The Myth of the Biblical Worldview

Creation-Hands.jpgIn conversations about faith, religion and particularly missions, the term “biblical worldview” often comes up. It came up recently at the ECHO conference in a way that troubled me. It forced me to think about this term, the way it is used, what it means and whether it is even helpful.  

Worldview, like culture, is a notoriously slippery term. It describes a certain reality that exists, but that words have a hard time grasping. It is also a concept that cannot draw clear lines dividing people and cultures into neat categories. Where it attempts to do so it is problematic. The concept of worldview is an attempt to describe the essential and fundamental nature of things that shape our deepest beliefs. Therefore it is important and helpful, but not ultimate.

A “biblical worldview” is something that must first of all come from the Bible. Does the Bible espouse a particular worldview? The collection of texts we call the Bible is made up of at least forty different authors (likely more including the communities that influenced those writers) and numerous genres, such as, narrative, prose, commands and poetry. While this is not a random collection of writings, it also speaks with a surprising diversity and multiplicity of voices. When we attempt to force all of the texts of the Bible into one overarching genre or worldview (such as inerrant, infallible, prophetic or authority), we must necessarily mute certain voices in the text while amplifying others. Thus the Bible is muzzled and not allowed to speak.

A “biblical worldview” is also something that many people believe that they possess. I don’t believe that the Bible or faith or God is something we can possess. It is something and someone that possesses us. Once we are able to possess this worldview it ceases to be something that can challenge and critique us. All of us human beings are culturally conditioned and constrained creatures. We can certainly bear witness to our experience of the One who possesses us. We can share the witness of the biblical narrative to that same One. Unless we are willing and open to God and the Bible speaking to us in new ways from beyond our own cultural captivity, we continue to be engaged in cultural imperialism rather than the Kingdom of God.

This is why I don’t believe that a thing called a “biblical worldview” exists except, perhaps, in the mind of God. This is a concept that is not helpful and does not describe reality. As long as a human being is the one said to have a “biblical worldview”, I find it a fundamentally flawed and potentially dangerous idea. Andrew Walls and others have described Christianity as the ultimate local religion. I do believe that the gospel is able to be translated across cultures. There is something that ties the Body of Christ together in the world. However, this is a trans-cultural phenomenon that is both incarnate and transformative of that culture.

Image from truthandscience.net … God’s hands look a lot like mine. Ironic, don’t you think?

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10 thoughts on “The Myth of the Biblical Worldview

  1. Brett G

    Fantastic post, Lucas. I’m in the process currently of (re)considering what worldview means and what role the gospel/Bible plays in that. “Once we are able to possess this worldview it ceases to be something that can challenge and critique us.” For now I’ll just say that Newbigin has some really helpful things to say in THE GOSPEL IN A PLURALIST SOCIETY about this topic. But thanks for an accessible reflection on gospel/culture.

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  2. Keith Walters

    I read this post and your post, summarizing ECHO, and what you have written sounds very reactionary. I am no fan of cultural imperialism or muting Scripture but from your description of this particular presentation it is apparent that the speaker new little about worldview and probably even less about animism. If your reaction against a biblical worldview is based upon this person’s presentation then you are right; because that version of the biblical worldview is incorrect and at odds with any scholarly writing that I am familiar with on the subject. I would recommend that you take more time to study this topic and see what more reliable sources are saying.

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    1. lucas Post author

      Keith,

      I appreciate your thoughts and taking the time to read both posts. I was reacting to a particular workshop and speaker at ECHO. In that sense it is a reaction to an experience I had. However, it is not the first time I have studied the question. As part of my time in seminary I studied world religions, worldview and cross cultural communications. So, my thoughts are not based on a knee jerk reaction to one presentation.

      Just to clarify, I’m not rejecting the Bible, Christianity, Jesus or any orthodox claims. What I am rejecting primarily is the idea that we can possess a biblical worldview. I’m not even denying that there may be a biblical worldview, only that we don’t possess it. Possessing something, owning it, means it is no longer something that can judge and critique us. I’d be interested to hear specifically what parts of my thoughts you disagreed with. Thanks!

