Contemporary issues such as race, gender, sexuality, ethics, religion and social justice, to name a few, are complex and multi-faceted. The question often arises of how we can approach biblically such complex issues. The way we approach theology influences the way we address such issues.
We can follow two approaches to belief and doctrine, which then inform how we address contemporary issues. While people may favor one over the other, and even use a mix of the two approaches, the issue really boils down to the primary motivation and ethos by which one constructs a theology.
The first is called “centered-set” theology, which focuses on Jesus being the object of pursuit, study and attention in developing doctrines. Centered-set approaches are more relational because the emphasis is on pointing to the object: Jesus. The tools we use are the Bible, the Holy Spirit and historic, orthodox Christianity to lead us to greater understanding. While doctrinal formulations are important, they are primarily used to point us to Jesus and know him more. Centered-set theology allows us to remain in relationship with people, focusing on scripture and Jesus as we journey together to formulate doctrinal beliefs. The early Pietists were examples of a centered-set theology. They emphasized the heart warming relationship to Jesus over the cold doctrine and formality of the European churches, while still taking the Bible and doctrine very seriously.
The second approach to belief and doctrine is a “bounded-set” theology, which is more focused on determining the boundaries or limits of a belief system. Oftentimes, creeds and confessions of faith are used to determine the boundaries. While sometimes boundaries are good and necessary, the boundaries are oftentimes artificially drawn and shift over time, depending on the context and movements of the day. For example, every generation or so, a new statement of faith may be published by a church or denomination, illustrating how specific contextual issues will cause the group to clarify a confession or creed. The emphasis is less on the relational aspect and more on right formulation and understanding of doctrine. An example of a bounded-set belief would be when a confession of faith is used to determine who is “in” the community of faith and who is “out.” Sometimes those who are “out” are considered unbiblical or even heretical.
Sometimes, the illustration of a farm with fences and wells are used to explain the difference between the two approaches. If you have a small plot of land with few cattle, then a fence can work easily. However, if you have a lot of acreage with a large amount of cattle, it would be almost impossible to fence in all the land. Instead, wells act as the center of location for the cattle. The idea is that the cattle will not go far off from their water source.
Which approach is best for the contemporary issues the church faces today? I believe the centered-set approach is best as we address complicated issues in the world. A centered set allows the relationships to remain intact, even as we pursue Jesus together. We may be in relationship with people with whom we have disagreements. In our complicated world, time is often needed to discuss, learn and come to a biblical understanding of the issues.
Centered-set theology also allows us not to divide over lesser doctrines that may not have as much significance as greater doctrines. Centered-set theology does not mean that we jettison our beliefs. On the contrary, a centered-set theology allows us time to learn more and reinforce what we believe, even as we remain in relationship with those different than us.
I believe centered-set theology is also the most biblical approach. The biblical material is primarily narrative in nature rather than propositional. While truth is certainly communicated through the scripture, it is taught in a narrative and relational way. One can observe Jesus being relational in His teaching as well. While also teaching truth, Jesus had relationships with those very different than him. The story of the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24 is an excellent example. He journeyed with Cleopas and the other disciple, explaining how He was revealed throughout scripture. One might say Jesus “storied” with them and did not simply give theological propositions.
Centered-set theology does not necessarily jettison truth statements or propositional theology, but rather understands them in terms of a relationship. For example, I know that my wife loves me. That’s a fact. And I know that we were married in a ceremony. That’s also a fact. I also know for a fact my wife and I can disagree on various issues. But these “facts” are only understood within my loving relationship with her rather than as determinations of my relationship with her.
Are creeds and confessions important? Yes, but it is all in how we use them. One may use a creed or confession to see how the historic church has handled key issues (i.e. Christology, salvation). But one can also use creeds and confessions as an emotional and spiritual security when the relationship with Jesus should be that. After all, when God spoke the incarnation, he didn’t give a creed or even a copy of the Bible but a baby.
The issues we face will only become more complicated, especially when we try to analyze them from a biblical perspective. The doctrinal formulations and boundaries we have drawn in the past may not be sufficient. The wording of them may have to be changed, or new ones may have to be formulated. Since Jesus is the center of our beliefs, individuals and groups can join together in that journey. We choose to dialogue and create understanding with others, instead of drawing boundaries as long as we are focusing on Jesus through scripture, the Spirit and the rich tradition of historic, orthodox Christianity.