The idea that Christian beliefs constitute a unique worldview—through which we view all reality and because of which we work distinctly in every area of life—has been influential in the United States for at least a century. But the concept of worldview has lost its luster for many in the U.S. church. I’ve spoken to numerous young Christians who want to lay it aside. Why? Because they level these critiques against it:
Too rationalistic: It casts Christianity as a set of propositions or bullet points conveyed by argument in a classroom. The emphasis on worldview can give the impression the work of the kingdom of God is mainly an intellectual or scholarly project. The role of imagination and story on worldview—or their function even as worldview—is simply not considered.
Too simplistic: The emphasis on the coherence of worldviews (“These beliefs always lead to these outcomes”) doesn’t account for the reality that people are happily inconsistent and seem to live out of a patchwork of somewhat incoherent beliefs and worldviews.
Too individualistic: “Worldview thinking,” at least as it exists now, seems to ignore the profound influence of community and culture on us. It implies we’re primarily the product of our individual thinking and choices. In this, the current concept of worldview may be more American than biblical. We don’t see that worldview is the product of communal formation and of the common stories our community uses to make sense of life.
Too triumphalist: The emphasis on the antithesis of believing and unbelieving starting points, of foundational beliefs or presuppositions, can lead to a sense we have all the truth and no one else has any at all. And in its worst usage, all sorts of contestable cultural and political opinions can be claimed to be simply part of the “biblical worldview” and therefore beyond questioning.
Alternative to Worldview
His emphasis on worldview’s relationship to personality shows that worldview is much more than a set of bullet points on a blackboard. This approach guards against seeing worldview as a mere intellectual framework passed on by intellectual means. Personality and Worldview casts worldview as not only something that forms but also something we deploy in becoming more thoughtful and “objective” in our formation.
J. H. Bavinck’s emphasis on worldview’s relationship to personality shows that worldview is much more than a set of bullet points on a blackboard.
His unique contribution—the distinction between a “worldvision” and a “worldview”—explains why so few people live out of a consistent and coherent worldview. The worldvision (or world “mindset” or “mentality”) is a set of basic intuitions picked up from our environment, consisting in simplistic and reductionistic ideas through which we view reality—as through spectacles. A worldview, however, is more like a map, never fully finished in this life, in which we work out the implications of Christianity for every area of life in our time and place.
Bavinck’s emphasis on psychology entails community formation (though he often leaves that implicit). Personality and Worldview in many ways reflects the psychology of an earlier time, and yet it recognizes that our “personality” is not only, as Eglinton explains in his introduction, the result of “the idiosyncrasies of [our inborn] temperament[s]” but “a set of intuitions about the world formed in all individuals by their family and home environment, their teachers and education, and the broad culture within which they live” (12). Here Personality and Worldview anticipates Charles Taylor’s concept of worldview as a “social imaginary”—the way a community of people learns to imagine the world.
Worldview as Mapmaking
The emphasis by J. H. Bavinck and his uncle, Herman Bavinck, on worldview as mapmaking is a crucial idea. Developing a worldview is an effort to transcend the limitations and reductionisms of our worldvision.
If a worldview is something we painstakingly work out our whole lives, several things follow:
Worldview isn’t in this metaphor a finished weapon to be wielded against opponents—it guards against triumphalism in that regard.
It’s always unfinished and growing. That’s humbling as well.
A Christian in Indonesia wouldn’t be developing the exact same map as a Christian in Scotland. If you’re applying the Christian’s doctrines to all of life, the questions and issues one faces will vary in different places. As such, although Personality and Worldview doesn’t say this explicitly, it gives us the basis for the thought there may be overlapping and noncontradictory but somewhat different Christian worldviews in different cultures. That also undermines triumphalism.
I couldn’t be happier that Johan Herman Bavinck’s Personality and Worldview has been made accessible to the English-speaking world. It’s an important work, perhaps even what we call a “game changer.” I’m grateful for James Eglinton’s translation of Personality and Worldview and his introduction. Read them both carefully, and think out the implications for how you understand and practice your faith in the world today.
The Gospel Coalition