Whose Worldview? Part 2

Jason Wallace

This article is part of an on-going series. Read Part 1 here.

After Kuyper, Augustine’s distinction between the city of God and the city of man need not be so pronounced in the conservative Protestant imagination.  In the 20th century Cornelius Van Til expressed this possibility even more pointedly in his notion of the antithesis between believers and unbelievers.  According to Van Til grace not only saves the sinner, it changes the believer’s epistemology.  True knowledge is only possible for believers.  Unbelievers cannot know truth, spiritual or otherwise, because sin distorts the use of their rational faculties.  Because the unregenerate cannot know truth they live with a distorted worldview.  Their perception of truth depends upon the “borrowed capital” of Christianity.  The regenerate, by contrast, can rightly use reason and, in turn, they have a correct worldview.  Van Til’s antithesis blurred, if not denied, the historical theological distinction between nature and grace, and collapsed creation and redemption into a continuum earlier reformed theologians would not allow.  The result was a powerful tool for worldview advocates.  Apart from Christianity all authority—educational, political, artistic, scientific—is at best flawed and at worst illegitimate.  Only a Christian worldview can correct the deficit.

While neo-Calvinism’s subculture provided the philosophical underpinning for worldview theology, big-tent American evangelicalism furnished the activist spirit for its application.  Like an earlier generation of evangelicals, 20th century evangelicals tended toward doctrinal minimalism in favor of broad social consensus that found a variety of expressions across denominational lines.  Stirred by post World War II leadership from the likes of Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, and Charles Fuller, evangelicals slowly awakened to the possibility of cultural engagement in an era dominated by mainline liberal public theology.  In the 1970s and early 1980s the efforts of Francis Schaffer, James Dobson, Charles Colson, and Tim LaHaye, among others, brought worldview theology into the everyday evangelical vernacular.  Finding a comfortable constituency with conservative homeschoolers, private Christian academies, and small evangelical colleges, Christian worldview apologetics only tightened its grip on the conservative Protestant imagination. 

Conventional wisdom suggests worldview theology provides evangelicalism a measure of relevancy and intellectual respectability it otherwise lacks.  Emerging from the fundamentalist-modernist crises in the early decades of the 20th century evangelicals struggled to find their identity in the broader American intellectual landscape.  Not wanting to appear unintelligent or culturally backwards, worldview theology afforded evangelicals a meaningful way to reenter public life.  The idea of a Christian worldview lent itself to education, a field largely closed to evangelicals for decades.  Rather than be limited by narrow, mostly unnoticed denominational concerns, worldview provided evangelicals a way to move into the public eye.  Through worldview theology 20th century evangelicals reclaimed the crusading mantle of bequeathed by their 18th and 19th century ancestors, and lost to the exigencies of modernism.  Worldview apologetics gave evangelicals a language that seemingly made their faith more practical, meaningful, and sophisticated in a culture largely indifferent to their presence. 

Being noticed is no doubt an important factor that led to worldview theology’s prominence.  But other, subtler reasons pertain as well.  Most notable is the gap between contemporary evangelicalism’s ill-defined theological boundaries and the fastidiousness of an earlier generation of confessional Protestants.  Protestant theologians of the magisterial Reformation sought theological accuracy because of the thin margin of error between being wrong and damnation. Worldview theology, by contrast, thrives where dogmatic scruples take a back seat to cultural influence.  It works well for evangelicals, both on the left and the right, because it is less exacting than older Protestant versions of confessionalism.  In this regard Christian worldview advocates find a happier home in broad expressions of Christianity rather than communions that seek doctrinal precision.  Liberal theology abandoned dogma earlier than evangelicals, but evangelicals have made up the difference.  As confessional subscription sputtered and shrank between the 18th century and the 20th century worldview theology provided a convenient flexibility older Protestant models lacked.  Confessional Protestantism borrowed from the scholastic tradition in as much as it believed the Christian faith could be expressed through propositional content organized and explained to anyone with a modicum of rational ability.  Such propositional truth claims about salvation, however, come with liabilities.  Namely, people disagree, sometimes, as in the case of early modern Europe, to the point of killing each other.  Worldview theology slips around the problem by urging Christian truth is not so much about assent to a particular confession of faith as it is a commitment to the social and cultural utility Christian assent provides.

For worldview advocates, as with theological liberalism, unity and usefulness take priority over the messy divisiveness of history and dogma.  Political and cultural causes unite where confessions divide.  To acknowledge a confession of faith as a true expression of Christianity is to acknowledge all other expressions are somehow inadequate.  Every confession of the magisterial Reformation, Augsburg, 39 Articles, Trent, Belgic, Westminster, make explicit claims about ministry, the church, and the sacraments.  These confessions agree on many points, but they often disagree about key Christian teachings, teachings that not only affect how eternal verities are understood, but also how they translate into embodied rituals and practice.  Meticulousness and precision are antithetical to worldview theology.  Does a Christian’s understanding of particular theological claims matter to his or her worldview?  Does it matter to a worldview whether or not the benefits of Christ are imputed or infused?  What about purgatory?  Speaking in tongues?  Infant baptism?  A literal resurrection from the dead?  If the answer is yes, doctrinal considerations do matter for a worldview, then what happens to a worldview when Christians disagree about doctrine? 

Most worldview champions would probably argue doctrine does matter to one’s worldview.  But, if this is the case, then how Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox, much less Lutherans, Calvinists, and Pentecostals, share a worldview is unclear.  At best, it seems contemporary evangelicals use the idea of Christian worldview much like liberal Christians once used the phrase “Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man”—a large accommodating umbrella sheltering delimited political and social expressions of Christianity.  Theological details matter peripherally to the big-picture picture possibility of redeeming the culture.  Building and managing cultural unanimity take priority over disciplined habits, to some even boring habits, of older theological forms.  These older theological forms gave rise to confessions and creeds.  They speak to particular details, but at price worldview proponents do not want to pay, namely, the collapse of consensus and visible unity in a democratized religious climate.

W. Jason Wallace (PhD University of Virginia) is an Associate Professor of History and director of the Core Texts Program at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Wallace is the author of Catholics, Slaveholders, and the Dilemma of American Evangelicalism, 1835-1860, and has a forthcoming book from The Johns Hopkins University Press entitled Collapse of the Covenant: The Transformation of the Puritan Ideal.

Jason Wallace