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Al Wolters on worldview in everyday life

In recent weeks I’ve been doing some reading and blogging related to worldview and the role it plays in shaping how we live as Christians in light of what God has done, is doing and will do in history. Michael Goheen really piqued my interest in this when I heard him speak here in Phoenix in early March. He described his theological and spiritual journey, including what he describes as an important shift from a theological system to a theological worldview (my notes from the talk are here). In last Monday’s post, Bryant Myers suggested “we are to see the world as created, fallen, and being redeemed, all at the same time.” And then on Thursday, Steven Garber in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness argued that if we are to weave together belief and behavior, it is essential to develop “a worldview sufficient for the challenges of the modern world.”

All these writers and thinkers have more or less the same thing in mind, I think, when they refer to worldview, but it’s also a term that carries all sorts of connotations for different people, so today I want to back up and take a look at what worldview means, drawing on the excellent little book Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans). It was originally written in 1985 by Al Wolters, and then re-released twenty years later, with an afterword by Michael Goheen himself (there’s a lot of overlap between that afterword and what he had to say in his talk).

Wolters defines worldview as “the comprehensive framework of one’s basic beliefs about things,” a definition he then breaks down bit by bit (I won’t spell it out here, but each word is carefully chosen).

Like the others I referred to earlier, Wolters believes that a biblical worldview is best understood by the basic scriptural categories of creation, fall and redemption. He also contends that our worldview is to inform all of life; the Bible leaves no room for compartmentalizing certain parts of life into the mutually exclusive categories of sacred (church, spiritual practices, Bible study, etc) and secular (economics, politics, technology, etc). In other words,

The plea being made here for a biblical worldview is simply an appeal to the believer to take the Bible and its teaching seriously for the totality of our civilization right now and not to relegate it to some optional area called “religion.”

All of that is established in the first chapter, and then chapters two, three and four have to do with spelling out a fuller, deeper understanding of creation, fall and redemption, respectively. I hope you’ll read the book so you can see everything he has to say about the nuances of each of those three, but the biggest contribution Creation Regained makes is the chapter on discerning the difference between “structure” and “direction.” The terms may be confusing at first, but understood properly, the implications of that distinction are huge for our everyday lives.

I’ll try to sum it up in a paragraph. First, all things are created good (their “structure” is good), but all created things have been deformed by the Fall and sin (that is, they have been “misdirected”). As Christians, too often we recognize the directional distortion of something and discard it as sinful, but we fail to affirm its structural goodness, and miss the opportunity to see how, as a structurally good but misdirected part of creation, it can be redirected for purposes that please God and, in turn, serve the common good. With this distinction in mind, we can truly be “reformers” rather than either seeking to obliterate what’s tainted by sin on the one hand, or by fatalistically accepting the sin-tainted status quo on the other. In other words, distinguishing between structure and direction gives us an alternative to both “revolution” and “quietistic conservatism,” two approaches that leave much to be desired:

Our focus on structure rejects a sympathy for revolution, and our focus on direction condemns a quietistic conservatism… In sum we may say that whereas consecration leaves things internally untouched, and revolution annihilates things, reformation renews and sanctifies them. God calls us to cleanse and reform all the sectors of our lives.

That goes for our personal lives and our interpersonal relationships, but it also has huge implications for our life as citizens and as active participants in political, economic, and other systems. So, for an example applicable to the readers of this blog, when we’re faced with an ethical dilemma like alleged abuses of workers on the other side of the world tied to the practices of a corporation which we support through our purchases, we’re presented with an alternative to the two predictable and insufficient responses. It doesn’t do to ignore the abuses as inevitable, “necessary evils” in our complicated, interconnected world. And it doesn’t do to decry the corporation for being a corporation and part of the free market system. Rather, we seek to discern structure and direction. What about the corporation is structurally a good part of creation? What about the corporation has been misdirected by sin? And what might we as “reformers” (or what Gabe Lyons calls “restorers”) do to redirect and reform that corporation so that what is good about it can continue, and so that it can contribute to the flourishing of all, including those on the other end of the market equation?

That’s a whole new way of seeing the world, it seems to me, and a whole new way of living. It’s not cynical and detached, but it’s not playing to either side of the culture wars, either. It is, however, rooted in the big narrative arc of Scripture — creation, fall, redemption — which is also the narrative arc of history. It’s brimming with promise, isn’t it? It’s realistic and it’s hopeful. It has both roots and wings.

As Wolters says clearly, developing this sort of a worldview — learning to see the world and our lives through this kind of a biblical lens — doesn’t answer every question and solve every problem we will encounter. In community with other believers and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we’re given the task of discerning the implications of biblical teaching for all these areas of life. We won’t do it perfectly all the time, but we can learn and grow. Most of all, developing a biblical worldview gives us a framework for understanding our lives in the world, and it gives us the right questions to ask:

To approach the phenomena of the world in terms of structure and direction is to look at reality through the corrective lens of Scripture, which everywhere speaks of a good creation and the drama of its reclamation by the Creator in Jesus Christ.

Do you find the themes of creation, fall and redemption — as well as the distinction between structure and direction — helpful for navigating the challenges of everyday life? Is there any part of this “worldview” you’d call into question?


  1. I like this idea of structure and direction. Lately, reading the news has been a very depressing endeavor (because it’s an election year?) and I have been feeling hopeless about the world and powerless to do anything about it. It is a nice reminder that instead of looking at the world as a hopeless cause, I should, instead be looking for ways in which to help redirect the energies of the world so that they may bring healing and not destruction. It is a much more hopeful outlook.

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