      Reply
  3. Keith Walters

    Lucas,
    Don’t worry I know you are not rejecting “Bible, Christianity, Jesus or any orthodox claims” and I am not accusing you of doing so.

    Before we even get to the question of worldview I think your understanding of possession needs to be discussed. I am confused why you think possession of something prevents it from judging us. I think you are confusing understanding and verbal consent with application. Just because we intellectually grasp a certain concept, or possess it, does not necessarily imply that we also perfectly apply that concept. Scripture seems to agree that the better we are able to grasp a concept the greater its ability to judge us becomes (Romans 2:4-5; 7:7). Within this mode of thinking the more we know of the biblical worldview, the clearer it becomes in our minds, the greater our judgment becomes for rebelling against it. Does that make sense?

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  4. lucas Post author

    Thanks for following up.

    I think we are using the term “possess” differently. I agree with what you are saying. In my use of the term I am referring to the idea that we own a biblical worldview as a piece of property. We then believe that we can transfer this piece of property to someone else.

    I guess I disagree with your equating the terms possess and understand. Possession seems to imply something different than what you’re saying.

    Thanks for your thoughts. They are very helpful.

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  5. Keith Walters

    That helps explain where you are coming from although I think that the possession of intellectual property comes primarily in the form of understanding.

    I do agree that the idea that we can possess the biblical worldview and then directly transfer it to another individual or culture is problematic. Even when transferring physical property from one culture to another the item may acquire new functions and/or meaning. Because of that I think the concept of direct transfer is problematic rather than the concept of worldview.

    In place of this rigid worldview concept we need a flexible one, one that is open to being shaped by the various cultures which it encounters. What do I mean by this? We can look at the concept of the individual as a basic example. For most “western Christians” their worldview would be highly individualistic emphasizing the autonomy and significance of the individual over that of the community. On the other hand, the worldview of many other cultures would emphasize the authority and significance of the community over that of the individual. How then can the biblical worldview be transferred between these two cultures? I think two things have to happen.

    First, you must understand the overarching trajectory of the biblical worldview as it points us from the garden to a global temple/city. As it begins with one language, one culture, and one people in the garden and then grows to encompass a people gathered from every tribe, tongue, and nation. This prevents cultural imperialism because the biblical worldview is not about one single culture but about all cultures and their redemption in Christ.

    Second, because this is the case we must learn to view the church, local and global, as what Paul Hiebert describes as a hermeneutical community. We tend to mute Scripture not because we attempt to study the worldview it presents; as it reveals to us eternity past, the present, and eternity future. Rather we mute Scripture because we tend to read Scripture in such a way that it conforms to our various preexisting and rebellious worldviews. The church as a hermeneutical community guards against this error. This a tremendous benefit of what Andrew Walls has noted as the shift of the epicenter of global Christianity from the northern to the southern hemisphere. Because of this we have a wealth of new theological study coming from various perspectives that are radically different than the western perspective that has dominated the church for the majority of its existence. Rather than seeing these diverging perspectives as cause for division Paul Hiebert’s concept of hermeneutical community would see them as cause for dialogue and reforming the biblical worldview in such a way as to account for these new insights. When this occurs we see that neither the reading that gives the individual the supreme importance is correct nor is the reading that gives the community the supreme importance. Rather we see a balance between community and individual where spiritual gifts are given to individuals for the sake of equipping the community and the community exists for the sake of holding individuals accountable.

    The biblical worldview exists. We just need to be open to the fact that because of our rebellious inclinations our reading may not be the correct one. And just as the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem listened to Paul and Barnabas concerning circumcision we must likewise listen to the global church as we seek to understand what God has spoken. Like sanctification the biblical worldview is never a completed task we will always view parts of our world through rebellious eyes and we must constantly be about the task of renewing our minds.

    Paul G. Hiebert’s book Anthropological Insights for Missionaries has a chapter entitled “Critical Contextualization” that explains how the church functions as a hermeneutical community. Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally by David Hesselgrave is also helpful on this topic. Honor and Shame by Roland Muller is a fantastic example of how the gospel speaks to individuals of various worldviews.

