December 5, 2020

“Worldview” Pros and Cons

worldview.jpgSince we were trapped in a car for 7 hours together, Joel and I debated/discussed a topic that we’ve disagreed about for some time: The usefulness of the idea of a “Christian Worldview.”

[Maybe I can get Joel to post some of his thoughts when he has time. I know he’s busy this week.]

The evangelical notion of Christians thinking “worldviewishly” 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 far fetched. 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. I was going to mention a great article on this matter, but it turns out you already did…

    “The idea that [the “Christian worldview”] possesses an authoritative answer to every question because it has an authoritative text and leaders willing to engage almost every question makes [the “Christian worldview”] both appealing and abhorrent in our culture. It is a fine line to walk, and it takes wise Christians to walk it. T. David Gordon discovered this in his infamous Modern Reformation essay, “On The Insufficiency of Scripture,” which raised the ticklish issue of ways scripture is not authoritative “as is.” The furor over the article – and its disappearance from Modern Reformation’s web site – continues to animate some who refuse to consider the possibility that [the “Christian worldview”]’s claim to authority may not be as comprehensive as advertised.”

    I just substituted “Christian worldview” for “church”.

    ModRef needs a spinal transplant so they will repost that article. It definitely said things that needed saying – that’s why the TR’s went ballistic over it.

  2. “On the Insufficiency of Scripture” can be found here:

    I’ve read it and I certainly don’t see a single thing that “needed to be said.” Maybe it said something that people wanted to hear?

  3. Many thanks for the link. Now, as for your question…

    Quote – “(A)ccording to the biblical testimony, how does one acquire wisdom? Well, in part, by heeding GodÂ’s commands in holy scripture (Pro. 10:8; Eccl. 12:13). But more commonly, wisdom comes from listening to advice (Pro. 12:15; 19:20), from entertaining the opinion of a variety of people (Pro. 11:14; 18:17; 24:6), by listening to older people (Pro. 13:1;), and by observing the natural order itself (Pro. 6:6). Wisdom does not come easily or quickly, but through a lengthy, prolonged effort. Most importantly, it does not come exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, through Bible study. Solomon promotes listening to parents, elders, a variety of counselors, and even a consideration of ants, badgers, locusts, and lizards (Pro. 30:24-28). Nor will we concur with a pietistic interpretation of JamesÂ’s counsel that those who lack wisdom should pray for it (James 1:5), as though such prayer would be answered by some sort of special revelation.”

    So, why does this qualify as “something people wanted to hear?” Especially as it appears that a number of people did *not* want to hear it from ModRef…

  4. Douglas: Thanks for returning one of the best articles I ever read to the net. It’s superb. While the title is provocatively pointed (sort of like Christian Hedonism) I really can’t image what sorts of TRs object to the idea that scripture is insufficient to tell me how to fly a jumbo jet. But to each his own…

  5. Dave posted the link, not I. And I do thank him for it, even though he disagrees with it.

  6. “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2).

    I believe the Bible does speak specifically to any question one could ask. But one must look for the answer. I could provide many examples to that effect, but if one does not believe there is a Biblical answer to any question, then one will neither look for the answer nor accept the answer from someone else.

  7. “I really can’t image what sorts of TRs object to the idea that scripture is insufficient to tell me how to fly a jumbo jet.”

    The 9/11 terrorists learned how to fly jumbo jets, and major airlines filed for bankruptcy post-9/11, joined days ago by more major airlines because of the spike in fuel costs brought on by Hurricane Katrina. So Scripture and Christian worldview might not address how to physically fly a jumbo jet, but it addresses the relationships of teacher to student, employer to employee, subject to government, and human to nature, all of which catastrophically failed and continue to fail pre-9/11, on 9/11, post-9/11, pre-Katrina, during Katrina, post-Katrina, and into the future.

  8. >I believe the Bible does speak specifically to any question one could ask.

    Such careful wording. “Speak to” and “answer specifically” are two different things. I agree the Bible speaks to all human experience in some way, as it tells us that Christ is all and in all. But that scripture contains all knowledge? Or answers all questions specifically? That’s simply absurd.

  9. “(I)if one does not believe there is a Biblical answer to any question, then one will neither look for the answer nor accept the answer from someone else.”

