This paper was presented 18 April 2008 at the Abraham Kuyper Center's 5th Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary.

See the video recording of this presentation with Q&A; part 1 (35 minutes) and part 2 (8 minutes).

See also the original version [pdf] of this paper (with a different introduction and conclusion), read it in Spanish [pdf] (translated by Eliel Morales).

And here is the revised, somewhat abbreviated [pdf] version that was published in an international law journal (with yet another intro and conclusion).

abstract: Abraham Kuyper's conception of societal sphere sovereignty has received various interpretations. Herman Dooyeweerd's interpretation of sphere sovereignty develops Kuyper's conception in terms of its being rooted in and motivated from a distinctly Christian religious orientation, and results in a view of society that is neither individualistic, nor collectivistic. In this paper Dooyeweerd's philosophically elaborated account is examined in terms of his notions of a basic creational diversity; modality and individuality structures; societal communities; sovereignty over-against autonomy/decentralization, and subsidiarity; distinct inner structural principles, the intrinsic limit of state power, and non-individualism. A consistent application of Dooyeweerd's conception of sphere sovereignty to the question of the status of education as a sovereign sphere, and the propriety of its tax-based support, results in the conclusion that, according to Dooyeweerd's view, the state does not properly possess the competence to fund schooling through taxation in any form.

Dooyeweerd's Conception of Societal Sphere Sovereignty

with an application to the question of the status and tax-based support of education

by Gregory Baus

1. Introduction

A decade ago, at the centennial commemoration of Abraham Kuyper's lectures here at Princeton Seminary, I believe it was Nicholas Wolterstorff who said something to the effect that while Kuyper developed a theory of the sovereignty that spheres possess, he hadn't exactly developed a theory of the spheres that were sovereign. Wolterstorff cited Kuyper's disparate use of "sphere" to refer to various specific, and to a variety of general classes of, ideas, activities, and communities. Kuyper even refers to the sphere of the individual person and the "sphere of self-consciousness".

Herman Dooyeweerd significantly removes the theoretical ambiguity in his own development of Kuyper's sphere sovereignty. Dooyeweerd distinguishes modal spheres and societal spheres, and their respective sovereignties. He also works out a taxonomy of societal communities, distinguishing between what he calls natural institutions (such as marriage and family), differentiated and undifferentiated organized institutions (such as church and state in the first case, and tribes and guilds in the second), and non-institutional voluntary associations (such as professional and social clubs).

(Social Institutions; New Critique, vol.3, part2, chapter1, section3)

In the following, I outline Dooyeweerd's conception of societal sphere sovereignty, and offer a concluding application of his conception to the question of the status of education and the propriety of its tax-based support.

2. Dooyeweerd's Conception

2.1. Christian groundmotive

Dooyeweerd holds that the principle of societal sphere sovereignty is rooted in what he calls the groundmotive of the Christian religion, which he summarizes as "creation, fall and redemption through Christ Jesus" (Roots, p.41, 49). In general a groundmotive is an expression, both individual and communal, of one of two possible basic religious commitments or orientations. One of these is characterized by trust in the true God revealed in the Scriptures, the other by unbelief, that is, by an apostate faith in something as divine other than the true God, which is idolatry. These two possible religious commitments, in either a direction toward or away from God, are in an irreconcilable antithesis to each other (Roots, p.3-9).

This antithesis cuts through every thought, word, and deed --even, because of remaining sin, for those who believe in God through trust in Christ. To say that any given theoretical viewpoint is rooted in an apostate/idolatrous groundmotive is not a comment on the regenerate status of, or a personal attack against, the individual espousing such a view. Our theories may be, in principle, at odds with our deepest religious orientation. Dooyeweerd is emphatic that groundmotive critique is always first and foremost a self-critique. (New Critique, forward viii)

Dooyeweerd distinguishes three historical expressions of the unbiblical groundmotive in Western culture. There is an ancient Greek, or pagan Matter-Form groundmotive. There is a medieval Roman Catholic, or scholastic Nature-Grace groundmotive. There is a Modern, or humanistic Nature-Freedom groundmotive. These three nonChristian groundmotives all display an inner contradiction, or dialectical tension between two opposing principles in which each pole is itself ultimate, and no resolution or genuine synthesis is possible (Roots, p.11-14, 60).

