Reforming Apologetics (Dualisms)

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Summary of Chapter 7

The purpose of chapter 7 of Reforming Apologetics is to defend natural theology (in the Reformed Thomist tradition) from the charge that it succumbs to “dualistic thinking.” The central target is the Dutch neo-Calvinist thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, although Cornelius Van Til plays a supporting role as another critic who complains about a dualism that afflicts Roman Catholic theology and infects some streams of Reformed theology.

In fact, Dr. Fesko introduces the chapter’s theme by citing Van Til’s accusation that “the Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism compromises both the theological and the apologetic integrity of the scriptural teaching about epistemology” (p. 161). According to Van Til, this “nature-grace dualism is unscriptural, since it leaves a beachhead of autonomous reason, which makes fallen human beings the arbiters of truth” (p. 162). Indeed, Van Til thinks there is a deeper problem:

Van Til contends that Roman Catholic theology falls short of scriptural teaching because it rests on an Aristotelian starting point, a dualistic understanding of man. Hence, Christians must purge dualistic thought from their theology and begin from a pure scriptural starting point. (p. 162)

Similar criticisms come from Cornelius’s nephew, Henry Van Til, in his book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, and from other “neo-Calvinist theologians and philosophers” such as James K. A. Smith, Albert Wolters, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Brian Walsh, and Richard Middleton. Dr. Fesko traces these criticisms to the influence of Abraham Kuyper, who argued that “since no area of life lies beyond the rule of Christ, all dualistic thought must be excised” (p. 163).

What does this have to do with Reformed apologetics? Fesko explains:

The dualism critique, therefore, plays an important role in debates over apologetic methodology and is one more hurdle to clear in order to recover the book of nature. (p. 163)

Fesko acknowledges that there are different versions of the “dualism critique,” but his aim in this chapter is to argue that the critique “rests on an inaccurate evaluation of the historical evidence.” Indeed, attempts to expose unbiblical dualisms in the natural theology tradition are guilty of a “fourfold failure”:

[T]hey separate what theologians merely distinguish, have little or no historical evidence to support them, ultimately rest on questionable philosophical claims rather than biblical exegesis, and employ the debunked hellenization thesis of Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). (p. 164)

The chapter makes its case, first, by surveying three different types of dualism, and second, by analyzing and rebutting the charges of dualism leveled at Aquinas and some Reformed theologians.

Three Different Dualisms

The term dualism has been used to refer to various philosophical ideas and claims. This opening section seeks to distinguish three types of dualism: “the classic dualism of Platonic philosophy, cosmic dualism, and the dualism of neo-Calvinist philosophy and theology” (p. 164).

Classic Platonic Dualism

Plato famously held to a dualistic anthropology: we are essentially immortal and immaterial souls, who become imprisoned in material bodies, only to be released again at death. In Plato’s view, the immaterial is the true and ultimate reality, and thus “the soul is superior to the body” (p. 166). Aristotle departed from Plato’s dualism in holding that form and matter are inseparable, and the rational soul is the form of the material body (thus the soul cannot exist apart from the body). Fesko rightly notes that Christian theologians have taken positions at odds with both Greek philosophers:

Notably, later medieval and Protestant theologians would employ the body-soul distinction but maintain that body and soul were only temporarily separable during the intermediate state — a very un-Aristotelian move. And they also maintained that upon the resurrection, body and soul were reunited — a very un-Platonic move. (pp. 166-67)

Cosmic Dualism

A second type of dualism is that associated with Manichaeism, various Gnostic sects, and some Eastern religions. On this view, there is a cosmic struggle between eternal forces of good and evil, often personified as two dueling gods: a good deity who created the spiritual realm and an evil deity who created the material realm. This second type is connected with Platonic dualism insofar as salvation or enlightenment is understood in terms of enabling the soul (good) to escape the corruption and imprisonment of the body (evil).

Dooyeweerdian Dualism

While the previous two dualisms are obviously open to criticism from a Christian perspective, the Dutch Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd took aim at a different type of dualism in the interests of promoting a “Reformational philosophy” derived from biblical rather than pagan notions. As Dr. Fesko explains:

Within the broader structure of his philosophy, Dooyeweerd identifies the motivating factors in different philosophical schools of thought, theoretical attempts to account for a worldview. Dooyeweerd calls these motivating factors ground motives. In the big picture, there are two primary ground motives: biblical and apostate. Within the apostate category, Dooyeweerd identifies three different subtypes: the Greek form-matter motive, the scholastic nature-grace motive, and the Enlightenment nature-freedom motive. (pp. 167-68)

Fesko further documents how Dooyeweerd criticizes the first two subtypes for their failure to acknowledge the “supratemporal realm” (between God’s eternity and the immanent temporal realm) and to ground their understanding of human nature in the creation-fall-redemption dynamic of the biblical narrative. In Dooyeweerd’s analysis, all manifestations of the apostate ground motive will “absolutize” or “idolize” the temporal realm, which inevitably leads to unbiblical “antinomies” and “dualisms” (p. 170). This is true not only of the ancient Greeks, but also of the scholastic theologians insofar as they uncritically adopted the philosophical framework of those Greek thinkers.

