Paul Hiebert and Biblical Worldview

This is a continuation of my previous post

In Transforming Worldviews, Paul Hiebert argues that the goal of conversion to Christianity includes the transformation of a worldview into a biblical worldview. Certainly being a noble goal, one wonders what he means by “biblical worldview”? In his earlier works, Hiebert alludes to a biblical worldview as “the norm whereby we understand and critique all realities…[it] defines for us the essential reality and history of the cosmos.”[1] In other places, Hiebert extensively argues for a metatheology that “recognizes the fact that different persons and different cultures understand the Scriptures differently…[which] must also enable them to work toward a common understanding of the truth of Scripture.”[2] Still in others, he refers to supracultural theology. Furthermore, in Transforming Worldviews, Hiebert defines a biblical worldview as “the human understandings of the underlying givens in Scripture.”[3] On the other hand, he adds that “to say that there is no biblical worldview is to deny that there is an underlying unity to the biblical story…and that Scripture is simply the record of individuals and ever-shifting beliefs shaped by history and sociocultural contexts.”[4] However, Hiebert fails to adequately reconcile these two statements; they are really talking about two different things, the first about the human perspective of Scripture while the second concerning the nature of Scripture itself.

Hiebert has much to say elsewhere regarding both of these items, but this section of the paper will focus on Hiebert’s dealings with the nature of Scripture as it relates to a biblical worldview. On this subject he states, “To understand Scripture, we must seek to understand the worldview themes that underlie the whole. The unity of Scripture lies first in its insistence that all the biblical events are part of one great story—in other words, a central diachronic worldview theme.”[5] In other words, the biblical worldview is rooted in the grand biblical narrative.

The “Grand Biblical Narrative” is receiving more attention as a proper component of missiological foundations.[6] In this vein, Christopher Wright argues that the unifying theme of the whole of Scripture is the missio Dei.[7] Hiebert, though, posits three diachronic themes that unify the bible: the gospel as cosmic story, the peace of God and the spiritual assault against it, and the biblical love story of a suitor seeking to “win a wayward woman to be his bride”.[8] A perusal of other authors would reveal other themes; while others may deny that such unifying themes exist. One wonders which authors are right?

Answering this question, though, does not answer whether or not there is a biblical worldview. Hiebert, because of his (proper) understanding of the influence of the Enlightenment and of postmodernity on theology, argues that there is a biblical worldview against which all other worldviews find themselves oriented and toward which those same worldviews must be transformed. He is acutely aware of the history of western colonial and imperial missions whereby western Christianized worldviews were passed off as the divinely appointed bearers of the gospel. This is the background of Hiebert’s warning in his final chapter on transforming worldviews:

Christians should live differently because they are Christians. However, if their behavior is based primarily on their culture, it becomes dead tradition. Conversion must involve a transformation in beliefs, but if it is only a change of beliefs, it is false faith (James 2). Although conversion must include a change in behavior and beliefs, if the worldview is not transformed, in the long run the gospel is subverted and becomes captive to the local culture.[9]

Western missionaries have been guilty of Enlightenment-driven, rationalized theologizing which Hiebert says has lead to a “false faith” as much as they have been guilty of defining Christianity externally, leading to “dead tradition.” Hiebert intends that pursuing a biblical worldview provides freedom from both the externalization and rationalization of Christianity. The problem is that in seeking a singular biblical worldview, he is guilty of falling into the same trap.

When it comes to defining exactly what a biblical worldview looks like, Hiebert does not provide sufficient reasoning for the themes he chooses; the reader is left to take his word. One is left asking if there is not another way to describe the biblical worldview.[10] Certainly the particulars influencing different worldviews will differ, but is the biblical worldview of the same nature and character of the Cherokee worldview, the Masaai worldview, or the Kazakh worldview? Does it function in the same way? Is it singular or plural? What is it? Is worldview the best way to think of it?

To answer these questions, one will also have to decide on what exactly is a worldview, also, on what is the relationship of worldview to culture. Finally, is there something greater, i.e. more foundational, than a worldview?

My answer involves the world-making nature of the biblical canon as a whole. To be continued…

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[1] Hiebert, Reflections on Missiological Issues, 11.

[2] Ibid., 70; also 98–103; cf. Hiebert, Implications of Epistemological Shifts, 99–103.

[3] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 265.

[4] Ibid., 265–6.

[5] Ibid., 266.

[6] The primary recent example is Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2006).

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 300–5.

[9] Ibid., 315.

[10] One alternative view defines a biblical worldview as the worldview of the biblical authors, i.e., ancient Near Eastern, Greek, Roman, etc. Charles Kraft argues that “to interpret Scripture faithfully requires that we learn as much as possible about the [worldview] assumptions underlying the statements and allusions made by the various authors.” Kraft, Anthropology, 448.

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