Of Worldviews And Christian Liberty

WorldviewThere is no question that there is a Christian worldview. There is a Christian way of interpreting reality, of ascribing meaning to creation. There is a Christian faith that forms the grid or the lenses through which Christians are to interpret God’s world. Nevertheless, the word “worldview” is a relatively recent term in the Christian vocabulary. One does not find the classic Reformed writers speaking about a Christian “worldview.” Our English word derives from the German Weltanschauung and that term has its origins in German idealist philosophy. There is nothing wrong with Christian borrowing. We’ve been doing it for a very long time, going back to Moses’ appropriation of ANE forms and the Apostle John’s appropriation of the Greek philosophical term λογος (logos) in John 1 (and in 1John. The writer to the Hebrews used it too). The question is always whether, when we borrow, we’re redefining (as in the Biblical examples) or whether we are bringing philosophical baggage along with the term. It is possible to borrow terms and leave the old clothes out of the suitcase. The biblical writers did it and so did the Council of Nicea. The term homoousios (ομοουσιος) is another example. This term had, as people sometimes say about their relationship history, a complicated past. The Arians and the advocates of compromise weren’t the only ones who were a little wary of its use. Nevertheless, synod found that, properly understood, it was the best way to articulate what Scripture says about the relations between the Son and the Father. He is consubstantial with the Father.

So it is with the term “worldview.” Jason Wallace teaches at Samford University and he’s writing a series of posts on “worldview” at A Place For Truth. He gives a helpful overview of the roots of the term in German idealism. He argues that 19th century Reformed and evangelical writers borrowed from German idealism. That seems fair enough, even though there have been writers who have argued that borrowing did not involve any actual influence by idealism on the writer being defended (e.g., C. Van Til).

I agree that the Enlightenment shook confidence in the possibility of knowing and that crisis did make the appropriation of idealism attractive and arguably still does. Idealism means that one doesn’t have to pay as much attention to the particular, to facts, to history. I’ve encountered this attitude frequently among erstwhile defenders of the faith. There were, nevertheless, those who persisted in insisting that the Kantian critique wasn’t convincing. They refused to give up the older conviction, universal among the Reformed orthodox, that, in the providence of God, human sense perception is generally reliable. Not everyone was crushed by Kant and Hegel.

Further, I don’t quite agree that “Greek metaphysics” was received or appropriated in the Christian tradition in quite the way Wallace seems to be suggesting. My reading tells me that the Christian use of “the Greeks” (e.g., Plato) was mixed. Certainly Plato exercised considerable influence, acknowledged and unacknowledged, prior to the Reformation but I’ve learned to be careful about how to articulate that influence. Not that Wallace is doing this, but it is common for evangelicals (e.g., advocates of Open Theism) to write off the entire tradition before the Reformation (and even including the Reformation) as totally corrupted by “Greek” ideas (without saying which and how). This is a common ploy. Poison the well of orthodoxy and then, in the case of the advocates of Open Theism, offer a neo-Socinian alternative as if it just spring spontaneously out of the fire, er, Scriptures.

I’m also not sure that I agree with the way Wallace characterizes the attitude of the Reformed orthodox (he writes about English “Puritans,” a term that is at least as complicated as our term evangelical today) toward commonality with unbelievers. He seems to suggest that the Reformed before Kuyper were naive about what Kuyper called “the antithesis” between belief and unbelief. If I’m reading Wallace correctly, I disagree. They tended to talk about what came to be known as “common grace” (Gemeene Gratie) under the heading of providence. Much of the period from Calvin to the end of Reformed orthodoxy (1564–1720) was a transitional period. Those movements that came to be known as the Enlightenment (which varied from place to place) began to take shape as some impulses within the Renaissance morphed into anti-Christian rationalism and skepticism. So the more developed vocabulary that appeared in the 19th century did not yet exist but the Reformed were certainly aware that something was afoot and some of them (e.g., Gijsbertus Voetius) combatted it quite vigorously in a way that would have made Kuyper and Van Til proud (even though CVT erroneously and mysteriously called Voetius a “rationalist”).

I’ve been meditating on this section of the last paragraph for about a week:

Believers are obligated to transform their outward conditions in light of their redeemed mode of knowing. Explicit scriptural warrant is unnecessary for action because all of life, not just worship and one’s individual behavior, fall under scriptural warrant. Where earlier Reformation theology, following both Augustine and Aquinas, distinguished redemptive history and history, cult and culture, and the already but not yet of Christ’s presence, worldview theology united them into a tidy ideological package that could meet, or at least try to meet, the modern world on its own philosophical terms.

I cannot discern whether Wallace is being prescriptive or merely descriptive (I’m assuming the latter) but this passage summarizes both some of the attractions of “worldview” and some of its dangers. “Worldview” as a rhetorical tool, as a strategic move, and as a rallying cry to respond to modernity has been used call its adherents to transformational stance with respect to the surrounding culture. Of course, there were Christians, with a Christian worldview in the Patristic period and one finds no such transformational imperative. The same seems to be true of the apostolic period. This is why it’s important not to dismiss the pre-Reformation traditions as corrupted by “Greek” thought. When we do that we fail to learn from them and the only options left to us are those crafted in the 19th century. There was a great lot of good done in the 19th century but there were dangers there too. Hegel is no friend to Christianity nor to a genuinely Christian worldview.

