January 19, 2021

Sundays with Michael Spencer: August 30, 2015


The evangelical notion of Christians thinking “worldview-ishly” goes back, in my experience, to the first edition of James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door. I have read the book in all four editions, have used it with students and frequently recommended it to others. I continue to find the book, when understood rightly, useful.

The notion of “worldview” has, however, taken on a life far beyond Sire’s idea of a basic set of questions that represent a diagnostic and descriptive way of summarizing presuppositions and beliefs. In books such as Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth, “worldview” has come to be a major movement of evangelicals describing the total Christian faith as it is expressed in a comprehensive approach to all of life. According to Pearcey, the Christian worldview, for instance, has a distinctive approach to science, math or economics. Understanding and advocating this “total truth” approach to the diversity of life is a primary concern of many serious Christians who desire that Christ be Lord of everything in their lives.

Today, the term “worldview” is frequently synonymous with Christianity itself. It is not at all unusual to hear Christians say, “My Christian worldview teaches me that abortion is wrong,” or “The Christian worldview advocates limited government.”

My contention is that the term “worldview,” while useful as a summary of major components of the faith, is a poor and deeply flawed term for the sum total of the faith.

My first and primary concern is that “worldview” thinking may obscure the fact that God has inspired a book in the form of a narrative. The Bible is a story, and it is in Biblical narratives that much of the Bible’s message is conveyed. While these narratives are the subject of didactic passages — such as Genesis 1-3 interpreted in Romans 1 — the narratives cannot be reduced to an “inspired worldview.”

I am further concerned that worldview thinking may see the Bible as a collection of topical texts, and the literary genres of the Bible may become an unwelcome obstacle to boiling down scripture to “worldview” statements.

I am also concerned that the tendency in evangelicalism is to move far beyond Sire’s approach to a much more detailed assumption that there is a Biblical worldview answer to every question. This seems to be particularly true with the rise of the “Culture Warrior” Christian who wants verses to support his/her conservative political agenda. Does the Christian worldview have an answer to tax policy? To the future of Taiwan? To the minimum wage? It appears that many Christians think so.

I believe that the Christian “worldview” is best expressed as a kind of “F.A.Q.” or list of frequently asked questions. In this regard, I think it is hard to surpass Sire’s very limited use of “worldview” thinking for apologetic, missional and evangelistic purposes. I use the idea of Sire’s eight questions as a “grid” for students to compare belief systems in shorthand. (Even with this, it is important to say that I doubt other belief systems would be in agreement with much of what is said about them in Christian worldview analysis.)

When “worldview advocacy” begins to assert that there are specific and clear verses in the Bible that tell us what to think, do, and vote on every topic, we are in danger of the Bible being turned into a kind of topical encyclopedia of subjects, with verses being removed from context and questions being inserted that Biblical writers never conceived of answering.

I do believe that if the Christian faith is approached correctly, we can “take steps back” from almost any subject to a place where the Bible does speak clearly on a larger subject. But this does not mean that the Bible will dictate a position on every smaller topic. So, for example, there are no Biblical passages on the minimum wage, but there are Biblical principles of loving neighbor, doing justice, fair compensation and recognizing the value of work.

For me, this means that Christians who are in agreement on broad Biblical categories — like justice, for example — may disagree on what is a just way to help New Orleans or solve a crisis in health care. I see the Biblical worldview as a shorthand version of systematic theology, stressing particular aspects of Christian belief that are clearly taught across the whole Biblical narrative. In that “house” of constructed theology taken out of the Biblical narrative, we have the freedom to make choices on issues according to reason, and are not compelled by the Bible to every position we might hold.

So while I agree that the term worldview is useful, I am concerned about the current “worldview” movement and I am not supportive of much of what I hear from those who frequently use the language of “worldview” to make it appear that the Bible is a far different book than it actually is. The idea that the Bible speaks with specificity on all topics of interest to the politically active, culture warrior Christian is farfetched. We have a story that tells us about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From that story, we can make and draw conclusions, but if we begin justifying our support for positions by misusing the Bible, we do not represent the faith well.


  1. Our culture has built an appetite for the processed, packaged and the instant and scriptural analysis has not always escaped that bent. Make it easy. Spell it simply. Dispel the boredom of mundanity or complexity. I want my burger now. This dread of fine tuning largely explains the embarrassing Trump phenomenon. Here is a guy with nothing more than a pile of money and, because that much money insulates one from the harsh consequences of stupidity and failure, a big boorish bag of eighth grade bravado. I’m bigger than you. I’m stronger than you. I’m the best cuz I have the most. I’m not afraid to be politically incorrect. Well that’s just fabulous Don. Now say anything of actual substance. Now propose a policy that’s real life. The reason I’m even bringing this up is because his popularity is rooted in the same psychology. Unthinking. Unquestioning. Bravado. Don’t ask pointed questions because the whole thing could topple. The same culture seeks strength in facile doctrines that stealthily leapfrog the cross and take comfort under a group-think banner and every one of us is subject to it on a daily basis. Shallow and formulaic becomes normal.

