In these posts I’m not going to try to repeat what Wolters said—you just read that—but to try to pick out key ideas and explain and defend (or critique!) them. I’m going to say what I would say if the ACPADI Book Club/Βλογάπη Book Consortium were meeting in my living room.
Clearing Away Objections
Let me first try to clear away a few objections readers in the Club may have:
- Wolters opens by citing some names we don’t normally cite (Vollenhoven, Bavinck, Kuyper, Dooyeweerd) and appealing to a few people we know but don’t talk about much and may even be wary of (Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, Tyndale) (pp. 1–2). I’d suggest that the problem is largely ours, not his, because (assuming that your background is similar to mine) historical theology is something we don’t give sufficient attention to. Old dead people have a lot to teach us; they are God’s gifts to us according to Eph 4:11–16; 1 Cor 3:22.
- Wolters does come from a different world within Protestantism—a world based in Grand Rapids—and we need to be prepared to adjust to a slightly different lingo. However, note that on page 7 he very clearly says, “Our worldview must be shaped and tested by Scripture…. A good part of the purpose of this book is to offer help in the process of reforming our worldview to conform more closely to the teaching of Scripture.” This is familiar talk. We’re on the same page with the essentials.
- When I first encountered the ideas in this book several years ago, my initial reaction was to say, “Aren’t we a little off course? Why so much effort polishing the brass on a sinking ship? Aren’t souls the only things worth redeeming?” His ideas sounded at the same time theonomic/postmillennial (“Let’s take over the culture!”) and new-evangelical (“Let’s engage the culture!”). I had given in to the very pressure Wolters mentions on page 7:
There is considerable pressure on Christians to restrict their recognition of the authority of Scripture to the area of the church, theology, and private morality—an area that has become basically irrelevant to the direction of culture and society as a whole.
Wolters does not say in this book, “Let’s all send the Democrats to Siberia and take over the US government!” He doesn’t say, “Let’s all become beatniks, smoke heavily while reviewing raunchy French films from the 60s for the New Yorker, and take over the art scene!” All he’s said so far, anyway, is that God’s word is relevant to the direction of culture and society as a whole. Do we have a problem with that? If God has norms for how individual people ought to behave, why not norms for groups of people? Is God indifferent to “labor, social groups, and education” (p.8)? If we don’t let God speak to the areas of life that we view as “secular,” then some other worldview will; some other allegiance will take precedence.
As for worldviews, Wolters makes several key assertions about them in this chapter that we have to retain:
- They tend to form a system.
- They deal with basic beliefs about things.
- They are pretheoretical.
- Everyone has one—everyone has to have one just like they have to have food.
One of Wolters’ real strengths in this book is his ability to tick off a number of different real-life applications quickly—watch for these throughout the book. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in them. The paragraphs on the bottoms of pages 4 and 5 are good examples. He is suggesting that there is a Christian view of inflation, film censorship, military conscription, counterculture, crime, taxation, etc. There are many other views on these matters, of course, and those views themselves stem from people’s worldviews.
One Small Disagreement
I want to register one point of disagreement that I’m not sure is full disagreement. Wolters says that feelings cannot lay claim to knowledge (p.3, first par.); and if I read him right, he says that worldviews are beliefs, not feelings. Following John Frame, I don’t think those two aspects of human personality can be so neatly divided. One’s worldview is, finally, based on one’s loves: love for God or love merely for self. And my beliefs have an inescapable element of feeling in them. I say I “know” something when I feel “cognitive rest” about it.
Biblical Theology and Worldview
Wolters hints on page 9 at what I regard to be one of the most important ideas in my life at the moment: a worldview tells a “metanarrative,” a story about where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going—and so does the Bible. So the story of the Bible makes up our metanarrative, our worldview. Wolters doesn’t expand on this much (that’s one of the reasons for the postscript he coauthored with Michael Goheen), but he says, “It is essential to relate the basic concepts of ‘biblical theology’ to our worldview—or rather to understand these basic concepts as constituting a worldview” (p.9). We’ll talk more about this!
Now you talk! What questions and comments do you have? What did you like? What did you dislike? What did you learn?
Note: NEW RULE! You can’t comment unless you have read the chapter!
Ok, now I talk again… Just one addendum: I’m a little wary of Dooyeweerd from things I’ve read in Frame: he seemed to have a peculiar framework of ideas that stood above the Bible… But I haven’t seen that in Wolters’ book. I don’t know anything at all about Vollenhoven.
I’m open to receiving enlightenment from anyone in the ACPADI Book Club who knows more about these guys.
(Bavinck I’ve read a little of, Tyndale I’ve been [in a play], Irenaeus I have some familiarity with, and Calvin and Augustine I’ve read a lot about and from.)
