A Critical Response to: Building a Christian Worldview
by: Rev. Christopher C. Arch, M.A.
In their book Building a Christian Worldview, vol. 1, W. Andrew Hoffecker and Gary Scott Smith attempt to demonstrate the importance of worldviews and epistemologies in the basic thought processes of peoples and cultures. Certainly Hoffecker is correct when he states: “Underlying all that we think, say, or do are basic assumptions that form what we call a worldview.” (1) These worldviews govern the way one considers life, thought, academic disciplines, the arts, religion, politics, etc. In fact, no topic is left out of consideration in relation to one’s worldview because every dimension of one’s life; intellectual, physical, social, economic, and moral, is governed by his or her worldview.
In Building a Christian Worldview, Hoffecker and Smith explain several basic worldviews while also trying to help the reader formulate his or her own presuppositions about life. This is done, however, not by merely examining the various philosophical systems or worldviews, but by placing these views in their historical framework of chronology, thereby allowing the reader to see the emergence and development of these ideologies on the world’s stage. Along with this chronologically accurate overview, the editors divide the text into two sections: the first focuses on the various worldviews as they relate to arguably the most important, or at least individually and culturally telling topics of study, theology and anthropology; the second section explains the epistemological basis of the various views. Thus, Hoffecker’s stated goal of “combining historical and topical approaches to enable us to evaluate the interplay between ideas in their social settings and subsequent development.”, is met in the text. (2) This method of evaluation enables the reader to see the fluid nature of history, and especially the history of ideas, as brilliant men of old (and some of modernity) impact not only their times but also influence the thinking of subsequent generations.
Strengths of the text:
Certainly Hoffecker and Smith’s work, Building a Christian Worldview, has significant merit in various areas of study, including: apologetics, philosophy, history, anthropology and theology. Not only are the various contributing scholars accurate and adept in the discussion of their assigned topic(s), they are able, for the most part, to leave personal bias out of an explanation of the major tenets of the differing worldviews. This allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about the various views or epistemologies by means of honest comparison, rather than subtle manipulation.
Hoffecker and Smith identify the most significant worldviews in relation to their contribution to Western culture and thinking. These views include: Classical Greek Humanism, a divided Biblical view focusing first on the Old Testament and later the New Testament, a developing Christian view including Nicea, St. Augustine, and later St. Thomas; the Reformation, the Renaissance, and finally Naturalistic Humanism. Again, part of the strength of the text is the fact that it outlines these various views in relation to their chronological development and impact on at least Western society. As a result, Hoffecker and Smith wisely weave a history of thought that helps to explain the development of the predominant Western worldviews.
Another strength of Building a Christian Worldview, is its emphasis on epistemology. Contributing to the text, V. James Mannoia defines epistemology as “the quest for the source of certainty”. (3) In other words, this is the attempt to study and understand what exactly is the nature of knowledge. Epistemology attempts to distinguish between that which “is certain and not simply belief, or opinion, or probability.” (4) Epistemology became almost an obsession in the era of the Renaissance as Enlightenment man began to think he had liberated himself from the constraints of a Heavenly Father. It was during this period of Western Civilization that “pure science” began to replace the prior “Queen of the sciences”, theology, as the preeminent field of study. Although upon reflection the quarrel was more with the illogical and unbiblical excesses and proclamations of the Catholic Church, this “rebirth of reason” associated with the Renaissance resulted in an attempt to discount much of Christianity and revive classical Greek philosophies of humanism. Thus, to a greater or lesser degree, the emphasis of the origination of knowledge and knowing shifted from a theological to an anthropological point of reference with the rise of Rationalism and Empiricism. With this shift and emphasis on an anthropological point of reference, according to Kant, “epistemology gave the mind of man the active role of creating knowledge rather than the passive role of just discovering it…” (5) Needless to say, this emphasis has resulted to one degree or another, in the relegation of God to the proverbial “broom closet” of not only the sciences, but also the experiences of much of everyday life in Western society.
Weaknesses of the Text:
Depending on the reader, one of the greatest strengths of Building a Christian Worldview could easily be one of its greatest weaknesses. Admittedly Hoffecker and Smith have not written a text that is an easy read for either the average church member or the inquiring agnostic. At times the book’s emphasis on splitting the fine hairs of philosophical ideologies becomes a tad bit tedious. It is at least possible, and most likely probable, that the average adult without a college education will be completely lost in a discussion of, and relatively unconcerned with, the writings of Hume, Locke, Descartes, or Kant. Thus, depending on the audience, the highly technical and academically challenging nature of the text could prove to be both a strength or a weakness.
