Tawa J. Anderson, W. Michael Clark, and David K. Naugle. An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World. (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).
I have been teaching a seminary level Christian worldview class for fifteen years and I’m always on the lookout for new textbooks. So when I learned of An Introduction to Christian Worldview (henceforth ICW), I was immediately intrigued. IVP Academic kindly obliged my interest by sending along a review copy and now here we are.
In my review, I will begin with a survey of the contents of the book followed by some positive reactions. Next, I will turn to a two-part critical interaction before drawing some final conclusions.
A Survey of the Book
ICW unfolds in three parts, each composed by one of the book’s authors writing in his own voice. And I must say, I much prefer that approach to team authorship where the individual “I” dissolves into the collective “we”.
Part 1 is authored by Tawa Anderson and consists of three chapters in which Anderson introduces the concept of worldview, explains the importance of the concept, and provides an overview of the steps in worldview analysis and evaluation.
In chapter 1, Anderson quotes James Sire’s definition of worldview as a set of fundamental convictions about the nature of reality and our place within it: worldview provides the backdrop in which “we live and move and have our being.” (13) In other words, worldview is not merely a set of abstract beliefs: it provides a holistic and encompassing framework for life and interpretation. As Anderson helpfully observes, worldview analysis can be divided into four questions: (1) What is our nature? (2) What is our world? (3) What is our problem? (4) What is our end? (19-21) Together these questions provide a template by which all the worldviews surveyed in the book are evaluated.
In chapter 2 Anderson argues for the significance of the concept of worldview. He begins by pointing out that we are shaped by confirmation bias and experiential accommodation (that is, we all tend to interpret data in accord with our worldview assumptions). We are also shaped by our assessment of live options (that is, we judge the plausibility of various truth claims relative to our background beliefs) and we find a motivation for living from within our worldview. A worldview includes a set of essential or core commitments, negotiable supplementary claims, and peripheral beliefs that can readily change without significant alteration to the worldview itself. Anderson concludes by defending the importance of worldview analysis against its detractors. In particular, he offers a nuanced and helpful response to James K.A. Smith’s charge that worldview discourse tends to be overly rationalistic (58-9).
Chapter 3 focuses on the concept of worldview analysis. Anderson begins with the concept of truth, endorsing the correspondence view as the only view consistent with a Christian worldview. That said, Anderson also admirably points out the insights that can be gleaned from coherence and pragmatic theories of truth. (On the downside, he never mentions the deflationary theory of truth, though this account is also fully compatible with a Christian worldview.) From there, Anderson summarizes three essential criteria for the evaluation of worldviews: internal consistency (does it make sense on its own terms?), external evidence (does it account for the data of experience?), and practical livability (can it be lived out?).
In Part 2, David Naugle aims to provide an overview of the Christian worldview. The task begins in chapter 4 with a focus on the Christian worldview as a narrative account of reality. Though Naugle observes that knowledge of God can be derived from nature, he bases his narrative on the special revelation drawn from Scripture. From there, Naugle provides an account of God as Trinity, the creation of all things, the fall of Adam and Eve, and the process of redemption that unfolds through Israel and which culminates in the incarnation of God the Son. He concludes with the future glorification of God’s people.
This narrative account is complemented in chapter 5 with a sort of mini-systematic theology which is structured to provide answers to our four questions: (1) What is our nature? (2) What is our world? (3) What is our problem? (4) What is our end? Naugle answers (1) by discussing the image of God in light of the divine triunity. Regarding (2), Naugle notes that the Christian understanding of creation encompasses natural and supernatural dimensions. Regarding (3), Naugle summarizes the doctrines of sin and the fall. And when it comes to (4), he emphasizes body/soul resurrection over-against the distorting influence of Platonism. As he aptly observes: “we must pay attention to the lyrics of hymns and songs we sing in church!” (176)
Finally, in chapter 6 Naugle applies the three categories for the evaluation of worldviews outlined in chapter 3 to Christianity. On the first criterion of internal consistency, he begins by seeking to neutralize the problem of evil by way of three theodicies: free will, greater goods, and skeptical theism. Next, he defends the coherence of the incarnation and the rationality of Christian belief. On the second criterion of external evidence, Naugle defends Christianity over-against naturalism whilst defending the concept of miracles and surveying the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The chapter concludes with a treatment of the third criterion pertaining to the practical livability of the Christian worldview.
