Should Christians Reject the Word/Concept of Worldview?: Part 2

by John Ellis

A little after 2am this morning, I woke up. That’s not unusual; as I approach 50, the platitude “sleep like a baby” makes more and more sense. It makes more and more sense by way of contrast, to be clear. What was semi-unusual about this morning is that I couldn’t get back to sleep. Immediately upon waking, my mind went to the short article I wrote yesterday titled “Should Christians Reject the Word/Concept of ‘Worldview?’ Yes. Maybe. Yes?”. Those who read that article may recall that I concluded by saying:

“I already have more to say on this and, presumably, that ‘more’ will grow exponentially. Maybe, and Lord willing, I’ll revisit this in the future and flesh out more of what I mean by my new rejection of the word/concept of worldview. For now, with this article, my objective has been to sort out my thoughts, and provide a dialectical starting point as I continue to argue with myself. If others want to join in the argument, amen.”

Well, my “more to say” continues to grow. Specifically, it grew some more between the hours of 2 and 3 this morning. I probably should’ve just gotten out of bed and worked out my sleep-denying thoughts via my keyboard. But I didn’t. Therefore, it is incumbent upon a roughly 4-5 hours older John Ellis to work out his middle-of-the-night dialectical struggles. Actually, these new thoughts are less an argument and more like clothes for my previous argument.

The supposed Christian worldview, the one touted by Christian schools, seminaries, YouTube apologetics debaters, and fans of Francis Schaeffer, is holistic. Whether it is coherent and cogent is a different matter, and one that I partially took up in the previous article. For now, it’s holistic in a way that claims to organize and make sense of the world: it’s ontology (and teleology), brokenness, epistemology, and ethics. That’s all well and good – well, it would be all well and good if the Christian worldview actually does what its proponents claim.

The claim that is the most unintentionally deceitful is that of a position of epistemic neutrality. Now, I’m fully aware that there are various subsets within the larger set called Christian worldview and that some of the subsets will reject my accusation. Presuppositionalists, for example, contend that they have no pretense of neutrality. Deliberately steering into begging the question (circular reasoning), and in robust, cogent ways that can’t be simply dismissed, to be fair, they believe that they are operating from revealed presuppositions of ontology, epistemology, anthropology, and ethics. They’re not neutral, they argue, because they start from a received position.[1]

Sorry, fellas, but, yes, yes you do hold to a position of epistemic neutrality.

Unfortunately, I’m at great risk of strawmanning Van Til. So, I want to point out that I am in almost complete agreement with the great Christian thinker’s assertion that, “As God has self-contained being and all other being has created or derivative being, so also God has self-contained and man has derivative knowledge.”[2] While I would want to tease out what “derivative” means, I agree that the Christian’s epistemological posture should be one of humility. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, even if I decide God is right, I’m still guilty of having stood in judgment over God.[3] Non-Christians, on the other hand, as Van Til liked to point out, start with themselves and their perspective and then argue towards the divine (or away from the divine). I also mostly agree with Van Til when he urges an epistemic position in which, “[We] start more frankly from the Bible as the source from which as an absolute authoritative revelation I take my whole interpretation of life. … I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority.”[4] And I say “mostly agree” because Van Til’s position, especially in its more stridently held iterations fanatically propagated by many of his fan-boys, naively assumes that we can read and interact with the Bible in a vacuum. This circles us back to the perceived position of neutrality.

Without question, the epistemology of white evangelicalism, including the subset called presuppositionalism, is that of foundationalism.[5] Kevin Vanhoozer refers to foundationalism as propositionalism. Introducing, and summing up, the term, Vanhoozer explains, “One of the most influential images of theology as a scientia of Scripture depicts it as the process of abstracting revealed truths – propositions – from the biblical text and arranging them in logical order [emphasis kept].”[6] Later in the same paragraph, Vanhoozer warns, “The main defect of propositionalism is that it reduces the variety of speech actions in the canon to one type: the assertion.”[7] He later continues the warning by adding, “with the result that theology becomes less a matter of participating in the life of God than of analyzing the content of what God has said.”[8]

This warning is important because foundationalism/propositionalism assumes that epistemic neutrality is possible. It ain’t.