  2. For all of the effort by american evangelicalism to define and propagate a comprehensive “worldview”, it sure has embraced some gaping holes in it… which I would propose as a reason behind the rise of the nones or other reaction moves away from or against general american evangelicalism. ChrisS mentions the Donald… good case in point. Something is wrong with your worldview if you can seamlessly and unironically roll this guy into it…
    In the past, some red flags for me was that worldview’s (the one Michael is describing and questioning) acceptance of going to war on flimsy to non-existent bases… or that worldview’s attitude towards torture. More recently it’s been the antipathy towards healthcare reform…I understand the current “reform” has issues, but come on “christian” people…the sense I get constantly from people with a “christian” worldview is that any reform is bad – that letting those who can’t afford it, suffer without it or else they should come to our churches and then maybe they’ll get it (but good luck with that because maintaining our institutions and houses of entertainment would probably trump those needs) Seriously? There is something inherently sick and degraded if that’s what your worldview leads you to…

    • Christiane says

      Why would Republican women support the Donald after some of his openly misogynist statements, an example being an attempt to humiliate Megyn Kelly with the ‘blood’ thing, and more recently, the attack on the credibility of the rather awesome Huma Abedin who is a long-time political aide to Hillary ?

      IF, by some freak of chance, Donald should become the choice of Republican presidential candidate, I’m wondering if Republican women have all swallowed the Kool-Aide dished out by them what led Anna Duggar into her unenviable and pitiable situation. I know many women in the fundamentalist-evangelical camp are influenced by patriarchy even with all the stress placed on wives (and daughters), but outright abusive language is a huge red light that any woman with any dignity left can recognize and at least ponder as to what the future of women would be like under such a political leader. Republican women can’t say they weren’t warned by those attacks, and if they have half the character I would want them to have, I don’t think they could support someone who made those attacks publicly . . . I cannot imagine another woman voting for someone who has expressed such open contempt, although I once heard a co-worker say her husband forced her to vote Republican, which shocked me at the time. (Her husband recently left her for another woman which says a lot in itself.)

      • Awesome Huma ? Her only claim to fame is being married to the big weener as HIllary stayed with big BIll. She will probably wind up in prison with HIllary as a cell mate. I can’t stand the Donald but neither can I stand HIllary ( I’m above the law ) Clinton.

        • Christiane says

          I’m Catholic and I’m supporting Hillary for President. Who else is so qualified?

          • Patrick Kyle says

            The woman is a criminal. And not just because of the latest dust up over non secure servers. I’m talking FBI files on adversaries that magically turn up on a table in her office. Missing documents and emails. Receiving donations to her private Trust from foreign dignitaries while holding office as Secretary of State. Changing narrative on the Benghazi fiasco. Whitewater debacle. The tactic of refusing to address scandal or tough questions by remaining silent and letting a few news cycles run by and taking advantage of the public’s short attention span. She and Bill make Nixon look like a choir boy.

          • What does being Catholic have to do with supporting HIllary. I am also Catholic and not. I am not sure what your point is ?

          • Christiane says

            I stand by my statement. I am a Catholic. AND I support Hillary for President. Some folks are told by their pastors that they cannot vote Democratic and still be considered Christians. I am not in that predicament. As for supporting Hillary, I’ve taken a good look at what is out there and I have no problem backing someone who is intelligent, experienced, and knows what she is getting in to.

            One example of the nut jobs running for President has just announced that he would want to put a wall up all along the 5000+ mile U.S./Canadian border. Come on, folks, take a look at what’s out there and think a little bit about the consequences of putting some of those crazies in the White House . . .

            I do appreciate people in this country evaluating who they want to vote for and having the choice to vote. But I also know this: our media is not going to make it easy to do the evaluating so folks have to dig a little deeper to find out what is true and what is not true about a candidate. I’m for Hillary, but I respect that others may not be. I just hope after the dust of the coming election season clears, we have someone in office with experience and smarts . . . and something else: respect for the dignity of the human person, no matter what their situation is.

          • Patrick Kyle says

            Hillary is militantly pro abortion. Why would you support that by voting for her?

