Discontent with Dooyeweerd

Reflections on His Anthropology, the Soul/Body Distinction, and the Concept of Substance

Dooyeweerd’s anthropology, to those who adhere to it, has all the transparency of self-evidence. But to the recalcitrant who remain unconvinced, it is anything but self-evident.

For instance, page 204 from D.’s Kuypers Wetenschapsleer. Dooyeweerd asks, “what kind of activity remains for the ‘immortal soul’ after its separation from the body at death” and answers, “none!” This is because “All temporal existence, and not an abstraction from it, is discarded at natural death.” Instead, the supratemporal heart, the “the full concrete unity of self- and God-consciousness, the selfhood of man or the ‘inner man’ in the Scriptural sense of the word” remains.

The “immortal soul,” it turns out, is just a figment of our imagination. It is a “theoretical abstraction from the full temporal existence of man.” By contrast, the supratemporal heart is concrete, not abstract. At death, the temporal is discarded and the supratemporal remains. This instead of the temporal being abstracted and turned into an immortal existence. Temporal functions and capacities are done away with, not immortalized.

D. instead proposes that “the scriptural dichotomy of soul and body” is to be sought “in the dual(-un)ity of the supratemporal religious center or root (the ‘heart’ or ‘soul’) and the entire temporal function cloak (the ‘body’).”

Wait a minute. So the supratemporal and the temporal are united? Does this “dual(un-)ity” of supratemporal and temporal means that the temporal and supratemporal go together? But at death all temporal functions are done away with: “All temporal existence, and not an abstraction from it, is discarded at natural death.”

So what remains? The temporal functions are gone… but the saints in heaven “stand… before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches … in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.'” I thought the function cloak was to be put off, only to be recovered at the resurrection. The “concrete unity” known as the soul nevertheless functions, regardless of the lack of a function mantle? The supratemporal heart/soul and the temporal function mantle/body form a “dual(-un)ity” even when they’re separated…?

Not to worry, this is all quite clear to the initiated. The benighted must await illumination.

At any rate, we may at least agree on this, that Dooyeweerd is to be cleared of all suspicion with regard to any sort of denial of the body/soul distinction. He maintained such a distinction, regardless of what misunderstandings his terminology may have given rise to.

But what of his fellow comrade-in-arms Vollenhoven?

If you asked Prof. V., ‘But with all that analysis, with all that distinction of function, don’t you lose sight of the unity?’ then you were given the answer: ‘We need not deliberately determine that unity: that unity is there, it takes precedence; it is given in advance and concretely present in man as a living soul. The various functions can be discovered in this entire person through analysis.’ ‘And what about the ‘body-soul’ distinction, which is common among us?’ ‘That distinction is incorrect.’

(cited in Stellingwerff, De VU na Kuyper, p. 191)

Well, well – apparently it is entirely apropos for a professor at the Free University to go right ahead and deny the body/soul distinction.

And what of the following example, cited by Valentijn Hepp in his booklet on the soul? It exemplifies the kind of thinking Hepp and others took such umbrage to. In this example, the writer, otherwise left anonymous, assures us that the soul does not get separated from the body in death, but is one with it, even in the grave. And yet:

The writer, who assures us that, notwithstanding the fact that he combats the notion of the ongoing existence of the soul, defends the ongoing existence of a human ‘he’ with fingers, with a thought of his former life on earth and of his brothers; he writes here that this ongoing ‘he’ has let go of its organism. Has it become inorganic then? This ‘he’ has let go of his conscious life here. And yet ‘he’ thinks on his former life on earth! How can that go together? ‘He’ no longer has a moral life. So, does ‘he’ lead a continued existence that is no longer measured by the imperishable moral standard? Has the Spirit of God blotted out His law once written in him? Has ‘he’ become an amoral being? The author must intend it better than he puts it into words. One could read out of this more than one thing that is not without danger. I think, however, that one does him more justice if one takes this to be an impressionistic abracadabra instead of subjecting it to logical analysis. It seems to me the most sensible thing is to let such statements go for the time being.