For me, this books resonates much more powerfully the second time through. With the ideas from my first reading still afresh in my mind, this second reading adds further to the depth of my understanding. In this chapter, there are two vitally important points that I garnered from reading
1.The importance of having a scripturally saturated worldview. After having read this chapter, I have developed a keen interest in the reformers, and it has dawned on me that much of what they had to say and stood for is almost more relevant today than it was when they said it. In fact, upon the conclusion of this brief study, I almost want to read their writings where they proclaimed the importance of scripture and scripture alone.
In terms of our modern day world, this approach can be constructed on a more subtle level. By using words and phrases that point towards our belief in a creator even when teaching subjects that are not directly related to scripture, we can proclaim our belief in the creator of the Universe at all times and in all places. This is why I refuse to use the new CE and BCE systems of dating, since it is very clearly a means of rejecting Christianity by those who can best be classified as pagan.
2. The danger of dividing the sacred and the secular. While not directly discussed at length here in this chapter, it is quite clear that the reason for the modern church’s impotence lies in having restricted all scriptural teaching and action to Sundays and Wednesday evenings. In this case, it is little wonder that society continues to go down the perverted path.
You can find an interesting discussion of Dooyeweerd (along with an indication that Wolters departs from him on areas where he is problematic) here: http://bylogos.blogspot.com/2010/09/dooyeweerds-legacy.html.
In regard to objection 3, his view of the law as articulated on 40-41 stands opposed the Theonomy. His opposition to revolutions (advocating instead holding to or promoting the good while rejecting the evil, see pp. 92-93) stands starkly opposed to a “Let’s take over the culture!” mentality (while at the same time recognizing the rightfulness of pressing our culture to acknowledge and even live according to biblical norms). Finally, his discussion of structure and direction in a culture provide needed categories that are lost in vague “engaging the culture” language.
While “engaging the culture” has caused harm to the church by resulting in an uncritical adoption of worldliness, Wolters rightly points out that restricting the Bible to speak only to certain issues of personal piety does the same thing. Suddenly there are whole categories of life that Scripture doesn’t speak to. And if Scripture does not speak to them, the world certainly will.
Positive Contributions of Chapter 1
Wolters’ emphasis on the the need for a Christian’s basic beliefs about all things to be shaped by Scripture (p. 7). We can’t wall things off from Scripture and say that it does not apply to certain aspects of life.
At a time when propositional revelation is increasingly challenged, Wolters’ emphasis that the Bible was given for instruction was heartening: “The Scriptures are many things to the Christian, but central to their purpose is instruction. . . . ‘Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,’ says Paul of the Old Testament Scriptures (Rom. 15:4), and the same applies to the New Testament. That is why the concept of ‘sound doctrine’ is so central in the apostolic witness—not doctrine in the sense of academic theology, but as practical instruction in the life-and-death realities of our walk in the covenant with God.” Wolters goes on to note that this is why Paul calls for “‘the renewal of our minds’ (Rom 12:2). We need that renewal if we are to discern what God’s will is in the full range of our lives—’his good, pleasing, and perfect will.’ Testing our worldview against Scripture and revising it accordingly is part of the renewal of the mind” (pp. 7-8).
His summary of the Christian worldview in the words of Bavinck: “God the Father has reconciled His created but fallen world through the death of His Son, and renews it into a Kingdom of God by His Spirit.” Or, ” ‘grace restores nature’–that is, the redemption in Jesus Christ means the restoration of an original good creation. . . . In other words, redemption is recreation” (p. 11).
For further discussion:
What do you think about his distinction between theology, philosophy, and worldview? He doesn’t want to say that theology is based on the Bible and philosophy is based on reason but that philosophy deals with structure (creational givens), theology with direction (what is evil and what is not), and worldview deals with both in a prescientific way. Thoughts?
I like philosophy being concerned with structure. It will deal with general revelation but not to the exclusion of Scripture. However, restricting theology to direction seems too narrow.
Yeah, that distinction between theology and philosophy seems a bit arbitrary—as if theology and philosophy are “things” with scientifically analyzable genetic structures. They’re really just imprecise, general names we use, and we can’t force everyone (or anyone!) else to use them in a more technical way.
A Helpful Take-Away or two
1. For me is expressed in a sentence on page 9: “In a certain sense the plea being made here for a biblical worldview is simply an appeal to the believer to take the bible and it’s teaching seriously for the totality of out civilization right now and not to relegate it to some optional area called “religion.” This was a helpful thought for me and a challenge to not compartmentalize areas of life to things the bible applies to and things it doesn’t. The biblical worldview is the compartment and everything else is in it, or something like that.
2. “Grace restores nature” – Profound and very helpful
Questions & Objections
I wondered if some of you smart guys could comment on the paragraph at the top of page 10 starting with “But.” I think I’m missing the point of this paragraph. Obviously, advanced theological training must be helpful and beneficial to a biblical worldview (one shaped by scripture). Is he saying you can study theology but not form your personal worldview from it? And the last sentence of that paragraph: “and a worldview is a matter of wisdom and common sense, whether biblical or unbiblical.” You can’t be wise and have common sense and be unbiblical, right?
