Reformed. In both In the Twilight of Western Thought (1960) and The Christian Idea of the State, Rushdoony details particular features of Dooyeweerd’s thought and gives insightful compliments to his accomplishments.

Different Foxholes, Same Army

In spite of the commonalities of Rushdoony and Dooyeweerd, their followers have tended to move in different camps and directions. Dooyeweerdians, or neo-Calvinists or Kuyperians or Reformational thinkers, pour over Dooyeweerd’s writings and continue to ponder and debate his system. Christian Reconstructionists, or theonomists or dominion theology Christians, likewise continue to mine the richness of Rushdoony’s works.

No doubt some in each group find objectionable features in the other, for both movements attract followers who quite readily examine and debate details and fine points of doctrine and philosophy. To some degree, the works of either Rushdoony or Dooyeweerd in themselves are so absorbing that readers may simply not have noticed other lines of thought. And there are true and serious differences and theological controversies attached to each school of thought. Still there is a point where the Amish farmer in his carriage should recognize that his more libertine Mennonite neighbor in his pickup truck is a brother united in the same greater causes. Or to apply this directly, those in the cosmonomic foxhole who read Dooyeweerd and those in the Reconstructionist foxhole who read Rushdoony are ultimately joined in fighting the same culture war.

What Rushdoony said of Dooyeweerd could be applied to both men and many others in the Reformed and broader Christian camps. Rushdoony observed that Dooyeweerd, just like Calvin and Kuyper before him, had not arrived at a final formulation of his ideas, neither was he free from occasional defects or inconsistencies. Concerning these limitations, Rushdoony went on to say, “These, however, surely need to be noted, but cannot be used as an excuse to evade the main thrust of his philosophy which has not been met or successfully challenged.”15

After considering the lives and accomplishments of these two men, it seems certain that before any criticism is given or inconsistencies noted in either man, one ought to fall on his knees in profound gratitude before our Sovereign God for having raised up such men of holy and intellectual stature in the Kingdom. Add to that a prayer that God would continue to bless the works of R. J. Rushdoony and Herman Dooyeweerd.

1. E. R. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971).

2. Published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1953–1958.

3. Fellow Dutchman G. E. Langemeijer said, “For without any exaggeration Dooyeweerd can be called the most original philosopher Holland has ever produced, even Spinoza not excepted.”

4. He might be thought of as a one-man Wikipedia.

5. R. J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, [1958] 1983), 23.

6. I must admit that when I first came to the Reformed faith, I wondered if having an odd-sounding name was a prerequisite to theological achievement.

7. C. T. McIntire, “Herman Dooyeweerd in North America” from Reformed Theology in America, edited by David F. Wells (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 174–175.

8. Reformed students seeking doctoral degrees often went to the Netherlands to complete their studies.

9. McIntire, 183.

10. The name most often linked to Dooyeweerd is that of his brother-in-law and fellow professor, D. H. T. Vollenhoven.

11. Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1953), v.

12. Dooyeweerd, Christian Philosophy and the Meaning of History (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), 104. Generally, according to Albert Wolters’ glossary of Dooyeweerd’s terms, his use of the Dutch word wetenschap is translated as science in English. Its actual meaning refers to all scholarly study.

13. Dooyeweerd, 104.

14. Some titles were published by the same company under the name The Craig Press.

15. Rushdoony, “Introduction” to In the Twilight of Western Thought by Herman Dooyeweerd (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, [1960] 1980), xv–xvi.

  • Ben House

Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.

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