Review: Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds

This book, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, is published by Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, 245 pages.

Stan Cox is pastor of Paris Presbyterian Church in Paris, ON.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

That put-down rightly backhands a lot of what passes for theology. But, according to Ellen Charry, Margaret W. Harmon Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, the smirking question knocks over a straw man.

In Charry's wonderfully rich tour through several Christian theologians who taught in the tradition of classic orthodoxy, she shows clearly that the task of Christian theology at its best has always been to enable the flourishing of human excellence by promoting people's enjoyment of God.

How do ordinary people participate joyfully in the life of God? That's the question that doctrines such as the Trinity and the two natures of Jesus Christ were meant to answer. God's purpose for his creation and for people in particular, is to guide us into the unique and joyful life than can be ours when we are engulfed by God's Holy Spirit. Charry takes us by the hand through the writings of Paul, Augustine, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Anselm, Aquinas, Dame Julian of Norwich, Calvin and others, documenting their pastoral commitment to the conviction expressed by Augustine, that "God . . . had first to assure us of how much he loves us before we could allow him to teach us." Faithful teaching is meant to enable us to see that our turning to God would be a homecoming, and not an entry into an alien space.

One of the threads running through classic orthodox teaching is that goodness and joy will result from living Christian doctrine, and in turn, will shape that teaching itself. So the pastoral function of Christian doctrine is to foster human excellence in action, affection, and self-appraisal, by nourishing our enjoyment of God.

In the process of Charry's careful examination, the much maligned teachers such as Paul, Augustine, Calvin, and others, are shown in the warmer light of what they really taught. Instead of despising them as useless or even harmful, Charry hears them explicating and asserting the "truth about God, the world, and ourselves," and Christian doctrine as "truth that seeks to influence us."

Just as believers during Old Testament and New Testament times, we're surrounded and hounded by diverse visions of what it means to be human — some of them contradictory to centuries of what God's people have believed and taught, and some of them sponsored, cheered, and pressed on the church by people who should know better. So you'll understand Charry's wisdom in insisting that "theology must again become a normative and not simply a descriptive discipline. It must take a position on what an excellent life looks like." Could it be that this is what is at stake in some of the conflicts about "alternative" life-styles that wrack the church chronically?

Read this book. But keep your dictionary close by. Be ready to learn or re-learn words like "sapiential," "aretegenic," and "salutarity." If you hang in there, you'll find reaffirmed that bedrock conviction of Scripture that, in Charry's words, "God is not only good to us, but good for us."