my centered-bounded set

I ran into it again last week, and I’m hearing it often enough now that I think it deserves a response.  Many leaders are claiming that we who believe in the importance of the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, and the need to believe in Jesus are suffering from bounded set thinking.  Our problem is that we are overly preoccupied with erecting boundaries that determine who is out and who is in. 


They say that we would be better off if we switched to a centered set paradigm, with Jesus as the center.  What matters in this model is not who is out and who is in, but in which direction people are moving.  It is more important that people are moving toward Jesus than that they are inside some perceived orthodox fence.  According to one author, “if someone is moving toward Jesus, the values he represents, and his followers, those factors more clearly define someone as a Christian than do boundaries established around a prescribed set of doctrines or behaviors.” [So is it better to be Christopher Hitchens giving money to the poor than Tim Keller on a bad day?]


When I finished Don’t Stop Believing, I wondered what tactic people might use to discredit its arguments.  I think I’ve found it.  It seems that some will dismiss the entire book as the writings of a bounded set person who just doesn’t get it.  Because this is a presuppositional claim, they are able to dismiss the entire book without engaging any of its arguments.  This is extremely unfortunate, and merits a response from me.


1. Like The Gospel Coalition Network, I would describe my position as a “centered-bounded set.”  Doctrines such as inerrancy, the virgin birth, and the exclusivity of Christ are important not because I am guarding a boundary, waiting to exclude anyone who disagrees, but because I value Jesus, the center of my faith.  Those who don’t believe the Bible is telling the truth about Jesus’ virgin birth or the need to believe in and follow him are detracting from the glory of Christ.  Because I care about Jesus, the center of my centered-set, I will continue to defend him against statements that dishonor him.


And contra some, who claim that “You rarely defend the things you love,” I say that while this is true about my favorite ice cream or sports team, it is not true about the people that really matter.  I pity the wife and children of the person who rarely defends the things he loves.


2. It is true that my centered-set has a boundary, but so does everybody’s.  In fact, boundaries are necessary to know where the center lies.  Every group, concept, or organization that lacks a boundary also lacks meaning.  My seminary includes its faculty, staff, students, and alumni.  If it included everyone, if there was no boundary distinguishing those who are and those who are not GRTS members, then the idea of GRTS would be meaningless.  My immediate family includes my wife and children and excludes those who are not my wife and children.  My marriage includes my wife and me and excludes all others.  (In an important sense, Bill Clinton’s problem was a lack of boundaries.  He did not properly distinguish between those who were and those who were not Hillary).


Even Brian McLaren, the über-inclusivist, has a boundary.  In The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian defines the kingdom as “purposeful inclusion,” and then concludes that this inclusive kingdom must naturally exclude exclusive people (by which he means people like me).  So Brian is as exclusive as me, we just disagree about the grounds for exclusion.


It is unfair and naïve to suggest that theological conservatives are the only ones who have boundaries.  We do have them, but only because we love the center of our centered-set, Jesus Christ.  And because we love Jesus, we will oppose any effort, regardless how well-intentioned, that blurs the boundary between Jesus and the gods of false religions. Boundaries matter, because the center matters more.