Crucial to Dooyeweerd's conception of societal sphere sovereignty is that the creational or structural element of the Christian groundmotive recognizes a genuinely basic diversity in creation, for "God created everything after its own kind" (Roots, 43). Intimately related to this idea of diversity in creation is the idea of order and law. That is, God created each kind of thing according to its own kind of law by which He continues to sustain and govern them.(Christian Idea, p.130, 134)

2.2. Modalities (New Critique, vol 2)

Within this creational diversity, there are two "levels" of structure that Dooyeweerd distinguishes. The first level is that of modality, the second is that of individuality.(Roots, p.45)

Modalities are ways in which something exists and is experienced in the continuity of temporal reality. Each modality has a core meaning, an original sense that is proper to itself and cannot be explained exclusively in terms of any other modal sense, and by which each modality may be theoretically distinguished. Each modality is also subject to its own particular kind of laws. Accordingly, each modality is said to be irreducible; no modality can be reduced to any other. Dooyeweerd distinguishes fifteen modalities altogether. These include arithmetic (quantity), spatial (extension), kinetic (movement), physical (energy), biotic (life), psychic (feeling), analytical (distinction), historical (culture), lingual (symbol), social (intercourse), economic (thrift), aesthetic (harmony), juridical (justice), moral (love), and fiducial (certitude).

These modalities, however, are never in real isolation from each other. Dooyeweerd highlights the importance of modal or intermodal analogies; concepts that attest to the connections between modalities. Dooyeweerd develops what he calls modal universality in terms of 'prior and posterior'; an order encompassing all modal meanings as inherent within every modality. Moreover, in concrete experience all the modalities exist in an unbreakable mutual coherence. Every individual temporal thing always functions within all the modalities; some things functioning subjectively or actively in certain modalities, and objectively or passively in other modalities. (Roots, p.41-46, Christian Idea, p.142, 144-145)

2.3 Individuality-structures and societal communities (New Critique, vol 3)

The second level of structure in the diversity of created reality that Dooyeweerd distinguishes he calls "individuality-structures." Structures of individuality cover a broad range of concrete phenomena such as events and what we normally think of as "things," including humanly formed things such as artifacts and societal communities. For our purposes we will focus on how Dooyeweerd articulates the natures of and relationships among various societal communities.

Modalities are important in recognizing the distinct natures of diverse things, including the distinct natures of various societal communities. Each thing has what Dooyeweerd calls a "qualifying" function. Some thing's qualifying function is directly related to its most characteristic modality. This qualifying function specially characterizes the way some thing functions in all the other modalities, and determines its internal or intrinsic nature and purpose. Humanly formed things, such as societal communities, also have what Dooyeweerd calls a "founding" function. Some thing's founding function is directly related to the modality that most characterizes the basis upon which the thing was formed.

Dooyeweerd distinguishes various kinds of societal communities relative to their respective founding and qualifying functions. The communities that may be distinguished in this way, such as marriage, family, church, state, business, labor union, social club, etc., constitute the various societal spheres. (Christian Idea, p.145-148)

2.4. The sovereignty of societal spheres

The foregoing description of a theoretical account of creational diversity is proper to the Christian groundmotive. In terms of a nonChristian groundmotive one tends, whether implicitly or explicitly, toward idolatrous reductionism in taking some modality, some thing of creation, as the origin of (the rest of) reality. For views of societal order such reductionisms result in the absolutization, or totalizing, of some sphere, often that of the state. Failing to recognize the true God as Creator, nonChristian groundmotives thereby fail to recognize a genuinely basic creational diversity. (Christian Idea, p.139-140, Roots, p.47-48)

Dooyeweerd, on the other hand, insists on the absolute sovereignty of God alone. And it is on this basis that the delegated sovereignty of each societal sphere is understood. Dooyeweerd states: "Sphere sovereignty guarantees each societal sphere an intrinsic nature and law of life. And with this guarantee it provides the basis for an original sphere of authority and competence derived not from the authority of any other sphere but directly [delegated] from the sovereign authority of God" (Roots, p.49).