Another slight criticism of the text is found in the opening pages of the book. Again, this criticism is relatively minute, being only a criticism in its failure to further identify and illustrate an idea that it inspired in this reader. On pages three and four, Hoffecker introduces an idea that if further illustrated, would have been greatly appreciated. Stating, “Anthropocentric periods have been characterized by cultural fragmentation and decline…because societies have lacked a unified and coherent foundation.”, Hoffecker seizes upon one of the most brilliant arguments of the text in favor of a Biblical, or at least theistic, worldview. (6) If this argument could have been further fortified with examples from history supporting the positive benefit a culture receives when taking a theocentric posture, as it undoubtedly could be, the effect would have been monumental in its support of a Biblical Christian worldview. However, the effect of the argument was not unlike that of one’s sampling of cotton candy at the county fair: the exhilaration and excitement of the first taste is almost immediately replaced by the evaporation of supportive substance. Undoubtedly, and arguably, this missing “substance” is exactly what Hoffecker and Smith proceed to give the reader in the remainder of the text, though developing over hundreds of pages. Certainly the text could have provided a more immediate and lasting pleasure had the author taken the time to illustrate this brilliant statement.
Another minor criticism that can be leveled at this otherwise excellent work relates to a few statements Smith wrote in chapter nine, Naturalistic Humanism. After developing a thoroughly insightful article on Naturalistic Humanism, and the various intellectual and cultural dangers associated with this view, such as: its inconsistency in defining and understanding human nature as well as cosmic order, the promotion of moral relativism, a repudiation of the belief in heaven or hell, and a denial of personal immortality as well as the existence of God; Smith then states that Christians should become “allied” with humanists in promoting causes of mutual interest. This statement seems to be naive at best, especially in light of Hoffecker’s assessment of the influence of one’s worldview when he says, “A person’s view of God affects and reflects his or her belief about human nature and its capacity to understand reality.” (7) It seems as though Smith would have been better suited to state that Christians could at times become co-belligerents with humanists for the promotion of a certain belief. However, encouraging an “allied” relationship with a group of people who hold virtually no core values in similarity with Biblical Christianity carries the appearance of absurdity.
A Brief Interaction with a Key Point of the Text:
Hoffecker and Smith have given the Christian community in specific, and the academic community in general, an excellent text for the study of the chronological development of worldviews and epistemology. The difficult task in a review such as this is not attempting to find significant points of interest to discuss, but rather, limiting the points of interest to a manageable few. With this in mind, the review will be limited to one significant point of interest.
One of the most enjoyable and enlightening aspects of the text is its exploration of the views held by two of the greatest theologians of antiquity, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century doctor of the Catholic Church. Although these men lived nearly eight hundred years apart, their respective theologies had an inestimable influence on the Church. Comparing the two men and their worldviews as well as the means by which they developed their epistemologies is quite helpful in understanding the background of the Protestant Reformation.
The life experiences of these two giants of the Church could not have been more different. Augustine went through a series of crisis after crisis, seeking new philosophies to follow while rejecting Christianity and leading a debauched life, until his conversion at around thirty years of age. Contrast this to Aquinas, who at the age of five was placed in a Benedictine monastery to study and apprentice for the ministry. (8) Later, however, Aquinas was removed from the monastery by his parents and placed in the secular University of Naples , where he became a Dominican. Certainly the background of these two men influenced their respective worldviews and epistemologies to the point of radical differences. These differences will now be discussed in greater depth.
Augustine’s starting point of theology was the Holy Scriptures. To him, the Bible was the written Word of God, that had been uniquely and verbally inspired by the Lord. (9) His approach was deductive, based on the authority of the Bible (and to a degree the Church), believing that the Bible revealed the Trinitarian nature of God in ways that Greek and Roman philosophy had not.
Thomas, however, placed a greater emphasis on the “spiritualization” of texts of Scripture, a practice with long precedence in the Catholic Church. In the intervening eight hundred years between the two men, the Catholic Church had freely intermingled Platonic with Biblical thought. Thus, it was neither uncommon nor unusual that Aquinas would have himself mixed Greek philosophy with Christian theology. As a result, Thomas adopted and attempted to adapt Aristotelian logic to Christian theology in hope of rescuing it from the pagan Muslim philosopher Averroes. (10) Yet, this influence led Aquinas to deny the ability to develop an accurate view of God by using the Scriptures alone. ” Instead, he used Scholastic categories of thought , which were an adaptation of Greek rationalism, in order to explain the Christian faith.” (11)
Knowing Aquinas’ theological starting point was not a single-minded focus on the Scriptures, it is easy to see where further differences developed between himself and Augustine. Again, being influenced by Greek philosophy, Thomas “advocated a popular medieval principle call via negativa.” (12) This “way of negation” denied that man can know God’s essence and thus if we are to know Him, we must deny those qualities we believe to be most inappropriate to Him. However, at this point Aquinas demonstrates his decision to place human reason above the written revelation of the Scriptures as the authority into the Person of God. Thus, Aquinas did not attempt to develop his view of God by a simple reliance upon the Bible alone.