          • #feelthebern

          • Christiane says

            Hi PATRICK,
            In 2012, the US Council of Catholic Bishops came out against the Republican Party’s budget proposals as something that would cause further harm to the poor and the marginalized people in our country. The Nuns On The Bus took this same case to the people and 51 % of the Catholic vote went Democratic in that Presidential election.

            I think it is possible to ‘see through’ the Republican ‘anti-abortion’ stance as political maneuvering. And they are pretty good at it. But I’m not a one-issue voter, Patrick. Too many people have sold their souls to the Republican Party thinking they are ‘God’s party’, but I don’t think they are at all. They have used people of faith to win votes and gain power, and in 2012 they would have really used the Ryan budget plan to injure people that my Church feels are already suffering and in need of help.

            Abortion? I don’t personally believe in it. But I know one thing: had that Ryan plan come to fruition in a Republican administration, you would have seen a lot more abortions as poor working class women found themselves more bereft of hope. There are ways to help end abortions, one woman at a time, but they are not going to be by threatening or punishing or denying help, no. And most honest people will agree with me that what will help is going to be a monumental outreach to the working poor in our country, particularly the women who have no one to help them raise their children . . . that’s why I can vote Democratic . . . no problem . . . I see the abortion issue from the side of those women and I know that voting for Hillary means less despair for poor working women. ‘Abortion’ is a symptom of deep despair in many women. Time to think about what REALLY is effective in the lives of women facing the crossroads of choosing between life and death . . . trust me, it’s not what Republican’s are promising.

        • Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump = the Devil, or the deep blue sea.

          • The media keep pointing out to us that Hillary Clinton’s not the first Secretary of State, or government official, to use one e-mail account for both personal and official messages, despite that being against regulations; it keeps omitting to point out that she is the only one to actually have a server for this account built and installed in her own home (one of her homes, that is). That means that, to get access to the records of those messages, any official investigation has to get her to hand them over, which gives her unprecedented control in maintaining, or degrading, the integrity of those records. I would hate to see such a control freak with Presidential prerogatives and powers.

            And then there’s Trump….

            Lord, have mercy.

  3. Is this still a thing? This is probably the most dated or anachronistic piece of Michael’s that you’ve posted, in my opinion. It could be due to the fact that I’ve dropped out of active participation in the fundagelical circus, but this just seems so ten years ago.

    My hope is that a pursuit of a Christian worldview is a byproduct of a subset of the culture that still subscribes to publications from the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, has been following Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter very closely, and is really worried about who the Republicans are going to nominate with respect to winning the Culture War. Recent Supreme Court rulings seem to indicate that the Culture War that was waged for 25 years beginning in the mid 80’s has been “lost” and we are now in an era where fundagelicals need to evaluate how well their methods worked at achieving their aims. Instead of doubling down, maybe it’s time to fold up that tent and take the circus elsewhere.

    But that’s my opinion as a mostly non-participant.

    • Oh, they’ll never not double down. That would require admitting you were wrong about something, and once you start that, oh, the slippery slope…..

    • Is this still a thing?… It could be due to the fact that I’ve dropped out of active participation in the fundagelical circus, but this just seems so ten years ago.

      For most evangelicals, it probably is in their rearview mirror (if it was ever alongside them in the first place). But for the Neo-Reformed/YRR/ultra-culture-warrior camp, it’s very much still a going concern.

      the Culture War that was waged for 25 years beginning in the mid 80’s has been “lost” and we are now in an era where fundagelicals need to evaluate how well their methods worked at achieving their aims.

      I agree. The problem here – and it is the Achilles’ heel of this entire misconception of “worldview” – is that they have bought into a package deal. Once you define “worldview” as “a total conception AND application of ideas describing and guiding ALL aspects of life” – once you have defined what that worldview’s ethical and behavioral rules are, you *can’t back down*. It’s the “seamless cloth” where you can’t tear one piece away without ruining the whole. This is why Neo-Reformed say complementarianism is a “Gospel” issue, why YECers put the acceptance of dinosaurs in Eden as an essential of faith. It’s all part of the Jenga tower of their worldview, and if you pull one too many sticks it will come crashing down.

    • Oh, it’s still massively important. Lots of people will still talk for hours about what the “Christian worldview” is…

      And yet never look critically at the fruit of their worldview.

      Because “truth”.

    • This is still a thing. Fortunately not in the circles of evangelicalism where I hang out, but there are way too many places in evangelicalism where people are all about this sort of worldview thinking. The Neo-Reformed, with their view of complementarianism as a Gospel issue. The YEC-ers, who see dinosaurs in Eden as a Gospel issue. (Incidentally, many Neo-Reformed are also in the YEC camp.). The homeschooling movement, as we learned from the Duggar thing. And many other churches where the Sunday sermon closely matches the weekly RNC talking points.

