Sphere Sovereignty

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From the Wikipedia:

"In neo-Calvinism, sphere sovereignty (Dutch: soevereiniteit in eigen kring), also known as differentiated responsibility, is the concept that each sphere (or sector) of life has its own distinct responsibilities and authority or competence, and stands equal to other spheres of life. Sphere sovereignty involves the idea of an all encompassing created order, designed and governed by God. This created order includes societal communities (such as those for purposes of education, worship, civil justice, agriculture, economy and labor, marriage and family, artistic expression, etc.), their historical development, and their abiding norms. The principle of sphere sovereignty seeks to affirm and respect creational boundaries, and historical differentiation.

Sphere sovereignty implies that no one area of life or societal community is sovereign over another. Each sphere has its own created integrity. Neo-Calvinists hold that since God created everything “after its own kind,” diversity must be acknowledged and appreciated. For instance, the different God-given norms for family life and economic life should be recognized, such that a family does not properly function like a business. Similarly, neither faith-institutions (e.g. churches) nor an institution of civil justice (i.e. the state) should seek totalitarian control, or any regulation of human activity outside their limited competence, respectively.

The concept of sphere sovereignty became a general principle in European countries governed by Christian democratic political parties, who held it as an integral part of their ideology. The promotion of sphere sovereignty by Christian democrats led to the creation of corporatist welfare states throughout the world."



by Gregory Baus:

"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.

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.

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."


More information



* Article: Three Rival Versions of Political Enquiry: Althusius and the Concept of Sphere Sovereignty. By M.R.R. Ossewaarde.

URL = https://academic.oup.com/monist/article-abstract/90/1/106/995615?redirectedFrom=fulltext

M.R.R. Ossewaarde:

"The central argument of this paper is that while the principle of subsidiarity is grounded in Aristotelian metaphysics of the hierarchical part-whole relationship and the social and political nature of man, Althusius’ metaphysics is grounded on the Calvinist metaphysics that each association must fulfill its given responsibilities assigned to it according to its calling. Althusius introduces his own intellectual alternative to subsidiarity and sovereignty, which has become known as sphere sovereignty (Dooyeweerd 1950; Van der Vyver 1996). Althusius developed his concept not only as a critique of Bodin’s concept of sovereignty, but also as an alternative to scholasticism. Not only does Althusius reject the Bodinian idea of establishing a sovereign state by human or political will, as a social contract, but he also rejects the scholastic idea of community (communio).

This paper seeks to examine both the judicial and philosophical meaning of sphere sovereignty, in particular the nature of the “spheres” that Althusius calls “symbiotic associations”. The aim of this paper is to discuss sphere sovereignty in relation to the alternative ordering principles of sovereignty and of subsidiarity, in order to arrive at a better understanding of “Althusius’ rival version”."

Kuyper and Dooyeweerd

* Article: Dooyeweerd's Conception of Societal Sphere Sovereignty. by Gregory Baus.

URL = https://sites.google.com/site/spheresovereignty/

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

" 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."