In Part 3, Michael Clark invites us to analyze the major alternatives to Christianity. Chapter 7 surveys three western philosophical alternatives: deism, naturalism, and postmodernism. Clark notes that postmodernism is not, in fact, a worldview. Indeed, “postmodernism rejects worldviews, unified stories that explain reality.” (256) Nonetheless, Clark argues that postmodern ideas are sufficiently widespread in society to justify inclusion in the survey. As the chapter unfolds, Clark considers how each view answers the four questions before evaluating each relative to the three criteria: internal coherence, external evidence, and practical livability. (Spoiler alert: none of these views fares well!)
In Chapter 8, Clark concludes the survey with a consideration of the two leading global religious alternatives to Christianity: Hinduism and Islam. Clark clarifies that Hinduism is not, in fact, a distinct religion. Rather, it is a term used to refer to the collective traditional religious practices and beliefs of the Indian subcontinent (269). With that caveat in mind, Clark’s Hinduism survey focuses on two interpretations of the Vedanta school. As for Islam, Clark considers the majority Sunni tradition. Once again, he surveys these two religious worldviews with respect to the four questions before subjecting them to the three criteria of coherence, evidence, and livability.
The book concludes with a brief but provocative discussion of so-called “worldyviews,” a fine neologism that refers to “perspectives or outlooks that are not full-fledged worldviews and have no articulate academic proponents, yet powerfully and persuasively prompt us to be not only in but also of the world, often without even knowing it.” (324) Like what, exactly? The list of sample worldlyviews includes scientism, hedonism, consumerism, and functional atheism, among others. (Unfortunately, the survey neglects to mention one of the most important worldlyviews: nationalism.) The book concludes with an appropriately trinitarian blessing:
“let us respectfully embrace a scripturally vibrant, Christ-centered, and faith-integrated worldview–one that places the work of salvation on Christ’s shoulders, deposits the grace of the Father into our hears, and liberally pours the anointing of the Spirit of God all over us.” (330)
Praise for ICW
No doubt about it, this is an impressive tour! ICW reminds me of J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig’s magisterial book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Like that excellent book, ICW is sweeping in its scope and is written with admirable analytic clarity and apologetic-mindfulness. Oh yeah, it also maintains a fine balance between rigor and accessibility. Each chapter includes discussion questions and concludes with a “Mastering the Material” section that encompasses bulleted points for review, a glossary, and a list of possible student term paper topics.
While ICW has many virtues, one of the most appealing parts is found in the supplementary side notes that accompany the text. These notes include worldview insights derived from scripture and explorations of current events (e.g. abortion and politics). But the best sidebars are undoubtedly the engagements with pop culture including a survey on the worldview of the Star Wars films (20), Avatar and Hinduism (282), Kung Fu Panda and Taoism (268-9), and Shania Twain’s tongue-in-cheek critique of the “worldyview” we know as consumerism (170-1).
Critique of ICW
As good a book as it is, ICW does have some weaknesses (in fairness, which book doesn’t?). In the remainder of this review, I’ll focus on two areas of concern: the proposed definition of the Christian worldview and the critique of non-Christian worldviews. While each of the authors wrote a different section of the book, for simplicity sake I will proceed by presenting my critiques to the authors collectively.
