Christian identity: bounded or centred?

There’s a fascinating footnote in Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace where he picks up a distinction between a bounded-set and a centred-set — familiar from mathematics — and applies it to the problem of Christian identity.


A bounded-set approach focusses on distinctives (of belief and/or behaviour), whereas a centred-set approach to Christian identity sees it as defined by its overarching allegiance to the Lord Jesus.

To see something like this in operation, all you need to do is compare the beginning of the Westminster Confession with that of the Thirty Nine Articles. The Confession opens by expounding some key Protestant distinctives. In contrast, the Articles begin more traditionally — and far less polemically — with a treatment of God’s aseity and trinity before moving to His reconciling work in Christ.

Of course, you may be wondering if this distinction can stand close scrutiny. Doesn’t it have at least a whiff of ‘false disjunction’ about it? It’s all well and good to express a preference for a centred-set approach, but surely in the heat of battle we need defined boundaries (so we can tell who’s in and who’s out)?

Even so, a bounded-set approach is not without its problems, some of which the missiologist Paul Hiebert — from whom Volf culled thedistinction — highlights:

A bounded-set approach creates a well-ordered world with few ambiguities, but it has its implicit dangers. It can lead to an over-emphasis on defining orthodoxy in terms of a body of beliefs or practices, while overlooking the basic relational nature of the gospel. The Good News of salvation is first the restoration of fellowship between sinners and a holy God. This approach, because it focuses on characteristics intrinsic to the Christians themselves, too easily loses sight of the centre. The church, then, is in danger of becoming (as Durkheim put it), a group of people who look to their corporate body rather than to a transcendent God, and who replace worship with fellowship. (‘The Category “Christian” in the Mission Task’)

So what do you reckon — help or hindrance?


  1. I suspect you already know that I like the distinction between a bounded and a centred approach!

    I think its a helpful model for explaining what parts of your theology/community get energy. If you take a bounded approach, your energy goes into defining the edges, whereas a centred approach would see your energy going into focussing on and continually referring to the centre. Also, while a bounded approach evokes a sense in which you strive to get people ‘over the line’, a centred approach evokes a sense in which everyone should always be drawing closer to the centre.

  2. I find many attempts to link this distinction with mathematics fairly pathetic, if not simply wrong, but ignoring that, it is helpful. This set should only exist as the body of Christ, and so as Natalie suggests, anything which puts the focus on the centre is good.

  3. I wondered for a while if the distinction was overdrawn, since being related to a centre could be considered a property (eg the property of “belonging to Jesus”). It turns out that logicians debate whether relations count as intrinsic properties, which suggests that the distinction is real. Hiebert’s concern was for mission. Is, for example, an MBB regarded as an outsider until he/she has a Nicene understanding of the Trinity? Or a Gen-Yer until they have regular quiet times? 🙂 For long-term faithfulness to the Centre, however, a bounded set approach has it’s place, at least wrt leadership and core beliefs and values. Natalie’s point is interesting, though. The boundary becoming more important than the centre is presumably the ever present danger of maintaining a clear identity in the face of opposition, exemplified paradigmatically by the Pharisees.

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