memory's sacred domain

moments mundane and magical

Posts Tagged ‘Skillen

Skillen on Newbigin (and the Benedict Option)

with 3 comments

Internet chatter on the Benedict Option – conceived as creating new “monastic communities” plodding on as a counter-cultural force in a post-secular society – is rife these days. There is a palpable sense that given recent governmental moves in Western societies that severely restrict religious freedom in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular, the only option is to opt out of the public sphere and build new communities where Christian virtues may be freely practiced. Read here here, here and here. In this blog, it was discussed here.

But here’s why the Benedict Option may be missing the point about what it means to have effective Christian witness even under such challenging times:

Dr. James Skillen, writing in response to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s view that to develop a Christian society, “lay men and women” need to develop a “lay theology” for various fields of public life, says thus:

Then the apostle Paul writes to various churches and challenges them to live wholly in Christ, he frequently addresses believers in their capacities as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and citizens (or subjects) in the political realm. But in those capacities Paul does not address them as lay men and women, implying that their identity in those roles is as ecclesiastical nonprofessionals. A “husband” is not a church lay person needing a theology for being a husband; he is a member of the body of Christ who has, among many different Christian responsibilities, that of being a husband. In this capacity, it is not as a church lay person that he needs a theology for loving his wife, but rather that he needs to understand God’s will for his role in marriage.

Precisely here, it seems to me, we should think not of applying some ecclesiastical truths to non-ecclesiastical areas of life, but rather, of taking seriously the way the gospel restores and illumines the meaning of God’s good creation. John’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and the letter to the Hebrews, for example, all begin by stating that the incarnate Son of God is the one in whom, for whom, and through whom all things were created. The creation is revelatory of God and connected to the Son of God prior to the incarnation and the organizing of the church. The good news of the Jesus Christ is, among other things, that creation has been recovered and is being restored so that it will finally come to fulfillment in the City of God.

The body of Christ is a communion of reborn creatures – of the renewed image of God. Marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life. In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words clay persons should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

The development of a Christian society, I am suggesting, comes not from a theology for Church lay persons but from obedience of the whole body of Christ in all areas of creaturely life where its members bear responsibility as they learn to live completely unto Christ. Of course the whole creation holds together in Christ, so the meaning of marital love, of economic stewardship, of public Justice, of medical healing, and of so much more hangs together in one meaningful creation, which has been distorted by sin but Judged and redeemed in Christ. The redeeming work of Christ redirects hearts and lives in all areas of life. Along with sound Christian theology, then, there should emerge sound Christian philosophy, obedient Christian political practice, healing Christian medical practice, and so forth. The adjective “Christian” in each instance refers not to theology as something added to an otherwise indistinguishable mode of worldly life, but indicates the genuine redirection, recovery, renewal of life among those led by faith in Christ. The Christian “way of life” should, in other words, appear different from the secularist way of life, the Muslim way of life, and so forth.

What will often be necessary as Christians seek to fulfill their earthly responsibilities in all areas of life are Christian organizations of parents, of farmers, of laborers, of academics, of citizens, and so forth. The purpose of such organizing should not be so Christians can isolate themselves or try to create a perfect community on the edge of civilization, but rather to develop consistent Christian practices in each area of life as they live side by side with people whose ways of life are directed by faith in other gods. The body of Christ is the people of God, lifting up all of creation’s treasures in every realm of existence in praise to God, looking and pointing ahead to the Christian society that will finally be revealed in its fullness when the Lord returns[emphasis supplied].[1]

What Skillen is saying here is that Christians are called to witness to the world in the context of their many differentiated responsibilities: as husbands and wives, as professionals in various fields, as members of a church, as members of a Christian NGO, as citizens of a particular country, as members of a Christian labor union or a political party. Christians take part in and help shape a creational order that Christ has renewed and is renewing – an order that is revelatory of God’s will and purposes. Thus, in the context of the redemptive work of the Gospel, the body of Christ is a communion of re-born creatures – of the renewed image of God – for whom “marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life.”

He adds:

In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words ‘lay persons’ should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

Christians cannot live in isolation from the world if they are to give justice to their differentiated responsibilities that they exercise as part of the redemptive work of the Gospel – and such work requires faithful Christian practice and presence across their various endeavors and roles.

