The Divine Meaning of Progress: The Triumphs and Trials of Theology in the Dooyeweerdian Tradition

Is theology meant to progress over time? Or must it remain fixed and unchanging throughout history? The continued relevance of this question finds contemporary expression in the renewed tension between Christians who claim to be “progressive, and those who claim to be “historic in their theology. While the latter find “progressto be an invasion of postmodern relativism, the former maintain that failure to progress exposes the stagnating influence of outdated mechanical rationalism on theological attitudes. Amidst such tensions, the attempt to recover a genuinely Christian model of theological progress continues to demonstrate its fruitfulness for our times.

This paper proposes that such a model may find rich contributions in the Kuyperian tradition. It focuses especially on the implications of Herman Dooyeweerd’s groundbreaking theory of modal aspects.

Faced with the disintegrative challenge of revolutionary rationalism, both Kuyper and Bavinck constantly emphasised the organic quality of all human life, including the Church and its theological task. They viewed theology, and its body of doctrine, as a growing organism, continuously unfolding more of itself as it comes to expression in history.

Dooyeweerd grounds this organic motif in his modal aspect theory by arguing that all normative modes are founded in the biotic aspect, and thus must develop themselves over time with the inner necessity of a law of nature. An ahistoric theology which does not grow but remains frozen in time is therefore not merely undesirable; it is impossible in this reality. Theology must grow; the only question is: will it progress or regress?
Writing a generation after Kuyper in the aftermath of two World Wars, Dooyeweerd recognised more clearly the emerging threat of historicism and its relativising effect on human life. Building on Kuyper’s legacy, he sought to furnish Christianity with a supraarbitrary norm of culturalhistorical unfolding, which could determine whether any given historical development was genuinely progressive, or whether it was reactionary and regressivea distinction obliterated by the historical view of life. For Dooyeweerd, a cultural development is progressive if it unfolds the anticipatory moments of analogy between the historical aspect and the following normative aspects, whereas it is regressive if it closes itself to this deepening analogical meaning. Such an opening of anticipatory meaning within the historical aspect, claims Dooyeweerd, is always accompanied by increasing differentiation and integration of lifein essence, by an increasing realisation of spheresovereignty.

While theology does not belong to the historical mode but the logicaltheoretical, Dooyeweerd’s norms of cultural opening may present a compelling line of analysis for also uncovering a supraarbitrary standard of progress within the special science of theology itself. This paper examines whether theology can similarly find a norm for progress in the idea of differentiation and integration, and explores the insights and challenges of Dooyeweerd’s unique definition of theology as a special science dedicated to studying the faith aspect of reality.

While it is not without genuine challenges, the Dooyeweerdian tradition continues to offer profound insights into the reformational character of all aspects of life, including theology.

Zane A Richer, Liberty University