This problem infected Protestant thought as well as Roman Catholicism:

According to Dooyeweerd, both Roman Catholic and Reformed scholastic theologians failed to uproot the apostate form-matter and nature-grace ground motives. … But according to Dooyeweerd, Reformed scholasticism was not confined to the seventeenth century but also found expression even in Kuyper. Dooyeweerd believed that to posit two categories of grace (common and special) could “easily degenerate into a doctrine of two separate realms.” This led Dooyeweerd to speak of two Kuypers: the corrupted scholastic Kuyper and the biblically pure Kuyper. (p. 171)

Dr. Fesko concludes his summary of Dooyeweerd’s critique by noting “four important points” (pp. 172-73):

First, Dooyeweerd did not base his Reformational philosophy directly on the exegesis of the Scriptures. In fact, he criticized others, such as Van Til, for being rationalist in trying to extract propositional truth from the Bible. …

Second, Dooyeweerd criticized some Reformed confessions of faith. In his view, the Westminster Confession (1647) was poisoned because of its dualistic anthropology. …

Third, Dooyeweerd did not hold to a traditional view of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Historically, Reformed theologians have believed that theology is the queen of the sciences, and hence philosophy is a second-tier discipline, a handmaiden to theology. In contrast, Dooyeweerd maintained that theology was based on philosophy. …

Fourth, while Dooyeweerd may be unknown to many in the broader Reformed church, especially within Presbyterian circles, he has been the most influential Dutch Reformed philosopher after Kuyper. …

In connection with the last point, Fesko observes that both Van Til and James K. A. Smith have deployed Dooyeweerd’s analysis of apostate ground motives in their critiques of various theological systems. Furthermore, Van Til “also levels the same scholastic-infection accusation against Kuyper and Herman Bavinck” (p. 174). Van Til concurred with Dooyeweerd that “Reformed theologians after Calvin drank from the contaminated well of scholasticism” (p. 174).


In this section, Dr. Fesko offers his critique of Dooyeweerd’s claims, focusing on the following five deficiencies:

(1) the historical-theological claims made by Dooyeweerd; (2) the inadequacies of his criticisms against so-called dualisms; (3) the Kantian nature of his Reformational theology; (4) his failure to recognize the differences between separations and distinctions; and (5) his reliance on the disproved hellenization thesis of von Harnack. (pp. 174-75)

Historical-Theological Claims

According to Dooyeweerd, Roman Catholic theology is infected with two unbiblical types of dualism: anthropological body-soul dualism and nature-grace dualism. Regarding the first criticism, Dooyeweerd is mistaken in claiming that Aquinas held to a “dualistic construction”:

Aquinas has a view similar to that of Aristotle, not Plato. Aquinas is neither a dualist nor physicalist. Instead, he believes that humans are composite beings that are both spiritual and corporeal. … Aquinas distinguishes between the soul and the body, but in the end they are ultimately inseparable. (p. 175)

While Dooyeweerd was right to criticize the nature-grace scheme of Roman Catholicism, he failed to recognize that the Reformed scholastic theologians, such as Turretin, rejected that scheme (e.g., asserting that Adam had original righteousness by nature, not in virtue of a donum superadditum). In suggesting that later Reformed theologians departed from Calvin, who “alone escaped the clutches of scholasticism,” Dooyeweerd fell foul of the now-discredited “Calvin-versus-Calvinists thesis” (p. 178). Even so, Dooyeweerd’s historical errors persist among his disciples and other Reformed thinkers, such as Van Til, who “incorrectly identified scholasticism with rationalism” (p. 178). Dooyeweerd and Van Til, while upholding Calvin as the model of Reformed thought, fail to recognize (1) that Calvin’s body-soul anthropology was very similar to Aquinas’s, and (2) that we can take either knowledge of man or knowledge of God as our “epistemological starting point” (pp. 178-79). Unlike these later critics of Reformed scholasticism, Calvin properly distinguishes the ordo docendi (order of teaching) from the ordo essendi (order of being).

