Ellen Charry and Implications for Historiography

By Ryan Patrick Hoselton

Ellen Charry’s work, By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (1997), is among those rare gems that challenge you to consider a serious paradigm shift in the way you do theology. Even more, I think her arguments have implications for historiography.

Charry contends for the restoration of theology that is sapiential (which she understands as knowledge that emotionally engages the knower to the known), aretegenic, and salutary. She attempts to show that the best Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation theologians thought, wrote, and spoke about God in this way. Theologians such as Basil of Caesarea, Anselm of Canterbury, and John Calvin insisted on correct doctrine—on knowing God accurately—because it was conducive to moral transformation and flourishing in the Christian life. Knowing and loving God rightly enables authentic imitation of him, and this is the key to human virtue, excellence, and happiness. Thus, pastoral concern drove their theological reflection and engagement in doctrinal controversy.

The modernism of Locke, Hume, and Kant severed faith and sapience from reason, eliminating both from the category of knowledge. Charry suggests that these epistemic shifts facilitated the waning of sapience from theology. Modern academic theology, preoccupied with pursuing knowledge of God on the terms of this modern epistemology, reduced theological reflection to factual knowledge, scientias. However, for classical theologians like Augustine, the goal of scientias was to move the knower to sapientia, wisdom.Knowing factual things about God must be paired with knowing God in wisdom and love. The verity of a doctrine rests largely in its result. For example, Basil of Caesarea argued that the Holy Spirit must be God on the basis that he makes us more like God and unites us to him—only God can do that. Basil contended for this doctrine because he believed that if his congregants denied it they would not grow in godliness. These classical theologians did not separate scientias and sapientia in the way that the modern Academy often does. For them, theology and pastoral theology were synonymous. Their doctrinal battles and treatises functioned primarily to protect and promote their congregants’ holiness.

Charry’s thesis applies to church historians as well. Treatments in historical theology that are limited to broad sweeps of ideologies could fall into the modern trap of severing scientias from sapientia. Historians must avoid imposing this modernist separation on past theological thought. Church historians are responsible for uncovering the pastoral concerns that lie behind the subject’s theological reflection. As Robert Darnton says, the point is “to show not merely what people thought but how they thought—how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion” (Darnton, 1985, 3). The historian must investigate the relationship between a theologian’s ideas and his behavior, shepherding, and spirituality. This kind of historiography will assist theologians and pastors in understanding why historic Christian doctrines mattered and still matter to the lives of believers.


Ryan Patrick Hoselton is pursuing a ThM at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife Jaclyn, and they are expecting their first child in August.