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Worldviews and Culture:
Interacting with Charles Kraft, N. T. Wright, & Scripture

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Worldview and Culture

To consider the relationship between culture and worldview, we need to return to the Scriptures and consider the question in the light of Biblical history, in which it is clear beyond doubt that we meet multiple cultures. Abraham lived in Canaan as a shepherd. Joseph lived in Egypt at the Pharaohs court. Joshua led Israel into Canaan to build a new nation. David and Solomon were kings of a kingdom that was far more advanced than anything previous in Israel's history. Daniel served in the court of Babylon as Joseph did in Egypt, though Babylon's culture was very different. Ezra and the captives who returned to the land served God under the Persians, as later Jews served God under Greeks and Romans. Throughout the history of God's people, there are cultural changes of significant proportions, both within the nation of Israel itself and within the nations that ruled over her after the captivity. Even the lives of a single man include gross cultural changes. Moses began his life in Pharaoh's court, fled to the land of Midian, returned briefly to Egypt, and then ended his life in the desert. He spent approximately 40 years each in three very different cultural environments. Joseph and Daniel, too, experienced basic cultural change when they were forcibly placed in the courts of foreign kings.

Cultural change, then, is something that the Bible contains much of, though there is nothing of the hand-wringing fear of a communication breakdown that we encounter among modern cultural gurus, even though there are striking examples of communication problems (Ac. 14:8-18). If we ask a basic question about culture and worldview — whether worldviews are subordinate to cultures — we can gain insights that clarify the picture. Are worldviews cultural products? If they are, then Moses had at least three different worldviews in his lifetime, Daniel and Joseph at least two. Every change of culture would necessarily include some sort of worldview conversion. Is this really what the Bible presents? Did Daniel change his view of the world when he was carried away to Babylon? After a few years of Babylonian education, was Daniel converted to a new worldview, one fundamentally different from the one taught to him by his parents back in Judah? If cultural change means worldview change, we have to see Daniel himself and the people of God throughout the ages as undergoing repeated and significant changes in worldview, according to the culture in which they lived.

This seems an exceedingly peculiar way of viewing things. It would impose upon the Bible a view of culture and worldview that would necessarily imply that diverse cultures within the Bible involved diverse worldviews. That appears, in fact, to be what Kraft wishes to say. But it flies in the face of the apparent unity of worldview among men like Abraham, Moses and Daniel as well as statements that specifically instruct us that God's word is relevant for all times and places, that the things which happened to peoples in other times and cultures are recorded for out instruction (Rom. 15:4).

It also flies in the face of an adequate notion of worldview. For a worldview is nothing other than our basic way of viewing the world. Words that are roughly synonymous with worldview are theology and religion. Our theology tells us who God is and what He has done in the world. It gives us the basic presuppositions and perspectives on the world that define what we call "worldview." In the same way, the word religion is relatively close to the notion of worldview. One's religion includes basic perspectives on the nature of God, man, and the world, the kind of perspectives that are included in what we call "worldview." When we reconsider the question of culture and worldview by using words that are rough synonyms of worldview, the issue becomes clearer.

Did Moses have three theologies or three religions, corresponding to the three cultural phases of his life? Did the nation of Israel change its theology from the time that it was in the wilderness to the time of conquest to the time of the kingdom? Did Daniel and Joseph change religions when they changed cultures? The questions need only be asked to be answered. Obviously, the notion of theology or religion is larger than culture. The same theology can form the foundation for more than one culture. People in different Biblical cultures had the same religion and worshipped the same God, even when there were significant cultural changes in the mode of worship, as for example, when the people when into captivity.

To make culture include religion, theology, or worldview is to make ideas culturally relative. It undermines the possibility of true intercultural communication, not only between man and man, but also between God and man, for God is a Trinitarian society, a culture in Himself. When we see that Biblically the same worldview can characterize people with different cultures, it should be obvious that worldview cannot be regarded as a product of culture. Truth transcends culture. In fact, a false idea, too, can transcend culture — as, in our day, the theories of evolution and of cultural relativity do. It is a fundamental error to imagine that worldview is included in culture, an error that leads to verbal and intellectual confusion, not to mention significant theological problems.


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