Concentric Circles of Theology
This is a simple but very helpful idea I’ve heard a few times now from Greg Boyd. It is important to remember when discussing theological issues just what is important and what isn’t. In place of what he calls a house of cards theology – if one thing falls, the whole thing goes with it – he suggests viewing theology in concentric circles. From the inside (most important) out, the categories go like this:
The Person of Jesus
At the centre is the person of Jesus. Anything “Christian” has to be based on the person of the Christ. That just makes sense pretty intuitively to me as a matter of definition. It also is important to remember that the centre is not a theology or a set of theologies, but a person. Christianity is a religion, if you are comfortable calling it that, which is based on a person, not theology, ethics, actions, or anything else.
In the next circle he identifies dogma. These are the set of beliefs which have been agreed-upon by (almost) all Christians going back to the earliest creeds. So here you’d have things like the Trinity, that God created the world, and that Jesus is God. Without these, it is debatable whether you should be called a Christian – not as a mean exclusionary practice, but just as a matter of definition.
In the next circle we have doctrines. These are basically commentary on dogma and/or issues which do make somewhat of a practical difference but are hardly essential to the faith. Everyone (except maybe some process theologians) agree that God is sovereign, but does that mean God predestines some to Heaven and some to Hell? For another example, almost all Christians practice baptism as an initiation to the faith, but debate what exactly it means and at what age to carry it out. Churches divide over which side they’re on, so they’re generally considered fairly important. They do have practical impact. But there is no obvious Scriptural or creedal statement so there is room to debate. As long as those debating remember that these are not dogma and that there are many good and faithful Christians who disagree with them, treating them as brothers and sisters, then it is a healthy debate.
In the next area we have those things that are extremely peripheral. Young Earth vs Evolutionary Creationism is a great example of this, although in some segments of the American church they act as if it is dogma. There isn’t really any difference in day-to-day faith. It takes a significant stretching of the purpose of Scripture to claim that it says anything in favour or against either position. Boyd also puts his own position of Open Theism in this category, although I might be willing to edge it into Doctrine since it does have some implications for faith.
What I Tend to Discuss
This blog seems to spend most of its time in either the centre discussing the importance of the person of Jesus, or else in doctrine. I occasionally spin my way out to opinion and generally don’t touch much on dogma. I think I’ve figured out why I do that. I enjoy doctrine because it is an in-house discussion with my Christian brothers and sisters. That’s primarily who I am targeting with my posts. I emphasize the person of Jesus because I don’t want to let myself or my readers forget that is the key. Occasionally I throw in discussions of opinion that catch my attention, but I don’t really consider them terribly important. And I am most likely to ignore dogma because we generally all agree on it anyway so I don’t think there’s as much to say.