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.

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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.

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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