[1] Is there a place for Christian politics in America? notes from a lecture given by Dr. Skillen to a philosophy class at the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa (2012). The lecture is a response to the work of Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a path-breaking missiologist. I am grateful to Dr. D.F.M Strauss, at whose initiative the lecture was made, for making available the notes to me.

Written by Romel

January 12, 2016 at 3:43 am

Between theology and philosophy

with one comment

ImageThere’s been some interesting discussion recently on ThinkNet on the age-old debate on the relationship between theology and philosophy. For the uninitiated, ThinkNet is a mailing list of people from various disciplines interested in the reformational school of Christian philosophy (often identified by the shorthand — for good or ill — as the “NeoCalvinist” movement. But for insiders, it is a philosophical movement inspired by Abraham Kuyper but brought to fruition by the legal philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd and his brother-in-law, D.H.TH. Vollenhoven).

On this point I have found useful Dooyeweerd’s introduction to his philosophy, In the Twilight of Western Thought, which has a chapter on theology and its relation to philosophy. One of his students, Johan P.A. Mekkes, also has a nifty volume on the topic, recently translated into English as Creation, Revelation and Philosophy

I present below snippets of the discussion, with some editing on my part:


James W. Skillen ( author, most recently of  The Good of Politics):

One, is it not possible when we write or speak and we know that those reading/listening will think that any reference to a Christian, biblical perspective means “theology,” that we can simply explain that in one respect we are simply talking about finding our place in the ongoing biblical drama of life in Christ–finding our place in the history of God’s work in Jesus Christ that continues by his Spirit today?  When we are reading or referring to the Bible or the Christian life in that way we are not doing what specialized theologians do in turning parts of that story into particular “problems for thought” or “topics for systematic attention.” In this sense, I still can’t see why many Christian thinkers, such as N.T. Wright, insist that Paul is doing “theology,” a word that began to be used ambiguously/equivocally only with the adoption of Greek questions and terminology by early and later Christian fathers. It seems to me that Paul, for example, is working to explain how God’s covenant drama with Israel is now being fulfilled in the revelation of Jesus Christ and how Paul himself was caught up into that drama by a calling from the Lord and how, for example, it is the case now that the divide between Jews and Gentiles has been overcome in Christ. Paul didn’t arrive at any of this by doing “theology” and it is not “theology” that he is passing on, proclaiming, teaching to his audiences. To different groups of disciples in different settings he is, in his letters, following up on (or anticipating) his times of preaching and teaching in their midst, sending pointed summaries, extensions of what he already told them, and opening new vistas that they might now need. He is communicating by living letters about the life they share in Christ by the ongoing work of the Spirit.

Two:  isn’t there some help even from Dooyeweerd in his essays on theology and philosophy in “In the Twilight” where he explains that Augustine used the word “theology” in two different ways? And those two different ways represent essentially the distinction many of us are trying to make. So rather than fight the word “theology”, why can’t we in many situations simply acknowledge at the outset of a conversation or an article that the word is equivocal and has been for centuries. In doing so, we might simply offer a preliminary explanation, when relevant, we are going to use the word “life of faith” instead of the word “theology” when meaning one thing, and using the word “theology” when referring to the other thing. I find myself preferring, increasingly, to use the phrase “the Christian way of life” when referring to Christian discipleship in all of life and to state that Christianity is a way of life and not only a way of worship. When relevant I then may speak of the work of Christians who take up the intellectual task of doing “theology.” That work, in contrast to the work that other Christians may pursue as special vocations does not generate Christian faith or way of life, but rather arises from the faithful way of life in Christ.
…. I tried to keep my book on “the good of politics” at a single level of telling the story of political responsibility from inside the viewpoint of those who confess that they are followers of Jesus Christ. That story is highly complex because of so many confusions, syntheses, and divides among Christians about what that responsibility means, so it takes quite a bit of telling. But I’m trying to explain and interpret the Christian struggle with this matter rather than turning every aspect of political life and history into an object of theoretical analysis. The multiple issues of political philosophy and “science” in in this regard I hope to take up in another volume, and that’s where I plan to engage in the theoretical enterprise that includes multiple“-ologies”  It may well be the case…. that many readers will think that the first part of my book is biblical theology and the second “secular” history mixed with “church” history, and that the third part is practical politics with too much “theology” and “philosophy” thrown in here and there. But if those are their categories of prejudgment they will miss much of the meaning of the book or get it wrong (wrong, that is, from my point of view).
Admitting to the fact that the word theology is used in all kinds of ways, which constantly need qualification or explanation, is not unlike the equivocal use of a word like “politics,” which can mean/refer to “political life as a whole” “dirty dealing,” “actions of government” (but not citizens), or the “actions of citizens and interest groups outside government.” In the political arena we simply need to find ways of explaining and making distinctions, which I do in my book to some extent. Almost all of the words we use about political life today derive from either Greek or Roman languages and culture and that makes it difficult to put before citizens who may read a picture of the biblical drama as it pertains to political life. Such a picture at first must seem like a fantasy, but I am simply unable to write like C.S. Lewis and other good story tellers. Thank goodness the word “justice” has a long biblical history and use and is not only a Greek and Roman history. 

