Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: Revolutions in Worldview (2007)

Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought. W. Andrew Hoffecker, ed. New Jersey: P&R, 2007. 424 pp.

In the Preface to this collection of essays, W. Andrew Hoffecker defines worldview as a “one’s most basic beliefs and framework of understanding.” (xi) Worldview affects every aspect of human life, and affects all people (consciously or unconsciously). Worldview thinking is both inevitable (xii) and pervasive. Revolutions in Worldview pursues a fundamental thesis very clearly: “The thesis of this book is that Western thought has experienced a series of changes so profound they should be called revolutions.” (xiii) Accordingly, the book contains ten chapters, each one tracing the contours of a dominant worldview—ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew, New Testament Christian, early medieval Christianity, late medieval Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, nineteenth-century skepticism, and rising postmodernism.



John M. Frame authors the first major essay, examining the revolution in thought produced by Greek philosophers (Chapter 1, “Greeks Bearing Gifts”). The tone of his article is quickly set: “The chief benefit in studying Greek thought is to understand better the philosophical and cultural consequences of rejecting biblical theism.” (1) We do not expect Frame to find much of benefit in Greek thought, and he does not disappoint. He briefly discusses the commonalities and diversities which marked Greek philosophy (3) before turning to the fatalism of Greek religion (4-5). Frame then outlines the revolution in thought, beginning with the Milesians, which exalted the autonomy of human reason, and identified “the good life” as “the life of reason.” (5-6) Frame considers the philosophical systems of the Milesians, Heraclitus, Parmenides, the Atomists, Pythagoras, the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Plotinus (7-31). Each philosopher (or school of philosophy) is marked by seven characteristics: 1. The supremacy of human reason; 2. Reducing all of nature under the sovereignty of reason; 3. A consequential claim that reality is monistic in nature; 4. The continuing dualistic struggle between rational life and meaningless fate; 5. The power of the ‘shapeless stream’ of fate in challenging autonomous reason; 6. An eventual collapse from rationalism into irrationalism; and 7. A resulting invalidation of their philosophical insights (6-7). Frame will particularly emphasize the combination of rationalism with irrationalism—the Greeks seek to exalt human reason, and follow it as far as they can, but eventually their humanistic rational system collapses, and they retreat into irrationalism (e.g., 23). Frame concludes that “their project was to impose autonomous reason upon an irrational world. That project was bold, even revolutionary, as we have seen; but it could not hope to succeed.” (33) The alternative, the only workable worldview, Frame insists, is the “absolute-personality theism of Scripture.” (33)

I was surprised and disappointed by two facets of Frame’s presentation. First, the tone of his article was predominantly negative and attacking. I certainly understand that the Frame does not want the reader to adopt a Greek philosophical worldview, and he rightly warns against the dangers of seeking to synthesize Platonism with Christianity. Oftentimes, his accusation that Greek rationalism terminated in irrationalism was a thinly-supported assertion—this is particularly evident in his treatment of Pythagoras (14-15). Second, at many points Frame seems to rely upon Reformed philosophers and apologists (Dooyeweerd, but particularly Van Til) for his knowledge of Greek philosophy, rather than the Greek philosophers themselves—this is particularly evident in his treatment of Heraclitus (9-10). Frame seems more concerned with debunking Greek philosophy than he is with presenting Greek philosophy on its own terms.

John D. Currid (Chapter 2, “The Hebrew World-and-Life View”) responds to critical scholars’ (e.g. Voltaire, Thompson, von Harnack, Delitzsch) accusations that the Old Testament has no unique worldview, but is rather a combination of barbarism and plagiarism (from other ancient cultures) by arguing that “such views severely underestimate the originality of thought of the Hebrews and their influence on centuries of succeeding generations.” (39) Throughout the rest of his chapter, Currid proficiently demonstrates the uniqueness of Hebraic thought. He begins with the centrality of God’s self-revelation through Scripture—an alien concept to other ancient worldviews (39-43). Currid then discusses what the Old Testament reveals about God, focusing upon the radical monotheism which was absolutely unique to the ancient Hebrews. He also emphasizes that Hebraic monotheism “not only penetrated but harmonized with every other aspect of the Hebrews’ worldview.” (45) Currid covers the ground of creation (49-55), anthropology (55-56), and the fall (56-59) briefly but accurately, although his excursion into the age of the earth controversy was too brief to be helpful. After a short discussion of hope and expectation for redemption (59-62), Currid makes lucid comments about the unique contributions of Hebraic thought regarding history. In contrast to other ancient views of history, the Old Testament picture of history is both linear and teleological (62-63). Currid closes by setting forth seven lasting contributions of the Old Testament worldview to Western thought (67-69). He concludes, rightly in my perspective, that he has succeeded in proving his thesis: “the Hebrew world-and-life view is distinct from pagan religions and cultures that surrounded the Hebrews. And it was Hebrew thought that had such a profound impact on later centuries of history.” (69)

