Bounded, Centered, Christ

Yesterday’s post about the Rule of Faith is part of a larger project I’m working on (a life project, really) on how we think about our identity as Christians and how this impacts our understanding of Christian ethics.

At a conceptual level, a Rule of Faith or statement of faith as an identity marker has a bounded-set feel.

Image: renjith krishnan /
The idea of a “bounded set” is this: if you are within the bounds, you are officially and “insider,” if you are beyond the bounds, you are officially an “outsider.”

Yesterday’s question was, “Is the Rule of Faith / adherence to the Creeds of the church necessary and sufficient for salvation?” That was asking whether the Creeds provide the boundaries around the set of humanity that is or will be saved.

A common alternative to bounded set thinking is centered set thinking.

Image: chrisroll /
In a centered set, the ideal is in the middle, but no one, in all likelihood, actually exists there. We are either closer or farther away. And, we are usually moving closer or farther from the middle.

I think that the centered set idea is closer to how things work in practice, but still wonder if the idea of the “center” in the “centered set” is too static. Is there one core of doctrines or beliefs we are moving toward or away from? Perhaps. Perhaps we could call it something like “Christianity,” but what would we put there?

I prefer a metaphor in which the whole continues to move. For a long time I used the metaphor of rays or trajectories. If two rays start off half a degree separate from each other (i.e., there is some theological diversity from the very beginning in Christianity) then if they continue on their trajectories they will get farther and farther apart. The result? An increasingly large space between the vectors that constitutes Christianity within the tradition; i.e., an increasingly theologically and culturally diverse Christianity that all can lay claim to orthodoxy.

If that doesn’t work for you, perhaps the metaphor of a river.

Image: prozac1 /

This one I stole from Joel Green. The idea is that a river flows between banks. It is a dynamic thing. It probably gets wider and wider the farther downstream it goes. It is always moving toward its end. Moving together.

It’s that sense of unified motion I like: even as it gets wider, the whole is still in motion in the same direction–toward the eschaton.

Or perhaps there’s a little of all of this. Perhaps there is a “center,” and that would be the Christ in whom we all live, and this Christ is not standing still or defined by or bounded by the creeds of the church, but continuing to march through history, gaining followers, and manifesting all the while an ever richer embodiment of the diversity of God’s creation.

12 thoughts on “Bounded, Centered, Christ”

  1. I like the river metaphor the best. But, even the banks of the river can be too confining at times. Nevertheless, we need boundaries. But, I don’t think creeds, confessions, statements of faith, etc. accomplish this. They become too exclusive and too dogmatic. And “us” versus “them” mentality.

    A friend of mine has a wedding ring cast into the fashion of three ropes intertwined together as one, making a circular ring. These three ropes symbolize: God, man, and woman. Unified together as one. The same can be said for the church. Three ropes. The individual believer, the church, and God… intertwined together as one, but with just enough freedom to move about with the understanding of circling back to unity.

  2. I only encountered centered-set thinking about a year ago and found it very refreshing, particularly in conversing with those typically considered outside the bounded set.

    My questions, however, came in thinking about Jesus’ own activity in 1C Palestine.

    I take it as a given that Jesus was redefining the boundaries of the people of God. No longer (was this ever really true?) were circumcision or diet or Temple practice the marks of God’s people. Rather, they are forever redefined around the work and person of Jesus.

    At first glance, that sounds to me like bounded set, relocated. Is there a centered set way of thinking about what Jesus was actually doing in the first century?

  3. Any metaphor will be partial and provisional in its scope. For the bounded approach, it is important to note that Jesus consistently pulled people percieved as being outside into his circle. I agree with you intuition that some movement is necessary. God’s internal relationships (perichoresis) are not static and neither is his Church. I like the river analogy, but I have always envisioned a square dance. One caller, but many people in motion inside to outside and outside to inside.

  4. Great thoughts, I love the river metaphor. Though all metaphors will fall short of fully explaining the reality they are trying to describe. To extend the river metaphor a bit, could the life of Jesus be seen as the headwaters? the source from which all of this is flowing (the problem of course is that a river flows away, not towards, its headwaters, then again it could be read that Jesus sends us out.

