By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, by Ellen Charry (Oxford University Press, 264 pp.; $45, hardcover). Reviewed by Douglas A. Sweeney, assistant professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
We seminary teachers complain a lot. We bemoan the theological ignorance of even our healthiest congregations, the widespread co-optation of Christian minds by secular learning, the way pop psychology informs more sermons than does the Bible, the frequency with which church meetings are conducted like those in corporate boardrooms. In short, we worry about the ways in which many secular modes of "discourse" have usurped the roles of Scripture and Christian doctrine in helping us come to terms with reality. And we hope and pray that it is not too late to shape the way Christians think by building bridges between the seminaries and the churches. That is our job: to relate theological scholarship to the practical work of ministry.
As Ellen Charry of Princeton Seminary explains in By the Renewing of Your Minds, however, such concerns of theologians are misguided. The very effort to bridge the gap between our theory and our practice suggests that something has gone quite wrong in the way we approach theological study. As Charry argues, the best theologians (or at least her favorite theologians) throughout the history of the church have always viewed theology itself as a fundamentally practical field of study. It is only since theology has been professionalized within the walls of the academy that it has become so esoteric, unapproachable, and often impractical.
More important, in the early years of the development of Christian thought, theologians taught that theological study was supposed to be salutary—for all of us. The knowledge of God was supposed to be good for us. It was supposed to enhance our well-being. Christian doctrine was even supposed to make us happy. (Try telling that to a seminarian who is preparing for final exams!)
The idea was that God has created us for right relation with himself, and that this relationship cannot be maintained without theological in-formation. As we learn more about the One from whom we take our very being, we grow closer (both in proximity and in character) to the source of life, love, and happiness. We stop seeking endlessly for fulfillment in things like sex, money, and power, and we actually find fulfillment in the God who created our longings and desires. In the words of the church fathers, the study of theology actually enables us to participate in the very life of God.
Clearly, this vision for theological study no longer captivates many minds. Theology has become academic, ever more technical and abstract. As theological knowledge has been purveyed by "ivory-tower" intellectuals, it has been viewed as disconnected from life on the streets and in the pews. This result was not intended. Most scholastic theologians have been committed to Christ and his church. Nor has this proven entirely bad. Indeed, theological studies are now pursued with a great deal of rigor and sophistication. But it has meant that the best and brightest theologians are now professional academics who do their most important work within the confines of the schools. They converse primarily with other scholars, write their books for other scholars, and advance professionally among other scholars. Is it any wonder, then, that the laity have largely ignored them?
Charry wastes no time on nostalgic yearning for the past. Nor does she suggest that theologians abdicate their place within the academy; she herself is an academic, with no taste for the pap spoon-fed by those who would dumb theology down. But she is earnest about her efforts to promote grassroots theological formation. She has a heart for helping everyday people come to know and love the Lord.
According to Charry, all of us—not least the theologians—should live our lives in ways that are thoroughly theological. We should recognize the ways in which Christian doctrine is aretegenic (a word Charry has coined, meaning "conducive to virtue"). And we should pursue the knowledge of God so that by getting to know him we might grow more like him.
What could possibly be more practical? In studying God, we come to know the One who made us for himself. In the process, we learn from him to live "the good life" (for Charry, as for many of the ancients, truth, goodness, and beauty hang together in the mind of God and are enjoyed together by his creatures the more their minds are conformed to his).
Charry unpacks her case for the "real world" relevance of Christian doctrine in a largely historical manner. After describing the New Testament foundations of what she likes to call aretology (particularly in the teachings of Jesus and Paul), she discusses the development of this kind of theology in three church fathers (Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine), three medievals (Anselm, Aquinas, and Julian of Norwich), and John Calvin. She argues throughout that Christian doctrine has proven the most conducive to virtue when it has depicted salvation ontologically, or in terms of participation in God's Trinitarian life—particularly in terms of our reunion with the Father, in and through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit—rather than functionally, or forensically, in terms of our legal release from the guilt of sin.
In the medieval period, she contends, our doctrine moved off the aretological track when the system of penance (from whose Latin root we get the English word penitentiary) was developed to deal with the problem of postbaptismal sin. God came to be viewed as an angry judge who was upset over human failure. And salvation came to be seen as a kind of parole that came at the end of a great deal of shameful and fearful punishment—a very forensic way indeed to view our relationship with the Lord.
During the Reformation, things changed for the better when Protestants challenged this view of salvation, recovering the doctrine of God's free grace that comes to us in spite of our many sins. But insofar as Protestants continued to encourage faith as a legal means of escaping the wrath of God, Charry argues, they too tended to truncate the earlier ontological view of salvation.
If this were not bad enough, Charry says that we moderns have ruined theology. For in the wake of the Enlightenment, "theology came to be thought of as the intellectual justification of the faith, apart from the practice of the Christian life." Consequently, Charry explains, "the wisdom of God has ceased to function in the church as the foundation of the good life. Theology is no longer expected to be a practical discipline, burdened as it is in the modern period with the awkwardness of speaking of God at all."
A dismal history indeed.
There are a few things that might be said by way of criticism of Charry's argument, one of which is that she has oversimplified much of the history of Christian thought. In her effort to explain the devastating effect of the penitential system on aretology, for example, she tends to treat its progenitors (especially Benedict of Nursia) as historical scapegoats.
And in her effort to convince us that doctrine is always best viewed as aretegenic, there are times when Charry belittles the historic importance of theological orthodoxy. Two examples will have to suffice. She writes, incredibly, that Paul "never thought of himself as developing a soteriology, or an ecclesiology, or a doctrine of scripture. He is always telling people what the case is, now, and how they are to understand and live in its light." Must these really be viewed as mutually exclusive alternatives?
As for Calvin, "it is not so much that a teaching is profitable because it is orthodox but that it is orthodox because it is profitable, since God only does for us that which is profitable for us." Granted, Calvin did believe that Christian orthodoxy was always profitable, but he did not believe it was orthodox because it was profitable. Further, "Calvin mentions specific doctrines only rarely, and these instances refer to what we moderns would call practices rather than doctrines." Anyone who has read Calvin's Institutes should sense that this is a misconstrual.
Charry is so intent on making God attractive to us, and on making the knowledge of God appear beneficial (or, perhaps more accurately, therapeutic) to us, that she overrepresents the softer, alluring side of God, and she underrepresents the angry, punitive side of God—a side that is clearly revealed in Scripture and that led to a genuine concern within the church regarding the danger of human sin.
This is the case throughout the book. But it becomes clearest in Charry's adulation for the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who held such a high view of human nature that she had to "take the need for human redemption on the faith of the church." Indeed, in contrast to other medievals obsessed with self-abasement and the fear of the Lord, Julian taught that there is no wrath in God at all. And in Charry's view, while there are still those who need to hear of God's wrath for human sin, there are others, "those of tender conscience, whose timidity and fearfulness debilitate them," who need to hear a message that sounds much more like Julian's.
In spite of these limitations, however, this remains a timely and powerful book. The weight of Charry's argument does not rest on every detail of her case. And it would be a shame to quibble so much that we miss her overriding concern. Indeed, theology is supposed to be good for us. When done well, it is good for all of us. And there are wonderful resources in the Christian tradition that can help us make it salutary again.
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