Skip to content

Canonical Theism: 30 Theses

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.


  1. D C Cramer wrote:

    I recently finished Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, which deals primarily with epistemological issues. While I’m sympathetic with his critiques of epistemological dogmatism, I found his own proposal somewhat unclear. So, like you, I still have “quite a few questions and apprehensions.” Looking forward to future discussion.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, find the same lack of clarity in Abraham’s theses here. And I’m a little puzzled by the kind of antipathy that wants to utterly deny that the Scriptures (or tradition, creeds, or whatever) function as any sort of epistemic criterion. I’m not so sure the question of epistemology can be so easily bracketed.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  3. parishioner wrote:

    I’d rather have a root canal. How can you choose to read this stuff, Halden? You have a high pain threshold? I’m not sure whether to be impressed or troubled.

    Who needs Jesus’ death and resurrection when you have this: “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.” (XVII)

    There are several more passages that echo this same glorification of and dependence upon traditions rather than a living, breathing God whose Son was sent to redeem us, and who has made us his current living temple.

    And then this from XXI: “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.”

    Joseph Smith’s experiences with visions might be worth Abe’s pondering. Satan can appear as an angel of light, Abe. When Smith asked a pastor about what he’d experienced, he didn’t get a good answer rooted in Scripture. Is he saying ontology trumps epistemology? Is this a way of saying experience trumps Scritpural guidelines? I’m pretty sure Smith thought he was experiencing “an open and contrite heart and a readiness to practice the light of God” that he encountered.

    But I probably just don’t understand anything I just read.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  4. kim fabricius wrote:

    Sorry to sound like Stanley Hauerwas, but not another fucking movement! I confess to struggling against nodding off from the late teens. The ponderousness worries me more than the fuzziness. And “theism” won’t fly.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, anything with “theism” in the title is automatically suspect in my book.

    Movements suck so hard.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Abraham’s previous book Canon and Critierion in Christian Theology is much more interesting than Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation (which I also found very, very disappointing). In Canon and Critierion he gives an historical survey of the problem of conceiving of Scripture as a criterion of truth. It contains lots of great quotes from theologians and philosophers of the past. While he is strong and interesting in his criticisms of theologians and philosophers of the past, he seems weak and sketchy about his own suggested alternative view.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Craig do you have a sense of what exactly Abraham means by “criterion of truth”? If he just means that the canon is not an epistemological theory that we can deploy, that seems fine to me. However if he means that the canon isn’t regulative in regard to what we can or can’t claim as true, that seems to be pretty problematic.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Of course the book is over @ the church tonight & I’m here at home. I’m sure I’d could find something nice and brief and pithy with some time — and the book. But, instead, I provide a long, ponderous example.

    In the following passage Aquinas attempts to establish Scripture as a criterion of truth which places theological knowledge above other forms of knowledge:

    “Since this science [theology] is partly speculative and partly practical, it transcends all others speculative and practical. Now one speculative science is said to be nobler than another, either by reason of its greater certitude, or by reason of the higher worth of its subject matter. In both these respects this science surpasses other speculative sciences; in point of greater certitude, because other sciences derive their certitude from the natural light of human reason, which can err; whereas this derives its certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled: in point of the higher worth of its subject-matter because this science treats chiefly of those things which by their sublimity transcend human reason; while other sciences consider only those things which are within reason’s grasp. Of the practical sciences, that one is nobler which is ordained to a further purpose, as political science is nobler than military science; for the good of the army is directed to the good of the State. But the purpose of this science, in so far as it is practical, is eternal bliss; to which as to an ultimate end the purposes of every practical science are directed. Hence it is clear that from every standpoint, it is nobler than other sciences.”

    — Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 1, Article 5: “Whether sacred doctrine is nobler than other sciences?”

    and, then he says, further down the page:

    “For it accepts its principles not from other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but makes use of them as of the lesser, and as handmaidens: even so the master sciences make use of the sciences that supply their materials, as political of military science.”

    — Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 1, Article 5, Reply to Objection 2: “Whether sacred doctrine is nobler than other sciences?”

    In this view, certainty is obtained by reference to Scripture. It is a criterion of truth. Is this really the way the early Church would have viewed these writings?

    And, anyway, it is clear that understanding Scripture requires prior knowledge of other things. So, Scripture itself is not a feature of an epistemology. Seeing the canon as having a regulatory function in the life of faith does not presuppose a particular epistemological theory (about knowledge in general).