DFM Strauss (South African philosopher and author most recently of Philosophy: the Discipline of Disciplines):

1) The question what theology is, is not a theological question since it belongs to the domain of philosophy (of ). The  discipline “Encyclopaedia of Theology” does not mention itself as a theological subdiscipline – thus illustrating the  fact that it is philosophical in nature. This applies to all the special sciences. For example, saying: “mathematics studies algebra and topology” produces a statement which is not a part of algebra or topology – it talks about mathematics without becoming mathematics. The statement “botany studies plants” is not itself a plant that can be investigated by botanists.

 2) Dooyeweerd does not hold that a special science studies one or another aspect – and therefore also does not defend the view that theology studies the faith aspect of creation. Theology merely studies concrete reality as it functions within the faith aspect. Looking through the glasses of an aspect at reality does not entail observing the glasses themselves. Dooyeweerd writes: “But in this investigation it [the special sciences] does not focus its theoretical attention upon the modal structure of such an aspect itself; rather, it focuses on the coherence of the actual phenomena which function within that structure” (Collected Works, B Series, Volume 13, “Christian philosophy and the meaning of history”, page 11).

3)   Calvinism/ Calvinistic. On page 1 of the just quoted Volume Dooyeweerd explains: “The term can only be explained historically by the fact that this movement originated in the calvinistic revival which toward the end of the previous century, led to renewed reflection on the relation of the Christian religion to science, culture, and society. Abraham Kuyper, under whose inspiring leadership this new reflection took place, pointed out that the great movement of the Reformation could not continue to be restricted to the reformation of the church and theology. Its biblical point of departure touched the religious root of the whole of temporal life and had to assert its validity in all of its sectors. Kuyper found that insight into these implications had been best expressed by Calvin, and so for lack of a better term began to speak of “Calvinism” as an all-embracing world view which was clearly distinguishable from both Roman Catholicism and Humanism.” However, subsequently Dooyeweerd rejected the use of this term. Close to the end of NC-I one finds a heading explaining why he rejects the phrase Calvinistic philosophy.

4)    Thomas Aquinas “hijacked” Christian intellectual endeavours for theology by assuming that whenever something is considered in respectu Dei (in relation to God) such an activity is theological in nature. Philosophy aims at an account of the totality of creation. Stoker employed this view to distinguish between theology, philosophy and the special sciences. Discovering and analyzing numerical laws for arithmetic, spaitial laws for spatial configurations, kinematic laws of motion, physical laws for material things, and so on, while acknowledging then as God-given laws, then will immediately turn maths and physics into theology. The same implication is valid regarding whatever is subject to God-given creational laws, because the moment they are related to and understood as conforming to God-given laws (consider their law-conformity), the will equally turn the special sciences involved into theology. [Compare the words used by Jim Skillen: “So everything we do as Christians should breathe the spirit of our relation to God.”]