The transition from Old Testament to New Testament is characterized by Vern S. Poythress (Chapter 3, “New Testament Worldview”) as both a continuation and a revolution. On the one hand, the New Testament “builds upon the Old Testament” and deepens our understanding of some aspects of Hebraic worldview (98). On the other hand, the transformative nature of the Gospel did indeed bring a revolution “in life, in power, and in worldview,” to the new Christians who embraced it (98). My primary concern with Poythress’s presentation is its structure. He lays the chapter out in two fundamental sections: “aspects of worldview shared” and “transformations in the New Testament.” However, it is difficult to follow his rationale for doing so, and he is quite inconsistent in his application. For example, Poythress identifies only three shared aspects—God, humanity, and redemption—and does that excessively briefly (73-74). He then identifies fifteen manifestations of a transformed New Testament worldview. There are three problems with this treatment. First, some of the identified “transformations” are present, arguably just as powerfully and pervasively, in the Old Testament—that is, they are not new at all. For example, providence, miracle, sin, creation, and epistemology are all themes within the Hebraic worldview as well as the New Testament worldview. Second, Poythress identifies humanity as an example of transformation under New Testament worldview, after having already discussed it as a shared worldview aspect in the earlier section. This leads to the third difficulty with Poythress’s treatment, which is probably the central problem. Poythress is not really providing “shared worldview aspects” and “transformations in the New Testament”—rather, he is explaining how the New Testament builds upon and deepens aspects of worldview which are already present (at least nascently) in the Old Testament. In itself, this is a worthy project, and I would have constructed my own presentation of New Testament worldview in just such a manner. However, while I have complaints about the structure of Poythress’s contribution, the content of the New Testament worldview that he elaborates is solid and beneficial.

Richard C. Gamble (Chapter 4, “Christianity from the Early Fathers to Charlemagne”) sets out to “trace the emergence and growth of the Christian worldview up to the time of Charlemagne.” (100) It is thus a stretch to call this chapter one of the historical Revolutions in Worldview—there is no revolution, but rather a working out of the New Testament worldview as the ‘Church Age’ unfolds. Gamble begins with the early church fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp) and writings (Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Didache), early heretics (Marcion, Montanus), and the emergence of the early apologists (Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Melito). The occurrence of heresy and government persecution spurred the apologetic literature which sought to demonstrate that “converting to Christianity did not entail treason against the state nor demand committing intellectual suicide.” (106) Gamble then discusses the contributions of major second and third century western and eastern writers—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen (112-19)—before addressing the towering figure of Augustine (119-27). With each theologian, he demonstrates how they progressively work out the implications of the Christian worldview, based upon Scripture, in various areas of life, and in response to controversies and disputes. Gamble also discusses how the early church was predominantly concerned with matters of liturgy and ethics—how Christianity is to be lived out corporately and individually. An inevitable by-product of applying worldview to practical theology was the gradual development of “rules” to the Christian life (128-30). Concluding the brief sweep of a massive period of church history, Gamble surveys the difficulties posed by the union of church and state following Constantine (131-32), the emergence of monasticism (132-34), the increasing domination of Germanic barbarians (134-35), the growth of the papacy (135), and the relationship between secular and sacred authorities (136-37). At times this chapter felt more like a history lesson than an application of worldview analysis. Nonetheless, Gamble does successfully survey the “profound changes [which] occurred in the Christian worldview over [an] eight-hundred-year span.” (137)

The late Middle Ages were revolutionized by the Scholastic worldview. Peter J. Leithart (Chapter 5, “Medieval Theology and the Roots of Modernity”) argues that the new Scholastic perspective was marked by two radical characteristics. First, theologians answered questions using “sources other than Scripture.” (175) Second, “reason was treated as a relatively autonomous source of truth.” (176) Biblical worldviews and the early medieval period were marked by a desire to interpret and exegete Scripture as it applied to various aspects of human life—including church polity, ethics, economics, and political theory. Leithart argues that the late Middle Ages were marked by a separation of philosophy from the ‘shackles’ of theology (144-45). Beginning with Peter Abelard, theology degenerated into onto-theology, “a style of theology subordinated to and constrained by philosophical commitments from outside theology.” (144) Leithart traces the origins of onto-theology to the rise of scholastic theologians (147), the ‘invention’ of theology as a ‘science,’ (152) and the pursuit of a thoroughly rational understanding of even the central mysteries of the Christian faith (155). He examines the towering Thomas Aquinas, noting his tendency on the one hand to subordinate reason (and philosophy) to revelation (and theology), (162-64) while on the other hand accommodating theology to the language and categories of Aristotelian philosophy (165-67). Duns Scotus and William Ockham seek to retain space for Christian theology, but do so by granting ‘too much’ ground to the non-theological enterprises (169-72). The derivation of theological answers from philosophical sources, combined with the particularism and independence of individual facts would prove to have grave implications in emerging modernity.

