By / Nov 18

Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis. The other articles in the series can be found here.

How do we determine whether one worldview is better than any other?

A primary way to answer that question is to determine whether a worldview is true or false. A worldview that is true—that is, a worldview that corresponds to reality—would be better than one that is not. In an earlier article, we discussed that there are (at least) 10 basic worldviews, such as Christian theism, Naturalism, and New Age spirituality. Since these worldviews make claims that contradict one another, they can’t all be true (though it’s possible they could all be false). We could therefore rank the worldviews from better to worse based on whether they are truer than their rivals.

To do this we need a test for the truth or falsity of a worldview. The Christian philosopher and apologist Norman Geisler proposed that the test for the falsity of a worldview is “unaffirmability,” while the corresponding test for the truth of a worldview is “undeniability.”

The two tests

Unaffirmability means that a statement or belief cannot be supported with evidence or that it contradicts itself. It is based on the most basic law of logic, the law of noncontradiction. This law states that contradictory propositions cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. Or, to put it more simply, if something is true, then its opposite is false.

Take, for example, the statements, “It is currently snowing in my house,” and, “It is not currently snowing in my house.” If “my house” refers to the same thing, then both statements cannot be true (though, again, they can both be false). The reason they cannot both be true is because that would violate the law of noncontradiction, which is a basic assumption about the nature of reality.

All false worldviews contain statements or beliefs that are similar in that they are unaffirmable. Let’s consider pantheism, the worldview that identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God. A primary claim of pantheism is that God, or the Absolute, is all that exists and that individual entities do not exist. As Geisler notes, a strict pantheist must affirm, “God is, but I am not.” But this is self-defeating since an individual entity—an “I”— must exist to affirm that one does not exist. The claim “I do not exist” is therefore unaffirmable. Since it is an essential claim upon which pantheism relies, pantheism must be false.

Claiming that a statement is unaffirmable does not mean, of course, that it is unsayable or unstatable. For example, we could make the statement, “Green taste like yellow.” While the statement is both sayable and statable, it is completely meaningless. It is also unaffirmable, but only because it is affirming something that is meaningless.

What makes most unaffirmable claims unaffirmable is that what is being affirmed is denied in the process or act of affirmation. If you were to affirm that you lack the ability to affirm anything, then you would be making an unaffirmable claim. What is unaffirmable is self-defeating, and what is self-defeating cannot be true because it violates the law of non-contradiction.

The second test for the truth of a worldview is undeniability, that is, a statement or belief is so true that we are unable to consistently deny it is true. The law of noncontradiction is an example of a belief that is undeniable. Another is the claim, “I exist.” For you to make that statement you would have to exist—otherwise, you would not be able to make the denial (“I do not exist.”). The claim, “I exist,” is therefore undeniable.

Unfortunately, few truths are as obviously undeniable as existence and the law of noncontradiction. But as we’ll see in a later article, Christian theism contains the most consistently undeniable beliefs of any worldview.

A more persuasive approach

Armed with this two-pronged test—unaffirmability and undeniability—we should now be able to convince non-Christians that their worldview is wrong, shouldn’t we?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. As the Apostle Paul pointed out that the ungodly suppress the truth by their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). The ungodly can find a way to deny even the undeniable.

Consider, for instance, the famous argument Dr. Samuel Johnson had with his biographer, James Boswell. The dispute was about a claim made by the philosopher George Berkeley that only the mind exists, and that matter is not real. As Boswell writes in The Life of Samuel Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”

Johnson’s point was that it was undeniable that matter exists—and he was right. But he was not wholly convincing. His appeal to the stone would certainly not have convinced Bishop Berkely that he was wrong. Some people can—and will—affirm the unaffirmable and deny the undeniable. Some refuse to accede to logic or reality while others merely embrace that they are contradictory. As poet Walt Whitman unapologetically stated, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

The intransigence of the unrighteous should not lead us to abandon undeniability and unaffirmability. But we should be prepared to adopt a more persuasive approach when it comes to convincing someone the Christian worldview is better.

As Sam Chan explains, when the culture was Christianized, we used to argue and teach in this sequence: (1) what I say is true; (2) if it’s true, then you must believe it; and (3) if you believe it, you must live it.

It’s TRUEBELIEVE it LIVE it

That is the logical sequence, but the way our post-Christian friends discover it is often the reverse: (1) what you see is a wiser way to live; (2) but if it’s a wiser way to live, then it’s also more believable; (3) but if it’s believable, you need to consider that it might also be true.

I can LIVE it → I can BELIEVE it → it must be TRUE

The corollary to this is that if a worldview is not a wiser way to live, then it’s less believable, and therefore unlikely to be true.

