Adduced here in recent days, "Canonical Theism" is the proposal that the Holy Spirit, for the church's benefit, has not only blessed the church with a canon of Scripture but also with a canonical heritage which includes "a canon of doctrine, a canon of saints, a canon church fathers, a canon of theologians, a canon of liturgy, a canon of bishops ... a canon of ecclesial regulations, a canon of icons, and the like." (from Thesis IX, p. 2, Canonical Theism:A Proposal for Theology and the Church, edited by William J. Abraham, Jason E. Vickers, Natalie B. Van Kirk, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).)
Having been invited to reflect on this proposal, after dipping into the book cited from above, I am left underwhelmed.
Before we get to the underwhelming of me, let me underline the great strength of Canonical Theism: it joins with movements in theology, past and present, in which we the church are reminded and renewed by re-acquaintance with the riches of the past. Christianity is now historically old and it is highly probable that few issues and question of today were not addressed in the past and so ... why reinvent the wheel?
Why am I underwhelmed?
1. Canonical Theism - in itself, as a conception of how the church might refresh its life and mission through retrieval from its heritage - offers no ability for the church to discern what is unhelpful, unhealthy and uncongenial from its canonical heritage. Lurking in our canonical heritage, for example, are some appalling attitudes to women, expressed in writing by some of the same saints that, otherwise, are properly lauded for their contribution to theology and liturgy. Our criteria today for rejecting those appalling attitudes of yesterday are not informed by Canonical Theism.
2. While it is true, as I mentioned above, that there are few issues and questions today that were not addressed in the past, the fact is that there are a few issues and questions today that were not addressed in the past, and thus Canonical Theism is of limited value in addressing the sharp edges in the contours of modern Christian life. Take, again, a matter concerning Christian women. Even if there were no appalling attitudes to women among the ancient Fathers, we could not get from those venerable men a positive steer on the ordination of women. Yet many of us - valuing though we do, what is good about our canonical heritage - think we are not bound by that same heritage to refuse the ordination of women.
That is, there are, notwithstanding the attractions of talking about the blessings of the Holy Spirit for the church today by reacquainting ourselves with yesterday, significant limitations in the proposal called Canonical Theism.
The Holy Spirit continues to bless us, of course! But the blessing of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church today is the blessing which comes from hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church, and what the Spirit says to the church today is not bound by the limitations of Canonical Theism.
This will be my last "provocative" post till after Easter. In a Lenten fast I will post weekly in as anodyne way as possible, eager that no one comments - your Lenten fast! - but also, being honest, I have another writing project to complete before the end of March, and there is a bit of travel coming up, and ... well, Easter creates its own episcopal deadlines re my workload.