It may fairly be said that of the making of books on worldview, there is no end. Since The Universe Next Door by James Sire was published in 1976, there has been an increasing interest among Christians to understand Christianity as being much more than just a religion or faith, but a worldview. While J. H. Bavinck’s book, Personality and Worldview, isn’t new (first published in 1920), it offers a very helpful perspective on this theme. Unlike many other books on the same theme, it draws out the link with human personality. And it lays a powerful emphasis on the fact that only in the Christian worldview can human nature truly flourish.

The Person, Personality, and Worldview

In the author’s words: “If the worldview one depends on is based only on a rational understanding, the only consequence would be a struggle of ideas, and then the struggle against the Christian faith would become incomprehensible” (p27). It isn’t without reason that Jesus identified himself (not some argument) as “the truth” (John 14:6). At the centre of the Christian worldview is a person. So when we find the world hostile to the Christian message, we should not assume that it is simply against the coherence of our sermons.

At the centre of the Christian worldview is a person.

It’s possible to over-stress this connection between worldview and personality. It could sound like one is claiming that every view or system or worldview is just a reflection of another person’s mindset. And so there is really no point in countering it or arguing against it. This would result in relativism, the idea that truth or morality is relative to a person or situation. What is true for Kant may be false for Locke or indifferent for Spinoza. While Confucius may affirm something as true, Gandhi may disagree. One ‘truth’ is just as good as any other. ‘What I call truth is only true for myself; it only fits my character; I need that so-called truth, while someone else laughs at it” (p29). Unfortunately, this would be a destructive position.

As the author puts it: “It would also devour all norms: to everyone his own standard and his own insight because there is no absolute truth and no absolute norm. Relativism is a deadly danger for each sincere and virtuous struggle for truth and right” (p29).

We must, therefore, maintain both emphases. While worldviews can be based on arguments or reasons in approaching the truth, they also reflect the personalities of its key adherents or thinkers.

Worldvision or Worldview: Does It Matter?

A key insight of J. H. Bavinck is the relation between what he terms “worldvision” and the well-known “worldview.” Unlike other treatments of worldviews, he recognises a worldvision, an intuitive vision to which a person is naturally inclined. This is influenced by the person’s character and predisposition, long before he even begins to form an account of the world. This perspective is thus formed from a person’s early years. “The human being drinks in the considerations held up before him by his parents and teachers; they melt away into him and help form within him that worldvision that will serve him like a compass in later years” (p33-34).

Worldvisions don’t adequately reflect reality.

Unfortunately, worldvisions are incomplete. They do not adequately reflect reality, and so we must proceed from this elementary, subjective vision of life into a more objective worldview. One can achieve this only “through a great work of thinking, through quiet contemplation, through giving account of reality objectively.” Unlike the elementary worldvision which any individual would form over his or her early years, and as influenced by family and loved ones, a worldview is “supported by arguments, by motives. It clothes itself in the form of reasonableness. It is supported by logical construction” (p34).

Personality and Worldview

Crossway. 208 PAGES.

Modern evangelicals differ on their concept of “worldview.” Many have varying definitions of it and some even consider it to be a wholly unhelpful term in understanding the world around them. This volume by Johan Herman Bavinck examines the relationship between the soul, each human’s unique personality, and worldview―acknowledging the importance of worldview while recognising the dangers if worldviews are misapplied.

Crossway. 208 PAGES.

In the challenging transition from worldvision to worldview, something of the personality remains. And as the author insists, we see it across the history of philosophy in the lives of the various thinkers, from Confucius to the Greek philosophers, from Descartes on to Spinoza and Kant.

Sin Has Distorted the Human Soul

Bavinck moves further to explore the functions or powers of the human soul, and how this helps in understanding the world.

These functions include the receiving function, by which the soul receives impressions through the various sense organs; the conserving function, by which it preserves images earlier received, especially through Memory; a connecting capacity, in linking past images with present impressions; an assessing capacity, by which it not only receives facts but also forms subjective judgments about them. Finally, the soul has a capacity for longing. It has ideals, desires, and hopes which it pursues with the aim of re-forming the world.

Sin is, however, the great distorter of the soul. Whether it is in the conflict among the different functions of the soul or the imbalance among the three impulses of loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving ourselves, sin works a disharmony. “Sin is the disruption of the personality. It is the breaking of this harmony. Sin is this: that these three great tendencies [loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving ourselves], which do not naturally exclude one another, come into conflict with each other and stand in opposition to each other” (p55).

The Perennial Problem of Dualism

Human worldviews reflect this imbalance and distortion in human personality. Since every worldview reflects human character, they will necessarily partake of its limitations. We find this in the dualism, especially between spirit and matter, which is inherent in many worldviews and religious systems: animism (which many African religions exhibit), Persian religions, Hinduism, and Platonism.

Since every worldview reflects human character, they will necessarily partake of its limitations.

“Dualism,” writes Bavinck, “confesses dichotomy, turns that dichotomy into a cosmic power, and accepts that dichotomy…Dualism disjoints personality. It pulls personality further apart, piece by piece. It tears the human soul into pieces” (p72). As a worldview, dualism destroys our hope of developing personality for it keeps us from interacting with the world, which is absolutely needed for the development of personality. Dualism “creates a spiritual aristocracy that breaks loose from all ties and entertains itself in solitude with the eternal” (p73).