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  6. lucas Post author

    First of all I agree whole-heartedly with pretty much everything you said. We are very much on the same page. There is certainly a difference between rigid and flexible understandings of worldview. Worldview as a concept, like culture, is not something anyone understands very well. All the definitions I’ve read are contradictory, vague and inadequate. Like I said, I think it points to something, but I’m not sure how far to take it, particularly in terms of a “biblical worldview.”

    My only question is still what benefit the term “biblical worldview” has. We could say everything that you said without the need for this concept. My point is that this idea may be more harmful than helpful. You assert that a biblical worldview exists, but I’m not sure how one goes about proving that. There may be something called a western worldview or magical worldview, but when you try to actually pin it down or define it it slips out from your fingers.

    I appreciate Hiebert and Walls very much. I’m not a fan of what I’ve read by Hesselgrave. Don’t know Muller, but will add it to the list. Walls assertion (i think it’s him) that Christianity is the ultimate local religion is more helpful to me than the language of worldview. Again, I’m not denying that worldview exists or that it’s not important or helpful as a concept. When applied to the Bible it seems much more problematic. We can test the worldview of living people and cultures through observation. We can hardly agree on the interpretation of much of Scripture.

    Perhaps Walls’ essentials could be helpful. I believe they are 1)centrality of Jesus 2)biblical text 3)water baptism and 4)eucharist. These are the marks of Christianity across cultures and there is a lot of room for diversity within this. What does centrality of Jesus mean? The more we tighten down and narrow our definitions the more people who consider themselves followers of Jesus fall outside the boundaries we draw. It’s not a question likely to be solved in this thread, but I’m questioning the usefulness of the “biblical worldview” as a way of solving or mediating the problem.

    Look forward to hear your response.

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  7. lucas Post author

    I also meant to point out that you said we would constantly reform biblical worldview based on the community and individuals ongoing experience of God. I’m not sure where you’re grounding the substance or existence of a biblical worldview if it is open to constant revision. I agree with you that experience plays an ongoing role in our understanding of the gospel and what it means to follow Jesus. I don’t think the gospel means the same thing today that it did in the first century. Paul and the New Testament writers radically reinterpreted, and misquoted on purpose, scripture because of their experience of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (e.g. Paul misquotes Isaiah saying that he is the light to the Gentiles). This revisionist thread in our own scriptures is often overlooked.

    Again, I guess I’m mainly saying that the language of worldview applied to the Bible or biblical faith is not helpful and not necessary at best and maybe harmful at worst.

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  8. Keith Walters

    Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, the past week has been crazy. As for your question “I’m not sure where you’re grounding the substance or existence of a biblical worldview if it is open to constant revision.” I think we have to ground it in Scripture and by this I do not mean my western understanding of Scripture but in a global understanding of Scripture as we study it as a global church. Yes, it is constantly under revision but it is being revised as our understanding of Scripture increases. We now have theologies being produced all over the globe to answer the questions of various cultures and contexts. The answers have always been available in Scripture but the western church has not been asking these questions. As these new studies emerge from the text of Scripture we can assimilate them into a comprehensive biblical worldview. This is why the biblical worldview is important because it provides a comprehensive framework through which the world can be interpreted. As one aspect of this framework changes the entire framework undergoes change because it cannot be compartmentalized and sectioned off as with Systematic Theology. Systematic Theology can have various things in various categories and never has to ask if all of these things work together. That is the question that a biblical worldview asks and that is why it is important because it allows us to see the interconnectedness of all theology.

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  9. J Fowler

    Good thoughts Lucas. I’m reading a book right now called ‘Hidden Worldviews’ from Intervarsity Press. So far it’s been helpful in defining what a worldview is but I’m still wading through the concept of worldview.

    I do believe we can have a Biblical worldview and I do believe there is an overarching narrative and worldview through the entire Bible. But I agree with you, often and usually our worldview has us, we don’t have it.

    It’s all about the cultural and personal stories we are living out of.

    But it is hard to separate the idea of a person’s ‘worldview’ from the person themselves. It is a very sticky topic.

    shalom!

    Reply

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