There Is A Christian Worldview

WorldviewCarl Trueman has waded into the swamp that is the current discussion of transformationalism. In today’s post at Ref21 he clarifies his earlier post. He’s been raising some of the same questions that Darryl Hart and others have been raising for some time. Worldview is a funny thing. We all have one, they’re unavoidable but it’s not always clear that everyone is using the word in the same way at the same time.

These posts also discuss the closely related issue of transformationalism. The connection is this: It is often said that it is God’s plan to “transform” cultures or cultural enterprises and the key to this transformation is a Christian worldview. Sometimes a great deal has been claimed by advocates of a transformational ethic about what has been accomplished or, depending upon one’s eschatology, what shall be accomplished in future.

I sympathize with those who doubt the extravagant claims made by some advocates of transformationalism. In this regard reading James Bratt’s biography of Kuyper has been very illuminating. Kuyper was truly amazing but he was also truly human. He lived in a given time and place. He grew, he erred, and he sinned. He started as a Socinian, became a pietist, then became a confessional Reformed Christian, then fell into the Keswick error, repented of that (returning to a confessional view of piety) but also stopped attending Lord’s Day worship services, at least for a time, apparently out of frustration with Reformed preaching. Bratt’s discussion of this episode is quite brief and I’m not sure that I understand what happened. Instead of attending to worship, he wrote devotional articles for De Heraut.

Bratt’s biography also places Kuyper in his time and place. The Netherlands was (and remains) a very small place. The Netherlands are 16,000 square miles. Nebraska is 77,000 square miles. It is one thing to talk about a a pervasive, transforming Christian influence in a small country like the Netherlands. It is quite another to talk about transforming the United States (3.7 million square miles), in which one could fit the Netherlands about 250 times, the West, or even the world.

I’m still uncertain what it means to talk about Christian baking or Christian math or Christian hotels.  I understand what it means to say that Christians bake, do math, or operate hotels. These are good things and Christians should do them, i.e., they should fulfill their vocations to the glory of God and to the welfare of their neighbors. As I’ve argued here before it seems a little hyperbolic to append the adjective Christian to enterprises taken up by Christians that are shared by non-Christians. Are Christians, by virtue of their faith, better plumbers, bakers, or mathematicians than non-Christians? I don’t think so and it would seem to require us to reject or significantly modify Kuyper’s doctrine of Gemeene Gratie to say that they do. To be sure, I recognize that non-believers do not honor God with their lives or work but doesn’t our doctrine of providence teach us that they, despite their rebellion to God, produce things and services of temporal value? Their lives testify against them, that they are image bearers and rebels and that’s the point. Their rebellion doesn’t obliterate their status as creative image bearers.

To raise questions about the rhetoric used by some transformationalists is not to doubt that God is active in the world. To deny that is deism. No Christian may doubt that God is transforming something or someone. There is abundant testimony in Scripture that God is transforming his people into his image and that transforming work does have a real, if not always observable, effect on his people and, in turn, on other people and endeavors. One difficulty may lie with the assumption that we can know or perceive the quality or quantity of the transformation. At this point we’re not really discussing whether God is at work or even how but what we can know and behind that lies a distinction between what Luther, Calvin (see esp. Herman Selderhuis’ outstanding treatment of Calvin on the Psalms), deBres, and others called the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.

The theology of glory manifests itself in a variety of ways, e.g., in moralism, the notion that we can cooperate with grace sufficiently in order to present ourselves to God on the basis of our sanctification. That’s the medieval and current Romanist view. It also manifests itself in the Anabaptist idea of a glorious age on the earth before Christ returns. The Second Helvetic Confession (1561/1566) says,

We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.

Some presentations of transformationalism seem to breathe more than a little of this over-realized eschatology. Christ is Lord over all right now and when Christ returns, all things will be reconciled, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord but not until then.

So, as such discussions often do, this one really seems to pivot on definitions. No orthodox Christian denies transformation. We confess that God the Spirit is transforming his people. Yet, Reformed folk deny entire sanctification and our eschatology ought to follow the analogy. We should be appropriately restrained about our expectations for cultural transformation.

Likewise we should recognize that there are different definitions of “worldview” in play. When Trueman says that there are lots of Christian worldviews, he is speaking historically. That’s true. A worldview is an expression of a theology and there are many theologies and thus many worldviews. Typically, however, advocates of a “Christian worldview” are not speaking descriptively or historically but prescriptively or theologically. Just as Reformed folk argue that there “the Christian faith” or “the Christian doctrine of God” teaches this or that, so advocates of a Christian worldview are saying that there is a truly Christian way to view the world.

I agree with this. If one posits that God, in his nature and in the nature of things, cannot know the future contingent acts of humans that is a sub-Christian view, contrary to the holy catholic faith—not just the Reformed confession. Such a view will necessarily lead to a sub-Christian view of the world. If one posits that Christ has but one will (monothelitism), that heretical Christology will contribute to a sub-Christian worldview.

