Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Unlike modern theology that has often divorced the study of theology from spirituality, a study of theologians from the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation periods reveal that theology has always been wedded together with Christian piety. Ellen Charry seeks to make this case in her By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford, 1997). As Charry writes of Augustine, it could be said that her aim is “to persuade the reader that revelation and doctrine work together to reshape our mind and affections and thereby our identity” (133). For her book Charry coins a new term, “aretegenic” (“conducive to virtue”); and each chapter seeks to put forward the “aretegenic” value—or character-shaping function—of each theologian, from early apostles like Paul to Basil of Caesarea to Anselm of Canterbury to John Calvin.
For evangelical readers, her thesis is well received but not entirely new. Theologians like J. I. Packer and others have for decades been beating this drum. But Charry, writing from a unique context (she is a professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary), seeks to reintroduce this classical emphasis in the academy. It is hard to overstate the influence of John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant on the ejection of sapience (or wisdom) from categories of truth and knowledge (6-10). In contrast, the theologians of the past “based their understanding of human excellence on knowing and loving God, the imitation of or assimilation to whom brings proper human dignity and flourishing” (18). Indeed, much of the theological inquiry of these theologians was necessitated because of pastoral concerns. Far from ivory-tower musing, this was theology birthed in the often messy realities of life—whether in Basil’s defense of the Holy Spirit’s deity because of its practical import for the believer’s growth in sanctification or Calvin’s affirmation of biblical authority for the Christian’s growth in discernment. These theologians sought to “do” theology not merely for mental titillation but for a “richer life with God” (242). Charry, in sum, drives her thesis home and makes an unassailable case: theology, when done rightly, is always virtue-shaping; this is a biblical model and one best embodied by theologians of the past.
Finally, I should note two criticisms. Charry is theologically “conservative” in comparison to many of her peers in the academic guild, but at times she makes statements that many evangelicals will find troublesome. For example, she puts forward the apostle Paul’s “aretegenic” theology but sees his teaching of a wife’s submission to her husband as a failure to fully embody Christ’s lordship. According to Charry’s egalitarian understanding, “these biblical writers . . . were unable to visualize a social structure that both honored the lordship of Christ and distributed responsibilities and skills necessary for preserving family and society evenly” (57). One other criticism is her writing style. Charry is a clear but, at times, dense writer. Some sentences are longwinded while others contain needless qualifiers, a common weakness of academic writing. The book could have used more sub- and sub-sub headings to aid the reader in tracking with the various arguments and trains of thought. That said, I whole-heartedly endorse her thesis and commend it to all who engage in the most noble of studies: God himself.