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By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine

por Ellen T. Charry

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This book develops the thesis that classical Christian theology seeks to help believers flourish by knowing and loving God. Ellen Charry argues this premise by example, offering a close reading of a number of classical texts, from the New Testament era to the Reformation, including works of Paul, Augustine, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Anselm, and Calvin. She points out the pastoral and moral aims that shape the teachings of these theologians on a wide range of topics, including the Trinity; human beings as created in the image of God; the incorporation of Jews and Gentiles into the body of Christ in baptism; the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ; and the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Charry explains that the very logic of their arguments is shaped by the author's concern for the goodness and happiness that should result from living into the doctrines. She further shows that although the spiritual and pastoral purposes of these writings are many and complex, they are invariably concerned to foster what modern people can, without difficulty, recognize as human dignity--what she calls "excellence"--in action, affection, and self-appraisal.… (mais)
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Given to Matthew Hayes - 05/04/2023
  revbill1961 | May 4, 2023 |
I think this is an important book, and I’m very glad it’s been written. I still believe it will prove useful for my research, though now that I’ve actually sat down with it, I’m a little disappointed.

I love that the Preface begins, “This book arose from reading classical texts of Christian theology slowly.” From that reading emerged the thesis that “when Christian doctrines assert the truth about God, the world, and ourselves, it is a truth that seeks to influence us” (viii). This would seem to be an uncontroversial statement, but Charry argues that, after the 17th century, modernity disjoined truth, beauty, and goodness, undermining the pastoral function of doctrine in the process.

To demonstrate her thesis, Charry examines a handful of “the most distrusted of Christian theologians,” looking at “unlikely texts for demonstrating the salutarity of doctrine.” Those figures include Athanasius, Basil the Great, Augustine, and Calvin. Some biblical themes and medieval theologians are also discussed, but, like a good academic, I skipped over the chapters that weren’t directly pertinent to me…

Earlier Christian tradition stressed sapience (not just knowledge, but engaged, emotionally attached knowledge) as the foundation of human excellence. Charry goes through each theologian to show how their writings attempted to form readers in Christian excellence, i.e. a life shaped by knowledge and love of God. She follows what she calls the “salutarity principle,” that “Christian doctrines function pastorally when a theologian unearths the divine pedagogy in order to engage the reader or listener in considering that life with the triune God facilitates dignity and excellence” (18). From the Greek, she also coins the terms aretology/aretegenic—“conducive to virtue.”

Of the patristic chapters, I liked the one on Basil of Caesarea the best. Charry gives a close reading of On the Holy Spirit to uncover Basil’s argument that spiritual transformation testifies to the truth of orthodox trinitarianism. For Basil, the language used about God in public worship must be theologically precise and accessible in order to be pastorally salutary. I really like how she uses an apparently theoretical work to demonstrate that dogmatic exegesis has practical ends (105). Though I agree that cognitive assent is only one part of what “sapience” entails, I didn’t completely follow how dogmatic exegesis goes as far as to help us “become loving by being loved” (115).

Her reading of Calvin is fairly sympathetic, all things considered. While she appreciates that Calvin wants Christians to take comfort in God’s love for them even though they deserve only wrath, she doesn’t think it effectively outweighs the Calvinist emphasis on self-despair (i.e. despairing of one's sins) and self-denial. In fact, she traces back to Augustine a shift of concern from sapience to the quest for certainty and assurance; i.e., before the medieval period really, the questions “does God love me?” and whether and how one’s sins can be forgiven were not foremost in people’s minds. While we might worry that an ancient Platonic worldview risks blurring the line between creator and creature, Charry sees the medieval rise of belief in enmity between humans and God as at least equally damaging. (Shockingly, I find the above claims problematic… :) )

All the same, this book is helpful for my purposes in its call for a renewal of a pastoral theology of doctrine, and its encouragement to read the Fathers in that light. Charry is clear that not all Fathers wrote “aretegenically” and that the answer for our day isn’t a wooden adaptation of their worldview(s). But she provides a helpful reminder of the Fathers’ eminently pastoral concerns and of how they understood the nature of the theological task and use of doctrine. I especially appreciate her comments (229) that moderns find the ancient use of Greek categories problematic because our epistemology doesn’t understand the relationship between happiness, goodness, and truth in the same way.

I’ll probably want to come back and mull over pp. 228-233 further. I can’t help but think there’s more to what the patristic writers were doing than “doctrine shows people that God is loving and thereby inspires them to practice virtue,” but I’ll need to do some more digging…
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  LudieGrace | Dec 4, 2013 |
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This book develops the thesis that classical Christian theology seeks to help believers flourish by knowing and loving God. Ellen Charry argues this premise by example, offering a close reading of a number of classical texts, from the New Testament era to the Reformation, including works of Paul, Augustine, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Anselm, and Calvin. She points out the pastoral and moral aims that shape the teachings of these theologians on a wide range of topics, including the Trinity; human beings as created in the image of God; the incorporation of Jews and Gentiles into the body of Christ in baptism; the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ; and the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Charry explains that the very logic of their arguments is shaped by the author's concern for the goodness and happiness that should result from living into the doctrines. She further shows that although the spiritual and pastoral purposes of these writings are many and complex, they are invariably concerned to foster what modern people can, without difficulty, recognize as human dignity--what she calls "excellence"--in action, affection, and self-appraisal.

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