Still, we have not defined “worldview.” By it I mean the matrix or the lens through which a Christian arrives at an interpretation of the meaning of facts as we experience them. Calvin (Institutes 1.6.1—see pp. 8–10 of this essay for references) wrote of our need of aid a specillum, a magnifying glass or a corrective lens to enable us to make sense of what we’re seeing. In the broad sense there is a Christian worldview shared by everyone who confesses the holy catholic faith as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. The Reformed confessions flesh out the implications of Scripture and the catholic creeds more fully and consistently with Scripture than other views, so we may draw a second, smaller circle within the first.

The Christian worldview (matrix or lens) is a web of convictions or presuppositions from or through which we interpret God’s World. That lens is formed by God’s Word as confessed by the churches. The Word is the norm without any norms (sola scriptura). That Word is received and confessed by the churches. We might say that the catholic creeds are like reading glasses and the Reformed confessions are like prescription lenses, more precise, clearer, more powerful.

Thus, as we look at or experience God’s World we seek to interpret it, i.e., assign meaning or significance to it we do so in obedience to God’s Word and in conformity to the Christian and Reformed account of that Word. Does this process of interpreting God’s World through this lens formed by Scripture and confession mean that we all will arrive at precisely the same conclusions on every issue? No, not at all. It should, one would think, produce a range of views within which a Christian interpretation of reality will fall just as Scripture, the creeds, and Reformed confessions should produce certain limits to what Christians can say about God, man, salvation etc. Within boundaries, however, there will be some diversity, especially since, there are different people, in different places and times, applying the matrix to the world or interpreting the world through the lenses.

Finally, we should also recognize that the churches do not confess particular outcomes of this process of interpreting God’s world through the lens of Scripture and confession. Insofar as the lens (or matrix) is constituted by the Christian faith then, arguably, we confess the lens or matrix but the outcomes are less certain. This is not a counsel of skepticism or despair but it is caution against assuming that every one of us will arrive at the same conclusions to which we’re all supposed to be bound under the rubric of worldview.

10 comments

  1. Dear Pastor Clark,

    In researching amillennialism I read “Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom” by David J. Engelsma. He also authored a short critique of the concept of common grace (which seems similar to transformationalism) in the book, “Common Grace Revisited”.

    The information provided was personally helpful in thinking through these issues. Thank you so much for taking the time to articulate these matters. Blessings to your ministry, charisse

  2. If you haven’t heard of Christian baking, check out Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Gresham, Oregon. You may have heard that the Bureau of Labor and Industries there is contemplating whether this bakery has violated the “human rights” of a certain lesbian couple.

    If you haven’t heard of Christian hotels, check out the Swiss Bed and Breakfast in Cookham, Berkshire. You may have heard that they recently lost their appeal to withhold service to a gay couple.

    If you haven’t heard of Christian photography, check out the recent case of Elane Photography at the New Mexico Supreme Court. You may have heard that they recently lost their case to withhold service to a lesbian couple.

    Certainly artistic expression goes further than the selection of one’s client, but it’s a part.

    As to Christian mathematics, check out Poythress. Beyond him, there’s a body of literature there for those who will dig; it’s not huge, and it’s not exactly popular, but it’s there. Even top-flight secular historians of mathematics write about the religious aspects in the origins of mathematics. You could check out the Pythagoreans and Plato, and from the twentieth century, Lakatos and Wittgenstein. There is a reason why the philosophy of mathematics is a serious discipline.

    Please do not stereotype mathematics as disconnected from big ideas.

    • Phillip,

      I’m aware of some of the cases against Sweet Cakes. I’ve documented it here. Ditto re Elane photography. Check out this category. These cases are a cause for real concern.

      Doesn’t your post beg the question? Aren’t you assuming what has to be proved? Melissa is a Christian baker but when she bakes, she does so like everyone else. There aren’t special rules for Christian bakers (e.g., their cakes don’t bake 35% faster because they are Christians). Thus, my claim is that what distinguishes Melissa et al from non-Christian bakers and photographers is not what they do but why they do it (to the glory of God and the well being of their neighbor), and how they interpret the significance of baking or photography.

      I’m familiar with the Poythress article. I read it 25 years ago. That’s why I use that example. I understand that there is advanced philosophy behind math and, to the degree that one gets closer to ultimate issues—math is closer to basic assumptions than baking is—then we do move from second order questions to first order or more fundamental questions.

      Nevertheless, it still seems that math does what it does because God has established the world and an an order. Both the Christian and the non-Christian mathematician are doing the same thing. There aren’t special rules for Christians or for non-Christians even though Christians and non-Christians interpret the significance of mathematic operations and formulae differently.

    • I should add that I do appreciate this post. The verbiage used by some, suggest that there is no biblical world and life view, which, in my mind is the same thing as saying that there is no biblical systematic theology. I was glad to see that you made that point, and, I am sure, much better than I could have.

      Having heard so many negative things about theonomists in seminary, after I graduated, I read some theonomist literature. The biggest surprise was to see that the profs who condemned them for thinking that the kingdom would come in by means of the ballot box evidently never read the literature for themselves.

      In every piece of theonomistic/Christian Reconstruction literature that I have read, there is complete unity in the argument that a Christian Reconstruction of society will be and can only be accomplished by the preaching of the gospel, and training the converted in the commandments of the Lord.

      I’m not a theonomist, but I don’t think any of us should have an objection to the idea that the gospel changes the way people live, and if large numbers of people are changed, and are salt and light, then culture can be changed as well.

Comments are closed.