This list of theses is authored by William Abraham, the main fellow behind recent publications that are proffering the label “Canonical Theism” as a sort of ecumenical and ecclesial movement that endeavors to appropriate the theological heritage of the church in a particular way. Specifically this movement centers on re-envisioning the very idea of “canon”, attempting to purge it of any connection with a theological epistemology and broadening to include vast segments of the church’s traditions, practices, saints, liturgies, images, hymns, etc. I’ll have some thoughts on this later, especially after I get around to reading the book which bears name of the movement. For now here’s Abraham’s thirty theses on the movement. I’m curious as to what folks might think about this construction. I have quite a few questions and apprehensions.
Thesis I: Canonical theism is a term invented to capture the robust form of theism manifested, lived, and expressed in the canonical heritage of the Church. It is proposed as both a living form of theism and a substantial theological experiment for today. We can explicate it further by distinguishing it from other forms of theism and by indicating more clearly how it is related to the canonical heritage of the Church.
Thesis II: Canonical theism is to be distinguished from Mere theism, Philosophical theism, Process theism, Open theism, Classical theism, and Consensual theism.
Thesis III: It differs from Mere theism in being much more robust; thus it is unapologetically Trinitarian in form and content.
Thesis IV: It differs from Philosophical theism, say, Anselmic or Perfect Being Theism, in that it is derived from the canonical heritage of the Church rather than developed from philosophical sources.
Thesis V: Canonical theism differs from Process theism in that it has no stake in the theism advanced by Process philosophers and theologians are free to examine the claims of Process theism on merit.
Thesis VI: The same principle applies mutatis mutandis to present attempts to develop the form of Open theism that is currently being articulated by some American Evangelicals. Canonical theists are free to examine the claims of this form of theism on its merits and to either reject it or to accept it as additional midrashic extension of their theism.
Thesis VII: Canonical theism differs from Classical theism in that the latter is a historical notion drawn from the history of ideas and used to designate a strong monotheism with impassibilist connotations. Canonical theism is first and foremost Trinitarian; and, while it readily absorbs the classical attributes of monotheism, the commitment on passability is modest and complex.
Thesis VIII: Canonical theism differs from the Consensual theism of, say, Thomas Oden, in two ways. First, it is skeptical of the claim that there exists a consensus across the patristic era, Roman Catholicism, Magisterial Protestantism, Evangelical orthodoxy, and the like. While there are clear elements of overlap between these groups, there are very serious differences that challenge the claim of consensus. Second, Canonical theism focuses on the public, canonical decisions of the Church existing in space and time across the first millennium.
Thesis IX: Canonical theism is intimately tied to the notion of the canonical heritage of the Church. The Church possesses not just a canon of books in its bible, but also a canon of doctrine, a canon of saints, a canon of Fathers, a canon of theologians, a canon of liturgy, a canon of bishops, a canon of councils, a canon of ecclesial regulations, a canon of icons, and the like. In short, the Church possesses a canonical heritage of persons, practices, and materials. Canonical theism is the theism expressed in and through the canonical heritage of the Church.
Thesis X: The canonical heritage of the Church came into existence through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was active in motivating, energizing, guiding, directing, and overseeing their original production in the Church.
Thesis XI: The canonical heritage of the Church functions first and foremost soteriologically. It operates as a complex means of grace that restores the image of God in human beings and brings them into communion with God and with each other in the Church. Each component is primarily a tool to be used in spiritual direction and formation.
Thesis XII: The canonical heritage through which Canonical theism is mediated is not in and of itself an epistemology, nor is it meant to serve as an epistemology. It is not a handbook on how to resolve disputes about rationality, justification, warrant, knowledge, and truth.
Thesis XIII: The ongoing success of the canonical heritage of the Church depends on the continuing active presence of the Holy Spirit working through the relevant persons, practices, and materials.
Thesis XIV: The canonical heritage of the Church is to be received in genuine repentance and lively faith. The effective operation of the various components depends on an open and contrite heart and a readiness to practice the light of God that one encounters.
Thesis XV: Generally speaking, the various components of the canonical heritage have their own distinctive role in the economy of faith. Thus, the scriptures do not do the job of the creed, and the creed does not do the job of the episcopate, and the episcopate does not do the work of baptism, and so on. Each has its own function in the healing and restoration of the human soul.
Thesis XVI: While the various elements in the canonical heritage work ideally together, there is a fair degree of overdetermination, for there is overlapping in their particular purposes. When one is missing or improperly used, others can take up the spiritual slack. Thus the icons can marvelously convey the content of the gospel and the teaching of scripture.
Thesis XVII: Canonical theism’s vision of canon differs from the standard western vision of canon in two ways. First, it extends canon beyond the canon of scripture or the bible. Here it draws on the original meaning of canon as a “list”. Second, it eschews conceiving canon as an epistemic criterion, relocating canon within the Church rather than within the field of epistemology and philosophy. In Canonical theism canon is construed fundamentally as a means of grace, a way through which the Holy Spirit reaches and restores the image of God in human agents.
