An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Creation Regained review in RRT

Reviews in Religion & Theology 14 (1) (Jan 2007) pp 142-144 contains this review:

Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview – Albert M. Wolters

Jason A. Fout
Selwyn College, University of Cambridge

Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview
, 2nd edition, Albert M. Wolters, Eerdmans Press, 2005 (ISBN 0-8028-2969-4), xi + 143 pp., pb $12.00/£6.99

What does it mean to be a Christian in the world today? In Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, now in its second edition, Albert Wolters addresses this question through an exposition of a framework for understanding and living obediently to scripture. Along with others in the Reformed tradition, he calls this framework a 'worldview' (from the German Weltanschauung), meaning a structure of beliefs which act as a guide to life. Wolters sets forth what he sees as the elements of such a worldview informed by the Protestant Reformation and shaped by the Bible.

In the bulk of the book, the author expounds a framework for understanding the teaching of scripture through three key concepts: creation, fall, and redemption. He stresses the goodness of God's creation, the thoroughness of humanity's fall (which impinges on all of creation), and the equally thorough scope of redemption through Christ, which restores creation. Wolters emphasizes this last point, insisting that God's grace is not supra-creational or anti-creational, but restorative of the original goodness and intention of creation. Because of the expansive scope of God's redeeming work, Christians are called to participate in this work in all parts of the world (not merely the 'religious'). In this way, Wolters stresses that redemption is about all of life, and not merely the afterlife.

To expand his account, Wolters introduces two terms to explain the relationship of the three concepts of creation, fall, and redemption: structure and direction. Structure, he states, 'refers to the order of creation', the unchangeable and basic reality created by God, akin to the philosophical notions of 'substance' or 'nature' (p. 59). Direction, on the other hand, deals with the evil in the world (the fall) and its cure (redemption). Structure and direction together make up 'worldview', which differs from philosophy and theology by being pre-theoretical (p. 10). These two terms allow him to talk about how something might be given in the order of creation (structure), and then used for or against the reign of God (direction).

There is much here that is good, but the book left me with serious questions. Wolters spends a fair bit of time unpacking the idea of creation, which he specifies as 'the correlation of the sovereign activity of the Creator and the created order' (p. 14). He then explores the notion of God's acts constituting and upholding creation, searching for a term to designate these acts, eventually arriving at 'law'. 'Law' not only stands 'for the totality of God's ordaining acts toward the cosmos' (p. 15), but also focuses 'attention on God as sovereign, as absolute Lord and King' (ibid. italics original). For two reasons, though, I wonder if 'law' is really the best term he might have used. First, people's experience of 'law' is generally something faceless and impersonal, whether it is natural or statutory law, or the sorts of norms Wolters envisions as present in social reality. Laws in nature generally tend to involve brute, blind force; laws in society may protect the strong or promote injustice, rather than protecting the weak and promoting justice; norms in society are notoriously labile. Given that Wolters earlier quibbles with using the term 'creation' itself to designate God's acts toward the cosmos because of the drawbacks associated with its usage, I wonder why he did not similarly reject 'law' in favor of another less problematic term? Second, I wonder why Wolters here wishes to focus attention only on God as 'absolute Lord and King'. The narrative arc of the Christian story – particularly in Jesus Christ – reveals a much richer notion of who this God is than only 'Lord and King', full stop. Does not the love, service, and self-sacrifice seen in Jesus Christ elaborate on such sovereignty in crucial ways? How might a richer, more Trinitarian notion of God have led to a different account of God's relation to creation, not denying but importantly expanding on God as 'Lord and King'? It seems that this would substantially recast later sections of the book.

Also, Wolters wants to get beyond a certain kind of dualism which divides the world into 'religious' and 'secular' realms, and which relegates scripture and faith to 'private' concerns, away from 'public' affairs such as art, politics, science, or scholarship (p. 8). This is an admirable goal, but one which the author executes unevenly, and even undermines at points.

