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.”
– Scott Allen
Bill WalshMarch 19, 2010 - 3:34 pm
Very helpful Scott! Solid teaching in both areas seem essential, especially if we hope to be fruitful in crossing cultures to bring Truth.
Thanks for the great discussion.
Disciple Nations AllianceMarch 20, 2010 - 11:52 am
Thanks for the comment Bill. It was so nice to meet you. Appreciate again the great discussion!
KariMarch 19, 2010 - 3:42 pm
Well said, Scott! I am forwarding your comments on to several friends.I often need reminding that I need to be an “intentional” Christian, allowing my theology to drive my behavior not just my thinking.
annkroekerMarch 19, 2010 - 7:45 pm
A home education group I’m involved in has emphasized the study of worldview for the high school students because they feel so strongly that the process of studying and spotting worldviews can help process everything from books and movies to TV shows and random quotations published on Twitter. We want the students to be prepared before they head off to college to understand how theology, philosophy, literature, history and cultures view those big, basic questions of life and meaning.
But this phrase from your piece stands out to me as vital:
“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’m relatively new to the actual study of worldviews, so I’m catching up. I have a book by James Sire to read. But just today I talked about Naturalism when reading a Steinbeck book, and the Christian students could think about it with more discernment when they understood the basics of that worldview.
I’ve got to put on my thinking cap and really try to understand this stuff.
Disciple Nations AllianceMarch 19, 2010 - 9:27 pm
Ann, thanks so much for taking time to comment. What you are doing with your children is so important! One resource I’ve found helpful with my own children is Starting Points by David Quine. We’ve also developed a short Bible study booklet on worldview called “The Worldview of the Kingdom of God” which you may find helpful. – Scott
MarkMarch 20, 2010 - 11:29 am
I agree with you that it’s vital to be aware of our own worldview and how it affects the way we read the Bible and follow Jesus.
My concern is that as Christians we can feel that ours is the only biblical worldview. We then go to teach our worldview to others around the world, when in fact it would be much more profitable to all read the Bible together and each bring our own insights from our own diverse cultures, teaching and learning from each other.
To me this is one of the great privileges of cross-cultural mission, as we “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)
JonMarch 31, 2010 - 2:32 pm
Thanks for this excellent piece, Scott. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and clarity in this entry. Keep up the good work!