Book Review: By the Renewing of Your Minds by Ellen Charry

Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

41jdZoDznDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.


Book Notes: The Intellectual Life by A. G. Sertillanges

Intellectual LifeA. G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (repr; Catholic University of America, 1987).

This book is a great distillation of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which has much to offer Protestant evangelicals who care about the school of ideas. Sertillanges reminds us that the intellectual life is a calling. As a Catholic, he recognizes that there is a unity of truth grounded in God himself. While he recognizes the importance of breadth of knowledge, he argues that “true knowledge . . . lies in depth” (118). Sertillanges also wants to fight against intellectual sloth and therefore he presents the intellectual life as arduous: “A real thinker brings a very different spirit to his work; he is carried along by the instinct of a conqueror, by an urge, an enthusiasm, an inspiration, that are heroic” (126).

As for reading, Sertillanges warns against “inordinate reading” since the mind “is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration” (147). He discourages reading daily newspapers: “defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable” (149). In sum, he encourages the kind of reading that is an impetus for reflection. Books should inspire our own thinking and reading should awaken reflection (170, 190). “A book is a signal, a stimulant, a helper, an initiator—it is not the substitute and it is not a chain. Our thought must be what we ourselves are” (172). While wary of applying all of Sertillanges’ prescriptions, overall I think he has much to teach young, budding intellectuals, lessons from the classical tradition that have been lost in our day.

Sertillanges’ emphasis is that the intellectual life is not ivory-tower musing but ought to lead to a virtuous life. “What matters most in life is not knowledge, but character” (235). In the end, all intellectual inquiry serves the moral make-up of man: “What we know is like a beginning, a rough sketch only; the man is the finished work” (235).

I enjoyed his take on writing with a pen: “My style, my pen, is the intellectual instrument which I use to express myself and to tell others what I understand of eternal truth” (201). For him, the pen is “an interior bent, a disposition of the living brain” (201). One can easily think of the intellectual life as a sad, wearying existence, full of deep (useless?) thought but devoid of relaxation and leisure. While Sertillanges does promote great earnestness in this vocation, he encourages play. “To work too long is to get worn-out; to stop too son is to fail in giving one’s measure. . . . Know yourself, and proportion things accordingly” (246-247).

As an evangelical Christian, I disagree with his sacramental theology that comes out here and there. Also, he can overstate his case of the need for solitude. As per style, he can be difficult to wade through in certain sections while brilliant in others. (I will note that it was originally written in 1920 and in French.) That said, this is an intellectually stimulating book that has much good to offer us. Read and think.

For those interested, Trevin Wax offers distills four thoughtful lessons from this book.

Book Review: “Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms” by David Barshinger

9780199396757_450David P. Barshinger. Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture (Oxford, 2014).

For many decades the view often portrayed of Edwards has been that of philosopher, theologian, and revivalist. What’s often missing is that first and foremost Edwards was a student of the Bible—”he was at his core devoted to the glorious God of Scripture and to mining that Scripture for truth” (3). Barshinger seeks to amend this scholarly oversight of Edwards studies by offering the first book-length treatment of Edwards’ approach to a book of the Bible.

In the opening chapter Barshinger helpfully situates the Psalter in Edwards’ world. Present as an undercurrent throughout the work Barshinger uses four key Puritan interpreters of the Psalms in the 17th century: David Dickson (1583–1663), John Trapp (1601–1669), Matthew Poole (1624–1679), and Matthew Henry (1662–1714). This comparison enriches one’s study of Edwards’ exegesis of the Psalms by showing the similarity and divergence of Edwards with his Puritan predecessors—where Edwards’ hunkered down in the hermeneutical fort and where he blazed down his own interpretive path. This enlarges the book by perhaps a third if not more, but one can easily bypass these points of comparison by ignoring the footnotes.

Edwards’ continual emphasis on the history of redemption serves at the skeletal structure for each of the chapters: God and Scripture (ch. 2), Humanity and Sin (ch. 3), Christ (ch. 4), Spirit and Gospel (ch. 5), Christian Piety (ch. 6), and Church and Eternity (ch. 7). I found the analysis on Edwards’ Christian piety to be a devotional experience, particularly the discussion on the Psalms as a book for Christian living (pp. 283–307). With the anemic worship that ails the contemporary Christian church, this is both a timely and encouraging portion of the book.