Foundationalism is built on the twin Enlightenment pillars of rationalism and empiricism. As helpful a description as I’ve found, Norman Geisler writes:

“Along with its stress on the mind, rationalism holds that there is an a priori aspect to human knowledge – that is, something independent of sense experience. By contrast, empiricists stress the a posteriori, or what comes through empirical experience. In like manner, rationalists argue for innate ideas or principles, whereas empiricists believe that the mind is a tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which sense experience writes its impression.”[9]

Outside of getting Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume into a room together, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who is either strictly a rationalist or an empiricist. Even if you were to get those five Enlightenment-era-ish dudes into a room together, their seemingly inflexible positions would be mainly for dialectical purposes. Even John Locke didn’t completely dismiss rationalism and Rene Descartes didn’t completely dismiss empiricism. David Hume? Maybe, but he had an agenda that ran completely counter to both Descartes and Locke’s. But that’s neither here nor there.

Now, and muddying the already opaque waters, our presuppositionalists from above are protesting, “That’s not us, man!”

Yes, again, it is you. For all your pretense to epistemic humility, you undoubtedly apply foundationalism to your exegesis of the Bible and in the ways you interpret the world around you, including fellow image bearers, politics, and culture.

Embedded within that is the crux of the matter, for all involved: “you undoubtedly apply foundationalism to your exegesis of the Bible.” Vanhoozer again provides helpful categories:

“The main theological complaint to be lodged against propositionalism is that its view of language, Scripture, knowledge and, for that matter, God, is too small. By ‘small,’ read reductionistic: propositionalism tends to see all of Scripture in terms of revelation, to see the essence of revelation in terms of conveying information (e.g., truth content), and to see theology in terms of processing this information (e.g.,scientia). In the words of one contemporary propositionalist [Carl Henry]: the ‘Scriptures contain a body of divinely given information actually expressed or capable of being expressed in propositions.’ As science of the text, propositionalism leaves something to be desired on both counts; its notions of science and of text alike are ultimately too small. [emphasis kept]”[10]

Vanhoozer goes on to argue that propositionalism privileges Enlightenment ideals. Using another word, propositionalism privileges modernism. I challenge you to research the history of the so-called inductive Bible study. Contemporary white evangelicalism is largely a product of modernism. Ergo, the Christian worldview privileges Enlightenment philosophies and ideologies.

Descartes was attempting to provide a new method of doing philosophy. Look at the title of what is widely considered his most influential book: Discourse on Method. That method has as its starting point autonomy. Of necessity, a position of autonomy is anthropocentric and, hence, produces anthropocentric ethics. The problem (one of the problems) is that autonomy is a lie (see the Garden of Eden). It’s a lie of the devil (again, see the Garden of Eden). This can be illustrated via the personal anecdotes that kept me up for about an hour last night.

In my acting classes, lesson number one I taught my students was that while acting, the truth is found in the subtext and not the words. I would use the simple yet effective illustration of asking a student to ask me how I’m doing. I would then respond, “Fine.” However, I would respond in a way that contradicted the definition of fine and its synonyms. “Do you really believe I’m fine?” I would then ask. After allowing the students time to give their interpretations of my response, I would then add, “You don’t have enough information to know what I meant. All you know is whatever I mean contradicts the word I used.” The lesson would then proceed to talking about how context is important, specifically the need to deconstruct the entire script and not just “your” lines. Also, and often just as important, the context of the character’s world is important. If “you’re” playing a character set in the slums of Industrial Revolution London, you need to understand that “your” definitions and responses to certain contexts are at odds with those of your character.  

Pushing back on Descartes, even the father of modern philosophy was unable to start from his desired position of neutrality in order to question everything. He was as much of a product of his specific context as everyone else not named Jesus, even though Descartes believed otherwise. He attempted to do what almost every novice actor does: he attempted to play a part devoid of any contextual shaping. But that’s not possible in real life (on stage it makes for bad storytelling). Look, the Enlightenment is built on autonomy (which, related, is what makes Locke’s definition of liberty so problematic for Christians – should make, because as has been well demonstrated, professing Christians love Lockian liberty). Foundationalism/propositionalism is based on the validity of autonomy. Even if autonomy was possible, it would be rebellion. Even though autonomy is not possible, foundationalism is still rebellion, because, and the discussion of autonomy aside, if you exegete the Bible (or the world around you) via foundationalism, you are unwittingly (sometimes knowingly) allowing ideologies and viewpoints that run counter to Kingdom ethics to control, at least partially, how you interpret Scripture and/or the world around this. This is why so many sermons, Sunday school lessons, and Bible studies run pell-mell straight to application. And why not? Our Christian worldview already has a self-serving ontology and epistemology established. Ethics are all that’s left. And, invariably, those ethics are often as self-servingly idolatrous as our evangelical epistemology.