This God-given sovereignty, or authority and competence, within each societal sphere is direct or immediate, that is, not mediated by some other sphere. Dooyeweerd contrasts this conception with that of autonomy. He insists that genuine societal sphere sovereignty is not equivalent to functional decentralization, or subsidiarity. He says that such a conception "would mean that the different spheres of society, as independent parts, must be incorporated into the state while retaining a certain autonomy. The task of the state would then be decentralized by creating municipalities, provinces, and other parts of the state alongside [local agencies] endowed with a public legal regulatory jurisdiction..." (Roots, p.50)

Autonomy, in that sense, implies a part-whole relationship. Dooyeweerd is emphatic that neither society itself nor any societal sphere, not even the state, constitutes a whole of which other spheres are but parts. Rather, each societal sphere is a whole unto itself. This also rules out any kind of hierarchical arrangement among the various societal spheres. Dooyeweerd affirms that "none of these temporal spheres can be derived from or valued lower than any other." (Christian Idea, p.134) And since "only derived competency can be based on positive law," (Contest, p.115) not only can the other societal spheres never properly be made parts of the state, but the state (or any other sphere) can never be what creates the boundaries of sovereignty between spheres. (Christian Idea, p.128, 140)

Dooyeweerd's criterion, then, for recognizing a sovereign societal sphere is its distinct intrinsic nature. And the intrinsic nature of a societal sphere is determined by its founding and qualifying functions. The founding and qualifying functions which determine the basis upon which a societal sphere is formed, and the way it functions in all the modalities, and its distinct intrinsic nature and purpose which distinguishes it from other societal spheres Dooyeweerd collectively calls a societal sphere's "inner structural principle." (Christian Idea, p.147-148)

2.5. Intrinsic nature of the state

According to its inner structural principle, Dooyeweerd characterizes the state as a public legal community of rulers and subjects (or government and citizenry) with a monopoly on "power of the sword" within a defined territory. (Relation, p.97) This sword-power within a territory is the historical founding function of the state. Sword-power here means lethal coercion, that is, the ability to achieve compliance upon the threat of death. Taxation is included in this exercise of state coercion. (Calvinism, p.35, New Critique, p.445)

As a public legal community the qualifying function of the state is within the juridical modality. While every sovereign societal sphere is a sphere of authority, that is, of law-making competence, the laws of any given non-state societal community have no proper jurisdiction outside their own sphere. This is just as true of the state. The state's sphere of competence is distinctly qualified, and thus intrinsically limited, by its so-called public character. Dooyeweerd affirms that "every form of legal power, that of the state also, is structurally delimited by the inner nature of the sphere of life within which it is exercised." (Relation, p.97)

Therefore, the norm holding for the state's proper activities must be that of public justice. This is in keeping with Dooyeweerd's affirmation of the state as “res publica,” that is, as the public entity. The genuine state is not an object of private ownership, but rather is held in common without respect to membership in any other societal community. (Roots, p.53-54, 162-163) So the justice of the state is never, not even ideally, a generic justice. The norm of justice, as it applies to the state, must be delimited by the state's intrinsic public nature, and so holds with exclusive regard to the public legal sphere. There are many injustices, then, which the state has no competence to address. (Christian Idea, p.14-150)