The Definition of the Christian Worldview
The purpose of ICW is to introduce the concept of worldview, define the lineaments of the Christian worldview, and survey some preliminary critiques of non-Christian worldviews. My first point of critique is that the authors’ depiction of the Christian worldview is shaped — at times to the point of distortion — by their conservative evangelical baptistic assumptions. In other words, they occasionally confuse particulars of their token Christian worldview with the Christian worldview simpliciter, or what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”.
To some extent, these types of confusion may be inevitable. Early on the authors recognize that any survey of Christian worldview is beset by the intrinsic limitations of human perspective and fallibility:
“we will never possess the authoritative, fully correct Christian worldview. That is to say, I will never see things exactly the way God sees things….” (54)
True enough. While I commend this nod to perspectivalism and fallibilism, there is one important corrective for a book like this: ensure the readers are aware of the perspective of the authors (in this case, Caucasian, North American males who work from a conservative, evangelical, baptistic perspective) and encourage the readers to be mindful of where the authors may have conflated their token worldview with mere Christianity. Unfortunately, this book lacks that kind of important caveat.
As I said, our authors write from a conservative, evangelical, baptistic perspective and at multiple points, this perspective influences their presentation of mere Christianity. I’ll demonstrate that claim by way of several examples.
To begin with, while the discussion of sin and the fall (164-71) rightly emphasizes the impact of sin upon every human individual, it lacks a commensurate recognition of the social and systemic impact of sin. This emphasis is not surprising given that evangelicals have tended to focus on individual sin over-against the mainline Protestant emphasis upon the social impact of sin. However, it nonetheless results in an incomplete account of hamartiology.
While the authors never explicitly deny that God could create by way of evolutionary processes, repeatedly Neo-Darwinian evolution is associated with atheism and naturalism. This suspicion of evolution accords well with the traditional evangelical and fundamentalist rejection of evolution, but that suspicion is rejected by Catholics, the Orthodox, and a growing number of Protestants. Again, we are given a limited perspective.
On page 133 the authors write: “We believers are pretty good at proclaiming the gospel from the epistles, but not so good at this task when it comes to the Gospels themselves.” This prioritization of the (Pauline) epistles is definitely characteristic of evangelicals and fundamentalists, but it is not true of believers generally. Consequently, once again we have a distorted perspective.
Evangelical conservatism has long been associated with a rationalist orientation, perhaps most perspicuously in the theology of evangelical doyen Carl Henry. Not surprisingly, rationalism emerges at several points in the presentation in ICW.
We can begin with this statement: “An unexamined worldview is not worth living.” (91) While I get the Socrates allusion and the place of hyperbole, there is something uncomfortably elitist and rationalist about this kind of statement. (The same goes for Socrates, by the way.) Self-examination is important, to be sure, but it simply is not the summum bonum of the lived Christian worldview. On the contrary, as Paul wrote, the greatest of these is love.
A good example of rationalism is found in the authors’ overly optimistic assessment of arguments for God’s existence. For example, they suggest that all atheists are fools, a claim justified with a regrettable proof-texting of Psalm 14:1 (100). And after surveying cosmological and design arguments for God’s existence, they draw a reference back to Paul’s reference to general revelation in Romans 1:
“Paul insists that what has been made clearly displays God’s power. As Aquinas’s Five Ways argue, there is no way to account for motion, causation, and teleology without a prime mover, an uncaused cause, and a transcendent intentional designer.” (102)
The message appears to be that Aquinas’ five ways (and other similar arguments) provide clear demonstrations of God’s existence and attributes which leave people without excuse in the manner of Romans 1 (Cf. 249-50). But that’s a highly dubious claim. Christians and non-Christians alike debate the veracity of these arguments, and critics surely are not rejecting God’s general revelation simply in virtue of failing to be compelled by these arguments.
The authors express a similar optimism when it comes to the support that they allege science provides for theism: “through cause and effect, science, which is based on cause and effect, tells us that there must be a Creator.” (118) Later, they provide the Kalam Cosmological Argument as a specific example where science allegedly establishes the existence of a creator. But this too is highly contentious. All I’ll note here is that Christians who work in science and theology (e.g. John Polkinghorne; Philip Clayton; Nancey Murphy; R.J. Russell; etc.) are far more nuanced in their understanding of the evidential relationship between science and theism.