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Ok, but I wonder how what Abraham seems to refer to as “an epistemology of theology” relates to epistemology in general. Or, more concretely, given the Bible’s largely narrative nature, how does the Bible’s seemingly historical claims bear upon what we hold as true?

    In other words, for Abraham is it illegitimate for one to say that because the Bible claims Jesus rose from the dead, Christians should hold that claim as true? In that scenario is the Bible functioning improperly as “criterion of truth”?

    If all he’s saying is that the Bible doesn’t tell us with certitude “how” we know, that’s fine. If however this means that the Bible does not make claims which Christians ought to believe, this seems to be problematic on a number of levels.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  10. Adrian Woods wrote:

    “Yeah, find the same lack of clarity in Abraham’s theses here.”

    It would be helpful if you guys were clearer about what you find unclear.

    “There are several more passages that echo this same glorification of and dependence upon traditions rather than a living, breathing God whose Son was sent to redeem us, and who has made us his current living temple.”

    I’m not sure how you get this statement from idea that canon (including scripture) is primarily a means of grace for the formation of Christians, rather than an epistemic norm. I’m not aware that Abraham makes in reference to a preference for tradition over the living, breathing God. I don’t understand the desire that you have to pit these against each other. Most of the problem probably stems from a lack of familiarity with current conversation in Epistemology.

    “But I probably just don’t understand anything I just read.”


    “Yeah, anything with “theism” in the title is automatically suspect in my book.”

    Abraham does continually argue against the reductionistic/thinned out concepts of theism developed in philosophy for and perpetuated at times by theologians. Instead he argues for a robust theism as expressed within the Christian Tradition.

    “In Canon and Critierion he gives an historical survey of the problem of conceiving of Scripture as a criterion of truth. It contains lots of great quotes from theologians and philosophers of the past. While he is strong and interesting in his criticisms of theologians and philosophers of the past, he seems weak and sketchy about his own suggested alternative view.”

    I think you mean “Criterion for Knowledge,” as in “This is how we KNOW this, because the Bible says so… or because the Pope says so… or because Tradition says so… or because Barth says so. He argues that we should not take the canon as an epistemic norm. And he is quite clear that his proposal is for theologians to regain the robust tradition of canon as means of Grace by which the Holy Spirit reaches out and transforms the believer into the image of Christ. I cant believe you guys are actually suspicious of this.

    “Ok, but I wonder how what Abraham seems to refer to as “an epistemology of theology” relates to epistemology in general.”

    As for the epistemology of theology, one example is: Sarah Coakley and a group of Scholars are putting together a group of essays on the Spiritual Senses. The project is thinking through how the Spiritual Senses function epistemologically. Most of the authors then are apply recent advancements in analytic epistemology to theological insights from the Christian Tradition.

    “In that scenario is the Bible functioning improperly as “criterion of truth”?”

    What would it mean for the Bible to be a “Criterion of Truth?” You may find Bruce Marshall’s “Trinity and Truth” informative. But then see Abraham’s critique of Marshall in “Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation”.

    The central thesis, as I understand it, is that: throughout the Christian tradition – primarily beginning with Luther – theologians have sought to reduce the Canon to just the bible, and then transform it to a criterion for Knowledge. Canonical Theists think that we should regain the entirety of the Christian Canon as a means of grace for Christian Formation. They are concurrently interested in working out an Epistemology of Theology. I’m trying to imagine how you guys would actually object to this.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Adrian, I guess I don’t see any prima facie reason why we should not understand the Bible as having epistemic relevance. In other words, I think we come to know all sorts of things about the nature and character of God for example because the Bible bears witness to those truths. I don’t see why that should be hermetically separated from understanding the canon as a means of grace for Christian formation. (Note I’m talking about the Bible here, just by way of example, the same could be said about tradition, or the liturgy, or whatever.)

    Certainly the canon (however broadly concieved) is not simply there to grant us epistemic norms. That is utterly obvious. But I don’t see how we can avoid the idea that the Bible tells us things, communicates truths, imparts knowledge. Why is such an understanding at odds with understanding the canon as means of grace? Is not the communication of the knowledge of God an inextricable part of the reception of grace which the canon imparts?

