Bounded or Centered? (Pt. 1)

As I have been in my grudge match to the death with the Rule of Faith as a “rule,” one critique I regularly find myself bringing is that it creates a bounded set. My instinct has been that so conceptualizing the Christian faith is not only a category mistake but ethically disastrous.

In short, once we have defined Christianity as a set of beliefs that must be maintained in order to be faithful Christians, then Christian ethics boils down to maintaining “the faith” that is so delineated.

What should Christians do? Defend the borders.

I have recently stumbled upon the work of Paul Hiebert. Here is what he says about bounded sets:

  1. The category is created by listing essential characteristics something must posses in order to belong to the set
  2. The category is defined by a clear boundary
  3. The objects form a homogeneous group
  4. “Bounded sets are essentially static sets”
  5. Within Western conceptual categories, bounded sets tend to be ontological sets, reflecting an absolute, unchanging nature of reality.

Two things strike me here: the quote, point 4, is the one that I most often rail against here. Christian theology is not a static set, but something dynamically in process in the ongoing story of the church. See yesterday’s post: The church has to grow up to the fact that things are not simply givens, so we cannot take an 1800 year old statement as the defining marker of who we are and what we should do.

But here’s the other problem, as Hiebert lays it out. On point 2, the category is formed by a clear boundary.

What does this mean in practice? He says:

Most of the effort in defining the category is spent defining and maintaining the boundary. Not only must we say what an apple is, we must also clearly differentiate it from oranges, pears, and similar objects that belong to the same domain but are not apples. The central question, therefore, is whether an object is inside or outside the category.

The ethic entailed in a bounded-set system is defining and maintaining the boundary.

When we envision Christianity as a bounded-set, we are consigning ourselves to a lifetime of boundary guarding. Absent from all this, of course, are other measures of Christian fidelity–such as embodying the self-giving love of Christ or even walking in accordance with the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount.

Christianity bounded the “Rule of Faith” becomes, throughout Church History, a self-referential religion, concerned with keeping itself together, and keeping out the heterodox.

This is not to say, of course, that it is without biblical precedent.There were, after all, the disciples who bravely fended off the would-be intruders upon their bounded world: “Lord, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, but he was not with us, so we forbid him!”

So what is a centered set? Stay tuned…

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