Dooyeweerd explicates justice in terms of retribution; that is, in the classical sense of giving to each their proper due. However, justice has various modal analogies. We may speak of trustworthiness, that is, due confidence, in terms of a fiducial qualification. Or we may speak of paying, financially, what we owe in terms of an economic qualification. Yet in every case, the original sense of justice is retribution. This retribution takes on a distinct qualification in various societal spheres according to each societal sphere's inner structural principle. Dooyeweerd calls the Christian conception of retribution as a public legal norm within the sphere of the state a "bulwark of the reformational principle of sphere sovereignty" (Calvinism, p.30-33) particularly in its application to penalties in criminal law. The responsibility of the state, in Dooyeweerd’s view, for bringing criminals to public justice, and the sort of penalties proper to the state, must not be confused with, for instance, the responsibility of parents, and the sort of justice that should obtain within the familial sphere, which is morally qualified.

2.6. Intrinsic limit of the state's public legal power

According to the state's inner structural principle, Dooyeweerd distinguishes two kinds of law proper to the state, "namely civil law and public law, the first being a state-law regulating the civil coordinational relations of individuals as such, the latter being an inner communal law of the state as a public community. These are the two original spheres of competency of the state in the domain of [law-formation]" (Contest, p.119)

Civil law, then, concerns the liberty and equality of persons, as persons, before state law. Civil law also constitutes a public legal recognition of inter-individual legal agreements without regard to any particular communal membership or specific characteristic of the person, such as age, health, gender, ethnicity, religion, or economic status. (Relation, p.94-95)

Public law, on the other hand, concerns the organization of the state, and the respective rights and duties of both government and citizens within that public legal community. So, for instance, whether the government is representational, and which citizens may elect representatives would be addressed in public law. These two kinds of law (civil and public) proper to the state by virtue of the state's distinct inner structural principle are to be sharply distinguished from the multiple so-called private spheres of law which are exclusively within the jurisdiction of each respective sovereign societal sphere. (Relation, p.94-95)

Dooyeweerd holds that the specific content of state law must be determined in keeping with the “salus publica,” that is the common good. (Christian Idea, p.150) And yet, Dooyeweerd says that the common good "has at all times been the slogan of state absolutism." (Calvinism, p.27)

Dooyeweerd is again emphatic that only upon the Christian conception of societal sphere sovereignty in terms of which the state is understood to be intrinsically limited according to its inner structural principle, a conception which has "fundamentally broken with any absolutization of either state or individual,... [can we] grasp the principle of the common good as a truly juridical principle of public law." (Christian Idea, p.151, 153) In other words, the common good, as a principle for determining state law, must also be intrinsically qualified in a public legal sense. So as it concerns state law, the common good must never have, for instance, an economic sense. This is also to say that there is no single common good for society, but many common goods, for which the state’s responsibility is exclusively the public legal dimension. For the many and various common goods in society, differentiated spheres have their own sovereign responsibilities.

2.7. Not an individualistic conception

Besides rejecting any statist or other collectivistic view, Dooyeweerd also distinguishes his conception of societal sphere sovereignty from that of an individualistic, or so-called libertarian societal order. While Dooyeweerd acknowledges that classical liberalism was significantly influenced in its development by Christianity, (Christian Idea, p.138, Roots, p.166) he traces the basis of many of its controlling assumptions to the humanistic groundmotive of Nature-Freedom. Upon this motive, classical liberalism holds to the absolute sovereignty of the individual person. In such a conception, the state and other societal communities as such have neither responsibilities nor rights, for they are merely fictions of inter-individual agreement.

In contrast to Dooyeweerd's view of the normativity of an intrinsic limit within societal spheres, an individualistic conception constitutes a mere external or extrinsic limit upon communities (Christian Idea, p.151-152). This mere extrinsic limitation is not only misconceived with regard to the genuinely basic diversity of creation in both its modality and individuality-structures, but it is utterly insufficient in practice to restrain a dialectical swing toward some collectivism. Historically, classical liberalism has been unable to withstand the pressures of an absolutistic conception of the so-called common good that is not itself qualified by the limit of the state's intrinsic nature, for example as in the Welfare State.