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Also, what is all this business with the constant reference to the “first millennium” of the church’s history as providing a “bedrock” of canonical materials? Any realistic reading of the first 1,000 years of the church’s history reveals all sorts of disagreements, discontinuities, and contradictions. It’s nothing like the sort of harmonious tapestry that these theses seems to purport. I really doubt that wistful references to the “undivided church” of the first millennium is anything more than an imaginary construct that can’t stand up to historical scrutiny.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 10:51 pm | Permalink
  13. Adrian Woods wrote:


    Very good question. Your second paragraph was particularly insightful, I’m working on a response but also need to hit the sac. Yet, here is something to chew on I hope.
    A fine distinction, no doubt, but certainly a crucial one. It is not that the Bible does not have epistemic relevance. It is, again, that the Bible is not primarily a criterion for knowledge. In epistemology the very loose idea is that knowledge is true, justified, belief. These are criterion for knowledge. It would then be odd to have as criterion: true, justified, belief, and it is from the Bible. It would also be odd to have as your criterion for knowledge: true, justified, belief, and the Pope said it at a special time from his special chair. If it is knowledge, it is a belief that is true regardless of where it came from. However, as you recall, the “Crisis of Authority” stemming out from Luther through Descartes into the contemporary scene. The “How do you know” question was everywhere; Rome replied, “The Church,” Luther replied, “Sola Scriptura” Descartes replied, “Cogito Ergo Sum.” Protestants went with Luther, Rome later went with the Pope. Abraham is arguing that this was a mistake. That scripture was originally primarily a means of grace, that is formative (think of what Paul is actually trying to do, not dictate law but rather form communities, think of Maximus the Confessor, St. Symeon the New Theologian). When you reduce the Canon to scriptures (as protestants tend to do) and make it into a criterion for knowledge, you continually run into the list of problems that Abraham mentions in Canon and Criterion.

    So what CT’s want to do is remove the epistemology from theology, establish an epistemology of theology (spiritual senses, religious perception, divine revelation), and recover the robust canonical tradition of initiating people into the life of God.

    “In other words, I think we come to know all sorts of things about the nature and character of God for example because the Bible bears witness to those truths.”
    I think Symeon would say that contemplation of scripture, prayer, eucharist, cultivating the virtues all are epistemically formative for becoming like Christ. Maximus would certainly say that they prepare the intellect to “see” God.

    Thursday, February 26, 2009 at 11:19 pm | Permalink
  14. Evan wrote:

    I agree with most of the hesitations about this project, especially the rather mundane one that Kim brings up (admitting also that I haven’t read Abraham, just these theses). I think that I could pursue canonical theism and find quite a bit of its work edifying, but so far I haven’t simply because learning another new constructive system doesn’t seem to be the best use of my time at the moment. That said, we work through Kim’s theses over at F&T, so I figured Billie’s deserved at least a reading or two. Some thoughts:

    -I appreciate the lack of commitment to particular epistemologies or theisms, whether or not I would end up agreeing with him about the subordination of epistemological commitments in thesis xxx. I could see myself agreeing with xxx, but first impressions have not convinced me. Even if one were to recognize epistemological commitments as a primary sort of thing, however, the sort of “generous orthodoxy” (although I hate to use such a cliche phrase) is, I think, helpful on a pragmatic level.

    -I found thesis xvi very interesting. I imagine it has a lot of explanatory possibilities.

    -I agree with Halden about the sense of a “harmonious tapestry” that one gets in reading this proposal. It does seem rather inaccurate on a historical level, and what’s even more odd is how it seems to contradict thesis viii. Abraham’s position seems ambiguous. (says the guy who hasn’t read him!)

    These are just my impressions about canonical theism. While I’m not familiar with his work, I’ve heard only good things about Abraham, and I’ve been meaning to read his Canon and Criterion for some time. I imagine canonical theism has a lot of good stuff to offer, but I don’t imagine I’ll feel any special tug to be a partisan for it as I learn more. Which I expect to, Halden… looking forward to more posts.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 7:48 am | Permalink
  15. Evan wrote:

    …also, Mark Powell of the canonical theism crowd has a new book out on papal infallibility, for those who are interested.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  16. Adrian Woods wrote:

    I dont mean to come off as the big defender of CT. I do want to make sure it gets a fair shake though. I feel fairly confident that none of the CT folks imagine CT as a Movement or a System. It is Neither. It is a subtle point that it was a mistake to reduce canon to scripture and to view it epistemologically.

