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?