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On the Function of Christian Doctrine

Ellen T. CHARRY. By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 264 pp. $17.95.

Ellen T. Charry is Margaret W. Harmon Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. As George Lindbeck notes in the foreword, she is “one of the first in a new generation of theologians” to explore the inseparability of the “cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions” of faith (p. xiii). The disjunction between faith and reason, between theology and spirituality, between academy and church has reigned since the Enlightenment. Postmodernism, and specifically postliberal theology, has undermined these dichotomies and theology is only beginning to explore the implications of this new horizon.

Charry, however, argues that this new horizon is actually an old art. The bifurcation of theology and spirituality is a relatively new phenomenon. Premodern Christians explicitly rejected theology as a solely scientific (cognitive) discipline. On the contrary, Christian doctrine serves the goal of moral transformation and developing moral excellence. Charry examines some pre-seventeenth century theologians, especially those “who are now widely regarded as useless or harmful,” in order understand how they viewed theology as intended “to shape readers for the good life” (pp. viii-ix). Through investigating premodern writers, Charry critiques modern theology from a postmodern perspective. Listening to the past enables contemporary readers to examine their own prejudices and limitations.

Charry’s book is interdisciplinary, and this is consistent with her holistic understanding of theology. Her book is biblical, historical and systematic theology that serves the goal of “aretegenic” reflection. “Aretegenic” is a neologism which means “conducive to virtue” (p. 19). The heart of Charry’s contribution is her attempt to find a place for theology in the process of character formation.

Charry divides her book into six sections. First, she introduces her thesis: Christian doctrine ought to shape virtues and connect with the lives of believers. Christian doctrine is not esoteric metaphysics, but theological reflection that shapes praxis. Theologically, we come to understand that God is good for us and therefore the life to which he calls us is good for us as well (p. 29).

Second, she explores the aretegenic function of Paul’s theology and the Matthean Sermon on the Mount. Paul’s aretegenic theology roots moral transformation in divine action and our participation in the divine community. Paul’s theological purpose was to “strengthen Christian identity…by helping [readers] grasp the dignity accomplished for them by Christ.” Matthew’s aretegenic theology calls for an other-centered righteousness which embodies the character of God (stressing being rather than doing).

Third, Carry explores the aretegenic function of theology in three patristic writers: Athanasius, Basil and Augustine. For Athanasius, Christ’s homoousios with us and God is no metaphysical construct but is the ground of both the medium and the message of God’s goodness whereby we are restored to “our true nature” and God provides us “with the standard of human excellence” (p. 99). Basil’s pneumatological homoousios serves the function of reminding readers that “the Spirit empowers and perfects the strength of character revealed by the Son” (p. 118). And Augustine’s trinitarianism (which is defended over against recent rejections by Rahner and LaCugna) has the “aretegenic goal” to establish “the seeker’s identity as arising from the being of God” (p. 147) so as to recognize in ourselves the imago Dei and thereby to ground our character in his life and community (Trinity).

Fourth, Charry explores the aretegenic function of theology in Anselm, Aquinas and Dame Julian. Anselm reflects on incarnation and atonement in order lead us to mercy and justice. Aquinas explores a theology of anger tempered by love. Theology functions aretegenicly in both Anselm and Aquinas, but they represent a turn in medieval piety toward the question, “How can I ever be certain that God loves me?” (p. 153). This moves away from the Patristic interest in the character-shaping function of the indwelling God. Consequently, medieval theology turned more to the salutarity function of the death of Christ rather than its character-forming function. Julian, however, retains the Patristic emphasis even though her reflections are rooted in the Passion of Christ whose act is a testimony of love unmixed with wrath.

Fifth, Charry explores the aretegenic function of Calvin’s theology. Despite Calvin’s predestinarianism (which has a aretegenic function itself—assurance, confidence, and motivation) and his negative view of the fallen human being, Calvin represents a return to some Patristic themes, particularly, “moral personhood is shaped by knowing God” (p. 197). The knowledge of self and God are intertwined. One cannot know one’s self without knowing God. The function of theology in Calvin is to enhance godliness, not to speculate about the eternity of God.

Sixth, Charry concludes her work with a summarizing and programmatic essay. She summarizes her historical work as a launching pad for suggesting an appropriate direction for contemporary theology. Theology must overcome the intellectual and pastoral bifurcation of the modern world. The two aspects are indivisible. Theology is an invitation to seek God wherein one find’s certainty. It is not a quest for certainty (either in rationality or in answering the Angst of whether God loves me or not). It is a quest to know God in order to know ourselves and who we should be. Charry calls for a renewal of “sapiental theology” (p. 235).

Charry’s book is insightful, engaging and reflective. Her call for theology to serve as a norm again—theology must not only be descriptive but also prescriptive about “what an excellent life looks like” (p. 239)—is encouraging. But this call is not simply cognitive or academic, it is affective and pastoral. Contemporary theologians must once again, as did premodern theologians, see themselves as pastors who help people “find their identity in God” (p. 239).

Her agenda is refreshing. Theology is not metaphysical speculation, but applied story with the intent of character formation. As Paul told Titus, if we will teach Christian doctrine, then the Christian community will be full of good works (Titus 3:8). But this theological art must be practiced with the intention of character-formation rather than cognitive exercises. Theologians pay heed. Writing and teaching theology must be aretegenic if it is to be biblical. Reading Charry’s book is a good place to orient ourselves to that task.

First printed in the Fall 2000 issue of the Stone-Campbell Journal.


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