Worldview in Grenz and Franke’s Postfoundationalist, Postmodern Method

A Missional Method for Constructive Theology (Part 9)

The next two parts of the series consider what significant evangelical theological methods with underdeveloped conceptions of worldview stand to gain by working with a missiological understanding of worldview. I consider the use of worldview in Grenz and Franke’s Beyond Foundationalism and in Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine. They deserve consideration in the present argument for three reasons. First, both are widely recognized as noteworthy evangelical expositions of theological method. Second, they are already attuned to missional concerns. Third, they engage profoundly with the post-everything context that concerns missional theology.

Stanley Grenz and John Franke’s book Beyond Foundationalism already bends toward missional theology, claiming the “final purpose of theology” is “the church’s mission.”[1. Stanley Grenz and John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2001), 26, 50, 273.] This phrasing still reflects an ecclesiocentric missiology that has not been restructured by the priority of God’s mission, but the trinitarian and participatory theology they elaborate resonates with missional theology nonetheless.[2. One reader asked whether we shouldn’t read this phrasing more generously. I can’t disagree: Franke is a missiologist and currently serves as General Coordinator for the Gospel and Our Culture Network; see The Gospel and Our Culture Network, GOCN Board, My concern here, however, is the broad tendency of evangelical theology into which this phrasing still plays and which, undoubtedly, many still bring to their reading.] Their proposal is particularly attentive to culture, engaging missiological concerns more than most theological methods. Yet, a clearer conception of worldview could resolve a critical equivocation in their method and make an already fruitful work even more valuable for missional theology.

The authors identify their context as “postmodern,” which they take to designate a “rejection of certain central features of the modern project” that unifies the work of deconstructionists, postliberals, and posconservatives alike.[3. Grenz and Franke, 21.] As the book’s title indicates, their “especially crucial” theological concern is the demise of modern epistemological foundationalism.[4. Ibid., 28.] This is the primary sense of their question, “How should theology respond to the collapse of the modern worldview?”[5. Ibid., 11.]:

The results of the foundationalist approach of modern liberals and conservatives have been astounding. In different ways both groups have sought to respond to the challenge of the Enlightenment and rescue theology in the face of the secularist worldview of late modernity. Although the liberals and conservatives routinely dismiss each other’s work, they share the single agenda of seeking to maintain the credibility of Christianity within a culture that glorifies reason and deifies science.[6. Ibid., 37.]

The question, in other words, is how to do theology when the theological appeal to foundationalist epistemology is no longer culturally appropriate, because the worldview that theology needs to address has passed from modern to postmodern.

Their suggestion for theology “beyond foundationalism” begins with the work of Reformed epistemologists, “which raises the question as to what—if anything—might be deemed basic for Christian theology.”[7. Ibid., 47.] Grenz and Franke’s point of departure becomes, therefore, the “communitarian turn” of Reformed epistemology, identifying as “basic” for theology the “interpretive framework” of the Christian community that shares the experience of the “encounter with the God of the Bible through Jesus.”[8. Ibid., 48–49.] It is here that the confusion about worldview begins, however, because Grenz and Franke are now using the conception of worldview typical of the Reformed theologians discussed above: worldview is “basic beliefs.” Hence, “any such interpretive framework is theological in nature, for it involves an understanding that sees the world in connection with the divine reality around which that tradition focuses.”[9. Ibid., 49; emphasis added.] This “cognitive framework” is not foundationalist, because it participates in a hermeneutical circle in which the articulation of a theological understanding already presumes a theological understanding.[10. Ibid., 49–50.] Worldview is now essentially synonymous with a product of a coherentist theological method, a “belief-mosaic”:

Therefore, while we might view the Christian interpretive framework as in a certain sense foundational for theology, we could more properly speak of theology as the articulation of the cognitive mosaic of the Christian faith. This mosaic consists of the interlocking doctrines that together comprise the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This worldview is truly theological and specifically Christian because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible and the biblical narrative of God bringing creation to its divinely destined goal.[11. Ibid., 51.]