Calvin Jongsma (professor emeritus of mathematics):

Developing a theology of X is rampant among scholars who desire to advance a Christian perspective of X – even when X is mathematics or logic.  So where have reformational thinkers explicitly countered this trend by distinguishing between foundational pre-theoretical religious beliefs/commitments and the basic insights of Christian theology?  Many will say it’s just a matter of terminology – reformational thinkers talk about a philosophy of X based on certain religious doctrines, whereas most Christians talk more directly about a theology of X; but both are seeking the same thing.

I think more than terminology is at issue, and practice often shows this, but where has this matter been explicitly addressed from a reformational viewpoint and in a way that communicates cogently to those who think they’re essentially the same thing?


Ponti Venter (another South African philosopher):

We now have a neo-liberal New Scholasticism. This expansion of Theology to include all of human life has a number of contemporary sources:
1. The initial reintroduction of ‘theology’ after Calvin – and reading Calvin as a ‘theologian’ which he himself said he wasn’t.
2. The two world wars. A few natural scientists became aware of the ‘ethical’ implications of their work, and in stead of rethinking their bases, they ran to a few theologians to ask for discussion. The most prominent of these ‘theologians’ became pantheists.
3. The marginalising of theology and religion in a secular society. In my own environment theology has been using this secular natural science-theology debate to annihilate reformational philosophy for the sake of their own financial survival. We now have a huge faculty of theology, catering for every possible discipline and church, while the quality of ministers that is produced is weak, and every year fewer Reformed students report to study for the ministry. There are as many vacant pulpits in the Church as professors of theology who do weak research for the University, there and there are less students in the pipeline than professors.
4. The style of today: today’s lifestyle is Hobbesian: one’s lives for power, honour and glory. Theologians are not happy anymore to do what is necessary for the chiurch.
5. Neo-pragmatist scientism – or new old Scholasticism. The intellectual with his scientific techniques has to enlighten and govern. Only they can tell you what the connection between Genesis and DNA ought to be. The Bible is not a scientific textbook anymore; natural science is a hermeneutic for the Bible. But only theologians understand this, and only theologians can do execute it. If they tell you Genesis 1-10 is myth, then please be quiet … they know what is good for everybody … Neo-pragmatism is one of the worst forms of authoritarian elitisms I have ever come across. Theologians do not explicitly adhere to it; they internalise it via management styles.
Rudi Hayward ( doctorate student):

You are probably aware of Calvin Seerveld’s attempt to dissuade people of the “theology of arts” approach.  At one point (see Normative Aesthetics p.277fn.22)  he writes: “I am at a loss at how to argue that promotion of a general spiritualization of art, or a liturgical cast to art, or an evangelizing requirement for art, as the most Christian task misses, I think, the grounding biblical insight that art as normal creatural service can be a restored and redemptive, holy act, so artistry does not need an “extra,” theologically explicit insignia to be truly full-fledged service by Christ’s body-at-large.”  Nevertheless he does give it a go in other places (see Cultural Education & History Writing pp.14-20 esp.17ff on Jeremy Begbie & van der Leeuw and pp.44-45 see below)


Kerry John Hollingsworth (Director, the Reformation Publishing Project):

Much of this discussion devolves on the treatment of terms and expressions as things that are then applied to this that or whatever. The Philosophy of The Cosmonomic Idea has provided us with a way to see that theoretical analysis (including theological analysis) does not give structural form to human experience within the creation, but rather unpacks the structural order of and for the creation that is part of God’s “Let there be . . ”    Demanding that theological analysis is the ground from which all truth is to derived is simply another form of scientistic modernity, or if you wish, just another form of reductionism. Until we get used to the idea that ALL forms of analysis simply represent points of entry into the wholeness of concrete experience we will continue to play these reductionistic games of whose the baddest of them all, philosophy, theology, numericality, physics, biology etc. etc. Surely after a hundred years of these games it is time to move on to something a bit more productive.

Written by Romel

May 29, 2014 at 3:25 am

Jonathan Chaplin and H. Dooyeweerd’s Theory of the State

with 2 comments

Those familiar with the political philosopher  Dr. Jonathan Chaplin’s writings on the theme of the State will note that the key concerns found in his first two major works as a scholar dealing with an important component of the corpus of the late Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd’s body of thought are for the most part echoed in his most recent book – specifically in the chapters that dealt with the various issues implicated in Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state. In fact, these, all taken together, consist of at least a third of the book’s main body of 317 pages.