Carl Trueman (Chapter 6, “The Renaissance”) questions the validity of applying the concept of worldview to the diverse strands that compose the Renaissance period (178, 203). Nonetheless, he proposes to “trace the various threads” that are common in Renaissance thought, literature, science, and art (178). The primary common element of the Renaissance (the Revolution, if you will) is humanism, which he defines as “a cultural attitude based on the reappropriation of classical literature.” (179) Humanism sought to recover, translate, and study the works of antiquity—Aristotle, Plato, and the early church fathers (180-82). The recovery of classical works had major implications for Christian theology. Erasmus exemplified the recovery of the biblical languages (183-85), which in turn led to exposure of accretions and faults in medieval Catholicism. Renaissance philosophy began with the study of Aristotle, although interpretation and application varied wildly (188-89). Science began a move towards empirical study, as exhibited by Copernicus and Galileo (193-94). The conflicts between Galileo and the Catholic Church symbolized the “increasingly problematic relationship of learning to religion.” (194) Secular scholarship increasingly questioned the validity of Christian theology (195), a fact evident not only in Renaissance science, but also in the Renaissance political theory of Machiavelli (197-99) and the thoroughly materialistic Hobbes (199). Both political theorists perceived religion as, at best, a tool in the ruler’s toolbox, to be used as needed to regain power (198-99). The most widely-appreciated impact of the Renaissance was the literary and visual arts. Trueman points to the rise of stylistic poetry and prose in vernacular languages (200), as well as the rich exploitation of classical sources for visual art (201). Trueman concludes that the Renaissance serves as a warning against “attempting to understand a worldview simply as the product of a disembodied thought process, rather than as the result of a cultural moment that combines intellectual and material factors in a complicated ideological web of intellectual, economic, and political factors.” (203) Worldview is a complex, multifaceted phenomena.

The worldview revolution of the Reformation (Chapter 7, “The Reformation as a Revolution in Worldview”) was a journey ‘back to the Bible.’ Scott Amos argues that the Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Reformed wings of the Reformation all sought to bypass medieval Scholasticism and build a comprehensive worldview based upon Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). The result was a rejection of the epistemology, theology, and anthropology of the Middle Ages (206-07). All three groups rejected Renaissance optimism about human nature, emphasizing instead the bondage of the will to sin (215-17, 223, 231); consequently, all three stressed the necessity of God’s grace in salvation (214, 218, 224, 229-30). Amos, being a representative of the Reformed (Calvinist) wing of the Reformation himself (as are all the other contributors to this volume), argues that Calvin worked out the most thoroughly biblical worldview of all the Reformers (208). Yet he does not deal adequately with Calvin’s questionable perspectives on church and state (233-34), nor admit that Calvin lacked a theology of beauty (235). Amos does admit that the Reformers were guilty of destroying many aesthetically-pleasing works of art, but simply proceeds to admire the literary and musical contributions they made (235-36). Revolutions in Worldview does seem to be marked by an element of party spirit—a desire to exalt all things Reformed, oftentimes overlooking some of their weaknesses. The other revolutionary elements to the biblical worldview constructed by the Reformers included the priesthood of all believers (218-19, 223) and a rejection of the sacramental means of grace (219).

Hoffecker argues that the Enlightenment was not a monolithic movement or time period, but was rather marked by diversity of emerging worldviews (Chapter 8, “Enlightenments and Awakenings: The Beginning of Modern Culture Wars”). Furthermore, he stresses that the Enlightenment trend toward privatized religion was challenged by awakening evangelical worldviews (240-41). The time period marked two revolutionary changes, however. First was the gradual exaltation of human autonomy instead of divine autonomy (277). Second was the beginning of the “struggle for the Western mind,” (277) the cultural war which we are still in the midst of. Both secularists and evangelicals expounded holistic worldviews which encompassed all of life, both public and private (277-78). Hoffecker leads the reader through the juxtaposition of enlightenment and awakening in England, focusing on Baconian empiricism, Herbert’s deism, Locke’s tabula rosa, Newtonian science, and Hume’s skepticism (242-50) before considering Wesley’s evangelical challenge to both the sterility of the Church of England and the rising tide of secular skepticism (250-52). He then takes similar treks through France, focusing on Descartes’ anthropocentric foundationalism and Pascal’s penetratingly subjective apologetics (253-61); Germany, stressing Spener’s privatized pietism and Kant’s autonomous human reason (262-70); and America, examining Paine’s deism and Edwards’ powerful Reformed worldview (271-77). Hoffecker concludes that the Enlightenment period indeed launched powerful new worldviews which challenged the traditional dominance of the Christian worldview (277-78).

