The History of an Idea

The concept of worldview is a fairly recent development in Christian thought. In one sense, of course, the people of God have always had a worldview—a perspective on life that was guided by the Word of God. For Old Testament Israel, that worldview began with a daily confession of faith: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). The coming of Christ opened up new dimensions of a biblical worldview. The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, was not so much a code of ethics as it was a new way of looking at the world and living in it. “Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices,” writes Robert Louis Wilken in his analysis of the early church. “It is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about the world, and history. For Christians, thinking is part of believing.” For as long as God has been revealing his truth to his people, he has been shaping their view of the world.

What is relatively new, however, is for Christians to use worldview as a central category for thought and life. Briefly outlining the intellectual history of the concept will help us understand what is meant (and not meant) by the Christian worldview.

The story begins in Germany. Worldview is simply the English translation for the German word Weltanschauung, which first appeared in the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant. Kant used the term as early as 1790, in his Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft). At first, Weltanschauung referred to people’s sensory perception of the world around them. However, Kant’s disciples—the young philosophers Johann Fichte and Friedrich Schelling—adopted the word and began employing it for other purposes. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, Weltanschauung was used widely by intellectual giants of German Romanticism and idealism: novelists (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), poets (Jean Paul), and philosophers (Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel). Gradually the term shifted from its literal meaning of sense perception to refer metaphorically to intellectual perception.

In the decades that followed, Weltanschauung passed from the poets and philosophers to other cultured communities in Germany. By the 1840s the term had become commonplace among influential musicians (Richard Wagner), theologians (Ludwig Feuerbach), and physicists (Alexander von Humboldt). In a letter to a friend, one historian of the time complained, “Formerly everyone was an ass in private and left the world in peace; now, however, people consider themselves ‘educated,’ cobble together a ‘world-view’ (Welt-anschauung), and preach away at their fellowmen.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, the concept of worldview had taken hold among leading thinkers in other countries. The term appeared so frequently in the titles of books and scholarly articles that the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck referred to worldview (wereldbeschouwing) as “the slogan of the day.” The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was perhaps the first thinker to give this slogan a technical meaning in his system of thought. For Kierkegaard, a “life-view” (livskanskuelse in Danish) or “world-view” (verdensanskuelse) was the fundamental perspective that undergirded a person’s self-understanding and gave unity to thought and action.

Kierkegaard was not the only philosopher to seek a definition for worldview. Wilhelm Dilthey, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and others sought to distinguish philosophy from worldview. Typically the former was identified as an ancient and rational discipline that explored what was true for human thought generally, whereas the latter was more personal and depended partly on one’s place in history and situation in life. Of the two concepts, worldview was more perspectival, philosophy more universal. The difference may be illustrated from the thought of two men whose ideas exercised massive influence on the twentieth century: Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Their theories of economics and psychology, respectively, self-consciously represented entirely new ways of looking at the world—what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein termed “a world picture” (Weltbild).

Meanwhile, some Christian thinkers were adopting the concept of worldview for their own purposes—most notably, the Scottish theologian James Orr and the Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper. Orr’s 1893 book The Christian View of God and the World and Kuyper’s public addresses at Princeton Theological Seminary (published in 1899 as Calvinism: Six Stone Lectures) exercised wide influence on Christian thought. Both thinkers presented the Christian faith as a total view of reality (what Kuyper called a “world-and-life-view”) with implications for society as well as the church. Their vision for seeing the world from a Christian point of view has since been carried forward in the United States by theologian Carl F. H. Henry, apologist Francis Schaeffer, prison evangelist Charles Colson, and many others. By the end of the twentieth century, worldview thinking was pervasive in evangelical churches and schools, as Christians sought to integrate learning with faith in every academic discipline and apply it to the central issues of public life.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the concept of worldview has found particular resonance in the church. After all, Christians have a distinctive perspective on the world, and worldview serves as a useful construct for explaining why we look at things differently than other people do. Since Christians hold their worldview in common with other believers, it serves as a point of spiritual and intellectual unity. Originally, Weltanschauung referred to a person’s unique perspective on the world. But for Christians, worldview is less individualistic and more communal. Because it is grounded in divine revelation, the Christian worldview has a fixed reference point in the mind of God, and thus it stands as something that connects all believers everywhere.