    Back in May, I accepted a doctor’s evaluation of my fractured elbow, not because I assumed that the Bible specifically spoke to the issue of how my elbow was damaged, but because I assumed that the doctor, taking the intellectual and observational gifts God gave him, was competent to examine and diagnose my elbow, irregardless of his relationship to God. It is one thing to say that Scripture teaches generally on many important truths of human existence in relation to God (like such things as common grace in knowledge and worldly wisdom) – but to make the Bible the axiomatic foundation of *all* human knowledge is a philosophical fancy (and ironically, a fancy not rooted in Scripture itself).

  10. I had a friend, whose wife and he were both professing Christians, whose wife wanted to divorce him. He asked several people when was the Biblical time he should sign the divorce papers. At the point he asked the question, his wife did not want to be reconciled. Still, he wanted his question answered. It intrigued me because I had heard and read much about Biblical marriage and divorce, but I had never heard or read anyone who addressed this specific concern.

    I thought about it for a while, and I answered him with this: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:15-17).

    “But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away […] But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:12, 15).

    For the purposes of answering his question, I considered “heathen” and “the unbelieving” to be synonymous, although the two words are not the same in the Greek. I told him to go to his wife alone to discuss their marital problems. If she did not repent, then he should take one or two witnesses. After that, the church should address it. And if she did not repent of wanting to leave him, then he should sign the divorce papers and let her leave, because she would be like a heathen to him.

    I began to believe after this that the Bible does have the answers to everything. Okay, so it does not have technical answers, such as how to fly a jumbo jet! But so many people live such sad lives because their lives are filled with activity and doodads, and their souls are hungering for more. A flight manual for a Boeing 747 cannot tell your soul how to fly like an eagle. Neither can the Discovery Channel’s programs on the bald eagle.

    My friend did not know how to implement Matthew 18, and I did not have any good counsel on how to carry it out. His divorce probably came about in no small part because of that, because he and his wife did not know how to forgive each other, live with each other’s quirks, and point out each other’s failings in a loving manner. He knew how to set up and maintain a Fortune 500 company’s server system, but he did not know how to save his marriage.

  11. Michael –

    There are two distinct and parallel problems facing us. First, there is (as you describe) a painful ignorance and misapplication of those things that Scripture plainly teaches – and these things apply to much of life! Sadly, we see this error all too often.

    That is not what is being critiqued here. The error being critiqued here is that there is *one, easily defined, specific answer/application to every specific question and life situation* to be had in Scripture, if only one has the gumption to piece it all together. This is a negation of the basic principle of wisdom (i.e. a more than surface knowledge of the people and situation at hand, and thus to know how to *specifically* apply to them the *general* principles of Scripture). Wisely applying the general principles of Scripture is a tricker thing than simply deducing a universal abstract principle and throwing it at every similar situation that arises. The same St. Paul who railed against circumcision taken in the wrong context (Galatians), personally circumcised Timothy in another (Acts 16:3).

  12. The Gordon article was one of the worst I’ve read in a long time. It was so poorly argued that I wouldn’t get upset over it simply because I wouldn’t believe that anyone could find it convincing.

    So do some of you really consider scripture insufficient because it doesn’t tell us how file our tax returns or how to program a computer?

    Is “*one, easily defined, specific answer/application to every specific question and life situation*” the definition of sufficiency that is being applied here? If so, then it is a ridiculous definition to begin with and something that scripture itself never promised.

    As for the argumentation in the article, don’t get me started.

    Look, I understand that some people believe that scripture will tell us whether we should have pancakes or waffles for breakfast. If you guys are looking to pick fights with that crowd, then don’t let me stand in the way.

    But just because the Bible doesn’t tell me what to have for breakfast, that hardly makes it “insufficient”.

  13. The article simply points out that scripture’s sufficiency is in a limited area. I think it’s very useful to know that the Bible is not a science book, parenting manual, blueprint for government or psychology text. It is the inspired word of the final word, Jesus Christ.

    Lots of evangelicals need that clarification.

  14. While the Bible may not be a blueprint for various areas, it does authoritatively and completely speak to the human condition. Scripture lays bare all the follies of human nature. Since every area that you mentioned is comprised of humans and their knowledge, Biblical principles would necessarily apply, although maybe not as directly as some people would like.

    And as for “lots of evangelicals need that clarification,” no, I don’t think that they do.

    Promoting the idea that theonomy is more widespread than the belief in the insufficiency of scripture is ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst. The belief that scripture is insufficient is widespread among evangelicals and non-believers. Theonomists are VERY small in terms of numbers.