I referred above to the great Baptist evangelical theologian Carl Henry. I would submit that one finds a clear example of Henry’s influence in the authors’ equation of the Bible with the “Word of God” and special revelation simpliciter (98). The fact is that this simple identification of the Bible with special revelation simpliciter is highly idiosyncratic in the Christian tradition. To begin with, it obviously contrasts with non-Protestant traditions that recognize the revelatory role of tradition (e.g. Roman Catholicism). So it is unfortunate that the authors failed to acknowledge this fact in their survey. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that the authors implicitly acknowledge the critical role of tradition in biblical revelation when discussing the formation and recognition of the biblical canon relative to emerging church traditions (114-15).)
The problem isn’t simply with the Catholics, however. This simple identification of the Bible with special revelation also alienates many Protestants such as those who point out that special revelation first comes through historical events (see Wolfhart Pannenberg, for example) as well as those who point out that it culminates not in the Bible but in Jesus Christ, the Word of God (see Karl Barth).
Evangelicals have also tended to be deeply suspicious of form and redaction criticism (e.g. the documentary hypothesis). So it is hardly surprising when the authors write that “there are two authors behind each book of the Bible: the human author who wrote the words down, and the Holy Spirit who inspired and guided the human author to write God’s words.” (112) That said, many Christians are open to the gradual development of biblical texts like the Torah, Psalms, and Isaiah and so they repudiate the assumption that each biblical book has a single author. Once again, the conservative evangelical view is mistakenly presented as a mere Christian view.
After introducing the concept of inspiration, the authors also include a defense of biblical inerrancy under the aegis of “truthfulness” (112-13). While this emphasis on biblical inerrancy is a hallmark of conservative evangelicalism, it is widely criticized by many other Christians. (The authors also relegate the important fact that Christians disagree on the canonical list to a footnote. (114))
When it comes to the atonement, the authors write: “Theologians emphasize that Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice and a propitiation.” (166) This claim about propitiation is incorrect. To be sure, many theologians have taken that view, but many others reject it. In our own age, the most important critique of propitiation arguably comes from the Anglican theologian N.T. Wright: indeed, he provocatively derides the view as a vestige of pagan thinking. Suffice it to say, once again a particular view characteristic of conservative evangelicals finds its way into a description of what is putatively mere Christianity.
My final example is concerned with the doctrine of hell. While Christians have agreed historically that there is posthumous judgment for those outside Christ, they have disagreed on the nature of that judgment. The majority view is shared by the authors of ICW that the unregenerate suffer in eternal conscious torment (ECT). But while they claim that ECT is the only Christian perspective on posthumous judgment (173-74), there are two minority traditions: annihilationism and universalism. Both of these views date back to the Patristic period and have had theological defenders throughout church history. Annihilationism has been defended explicitly from Arnobius in the late third century down to contemporary evangelical stalwarts like John Stott. And universalism has been defended by theologians like Gregory of Nyssa (the fourth-century Cappadocian father of Nicene orthodoxy) down to contemporary defenders like evangelical Robin Parry.
To make matters worse, the authors characterize universalism as one of those “worldlyviews” that are fundamentally inimical to Christian faith (327). On the contrary, Christian universalists offer a range of careful exegetical, theological, philosophical, practical, and historical considerations in support of their view. Needless to say, it is curious indeed to see the pious conviction that Christ’s atoning work may save all being branded an impious capitulation to non-Christian culture.
The Critique of Non-Christian Worldviews
I’ll begin this section by stating the obvious: the authors of ICW are Christians because they believe Christianity is true and thus that it offers the most satisfactory account of reality. I share that assumption. However, they also appear to believe that Christianity’s explanatory superiority should be demonstrable to every reasonable and objective person. This is a far more dubious claim.
