This is a curious moment in history. We are living in the time of post-everything. We are aware that we are not what we once were, but we don't know how to define what we are becoming.
Now, along comes a band of merry theologians who describe themselves as post-Protestant. Actually, they are daring enough to give themselves a name: they call themselves "canonical theists." These are the writers of a collection of essays, Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church (Eerdmans, 2008, 335 pages). The editors are two United Methodists, William J. Abraham and Jason E. Vickers, and an Episcopalian, Ntalie B. Van Kirk.
Canonical theism is a serious theological research project. It proposes that "the church possesses a canonical heritage of persons, practices, and materials" which "came into existence through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit," and which functions as "a complex neans 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."
These canonical theists admit that their proposal is "essentially post-Protestant at its core and cannot be absorbed within Protestantism." What motivates them is "a deep, even searing, dissatisfaction within current forms of liberal and conservative Protestantism."
Don't assume that they are preparing the way for a return to Rome or Constantinople because they are also critical of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Theirs is an approach being offered to all Christians, but they are speaking mostly to Protestants like themselves.
Last September I enjoyed a conversation with one of the editors, Jason Vickers, who teaches theology at United Theological Seminary in Ohio. He pointed out that "Protestantism is only 500 years old," and it has come to a point where it needs a fresh re-evaluation.
The main tenets of classical Protestantism are no longer considered relevant in their original formulations. For example, consider sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture alone is all that is necesssary for Christian belief. This does not hold water anymore. We know that it is a fact that the church proclaimed the gospel for a long time before it had a New Testament. Originally the church had a Rule of Faith (the early form of the trinitarian creed), and it used the Rule of Faith as the standard of measurement for gathering together the writings of the New Testament. In other words, you cannot interpet Scripture apart from tradition, and so both are necessary for developing the doctrines of the church. Or, consider the doctrine of justification by faith. Catholics and Lutherans have signed a joint declaration (which Methodists have also signed) which states that we do not disagree about the meaning of justification. The old battles which defined what Protestants believe are over, and Protestantism is free to mature.
Here is where things get sticky. There is no shortage of proposals for the future of Protestantism. Radical liberals like Bishop John Shelby Spong advocate an approach that would empty the church of the substance of historic Christian belief and practice. Evangelicals are a lively bunch who are orthodox in belief, but whose vision of the church and the Christian life can be narrow and shallow. The canonical theists offer an alternative approach. They want to get over the iconoclasm that has afflicted Protestantism from its beginning and reclaim as means of grace trinitarian doctrine, catechesis, spiritual disciplines, sacraments, saints, and icons.
These restless post-Protestants seem to have something in common with the folks in the "Emergent church" movement, but probably not as much as you might think. Both groups seem dissatified with the iconoclastic limits of Protestantism. When you think of both groups, you smell candles and see icons. Yet I cannot believe that the canonical theists would endorse the house churches of the Emergent Church movement as a sufficient embodiment of the church. More importantly, the canonical theists are advocating a thick system of beliefs and practices governed by a rigorous theological oversight, whereas the Emergent Church movement might be only dabbling in the Christian tradition, using what it likes and treating the appropriation of the Christian tradition as a matter of taste rather than of theology.
We are certainly in a post-something era. The Spirit blows where it wills. It is worthwile to wet your finger and stick it up in the wind by pondering Canonical Theism to see if you feel the breeze.
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