In the next few articles, we’ll apply this approach to show why non-Christian worldviews are not only unaffirmable but “unlivable” and should therefore be abandoned. 

By / Sep 23

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series on what Christians should know about worldviews and worldview analysis.

Whatever happened to “worldview”?

There was once a time when the term was ubiquitous within American evangelicalism. After the Second World War, the term was popularized by thinkers such as Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer and rapidly spread throughout the movement. Hundreds of resources—from conferences and classes, to articles and books—were produced to explain why thinking in terms of worldview and analyzing worldviews was necessary for apologetics and missions. Philosopher David K. Naugle even claimed that, “Conceiving of Christianity as a worldview has been one of the most significant developments in the history of the church.”

Sometime around the early-to-mid 2000s, though, the concept fell out of favor. Part of the reason may have been that worldview analysis wasn’t as effective as a tool against unbelief as we had assumed (for reasons we’ll consider in a future article). “If you are already a Christian, then worldview is a revelation,” wrote J. Mark Betrand in his 2007 book Rethinking Worldview, “but if you aren’t, the concept alone will not move you. In fact, it might do the opposite, driving you to the other extreme where everyone has a worldview and all worldviews are equally valid.”

The ineffectiveness of worldview analysis for apologetics has likely only grown worse since society has become even more accepting of relativism. But for evangelicals, there is a reason the concepts of worldview and worldview analysis are worth recovering: they help us understand what is going on today in our own churches and communities. 

The purpose of this series

Recent surveys have uncovered attitudes and beliefs among Christians that are concening and inexplicable. For example, almost 1 in 4 Americans who say they are Christian believe in reincarnation. Many who attend church regularly also believe in astrology, psychics, and that spiritual energy can be located in physical objects. Worldview analysis can help us to understand why ideas incompatible with biblical Christianity are increasingly accepted by people who sit beside us in the pews. 

In this series, we’ll consider a number of concepts related to worldviews and worldview analysis and explain how they can be of use to you. The goal is to help you develop a framework for identifying, clarifying, and communicating aspects of worldview that are becoming increasingly common in our era.

While you should be able to gain a better understanding of the key concepts by reading this series of articles, you should also keep in mind that every explanation is a simplification necessitated by the limitation of brevity. The explanations of the concepts are more like simple line drawings, which can show the contours and outlines, than like a high-definition photograph, which can reveal more nuance and detail.   

What is a worldview?

Let’s start with the concept of “worldview.” Despite ​​the term being used for more than 150 years, there is no single agreed upon definition of what the word means. A common thread that connects the uses of the term is that a worldview is a particular perspective on reality that affects how one forms beliefs and behaviors that affect how a person lives. 

In The Universe Next Door, James Sire defines worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move, and have our being.” 

Sire’s definition is the way we’ll be using the term “worldview” throughout this series.

Worldview as a way of life

A worldview includes the “head, heart, and hands”—what we think and believe, what we feel and desire, and how we act and react. Too often, though, evangelicals have focused on the cognitive aspects of worldview without giving due consideration to how it forms a way of life, or a Christian ethic. 

As Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton have said, “A world view is never merely a vision of life. It is always a vision for life as well. Indeed, a vision of life, or world view, that does not actually lead a person or a people in a particular way of life is no world view at all. Our world view determines our values. It helps us interpret the world around us. It sorts out what is important from what is not, what is of highest value from what is least.”

In future articles we’ll consider how worldviews function in a way that give meaning, purpose, and clarity to our lives.

The categories of worldviews

Between 1960 and 2000, evangelicals tended to think of worldviews as competing systems of belief. For example, in his influential book The Universe Next Door, Sire identified nine common worldviews: 

  • Christian theism
  • Deism
  • Naturalism
  • Nihilism
  • Existential­ism
  • Eastern pantheistic monism
  • New Age spirituality
  • Postmodernism
  • Islamic theism

This type of categorization is still useful as a general framework. But a 10th worldview needs to be added to the list, which we’ll call syncretism

Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs and various schools of thought. While evangelicals have not typically considered it a separate worldview, it is helpful for our purposes to think of it as a unique entity. Sycrestic views have become so prevalent that it should be considered a separate category.

Thinking of it this way will help us better understand and discuss what is occurring in  the modern world. For instance, if they were asked to choose from the above list, many Americans would say their worldview is Christian theism. But included in their Christian faith may be a deistic view of morality, a naturalistic view of science, a nihilistic and/or existential view of culture, a pantheistic view of reincarnation, a New Age view of astrology, and a postmodern view of truth.