For example, Wolters focuses on the cognitive aspect of humanity as the means by which we come to live faithfully, hence the focus on 'worldview'. The implication seems to be that if we can rearrange or replace our mental furniture to more faithfully embody scripture, then our lives will reflect our minds and be renewed. Thus is revealed a one-way subordinate relationship between beliefs and practices, in which practices always follow on from beliefs. In this, a dualism lurks: a dualism of inner (beliefs) and outer (practices).

This becomes even clearer in his discussion of consecration versus sanctification (pp. 89–95). Here, he stresses the importance of renewal from the inside out (which he terms sanctification), instead of external, 'superficial' renewal (consecration). So on Wolters's account, we are first properly renewed within, including but not limited to working through the basic structures of our beliefs (worldview). What results from this internal work is a reorientation of our lives and practices in the world, including our reforming work in the various pursuits – labor, teaching, science, and so forth – which make up our lives. The problem is that this seems far too neat, and neglects how practices form people as much as beliefs form people. Moreover, as many of those versed in virtue ethics would point out, such 'external' formation can be genuine and legitimate, leading to a good life. It might be observed that people become who they are as much from the outside in as the inside out, and to neglect or deny these external factors and the roles they might play risks yielding a truncated or artificial account. Although Wolters attempts to get beyond a private–public dichotomy, by limiting renewal to an inner aspect of human life – and resisting any concept of external renewal which might be prior to or simultaneous with that inner renewal – he undermines his attempt finally to get beyond this binary distinction.

But alongside these concerns, there is much to appreciate here, as Wolters expounds what a Reformed Christian worldview looks like. Among his most helpful points must be noted his clear sense that a biblical worldview does not provide answers, especially of the ready-made variety, but rather provides a framework by which we might shape our questions.

This book was originally intended to serve as an introduction to a biblical, Reformed worldview, used for a particular class that Wolters taught at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. More specifically, Wolters meant for it to be an introduction to the Reformed philosophy of D. H. T. Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd (although as the present work stands, there is little explicit exposition of the work of these thinkers – indeed, there are few footnotes or [extra-biblical] references of any kind). In this new edition, along with a slight revision of the text itself, Mike Goheen, a former colleague of Wolters, coauthors a postscript which relates narrative and mission to worldview and draws on the work of Lesslie Newbigin, N. T. Wright, and others.

Creation Regained is an introductory-level work. It makes some demands of its readers, but resists highly technical discussions and thus remains generally accessible. The author seems to envision an audience of introductory-level undergraduates, particularly of evangelical and Reformed sympathies (for example, his discussion of the permissibility of dance, while not without merit, will be a nonstarter for many Christians of different stripes). Nevertheless, most general, nonspecialist readers might make good use of the work. Although those outside of evangelical or Reformed circles might not find the specific points set forth here to be entirely convincing, Wolters challenges his readers to consider what difference being a Christian makes to living in the world today: a laudable and worthwhile project.

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1 comment:

P A R F U M, aka chris zodrow said...

Greetings! I've been rereading Wolters after some time in both Dooyeweerd and Strauss, and I have to say I was taken back at some of his language. I would not recommend the book to someone attempting to understand themselves or their place in the world, mainly because of the first chapter. As much as he claims to be anti-dualistic I found his definition of worldview a dilation of the pistic aspect of experience. He seems to confuse belief with pre-theoretical motives ("worldview is … comprehensive framework of one's beliefs", 2; "worldview is pre-scientific", 10). This is not helpful, privileging the pistic aspect and collapsing it into the ground of everything. This sort of thing is the reason why dualisms exist. At best his language is ambiguous and mixed, at worst he reduces life to one mode of experience (and in so doing makes it impossible to actual make any progression in other disciplines).

On the other hand, I like his take on the CFR pattern and find he has many helpful things to say. He is just very weak on the actual foundation of what he is attempting to do.

I appreciate your critique of his work. You are, so far, the only person I have read who seems to have a critical response to Wolters, and not just pure gushing. I know many people are struggling with these issues, myself being one of them, so I understand the way in which his book has been gladly received by many people. I just hope in the years to come a clearer, more concise and accessible book might be written.

Take care, and thanks for all your service in this important issue.

Yours in Christ,
Chris Z