I had a stimulating discussion last week with the leadership of the Desiring God International Outreach ministry. During the course of our conversation, they asked for my opinion on the distinction between worldview and theology. The by-line of the international outreach ministry is “Theological Famine Relief for the Global Church.” They respond to the huge need for sound biblical teaching among church leaders in Africa, Asia, and South America by working to distribute the books and resources of John Piper. I’m a huge fan of Piper and have greatly benefited from his teaching. These brothers were intrigued by our emphasis on worldview, which is what prompted the question.
This was my response.
Bill, your question on the relationship between theology and worldview has continued to roll around in my mind since our talk. I could sense your unease at my answer, which granted, was very much “off the cuff.” It was an excellent question and deserves a thoughtful answer.
It probably would be good for me to define worldview. There are many helpful definitions, but we continue to use the one developed several years ago by James Sire as (and I paraphrase) “a total set of assumptions held consciously or unconsciously that shapes one’s view of reality and establishes ones values, beliefs, and behaviors.” Our worldviews are largely pre-conscious in that we pick them up from our earliest days through our culture (family, friends, teachers, the general “way things are done around here”).
When I said that worldview “is deeper” than theology, I had in mind something of what Philip Johnson was getting at in this quote:
Understanding how worldviews are formed, and how they guide or confine thought, is the essential step toward understanding everything else. Understanding worldview is a bit like trying to see the lens of one’s own eye. We do not ordinarily see our own worldview, but we see everything else by looking through it. Put simply, our worldview is the window by which we view the world, and decide, often subconsciously, what is real and important, or unreal and unimportant . . . Our worldview governs our thinking even when – or especially when – we are unaware of it.
I believe the Bible speaks of worldview assumptions in passages like Col. 2:8 which speaks about “hollow and deceptive philosophy which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world” (Greek is “stoiecheia” which refers to rudimentary principles or basic building blocks). See also Gal. 4:9 which speaks of “weak and miserable principles.”
As we come to Christ, we are called to replace these cultural “stoicheia” with Biblical truth—orthodox Biblical theology (Rom. 12:2). However, my personal experience and our experience with the DNA is that this has to be done specifically and intentionally. If our worldview “lenses” are not addressed, it is possible to teach Biblical theology at the level of ideas or knowledge without it really replacing the deeper worldview assumptions that drive behavior.
I believe this explains why you have so many Christians in the United States, many of whom are quite Biblically literate, and yet their values and behaviors are largely conformed to our secular, pragmatic, utilitarian, and fragmented culture. It is why, I believe, you can have so many Christians in Haiti, and yet still have a deeper culture shaped by voodoo and fatalism that is predominantly shaping individual behavior and social and cultural practices—with real consequences such as we observed in the huge death toll from the recent earthquake.
As Americans, we live at a time where enlightenment thinking has deeply shaped our culture. Where there is no longer an integration point for all reality. Where everything is fragmented and disconnected. This has profoundly and subtly shaped my thinking and behavior. It comes naturally for me to compartmentalize and dichotomize. It is much more difficult to think wholistically or even understand what it means, yet orthodox Biblical theology is profoundly wholistic. Everything finds its integration in Christ who is Lord over all (Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:15-20).
Many Christians compartmentalize and dichotomize unconsciously because they are shaped by postmodern western culture. Entire Christian ministry organizations are built on this foundation, and yet claim to hold to orthodox Biblical theology. For someone who is profoundly compartmentalized in their basic mental makeup, you can teach them Christian theology but they will tend to automatically and unconsciously place it into a “spiritual” compartment of their mind. Once there, it will be largely disconnected for their family, work, etc. Again, I speak this from personal experience, my general observations, and our experience in teaching worldview around the world.
Like you, we cherish, champion, and promote orthodox Biblical theology—or the Biblical worldview, for in fact it is Truth, and the Truth liberates. But we also focus specifically on the issue of worldview. We intentionally help people to have a “paradigm shift.”
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