    I do think it is absolutely necessary to be up to date on current analytic epistemology.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  17. Adrian Woods wrote:


    In reference to your question about scripture as an epistemic norm. I really don’t want to short-change your reading of CT. In fact, a lot of the confusion on your blog has come from people who haven’t actually read the material. The subject matter does not lend itself to simplistic/reductive/dismissive conclusion or responses. This would be the easy thing to do of course, but then what would be the point. I suggest (for anyone desiring to comment) that we read the text closely. Hear what the authors are saying and not saying (i.e. the are not calling for a new movement nor attempting to create a new system, on this point I believe they are more than clear).

    Back to your question, I find the first three essays of part II most helpful.

    1. The Emergence of CT, Abraham
    2. CT and the Primacy of Ontology, Vickers
    3. Epistemic Virtues of a Theologian in the Philokalia, Aquino

    Just to be clear, Fred Aquino is currently my teacher. So I do have an investment in the conversation and a stake in its development. Thus, my defense.

    Also, Abraham’s “CT and the Future of Systematic Theology” is very informative.

    Let me know what you think. I look forward to further dialogue.


    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  18. Adrian sez: I don’t mean to come off as the big defender of CT.

    I, for one, have appreciated your contributions to this discussion. Thanks for the clarification. I have appreciated the writings of Billy Abraham for many years (he was in Seminary in & around the time I was, so I remember him from those days as well, though we are not friends or anything). I hope I didn’t come off as dismissive. I’m not at all. I am interested in creative proposals on Revelation and on the renewal of the Christian faith. And, I’m very interested in clarification. I’m very open to the idea that the confusion or misunderstanding may be mine, and I’m sure I’ll get around to reading Canonical Theism one of these days — as I have read many of Abraham’s other books & essays.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Adrian, I had actually hoped that someone who has actually “sat” under those associated with this work might come and comment, so no need to apologize. I have the CT book on order right now, and I look forward to exploring it more. I also want to give these proposals a fair shake, and that is, in fact the motive of my probings, to try to learn what these theses are really all about.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Also, what is meant by “primacy of ontology”? Like, I get the wanting to move past fixations on knowledge and certainty, but I don’t know that I can go with this “primacy of ontology” stuff.

    But I’m not sure what is really being meant by it here.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink
  21. An Anxious Anglican wrote:

    IMHO it seems to me that Thesis IX is key, and is the substantive nugget against which most of you are pushing (or overlooking):

    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.

    I can understand how an uncatechized Catholic or a fundamentalist Protestant can be confused or angered about this, but I think that the rest of us would acknowledge that the Church is bigger from an epistemological perspective than a book (however sacred) or a magisterium. It is “both of the above,” and more.

    But I am just an unfrozen cave-man lawyer, not a theologian, so I would be interested in what the community has to say about this specific thesis.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    I think its a bit disingenuous to say that only a fundamentalist might have a problem with that thesis. I’m not saying that there isn’t a richness and breadth to the church’s heritage that we should appropriate, but the idea that we have some sort of coherent, well-defined, agreed upon “canon” of the massive sort that is described here just isn’t true. Church history is far more messy and complex than that. True faithfulness the past of the church does not come by harmonizing out the tensions, horrors, and contradictions. And that’s what I fear this sort of rhetoric does, insofar as it assumes that the church just “has” a singular coherent “canonical heritage” that is just “there” to be rediscovered.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  23. parishioner wrote:

    Alas, it isn’t merely we ignorant who are confused.

    Who is theology for? Professional theologians?

    I had a professor who referred to the works of most contemporary composers as “Masturbation Music.” He said it was largely unpleasant to listen to, and primarily gave pleasure only to the composer as he congratulated him/herself on clever yet unlistenable innovations. (Paert and Hovhaness excepted, of course.)

    I shouldn’t have commented previously, that much is clear, and I apologize for the irritation my ignorance caused. Yet
    is it really valid to say that those who are not up to date on analytic epistemology have no say in what is comprehensible? Who is Abraham’s book written for? Who should be able to read it and for what purpose?

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  24. Jason wrote:


    I am a contributing editor to the volume under discussion here. I am enjoying the conversation, so I will keep my comments somewhat brief (and then get out of the way so that the conversation can go on!).

    Initially, I would like to address Halden’s concern about the messiness of canons. Those of us involved in this project freely recognize this. For example, Paul Gavrilyuk is quick to point out that there was no one canonical liturgy in the early church (or at any point in the history of the church). For that matter, he insists at the end of his essay on canonical liturgies that innovation is to be expected. I offer this as one example. The same would be true for the canon of images and saints. Clearly there is great diversity here. So we are quite happy to acknowledge diversity of content within the various individual canons.