The shift in the usage of worldview is subtle and easy to miss: from a description of a culture (modernity) in which an epistemological presupposition set the agenda for theology to an alternative epistemology based on experience and theological reflection among a religious community. The key to this shift is twofold: the conflation of culture and community and the conflation of epistemology and worldview.

A community may be monocultural, or not. The sharper point, however, is that a Christian community always participates in a larger culture. Conflating culture and community, therefore, obscures the extent to which the “theological worldview” of the Christian community does not account for the total worldview of the culture in which it is a participant. Likewise, a worldview serves an epistemological function in the broadest sense: it may be considered comprehensively as the way that a person knows. Yet, reducing worldview to epistemology proper obscures the other theologically determinative dimensions of a worldview.[12. See, e.g., Paul G. Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 46, where epistemological assumptions are only one aspect of worldview.] Thus, the claim that “scripture mediates a specifically Christian ‘interpretive framework’” that consists of a  “set of categories, beliefs, and values—whether consciously formulated or merely unconsciously presumed—which forms one’s perception of reality and life” may be true as far as it goes.[13. Grenz and Franke, 81.] But identifying this as a worldview[14. Ibid., 85–86.] derails the book’s vitally important discussion of culture in theological method.

Grenz and Franke rightly assert, “Theology emerges through an ongoing conversation involving both ‘gospel’ and ‘culture.’”[15. Ibid., 158.] They characterize this process by contrast with both liberal correlation and evangelical contextualization methods that rely on foundationalism. So far, so good. They continue:

Discerning what characterizes the socially constructed worlds people around us inhabit places us in a better position to address the generation God calls us to serve. Doing so, however, necessitates that we conceptualize and articulate Christian beliefs—the gospel—in a manner that contemporary people can understand. That is, we must express the gospel through the “language” of the culture—through the cognitive tools, concepts, images, symbols, and thought forms—by means of which people today discover meaning, construct the world they inhabit, and form personal identity.[16. Ibid., 159.]

This sounds identical to typical accounts of contextualization, but the contrast they wish to draw is that the “gospel” to be articulated is not a “Christian universal, which in turn functions as the foundation for the construction of the theological superstructure” but an understanding of the gospel that only emerges on the basis of the interaction with culture.[17. Ibid., 158. Their characterization of foundationalist contextualization, taking Kraft as an example, is dubious. By their own admission (citing Bevans in fn. 139), there are exceptions, leaving one to wonder why they do not retrieve a nonfoundationalist account of contextualization given its anthropological sophistication. In one sense, that is what I am proposing.] As I stated in regard to the development of the cognitive framework (which is the theological belief mosaic), this is a hermeneutical circle in which the articulation of a theological understanding already presumes a theological understanding—which is now seen to be a culturally determined theological preunderstanding. This is correct. Yet, by (a) defining worldview as a system of Christian beliefs that function epistemologically, (b) defining the Christian community constituted thereby as a culture, (c) identifying Christian beliefs as the gospel, and (d) stating these beliefs must be conceptualized and articulated through the language of the culture, they have crippled the method. If the gospel is the beliefs that constitute the worldview of Christian culture, then it cannot be conceptualized in another culture, for that would logically be constituted by other beliefs. If the “set of values, beliefs, and loyalties”[18. Ibid., 163–64.] that make Christian community a culture are, as already stated, also an epistemology, how can an epistemology be articulated in terms of “the cognitive tools, concepts, images, symbols, and thought forms” that are by their definition a different epistemology?

The only way to make their method function, I believe, is to clarify the conception of worldview missiologically. This does not entail attributing “neutrality” to cultural forms, but it does require a more anthropologically nuanced account of worldview that does not confuse the pretheoretical dimensions of culture by which communities may speak in a variety of ways with the content of Christian theology. Grenz and Franke go a long way toward a missional theological method, identifying the style of Christian theology as “trinitarian in content, communitarian in focus, and eschatological in orientation,” recognizing the purpose of theology as missional, and indispensably requiring a culturally dialogical method. But they also demonstrate that such a method cannot proceed without a clearer conception of worldview. Only by dealing explicitly with the pretheoretical dimensions of meaning-making can intercultural, interreligious, and interconfessional theological dialogue result in mutual understandings that might serve God’s mission.


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