    Also, I think a river captures more of that divergent vector metaphor you were using. I am reminded of this map which shows the changing path of the Mississippi River over time:

    It give a good sense for the way in which theology can drift, create new ruts, get stuck for a while, then move again, yet each of these movements does not create some new river.

  5. The question draws me back to something Augustine recognized as early as the fourth century, there are many outside the church who belong to Christ, and many within her who do not. I gravitate more towards a spiritual transformation image, a parabola (Richard Rohr uses this), a movement downward toward death which culminates in resurrection life. It is those who have gone through this journey and been transformed who truly “know” the Gospel. Most people enter the church before they experience this crucifixion, an identification with Christ in his suffering. It may come after they have claimed Christianity for many years. We get there precisely by doing it wrong, through our self effort, our denial, our failures, and therefore it is difficult to discern where one may be on that journey and whether or not they already belong to Christ along the way. Paul looked back and saw that he had been kicking against the goads all along.

    For those outside of the church: anyone who can experience this death, come out of it, and come to see God was in the midst of it, without knowing all of our creeds, well – I have seen the light in their eyes. Many many people in 12 step groups have this light. Many among the homeless population have this light. They get it. There is no pretense with them, no hiding. And though they are learning the way of service to others, surrendering to God, honesty, forgiveness, mercy, many do not feel comfortable in our church services.

    It has been through encountering these women and men, seeing the light in their eyes, theologically wrestling with it as an evangelical, wondering how to rectify those who know Jesus in word but not in deed with those who follow the way of life of Jesus but do not claim to be a part of the religion which bears his name, that I have concluded that Augustine was right. Those who have this light have always experienced death, they have been to hell and back, and emerged transformed. Who am I to deny the life they exude, the aroma of Christ is all around them. I do not think it is any accident that most 12 step meetings take place in church buildings, here I think the river split off and is flowing mightily.

    1. And so, it behooves us to show grace to all and let the “Keeper of the Keys” sort out final destinations…*: )

      Matthew 13:30
      The Message (MSG)
      29-30″He said, ‘No, if you weed the thistles, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvesters to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn.’”

  6. I am very sympathetic to the centered set thinking, but it is used in an extreme sense in my context. So people around me say that we are centered around Jesus. But the ‘Jesus’ that is usually meant is intuitive, ‘spiritual’ Jesus. Any attempt to understand Jesus from a theological or biblical biblical perspective is seen as ‘bounded’ and therefore excluded.

  7. I’d like to point out, Dr. Kirk, that the Rule of Faith wasn’t established by early ecumenical councils, but is already firmly in place in the NT. The councils developed the baptismal doctrinal/liturgical creeds of the NT and early Christians into canons, or rules.

    It was the missional Church that started down this road of propositions, not an institutional one.

      1. It is my understanding that the rule of faith stems from the early Christian baptismal liturgies, which themselves were formulations of NT creeds.

        Expressed chronologically: The NT creeds progress in linear fashion into the baptismal liturgies of the early missional Church, and traditionally into the creeds of the early ecumenical councils. Does that make more sense?

        I guess my point is that the Rule of Faith in origin stems from the NT, and as such is useful for recognizing Orthodoxy. And to regard the Rule of Faith as an invention of later Christianity ignores this point.

        What say ye?

  8. An interesting river metaphor. But I still believe the obsessions with “centers” is still responsible for insiders and outsiders. For example, you say, “an increasingly theologically and culturally diverse Christianity that all can lay claim to orthodoxy.” But I would say, who cares about orthodoxy? Orthodoxy is a man-made center, even if we say God or Christ is the center. Our various interpretations will determine what that center is. Rather, I would suggest that as Christ spent his time on the Margins (a la Mark), Christians ought to be equally as interested in the margins as Christ was. Orthodoxy means nothing for being a Christian, only following Christ. It is a way of life, not a way of thinking. Boundaries are bound by fear, and perfect love casts out fear.

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