    Another issue that I think needs to be addressed is the notion that we are somehow attempting to be a movement. I don’t think anyone involved with this project is anywhere near that pretentious (although I must admit that I find the idea that Stanley Hauerwas rails against movements ironic in the extreme). Rather, I would suggest to the readers of this blog that the folk involved in this project are deeply committed to the churches to which they belong (it is a very ecumenical group), and that they are motivated by the desire to see those churches recover the fullness (pleroma) of the canonical heritage (or for those who have belong to churches which have never lost that fullness, by the desire to see their churches recover a lively sense of the charismatic nature and salvific purpose of the canonical heritage). Many of the people involved have seen the spiritually disastrous effects of limiting the canonical heritage to one or two canons and then transforming those into epistemic criteria (rather than means of grace). We have seen what happens when churches do not know what to do with people who have encountered the Triune God through sacred images, through the sacraments, or even through the episcopacy! Others have seen the scriptures function primarily as a weapon rather than as a healing balm. It would therefore be far more accurate to see this project as a labor of love than as a movement.

    Finally, I would add that I do not see what is so horrifying about movements per se. After all, church history is replete with renewal movements, e.g., the poverty movement among the Franciscans and Dominicans, the Reformation, the Evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century, the modern missionary movement, the charismatic movement, the new monasticism movement, and on and on and on. So I don’t break out in a rash when I encounter a movement in the church. This is, of course, in no way to put canonical theism on a par with any of these movements. The people involved with canonical theism are simply not that pretentious. Most of us are too busy teaching Sunday School, leading catechism classes, preaching, helping the poor, etc., to oversee any movements. We are mere laborers in the fields or, as Billy Abraham once put it, hack teachers of the Christian faith.

    Jason E. Vickers

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  25. Halden wrote:

    Jason, thanks for the comment. As it happens I currently have your book on Trinitarian theology on order as well. Some of my friends have recommended it to me. I also appreciate what you say in regard to what the people involved with CT are actually about.

    If I may ask a follow up question or two, how would you distinguish CT simply from a sort of eclecticism? In other words, given the acknowledged cacophony of much of the church’s theological heritage, how do we go about picking and choosing what we include in our “canons”? How do we avoid an arbitrary eclecticism?

    Also–and this is just a curiosity on my part–what is the nature of the “very ecumenical” group that make up the contributors to this venture? Paul Gavrilyuk whom you mention is the only contributor I have found who seems to not be a Protestant, though of course I couldn’t find such info on all the contributors, so I’m making no assumptions. So I’m wondering, are there Roman Catholics, or Free Churchers that are part of this venture? Or is the group predominately coming our of mainline Protestantism. Again, this is just a curiosity on the part of someone who is intrigued by many of the aims I’ve seen described by members of CT.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  26. Jason wrote:


    Great questions!

    Well, as for eclecticism, let me say that we acknowledge that the contents of the canons will vary from church to church. We encourage each church to begin by exploring its own canonical heritage. Many Protestant churches do not realize that they have a great deal of these canonical materials, persons and practices at hand. In fact, many of these materials, persons and practices function as means of grace. For example, local churches and denominations/ecclesial traditions have their own canons of saints. Thus Methodists have images of Wesley and Asbury on horseback hanging all over the place. Many Methodists across the centuries have been inspired by these images to go an extra mile for Jesus (keepin’ this a little light-hearted!). So it is not simply a matter of cutting and pasting together canonical heritages at a whim. Rather, we expect that it will be most natural for churches to begin with their own canons and branch out from there. We also expect that much of this should be very local (local churches have informal canons of saints, inform canons of sacred hymns and songs, and the like, that are more or less particular to those churches). There will be regionalism, you might say. One way to think about this is in terms of a theory of over-determination (the Spirit has given the churches more than they need to bring about salvation). I might add here that I taught for a time in an African Methodist seminary. It was clear to me that the sponsoring church had a rich canonical heritage. For example, we had images of the founding bishop hanging all over the place. And then their was their canon of sacred music! Now I don’t for one minute expect Roman Catholics to adopt the canon of sacred music that is flourishing in the AME Zion church. Nor do I expect the AME Zion church suddenly to give up their canonical liturgies and music for the Latin mass. So I would envision particularism more than eclecticism.