I recognize that the survey nature of the book all but ensures that the treatments of opposing views will be of a cursory nature. What is missing in ICW is a suitable caveat to the reader, one that emphasizes the necessarily provisional and introductory nature of the enterprise. On the contrary, by the end of the book, one is left with the message that Christianity has been demonstrated to have explanatory superiority over-against all other major worldviews. And that simply isn’t the case.
We can put it like this: imagine for a moment how satisfied the academic Christian would be with a partial chapter critique of the entire Christian worldview. The answer, one can guess, is not very. No doubt, a well-written review might raise legitimate objections to some particular aspects of Christian belief, but it would by no means offer a significant refutation of mere Christianity. By the same token, while the critiques of naturalism, Islam, and Hinduism within ICW raise legitimate objections to aspects of these worldviews, they do not offer anything approaching a definitive refutation.
Much virtual ink could be spilled on this topic. But arguably, the parts of these critical surveys that are most objectionable are those where the critique of other views can be turned back upon Christianity. And so I will focus on highlighting some of those examples.
To begin with, the authors critique deism (235-6) and Islam (308-9) by charging that these worldviews lead to determinism while undermining free will. But the same objection can be raised against several Christian versions of providence and free will, including that of historic Calvinism. While the authors recognize the Calvinist view of providence and free will is a distinctive Christian option (23), they never acknowledge that the same objection raised against deism and Islam can be turned back on Calvinist theology.
As our second example, the authors claim that relativists cannot ground absolute moral prohibitions of heinous actions like “slavery, torture, cold-blooded murder” (87). But what about Christianity? Note that the Israelites practiced slavery, the Torah outlines punishments that would today be considered torture (e.g. hand amputation in Deuteronomy 25:11-12), and the Bible describes God as commanding actions that we would today call cold-blooded murder such as genocide and ethnic cleansing (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:10-20; Numbers 31; 1 Samuel 15). This leaves the Christian with a dilemma: either concede that slavery, torture, and genocide are morally permissible today, or claim that the ethics of such actions are morally relative to a divine decree.
My final example concerns the Islamic conception of jihad. The authors recognize that some Muslims interpret jihad as an internal spiritual struggle rather than a violent, socio-political agenda (313). But they reiterate that other Muslims retain a violent interpretation of jihad. The problem with that mode of argument is that the exact same thing could be said of Christianity. For every St. Francis of Assisi there is a Constantine, Charlemagne … or Scott Roeder. And while the authors rightly point out that Muhammad “spread the political domain of Islam through the sword” (313), so did the ancient Israelites … to say nothing of the Crusades.
I can hear the authors already objecting that many of these violent individuals were not true Christians. Maybe so, but of course, many Muslims will say the same. So unless we care to embark on a discussion of the no true Scotsman fallacy, it would probably be best to concede my point and move on.
As you can see, I have a lot of criticisms of ICW. While those critiques are significant, they should be kept in perspective. So let me extend an olive branch: the prospect of composing a single introduction to the entire Christian worldview is a gargantuan undertaking, and I doubt I could do any better than these authors. (The lesson: it is easy to critique from the sidelines. It’s rather more daunting to get into the game!)
Indeed, if anything, the developed extent of my criticisms should be taken as evidence that this is an engrossing book which is absolutely packed with information and provocative analysis that is worthy of serious engagement. I may disagree with the authors at points, but that’s in large part because they write with clarity, concision, and savvy cultural awareness. Oh yeah, and they cover a dizzying range of topics in an intriguing and thought-provoking manner. All told, the result is an excellent and comprehensive introduction to worldview thinking.
So what’s the final verdict? To sum up, ICW is a great value for money and is an ideal textbook for upper-level undergraduates or seminary students. That is why I am enthusiastically adopting ICW as the main textbook in my seminary worldview course. It’s also why I commend it to every interested reader.