Criticisms against So-Called Dualisms

In this section, Fesko argues that Dooyeweerd’s use of the term ‘dualism’ is idiosyncratic and prejudicial. “In classical dualisms, there are two antithetical elements in perpetual irreconcilable conflict” (p. 180) where one of the elements is regarded as ‘good’ and the other ‘evil’. But many of the ideas Dooyeweerd dismisses as ‘dualisms’ aren’t dualistic in that objectionable sense. It’s misleading to describe, for example, the law-gospel distinction or a body-soul anthropology as ‘dualistic’.

Dooyeweerd’s error consists in creating an idiosyncratic definition of what constitutes a dualism and then applying it wherever it suits his system. (p. 182)

The Kantian Nature of Dooyeweerd’s Philosophy

Like the systems of Kuyper and Van Til, Dooyeweerd’s system is driven by a central dogma: his “biblical ground motive” (p. 182). Fesko’s objection to Dooyeweerd is that biblical Christianity cannot be reduced to a central dogma; doing so is reductionistic and leads to underemphasis or exclusion of important biblical themes and doctrines. Moreover, the idea that one needs a system with a central dogma or axiomatic starting point owes more to the Enlightenment project typified by Immanuel Kant than to exegesis-driven Christian theology.

Separations versus Distinctions

A further problem with the Dooyeweerdian criticism of ‘dualisms’ is that it “fail[s] to recognize the difference between a true dichotomy (or separation) and a mere distinction” (p. 184). For example, in his criticism of “body-soul dualism” Dooyeweerd wrongly assumes that a distinction between body and soul implies a dualistic separation of the two.

In contrast, Reformed scholastic theologians routinely drew distinctions that did not imply separations. Moreover, following Duns Scotus, they distinguished (!) between formal distinctions and real distinctions. A formal distinction “merely observes aspects of a unified object; it does not separate them, because they are inseparable given their existence in a single object” (p. 185). Thus, Reformed theologians were quite able to distinguish between body and soul without separating them; indeed, they were at pains to emphasize the unity of the human person.

Fesko concludes:

To label anything that has two elements as dualistic may be convenient for one’s argument, but in Dooyeweerd’s case it seldom has any basis in fact. Dooyeweerd fails to recognize the difference between true separations and distinctions. (p. 187)

Harnack’s Hellenization Thesis Redivivus?

Finally, Dr. Fesko suggests that one finds striking parallels between Dooyeweerd’s criticisms of the influence of Greek philosophy on scholastic theology and Harnack’s notorious “hellenization thesis”:

Dooyeweerd constantly bangs a drum for purifying philosophy and theology of apostate ground motives, but his attitudes toward Greek philosophy are strangely similar to those of Adolf von Harnack. Both Dooyeweerd and Harnack opposed Old Testament patterns to Greco-Roman philosophical claims, believing that theology had been corrupted by the synthesis of Greek philosophy and biblical truth. Dooyeweerd echoes Harnack’s hellenization thesis when he reproves Van Til for being rationalistic because Van Til drew doctrinal propositions from Scripture. (p. 187)

Harnack famously argued that the “history of dogma” evidences the early infection of the Christian faith with Greek philosophical ideas. For Harnack, ‘dogma’ is the bogeyman that needs to be expunged from the church so that the purity of the biblical gospel can be recovered. Fesko remarks:

One can substitute Dooyeweerd’s term scholasticism everywhere Harnack uses the word dogma, and the sets of arguments and claims are remarkably similar. (p. 188)

In response, Fesko notes that “Harnack’s hellenization thesis has been subjected to significant criticism” by scholars such as James Barr and Herman Bavinck, and to the extent that Dooyeweerd’s analysis of scholasticism parallels Harnack’s case against dogma, similar criticisms apply. In short, a sober examination of the historical facts doesn’t bear out Dooyeweerd’s claims about the deleterious influence of Greek dualistic philosophy on the medieval church, and his “central dogma” turns out to be a simplistic and reductionistic attempt to explain a highly complex series of events in the history of Christian theology.


