We talk a lot about worldview these days. The world has moved closer together. We live “virtually” in each other’s backyard, clear across the globe. Thinking about worldview helps us look at underlying and foundational ideas. We often recognize competing worldviews as we listen to heated discussions—virtually or in real life—about hot topics.
Most scholars would agree that the concept has become a staple of academic discourse in different fields ranging from philosophy to theology, from sociology to anthropology, following the physical and moral devastation of World War II. Since then, East and West and North and South have moved closer together.
Worldview has often been associated with one of the *isms. Marxism, atheism, postmodernism, existentialism, nihilism feature prominently when we think about worldview—and yet, the influence of worldview is more inconspicuous. Most of us know few real-life Marxists or existentialists or nihilists, but we can notice the often-subtle influence of these *isms on the way we look at the world around us. Theologians Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford note this in their book Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives. They suggest that beyond the big philosophical worldview systems there are belief systems we need to consider. They call them “hidden worldviews,” which, often unconsciously, influence all of our lives.1 Individualism, consumerism, moral relativism, naturalism, the New Age, postmodern tribalism, and salvation by therapy are included in their list.
It’s always helpful to start discussions about complex topics with definitions. Here are some possible definitions of worldview: Worldview is the grid that orders and aligns all elements of our life and outlook. Without a mental structure, we struggle to comprehend and navigate our world. Those more technology-savvy among us may prefer this one: A worldview is the operating system that allows other programs to run and organizes data in a meaningful way. Imagine your computer or smartphone without an operating system. Whether macOS, Microsoft Windows, LINUX, iOS, or Android—our tech tools and toys wouldn’t work without their operating systems.
Here is a more technical definition: “Worldview encompasses the mental functioning that directs human actions. It is the mental basis for human interaction with the social and physical environments. . . . It is a view of the world, a way of looking at reality. . . . A people’s worldview shapes and is shaped by their social and physical environments.”2
Notice the key elements of this definition. Worldview affects our cognitive functions, which in turn direct our actions. We act because we think a certain way. Worldview shapes how we engage with people and the physical world around us. Worldview helps us make sense of the reality we face.
We cannot simply change worldviews like we change clothing, cars, or hair colors. We soak up worldview as we grow up in a particular culture, in a particular social context, and in a particular time. Worldview transformation is one of the most challenging things we may ever face. Just speak to any Western missionary working in a non-Western culture and you will sooner or later get to talk about worldview. Transforming a worldview, especially our hidden worldviews, is complex and involves cognitive and emotive elements that go far beyond the mere agreement to a number of questions on a baptismal certificate.3
In 1995, my wife and I moved to Lima, Peru. I had just finished my doctorate, and we had been called to teach at the Adventist university in Ñaña, outside of Lima. We didn’t speak the language yet, and we experienced severe culture shock. Culture shock happens when differing worldviews, emphasizing distinct values, clash. Our home on campus had been recently renovated, and on our arrival our toilet didn’t have a seat and cover. We were missionaries and thought that toilets without seats and covers were the norm in Peru. Good missionaries don’t complain, we thought.
We had a very basic map, a compass—and little stone pyramids that other hikers had positioned on little knolls in an otherwise flat plain of permafrost ground.
One of the first Sabbaths we were invited to eat lunch with friends on campus. Imagine my elation when I saw a toilet seat and cover while using their restroom. “Chantal, they have a seat cover!” I shouted excitedly when I rushed to join the family for lunch. Our hosts looked at me curiously. Why would toilet seats generate such a reaction?
When they heard our story, they laughed. “Why hadn’t you told me earlier?” our host said. “Mañana [tomorrow] we will have this fixed,” he told us with the authority of a university administrator. Mañana became 14 days—and we learned a valuable lesson about the worldview of another culture and some of its underlying values. Time in Peru was distinct from time in our own cultures.
We all have a worldview—whether we realize it or not. As Christians, however, we realize that we need a more solid worldview foundation that can transcend culture and socialization. We need a worldview that is anchored in Scripture. The question is What is the biblical worldview? How do we recognize and understand this worldview? How can we make it our own? How can we relate to texts written thousands of years ago in a historical reality that is far removed from our own?
We could do what many Christian thinkers and theologians have done before us. We could choose an external philosophical or theological system and use it as a blueprint to understand Scripture’s worldview. Theologians such as Augustine or Thomas Aquinas applied the philosophical framework of Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle, seeking to formulate a Christian theology—and worldview.
The problem with this approach is that it superimposes an external system and adapts Scripture to that system. In this approach, philosophy trumps the Bible. Centuries of Christian thinkers have followed this route, often resulting in distorted interpretations of God’s Word.
A more logical—and surer—approach would be to start with God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Language could be, at least potentially, a problem, since God chose to reveal Himself in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek within the confines of a Mediterranean culture that is light-years away from New York’s Fifth Avenue or Berlin’s Ku’damm. Fortunately, we have good translations and lots of background information that help us better understand Scripture—even if we don’t manage the biblical languages.
