The Concept Of A Worldview
The concept of a worldview is essential. Derived from the German Weltanschauung, the English noun denotes “a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.”1 Worldviews are like belly-buttons. Everyone has one. They are standard equipment. Everyone has some interpretation of the world, its meaning, of oneself, and of one’s relation to the world and everything in it. The question for the Christian is whether or not his worldview conforms to Scripture. One of the things that has increasingly made me skeptical about the way we often talk about worldview, however, is the eager adoption by American evangelicals of the heretofore Reformed language about worldviews and a Christian world life and view (hereafter CWLV).
Sometime in 1995 or 1996, in front of a crowded room of freshmen in a section of the course on Christ and culture at Wheaton College, I gave an impromptu talk about Kuyper’s distinction between the spheres. I was shocked by the response. The students acted as if we were in the desert and that I was the only water salesman. I also noticed a considerable degree of emphasis in the Christian colleges (including Wheaton) on statements on “integration of faith and learning.” Increasingly, faculty members and candidates for faculty positions were expected to develop a coherent statement explaining a distinctively Christian approach to a particular intellectual discipline.
One could see immediately the need to address this issue in some way. It would not do to have a student sit in a theology class at 10AM in which the Christian faith was propounded, and then to sit in an English class at 11AM in which the Christian faith was implicitly or explicitly denied. Addressing the issue, however, was not as easy as it might seem. Since, to that point, all my experience in the Reformed world had been Kuyperian (or perhaps neo-Kuyperian), I did not question the need for such statements; but I did struggle to write one. What exactly was distinctively Christian about my approach to history? Were some teachers denying the faith because of a non-Christian view of their discipline, or because of bad theology?
Over time, I realized that the problem was not English, history, or physics, but theology, and the assumption that there is a distinctively Christian approach to every discipline. The problem faced by school administrators was not that faculty were poor English teachers or poor practitioners of biology, but that faculty outside the theology department often had poor training in theology or effectively a non-Christian theology. Many Christian schools are effectively theologically pluralist, so they cannot come out and demand that all faculty adhere to one theological system or another (or to any!). Thus, they began to press for a CWLV in place of a coherent theological system.
Here is the rub. A CWLV is really just code for “a sound theology.” Failure to recognize this by evangelicals seeking to reinforce boundaries created a good deal of confusion. Many academics who are highly trained in specialized academic disciplines have only the most rudimentary, Sunday school grasp of the Christian faith. It is no wonder that administrators too often found faculty members effectively denying the faith in their disciplines: they might not have known what the faith is or even that they were denying it. Being highly trained in biology does not make one highly trained in Christology or the doctrine of God or even theological anthropology (the doctrine of humanity).
There is no question here whether there is a CWLV. There is certainly a Christian view of truth, reality, God, humans, Christ, sin, salvation, the church, sacraments, and last things. There is no question that the Christian faith provides a hermeneutical framework within which to interpret the world and one’s place in it. There is no question that, on this fundamental level, as Van Til said, there is either “theonomy” (meaning nothing more than “God’s authoritative self-disclosure”; it does not properly mean, “the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil code”) or “autonomy.”2
The problem comes when we try to transfer the authority of the Christian revelation and faith to mundane things. The faith tells us what farming means. The significance of farming is that it testifies to God’s providence and the mystery of his sovereign power in the world. The Christian faith also tells the farmer to what ends he farms: to the glory of God and the welfare of his neighbor. Nevertheless, as we saw last time, it is more difficult to say exactly what constitutes Christian farming.
In my “integration statement” I ended up not talking about what constitutes good historical method. Rather, I pointed out that the imperative to “integrate faith and life” seemed to assume a disintegration. So my integration statement was a failure because it began by questioning the very premise. It was really a statement of Christian eschatology more than a statement about historical method. Instead of talking about the past, I ended up talking about the future and divine sovereignty.
The problem became even more intense and practical when, a few years later at Westminster Seminary California, I began teaching the orientation seminar for the historical theology program. The first question we always face is the matter of a Christian approach to history. If the question is posed theologically, it is easy to answer. God is sovereign and nothing comes by chance; rather, everything comes from his fatherly hand, as it were. What else do you want to know? Is there a distinctively Christian approach to history? Is there a Christian historiography?
Well, if you mean, “May Christians appeal to their doctrine of providence to vindicate their interpretation of a given event?” the answer is no. A good doctrine of providence says not only that God sovereignly decrees all that happens but also that he executes his decree, in time, space, and history, through second causes, or agents and agencies. The concern of the historian is to tell the truth as best he can about how those agents and agencies operated and why. Yes, God’s sovereign good pleasure lay behind the Reformation, but it is not good theology to attempt to vindicate the theology of the Reformation by appealing to providence, because anyone who knows Reformed theology will point out that the Counter- (or Roman) Reformation was also the result of divine providence.
The Christian historian and the Christian farmer face the same dilemma: Is there, beyond soli Deo gloria and to the welfare of one’s fellows, a distinctively Christian way to farm or write history? Does the Christian historian know more (beyond his doctrine of providence) about the second causes or agents and agencies leading up to the Thirty-Years War than the Marxist or Freudian historians? One of my great problems with the Marxist and Freudian historians is that their theological overlay is so heavy that it often keeps them from doing good history. The Freudian knows a priori that Luther must have had a problem with childhood development—thus it is merely a question of figuring out which stage was incomplete, and presto, we have the explanation for the Reformation! The Marxist knows a priori that the Reformation was only a manifestation of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The Reformation is merely the story of elites oppressing the working class under the guise of religion. Is the Christian approach to history just another highly-charged competing ideology? Is the Christian view of history the “true” interpretation of providence? Wait a minute! I thought that good Reformed theology warns us against trying to interpret providence? Do we really know why God decreed that a man should be born blind or why he decreed that a tower should fall at Siloam?
- The Oxford English Dictionary s.v., “worldview.”
- Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (Philadelphia: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1971), 134.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.
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