In this series, we’ll consider a broad range of worldviews but focus primarily on syncretism and how it affects the American church. For example, rather than examining Eastern pantheistic monism in its totality, we’ll consider how the samsara paradigm has been adopted by Christians. We’ll also consider such aspects as the functions of worldviews, how seemingly obscure concepts such as coherentism and plausibility structures are necessary for understanding modern life, and how we can develop a more biblical worldview. 

By / Aug 13

Herman Bavinck, Dutch theologian and Christian leader of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, delivered the first edition of his Christian Worldview in 1904, and later revised and republished it in 1913. Through the good work of Crossway publishers and editorial/translation work of Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory C. Brock, this important work is now available in English.  

While the notion of a world and life view has persisted for millennia, the word “worldview” was not coined until 1790 by Immanuel Kant (originally the German weltanschauung) and quickly became common-speak in the Western world. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian worldview had become a central theme. David Naugle argues that the “headwaters of Christian worldview thinking can be traced back to the Scottish Presbyterian theologian James Orr and to the Dutch Reformed polymath Abraham Kuyper” (Naugle, Worldview; The History of a Concept, xviii).   

Summary of three chapters

In the vein of Kuyperian thought and influence, Bavinck offers his slim, three-chapter work on Christian worldview as a front-footed, unapologetic case for believing the truth of Christian Scripture as the only story that accounts for the world as we know and experience it. 

Weighing in at only 133 pages, let not the brevity of the book deceive concerning its depth or density. Bavinck addresses three basic questions that he believes are “problems” that have and continue to confront the human mind; “What am I? What is the world? And what is my place and task in the world?” (29).  His chapter titles address these questions respectively as “Thinking and Being,” “Being and Becoming,” and “Becoming and Acting.” He ends his introduction with this preliminary answer to these questions; 

Autonomous thinking finds no satisfactory answer to these questions—it oscillates between materialism and spiritualism, between atomism and dynamism, between nomism and antinomianism. But Christianity preserves the harmony [between them] and reveals to us a wisdom that reconciles the human being with God and, through this, with itself, with the world, and with life. (sic., 29)

As a point of advice to future readers, allow the quote above to serve as a constant clarifier for the rest of the volume. With each chapter, Bavinck attacks the question at hand, though the journey between question and answer is sometimes difficult to follow. He commonly takes sharp turns down the path of rival worldviews and ideas, sometimes seeming to agree or argue in favor of the position, only to turn back just as quickly in favor of the Christian view.  

In chapter one, Bavinck argues that we are capable of knowing only because God has known first. Then, “the doctrine of the creation of all things by the Word of God is the explanation of all knowing and knowing about,” for this assumes a correspondence between the knower and the thing known (46). He continues insisting that, “the deeper one thinks this through, [the clearer it becomes that] all truth is understood in the Wisdom, in the Word, who was in the beginning with God and who himself was God. The one who denies this Wisdom undermines the ‘foundation’ of all science…” (sic, 47, italics added for emphasis).  

Bavinck’s emphasis on wisdom is noteworthy and relatively unique in the broader—and more popular—worldview literature. Throughout the book, Christian wisdom serves as the clue to worldview. Thus, in chapter two Bavinck demonstrates the superiority of the “organic” worldview over what he calls the monistic-mechanical approach on one side and the dynamic/energetic approach on the other. He argues that the organic view does justice to the oneness and diversity of creation, and to “being and becoming.”  

Bavink notes that wisdom accounts for the essence of all things, but adds that God’s will (decrees) must be joined to wisdom to account for their existence in the world. Wisdom and will, then, account for the dynamism and development in the world that the mechanistic and energetic views cannot.  

Finally, Bavinck’s final chapter calls its readers to recognize that we are designed to conform to God’s laws and norms in the world: “You shall love the true, the good and the beautiful with all your soul; and you shall love God above all else and then your neighbor as yourself” (95). This isn’t accomplished by individualism, communism, or autonomous reason, but only by the Christian faith. “Christianity is not exclusively a teaching about salvation, but it is salvation itself, brought about by God in the history of the world,” centered on the person and work of Christ, concluding with the end of the ages (115-116).   

Three takeaways

First, Bavinck’s consistent pushback against individualism and autonomous reason remains timeless counsel that we do well to heed today. In our day, as in Bavinck’s, the temptation to assume center stage as though the function of human reason is the beginning of wisdom remains a fatal flaw in the pursuit of right living in God’s world.  

Second, Bavinck’s awareness of the broader disciplines is exemplary. He was not only conversant and up to date in the sciences, but his unique ability to penetrate the assumptions, methods, strengths, flaws, and plausibility of differing views yields insight that remains valuable even more than 100 years later.  