Let’s focus on seven key elements of a biblical worldview emanating from Scripture itself. Consider them the sine qua nons.
God’s existence and engagement with this world is never argued, reasoned, or explained. There is no real ontology of God in Scripture. His existence is presupposed.
I grew up in a culture and worldview that was nearly diametrically opposed to that part of the biblical worldview. Rationalism and science colluded to elevate reason as the gatekeeper for our values. Cause and effect seem to leave little room for a God who stands outside of this system and yet acts in it.
People living in the biblical world shared this premodern perspective—yet with a twist. They had many gods, and somehow their gods looked like squabbling, irrational, emotional, manipulative human beings. Polytheism was Satan’s way of distracting from this fundamental truth that God is the foundational part of every equation.
God as Creator is another foundational element of a biblica
l worldview. Nobody attempts to explain Creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Creation is splashed all over the Bible. Any conscientious Bible reader must recognize that God is personally engaged as the Creator of all living beings. Yahweh, the Creator God, is a given in the biblical world.
We can discover a great deal about a group’s worldview from their prayers and worship. When we read the psalms, pursue the prophets, or engage Paul, we will know, beyond any doubt, that God is the Creator. From Genesis to Revelation He is portrayed as Creator. This foundational biblical perspective creates serious conflict in a world that has fully embraced the theory of evolution.
Community is another key element of a biblical worldview. God creates in community. The Spirit and Jesus are associated with God’s creative act (see Gen. 1:1, 2, 26; John 1:3; Eph. 3:9). While there is no definite head count of the Deity in Genesis 1 and 2, the overall testimony of Scripture tells us that God created in community. Community is a key value in a biblical worldview.
While the Bible is very balanced distinguishing between “I” and “we” in terms of salvation, “we” seems to be the prevalent modus operandi. Abraham and his family reflect the “we”—consider circumcision as the covenant sign applied collectively to Abraham’s entire male household (cf. Gen. 17:10-27). Jesus ministered in community. Paul tells us that the church is a body (1 Cor. 12:12-31)—a community of body parts that need each other. A biblical worldview challenges us to look beyond “I” toward the “we.” It’s a reflection of the community represented in the Trinity.
God is engaged in human history. He is not far removed or distant. He is not forgetful of His creation or distracted. He acts in history and makes history. That’s a major challenge to a rationalist worldview in which history is considered a closed system, following the law of cause and effect.
Biblical history is grounded in the reality of Creation; it’s theological (i.e., God has a place in it and is acting in it); it’s selective, interpretive, biographical, and intentional. A biblical worldview needs to recognize God’s involvement in history.
Here is another element of a biblical worldview: the entrance of sin changed everything—except for the love of God. Sin has penetrated every process, every relationship, every thought pattern, and every act. Genesis 3 is not a myth but a reality affecting every moment of our lives. Sin separated us from God and left us hopeless and homeless.
“We need a Saviour” is not cliché or rote self-flagellation. Scripture is full of stories that illustrate this foundational fact. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Most world religions include a way of overcoming sin and finding salvation. We pray, we pay, we do good deeds, we try to overcome—but there is no substitute for a Saviour. We can’t work our way to heaven or pull ourselves out of the quicksand of sin by doing. Help needs to come from outside of us.
Finally, we look at our own lives and the world around us through the lens of a cosmic conflict. Following the Fall, earth has become a battle zone. Life is not fair. God is not to blame, for there is an antagonist who is constantly seeking to destroy and derail God’s purpose for this planet. “It is Satan’s constant effort to misrepresent the character of God, the nature of sin, and the real issues at stake in the great controversy,” writes Ellen White. “His sophistry gives men license to sin. At the same time he causes false conceptions of God so that they regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love.”4
Following my high school graduation, three friends and I decided to travel through Scandinavia. We pooled our money, bought an old diesel Mercedes transporter that had seen five hard years of service as a construction van, fixed it up as a mobile camper, resprayed it, and traveled more than 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometers) through Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.
Beyond the Arctic Circle we didn’t experience night for six weeks. We hiked through Lapland, one of the most isolated and lonely places in northern Finland. There were no paths and no roads. In fact, in our four days of hiking through Lapland we never saw another human being. We had a very basic map, a compass—and little stone pyramids that other hikers had positioned on little knolls in an otherwise flat plain of permafrost ground. I have never forgotten the little stone pyramids that helped us find our way.
A biblical worldview that is informed by Scripture points us in the right direction—straight into the arms of Jesus, the everlasting God, whose commanding Word spoke life into existence and whose final words on the cross—“It is finished”—have given us the ultimate clue to how this story will really end.
Worldview transformation is tough. A biblical worldview is countercultural and goes beyond rational acceptance and intellectual agreement. Day by day we are hammered by media that subscribes to distinct worldviews. Ultimately, like the birth of a newborn baby and the Christian who has to be born again (see John 3), we need God’s Spirit to effect this transformation daily. It’s the work of a lifetime—and it requires our daily surrender.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Gerald A. Klingbeil serves as an associate editor of Adventist Review.