Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology & the Church, William J. Abraham, Jason E. Vickers, Natalie B. Van Kirk, eds., (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), pp. 335. ISBN – 978-0-8028-6238-9.
This review appeared in the Circuit Rider Magazine in November 2008.
“Canonical theism is both a vision of church renewal for the twenty-first century and a long-haul, intergenerational theological project” (xii).
With these opening words, William J. Abraham of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology introduces a new set of theses and essays on how the church at the dawn of the millennium can constructively engage in theology and ministry. According to Abraham, the church at this critical moment in history “cannot face the challenges that lie ahead without rethinking the internal ordering of its own life and without its own intellectual leaders and teachers reconceiving their fundamental theological vocation” (xv). Instead, what must take primacy now is the canonical heritage of the church – that “great gift of medicinal salvation” mediated through the treasures, persons, bishops, saints, icons, and councils of the church’s life, created, guided, and sustained by the work of the Holy Spirit (xvi, p. 2 – Thesis IX). It is this heritage, undergirded by the Holy Spirit, which expresses how healing may come (p. 11). As a richly textured argument, canonical theism can help the church retrieve and re-envision the manifold components of its past to proclaim and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the present (xvii, p. 11).
Canonical Theism originated as a “working group” meeting at Perkins School of Theology over a three year period, beginning in 2002. Comprised of scholars from biblical studies, systematic theology, church history, and philosophy, it started with a conversation around the Thirty Theses developed by William Abraham. The group met biannually to address the key aspects of canonical theism, beginning explicitly with the relationship between the work of the Holy Spirit and the canonical heritage of the church and then moving creatively to the implications of canonical theism for church as a whole (xviii). The first six essays provide the meat and the central components of the book.
Other key aspects follow. Essays on the emergence of canonical theism and the way it engages with various aspects of contemporary theology extend the authors’ argument. Essays on the importance of the Holy Trinity in theology, the Philokalia in Eastern Orthodoxy, the issue of infallibility in Roman Catholicism, the matter of the authority of scripture in mainline Protestantism, the resurgence of arguments surrounding the historical Jesus, and the potential of renewal within evangelicalism, are also included. All of these essays are prolegomena to further theological reflection and exploration as they communicate the hope of charting new directions in the church’s life, especially with respect to theological education, systematic theology, catechesis, evangelism, and missiology. Here, as a robust form of Christian theism, canonical theism operates as “a complex means of grace that restores the image of God in human beings” and functions as “an instrument of spiritual direction and formation” in the life of the church (Thesis XI). It is a project deeply oriented toward the church’s renewal and to the recovery of the church’s nerve to share the gospel.
Several issues come to the surface when contemplating what this new collection of essays on canonical theism may mean for the church’s life. First, to persons who are concerned with the renewal of the church in all its various forms and who seek intellectual stimulus and theological depth canonical theism offers hope. In this sense, canonical theism is not one more speculative exercise in reinventing the church (e.g., Liberal Protestantism and Conservative Evangelicalism); and it is not one more entre to an already over-crowded, contemporary theological menu (e.g., process, feminist, liberationist, narrative, to name a few). Rather, it is an attempt to resource the church as a whole as it looks to the future with the rich treasures of the past, an attempt to come to grips with the brokenness of the church in history and to discover that healing truly lies within its own life.
Second, related to the above point, canonical theism challenges leaders in the church to deal with the epistemological commitments that have sustained division and fragmentation over the centuries. Across the board deep schisms exist in the church’s life (e.g., papal infallibility, biblical inerrancy, the use of the Quadrilateral, the historical critical method, to name a few). Making our epistemological positions absolute on a wide variety of issues has only served to diminish the church’s mission. Canonical theism, on the other hand, offers a breath of fresh air in “decanonizing” these proposals while also preserving and even enhancing their best insights (Thesis XXX). Here, canonical theism works more in the tradition of spiritual director than in the tradition of theological policeman/woman. As noted, the implications for theological education and spiritual formation are numerous.
Third, canonical theism has profound consequences for the way the church engages in evangelism and catechesis. In a post-Christendom era, the church is in the unique position of shaping persons in the way of Christ, from early childhood to teenage catechesis to seminary education and new convert formation. There is a deep need to rethink not only what the church proclaims but also how the church initiates. Canonical theism is under no illusion that the church can live off the fumes of a once-Protestant culture, whether in its conservative or liberal guise. The fumes are simply too thin, if not toxic.
And fourth, canonical theism provides an illuminating and candid look at how the church passes on the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). To be sure, Abraham notes, “Providence has secured more than one way for the faith to be kept alive across the generations” (p. 57). The provisions, supplied by the Holy Spirit through the canonical heritage of the church, have supplied the necessary medicine in the face of corruption and mistake (p. 57). As Abraham goes on to state, “There can be no community without responsible leadership and oversight” (p. 57).
And yet, in the era of “emergence,” when the code word is “network” and when persons from a wide variety of traditions are retrieving the practices of the ancient church for the future, it remains curious as to why the canon of episcopacy is omitted by some in favor of more egalitarian/missional networks. For example, how will such “networks” pass on the faith? How will they maintain continuity and accountability to the church universal? Certainly, there is a fear that stems from the abuses associated with hierarchal forms of leadership in the church’s history. This is well-documented. But given the amorphous nature of postmodernity, how will the church – the emergent, networked church, for instance – ensure that the deposit of the faith will pass hands? As an intergenerational project, canonical theism can assist in asking the right questions here; as a project of renewal, however, it will not offer a silver bullet to reinvent the church overnight. Rather, it will offer a way to re-envision the church across time as it announces the glad tidings of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
Persons who may not know about Canonical Theism will want to purchase this work. It represents the fruition of years of study and prayer. To be sure, it is not an easy read, but it is an important read. As a theological project in the making, it is one that persons will want to take the time to chew on as they consider its central proposals and theses as well as its implications for ministry and mission. It is surely one that will offer the kind of healing that is good for the church’s aching and hurting soul.