Thesis XVIII: On the surface commitment to Canonical theism appears to involve a turn to Roman Catholicism and a move a way from Protestantism. This is false. Both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism work with a radically epistemic conception of canon; and they restrict canon to scripture. Magisterial Protestantism tries to work with the canon of scripture alone. Roman Catholicism adds tradition, the magisterium, and papal infallibility understood in epistemic terms as the means whereby the meaning of the canon is to be rightly understood. Hence epistemology rather than soteriology is primary in the conception and reception of canon in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
Thesis XIX: Although canonical theism is clearly compatible with Eastern Orthodoxy, it is unclear how far the Eastern Church articulates any substantial vision of the canonical heritage of the undivided Church.
Thesis XX: Canonical theism emerges as an option within Protestantism and is proposed as a healing theological option within Protestantism. It can readily be seen as a fresh reappropriation of the patristic tradition for today. It invites Protestantism to a radical revision of its internal commitments. It is unclear how far this is possible given the constitutive elements of Protestantism. Perhaps Canonical theism is essentially post-protestant at its core and cannot be absorbed within Protestantism. At its conception Canonical theism arose out of a deep, even searing, dissatisfaction with current forms of liberal and conservative Protestantism. However, there is no reason in principle why Canonical theism cannot preserve and even enhance the best insights and fruits of the Protestant traditions across the centuries.
Thesis XXI: Canonical theism gives intellectual primacy to ontology over epistemology. We find ourselves meeting God, discovering our sinfulness, encountering redemption, struggling with evil, immersed in suffering, and the like. We are initiated into the faith of the gospel, baptized, enter the Church, experience the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, and are converted to a life of holiness. We encounter these phenomena without having to hand an epistemology, without necessarily figuring out how to deal with the questions about truth, rationality, justification, and knowledge that conventionally arise. Nor do these phenomena require us to have an epistemology before we engage in them. Hence ontology is logically prior to epistemology. Without the ontology the epistemology is likely to be thin, wooden, and inappropriate.
Thesis XXII: The canonical heritage generates rigorous epistemological reflection and theorizing. Such work needs to be pursued at the highest intellectual level. There is no drawing back from the epistemology of theology into some kind of naive credulity or a shutting down of the question of meaning and justification rightly raised by philosophers in the twentieth century. Canonical theists are interested in pursuing the implications of epistemologies compatible with Canonical theism for the understanding of the history of the Church and the study of scripture. Canonical theism may lead to the development of epistemological insights that have overtones for all of human thought and existence that are as yet unidentified and unexplored.
Thesis XXIII: Canonical theists have no stake per se in foundationalism as an epistemological position. Canonical theism is open to a whole variety of epistemological options, whether foundationalist or coherentist, internalist or externalist, evidentialist or non-evidentialist. These matters are to be pursued with rigor and appropriate sophistication as needed.
Thesis XXIV: In the epistemology of theology, special attention should be given to epistemic suggestions already present in the canonical heritage of the Church. These have often been obscured from vision when canon has been construed as a criterion and when epistemology has been conceived along internalist lines.
Thesis XXV: No single epistemological vision should be offered or sanctioned as canonical in the Church. This can be spelled out in two ways. First, various and internally competing epistemological visions and theories are compatible with the content of the canonical heritage. Second, the various epistemological assertions, comments, and suggestions found in the canonical heritage do not constitute a full-dress, comprehensive epistemological vision.
Thesis XXVI: Epistemological insights and theories have a place as teaching tools in the Church and as part of the work of evangelism and apologetics. People naturally ask epistemological questions within and without theology and their questions deserve to be taken seriously. Knowing when and how to introduce epistemological issues and materials is a matter of delicate pedagogical judgment.
Thesis XXVII: The history of the canonical heritage throws light on the history of epistemology. Some of the most interesting epistemology in the West has been evoked by theological disagreement, even though in the secularization of the academy this has been lost from view in the histories of epistemology. Canonical theists are interested in fresh ways of understanding the history of epistemology, not least in identifying and exploring epistemic insights that have been forgotten or ignored. They are especially interested in the place of theism in the history of epistemology, exploring the role posited for God in debates about rationality, justification, and knowledge.
Thesis XXVIII: The continuity between the canonical faith of the Church beyond the first millennium is an open question. Clearly, different configurations of Christianity have preserved and effectively deployed much of the canonical heritage in their own way and manner. Witness, for example, the varied way in which the doctrine of the Trinity has been preserved in hymnody in non-creedal traditions.
Thesis XXIX: The canonical heritage of the Church should constitute a bedrock commitment for Christians as a whole. We need to approach the various Christian churches and denominations not in terms of one element of the canonical heritage as constitutive of Christian identity but in terms of how far they have owned the various components of the canonical heritage. This prohibits an all or nothing judgment, with one group automatically in and another group automatically out. We will have to work with judgments of proportion and degree.
Thesis XXX: All epistemological proposals, like papal infallibility, scriptural infallibility, and the Methodist Quadrilateral, should be treated as midrash, secondary to the primary constitutive commitments of the Church as a whole. Hence we need not give up our epistemological theories, but they do have to be decanonized in the ecumenical arena. This is where the rub is going to come hard for many. Perhaps the epistemological positions could be canonical for sub-groups within the Church as a whole, while not being at all canonical for the whole Church. Radical decanonization of epistemologies of theology is the preferred option.