Dr. Fesko sums up his critique thus:

The so-called dualism claims of some neo-Calvinist theologians fail due to several factors: an idiosyncratic definition of what constitutes a dualism, historical-theological errors and a failure to engage or even cite primary sources, and a commitment to Kantian-influenced theological and historical methods. (p. 191)

Even so, the charge of dualism leveled against “classic Reformed categories such as natural law or common notions” persists today. By way of example, Fesko quotes a 2012 letter by William Dennison (a Van Tilian) to the editor of the OPC’s New Horizons magazine criticizing material by Michael Horton for being compromised with a Roman Catholic nature-grace dualism. As Fesko sees things, what Dennison is actually attacking is nothing less than the mainstream Reformed orthodoxy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Fesko closes by reiterating his insistence that the commonplace categorial distinctions within classic Reformed theology should not be regarded as anti-biblical dualisms:

Acknowledging the confessional and biblical position that humans consist of a body and soul, that such categories as natural and supernatural revelation are valid, and that there are sacred and secular realms need not introduce any noxious dualisms to the theological or apologetic project. Rather, God is the source and author of humans, body and soul, and of all law, naturally and supernaturally revealed, and God is sovereign over both the sacred and the secular. (p. 192)


Chapter 7 is the second longest in the book, a fact reflected in the length of my summary above. My comments on this chapter will be relatively brief in comparison. I appreciated the chapter much more than the preceding ones and found myself largely in agreement with its main thesis. Dr. Fesko’s summary of and response to the Dooyeweerdian critique of post-Reformation Reformed theology strike me as mostly correct. Dooyeweerd’s claim that the later Reformed confessions are polluted by dualistic Greek philosophy is indeed simplistic and unhistorical. In any case, I have no expertise in Dooyeweerdian philosophy and no interest in defending it, so I’m content to let the central argument of “Dualisms” stand without challenge. Nevertheless, the chapter also takes some potshots at Van Tilian presuppositionalism along the way, and makes a few other claims that I’d like to raise some questions about.

1. Obviously, the primary target of this chapter is Dooyeweerd and his disciples. It isn’t a critique of Van Tilian claims. It’s rather odd, then, that the chapter begins by citing two Van Tils (Cornelius and Henry) as examples of the “complaint against dualistic thought” found among neo-Calvinist theologians and philosophers, rather than Dooyeweerd. It is true that Van Til objected to the nature-grace dualism of medieval Roman Catholicism and its continuation in certain streams of Protestant thought. But Van Til’s critique of scholasticism is quite different in substance than Dooyeweerd’s, so it’s misleading to closely associate the two as though Van Til’s “dualism critique” were just a minor variation of Dooyeweerd’s. (See the previous entries on Calvin and Aquinas for my discussion of Van Til’s specific concerns about Thomism and ‘scholasticism’.)

2. It should be further noted that Dooyeweerd and Van Til leveled sharp criticisms at each other. While sympathetic toward some of Dooyeweerd’s insights early in his career, Van Til later became highly critical of what he took to be unbiblical aspects of Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, such as his views on divine revelation. (John Frame offers a robust Van Tilian critique of Dooyeweerdian philosophy in his 1972 booklet The Amsterdam Philosophy.) Furthermore, Van Til did not agree with Dooyeweerd’s view that “theology was based on philosophy” (p. 173). Indeed, Van Til held the very opposite.

Meanwhile, Dooyeweerd accused Van Til of ‘rationalism’ for believing (among other things) that theological propositions can be deduced from Scripture (as Fesko himself notes: pp. 172, 187). Perhaps the fact that Van Til has been labeled a ‘rationalist’ by  Dooyeweerdians on one side and an ‘irrationalist’ by Clarkians on the other is evidence that Van Til’s epistemology reflects a properly balanced view of the relationship between human reason and divine revelation!

3. Dr. Fesko notes that Dooyeweerd was critical of some of the historic Reformed confessions, including the Westminster Confession of Faith:

According to Dooyeweerd, the Westminster Confession presented its anthropology in terms of a dualistic Thomistic-Aristotelian conception: body and soul. (p. 172)

This underscores another significant point of divergence between Dooyeweerd and Van Til. The latter never leveled such a criticism at the anthropology of the Westminster Confession; on the contrary, Van Til subscribed in good conscience to the Westminster Standards from the day of his ordination in the OPC in 1936. I’m not aware of any critical remarks from Van Til about either the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity being polluted by Thomistic dualism.

4. In the section criticizing Dooyeweerd’s “Calvin versus the Calvinists” claims, Fesko repeats the charge that Van Til “incorrectly identified scholasticism with rationalism” (p. 178). In response, I’ll simply direct readers to my previous comments on Van Til, Calvin, and scholasticism.

