Will the Circle Be Unbroken

In my last article, I talked about the authentic Christian. In the end, I agreed with D. A. Carson that the “’authentic Christian’ is the one who is most shaped in thought, word and deed by Christianity’s foundational documents, by Christianity’s Lord, by Christianity’s creeds.” Of course, I would think that every denomination believes they are the closest to the truth. So do we just separate from every professing Christian who differs from our confessions of faith? Am I as a Presbyterian to have no communion with my Baptist friends over some differences in belief over baptism or church government?  Where do we draw the line? Well, it’s less like a linear line and more like a circle. In his lecture on What is an Evangelicalism  D.A. Carson spoke on what really defines a Christian or Evangelical. He used the mathematical terms, Boundary-Bounded Set and Center-Bounded Set. He defines a Boundary-Bounded Set as a “very tightly defined perimeter” of who is “inside” or “outside” the faith. “The things that belong to the set and the things that don’t are sharply marked by a boundary.” The Center-Bounded Set is a theological approach, defining “things as tightly as you can at the center… ‘So far as I can see, this is what the gospel looks like under the formal principle of the authority of Scripture, so this is what an evangelical is.’” Carson continues, “You can’t see from the center exactly where the boundary is. You can clearly see when something is outside (in that sense there is a boundary) but it’s precisely that you’re defining things from the center. So, clearly in the New Testament there is a sense in which you can be outside.  That is why church discipline is possible…there are fundamental issues…You define what the gospel is from the center rather than have a detailed set of rules, or you will wind up with a form of legalism.” In this approach, there will be those who call themselves evangelical, who are not, as well as those who do not, who are. There are fundamental teachings in Christian faith summed up in the gospel. However, Christianity is not capsulated in simply believing a set of propositions. There is an over-arching, redemptive-historical/eschatological drama throughout the Bible that gives us the context and significance for such fundamental teachings as justification. Our faith is a historical faith; there is a history to salvation. When God effectually calls us, the gospel bears the reality of this historical-redemptive drama, including us in its context, the covenant. So as I stressed the importance of discernment in my last article, I do not want to be reductionistic to a set of propositions. Theology is more than that, however, at the same time it is not less.  God has spoken to us propositionally and created us as communicating beings in this way. The written word is the true interpretation (inspired by God) of this redemptive, historical drama. In discernment, we are not to try and usurp God’s job of separating the wheat from the tares. It is not our job to make a rigid, boundary-bounded set of what a Christian is.  But we are responsible to accept His word as true, and to live by it. This is not as easy as it sounds.  Because our minds are corrupted with sin, we add shades and alternate interpretations of meaning; “Hath God really said?” Discernment says, “Yes He did!” And it also bravely endeavors into the wise application of God’s word to our lives, actively participating in this historical-redemptive drama. Do you see how this is so much more than denominational affiliation? There is complexity and tension in living this out. But let me take our circle model and give it some practical examples.  If I were relating to a Baptist friend, we may disagree on some issues that are not necessarily fundamental teachings, but they are important for us in our worship. Each of us believes that our doctrinal distinctives are most aligned with God’s word. We may both be in the circle. We may both be close to the center of the circle. However, one of our disitinctives actually is more aligned with God’s word than the other.  There’s also the question of how we are living. Does my knowledge of God transform my thinking and my actions? There are those aligned with the visible church professing all the “right” doctrine that are not in the circle because they are counterfeits. On the other hand there are those who are newly converted, just learning the “milk” of the important teachings of God, who are in the circle. We are united to Christ by His Spirit indwelling us. And the Holy Spirit points us to His word. We both delight and tremble before it. We are to guard it until the end so we can say as David, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end” (Ps. 119:33). We all desire unity. Let our goal be to strive for real unity in truth. There are times when we will feel lonely in doing this-- the circle might seem more like a bubble. We could even be persecuted, like Martin Luther who stood up against his own church. Along with the abuses of paid indulgences for forgiveness of sin and side issues of celibacy in the priesthood, he was fighting for the very matter of justification--a fundamental issue. When brought before the Diet of Worms, ordered to recant his writings against the Catholic Church, he first asked for more time. You see, he knew the weight of this, not only against his life, but for the sake of unity. He also knew there was no unity in a lie. And upon his return, Luther bravely replied:
Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience…Here I stand. [I can not do otherwise.] God help me! Amen ( Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7, p. 304, 305).