Barshinger provides a helpful appendix where he details all of Edwards’ 104 extant sermons on the Psalms and where they can be found. Most helpful, however, is the Scripture index. Preachers and students of Edwards will appreciate the ease of having a ready resource on what Edwards thought on any given psalm (the only psalms not referenced are 54, 83, 120, and 150).

This is a wonderful study that is not only academically profitable but exegetically informative. Many pastors and students of Edwards will appreciate this work. One only hopes other students will take up similar studies on Edwards’ approach to other biblical books. On a related note, in footnote 43 on page 371 Barshinger alerts us to a forthcoming book by Douglas Sweeney where he will offer a synthesis of Edwards’ exegesis of the whole Bible: Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford). Needless to say, students of Edwards will eagerly await this volume!

Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Resources on John Calvin and Prayer

John_Calvin_Poster-thumb-480x384[1]For my master’s course on Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, I decided to write on John Calvin’s view of prayer. Eventually the paper took shape and this became the title: “The Trinitarian Focus of Calvin’s Theology of Prayer.” In my paper I argue that throughout his writings Calvin has a robustly Trinitarian framework when discussing prayer. When we pray we are communing with the triune God: we pray to God the Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. With a few exceptions, that emphasis is missing from most discussions on Calvin’s view of prayer. Perhaps when I receive my paper back with feedback and suggestions, I’ll post it here.

In the meantime, here’s a list of the secondary literature (books, chapters, articles, and theses) I found most helpful for my paper. I should also note that I mostly used primary sources (the Institutes and his commentaries).

Beeke, Joel R. “Calvin on Piety.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, edited by Donald K. McKim, 125–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

———. “John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God.” In Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, edited by Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour, 27–42. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011.

Benge, Dustin W., ed. Lifting up Our Hearts: 150 Selected Prayers from John Calvin. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012.

Boulton, Matthew Myer. Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Calhoun, David B. “Prayer: ‘The Chief Exercise of Faith.’” In Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis, edited by David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback, 347–67. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008.

Coulibaly, Nouhoum. “Calvin’s Teaching and Practice of Prayer.” Master’s thesis, Tyndale Seminary, 2009.

Crisp, Oliver. “John Calvin and Petitioning God.” In Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology, 133–55. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010.

Hansen, Gary Neal. “Praying with John Calvin: Studious Meditation on the Psalms.” In Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers, 75–95. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012.

Hesselink, I. John. “Calvin’s Theology.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, edited by Donald K. McKim, 74–92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

———. “Introduction: John Calvin on Prayer.” In On Prayer: Conversation with God, 1–31. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Huijgen, Arnold. “Calvin and Prayer.” Lux Mundi 28, no. 4 (2009): 94–97.

Loggie, Robert Douglas. “Chief Exercise of Faith—An Exposition of Calvin’s Doctrine of Prayer.” The Hartford Quarterly 5, no. 2 (1965): 65–81.

Matheson, J. G. “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life.” Scottish Journal of Theology 2 (1949): 48–56.

Matteucci, Stephen. “A Strong Tower For Weary People: Calvin’s Teaching on Prayer.” Founders Journal 69 (Summer 2007): 19–24.

Mazaheri, John H. “Calvin[’s] and Augustine’s Interpretations of ‘The Father in Heaven.’” Revue D’histoire Ecclésiastique 106, no. 3–4 (2011): 440–51.

———. “John Calvin’s Teaching on the Lord’s Prayer.” In The Lord’s Prayer: Perspectives for Reclaiming Christian Prayer, edited by Daniel L. Migliore, 88–106. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993.

Murr, Barry. “Treasure in Plain Sight: Prayer in John Calvin’s Theology.” Vision, September 1, 2006.

Parsons, Michael. “John Calvin on the Strength of Our Weak Praying.” Evangelical Review of Theology 36, no. 1 (January 2012): 48–60.

Pitkin, Barbara. “Imitation of David: David as a Paradigm for Faith in Calvin’s Exegesis of the Psalms.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 24, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 843–64.

Ware, Bruce A. “The Role of Prayer and the Word in the Christian Life According to John Calvin.” Studia Biblica et Theologica 12 (1982): 73–91.

