Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Daniel J. Treier

Let the Dead Heal Us

Recovering the pastoral motivation of classical Christian theology.

By the Renewing of Your Minds

By the Renewing of Your Minds

By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine
by Ellen T. Charry
Oxford Univ. Press, 1997
280 pp.; $17.95

By the time "Donald" was 16 years old, he had ten years of Christian influence through his foster parents. Yet, although he was thoroughly conversant with Scripture, his adolescence was dominated by drugs. He broke into his foster parents' house in search of some money he had hidden, got into a fight with his foster mother, and bludgeoned and suffocated her to death. Now serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, he makes weekly calls—"trying to figure out what happened and who he is"—to Ellen Charry, a longtime friend who was also a friend of his foster mother.

In her professional life Charry teaches systematic and historical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and is coeditor of of the journal Theology Today. Her book By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine is dedicated to Donald.

Although Charry's book was published fairly recently, it has already assumed the status of a contemporary classic, one of those books that influence a generation of students. The suggestion of the subtitle—that Christian doctrine ought to shape one's living—may seem unremarkable, even banal. But at a time when the gap between theology and the life of the church is wider than ever before, Charry offers a powerful corrective. Academically rigorous and informed by a deep knowledge of Christian tradition, her book never forgets about Donald.

The Pastoral Motivations of Classical Christian Theology

Charry was reading Aquinas when she noticed statements with a pastoral intent in the midst of his theological formulations. As she worked backward through various theologians, she realized that this pattern was no happenstance; classical theologians actually believed that God forms us to be excellent persons by our knowing him. Moreover, classical theologians believed that happiness is tied to virtuous character.

As a result, Charry undertook a more thorough study of what motivated these theologians to formulate doctrine. Along the way, "a constructive thesis emerged: when Christian doctrines assert the truth about God, the world, and ourselves, it is a truth that seeks to influence us." To support this thesis, she selected Matthew, Paul, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and John Calvin—"precisely," as she puts it, "the most distrusted of Christian theologians. … who are now widely regarded as useless or harmful." (Here one must recall the setting in which Charry is writing.) In each case, a multitude of citations will demonstrate that their theological creativity pulsated with pastoral urgency.

For instance, Matthew's Gospel contains an intricate portrayal of Christ as the fulfillment of various Old Testament hopes and constructs a new understanding of righteousness radically opposed to that of the Pharisees. Yet the purpose was not academic: Matthew wanted Jews to be God's chosen people in terms of living the Beatitudes, not relying on Jewish birth. Hermeneutically, they were to follow Jesus Christ, rather than the Pharisees, as the authoritative interpreter of the Torah. Thereby they would believe righteousness to be accessible, they would learn how to extrapolate from the Torah for a variety of situations, and they would gain dignity by leading other-centered lives.

To take an extracanonical example, Athanasius's dogged commitment to defeating Arianism was no mere intellectual exercise. For Athanasius, God called humanity to live in accord with the beauty and order of his creation. But, bound by sin and its effects, we are unable to do so; therefore, Christ must break through our fear to reveal God and his ordered goodness. Without the truth of incarnation—God breaking through—we could not experience God's vision as Athanasius saw it; hence, Arianism had to lose, and Athanasius had to fight.

Charry sustains her argument well throughout, even regarding theologians such as Aquinas, whose pastoral intentions might surprise some of us. Indeed, those who do not find pastoral value in the Christian tradition will receive a double cure in By the Renewing of Your Minds: not only has Charry rigorously documented the pastoral dimension of classical Christian theology, but also she has shown that this pastoral function is not an unintended consequence. Virtue is neither an occasional nor accidental side-effect of good theology; pastoral relevance is the heartbeat and lifeblood of the Christian tradition. We are commonly told that we ought to study great theology in order to gain truth and apply it. Charry issues an even greater challenge: we ought to study great theologians because they have already applied the truth, and because they discovered truth out of a motivation to apply it!

The Rejection of Classical Christian Theology

Urging that we must "let the dead speak to us," Charry endeavors to explain and oppose the modern rejection of classical theology's value. She explores premodern epistemology and its notion of sapience, or wisdom. Prior to the Enlightenment's elevation of detached objectivity, knowledge could be acquired by an interested seeker and would affect the knower's living. The ancients would have been puzzled to hear that knowledge and practice do not reinforce each other.

But while Charry traces the flawed assumptions of Enlightenment rationality, and seems quite pleased that the trusses of modernity have collapsed on themselves, unable to bear their own weight, she does not embrace a postmodern relativism or a naive appeal to the past. She proposes an alternative via an analogy between the practices of theology and medicine. If Christianity is a sort of therapy, reconstructing what persons ought to be and can become, then Christian theology is a great deal like medicine. But isn't medicine based on science, real knowledge, verifiable, in stark contrast to theology? Not so fast, Charry says: "theology and medicine both require three elements working harmoniously, only one of which is hard science. Both rely on experimental knowledge which is open to revision; both use inferential knowledge based on accumulated cases; and both employ clinical judgment."

In joining the two via analogy, Charry proposes a "cautious critical theological realism": "While the parallels do not mesh in every detail, I think the similarities are close enough to suggest that grounds for trust in the power of God to effect spiritual transformation need be no more stringent than grounds for trust in modern medicine." To flesh out the parallels further, medicine and theology both require judgment as well as information, and that judgment relies heavily on inferential reasoning from accumulated experience. A final parallel regards the need for trust and obedience: "Often there are several courses of treatment that could be tried, and the decision may not always rest with the physician, or even with the patient, but with the patient's family (or a clerk in a managed care company)." More than knowledge and judgment are involved in healing, then, and elements of risk and uncertainty cannot be overcome.

Whether or not we concede that theology is more mysterious than medicine, the basic point of the analogy stands. Medicine, a paragon of our ultra-modern society, has its subjective side. Accordingly, we need not win a hearing for sapiential theology by trying to deny its subjectivity. Instead, we may argue that "clinical medicine and theology both employ a soft rationalism whose findings are useful even if they later need to be adjusted in light of subsequent cases or information." Moderns ought to approach the Christian tradition sympathetically, ready to trust and obey, and find there healing for their souls.

The Recovery of Classical Christian Theology

What, then, should be the relationship of Christian theology to character formation? Today neither the academy nor the church operates from a classical conception of the theological task. On the one hand, the academy prizes detached objectivity whereas, claims Richard Muller, pre-Enlightenment theology never arose apart from the church's religious life.[1] On the other hand, today's church clamors for seminaries to emphasize practice in theological training and to define practice in terms of ministry technique.

Various responses are emerging to the tension between the academy and the church regarding how to define theology and the theological task. In his now-famous Theologia and subsequent work, Edward Farley pioneered one stream, which criticizes "a contemporary scholarship that is specialized to the point of triviality, preoccupied with technologies of method and with reworking already surfeited subjects with ever more ingenious procedures."[2] Farley does not reject critical study in theology, but rather wants to see it integrated in a theological education oriented toward the cultivation of wisdom (paideia).

In response, David Kelsey has argued that critical methodologies ultimately can't be fully integrated with the paideia approach. A theological school, Kelsey says, cannot equally serve the church's interest in forming spiritual leaders and the academy's interest in forming critical inquirers who just want to know. Each approach needs the critique of the other to avoid imbalance, but inherent tensions make them fundamentally incompatible.[3]

Faced with this impasse, Charry proposes that we circumvent some pathological, peculiarly modern forms of critical inquiry. Theology, according to the classical approach resurfacing in her work, ought to be "aretegenic," virtue-shaping, from the Greek word arete. (It's a clumsy term, but the meaning is straightforward.) She laments the academy's fragmentation of theology into various disciplines, for in the classical texts "evangelism, catechesis, moral exhortation, dogmatic exegesis, pastoral care, and apologetics were all happening at the same time."

At this point the analogy between theology and medicine raises a potential objection: what about a theological parallel to research laboratories? Surely a great deal of pharmacological research is undertaken from detached professional interest, without firsthand exposure to practicing medicine. Whether this makes room for a form of theological research isolated from pastoral, virtue-producing ministry, or whether we have pushed Charry's analogy past its breaking point, remains food for thought. Regardless, to follow in the classical Christian tradition, all theologizing ought to operate on a "salutarity principle": how will the resulting theology transform people's virtue and therefore their flourishing?

And herein lies the prophetic value of Charry's work for the church. A truly practical theology is not about, first of all, meeting "needs"—certainly not "felt" needs, at least. The church's mistake does not lie in its demand that theology be relevant, but in its faulty definition of relevance. Genuine relevance lies in producing virtue, for God's sake and then, as a result, for our own sake.

At a number of points throughout the book, Charry suggests that, beginning in the medieval period, Western theology shifted the Christian focus away from God-given virtue and dignity to issues of guilt and shame. Divine wrath was construed as the dominant activity of an implacable and emotionally immature God. Thus, in the Reformation, faith became the means of overcoming feared divine rejection, while the cultivation of virtue was marginalized. Heirs of the Reformers must cautiously appraise this subtheme, which drew considerable discussion from a panel of reviewers at the November 1998 meeting of the American Academy of Religion. If Charry is correct, then certain theological and pastoral implications, even for presenting the gospel, follow—particularly the need for a renewed emphasis on virtue, given by God and modeled by God.[4]

Post-Enlightenment humanity, both inside and outside the church, disdains the Christian tradition as a toxin rather than a balm that restores persons to excellence. Through Charry's book, the dead beg for a fresh hearing, so that Donald and the rest of us might virtuously flourish. Perhaps such a recovery of Christian theology's "salutarity principle" will reduce malpractice claims and restore healing efficacy to the church.

Daniel J. Treier is assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College.


1. The Study of Theology: From Biblical Interpretation to Contemporary Formulation, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation (Zondervan, 1991), p. 156.

2. The Fragility of Knowledge: Theological Education in the Church and University (Fortress Press, 1988), p. 15; see also Theologia: The Fragmentation and Unity of Theological Education (Fortress Press, 1983) and the essays edited by Farley and Barbara G. Wheeler in Shifting Boundaries: Contextual Approaches to the Structure of Theological Education (Westminster/John Knox, 1991).

3. To Understand God Truly: What's Theological about a Theological School (Westminster/John Knox, 1992); Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate (Eerdmans, 1993).

4. Other recent books that are especially important for theology and theological education include Robert Banks, Reenvisioning Theological Education: Exploring a Missional Alternative to Current Models (Eerdmans, 1999), and Reinhard Hutter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice, trans. Doug Stott (Eerdmans, 2000). When connected to Charry's work, they generate questions about virtue formation and the gospel vis-a-vis the nature of theology. Specifically, must theology and theological education aim at virtue only indirectly, by being primarily situated in Christian mission or within church practices?

Most ReadMost Shared