    But then, maybe some of you live in areas dominated by theonomists. Maybe it’s time to move?

  15. Who brought up theonomy? You’ve lost me.

    I agree the Bible speaks to the total human condition. I don’t think it is an encyclopedia of answers for every question, and I think that’s easy to demonstrate.

    Medicine, for instance. Astronomy. Mental Illness. I mean… gee….

  16. I was trying to guess who you meant by “truly reformed (TR).” If that’s not who you meant, then I apologize.

    But who else, other than theonomists, would think the Bible is an “encyclopedia of answers for every question”? Or “make(s) the Bible the axiomatic foundation of *all* human knowledge”?

    So I don’t know who you and Doug are addressinig with your comments. If you’re addressing theonomists, then I agree with your sentiments but not the poorly argued article you’ve chosen to use. If you’re addressing those of us that believe in the sufficiency of scripture, then it looks to me like you’ve erected a strawman that doesn’t represent us at all.

  17. I believe in the sufficiency of scripture where the Gospel is concerned, but after that, I don’t get what it means.

    This is just the inerrancy debate under another name. We’ve done that one.

    FTR- I did not mean theonomists. I mean the megachurch using verses from all over the Bible out of context to teach marriage, parenting, and finance seminars.

    I’m saying that we have the Bible for the Gospel, and I see no other Biblical claim to truth beyond that.

  18. “I’m saying that we have the Bible for the Gospel, and I see no other Biblical claim to truth beyond that.”

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. There are many things in the Bible that are indirectly related to the Gospel that *are* true (history, human nature, etc). The way I read this problem is, does the divine inspiration of the Bible mean it provides a comprehensive database of specific answers to every conceivable life situation? Or (to go even further into lala land) that the Bible the axiomatic “ground” of *all* human knowledge?

    You *can* say that the Bible gives general principles about human life and relationships – it does. And they are true. For example, it tells husbands to love their wives, and calls for sexual purity for all, married or single. But when you go beyond that, and say that “the Bible teaches us that courtship is *the* universal model for preparing for marriages, and that the father of the woman has the right to veto, and the prospective husband must take the initiative,” ad infinitum ad nauseam with prooftexts, *THERE* I cry out, “Beep, beep, back up the truck.”

  19. >…we are in danger of the Bible being turned
    >into a kind of topical encyclopedia of

    Or a Wahabi Koran…

    (I had that done to me, and to this day I gag whenever I hear the word “Scripture!”)

  20. Jeremiah Lawson says

    “I mean the megachurch using verses from all over the Bible out of context to teach marriage, parenting, and finance seminars.”

    I’ve heard some Christians use Ruth as a reference guide for marriage and dating/courtship. Would this qualify, iMonk? The belief that the Bible can cover any and every question sometimes applies to how whole books can get interpreted, if I understand you correctly. Maybe I don’t.

  21. Yes…on two levels.

    First of all, the Bible is a book about Jesus and the Gospel. Period.

    Second, acting as if there are no particular cultural issues between the Biblical audiences and ourselves is dangerous.

  22. I read an interesting C.S. Lewis book some years ago called “The Discarded Image.” It’s a series of academic lectures, so most Christians are unaware of it. The lectures are about the Christian worldview… during the Middle Ages. It was coherent, consistent with Scripture, and widely believed. But it was ultimately proven wrong through Renaissance scientific inquiry, and discarded.

    And now it’s been replaced with a modern Christian worldview. Or perhaps I should say worldviews. I don’t believe there’s only one. Pearcy and Colson and even Schaeffer might disagree, but when one looks at the ways that Christianity is practiced and interpreted in different countries, political contexts, and denominations, one can hardly say the conservative-evangelical-American perspective is the only one a Christian must have to still be a Christian. Otherwise we’d be anachronistically reinterpreting the Apostles’ experience with our own, rather than trying to figure out what that experience was and applying it to our lives, which is more proper.

    I would also say that the Bible consists of narratives; not just one narrative. It is a compilation. There are after all four gospels. To say that they easily blend together to make one narrative is to miss the point behind our Scriptures being a compilation in the first place. God can work through our multiple human perspectives to still authentically reveal Himself; and it’s okay if Christians think differently from one another so long as we’re honestly following God (and, re 1 Corinthians 10, not causing brothers and sisters with differing worldviews to stumble).