11 Quotes from Steven Pinker’s “A Sense of Style”

71vuG05f13LI recently read Steven Pinker’s latest work, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Viking, 2014). I loved this book, especially the first two thirds. The last third reads more like a reference book and it is tedious at times with an abundance of examples, but overall its helpful.

(A related book I recommend is Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation [W. W. Norton & Company, 2007].)

That said, here are eleven of my favorite quotes, mostly from the first two thirds of the book:

Style . . . adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, interesting metaphor, a witty aside, and elegant turn a phrase or among lives greatest pleasures. (9)

Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. (12)

Readers who want to become writers should read with the dictionary and at hand . . . And writers should not hesitate to send the readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again.  . . . I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice that I once read any bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of the room with Vice-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.” (23)

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate. (28)

The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. (29)

Classic prose is a pleasant illusion, like losing yourself in a play. The writer must work to keep the impression that his prose is a window onto the scene rather than just a mess of words. Like an actor with a wooden delivery, a writer who relies on canned verbal formulas will break the spell. This is the kind of writer who gets the ball rolling in his search for the holy grail, but finds that it’s neither a magic bullet nor a slam dunk, so he rolls with the punches and lets the chips fall where they may while seeing the glass as half-full, which is easier said than done. Avoid clichés like the plague — it’s a no-brainer. (45-46)

[G]ood writers reach for fresh similes and metaphors that keep the reader’s sensory cortexes is lit up. (48)

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose…. Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person you know spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your readers. (61, 76)

The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. The advice in this and other stylebooks is not so much on how to write as on how to revise. (76)

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version one’s notes. (186)

… [T]he reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world. (304)

Make sure to pick up a copy of the book.

Mark Noll on the (Boring) Lives of Historians

9780801039935This is how evangelical historian Mark Noll begins his memoir, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014):

“For the most part, historians sit, read books, prepare lectures, grade student papers, occasionally travel to archives, sit some more, organize notes and books, relax by going to museums (and reading everything on all of the placards), attend conferences to hear papers read, write books and articles, retire, read some more, and fade away.

“The constant effort to figure out why people, institutions, ideas, cultural assumptions, conflicts, social relationships, and day-to-day living developed as they did in the past leaves little time or psychic energy for close attention to ourselves. While some of the books that historians write might be lively, humane, and compelling, our lives rarely are.”

Yep, I’m excited to dig in!

Reading John Owen

works-of-john-owenRyan McGraw, in an appendix (pp. 138-140) in his recent book on John Owen, offers these personal suggestions on what to read of John Owen.

It is worth noting that everything [John] Owen wrote stands head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. You will not find here the illustrative powers of Thomas Watson for the personal anecdotes of Richard Baxter. What you will find is a man who drank deeply from the wells of the best theology available at the time, who filtered this material through a brilliant intellect, and who set it on fire with the warmth of pastoral devotion.

My general recommendation is to start with Owen’s popular sermons in volume 9 of the Banner of Truth edition. Many of these sermons condense and popularize much of what he wrote elsewhere. For example, the sermons on ‘The Nature and Beauty of Gospel Worship’ are practically a condensed version of Communion with God. Each sermon is roughly ten pages and contains more illustrations and examples than other comparable works. The outlines are also easier to follow. Owen was a powerful preacher and popular in his day. These sermons are a faint record of what his preaching was like.

In my opinions, the first four volumes of Owen’s Works (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4) coupled with his work on Hebrews represent his most important material. In general, works such as these, which he wrote in the 1660s and later, represent his most mature and well-rounded thought. Most will not read the entire set on Hebrews, even though I wish more did. Read my article [excellent article worth saving for later use!] on how to use Owen’s Hebrews commentary to gain more ideas on how to use this set. Volume 1 of his Works includes two major books on Christ. Christologia is outstanding and profound, but I recommend reading it last. I read this first and found it to be a technical and difficult work. Do not bypass it and pick it above most of the rest of his Works, but wait until you are used to his style and thought. Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ is pure gold. This is Owen’s seasoned attempt to teach his congregation how to grow in their affection for Jesus Christ and to long for heaven more.

Volume 2 includes Communion with God. This is the most important book that have read apart from the Bible, and it has transformed both my personal piety and my ministry. This is partly due to my stage in life when I read it and partly because there is nothing else that I have read that is quite like it in terms of providing a model for Trinitarian piety.