So, and returning to my above anecdote about my acting classes, what I didn’t realize at the time is that with my acting philosophy, I revealed that I was (am?) a disciple of Derrida.

And with THAT, I have outed myself to those readers who aren’t having to Google names and terms that I am an enemy of the Christian worldview. “John is one of those dreaded postmodernists who don’t believe in objective truth. John denies that we can know God! John’s a godless Marxist!”

Except I didn’t say any of that. But that’s what Foundationalism gets ya’.

Another anecdote: Before I had really studied poststructuralism and Derrida, a man at our new (at the time) church in Arlington, VA, angrily accused me of being a postmodernist. Confused, I pushed back and claimed that he was quite mistaken. Throughout my time there, even after I became a pastor (the man voted against me, for what it’s worth – and I know that because he told me), this man viewed me with great suspicion and resentment. He was quite concerned that I was going to steer the church into theological and cultural liberalism. From his foundationalist perspective, he firmly believed that our two worldviews were at odds with each other.[11]

And with that anecdote, I hope that my overall thesis has become a little clearer. Disagree with me about my philosophy of language, my epistemology, linguistic and literary theories, etc. but those disagreements don’t necessarily mean that you and I aren’t moving in the same ontic direction. Without question and unashamedly, I believe that God created everything and that sin and sin’s subsequent Curse placed all humanity in a relationship with God’s wrath. I believe that the only way to reverse the Curse and restore us to a relationship with God’s blessing is through repentance of sins and faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I believe that one Day, Jesus will return. When he does, those under God’s wrath will be ushered into their eternal destination suffering God’s wrath. Those who are in Christ will be ushered into our eternal destination of enjoying God’s blessing in God’s place – the new earth/Jerusalem. I believe in the Kingdom ethics as they pertain to sexuality, gender, and abortion. I could keep going, but my point stands: the fact that my points of agreement with Derrida (or CRT, neo-Marxism, ect.) calls my eternal standing (my ontic reality) into question within the framework of the Christian worldview movement actually calls into question the validity of the Christian worldview movement. In fact, and going back to part one, I believe that the word/concept of worldview is unhelpful, at best, and possibly deceitful, at worst.

Like part one, I close this article with the full knowledge that my thinking out loud will likely only raise questions. Good. I hope so. That’s my objective. Lord willing, I will have more to add to this conversation via my writing in the future. If you do have questions, I encourage you to read James K. Smith, Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine, and Charles Taylor (of course) – three writers/thinkers that have greatly shaped my perspective. You can also buy me a beer and I’ll be happy to discuss any of this with you in person. Well, depending on the beer. I do believe in objective truth, especially as it applies to what constitutes good beer, after all.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] For the apologetic nerds out there, even if you argue that Van Til was essentially engaging in apologetics as a transcendental argument, you still have the same problem. Sit in that and let it stew for a bit. Actually, keep reading the next few paragraphs, and then sit in it and stew for a bit.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 2nd Edition, ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 31-32.

[3] I don’t remember the exact source for this quote. It may not even be C.S. Lewis (although I’m pretty confident he said it). A very quick Google search didn’t turn up anything. I apologize to Lewis (or whoever said it) and the readers of this article that I am unable to adequately cite the source.

[4] Cornelius Van Til, Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: P&R, 1955), 118.

[5] I want to make clear that I understand that being a presuppositionalist doesn’t by necessity require that you are also a foundationalist. However, like the larger set called white evangelicals, the number of presuppositionalists who are also foundationalists far outpace those who are not.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 266.

[7] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 266.

[8] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 267.

[9] Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 19.

[10] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 268.

[11] Funnily enough, while at the time I didn’t really understand postmodernism, he had never heard the term “foundationalism.” One Sunday morning, during what I mistakenly thought was a friendly “debate,” I referred to him as a foundationalist. I assumed that he would accept it and take it as a compliment. He did not. At the time, he mentioned that he had never heard of foundationalism, which took me by surprise, but I let it pass because I assumed it was no big deal. I didn’t find out until later that he took great offense at it and held it against me for the remainder of my time at the church.

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