Indeed, the two main questions raised by Chaplin on Dooyeweerd’s theory of the state are either restated or further clarified in Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society – without doubt, in the words of a noted American scholar of law and religion, “the go-to book on Dooyeweerd for many years to come.”

It is in this book where he foists what is yet his most radical  if not compelling  challenge to the Dooyeweerdian State – his thesis that while the State decidedly has a leading function,  it has no founding function.

I responded  to his critique of Dooyeweerd yesterday during a panel at the opening of the  2nd Kuyper Seminar at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, to which he graciously listened. In part, I said in my paper on The State in International Law: Reformational Insights:

Chaplin argues that if coercion is written into the structural principle, how can it be consistent with its supposed basis in a good creation? Dooyeweerd, he notes, holds that such coercive power has been incorporated into the world order on account of sin; the state thus is an institution of “common” or “preserving grace” established with a soteriological aim of preserving temporal society in its differentiated condition.

Chaplin suggests that there is an incoherence between Dooyeweerd’s notion that pre-fall, the state’s sword function has been incorporated into creational norms from the very beginning and the latter’s contention that the state was instituted post-fall, on account of sin.

Chaplin thinks coercion cannot be consistently built into structural principles since structural principles are conceived as grounded in the original order of creation that was yet unmarred by sin.

This inconsistency could only arise from Dooyeweerd’s misreading of the state’s positive form (the territorial monopoly of coercive power) into its invariant or in his own words, “enduring” structural principle.

So Chaplin asks,  given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice, is historical power so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes?

He understands that for Dooyeweerd coercive power is indispensable to giving the state its unique identity, to distinguishing it from other institutions in society. But this, according to him, seems a questionable approach, as that it can still be argued that while the state does have a leading function, it does not necessarily imply that this function is “uniquely related to the possession of historical power.”

Still, for Chaplin it is not quite the case that we need to have an historical function to give the state its unique identity. It’s enough that we know it’s purpose is to ensure public justice. After all, while it can be said that the founding function is related to the leading function, but it is also related to other functions of the state; while it is true that coercive power seems to have been a feature of all known states, so has economic or other forms of power. Thus, Chaplin says that Dooyeweerd’s argument that coercive power is unique and so foundational does not compel and the attempt to single out one function as having a privileged link to the leading function seems artificial.  

Thus, he concludes that the state has no founding function.

Following this reformulation, there is a need therefore to transfer the coercive element into the variable side of human positivation. The better account, Chaplin says, is that the state’s coercive power is an historical development developed or positivized in response to sin, but is not part of its typical structure or its inner structural principle.

In this way then, he says, we can look at the state and the UN, or all bodies organized as public legal communities, as having the same typical structure, but with variegated positive forms.

From there it now becomes easy for Chaplin to suggest that based on Dooyeweerd’s notion of the “internal opening process” of societal structures,  the UN can perhaps be identified as an “international ‘state’ at the very early stage;” it is analogous to emerging nation-states prior to their development as an authority over a defined territory enforced by coercion, or an “ ‘immature’ international state” that needs further positivation so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

This is an advantageous approach, he says, because it is more sensitive to the dynamics of the evolution of structures whose task is to establish public justice and avoids the danger of regarding the nation-state as sacrosanct, historically finalized structure

 The normative peculiarity of the state

…..the apparent contradiction between a good creation and the state’s monopoly of the sword written into its structural principle is Chaplin’s strongest argument for revising Dooyeweerd’s original conception.

Why should the state’s founding function based on a monopoly of coercion be inconsistent with an originally good creation? My argument is that it is good because God has put in place every possible support for human flourishing, whether in their obedience or disobedience. This is a necessary implication of the gift of free will to humanity – the capacity to choose between good and evil.

It also resonates with the idea, at least of human ways of living, of having been endowed with the capacity for good or for evil – the classic Kuyperian sense of the anti-thesis, where each human community or inter-relationship may either be directed towards God or towards some aspect of creation that it has turned into an idol.

