Last year, Cory Brock, Gray Sutanto, and I released the first English translation of Bavinck’s book Christian Worldview with Crossway. It is an important and particularly helpful book, and has tremendous practical import for those who want to think through a series of perennial and important existential questions:
What am I? Where did I come from? How does my own view on the world relate to the world outside me? Do I know anything? Can I know anything? How should I act? And why do I exist? What is the point of my life?
The sum total of one’s answers to those questions is what Bavinck calls a ‘world- and-life-view’. In Christian Worldview, he argues that the modern age has tried to answer those questions, and to provide an existentially satisfying world-and-life-view, in many ways. Bavinck’s claim, though, is that only the Christian faith can answer those questions to our existential satisfaction.
Christian Worldview was an enjoyable book to translate, although we were aware that it is not an easy read. It is short but dense—the kind of book that packs a remarkable punch given its brevity. As such, it is the kind of book that needs careful reading, followed perhaps by a second and third reading. It is also a product of its time: Bavinck interacts with many figures who were seminal in his own day, although their names are not instantly recognisable to us. Part of our editorial task, then, was to add footnotes providing the 21st century reader with information to clarify who these figures were, and what they had argued. This also means the reader needs to pay attention.
For those who are working through it, a number of very helpful resources have since appeared that will help with making sense of the book.
- Gray Sutanto’s lecture on the book given at RTS DC (above).
- Gray Sutanto’s article based on this lecture.
- Greg Parker’s article published in Modern Reformation.
- Cory Brock’s article published in Credo Magazine.
- Tim Keller’s article ‘Justice in the Bible‘. There, Keller writes,
Is there a Christian Worldview? Yes. Over the past century the concept of a Christian “worldview” has developed. The word was taken from Immanuel Kant but given new meaning by its early proponents, especially Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. They argued first, that human beings cannot live without assuming some answers to the abiding questions—Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What’s wrong with people and how do we put it right? How should I live and how do I determine right or wrong? And how do I know that what I know about these things is the truth?—Answers to these questions constitute a worldview, a mental map, through which we process daily life. Most of us simply adopt and assume the worldview of our family or community and culture, but others think it out. No one can live without one. Secondly, these early proponents argued that Christianity is not merely a set of individual doctrines to believe, but a coherent, comprehensive way of answering all these basic life questions and therefore it is a way for looking at every area of life from a Christian perspective. Because Christianity’s view of reality is grounded in the Triune God, a belief shared with no other religion or philosophy, its worldview is necessarily unique and radically distinct from all others.
Over the last several decades, the term “worldview” has been adopted by many speakers who use it in different ways. Perhaps the dominant way to present the concept has been to describe Christianity as a set of bullet point beliefs, and then to compare it with the parallel beliefs of other accounts of reality, often broken out into discrete categories such as secularism, scientific materialism, postmodernism, existentialism, nihilism, New Age spirituality, Marxism—and sometimes adding other religions such as Buddhism and Islam. The six editions of James Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue and Jeff Myers’ Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews are examples of this approach. Strong criticism has been levelled at these kinds of books. First, it is charged, the worldview categories overlap. For example, arguably, materialism, postmodernism, Marxism, existentialism and New Age Spirituality are all forms of secularism—they are all approaches taking place within what Charles Taylor calls the secular “immanent frame.” Secondly, individuals in our culture increasingly mix together elements from more than one of these categories. Many younger adults today often mix therapeutic, individualistic answers to the identity question with Marxist, collectivistic answers to the question of justice. And this is also true of so-called “schools of thought.” Is it fair, for example, to call Critical Race Theory a well-structured “worldview?” No. It, too, is something of a mishmash of ideas from older Marxism and newer postmodernism. All this has led many to propose that the term “worldview” be retired.
However, Herman Bavinck’s 1913 essay Christian Worldview (Crossway, 2019) has recently been translated from Dutch into English for the first time. This is a seminal document—some argue it is one of the first substantial articulations of the idea. Bavinck wants to compare Christianity to the alternate worldviews that were developing in the secularizing western culture. (1) First, he begins with a statement that “Christianity stands antithetically to all that is brought before the market today…If we understand Christianity’s warrant and maintain a desire to preserve her essence, then we can do nothing else but take a resolute position against the systems of the day and the worldviews of its own invention and fashioning….There can be no thought of reconciliation between Christianity and [other worldviews].” (27) (2) Second, Bavinck shows that each non-Christian worldview starts by assuming realities about the world and human nature that it cannot prove. So it begins with acts of faith, not with empirical experience or objective reason (34). (3) Third, Bavinck says that secular non-Christian worldviews are reductionistic or “mechanical.” They seek to explain everything by some single factor (80-81). So scientific materialism reduces everything to the physical (e.g. love is just a chemical brain event that helps you pass on your genes) while pantheism says the physical world is an illusion and reduces everything to the spiritual. This reductionism means every non-Christian worldview creates an idol. It looks to some created thing rather than God to be the key or the solution or the salvation (It also demonizes some created thing rather than human sin to be the main problem with the world). (4) Fourth, the inevitable simplistic one-sidedness of these worldviews leaves each of them, in different ways, unable to account for what we know both intellectually and intuitively about the complexity of the world and of humanity, which is both created and fallen, both physical and spiritual, both individual and social. “Christianity is the only religion whose view of the world and life fits the world and life” (28, italics are mine). Only the Christian worldview can keep “heart and head together.” (5) Fifth, every alternative worldview fails on its own terms to give what it promises—a knowledge of truth, a stable identity, and a basis for moral norms. Without the Trinity at their foundation, modern worldviews fall into opposite “ditches.” For example, they fall into empiricism or rationalism—both of which, in the end, must confess that there is no way for us to know truth, and yet we know intuitively that truth exists and we can’t live without it. This means non-Christian worldviews are unliveable. They fail to give us solid resources for finding our identity, experiencing freedom, knowing satisfaction, having a basis for doing justice, or discovering truth. (6) Finally, by showing how Christianity has a unique answer to all these perennial questions, he makes the case that Christianity is a complete worldview, giving us unique perspectives on every aspect of life, not just private life, but on business, law, politics, science, art, and government. Christianity is not only for helping us in our private life. It is a way of seeing, living, and working distinctively in all of life.
Most importantly, Bavinck avoids the pitfalls of more recent worldview writing. He does not artificially divide people into discrete worldview categories. Instead, Bavinck goes down to the basic, perennial philosophical debates and issues—the ‘deep structures of culture’—of epistemology (how do we know?), anthropology (what is human nature, what is wrong with it, and how can it be repaired?), ethics (what is justice? how do we determine right from wrong?), metaphysics (what is real?), teleology (what is our purpose?), and eschatology (where are we going?). He shows that any particular school of thought—such as evolutionary naturalism or Critical Race Theory today—while not a comprehensive worldview per se, is necessarily assuming certain answers to these worldview questions.
Bavinck is the most helpful resource on this subject I’ve ever read, but while brief, it is challenging.
6. This conversation between Gray Sutanto and Tim Keller. It is framed as a discussion of Bavinck’s relevance to ministry in global cities, although much of the discussion stems from their readings of Christian Worldview.