      Evangelicals may have lost the culture war, but don’t expect any of those who are actively involved to admit it. As noted above, that would require somebody to admit they were wrong.

      • Christiane says

        Hi JOE,
        ” The YEC-ers, who see dinosaurs in Eden as a Gospel issue. (Incidentally, many Neo-Reformed are also in the YEC camp.).”

        There is a 9 Marks Church in our area that has YEC as one of the pillars of their doctrinal statement. I think you are right about this, particularly among Southern Baptist neo-reformed.

        • It still baffles me that some make YEC a hill to plant a flag and die on. When, how and why did this happen?

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      I noticed on Facebook that another pastor is starting a sermon series called “Worldview” this weekend.

      I don’t know if he is planning on using the term in an apologetic use (like Sire) or like is described in the post. I have the feeling it will be more of the latter.

  4. “I use the idea of Sire’s eight questions as a “grid” for students to compare belief systems in shorthand.”

    FYI, from an Amazon review, here’s the list:
    1. What is prime reality? – This question gets to the foundation of what a worldview understands to be the foundation of reality. For Sire this is the first and foundational question that must be answered before the other seven.
    2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us? – This looks at whether we see the world around us as created or autonomous, material or immaterial, etc.
    3. What is a human being? – For instance, are people made in the image of God or just a machine?
    4. What happens to a person at death? – This looks at options like extinction, reincarnation or transfer to a higher state of existence.
    5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? – Answers include being created in the image of God or just the result of an evolutionary process.
    6. How do we know what is right and wrong? – This explores whether morality is determined by people and culture or if there is a transcendent objective moral law that does not change.
    7. What is the meaning of human history? – Does it have a purpose and if so what is it?
    8. What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview? – Each different worldview will require a person to believe and life certain things in order to be consistent with it.

  5. Dan Crawford says

    I am one of those who was not impressed with Sire’s book when I read it more than 25 years ago. His characterization and classification of certain thinkers leave much to be desired, but the notion of “worldview” has elements worth considering.

    • Context, Context.

      Sire’s writings came at a time when we started to see the American intellectual landscape change from predominantly Judeo-Christian moorings to more of a smorgasboard. Sire was trying to make sense of it, particularly for University students.

      It has helped me realise that thought tends to coalesce into systems that have some degree of internal consistency. It also helped me to see that my professors thought in predictable patterns. A naturalist will tend to interpret from that framework. Post modern will tend to be suspicious of universal narratives.

      For me it has been frustrating to see what happens to perfectly good ideas when a spin is put on them.

  6. Am I correct in assuming that the right answer to the first of Sire’s questions is “Jesus Christ,” and if it isn’t you’re in a heap of trouble?

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      The answer to the first question for a theist would be that prime reality is a God who transcends the universe. The atheist would give the answer that prime reality is matter. Eastern thought is very difficult to put into one sentence, but can the word “pantheistic” is probably the least objectionable.

      • But Daniel, I think H. Lee is correct. The Incarnation throws a monkey wrench into the possibility that there can be a general theistic answer to that first question under which the Christian answer can be subsumed, rather than a particular Christian answer that finds the transcendence of God in the Church’s memory and experience of the immanent and ongoing presence of the resurrected Jesus Christ. The “scandal of particularity” makes a general answer impossible.

        • Daniel Jepsen says

          I’m not sure I follow your reasoning. Do you mean the incarnation implies that the prime (in the sense of most foundational) reality is not a God who created matter?

          • I mean that philosophical and theological ideas about the differences of immanence and transcendence are confounded by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Church’s experience of Jesus re-creating from inside modifies in a substantial way any image of God creating from outside. Transcendence is not what is beyond creation, but creation’s quality of openness, which is the also the openness of its creator.

          • Daniel Jepsen says

            But it doesn’t change the most important thing philosophically here: that God is separate from His creation. It is his creation, not an eternal emanation. It exists because of Him, and He can exist without it (though it cannot exist without Him). Thus, prime matter is still God, not matter.

          • Do you think that God has ever not been creator? Isn’t creativity essential to his nature? It seems that way to me. True, creation is not an emanation, because God is personal, and he both desires and chooses creation; but what does it mean to say that God is separate from his creation? In Jesus Christ, we see God totally immersed in creation; in his resurrection, we see that immersion deepened and intensified. In Jesus Christ, we see God immersed in relatedness, as divine donor to what is not himself; has he ever not been that divine donor? I no longer see God as outside; in Jesus Christ, I see him as the powerful openness within creation, which he chooses and has always chosen.

