Centred versus bounded set evangelicalism

After writing my post about the identity markers of evangelicalism., I recollected one put up by Roger Olson in which Michael Clawson sets out to demonstrate that a neo-fundamentalism is on the rise in evangelicalism. I referred Roger to my post and suggested that what I had spoken to might be an instance of the phenomenon Clawson describes.

Roger replied: “Interesting. But, of course, we apparently disagree about whether “evangelicalism” has boundaries. If it doesn’t have them, they can’t be narrowed, right? But, of course, people can state what they think is compatible or not compatible with the evangelical “center” and that’s functionally the same as positing boundaries. It’s just that when it comes to actually applying them there’s nothing to apply them to and nobody who has the authority to enforce them.”

That, in turn, reminded me of Daryl Climenhaga’s thoughtful comment on my post. What I said to Roger is pertinent to Daryl’s comments too, so I decided to post them here, in order to make a new  conversation rather than “burying” it in the comment stream of the earlier one. Here is what I said to Roger (and now to Daryl):

“Roger, I sympathize with your desire to focus on the center rather than the boundary in defining evangelicalism. I am happy, however, that you also acknowledge the connection between these. If one identifies the center of evangelicalism, it seems to me that discernment in regard to individuals, theologies and organizations will ultimately show the boundaries. There will come a point at which one is too far from the center to be adjudged evangelical. Where that happens, a boundary line is discernible.

It is interesting to watch a similar exercise in regard to judgments of who worships the same God we do and whose God is “other.” Miroslav Volf’s recent book [which I know Daryl is just about read and I haven’t read yet!] has put that issue on the table. When people disagree about what must be at the center to justify the conclusion that this is the “same” God, their disagreements end up drawing boundaries more or less broadly.”

Do you agree that centred and bounded set analyses are really strongly related to one another?


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

9 replies on “Centred versus bounded set evangelicalism”

When we discuss an issue such as what defines evangelicalism are we entering a debate over orthodoxy? If that is so, are we beginning to distinguish between what a Christian is or put another way, who is doing the will of the Father (Matt. 7)? Then of course that may lead us to gazing at our surroundings and making proclamations about those who consider themselves evangelical.

If my interchange with Roger regarding boundaries to evangelicalism interested you, this response from him to the last message I clipped into my post is significant.

Today, Roger said (

“I disagree. The boundary is not there. Sure, we all make value judgments about the authenticity of others’ evangelical commitments from time to time. For me that is based on whether and to what extent a person is moving close to the center or away from it. But I have no idea where a boundary line is. I compare this (my model) with an old fashioned tent revival meeting. (I attended a lot of those as a kid.) The sides of the tent were kept open so that people could sit outside it if they wanted to. Everyone knew the people close to the platform were the most committed to the revival, but nobody could say exactly who was “at” the revival and who was not. I remember one man sat in his car every evening watching the revival and listening to it without ever exiting his car to come to the tent. He was counted by the “counters” as at the revival.”

It looks as though Roger (and perhaps Daryl?) does see things a bit differently than I, after all.

My wife (Gail) just made an interesting observation to me. Even in Roger’s illustration, he still has a boundary. People were counted even if you they sat outside the tent. But that too was a boundary. Beyond that circle, people weren’t “counted” as part of the revival. So perhaps the difference between Roger and me is smaller than I first thought in my earlier comment.

I recently read and reviewed Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. My concern is that Olson betrays and deceives himself when he states there are no boundaries tied to the center of evangelical doctrine.

To me, to have a center by definition implies boundaries. Is it a stretch to say that the moment you begin to explain what it is you believe about the center that you are drawing boundaries? Olson does this very thing in his chapter. In fact, he recognizes that people will assume that what he is doing is drawing boundaries…..he is right!

Think about it, Olson is the one who wrote what is perhaps the definitive intro book on the history of doctrine. He wrote about people who drew doctrinal boundaries. Church history is full of them.

I think we tend to forget that, while we need to strive for the church to be as one as Christ is with the Father, those who stray from the “faith once delivered to the saints” have brought disunity to the body.

Alas, I am just a thirty-something and I am trying to learn what I can from everyone I can.

Terry, I would love to hear your thoughts on the relationship between center and boundaries using the Sinai covenant as a model. It seems to me that this covenant certainly had a well defined center and boundaries. Is the relationship any different in the New Covenant?

Dale, here is what I see in regard to the covenants.

Under the Mosaic covenant (which is the one in mind when Hebrews speaks of the old covenant being made obsolete) the boundaries of the covenant community were clear. There were very specific rules regarding entrance to the covenant community, which was primarily through birth into a covenant family, with the males being given the covenant sign of circumcision. There were also rules for alienation from the covenant community. So people knew who was in and outside of the boundaries of covenant people.

The situation regarding the boundaries of the people reconciled with God (the “saved”), however, the boundaries were much more difficult to discern. Many within the covenant community did not have the faith of Abraham. They remained members of the covenant community but they were not justified before God. By the same token there were people outside of the covenant community who were justified. So the boundary of the saved overlapped the boundary of the covenant community but not totally, and only God knew exactly who was in and out of the company of the saved. In Moses day, for instance, his father in law Jethro clearly had a relationship with Yhwh, but he was not part of the covenant community.

