Worldview in Theology

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 7.4)

Since the early 1980s, there has been a flurry of publication on “the Christian worldview.” This has reflected the lack of clarity about the relationship between philosophy and worldview, adding to the confusion the contested relationship between philosophy and theology. Often, worldview is conflated with the articulation of some sort of Christian philosophy or philosophical theology, or at least the mingling of philosophy and theology.1 Such approaches are generally in search of a comprehensive system of belief or “theory of everything.”2 Others, such as Albert Wolters, characterize worldview as pretheoretical basic beliefs, which the “basic concepts” of biblical theology should constitute—at which point they are apparently no longer pretheoretical.3 Subsequently, the elaboration of “the Christian worldview” as the framework for Christian university education has morphed into an industry all its own.4 In the context of this final development, especially in the Reformed tradition, James K. A. Smith registers a significant concern about worldview: it tends to be deeply biased toward beliefs and, therefore, assumes an overly cognitive anthropology.5 There is much in the philosophical conceptions already discussed, and more in the social scientific conceptions below, to suggest that the cognitivist Reformed misconstrual of worldview is not representative, yet given the overwhelming tendency in theological circles to reduce the concept to express beliefs—and, indeed, given the cognitivist bent of Western theology generally—Smith’s warning is weighty. While one might argue that Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary” (which Smith prefers over worldview) is synonymous with worldview properly conceived, the point in any event is that the conception of worldview, if it is to be theologically fruitful, needs to move toward its postmodern realization as an embodied, cultural phenomenon.6

A second important development in theology is the use of worldview in theological hermeneutics. The leading representative in this regard is N. T. Wright, whose massive series Christian Origins and the Question of God has made extensive use of Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s worldview questions.7 As a work of New Testament theology dealing extensively with first-century Christianity through the lens of a worldview model, I might have mentioned it in connection with biblical studies, especially given the hermeneutical concerns that relate so directly to Wright’s endeavor to reconstruct the worldview of, for example, second-temple Jews. Yet, his melding of historical worldview analysis with narrative theology places his work in the no-man’s land of theological hermeneutics. Because other theologians have followed Wright in developing a narrative account of worldview, and because it only seems right to disassociate his biblical theology from the objectivist hermeneutics Gadamer has made untenable, the discussion is best placed here. The upshot is that narrative worldview analysis is now at home in biblical theology and, increasingly, missional hermeneutics.8


  1. See, e.g., William Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a World View, Contours of Christian Philosophy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983); Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a World View, Studies in a Christian World View (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); W. Andrew Hoffecker, Building a Christian Worldview, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1986); Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992); J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  2. James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 93, notes this common misapprehension.
  3. Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005; 1st ed. 1985), ch. 1, offers the prime example; Walsh and Middleton do much the same.
  4. See, e.g., Walsh and Middleton, chs. 11–12; David S. Dockery and Gregory Alan Thornbury, eds., Shaping a Christian Worldview: The Foundations of Christian Higher Education (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2002); Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2004); Mark P. Cosgrove, Foundations of Christian Thought: Faith Learning, and the Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006). This stream seems to originate from the affinity between “basic beliefs” and the notion of “control beliefs” elaborated by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), though Wolterstorff himself is none too fond worldview in the Kuyperian tradition; see Nicholas Wolterstorff, “On Christian Learning,” in Stained Glass: Worldviews and Social Science, ed. Paul A. Marshall, Sander Griffioen, and Richard J. Mouw, Christian Studies Today (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), 66–67.
  5. James K. A. Smith, Cultural Liturgies, vol. 1, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 24–25.
  6. The missiological account of worldview, attuned to cultural anthropology, already moves in this direction. In fact, the most curious thing about Smith’s discussion is that, in order to undertake a cultural analysis, he invites the reader to imagine being a Martian anthropologist doing ethnography in North America (19). Why not just imagine being an actual anthropologist and appeal to established ethnographic methods? Even when it is reduced to mere “practical theology,” missiology already offers at least that much as a discipline within Christian theology. Its absence here is especially glaring because of Smith’s purported attention to culture, but the lacuna is typical of most theology—and a major contrast with missional theology methodologically organized around worldview.
  7. Beginning with N. T. Wright, Christian Origins And The Question Of God, vol. 1, The New Testament and the People God (London: SPCK, 1992), 123, and continuing through his most recent volume in the series.
  8. Edward W Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), part 3, have gone so far as to classify an entire approach to biblical theology, following Wright, as “biblical theology as worldview-story.” See also Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004); Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008); Michael Goheen, “The Mission of God’s People and Biblical Interpretation: Exploring N. T. Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic,” A Dialogue with N. T. Wright, Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar Meeting, San Francisco, November 18, 2011, Mike Goheen and Al Wolters, “Postscript: Worldview between Story and Mission,” in Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 119–43, even take Wolter’s original proposal in a narrative direction.