Richard Lints argues (Chapter 9, “The Age of Intellectual Iconoclasm: Revolt Against Theism”) that the 19th century witnessed the transition of faith and reason from compatible friends to sworn enemies (281-82). As ‘science’ pushed the boundaries of human knowledge further and further, God was limited to the ‘gaps’ in knowledge, and gradually rendered irrelevant to humanity (283). The historical claims of Christianity were questioned, found wanting, and rejected by the primary thrust of philosophical inquiry (286). Feuerbach and Marx rejected God as a human construct which hindered our progress (290-93). Darwin provided the missing link in naturalism’s argumentative chain—the process by which life came to be. The clock no longer required a clock-maker, and God was rendered superfluous (295-97). Freud assumed naturalism and claimed that Christianity was the result of neurotic disorders (298-99). Nietzsche worked out the implications of the rising atheism more clearly than other 19th century ‘secular prophets.’ He maintained that since (not if) God is dead, “there is no ultimate meaning in life . . . no absolute good or evil, either.” (304) Nietzsche prophesied (correctly, in my opinion) that Christian values would gradually fade, and be replaced by self-love ethics in which the will and freedom of the absolute individual reigned supreme (303-04). As the secular tide rose, other worldviews competed on the margins, all sharing a desire to reinterpret history (306). Romanticism and transcendentalism rejected cold Enlightenment rationalism, stressing genuine human emotion and love of nature (306-07). Idealism exalted mental concepts over naked materialism (308). Theological liberalism stressed religious experience to ‘rescue’ Christianity from secular attack (309-10), which Kierkegaard’s existentialism sought to replace dead orthodoxy with passion-infused experience of the Triune God (311). American pragmatism asserted that truth-claims are impossible to evaluate factually, and can only be gauged “according to their practical consequences.” (312) In each case, the marginal worldview tended to agree with the primary 19th-century stream of thought—reason and faith were no longer bedfellows.

The rise of postmodernism in the twentieth century (Chapter 10, “Philosophy Among the Ruins: The Twentieth Century and Beyond”) witnessed three intellectual revolutions: in language and epistemology, science, and ethics (319-20). Michael W. Payne identifies Wittgenstein’s linguistic revolution as the key to understanding the other worldview changes. The later Wittgenstein (post-WWII) became utterly disillusioned (as did many of his contemporaries) with the Enlightenment endeavor to obtain objective knowledge (337). In his “Philosophical Investigations” Wittgenstein observed that “sense is determined by use.” (338) That is, there is no correspondence (necessarily) between language and objective reality, but rather “meaning and sense result from practices and life forms.” (338) Enlightenment rationalism failed to take into account the subjective nature of the knowing process, particularly the “mediated character of naming and defining.” (338) A similar revolution marked the sciences, both hard and soft. The modernist goal of objective knowledge of a mechanistic, logical universe in which the person was merely a disengaged mind was demolished by Kuhn, Polanyi, and Winch (345). The underlying presuppositions of Enlightenment science—“objectivity, neutrality, linearity, incremental development, overall consistency, . . . and the rule of inviolability” (344-45)—were challenged and ultimately found lacking, resulting in a destruction of the supposedly objective edifice of knowledge built upon those presuppositions (345-46). The fact / value distinction was demolished: all that remained was value (346). The end result in ethics was Rortian pragmatism, which rejected the correspondence of valuative ethical claims with objective ethical realities (349-50). Payne applauds the demolition of the idol of Enlightenment rationalism, but laments the rise of fideistic perspectivism which minimizes “content” and maximizes “individual perspective” in a vain attempt to protect human autonomy (356). While Payne does not allude to it, the desire to maintain “human autonomy” suggests that postmodernism has not truly cast off the full shackles of the Enlightenment—the exaltation of the human self continues unabated. This, in effect, is the worldview revolution which began in the Renaissance, and has continued in full force through to postmodernism. It is also, I would argue, the primary worldview which needs to be countered by the Christian. Man is not God—man is not autonomous, and never has been.