This is not to say that Christians agree about everything. Within the general framework of the Christian worldview, the followers of Christ hold a wide variety of perspectives on politics, economics, aesthetics, and many other areas of life and thought. Christians also disagree about doctrine, with different denominations holding distinctive views in theology. Nevertheless, they find substantial unity in the worldview they share. At the same time, there are areas where the Christian worldview overlaps with non-Christian thought. For example, like Christianity, Hinduism holds to the sanctity of human life. Similarly, both Christianity and Judaism teach that God created everything out of nothing. These complexities—both the variety of views that Christians hold and the areas of commonality between Christianity and other religions—prevent us from thinking too simplistically or one-dimensionally about worldviews. But they should not obscure the coherence of the Christian worldview in its basic principles.

Worldview thinking helps Christians engage in the marketplace of ideas. It does this by showing how Christianity relates to everything in life—not just the private life of personal piety but also the public life of art, music, science, business, politics, sports, and popular culture. In addition to providing intellectual perspective for every academic discipline, worldview thinking is useful for apologetics and evangelism. The way people live is always rooted in their religious perspective, even if they claim not to be religious at all. When conflicts arise, as they always do, understanding worldviews helps us identify the deepest source of the conflict and to explain what difference it makes in any situation to follow Jesus Christ.

Admittedly, worldview thinking also has its critics. The German theologian Karl Barth warned that when Christians articulate a Weltanschauung, inevitably they reduce the Christian faith to the definite “world-picture” of their own time and place, which is always inadequate. Furthermore, there is always the risk that Christians will use the right worldview for the wrong reasons, exploiting good ideas for ungodly purposes, hijacking the Christian faith for their social, political, or ecclesiastical agenda. There are many examples of this from history, where everything from the medieval Crusades to chattel slavery has been defended on the basis of biblical principles.

More recently, philosopher James K. A. Smith has called for a temporary moratorium on the term worldview. His concern is that the worldview approach tends to reduce human beings to disembodied thinkers, when in fact we are embodied lovers. Smith argues that what causes us to act is not only what we know but mainly what we adore. “Before we articulate a worldview,” he says, “we worship.” In effect, worship is “the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born.” So instead of “focusing on what Christians think, distilling Christian faith into an intellectual summary formula (a ‘worldview’),” we should pay more attention to the practices of Christian worship. What will transform us is not information for the mind but formation of the heart through the liturgy of the church.

We can learn from these and other criticisms without jettisoning the vital project of articulating a Christian view of the world. Worldview thinking should be rejuvenated, not rejected. Even if our present grasp of the truth is a work in progress, it is still necessary to defend that truth and live it out as well as we can. We can acknowledge the formative influence of liturgical and other practices without devaluing the intellect. We are rational creatures. While it is true that what we love often shapes what we think, it is also true that the biblical remedy for disordered affections is for God to speak his truth to the mind. “Do not be conformed to this world,” writes the apostle Paul. In other words, do not be shaped by the things that this world loves—its patterns and practices. Instead, the apostle goes on to say, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). There is an intrinsic, ordered relationship between the thoughts and the affections that guide our actions. The formation of the heart comes through the transformation of the mind. Therefore, one of the primary ways the Holy Spirit changes the things we love and worship is by changing the way we think.

This brings us back to the value of having a Christian worldview—of seeing the world the way that God sees it. But it brings us back with the recognition that people are whole persons. We are lovers as well as thinkers, and therefore a properly Christian view of the world engages the whole person—body, heart, mind, and soul. In developing a properly Christian worldview through the discipleship of the Christian mind, we are growing our capacity for sacred worship and holy love. We cannot be said truly to have a Christian view of the world unless what we love as well as what we think is directed to the glory of God, and unless this is readily apparent in the way we live in the world. The apostle Paul was thinking holistically in his prayer for the mind as well as the heart of the Philippians, which is also a prayer for us in forming and living out a Christian worldview: “That your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9–10).

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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