Comment on Mark’s disagreement
I somehow knew that you wouldn’t like that distinction between feelings and beliefs. That is a hard area to navigate for me. In the addiction field, I’m constantly using language like this when a guy is about to blow out and go use: “Don’t trust your feelings, your feelings will lie to you (about what you should believe and act on), they will change tomorrow.” It just wouldn’t have the same effect if I replaced “feelings” with “beliefs.” Though, his feelings are flowing out from his belief (maybe, or is it the other way around) that smoking crack is the best way to solve life’s problems. The more I think about this, the more I agree that this area of feeling/belief is very tricky and I don’t understand it.
I’m not sure I have anything new to add here, but I do want to be part of the club.
First I want to add my comment to your objection as well, Mark. (Or at least your analysis of Wolter’s statement regarding belief vs feelings.) I think it is right to say the feelings and beliefs are two separate things, and yet sometimes the two converge. You’ve no doubt heard, “Sometimes you need to believe first, and your feelings will follow.” That would be the case when your feelings and beliefs are out of sync. But someone might also operate on the basis of letting his feelings dictate his actions. That person’s worldview might be the belief that humans are creatures whose only authority is feeling.
I did find his lingo somewhat foreign. I think we should count up the number of times he says “reformational.” Is he referring to a specific tradition, or is a Christian worldview based on the authority of Scripture synonymous with “reformational worldview?” It helps me to know where writers are coming from, so I can have a filter for understanding the words they choose to use as well as what they might avoid saying. Though, with Wolter’s, and with any writer who speaks to the truth on an issue, I have no disagreement with the crux of what Wolter’s is teaching in this chapter. Here are my favorites:
p. 7 “. . . since all these agencies of our culture deliberately ignore , and in fact usually reject outright, the supreme authority of Scripture, there is considerable pressure on Christians to restrict their recognition of the authority of Scripture to the area of the church, theology, and private morality — an area that has become basically irrelevant to the direction of culture and society as a whole. That pressure, though, is itself the fruit of the secular worldview, and must be resisted by Christians with all the resources at their disposal.”
This pressure, of course, if not fought, leads to the dichotomy between secular and sacred, which Wolters is rightly trying to eliminate with his biblically informed world view.
p. 9 “. . . it is essential to relate the basic concepts of ‘biblical theology’ to our worldview — or rather to understand these basic concepts as constituting a worldview. In a certain sense the plea being made here for a biblical worldview is simply an appeal to the believer to take the Bible and its teaching seriously for the totality of our civilization right now and not to relegate it to some optional area called ‘religion.'”
This is a rallying point for me.
As I read this chapter, I analyzed (or over-analyzed) the veracity of this phrase:
“The need for a guiding perspective is basic to human life, perhaps more basic than food or sex” (p. 5).
There at least two reasons for this:
1. He already made the point (with which I agree) that “having a worldview is simply part of being an adult human being” (p. 4).
If this is the case, that “our worldview functions as a guide to our life” (p. 5), then we will not need it, seeing as we already have it. A point could be/could have been made that the need for a wise or godly guiding perspective is necessary, but he did not convince me that one “needs” it. He convinced me that through my human-ness (and also perhaps culture’s instillation of its worldview), I already have a “guiding perspective to human life” (p.5).
(Caveat: I believe both in the depravity of man and that God created us in His image. So in the first sense, we need a worldview, because ours is corrupt since birth. But in the second sense, we already have a worldview because of the creative God that created us to be like Him.)
2. The phrase “…more basic than food or sex” requires scrutiny.
I must have food. If I go without food (or especially water) for more than a few days, I die. If I go without sex for a few days, I do not die. I was celibate for 25 years and did not die, and I could have likely gone another 25 years without dying. Perhaps the phrase would have better been written as “food or water” rather than “food or sex.”
(Caveat #2: I realize that humanity must be propagated through being “fruitful.” But in this case, it seemed like Wolters was talking about an individual’s need for a worldview [and thus sex] rather than society as a whole.)
So glad to see you all interacting with this book- it has probably changed how I think about life more than any other book (other than Scripture, obviously).
Just got back from a weekend at a camp, so just a quick comment this time. (This is my first time going through the book, but I feel like I’ve been through it before.)
He writes towards the top of p. 3 that “An optimistic belief in historical progress is hard to harmonize with a belief in the depravity of man.” I would counter that it’s hard only if you believe that the Fall is the end of the story. Historical progress is easy to harmonize with a belief in Redemption.
I may have theonomic leanings, but don’t hate the theonomist! (Though, the nice thing if you have theonomic leanings is that the people who oppose you have no basis for stoning you. Somewhat comforting.)