Such a capacity cannot but clearly imply a divine anticipation of negative and positive consequences.  In Scripture, when God gave the first humans a choice between the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God also laid down what the consequences were of opting for one or the other (Gen. 2:8; 3:1-4) .

This also implies that God, at the very least, knew what the consequences were of human choosing between life and death. Certainly, God’s sovereignty is severely limited by a view that He only conceived of the state after humanity sinned, as an ex post facto imposition.  It can well be argued that God’s sovereignty has seen it best to institute creational ordinances that would address any possible negative consequences of human choosing.

Hence the state is not a divine afterthought; to say that it was instituted as a response to the fall is only to stress the historical nature of its establishment. This is the better way of understanding or re-reading Dooyeweerd’s suggestion that the state has been incorporated into the world-order after the fall.

A new, post-fall, structural principle did not appear and slide without friction into the original order, as Chaplin suggests. Rather, as a principle set in place to response to a contingency, it was activated when the condition for which it was devised arose.  

His proposal seemingly paints divine sovereignty into a rather awkward picture where having been caught unprepared, God finds himself instituting after the fact of human sin the state with a monopoly of sword power to curtail human capacity for abuse. In this way, Chaplin can argue that Dooyeweerd seems to have suggested a situation where new creational ordinance slide seamlessly into the created order after the fact of the fall, despite his own contention that no new such ordinances can arise in history. 

A sensible alternative to Chaplin’s view is that from before human history, from before creation itself, God had already set in place ordinances that would govern the unfolding of the state in whatever context there maybe, giving allowance for the consequences of human freedom.

The founding function of the state in the form that it has now is consistent with a good creation in the sense that even at the point of creation, a good Creator, knowing all the possible consequences of the gift of free will to humanity, has in his sovereign will, set in place creational ordinances adequate to address such consequences.

In a world without sin – a Christian account of the state can perhaps say that all that the state needs is public trust to sustain itself, as Chaplin himself has suggested in another context.

This is just another way of saying that public trust may well be  the structural principle God has designed for a state unveiled in a pre-fall context. The other side of the coin is that the same divine providence has, at the point of creation, established an ordinance – a structural principle – that would apply in the event of human disobedience. Hence we have two sides of the same coin of creation that, in the beginning, was in fact “very good.”

The simultaneous realization of norms as a task of the state

To recall, Chaplin finds to be questionable Dooyeweerd’s view connecting the leading function specifically to the possession of historical power as the state’s founding function. Indeed he wonders why – given that the state needs power of many kinds in order to advance public justice – historical power is so evidently more important than the state’s other functions such as the maintenance of territory and the collection of taxes.

The question, I believe, can be properly answered by a careful analysis of the Dooyeweerd’s theory of modal aspects, in which in the process of disclosure, anticipatory and retrocipatory aspects interact, where the lower aspects serve as substratum to the higher aspects, and where the higher aspects reach back to deepen the workings of the lower aspects.

In the counter-examples given by Chaplin, from the point of view of disclosure, the maintenance of the territory and the collection of taxes are not even possible without the priority of the state being able to establish itself with the exclusive display of sovereign powers within its territory.

The fundamental and definitive nature of the founding function of the state will require the historical opening up of the substratum supporting it  (retrocipatory aspects) as well as the disclosure of the complex of its superstructure — the anticipatory aspects — that contribute to the disclosure and deepening of the meaning of the state’s task as an institution.

Bob Goudzwaard has underscored this as the task of the state to ensure the “simultaneous realization of norms.” Yet it must be stressed that the simultaneous realization of norms is not possible without the undergirding of the state’s historical power.

The reverse of a positive simultaneous realization of norms is a situation where a state experiences a simultaneous breakdown in key functions as seen in several contemporary examples of the so-called “failed states.”; all too often, this does not happen all at once but is a gradual process that eventually leads to a severe stress to the state in many fronts; It takes a complex of factors –and not just the loss of public trust – for the state to fall apart.

The state’s founding function is at the heart of the state-formation project; it is what grants the state its “normative peculiarity” –to borrow a phrase from political philosopher Matthias Risse – or what distinguishes states from other institutions in society.