I quite agree that the Reformation distinguished cult (church and worship) and culture (everything else) even if I doubt that we can easily associate that distinction with Thomas as Wallace seems to do. Certainly that relationship is more easily claimed than demonstrated. They distinguished between cult and culture because of their general agreement that God has a “twofold government” in the world, in which believers, under the Lordship of Christ, have distinct responsibilities. That’s not Thomas. That’s Paul.

The most troubling sentence in the whole post is this one: “Explicit scriptural warrant is unnecessary for action because all of life, not just worship and one’s individual behavior, fall under scriptural warrant.”

I think I understand what Wallace is saying and there is a sense in which, if he’s writing descriptively about the attraction of the idea of “worldview,” he is correct. I agree that it is liberating to be freed from having to justify moral imperatives from Scripture but therein lies a great problem. The Reformation rejected this very way of proceeding. One of the most important elements of the Reformation agenda was the recovery of the biblical and early Christian doctrine of Christian liberty. Over against the Essenes and other Judaizing elements, the orthodox fathers defended the freedom of the Christian from excessive entanglement in the Mosaic ceremonial legislation. They drew typologies from it but not particular Christian moral obligations. The Reformers freed the Western church from the legalism of the Roman calendar and the Roman corruption of the sacraments and restored to the churches the biblical doctrine of the Freedom of the Christian Man (Luther) over against Canon Law.

It is true that we might not need a proof text for everything we do. The Reformed, beginning at least with Calvin, argued that church orders, e.g., did have be proof-texted so long as they were relatively brief (over against Canon Law) and clearly derived from Scripture. Church orders also had only a tertiary authority. Scripture alone is the un-normed norm. Confession is a the church’s official summary of its understanding of Scripture on essential topics and then comes church order as an attempt to live out that understanding of Scripture in the life of the church.

Nevertheless, for the sake of Christian freedom, the liberty to obey God alone as he has revealed himself in Scripture, in worship and in the Christian life (“here I stand”), the Protestants, and especially the Reformed articulated the principle that if we’re to be obligated to do something as a matter of Christian duty, it must have stronger warrant than “worldview.” It must be a “good and necessary consequence” from God’s Word.

This is why WCF 1.6 says:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

Someone is always seeking to bind our consciences to some great idea or grand plan or even to the latest revelation. People are entitled try to persuade us but they cannot bind our consciences unless they can show us from God’s Word that something is true. When I say, “show us” I mean, “persuade the visible church that confesses the Word of God together.” That’s the beauty of the confession. It protects your liberty against my big idea and my liberty against your big idea.

There is a Christian worldview and Christian liberty is an essential part of it even if it slows down the transformation of the culture.

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  1. Common and similar to worldview nowadays is the notion that social transformation be rooted somehow in the “Gospel.” It, however, like worldview, can be problematic. I have found multiple understandings of what is meant by gospel by evangelicals including those from Reformed backgrounds. For some, pretty much anything good or helps your neighbor gets labeled “gospel.” This can include anything from acts motivated by the love of Christ, to group welfare such as socialized medicine. That’s why the ideas articulated in WCF 1:6 is so vital.

  2. I can’t call myself much of a Plato scholar, but from what I’ve read of his works (in which, of course, he uses Socrates as his mouthpiece), I think I know why Plato had a large influence on Christian thinking.

    Plato was a huge critic of the traditional Athenian pantheon, but he believed there had to be some sort of bigger God out there. Further, in _Gorgias_(a dialogue on the nature of justice), his (again, Socrates as mouthpiece) only answer to Kallikles’ assertion that the tyrant is the happiest of men is that we face a judgment after death. Hence, I suspect that a lot of the Greek fathers, if acquainted with Plato, saw in him a a kindred spirit, and perhaps wondered if through him the God and Father of Jesus Christ hadn’t given some premonition of truth to their pre-Christian forefathers. By the same token, in the 16th century, the humanist-cum-Reformer Huldrych Zwingli held that Plato had somehow been informed by Moses and the Prophets.

  3. The agonizing over defining Christian worldview might be at least slightly relieved if the older (and more biblical) category were instead used–faith. It may seem a trifling linguistic point, but it does seem like the former term is a function of being a bit more concerned with the cares of this world than is warranted, while faith inherently seems to be a category properly fixed on the world to come. And where a Christian worldview has overlap with other worldly views, Christian faith implies an antithesis.

    • Well said, Steve. People throw around the “w . . v . .” term so much, I’m not sure it has any coherent definition anymore. Why not just talk about the “Christian faith”? I’m going to start plugging my ears the next time I hear “w . . v . .” mentioned.

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