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Buswell Critiques Dooyeweerd (1949)

In J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. on 13/07/2011 at 16:54

While we’re on things philosophical, and not to focus so much on Buswell, but I noticed this review in passing. It’s about the earliest critique of the Dooyeweerdian system that I’ve seen. There is a short review of Dooyeweerdianism by J.G. Vos that we have preserved among the Papers of Dr. Robert G. Rayburn, but that falls much later, in 1974, written in response to a problem on the campus of Geneva College at that time.

Book Review

By J. OLIVER BUSWELL, JR.
[The Bible Today 42.7 (April 1949): 209-210.]

Transcendental Problems of Philosophic Thought : An Inquiry into the Transcendental Conditions of Philosophy, by Dr. H. Dooyeweerd, Professor of Philosophy, The Free University of Amsterdam. Eerdmans, 1948, 80 pages, $1.50.

The philosophy of Professor Dooyeweerd is called, “Philosophy of the Idea of Law.” The author explains that the words “idea of Law” are not an adequate translation of the Dutch word Wetsidee. The phrase is used, however, for lack of a better English term. The author has been noted for his writings in the field of jurisprudence. The list of his chief works, (page 79f), includes such titles as “The Cabinet in Dutch Constitutional Law” 1917, “The Struggle for Christian Politics” 1924, “The Structure of Juridical Principles and the Method of Jurisprudence” 1930, etc. This sounds interesting. I read the book very carefully, looking for the notion of the “idea of law,” hoping to find something corresponding to the thought which the words naturally convey to the reader. I thought I was to be entirely disappointed until I came to the next to the last page of the text. There I learned that “every concept of the different aspects” is founded upon three types of ideas, those which have to do with (1) “mutual relations,” (2) “radical unity,” and (3) “Origin.” Then the author gives this explanatory statement . . . these three ideas are bound together as a coherent complex and this complex we call “the idea of law” of a philosophical system. (Page 76)

Well, if that is what Professor Dooyeweerd calls “the idea of law,” then that is what he calls it.

The author has much to say against “the autonomy of human reason.” He regards those who believe in such autonomy as not among his “congenial spirits” (page viii). He says that “… the autonomy of scientific thought is self-refuted.” (Page 49) Nowhere does the reader find a clear definition of the word “autonomy” as Professor Dooyeweerd uses it. If “the autonomy of human thought” means that human thought is independent of God, human minds not created by God, and human thinking capable of proving God in error, then of course the autonomy of human thought must be rejected by all who believe in God.

However, such a definition of the term “autonomy” would be unjustifiable. The Kantian use of the notion of autonomy certainly does not exclude external standards of truth and right, or the grace of God. See, for example, Book IV, Apotome II, Section IV, of Kant’s Religion Within the Boundary of Pure Reason. The title of the section referred to is “That conscience is at all times her own guide,” and the title of the Scholion which follows it is “Of means of Grace.”

If Professor Dooyeweerd has in mind some group of writers or teachers who have used the words “autonomy of reason” in the sense which I have described above, or in some sense inconsistent with the Calvinistic doctrine of the Sovereignty of God our Creator, then he should certainly give references for the guidance of his readers. The ordinary student who looks things up in encyclopedias, dictionaries, and works of writers with whom he is familiar, finds the phrase “autonomy of reason” to mean simply that God has created human reason with real but limited powers, just as He has given dogs and cats the power to walk alone.

The notion that human reason is not autonomous, in the sense that God has created it so, is, in this little book from Amsterdam, quite suggestive of a basically pantheistic attitude. In fact the denial of the autonomy of reason seems to imply that God has not created anything which is not actually a part, or an aspect, or an emanation of His own substance. The impression of pantheism is increased by such statements as the following

What is structure? It is an architectonic plan according to which a diversity of “moments” is united in totality. . . . Thi6 structure has a modal character, because the different aspects are not reality itself, but are only modalities of being. There does not exist a purely “physical” or “biotical” or “psychical” or “historical” or “economic” or “juridical” reality. There exist only physical, biotical, psychical, historical, etc. aspects of reality. (Page 41)

But if there does not exist a purely physical reality as such, how can the doctrine of creation be anything but a myth?

This little book contains a vast amount of generalization, as of course might be expected in a brief condensation of a “new philosophy which has been developing during the last twenty years.” (Page 15) A considerable number of the historical generalizations seem to me unjustifiable. Many are clearly erroneous, and some are fanciful. Some of the flourishes seem very frothy. For example, in the last chapter which is entitled, “The Religious Motives of Western Thought and the Idea of Law,” we read

The fourth fundamental motive is that of “Nature and Liberty,” introduced by modern Humanism . . . The dialectical character of this humanist motive is clear. “Liberty” and “nature” are opposite motives, which in their religious roots cannot be reconciled. (Page 73)

Very exciting, but I cannot quite figure out whether this was written for the drums or for the flutes. Certainly it was never intended to be intelligible to an ordinary sensible born-again child of God who believes that the doctrine of creation is really true. My Bible does not harmonize with the notion that liberty and nature are irreconcilable. It teaches quite the opposite.

I say, Professor Dooyeweerd, if you can hear my voice from across the Atlantic, some of us Calvinists over here really mean business when we say that God created the world, and that He created man in His own image. We do not object to orchestration in its proper place, but when we make statements, our subjects and predicates are distinguishable. God is One, and the world which He has created is other than He. The tiny creatures which He has made to inhabit the world are endowed by Him with certain autonomous functions, sustained always by His power, and enabled by His common grace, or by His special grace, as the case may be.

Even the brutes He has endowed with a certain kind of intelligence suitable for their natural state. Man, created in His image, is endowed with reason, through which in part God has chosen to work, in His sovereign grace, to accomplish the salvation of a people for the glory of His name.

With the background of Hodge and Warfield on this side of the Atlantic, we have learned much from Abraham Kuyper and Bavinck, the great Calvinists of your noble tradition. We prefer their straight-forward appeal to objective facts in the created world, and we regret that some of you younger scholars who have inherited great things from them, have failed to build upon the four-square foundations of their rugged, consecrated scholarship.


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  1. Buswell rather sneers at Dooyeweerd,
    but Buswell rather misunderstands Dooyeweerd.
    Grossly misunderstand him at several points!

    For example, Buswell thinks Dooyeweerd’s notio of law
    boils down to three complex things – but actually it’s a
    lot simpler than that.
    See http://www.dooy.info/law.html

    • Buswell never “sneered” at anyone. Too much of a Christian gentleman. The rest I leave for wiser minds.

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