In fact, solid ground is only to be found in the lines: ‘Dying is not separation between two substances, matter and spirit, between material remains and a soul. No, it is being detached from all spheres of life.’ In other words, at death the soul does not separate from the body. The soul cannot detach itself or be detached from the body, because what is commonly called the body is at the same time a living soul. At death man goes into the grave as a living soul. In so far as there is such a thing as a soul, it dies. It is called being detached from all spheres of life. However, it is again not clear whether this does not also apply to the surviving ‘he’. Perhaps this should be resolved in such a way that man as living soul and man as surviving ‘he’ are both detached from the terrestrial spheres of life, but that the surviving he’ now resides in the realms of life, of the ‘underworld,’ here considered identical with ‘the heavenly Paradise’ and being ‘in pain.’ Or is some contact of the ongoing ‘he’ with life on earth supposed? The mist of confused images is so thick here that one almost has to cut it to get through. But in any case, this remains as a glowing core: the soul because of its unity and identity with the body is not immortal.

There is a certain likeness and affinity between Dooyeweerd’s presentation and this, although there are the distinctions D. introduces to distinguish his position. Be that as it may, it should be clear that denials of the ongoing, independent existence of the soul after death were rampant, and suspicions thereto were not groundless.

With the following statement (Het Voortbestaan… van de Ziel, pp. 71—72), Hepp makes a plea for reevaluation of the substance concept, wherein the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater. It is an argument which in my view is worth considering. It is certainly not to be dismissed out of hand.

The deviant opinion [H.’s term for the opposition to the traditional anthropology] can spare no good word for the term and the concept of ‘substance.’

In an argument that at times gets into details, both are condemned to disappear.

And that in the name of Christian, scriptural thinking.

Substance is therefore called an inheritance from Greek, especially from Aristotelian philosophy. It is criticized as ‘metaphysical’, ‘super-temporal’, a figment of the ‘natural’, i.e., in this case ‘unreborn’ man. The very first requirement of Christian thought is that ‘we break completely with this substance-phenomenon-philosophy.’ It is conceded that, in our circle, whoever speaks of the metaphysical substance in man often does not mean it so badly. Even so, it is by no means benign.

Why nothing is said here about the fact that not every so-called immanence philosophy sanctions a certain concept of substance, but that on the contrary many immanence philosophers oppose this, can again, I think, only be explained by the urge for generalization.

Not to linger over still further objections, I too believe that the concept of substance of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant — I am merely making a selection — is not acceptable to Calvinist philosophy and Reformed dogmatics.

But that does not give us the right to throw every concept of substance overboard.

When someone who would like to do so writes: ‘Initially this change will be difficult, as it goes against many of the ways of thinking which we have learned while lounging on the Western-Eastern sofa,’ he shows that he does not sufficiently understand the situation.

There is a concept of substance ‘in our circle’, which really did not blow in ‘on the Western-Eastern sofa’— image of laziness!

For that, the study of the Patres, in particular of Augustine, of Calvin and others was required.

We ‘learned’ it from Reformed dogma and from books that develop it. The sofa was on another floor.

This concept of substance has not yet been worked out. I agree! The author has provided a sample of it, which he has not yet published. As such, it cannot yet be invoked.

However, our theology and philosophy may be presented with the task of scientifically constructing the concept of substance in connection with the Reformed dogma of the substantiality of body and soul, rather than transporting it to the crematorium.

Surely no one can be expected to push the deviant opinion to the point where he states: the Reformed dogma of which we speak was written while lounging comfortably on the Western-Eastern sofa? For it was born in the tension of faith from the womb of Holy Scripture.

This substance has nothing abstract, nothing unreal, nothing that betrays a ‘separation between intellect and life.’

I almost regret that I may not permit myself to get scientific in these booklets.

But I should be satisfied when everyone sees that behind the Reformed dogma stands a concept of substance which cannot be overthrown by any concept of substance formed by vain speculation.

Enough examples. Anyone who is serious about understanding this conflict as it took place at the Free University must for starters consult Stellingwerff’s De VU na Kuyper, in particular ch. III covering the period 1933—1945. Other books and writings by the various protagonists are freely available and cannot be left unexamined by anyone wishing to speak authoritatively to the issue.