  23. I agree that the great story is made up of sub narrtives, and many other kinds of literature. But I would also contend that, at the end of the process of looking at the Bible, it is best understood as a coherent narrative, though one made up of many differing kinds of components.

    For example, we do have 4 Gospels, but they tell the one story of Jesus in four retellings.

  24. K. W. said: “It’s a series of academic lectures, so most Christians are unaware of it.”

    Forty lashes with a wet noodle for that gratuitous remark, sir/madam. I was too weak to suppress a giggle and so I resent you for provoking my inherent snobbishness. 🙂

  25. Sort of ironically, isn’t all this “world view” talk implicitly relativizing? I mean, Christians insist that we have “a” world view — i.e., one world view among many. Other people have other world views. “World views” are totalizing frameworkds that “make sense of reality” for people.

    I dunno. Christianity doesn’t seem to be “a” world view to me. It’s simply “the view.” If you don’t see the view, it’s because you’re crazy (Ecc 9.3). Reality is reality. Reality isn’t “a” world view.

  26. The reason I wrote, “It’s a series of academic lectures, so most Christians are unaware of it” is because The Discarded Image, as an academic book, isn’t bundled with Lewis’s other stuff for the mass market. I acutally wasn’t trying to make a crack about anti-intellectual Christians.

    But now that I see it, I find it amusing too. Perhaps I’ll go along with it.

    (Forge the “sir” or “madam” bit. It’s Kent.)

  27. N.T. Wright develops the concept of worldview in narrative terms in the opening chapters of his book _The New Testament and the People of God._ Wright emphasizes that a system of beliefs is always rooted in an underlying narrative or story that is more fundamental. This narrative is embodied not only in beliefs but also in symbols and practice. So there is a much more to a worldview that a set of ideas or a philosophy. It’s one of the best treatments of worldview I’ve ever encountered.

    By the way, Sire has altered his definition of worldview in the 4th edition of his book to include the concept of worldview as story and a commitment of the heart (following David Naugle, historian of the concept of worldview), although it didn’t appear to affect the content of Sire’s book that much. Naugle and Sire have both recently published books analyzing worldview as a concept and answering objections to this mode of analysis.

  28. My concern with this “Christian worldview” movement is that Christians will come up with cookiecutter answers given by Christian worldview gurus instead of being truly equipped to rightly “divide the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15) and be ambassadors of Christ committed to preaching and living the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20). I’m also afraid of turning out a generation of merely good debators that nonbelievers will discount simply because they think that these Christian worldview debators have merely been trained to tackle certain issues and think a certain way.

  29. Jeremiah Lawson says

    It’s already happening and I’ve been in settings where it becomes apparant that the “worldview” training can become an evident shortcut. I brought up an issue in a discussion with Christians in which I quoted Jesus’ question about whether it was good to heal or kill on the sabbath in connection to tubal pregnancies (another Christian brought this up and asked what a Christian couple should do). Since this type of pregnancy currently always ends in the mother and child dying or the necessity to terminate the pregnancy to save the mother what would Jesus’ advocate?

    The answers some Christians gave was that the mother should just choose death over ending the pregnancy. And what about any children already born by the mother? What about the mother’s husband? As I understand Jesus’ teaching in cases where both the mother and child will die it’s more Christ-like and obedient to Christ’s teaching to save the life you can save and that your obligation to care for your family means sacrificing the child who cannot safely be born. The Christians from the “worldview” perspective looked at me as if my quoting Jesus was the most baffling and impertinent thing in the world to do. But doesn’t Jesus’ question bring us back to the heart of the issue? Whether we’re going to stick to a principle even if it means requiring the death of two lives or making a terrible decision that can save the life of at least one of two lives in peril? It’s not that I’m pro-abortion but that I’ve seen first-hand that the “worldview” approach has led to pre-fab answers that don’t even muster up verses for support.

  30. Jeremiah Lawson says

    It felt REALLY weird to be in a setting with a bunch of Christians who seemed to be looking down on me for actually quoting Jesus on a subject when it didn’t fit their worldview definitions of what a Christian is supposed to think. It might have been because I misapplied Jesus’ teaching or it might have been because these people were thinking in the worldview grid first and getting to Jesus to justify that later. I’m not entirely sure now but at the time I felt I was right in where I came down on the topic.

  31. Useful for teaching, reproof, for correction, for instruction: Bible

    Suficient: Jesus

  32. What about II Peter 1: 2-4?:

    “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord,
    According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:
    Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”