5. Dr. Fesko also refers again to the idea that Van Til held to a system based on a “central dogma” (p. 182). I previously addressed that claim in the entry on Worldview (see point 3 under “Comments”). It’s noteworthy that even when Fesko makes this claim, he can’t quite decide whether Van Til’s central dogma is the ontological Trinity (p. 182) or the self-attesting Christ of Scripture (p. 108). Could this difficulty in identifying Van Til’s central dogma be an indication that he didn’t actually have one?

6. The chapter’s main strategy in rebutting the “dualism critique” is to argue (1) that Dooyeweerd fails to recognize that not every distinction amounts to a dualism and (2) that classic Reformed theology does not in fact hold to any dualisms. On pp. 186-87, Fesko insists that neither the body-soul distinction nor the secular-sacred distinction should be considered dualisms, and in his closing paragraph he writes:

Any who want to claim that classic Reformed theology employs dualisms may do so, but they should ensure that their claims are accurate and supported by primary sources. (p. 192)

However, I suggest that Fesko has overstated matters here, particularly with respect to biblical anthropology. It is entirely apt to describe the Bible’s view of the human person as a body-soul dualism. Certainly the Bible doesn’t affirm the kind of Platonic dualism that Fesko describes earlier in the chapter (pp. 165-67). But it’s fair to say that the Bible teaches not only that humans are a composite of body and soul, but also that the human soul (indeed, the human person) can exist at least for a time apart from the body (Matt. 10:28; Luke 16:19-31; Luke 23:40-43; 2 Cor. 5:1-10; Rev. 20:4-6). This is also implicit in the Reformed confessions, which teach not only the resurrection of the body but also the intermediate state. Consider, for example, chapter 37 of the Belgic Confession:

For all the dead shall be raised out of the earth, and their souls joined and united with their proper bodies, in which they formerly lived.

Similarly, chapter 32 of the Westminster Confession:

1. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

2. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.

It’s hard to deny that this represents some form of dualism, albeit one affirming a higher view of the body and a greater unity of the human person than classical Platonism. Fesko favorably cites John W. Cooper’s Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting several times in this chapter. But the burden of Cooper’s book is to argue that the Bible reflects a dualist anthropology (what Cooper calls “holistic dualism” in contrast to other forms of dualism).

Moreover, Dr. Fesko expresses sympathy for a Thomistic anthropology. Yet contrary to what he claims (“Aquinas is neither a dualist nor physicalist”) Aquinas’s view is indeed a kind of dualism; specifically, an Aristotelian hylemorphic dualism, albeit modified (in a rather ad hoc fashion) to accommodate the Christian doctrines of the intermediate state and the resurrection. Regardless of whether Fesko endorses Aquinas’s view, it seems wrong to say that Scripture doesn’t affirm some kind of anthropological dualism. Indeed, the Bible not only teaches a distinction between body and soul; it also implies (as the WCF explicitly affirms) a temporary separation of body and soul. Thus, Fesko may unwittingly fall under his own condemnation when he chides Dooyeweerd for failing “to recognize the difference between true separations and distinctions” (p. 187). According to Scripture, body and soul can be separated, even if they are not meant to be separated. To be fair, Fesko acknowledges this point several times (e.g., p. 166), but the fact remains that even a temporary separation implies some form of body-soul dualism.

None of this means that Dooyeweerd’s “dualism critique” hits the target after all. Rather, it means we shouldn’t accept the initial supposition that all dualisms find their origins in pagan Greek philosophy rather than biblical revelation.

7. Lastly, I note that the chapter refers several times to a “sacred-secular” distinction (pp. 186-87, 192). I must confess that I can find no biblical support for such a distinction. Certainly the Bible recognizes a distinction between the civil sphere (state) and the ecclesiastical sphere (church), but that’s a rather different matter (unless we simply define ‘secular’ as ‘non-ecclesiastical’). I suppose that Dr. Fesko, being sympathetic to the “Reformed Two Kingdoms” view, is more sensitive to the charge of dualism here than I am. (For what it’s worth, some of my thoughts on the 1K/2K debate can be found here.)

So, to sum up: Dr. Fesko is quite right to criticize Dooyeweerd’s objections to classical Reformed theology as idiosyncratic, reductionistic, and historically unfounded. Nevertheless, I believe his response makes an unforced error in suggesting that the Bible doesn’t teach a body-soul dualism. Furthermore, Fesko’s attempt to connect Van Til with Dooyeweerd’s “dualism critique” fails to recognize the substantive differences between the two Dutchmen’s philosophies and their objections to Reformed Thomism. In short, there is nothing in this chapter that exposes any deficiencies in Van Tilian apologetics.

Next post: Reforming Apologetics (The Book of Nature and Apologetics)