Unlike dualism which seeks to deal with the problem of sin by avoiding an aspect of creation (matter), Christianity takes a different approach.

“Christianity begins with the unconditional recognition of the terrible dichotomy. It places good and evil, suffering and joy, irrevocably against one another and seeks no bridge between them. Nonetheless, with all its energy, it sets up a defence against dualism. It does this, in the first place, by pointing out earnestly that evil is not eternal and is not from God, that it does not correspond to the material world and is not rooted in the material world. Evil is moral disruption. It is a wrong direction within the human soul. It is not a new creation” (p76-77).

And we find this one-sidedness throughout the history of Western thinking.

Bavinck’s Survey of Incomplete Ideas

He traces key movements in Western culture, starting from the Renaissance in the 14th century. He looked at the development of Empiricism through thinkers like Francis Bacon, John Locke, David Hume and others. This was the view that humans are dependent on our sensations for the acquisition of knowledge. However, as a worldview, the system of empiricism lacked a basis for ethical norms, since these cannot be perceived with the senses.

While empiricism thrived in Britain, thinkers on the European mainland (particularly France) sensed its inadequacy. Like the empiricists, the Rationalists (such as Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza) were also in search of certainty, an approach to truth which would be unquestionable. They adopted careful logical thinking and reasoning as the means to building a system of truth. But, like the empiricist school, it also failed because it ignored key functions of the soul (such as feeling, will, and sensory perception), thus destroying human personality.

A philosophy which conceives of God as a mere idea can never satisfy the human heart.

As a reaction to the impersonal theories of both the empiricist and rationalist, Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, sought to provide a basis for human personality. His philosophy emphasised that humans are designed to hold to certain truths (moral obligation, freedom, the existence of God, and immortality) as foundational to life, otherwise life would be unbearable.

However, this is an inadequate solution. The human soul longs for a real God and not a mere postulate or hypothesis. As Paul reminds us: humans are not unaware of God, they only seek to avoid him (Romans 1:18-23). So they end up corrupting the knowledge of God they have. Therefore, a worldview or philosophy which conceives of God as a mere idea can never satisfy the human heart. It is simply false to human consciousness.

Constructive, Christian Criticism

It is important to observe how Bavinck respectfully appreciates the flow of the different streams of thought. And he sees in them not theories to be vilified but as incomplete ideas in which some light of God’s truth shines forth.

As fallen humans, we need divine revelation in order to think rightly.

However, he correctly notes that non-Christian systems will always fall short because the unaided human mind can no longer gain access into truth: “This is because our perceiving and our thinking are no longer pure or pristine. In all his thinking and knowing, the human being is darkened through the power of the evil that holds his soul captive. He cannot approach the questions of life and world unprejudiced, and because his personality is not integrated, his worldview cannot be true” (p158).

The Christian doctrine of the fall is therefore no mere intellectual thesis. It is a practical truth with obvious implications for how we think. As fallen humans, we need divine revelation in order to think rightly (Psalm 119:105; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The writer writes with a profound grasp of the flow of history, especially how ideas have emerged and the implications they have held for generations. And he has a beautiful style which still shines through in the translation. I wonder what it must have been to read it in the original Dutch!

(Not) Thinking Informs Our Living

He also brings up the practical effect of worldviews in a very pointed way. No doubt, Nancy Pearcey, James Sire, Charles Colson, Brian Walsh, in their various writings have demonstrated that worldviews are not lifeless. They result in great practical consequences. It reminds one of the words of the great J. G. Machen, in his 1912 address on the danger of an anti-intellectual Christianity: “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.”

Bavinck brings up the practical effect of worldviews in a very pointed way.

What is striking about Bavinck is that though the book is several decades old, his words still ring as timely: “A worldview is able to build up a person’s life but is also powerful enough to leave it in ruins. A worldview can pull a life apart, can tear up a human being and leave all norms in tatters. That may not always be evident in the small things of someone’s life, but it will certainly be proved with tremendous clarity in the course of history” (p177).

Only the Truth Can Set Us Free

“The truth is not a theoretical good that you keep in a chest under many locks. The truth is of practical worth in life. It lifts you above yourself by making plain to you the faults of your own life orientation. It draws a line through your behaviour; judges your most intimate proclivities. The truth breaks into pieces the grasp of your worldvision, through which you had revealed your own personality and within which you could have peacefully carried on stumbling forward. It shows you the objective reality and does this with compelling power so that we should form our lives according to it. The truth sets [you] free with a great inner freedom. It sets [you] free from the sapping and errant powers that hide in a personality. It is the truth that the personality grabs onto to pull itself upward” (p36-37)

And lest we think that truth is something we grasp once and for all, Bavinck reminds us that this is someone we must keep striving after.

Jesus identified himself (not some argument) as ‘the truth.’

His prayer captures this well: “May hunger for the truth fill us, doubtless because of the truth itself but also because the truth must be the foundation our life rests on and must set us free from ourselves. Whoever believes and does the truth will be free” (p40).