For the Record (Greg Welty): What is a “Christian Worldview”?

[Editor’s Note: Greg Welty is Associate 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.” What do you think?]

“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.

  1. As in nominalism, they are ideas (divine ideas).
  2. As in Aristotelian realism, they exist in an individual and not apart from an individual (God).
  3. 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.

Briefly Noted: Briggle and Frodeman on The Problem with Philosophy

Now these two fellows have gone to meddlin’. In their recent article in The Chronicle Review, Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman argue American philosophy departments are out of touch with reality, and will soon be out of business, if they cannot foster an environment in which philosophers can be generalists instead of specialists, and public philosophers instead of isolated eggheads.[1] Those are my words, not theirs, but that’s the gist of it.

Briggle and Frodeman write, “We are saddled with early-20th-century modes of philosophy. In the 20th century, philosophy abandoned its Socratic heritage in favor of a disciplinary model of practice. Rather than engaging citizens in all walks of life on the issues they faced, philosophers spoke mainly to one another about problems of their own invention.” (B11) This recent development is problematic; it is irresponsible, and politically and economically unsustainable.

The ever-increasing specialization of philosophy is politically and economically unsustainable because such specialization comes at the cost of cultural insignificance. Public perception is that philosophy is a discipline for irrelevant egg-headed navel gazers who make no real contribution to society. “Of course, philosophy is secure at America’s elite universities. But what of the vast number of universities whose future is tied to the decisions of state legislatures or other financial considerations?” (B10) The authors imply that state legislatures and community college CFOs will not long put up with philosophy unless philosophers learn to “go public” which means that there must be a role for generalists.

Thus, “It is time to reclaim the public role of philosophy.” (B11) Rather than operating under a paradigm in which philosophers must focus narrowly on one or two of the philosophical subdisciplines, why not train some philosophers as generalists so that they can work in the public and private sectors?  (B11) “Why, for example, are philosophers housed in philosophy departments? Should groups of two or three philosophers be placed in departments across campus, to draw out the philosophic aspects of chemistry, economics, and business? Why is there no ‘lab’ or ‘field’ component for philosophy courses?” (B11)

In light of these critiques, they offer three areas of reform: “First, we need to reconsider what counts as expertise, rigor, and excellence–the single-model of specialization that keeps us writing philosophy papers for each other…. Second, a new philosophy calls for new types of philosophers trained with the skills necessary for being ‘interactional’ experts…. Third, the case for reform made here involves an appeal to prudential self-interest–devising ways to survive in a harried, impatient, and increasingly market-driven age.” (B12)

I could not agree more with Briggle and Frodeman, and I would expand their critique beyond philosophy to the other academic disciplines, including theological studies. As I see it, both generalists and specialists are needed for the health of academic disciplines such as philosophy and theology. When our universities and seminaries foster an environment in which one must be a specialist in order to be hired or promoted, they (unintentionally) also create a situation in which they are (or, at least are perceived to be) increasingly irrelevant to society and culture at large.

One of the reasons the French existentialists (e.g. Sartre and Camus) were so successful in their day is that they were able to write both for the academy and for the general public. They published not only academic tomes (e.g. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness), but also fiction and drama (e.g. Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Plague), and public opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Likewise, one of the reasons Abraham Kuyper was so successful in his day was the fact that he was a generalist able to articulate the significance of Christian theology for every dimension of human life and every sphere of culture.

Thank God for the generalists. May their tribe increase (though not at the expense of the specialists).

[1] “A New Philosophy for the 21st Century” by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman in The Chronicle Review (December 16, 2011): B10–12.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (12): Further Thoughts on Theology & Philosophy

In the last post, we discussed briefly the relationship between Scripture, theology, and other academic disciplines. In this post, we will follow up on one strand of that discussion by discussing the historically enigmatic relation between theology and philosophy. An account of the theological task must provide an account of the relation of these two disciplines. Before doing so, however, one must define this notion of “philosophy,” which can be used in quite different manners. David Clark points out that theologians use the word “philosophy” in at least four different manners.[1] First, philosophy can refer to a person’s philosophy of life, his worldview, his most basic conceptual grid. Under this view, philosophy is a macroperspective which interprets the whole of life. Second, philosophy can refer to an academic discipline which consists of a cluster of sub-disciplines such as logic, metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics. Third, philosophy can refer to second-order areas of study that have become academic disciplines with their own integrity. Examples include philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and philosophy of religion. Fourth, philosophy can refer to one’s commitment to critical thinking and argumentation.

When unfolding the relation of theology to philosophy, this post has in mind a combination of the latter three uses of the word philosophy. In our view, Christian philosophy is the attempt to describe systematically the structure of creation (the nature of being, of knowledge, of beauty, etc.), drawing upon God’s self-revelation found in the created order and in the Bible, and using the tools of critical thinking and argumentation. It seeks a comprehensive view of the created order as creation (not merely as “nature”), and draws upon Scripture. Although Scripture does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of creational realities, it does provide the framework and many clues for understanding them. Bartholomew and Goheen write, “In our experience, sometimes people get so excited about philosophy-believe it or not-that they forget that it is Scripture which is God’s infallible word. Indeed, in our opinion a healthy Christian philosophy, like a healthy Christian theology, will take us back again and again and deeper and deeper into the Bible. We also believe that because the Bible is God’s Word for all of life that philosophy too must bow to its authority.”[2]

How, therefore, is Christian philosophy related to the task of systematic and integrative theology (such as the type being encouraged in this blog series)? First, philosophy is helpful for conceiving one’s theological method. For example, Christian philosophers can help the theologian articulate the ontology and epistemology that undergird the theological enterprise. Second, the philosophical sub-discipline of logic helps the theologian conceive and articulate each doctrine in a unified and coherent manner, and further to relate the doctrines to each other in a likewise coherent manner. Third, the philosophical sub-discipline of “history of philosophy” can help the theologian understand both the positive and negative developments in intellectual history. Fourth, philosophical tools can help the theologian make a deep-level exegesis of his cultural context. Fifth, philosophical tools can help clear the ground for a person’s conversion, by answering various objections to belief. Sixth, philosophy can assist the theologian in analyzing various aspects of the creational order and of human life, an aspect of the philosophical task to which we now turn.

[1] David Clark, To Know and Love God, 296-299.

[2] Bartholomew and Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy, ch. 1.