Shouldn’t We Expect More From Theology?

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

The purpose of Christian Doctrine ought to be the formation and reformation of one’s character – the production of excellent persons. This is the vision that Ellen T. Charry had in mind when writing By the Renewing of Your Minds. It is a vision that she maintains has been largely lost by today’s theologians. Her modest goal is to reestablish the salutary (beneficial) nature of theology. She seeks to do this by highlighting a variety of past theologians (all of whom wrote prior to the seventeenth century), who exemplify this unity of pastor and scholar. She does not simply want to reawaken the reader to voices that have been largely neglected by moderns; she desires to distill a pattern which can be used to guide us in returning theology to its pastoral role.

The role of many of the great theologians of the past was not simply to formulate and elaborate on the meaning of doctrine, but to use it (and present it) in the same way as a pastor. Today’s church sees the pastor as the one who exhorts, evangelizes, comforts and heals; this is not how most view the theologian. Modern theology has lost its practical and affective aspects, focusing solely on the intellectual justification of Christian Doctrine. It has become too scientific. As a result, it is detached, lifeless and impractical. Once theologians and their work become irrelevant, so too does Christian Doctrine. This is not how it should be. Truth, especially truth about God, ought to have an impact. Doctrine, by definition, should be pastoral.

In the first chapter, Charry attempts to counteract much of the ideas that have led to the separation of theology from pastoral function. She maintains that while knowledge precedes character (character reform requires a renewing of the mind), practice is also needed. Expounding on knowledge is not sufficient. Knowledge must be coupled with practice; it must be engaged if it is to truly result in developing excellence. Charry refers to this as sapience. She then takes the reader through the ideas of the three leading figures who have contributed most to the loss of sapiential theology: Locke, Hume and Kant. She follows this critique by utilizing clinical medicine as an example of how knowledge and science can (and should) go hand in hand with trust. In the case of the medical practitioner, knowledge is useless without practice (the application of the knowledge). Returning to her initial epistemic thoughts, medical knowledge must precede medical practice, but medical practice in turn enhances and refines medical knowledge. She further drives home her point by turning to literature as an example of written work that contributes greatly to moral formation. Just as literature is aretegenic (conducive to virtue), so too should be theology. Of course, whereas literature utilizes characters and real-life scenarios to form and reform, Doctrine goes beyond these aspects and is far more effective than literature; this due largely to the work of the Holy Spirit and communal practices within the body of Christ.

In the final chapter of the book, Charry looks back on the theologians she has presented in chapters two through nine to analyze the process and principles they utilized in developing sapiential theology. She does not want us to simply re-read these great theologians; we must follow their lead. Key to this is her admonition for theologians to reconnect the concepts of truth and goodness, both in their thinking and in their writing. Theologians must also come to see themselves as pastors and spiritual directors. Once they do this, Christian Doctrine will regain its relevance and speak anew to the Church.

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