    As for the group make-up . . . there have been Roman Catholics around the fringe of the group. One Roman Catholic is contributing a piece for a new volume. Other traditions represented include AME, UMC, ECUSA, Churches of Christ, Free Methodist, and Orthodox.

    I might mention that there is something of a follow-up volume that doubles as a festschrift for Billy Abraham that I co-edited with Paul Gavrilyuk and Doug Koskela. The volume is called Immersed in the Life of God. It includes contributions from Ellen Charry, R. R. Reno, and Geoffrey Wainwright among others. Reno, of course, is Roman Catholic.

    Hope this helps!


    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  27. Jason wrote:

    One more thing . . .

    We are very clear that canonization is a process that has always happened informally, from the bottom up so to speak (regardless of what canon we are talking about).


    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  28. Halden wrote:

    Thanks Jason, for taking the time to answer such questions. Those comments are helpful and what it seems to indicate to me is that what underlies this sort of movement/method is a nascent theology of divine providence. In other words, the underriding presupposition seems to be that the Holy Spirit is at work in the concrete churches’ history/histories to endow them with all they need for sanctification and this movement of the Holy Spirit comes through the people, songs, writings, images, and structures of the church across time and space.

    So is the challenge then, simply to see the breadth of the Spirit’s work in gifting the church with all it needs throughout its history? That seems helpful to me, and something that coheres with my own experience of being a long-time member of a “new monasticism”-esque church. The question that I am still pondering is how do we discern the movement of the Spirit in our “canonical heritage(s)”? Or, in Johannine terms, what does it mean for us to test the spirits to see if they are from God? How do we avoid positing something of some kind as a criterion in this venture?

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  29. Jason wrote:

    Halden, your first paragraph is spot-on.

    Re: the questions in your second para., I would say that the criteria for discerning the movement of the Spirit in canonical materials, persons, and practices is two-fold, namely Christological and Trinitarian. I would add that the gift that really matters is not the canons per se, but the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in and through the canons, transforming us into the likeness of Christ, cultivating the mind of Christ in us, and so on. I deal at length with theses questions issue in my lead essay for part one of the canonical theism volume.


    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  30. Halden wrote:

    So by invoking Christology and Trinitarian doctrine as our criteria of discernment here, are we talking really about the Rule of Faith? And if, so aren’t we ultimately talking about Scripture, as the Rule of Faith is ultimately a faithful codification of Scripture’s narrative? Or, ultimately the Spirit’s work through the Scriptures and Rule of Faith to bring us to truthful knowledge of God and Christ?

    You needn’t feel bound to continue answering these questions, of course. You’ve already been more than generous. I will, of course read through the volume itself as soon as it arrives. This exchange has been helpful for me, at least in understanding what these recent publications are really “all about”, as I continue to try to engage with the never-ending work of discerning how to go about being the church in the world.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  31. Jason wrote:

    Yes and no. Yes to the role of faith but no to seeing the rule of faith as a codification of scripture. Believe it or not, dealing with this issue is the burden of chapter one of my book on the Trinitarian theology. As I view it, the rule of faith emerges in the context of catechesis, baptism, and the liturgy and not as a codification of scripture. In these contexts it emerges either before or at least alongside/simultaneous with the scriptures.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    I see. Thank you again for your continued engagement here. I’ll leave off at this point and see if others still are going to chime in about other aspects of these questions. Best wishes for you and your work.

    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  33. Ben Myers wrote:

    On Thesis IX:

    Canon to right of them!
    Canon to left of them!
    Canon in front of them,
    Volleyed and thundered!

    Saturday, February 28, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  34. David wrote:

    Hey all,
    Great conversation! Sorry to jump in so late. I just wanted to throw one thing in there, and if it turns out to be redundant, just forgive me. The epistemology vs. ontology thing seems to have been a bit of a snag in some of the early posts. But I think what Abraham et. al. are saying (and this is my impression from studying with Fred Aquino who is a contributor to this volume) is that canon is not *primarily* epistemic.

    They would surely agree that parts of it are, but reducing the nature of canon to epistemic norm pushes us to overemphasize some canonical elements that appear most naturally to be epistemic (such as scripture, and indeed, certain parts of scripture) over others which are not so epistemic but are just as important for the healing of persons. So the CT move is, I think, to see the epistemic functions of certain canonical elements as contributing to the primary ontological function, which is salvation.

    Hope that helps a bit.

    Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 8:42 pm | Permalink
  35. Adrian Woods wrote:

    Fine distinction Dave. You are so postmodern.

    Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site