By: Dr. Greg Welty
Editor’s Note: Greg Welty is Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern and holds the D.Phil. from the University of Oxford. As one well qualified to think, talk, and write about the intersection of Christian theology and philosophy, we asked Dr. Welty to explain a “Christian worldview.” This is an edited version of a post which originally ran in 2012.
“Christian worldview” is a trendy term among evangelicals. But what does it mean and why should we care? Let’s consider three questions about the term that can occasion clearer thinking about the topic.
Is “Christian worldview” a misleading term? After all, the world is a pretty big place, almost unimaginably big. Isn’t it impossible to ‘view’ all of it at once? There are at least a billion facts about the table in front of me that I do not know and will never know. So at best a worldview is a fragment or subset of knowable facts that are out there. Which facts should be included in a ‘worldview’ and why? It’s not as if God explicitly lists for us, in Proverbs or Ephesians, which propositions should make the cut. (The term ‘worldview’ doesn’t even appear in the Bible.)
Is “Christian worldview” redundant? Christians already hold that whatever God has revealed for us to believe, we should believe it – full stop. God is creator, providential sustainer, redeemer, and judge, and whatever he has done in these or any other capacities we should believe he has done, and live in light of it. And we already have terms that convey this fundamental idea: ‘theology,’ ‘biblical doctrine,’ ‘systematics’. How does ‘worldview’ add to this notion in a helpful way? If a “Christian worldview” is just my believing whatever God tells me to believe, then it’s not clear why I need a separate class on this in seminary.
Is “Christian worldview” trivial? Let’s recognize that there is now a tradition of reserving the term for Christian teaching on broad themes that intersect with the main areas of philosophy. Worldview is metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and Christian worldview is what God says on those topics. This seems to narrow things down:
1) Metaphysics is about what is ultimately real. Well, God and his creation are ultimately real. Solipsism – the view that only I exist – is false.
2) Epistemology is about the sources, structure, and limits of knowledge. Again, God and his creation are knowable in a variety of ways (Scripture, reason, experience, intuition), though Scripture is our primary source of knowledge of God, our primary source of the most important truths about creation, and has ‘veto power’ over any other alleged source of knowledge in any area. Global skepticism – the view that we cannot have any knowledge at all – is false.
3) Ethics is about whether there are objective norms for human behavior, and if so, in what do they consist? (Rules? The best means to the best ends? The cultivation of virtue?) Relativism – the view that all ethical norms are relative to individuals or cultures – and nihilism – the view that there are no norms at all – are both false.
But by narrowing things down to what the Bible unambiguously teaches us in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, don’t we border on triviality? “Don’t be a solipsist! Don’t be a global skeptic! Don’t be a relativist or nihilist!” These preach well, but they are pretty thin gruel for Christian growth and guidance. It’s not even clear they’re distinctively Christian claims. (Lots of non-Christians believe these things). Is this handful of truisms all we can say on the topic of philosophy? And how many genuine solipsists, global skeptics, and relativists/nihilists are out there anyway?
Thankfully, “Christian worldview” doesn’t have to be misleading, redundant, or trivial. It does involve getting the right answers on matters of being, knowledge and value, and being able to explain why they are the right answers. But it goes far beyond this. A Christian worldview is about using all the resources of Scripture to illuminate the whole range of traditional philosophical disputes, by opening up theological avenues of insight and argument typically neglected in a secular context. It’s not that we’re limited to citing isolated Bible verses in an attempt to decide technical philosophical disputes (although if a verse does speak clearly and relevantly to any question, then go for it!). Rather, as Christian philosophers we seek to show again and again how the existence of the triune, incarnate God who has created all things for his glory and who is reconciling all things to himself matters for how we address the deepest questions of being, knowledge, and value. This God is not a new dashboard ornament we add to our collection, a thing among many other things we can believe in. He is the One in whose light we see light, and in whose absence all is darkness.
Space permits just one example. A perennial philosophical dispute is over the existence and nature of ‘universals’. What is justice? What is goodness? What is wisdom?
1) Are these just words, bits of language we’ve invented for various practical purposes, labels that at best refer to subjective ideas in our head but which have no reference to anything existing distinct from us or independent of us? (That would be nominalism.)
2) Do ‘justice,’ ‘goodness,’ and ‘wisdom’ instead refer to something that only exists in individual things and nowhere else? (That would be ‘moderate’ or Aristotelian realism.)
3) Do they refer to something that exists over and above us and everything else in the world, something that would exist even if there was no physical world at all? (That would be ‘extreme’ or Platonic realism.)
4) Or is there room for an additional view here, the view that universals are in some way true ideas in God’s mind that he has by nature, true ideas that God has of his nature and power? This would be a God-centered view of universals that combines the best of the preceding views.
- As in nominalism, they are ideas (divine ideas).
- As in Aristotelian realism, they exist in an individual and not apart from an individual (God).
- As in Platonic realism they exist quite independently of us and anything else in creation.
So God is the exemplar of justice, goodness, and wisdom. Creatures only have these things insofar as they imitate God, the standard. Suddenly the most abstruse debates of the ancient, medieval, and modern periods become matters to which a theologically-informed ‘worldview’ can speak, and in a way that displays how our faith contrasts with other ‘faiths’. This contrast isn’t misleading, redundant, or trivial, and it exists in dozens of other areas besides this one.
This is ‘faith seeking understanding’: by faith we already believe that God exists and that he has ideas of his nature, but our faith seeks further understanding of how these and similar truths can help illuminate a whole range of inquiries about the world. In this way Christian philosophy (or a “Christian worldview”) becomes a pathway to intellectual maturity, by repeatedly leading us to see that God is at the center and not the periphery, no matter the subject of discussion.
So, to summarize: I don’t think there is a consensus on the meaning of the phrase ‘Christian worldview,’ and so I’m not going to pretend that there is. But above I have set forth two understandings of the phrase that I think are useful:
‘Christian worldview’ (meaning 1): Since ‘worldview’ is metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, then Christian worldview is what God says on those topics. Metaphysics asks, “What is ultimately real?” Epistemology asks, “What are the sources, structure, and limits of knowledge?” Ethics asks, “Are there objective norms for human behavior, and if so, what are these norms?” To the extent that you accurately interpret and appeal to the Bible to help you answer these questions, then you will have a Christian worldview.
‘Christian worldview’ (meaning 2): Christian worldview is more of an activity we engage in rather than a set of Post-it notes we memorize. A Christian worldview is about using all the resources of Scripture to illuminate the whole range of traditional philosophical disputes, by opening up theological avenues of insight and argument typically neglected in a secular context. I illustrated this activity in one way above, but the number of ways is potentially limitless.