Theme registry rebuild completed. Turn off this feature for production websites.

Whose Worldview? Part 3

by Jason Wallace • February 5, 2014 •

This article is the final enstallment of an on-going series. Read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Another curious development is the ease with which evangelicals use worldview thinking to forge political alliances unimaginable to an earlier generation of Protestants.  Evangelicals and Catholics Together, now almost two decades old, drew the support of a number of evangelicals in large part because it offered a conservative approach to moral issues without the unpleasantness of substantive theological disagreement.  Worldview allowed evangelicals a place at the table of conservative Catholic moral theology.  Neither group raised the possibility the philosophical foundations of evangelical worldview theology and Catholic natural law theology might not be all that compatible.  More recently, the Manhattan Declaration captured the imagination, and signatures, of worldview supporters by affirming the sanctity of life, religious liberty, and traditional marriage.  Human dignity, not sinfulness, or redemption, or hope, or future glory, set the agenda.  To speak of human dignity is to speak an important truth.  But, what of the others?  Can Christians understand human dignity, sin, and redemption apart from concrete biblical interpretation?  If not, then who is doing the interpreting?  Worldview advocates, whether more liberal or more conservative, minimize the place of creedal subscription because creeds are silent about cultural and social matters.  A unified cultural and social vision that can stand independent of doctrinal differences takes priority over serious questions about salvation and the eternal state of the soul.

Because worldview theology tends to operate outside of confessional and ecclesiastical boundaries it more often than not confuses spiritual purposes with political purposes.  Worldview defenders insist Christianity is relevant for our shared social and political life.  What is unclear, however, is exactly how this is the case.  What precisely does Christianity teach that is necessary for common life in a large, pluralistic, liberal democracy?  Where do worldview supporters, on the right or left, find evidence that Jesus and the Apostle’s advocated political transformation?  If Christianity cannot agree how to unify the church, how can it possibly provide a worldview sufficient to the task of commanding political allegiance?  Worldview theology stumbles over these questions because it cannot answer them without excluding anyone who does not hold a Christian worldview.  Muslims, Jews, and a host of other religious persons are unaccounted for in a worldview approach to political order. Whereas natural law theory and the historic doctrine of general revelation make room for consensus apart from special revelation, worldview theology plays a zero-sum game.  Special revelation provides the correct biblical worldview that governs society and politics, and only those with the correct biblical worldview can rightly interpret special revelation.  All in all, it seems the only rulers Christian worldview advocates can tolerate are one’s who hold a Christian worldview.  As modern Americans living under a secular constitution, this puts them in a difficult position.  They have to convince those who do not believe what they believe to accept to accept their authority, or they have to rewrite the social contract, a challenge either way.  As church members, they have an equally difficult task of deciding what happens when two or more worldviews occupy the same ecclesiastical space.  Can a Christian be denied the sacraments or asked to leave a church because of a worldview?

Saying “I believe in a Christian worldview” is similar to saying “I support the U. S. Constitution,” or “I like justice.”  These declarations have no teeth in the abstract.  The Constitution assumes meaning from lawful interpretative authority, historical enactment, and institutional practice.  Real courts, with real flesh and blood judges and juries, mete out justice and in turn give it meaning for day-to-day life.  Justice matters because somebody or something is determined to be closer to truthful.  Likewise, “Christian” has to be defined in order to matter.  Confessions and ecclesiastical office were the principle guides by which Protestants originally navigated competing interpretations of Scripture.  Abandonment of confessionalism and neglecting the integrity of church offices has left the concrete propositional content of Christianity vulnerable to speculation, or worse, social and cultural mandates.  No matter how much sound and fury worldview theology generates about the loss of culture and politics to an incipient progressive secularism, it says nothing about Christianity itself.

Worldview theology strives for a universal triumphant ideal without the weight of particularity.  As such it comes dangerously close to making the gospel ancillary to ideology.  Christ and Christianity are not ideas competing in a marketplace of ideas.  Christ does not contend with other philosophical schools for adherents.  Christianity declares a historical incarnation, death, and resurrection, not a philosophy.  To speak of Christ is to speak in harmony with Scripture, confession, and ecclesiastical office.  To speak of Christ is to speak words of comfort.  A worldview cannot comfort, it can only burden.  To insist that a Christian must have a certain kind of worldview is to insist that faith must be supplemented by the right kind of opinion.  A worldview demands an ideological commitment, where faith demands submission to a spiritual order that subverts ideology.  A worldview asserts that the kingdom of God is manifest in cultural and political activity, where faith longs for a hope still unseen.  A worldview needs self-consciousness, where faith loses self-consciousness.  A worldview wants saints with certainty, where faith is limited to sinners with a savior.  In sum, a worldview binds conscience where Christ frees conscience.  A worldview may indeed provide a presuppositional philosophical lance to tilt at secular dragons.  But, one need not embrace Christianity for such a weapon.  Plato, Hegel, the Koran, and theism, to name but a few, will suffice.  Theism, Islam, Idealism, and Platonism, however, are not Christianity.  Naked theism tells Christians nothing about incarnation, atonement, justification, sacraments, law and gospel, or the purpose of the church.  To speak in such specifics is to deny the universal potency of a worldview.  Politics and culture are neither proximate nor ultimate ends for Christianity, and perhaps, just perhaps, a naked public square is less dangerous to the purposes of Christianity than a Christian worldview willing to make peace with a naked theism.  

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.

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is member supported and operates only by your faithful support. Thank you.