Going back to the time of the patriarchs, we know of a number of people who were reconciled with Yhwh but not included among the covenant people. Melchizedek is one who comes to mind immediately. But we must also consider people such as Ishmael, Hagar and Esau. When God told Abraham to concede to Sarah’s request and to put Hagar and Ishmael out of the household, they were no longer part of the Abrahamic covenant community. But Hagar’s relationship to God is encouragingly positive and I believe her to have been saved. So she was in the circle of the saved but not of the covenant community. With regard to Ishmael and Esau, we don’t know their status with regard to the community of the saved, but we do know them to have been outside the boundary of the covenant people. All Romans 9 tells us is that, in terms of historical election, with regard to the covenant people (who were not coterminous with the saved), Esau was not chosen but Jacob was. It tells us nothing of Esau’s status in regard to eternal election. The same can be said of Ishmael. We have no indication whether he was or was not saved, but the faith of his mother and of his father must certainly have had an impact on his life.

When we come to the new covenant, the visible church is the new covenant community, celebrating the new covenant sign of the Lord’s Supper, and continuing the role of the old covenant community as God’s missionary people in the world. But here too, the circle of the saved overlaps but is not coterminous with the boundary of the church. We speak of that circle as the “invisible church” and, as with Israel, many members of the church are not within the circle of the saved (they do not have the faith of Abraham) and I expect that there members of the saved community who are not members of the church.

The evangelical circle (whose boundaries are in dispute these days, cf., Naselli’s book of 4 views regarding evangelicalism, mentioned by Craig) is obviously within the circle of the visible church, but it is certainly not the whole of the visible church, nor are all its members within the circle of the saved, the invisible church. Some of those outside the evangelical circle, however, are inside the circle of the saved. And my accessibilist convictions lead me to affirm that some of the circle of the saved are not within the circle of the visible, organizational church, whether evangelical or otherwise).

In short I see 3 boundaried communities under the new covenant and 3 circles that overlap with one another but no two of which are coterminous. How to decide which church bodies authentically belong within either the global Christian church or the evangelical movement, is disputed. Roman Catholics think that Protestant churches are not quite “church,” because we are out of communion with Rome. The Eastern Orthodox Church thinks the same of both of the other bodies. Many evangelical Protestants speak of Roman Catholics as not “Christian.” The Seventh Day Adventists were accepted within the boundaries of the National Association of the Evangelicals in the U.S., a few years ago, but not all evangelicals think they should have been. Clearly, the boundaries of each of these entities is differently conceived from different perspectives.

All of this makes it clear that I think boundaries are a reality and that discernment of them serves a constructive purpose. I strongly appreciate the emphasis on the centre as the primary focus of our efforts and criteria, but I doubt that we can function organizationally without some means of identifying them. The World Evangelical Alliance does it with its confessional statement, as does the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

A thought on boundaries and the centre. If I understand centred-set thinking (which I take from Paul Hiebert’s work in the missiological world), it is not so much a matter of closeness to the centre as it is the direction in which one is going. Those who are oriented to the centre belong in the set; those who are oriented away from the centre are not in the set. So an apparently good church-goer whose real centre is one of the gods of this world is not in the set. Similarly, a new believer who hasn’t learned the “rules”. so to speak, is in the set. The boundary, such as it is, is derived by noting the direction in which people are moving. I think that this same idea is going to apply to any of the covenants–at Sinai, for example, the Children of Israel were called to re-orient their lives with God (as met and known at Sinai) at the centre. The Law that follows is an expression of what that life looked like in their context.

Thanks Terry for your response. I certainly agree that center and boundaries are related. The question of the relationship between the two has, for me, always been one of the great conundrum’s of the faith discussion. Many years ago when I came to a personal faith in Christ I was part of the United Church of Canada, and the whole center/boundaries discussion became all to real.

I have spent the adult portion of my life within the framework of the evangelical camp and the center/boundaries discussion has seemed, to me, to be one of the great frustrations of my involvement in it. My frustration is that evangelicals seem to spend an inordinate amount of time fighting about what the center looks like and even more time harshly judging each other regarding the attending boundaries related to the perceived center.

Is part of the problem, Terry, that we can’t agree on what the center actually looks like? As I think about the Garden of Eden as a model of the relationship between center and boundaries, God seemed to have a well defined center, and clear boundaries that gave his creation room to function with significant creativity. With regard to the work and fruit of the garden, our first parents have great freedom within the bounds set by God as the center.

Your writing, in my mind, has reenergized my desire to explore the center/boundaries discussion because I think you understand the center/boundaries relationship very well and you express it graciously. This is something missing in too many of these discussions.

I would appreciate your thoughts on how the center/boundaries relationship functioned in the Garden of Eden.

Dale, I think I agree with you about Eden. God made it very clear what Adam and Eve had to do in order to “live.” The boundaries were well established.

I am not sure, however, how you see that situation informing a discussion about the identity markers of an evangelical. I think I’m missing something in the process of your thinking here.

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