Finally, as noted above, the emphasis on divine wisdom is commendable and unique. While I have concerns about an over-intellectualized understanding of wisdom in the book, Bavinck rightly and repeatedly returns to God’s wisdom as essential for a proper view of the world. 

Bavinck’s work is an important addition to the last hundred years of Christian worldview literature. It will quickly become a classic volume for Christian philosophers, theologians, and worldview teachers everywhere.   

By / Jan 25

Academy Award nominations were announced a few weeks ago, and while many of the nominees may not be the movies most frequently discussed around the water cooler, it’s worth taking a minute to look at the films from 2015 the Hollywood elite deem most deserving of praise.

While the Oscar for Best Picture does not always indicate a movie will hold up under scrutiny in the decades to come, many of the past winners of this top award have taken up permanent residence in our cultural consciousness. Films like “Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” “Rocky,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Braveheart,” to name just a few, have with their Oscar wins solidified their place in American history. Many Best Picture nominees do not see top results at the box office, but they offer us something more important than mere entertainment. They offer us a way to enter into, and learn from, meaningful stories.

Many of this year’s top films represent a beautiful feature of good art—the ability to create empathy and inspire change. As Christians, we approach these films with a unique lens that allows us to engage the ideas presented by the filmmakers, identifying the good, lamenting the bad, and recognizing that many of the issues we debate impact individual lives. To that end, we offer a few themes from the films we've seen on the list of 2015 nomination:

  • "Spotlight" asks us to search out truth, fight for justice, and care for "the least of these."
  • "Bridge of Spies" shows what it means to truly value human life and love one's enemies. This also offers a portrayal of a believer who acts with integrity during the heightened tensions of the Cold War.
  • "The Martian" displays the triumph of the human spirit, ingenuity and scientific achievement.
  • "The Revenant" is a brutal story told against an unforgiving backdrop. Survival and revenge are the prevalent themes. And yet, if you're looking hard enough, you'll see hints of mercy as well as moments of grace speckled throughout.
  • "Mad Max: Fury Road," set in a dystopian future, has several different themes at play in its story. Some of the most prevalent may be hope, self-sacrifice and redemption, as well as the ugliness of sexual slavery and tyranny.
  • "Sicario" asks if we can still be good when there's so much evil. It also begs questions about integrity. Are we able to fight evil within the law, or must we fight criminals using their own lawbreaking methods in order to make the world a safer place?
  • "Ex Machina" asks what it is to be human. God created mankind in his image, and it was good. Of course, sin marred the image and brought shame. But if man creates in his image, can we expect anything less than Artificial Intelligence that is manipulative, selfish and thirsty for autonomy?
  • "Room" shows what a mother’s love looks like under the harshest of circumstances. Masterfully told through the eyes of a child in a way that avoids exploitation, it shows the personal effects of sexual abuse.
  • "Inside Out" goes into the complex thoughts and emotions at play within a young girl. It serves to help us better empathize with and consider our children's emotions, instead of casting them off as simply whiney, and it also gives us a glimpse into the reality of this bittersweet world.
  • "Creed" deals with the pain of fatherlessness and the struggle to find purpose. It’s also a lesson in considering others and fighting for them.
  • "Amy" helps humanize celebrities. This documentary of the late British singer, Amy Winehouse, inspires us to see public figures first and foremost as people—and for Christians, as image-bearers.

There is a beauty in entering a new world through the eyes of masterful storytelling (an art form of which Jesus was a master), and we can appreciate these films just for the fact that this creativity reflects our Creator. But we can also go further. Sometimes we see movies we know others will be talking about, and these are opportunities to engage our neighbors and point them to truth. Yet while not every film is a blockbuster our neighbors will have seen, that doesn’t mean they don’t have merit. As with great literature, music and paintings, we have something to gain personally from great film.

The best stories instruct while they entertain, subtly inspiring change and empathy. When we engage with these messages as believers, we learn more about loving our neighbors, even those with whom we disagree.

This does not mean, as mentioned before, that we accept every message that Hollywood portrays, powerful though they may be. In Art and the Bible, the late Francis Schaeffer wrote that “As Christians, we must see that just because an artist—even a great artist—portrays a worldview in writing or on canvas, it does not mean that we should automatically accept that worldview. Good art heightens the impact of that worldview, but it does not make it true.”

Indeed, films like the ones listed above allow us to appreciate beauty and identify truth, while also examining faulty ideas and proposed empty solutions to our greatest needs as humans. Many films expose the desperation of image-bearers unknowingly searching for a Savior. As believers, we can walk away from these movies with a greater understanding of the struggles of those unlike us, while also knowing our greatest need is universal.