Why Do We Draw the Line?

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In recent years, talk of uniting around the center has been very popular in conservative evangelical quarters. One obvious reason for this is that many regard such a center as reflecting the fact that there is a solid core of key doctrines on which evangelicals agree, even though there are areas of disagreement. Thus, many consider Trinitarianism, penal substitution, and justification by grace alone through faith alone to be central points of agreement. At the same time, these same people would regard the subjects and mode of baptism or the details of church polity to be areas of disagreement. Yet, by seeing the former as more important, they regard diversity on the latter as not of truly fundamental significance.

A second reason for emphasizing talk about the center is, perhaps, more problematic. Frequently, those who talk of the center as all-important contrast themselves favorably with those they see as emphasizing boundaries. Boundaries are much more problematic in our current culture. They sound rather like borders, and the last hundred years witness eloquently to the evil effects of borders, with countless wars and ethnic cleansings. Further, boundaries also point to exclusion, and if there is one thing that the modern Western world seems to fear more than anything else, it is exclusion. After all, to exclude is to oppress. Finally, in a world shaped at the level of intellectual culture by the transgressive thinking of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, and at a popular level by the hedonism of Hugh Hefner and his cultural progeny, boundaries speak of oppression, of “them” stopping “us” from reaching our full potential or even simply enjoying ourselves.

For the above theological and cultural reasons, evangelical talk of centers rather than boundaries has a lot to commend it. To make the point concisely: it is consonant with both the desire of Christians for unity and the cultural, political, and psychological aesthetics of our time.

There are, however, good reasons for resisting such language, or at least for moderating it.

First, we need to be aware of the cultural aesthetic that makes such ideas attractive. For the world at large, boundaries have become something to be transgressed, and that continuously. Hefner’s business empire was built on precisely such a premise, and, indeed, the financial problems afflicting his magazine in recent years witness to the fact that one cannot simply cross a boundary and then stop: that merely establishes a new boundary, which others will transgress in more radical and extreme ways.

Yet if the pioneers of our culture see boundaries as oppressive, as Christians we need to realize that a commitment to the Bible’s teaching requires us rather to see that boundaries have not been put in place by God to oppress us or to stop us from being who we are. In fact, they have been put in place for precisely the opposite reason, to enable us to be truly human. When human beings break God’s law, for example, they do not become more human; rather, they become dehumanized as that which distinguishes them from all other animals, the fact that they bear God’s image, is practically abolished.

Second, we need to realize that, whatever our culture likes to tell us, even it has to accept in practice that not all exclusion is bad exclusion. Few, if any, would want to argue that the exclusion from wider society of serial killers and pedophiles is a bad or oppressive thing. Such exclusion actually liberates. Yes, there is much talk about prisons failing because of re-offending rates and so on, but a serial killer in prison is hard-pressed to kill a law-abiding member of the public, and a pedophile in prison has no access to children. Such exclusion is surely both desirable and successful when looked at in those terms.

Thus it is in the church: it is good to exclude from the teaching ministry of the church those who propagate heresy, and it is good to exclude even from the company of the church those whose lifestyles or water-cooler sermons every Sunday do harm to the people of God. Such exclusion saves souls—perhaps even the soul of the offender—it does not destroy them (1 Tim. 1:20).

We also need to understand that the talk of doctrinal confession that focuses on the center rather than on boundaries is ultimately specious, however well-intended such may be.

There are numerous problems with the center image, but I will address only two. The first is the rather obvious one implied by the image itself: centers and boundaries are ultimately dependent upon each other—one cannot meaningfully talk of one without assuming the existence of the other. In a circle, the central point is a function of the perimeter. I know where the center is only when I see the circle as a whole and judge its location on the basis of its circumference. Thus it is in theology: one’s judgment on which doctrines are central will depend upon where one judges it necessary to draw boundaries and for what purpose.

Second, much theology, and certainly much creedal formulation, is what we might call negative in character. In other words, it actually tells us what God is not or what He cannot be. As such, even individual Christian doctrines are boundary-forming, not center-focused. For example, to say that God is infinite is to say something negative about God: He has no limits. This formulation sets a boundary: there are lots of things I might be able to say about God, but if at some point I say He has limits, I cross a boundary into error.

It is similar with many of the great creeds. The Chalcedonian Definition defines the person of Christ by declaring that He is one person in two natures. It is actually saying that any formula that posits more than one person or that mixes the natures to produce a kind of metaphysical compound of humanity and divinity has crossed a boundary.

What such boundaries do, of course, is liberate. They tell the church where it is safe to theologize just as fences along the edge of a cliff help to keep people from plunging to their deaths.

Talk of center-focused theology rather than boundary theology is attractive but ultimately specious. It often represents no more than one group using the rhetoric of the wider culture to make itself look good in comparison to others. In fact, to talk theology at all is to talk boundaries and always has been. The only questions are how many boundaries there are and whether one openly and honestly acknowledges them as such.

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