          • Daniel Jepsen says

            IMO, God is always free in His creation. He is a necessary being; creation is contingent. Yes, He is entered into that creation, but what true notion of transcendence ever denied this?

            To me the distinction between creator and creation is fundamental.

          • You’re using philosophical concepts of freedom and transcendence, and applying them to Christian revelation, rather than looking for your concept of freedom and transcendence in the revelation of Jesus Christ. If Jesus is the measure of all things, this is a wrong procedure.

            Or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Barth.

        • But then, what do I know? Lol.

    • Shades of VanTil…

      As soon as someone mentions him or that other guy in conversation, I’m out. I won’t discuss such things with someone who starts with them.

  7. Daniel Jepsen says

    I loved Sire’s book. Of course he over-generalized, but it would be impossible to do otherwise when describing the big picture of life’s deepest questions in 300 pages.

    But the post is very correct; the term “worldview” has indeed been hijacked.

  8. What is prime reality: conceptually or practically? This is the problem with American Evangelicalism: they will pass this test with the Sunday School answer “God”, but in practice elevate nationalism, wealth, power, politics, technology, etc. as ultimate.

    What do we love, trust, and fear above all else? Where do we run when we are afraid? What garners our attention and loyalty? What determines how we treat others – especially the least and weakest? That is ones prime reality, ultimate concern, or “god”.

    This being we call god: is it truly the ultimate reality which seizes our very being, or is it just a Wizard of Oz projection of our own desires and control? Is that god we claim to be prime reality actually ourselves?

    A world view is an abstraction layer which may or may not reflect Christian truth but may be a contamination or syncretism of secular influences, such as modernism, post modernism, and objectivism.

    • I understand the distaste for conceptual vs practical, but even with these questions, #1, 5 and 7 are related to your epistemology: How do you know what you know?

      If anyone chooses to give more than a dismissive pat answer, the conceptual response will immediately have practical implications. And if you want to ignore the practical implications, then of necessity you must create and prop up a dismissive response whereby you can avoid infinite regression of “how do you know that you know that you know…”

      • Epistomology, yes. Source of knowing, perhaps.

        I definitely don’t want to dismiss that issue, because it is foundational. My point is that once a theist makes that determination (whether from the evidentialist or presuppositional path), if what one does has no connection to what one knows, what is truly guiding ones actions? How can it not be an alternate “truth”?

        The problem is the western measure of being is based upon what one knows or to which principles one pledges allegiance. “I think, therefore, I am”, as Descartes famously stated. What I do seems secondary. I think this is at the heart of James’ condemnation of faith without works or action: if what one believes or thinks has no bearing on what one does, is it an honest belief or thought? If my actions are not guided by my faith or principles, then something else is providing that guidance or motivation; something else is ultimate or primary.

        Yes, that sounds like law. The law shows we are lost – double-minded according to James; myopic according to Jesus. Our lack of consistency in the face of truth or the ultimate reveals our need for a savior.

        Does one have a theistic world view? So what? Even the demons have a theistic world view and shudder in fear – to paraphrase James 2:19.

  9. Then there is gnosticism: yes, we believe in God as ultimate, but he has no bearing on secular matters, such as economics, foreign affairs, human welfare, etc. One can demand an end to separation of church and state but then still enforce that separation in thought and practice. Don’t tell me you have a theistic world view just because you oppose abortion.

  10. I agree with Spencer’s purport in this post. The invocation of a supposedly “Biblical worldview” to underwrite and justify specific political and cultural projects is bad exegesis. We can agree that justice is an important biblical category, but that doesn’t mean that the Bible underwrites any specific political approach to achieving justice in any particular context; if we insist that it does, then we are misusing the Bible by projecting a “worldview” onto it that is not, and cannot, be in the text.

    But this applies on both sides of the spectrum. Some Christians are just as guilty of invoking a “Biblical worldview” to support their advocacy for “justice and peace” as others are of using it to advocate for “family values”. If the one has to be avoided, so does the other.

  11. The concept of world view is a useful tool in coming to grips with the various thought systems and ways people perceive the world. It stands independent of American fundamentalists hijacking it for their own use.

    It is helpful in that it gives us a way of looking at how various schools of thought answer the big questions of life.

    This stands apart from someone trying to force their particular agenda as being the definition of Christian world view.

  12. While “worldview” language lingers on in some (generally more fundamentalist) Christian circles, it didn’t begin there. It began in the academy as an exploration of philosophical language. It has since died out, for the simple fact that it has been thoroughly deconstructed. It just isn’t a very useful or logical way of trying to frame differences in opinion, and it has built in failure points that are insurmountable. There is actually a surprisingly broad amount of literature on the topic.

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