3. The Question of Status and Tax-based Support of Education

In light of this outline of Dooyeweerd's conception of societal sphere sovereignty, we can address the question of the status of education (or in principle, any other societal activity), and consider the propriety of its tax-based support.

As previously mentioned, taxation is an exercise of the state's coercive power. This is the case whether tax-based support for some activity occurs in the form of resources allocated for direct state operation through an agency of state, or through some kind of subsidy to autonomous agencies, or through some kind of stipend or voucher to the participants or recipients of some program or service, or through any combination of these.

What is called refundable tax-credit to agencies or recipients is equivalent to subsidy or stipend in as much as the amount refunded exceeds that which was paid by the refundee. However, non-refundable tax-credits to non-state institutions and participants in some activity would not constitute tax-based support since, by definition, no tax is funding the activity.

In any case, when we consider whether, according to Dooyeweerd's conception of societal sphere sovereignty, some activity is proper to the state, that is, within its sphere of competence, and thus whether the state should support an activity through taxation in whatever form, we must consider the respective founding and qualifying functions of the activity. In this way we can determine its intrinsic nature and inner structural principle. We have already outlined Dooyeweerd's conception of the inner structural principle of the state. If it turns out that, for instance, education has an identical intrinsic nature to that of the state (viz, public justice by coercion), then we can conclude that tax-based support of such an activity is compatible with Dooyeweerd's view. However, if it turns out that upon consideration of its inner structural principle an activity (such as education) possesses its own intrinsic nature distinct from that of the state, then we can conclude that tax-based support for it is incompatible with Dooyeweerd's conception of societal sphere sovereignty.

Education as such is an ubiquitous societal activity basic to all kinds of human living. From toilet training to job training, each sphere, each kind of societal community, functions by a wide variety of taught and learned skills. Education in the broadest sense of learning does not seem to have a single intrinsic nature, but rather is something that may be variously manifested according to the inner life of each and every sphere. But for our purposes, we have in mind the differentiated institution or organized community of a school for educating children.

Dooyeweerd indeed recognizes the organized community of a school as a sovereign sphere, and specifies its historical founding function and moral qualifying function. According to the inner structural principle of a school community, Dooyeweerd holds that “the moral bond... is that between pupils and their teachers, founded in the cultural formative power of [teachers].” (New Critique vol 3., p.287) He further characterizes the school as supplemental and optional, distinguishing it from the fundamentally irreplaceable and natural or bioticly founded and morally qualified parental educational task. However, the spiritual direction of the “non-parental” schooling normatively continues to belong to the parental competence, in keeping with the structural principle of the family.

In conclusion, it appears then that (although one could analyze its inner structural principle more fully) the school as a sovereign sphere, while relating closely to the sphere of the family, does not fall within the competence of the state and is therefore not legitimately supported by any form of taxation according to Dooyeweerd's conception of societal sphere sovereignty.


Works Cited by Herman Dooyeweerd

  • ‘Calvinism and Natural Law,’ in: Essays in Legal, Social, and Political Philosophy, Alan Cameron and D.F.M. Strauss (eds). Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

  • ‘The Christian Idea of the State,’ in: Essays in Legal, Social, and Political Philosophy, Alan Cameron and D.F.M. Strauss (eds). Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

  • A Christian Theory of Social Institutions; translated by Magnus Verbrugge ; edited with an introduction by John Witte. La Jolla, California : Herman Dooyeweerd Foundation, 1986.

  • ‘The Contest over the Concept of Sovereignty,’ in: Essays in Legal, Social, and Political Philosophy, Alan Cameron and D.F.M. Strauss (eds). Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

  • A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, translated by David Freeman, H. DeJongste, and William Young. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

  • ‘The Relation of the Individual and Community from a Legal Philosophical Perspective,’ in: Essays in Legal, Social, and Political Philosophy, Alan Cameron and D.F.M. Strauss (eds). Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

  • Roots of Western Culture: pagan, secular, and Christian options, translated by John Kraay. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.