Volumes 3 and 4 include several books on the Holy Spirit. These appeared in print gradually, but Owen designed them to be one large, connected project. He published this material in stages in the last decade of his life because he feared that he would die before finishing it. The first of volume 3 is even fuller, in some respects, in its treatment of devotional Trinitarian theology than Communion with God. The latter half of the volume treats the Spirit’s work in personal holiness and the difference between biblical godliness and moral virtue. Volume 4 examines the grounds of our faith in the authority of Scripture, how we interpret Scripture in dependence on the Spirit, how the Spirit helps us in prayer, the work of the Spirit as comforter, and a profound treatise on spiritual gift. Every one of these books will exceed your expectations and treat their topics better than any other officer that I have read from any century.

Do not bypass the typical recommendations, such as The Mortification of SinHowever, I am increasingly convinced that people misread this book because they are interested in finding a ‘how to’ manual on sanctification instead of a book on the practical outworking of union with Christ in the Christian life. Other excellent books are The Grace and Duty Being Spiritually Minded and, especially, Apostasy from the GospelThe latter displays astonishing insight into the nature of the human heart and highlights dangers that most contemporary Christians do not even know that they face.

If you get through these, then keep reading what is interesting to you. I have never regretted any time that I have spent with Owen on any subject.

Then McGraw offers these helpful bullet point suggestions on how to read Owen:

  • Do not get bogged down with Owen’s outlines. Keep reading and try to keep the big picture of where his argument is going. He did not write random collections of thoughts, but books with definite aims in view. Keep his goals before you as you read.
  • Use the table of contents well. Read the table of contents before starting in with the book so that you preview the entire work at a glance. If you lose track of where you are, then go back to the table of contents. Puritan authors’ tables of contents were longer than those of today. This can help you read authors with long complex arguments, such as Owen.
  • Persevere and keep reading. Reading seventeenth-century works of theology is similar to learning another language. While Owen wrote in English, it is not exactly the English that you know and use. This is an obstacle for modern readers whether we are reading the works of Owen or of someone else from his time. The more you read Owen, the moreyou will get to know him. Patterns of thought will become familiar and easy, even though his thought never becomes predictable ir mundane. The more familiar you are with him, the more you will get out of him and the more you will enjoy him. Persevere.
  • 2940150345935_p0_v1_s260x420Develop your reading skills in general. In his classic work How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler notes that modern education does not carry us beyond a grammar-school reading level. People have trouble reading dense material such as Owen’s writings because they have never learned how to read such literature. Reading Owen’s writings provides a good opportunity to become a better and more productive reader. Read Adler’s book to help you as well. It is a classic for good reasons.

One simple way to begin is by picking up Ryan McGraw’s own The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014).

Mark Seifrid on the Difficulty of Writing a Commentary

IMG_5968.JPGIn the latest issue of Towers magazine, a production of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mark Seifrid, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, talks a bit on what the most difficult part is about writing a commentary. [See his most recent commentary on 2 Corinthians here.]

“Listening to the text is the most difficult part of writing a commentary, or any interpretation of Scripture. Listening, listening, and listening again. There is a fourfold responsibility here.

“(1) First, to let the text speak in all it’s particularity and detail, even (or especially) where he challenges are thinking.

“(2) Second, not to lose the forest for the trees. We have to be able to synthesize, to gain a perspective on the whole of what the text is saying.

“(3) Third – and here many New Testament scholars fail – we have to be aware of what we are saying with respect to the Christian tradition, with respect to what Christians have believed, taught, and confessed before us.

“(4) Fourth, we have to remember that we are writing for others. Their needs and concerns must be in our minds. Someone has described preaching as being placed between the upper and lower millstones of the Word of God and the congregation, and attempting to come through the grinding. Writing a commentary is something like that.”

The Task of the Historian

IMG_5944.JPGGreat word by Scott Manetsch on the task of the historian:

“[T]he task of the historian is not simply that of an antiquarian who dusts of ancient artifacts that are roped off from the general public with a sign reading ‘do not touch.’ The study of religious history invites, even compels, us to investigate the past with an eye toward the present, to explore the foreignness of history with the expectation that ‘cultural immersion’ of this sort will not only expand our knowledge of peoples and events but also enrich our experience by providing needed perspective, timely wisdom, apt warnings, and precious glimpses into the failings, the beauty, and the sheer complexity of the human condition.”

Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), p. 304.

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