Risse argues that this normative peculiarity is characterized by an “immediacy” in the state’s coercive function not otherwise displayed by other institutions in the international legal order.  There are two dimensions in which such immediacy is expressed: in law enforcement and in politics, according to Rise.  The first pertains to the fact that “living in a state means living in an environment where enforcement agencies pervasively have such access, and where it is up to internal political processes to regulate what specific shape such access takes and what constraints it is subject to.”

The second deals with the fact that “ it is the state that provides the environment in which individuals’ basic rights are, or fail to be, realized.”

While international organizations may be interested as well in both questions – in the proper enforcement of rules and in the protection and the promotion of the basic rights of citizens and other entities within a state’s territory– at the most basic level, it is the state that provides both the environment and the structures that make these twin concerns possible:

Legal and political immediacy, then, characterize what is peculiar about the state’s coerciveness. Citizenship is membership in an association for which these two features are distinctive, and those two aspects of the immediacy of the relationship between the states and its citizens provide reasons for associative duties restricted to people who share a citizenship.

Questions of ontology aside, the immediacy of the state’s legal and political structures to citizens within its territory  also undercuts  the practicability of Chaplin’s  argument – a necessary implication of his assertion that the state has no founding function – that we may treat the UN as an  immature “international ‘state’ at the very early stage” that needs further positivization so as to help realize the “pressing normative historical mission facing humankind in the sphere of public justice.”

Quite the contrary, the state is a necessary, though not necessarily sufficient, normatively peculiar institution performing such an historical mission.  Stated another way, the task of public justice still rests primarily on the shoulders of the state.

Indeed, as Skillen has noted a long time ago, human rights “are tied in with the very meaning of justice and injustice in states and thus cannot be protected or enhanced in abstraction from actual state and interstate structures.”  In other words, if the very character of the sovereign state is part of the problem, every effort to advance human rights without changing the function and identity of states will lead to failure.


Later over dinner at De Latie, we had a most pleasant conversation, discussing in detail our respective interpretations of the problem of the state.  He said my position echoes in some ways Dr. Jim Skillen‘s response to his theory; having listened to my talk on the connection or the lack of it between the state’s coercive powers and creation, he said he could see it’s plausibility and is in fact convinced by it, adding that it may constitute a “third interpretation” because according to him, Dooyeweerd actually said that the state is a post-fall institution established by God through a special ordinance. On the other hand, my view holds that the state’s sword power was a potentiality in the creation ordinance established by God to respond to human contingency.

He also said he might have used the rather infelicitous phrase “immature state” to describe the UN but maintained his critique of Dooyeweerd’s formulation of the state as if it were a final and fixed structural principle. He still doesn’t see why its historical founding function should be a defining element of the state.  I said that Dooyeweerd’s “transcendental empirical” method actually will show that what international law calls “effectiveness” is a well-established historical fact as far as the formation of states is concerned.

We also talked about Dooyeweerd’s reading of Aquinas and according to him, through Robert Sweetman’s work, he became convinced that Dooyeweerd has gotten Aquinas wrong in some ways.  According to him, it appears that Dooyeweerd, while he read Aquinas, was influenced a great deal by commentaries from the 19th century that carried the dualist line identified with  the Spanish Suarez school. Today, he said, there has been a recovery of Aquinas as a more integral thinker, and cited the works of Jean Porter as an important  influence in the rethinking of Thomism as a movement of thought. “Jim Skilen, however, does not agree with me,” he said with a wink, motioning to the direction of Dr. Skillen, who was seated at the next table with an American  friend of mine, Courtney Kane, who is doing her master’s on Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, also at the Vrije Universiteit.

His attitude, according to him, is to work with Thomists on common grounds. “The opposition to the Christian tradition is very strong,” he said. “I’d rather that I get as much help as I can from people who, while I may disagree with them on other points, share the same  moral convictions as I have.” He noted that in the context of where he is right now– the UK– most evangelicals hardly care about intellectual dialogue with other Christian traditions while among Catholics, the intellectuals read Catholic social teaching from standard social democratic lens. “I often have to tell them that they need to look faithfully and closely at the deep resources found in their own tradition.”

%d bloggers like this: