Friday, February 8, 2013

A Book Review for you:

ok, it's been a while, but here is the latest bit of work from my Master's course: Spiritual Theology. enjoy!

In her book, By the Renewing of Your Minds: the Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, Ellen T. Charry endeavors to catalogue history for the purpose of demonstrating that theology should be about connecting people to God, not merely about philosophical method. She accomplishes this goal by highlighting some of the most influential characters that Christianity has in its family tree.

In order to approach this large task, Charry begins with the foundations of the Christian religion by pointing out the apostle Paul and some of his major pastoral applications. First, she demonstrates that Paul is more interested in how God changes people, than how people can better themselves. Following from this interest, he imparts at least three life-applications as part of his implied theological framework. First, he attributes all Christian excellence to divine action; that is, no man can be righteous in his own power. Then, he shows that Christian self-esteem should be grounded in a new identity in Christ as our new ontological reality. This is more than a title change and is, thus, in contrast to those Christians who would ask “are you saved?” or “are you born again?” as if a change of category title is all that is required. Finally, Paul leaves us the idea that a holistic Christian life is social; thus, there are no “lone-ranger” Christians because the life that we live is to be in imitation of a God who is not solitary, but actually exists within the community of himself.
Moving on from Pauline theology, Charry takes a look at the gospel of Matthew and his transmission of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The author points out that the righteousness that Matthew relates from Jesus’ teachings is grounded in the highest level of ethics. For him, righteousness is more than following a set of rules; instead it is shaping oneself into the mold of Christ so much so that one’s intentions are pure, not just one’s actions. This higher level of righteousness is proactive, not reactive by finding foundation in the practice of being others-focused. While Matthew could be accused of portraying Christ’s message in an overly individualistic way, what can be attributed to him is the success of taking a system that was focused on what a person was to do and reorienting it to the deeper purpose behind the rules; namely, what a person is supposed to be. The pastoral concept is that we are to be introspective enough to grow in the righteous standard of Christ.
Progressing through time, Charry examines Athanasius of Alexandria whose pastoral thrust was in the concept of Christ being our example and that he is constantly showing us how to direct our lives towards God. Athanasius taught that humanity was intended to have access to bodily resurrection from the get-go, but by self-degeneration via our own intellect, God revoked those privileges. Not content to watch humanity wallow in its own degeneracy, God implements a way back to himself by the example of Christ. Thus, salvation isn’t about completing an unfinished creation, but about restoring our correct identity and all that that identity entails including taking the model of the Father and the Son as exemplary for our own relationships.
Next to be examined is Basil of Caesarea who was very focused on catechizing his followers. He did so by treating his readers as high-minded seekers of knowledge of God. Basil appeals to the integrity and, perhaps, vanity of his parishioners by always lifting them up and concurrently providing guidance and instruction that they needed. Basil’s pastoral emphasis was for Christians to utilize the trinity as a model for Christian human relations. The mutual respect and cooperation between the members of the trinity is the blueprint for Christians and how they should grow together.
After Basil, we progress to taking a snap shot of the aretegenic leanings of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s pastoral goal, much like Athanasius’, was to help his readers learn to identify themselves in God. In contrast, however Augustine does this through shame and exposure of short-comings. Regrettably, the western obsession with the intricacies of salvation have largely obscured Augustine’s purpose of helping people see themselves as having the imago Dei. While Augustine could be accused of producing doctrine that are more or less unhelpful, it can be extrapolated from his writings that he would largely support the more practical means of coming to know God by way of associating oneself with Christ.
Charry progresses in her assessment by encountering Anselm of Canterbury next. Humble obedience is the staple for Anselm’s teachings and, under a penal substitution understanding of atonement, he points to Christ as the one who lowered himself so that we would learn how to lower ourselves. For Anselm, this means of growing in spiritual maturity is one that has echoed throughout history. The concept of becoming what one studies is obvious in other theologians such as the aforementioned Athanasius and Basil. The example of God as merciful master gives us a model for when we are in authority and the example of God as obedient servant gives us a model for when we are under authority.
Following Anselm, Charry goes on to assess St. Thomas and Dame Julian side by side. Thomas takes God’s actions on the cross to be more indicative of the synthesis between anger and love; specifically, that love should temper anger. He also takes a more legalistic approach to salvation theology in which salvation is more about righteousness than love. By contrast, Julian emphasizes the love of God and views the cross as an exercise in trust and love. She was so extreme in her position that she went as far as to challenge the classical understanding and state that God in fact has no anger at all. The pastoral application from these two understandings of Christ’s actions at the cross would be to find some amalgamation of the two views. Yes, the cross is about righteousness, but it is a righteousness born out of Gods loving nature.
Approaching the Protestant reformation, Charry ends her procession through Christian leaders with a look at reformed theologian and pastor, John Calvin. Calvin is notably aretegenic in all his writings. This is a difficult thing for modern readers to see at times because he does not shy away from using fear, guilt and shame as motivators toward righteousness. Most contemporary people understand these things to be primarily damaging, so the utilization of such human emotions has largely fallen out of practice. Calvin essentially makes the Christian life all about the individual and God, thus taking Augustine’s dependence on the Holy Spirit to an extreme level. He also approaches salvation as black and white: He sees everyone as either “in” or “out” of Christianity. Because of the unstable political and religious atmosphere, Calvin intended to show people why piety was still to be sought after. That is the bridge between what is arguably one of the staunchest set of doctrine in Christendom and the heart of a pastor.
In the examination of these Christian builders, we see how pastoral function has played a foundational role to all doctrine. Early theologians were not theorizing about how to do theology, they were merely responding to the world around them as they saw appropriate. This is why we should not leave theology as merely rhetorical theory, but instead we should connect it to our lives; that, as demonstrated by the shakers and movers of Christianity, is the purpose of theology. Our actions should flow out of a changed instinct that is oriented towards righteousness; they should not simply be a rational reaction that is filtered through a set of doctrine.
Going forward in my Christian leadership, I think that this book has helped me to grasp a large scale take of things. Looking at the history of theology is like taking a panoramic picture of a landscape; while there are many nuances – colors, shapes, action and stillness – there are still more themes that can be taken. Charry takes that panoramic picture and points to a specific theme that all life-giving Christian leaders would do well to note: understanding that pastoral function and theoretical theology must go hand-in-hand. In fact, they have never flourished apart from each other. This is my biggest lesson from this book and I hope to impart this concept to all who look to me as a leader.
The Dread

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