Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation. By William J. Abraham
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 134–135, January 2009
How to Cite
Vidu, A. (2009), Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation. By William J. Abraham. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 134–135. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_16.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp. xiv, 198 , Grand Rapids , Eerdmans , 2006 , $20.00 .
By now a well-established voice at the forefront of a Christian epistemology of revelation, Abraham's attempts in this new volume to come clean on his epistemological commitments, partly as a response to the discussion generated by his Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology. This presupposes and somewhat extends his effort to distinguish between the soteriological and epistemological functions of the canon. At the same time, it presupposes and seeks to articulate a notion of canonical theism. By this he means ‘the theism that was officially adopted by the Church over time and deliberately embodied in its scriptures, its creed, its sacraments and liturgy, its iconography, its saints, and in the writings of its canonical teachers’, all these up until the Great Schism. This historical watershed constitutes a problem because, in Abraham's opinion, it was the moment when the Church, or rather a part of it, in accepting the authority of the pope, chose to canonize an epistemology. A lot of the ills of modern theology stem from wrongsided attempts to enforce this or that epistemology, when in fact what he terms canonical theism was never about epistemology. All of this is of course familiar to readers of Abraham. The novelty consists in his attempt to distinguish between an ontology, and canonical theism was a rich ontology, and an epistemology which undergirded that ontology. Abraham argues that the Church was first and foremost bound and united by what it held, rather than by any methodical account of how it came to believe what it did. Once such a distinction between material claims to knowledge and a methodological-epistemological apparatus which supposedly sustains such claims is in place, Abraham can challenge the ‘standard’ attempts to secure the rationality of theism. These attempts usually take the form of first settling on a general epistemology and then applying it to theism in order to test it. That is the wrong approach, first because no agreement on any epistemology is in sight, secondly because it will inevitably misconstrue the deep content of Christian canonical theism. Instead of the standard ‘methodist’ approaches, Abraham proposes a ‘particularist’ approach to the rationality of theism. This means starting from the material content of Christian claims and then, according to the principle of epistemic fit, see what kind of justificatory approaches might fit it. It needs to be stressed that this can be done, without entering a vicious circle, only once the separation between ontology and epistemology is made the way in which it is suggested.
Refusing to canonize a given epistemology does not mean that epistemological issues are uninteresting. On the contrary, and this is one of the more intriguing claims of the book, once we start from divine revelation, certain epistemological options will be ruled out, while others will remain useful. Attending to the material content of canonical theism means understanding the epistemological difference made by the concept of revelation. Abraham, drawing on the sources of this rich canonical theism, speaks about revelation as something which entails a threshold. Revelation is not simply another piece of knowledge that we add to our already existing catalogue of beliefs. Rather, entering revelation is a world-constituting event. It offers one a new perspective on knowledge, on the world, on oneself. The Holy Spirit plays no small part in this, as he regenerates the human agent, removes the veal of darkness surrounding her. For Abraham, revelation denotes more a new world into which one enters, constituted not only by the Scriptures, but by the practices of the church, by the work of the Holy Spirit inside the believer, by the being of the Church as witness to God and as a means of grace. By entering revelation, by crossing the threshold, we enter into a new relationship with God, through his canonical and historical presence in the Church.
These are the ontological claims being made by canonical theism. Abraham then sets out to show that they are rational and that being in the possession of such revelation constitutes knowledge.
This is a provocative and welcome book. But it also has its problems. A lot hangs on Abraham's distinction between an ontology and epistemology. I think he is right that we should refuse to canonize any single epistemology and prefer an ad hoc approach which is sensitive to the material content of the particular beliefs under scrutiny. Yet I think he is wrong to interpret the Roman Church's adoption of papal authority, infallibility, as the canonization of an epistemology. Similarly, he is wrong to interpret the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura as an epistemology. Witness the great diversity of epistemological approaches and theories present both in the Roman and in Protestant churches. A more appropriate historical judgment would be to say that Catholics – through the notion of papal infallibility – and Protestants – by ascribing supreme authority to Scripture – did not provide full-fledged epistemologies, but principles of interpretation and derivation of theological claims. Three distinct notions are identifiable in Abraham's rhetoric: material ontological claims; claims about how the church came to hold this or that belief; and an epistemology in support of an ontology. Abraham tends to be ambiguous between the second and the third, thus caricaturing the Church's attending to epistemic authorities as a full dress epistemology. Moreover, it is a salient point that, as Catholics see it, clinging to the authority of the pope is not a decision for the sake of epistemology, but precisely a decision stemming from an understanding of revelation. To put the matter differently, it is an epistemological point contained in a material claim, in a belief about what Jesus taught.
More thought should also be given to the utility of the notion of a canonical theism. We are told that a collection of essays on this topic is forthcoming from Eerdmans. That is something to look forward too. Yet although Abraham cautions against confusing canonical theism with orthodoxy, it still remains unclear whether it possesses the unity which could make it a workable category. Nevertheless Abraham is correct that it is a better category than the vague ‘theism’ descriptor.