Ultimately, this difference between Aquinas and Augustine naturally leads to a discussion of their various views of man. Focusing primarily upon the Scriptures for his understanding of the nature of man, Augustine drew differing conclusions than his thirteenth century counterpart. Unlike the Greek philosophers that preceded him, Augustine argued for the unity of the whole man, condemning any Platonic soul-body dualism. Augustine believed that Adam had a free will, and prior to the fall, was able to do right. However, after the fall, the image of God was so marred in man due to sin, that man’s natural inclination was towards evil. Sin, according to Augustine, was a result of unbelief, and not a matter contained within the body. Thus, after the fall, Adam not only lost his ability to do good, but even his very moral judgment was affected as well as his very freedom. (12) Augustine disagreed sharply with the teaching of his contemporary, Pelagius, a British monk and teacher who wielded great influence in Rome . The Pelagian school taught the following doctrines: people were able to come to faith in God on their own because Adam’s sin injured only himself, newborn children are at the same state as Adam was prior to the fall, people can be saved through obedience to the law as well as by believing in the Gospel, prior to Christ’s coming certain individuals lived a sinless life. (13) Ultimately, Pelagians taught that man’s nature was essentially good and unaffected by the fall. To these statements Augustine could not have disagreed more.
Where did Thomas Aquinas stand in relation to the gulf created by Augustine and Pelagius on the issue of man’s nature? He stood squarely in the middle. Aquinas, using his Scholastic Synthesism, attempted to blend the teaching of Aristotle, Augustine, and Pelagius. From Aristotle, Thomas argued for a union of the body and the soul. Yet the real point of struggle, for which Thomas never fully gave an answer, was how serious are the effects of original sin? What effect does this have on the will? What affect does this have on man’s reason? Yet, in the midst of this synthesis, Aquinas held to some of Augustine’s main doctrines such as original sin and salvation by God’s grace. Conversely, however, Aquinas also clung to Pelagian elements of an unscathed reason, a partially debilitated will that remained morally free in all choices except those requiring supernatural assistance, and salvation being infused into man by God through the sacraments. (14)
It was the Catholic Church’s view of salvation by infusion of the various sacraments, and not by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, that ultimately led to Luther’s Reformation. It can be argued that Aquinas’ synthesism of Pelagian, Augustinian, and Aristotelian teachings helped to further bolster the Catholic Church in its error with regard to not only the ultimate authority of the Scriptures, but also the nature of God, the work of Christ, as well as the nature of man. Thus, in part, the Reformation was in some ways the logical result of a conflict between the ideologies and views of Augustine and Thomas and those who would seek to synthesize Biblical truth with error.
It should be stated that although Aquinas’ synthestic approach to the nature of man, God, and epistemology was flawed, apparently his motives were good. His approach was an attempt to make Christianity relevant to those within the Scholastic movement by taking Aristotelian logic away from the “infidels”, and demonstrating the faith’s ability to be reconciled with Greek philosophy and learning. Yet, when truth is mixed with error, it is truth that becomes diluted. This is exactly what transpired as a result of Aquinas’ sythesism.
The Value and Significance of this Work:
Building a Christian Worldview must be commended on various grounds. In the text, Hoffecker and Smith have set a sturdy foundation upon which can be built further investigative ventures and comparisons into the history and impact of various worldviews and epistemologies. This is especially helpful in that these views are placed in their proper historical perspective. This perspective allows the serious student to trace the natural rise and fall of various viewpoints while also determining how and why certain groups of people at certain time periods thought the way they did.
Christians in specific should demonstrate gratefulness to Hoffecker and Smith for this work. Unlike most texts, Building a Christian Worldview affords the concerned Christian the opportunity to succinctly understand the operative and influential ideas of various views in competition with Christianity. Knowing how others think is essential to being able to effectively share the message of Christ. Often conversations between Christians and non-Christians fail to develop because the conversation is on different planes. By being informed of these various ideologies and epistemologies, the interested and intentional Christian can bypass many troublesome hurdles and engage their friends and acquaintances more directly. Thus, the editors must be applauded for their excellent and informative work that helps the reader to better determine how various groups tackle the issues of theology and anthropology. Having tackled these monumental issues, and by further explaining how various groups determine epistemology, Hoffecker and Smith have given the Christian community a valuable tool in the battle for the mind of the culture.
1. Elwell, Walter, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Hants, England: Baker Books, 1985).
2. Hoffecker, W. Andrew, Building a Christian Worldview, vol.1, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1986).
1. Hoffecker, p.ix
2. ibid., p. xiv
3. ibid., p. 261
4. ibid., p. 261
5. ibid., pp. 274-275
6. ibid., pp. 3-4
7. ibid., p. 185
8. Elwell, p. 1091
9. Hoffecker, p. 87
10. ibid., p. 99
11. ibid., p. 103
12. ibid., p. 90
13. ibid., p. 93
14. ibid., pp. 107-108