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.


New Book by Michael Haykin: Tri-Unity: An Essay on the Biblical Doctrine of God

Tri-Unity: An Essay on the Biblical Doctrine of God

From the Publisher:

Early Christian contemplation on the Trinity is one of the most fascinating intellectual and spiritual conversations in the history of western thought.

In this new work by Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin on this bedrock doctrine of the Christian Faith, follow some of the greatest figures in the Ancient Church — men like the missionary theologian Ireanaeus of Lyons, the African bishop Athanasius and the monastic reformer Basil of Caesarea — as they study the Bible, grapple with how to talk about the Triune God and determine what exactly this means for the Christian life.

Their thinking is just as relevant now as it was when they first put pen to papyrus.

“What a rich story this is, and one the reader will understand and appreciate much better because of Haykin’s masterful work.” — Bruce A. Ware, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY

“Michael Haykin’s, with his impeccable scholarship, has produced a short, readable account that will help many to appreciate these struggles and to grow in their knowledge of God. Buy it, read it, give it to a friend.” — Robert Letham, Director of Research, Senior Tutor in Systematic and Historical Theology, Wales Evangelical School of Theology

“In a clear and learned way, Michael Haykin connects the Bible to Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers…” — Carl R. Trueman, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA

Product Details

Format: Paperback Language: English Publisher: NiceneCouncil.com Year: 2012 Pages: 75 ISBN: 098825480-8

Posted by Steve Weaver, Research Assistant to the Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin.

St. Patrick or Patrick the Christian saint

When judged from the vantage-point of the New Testament, the entire medieval project of elevating some Christians to the status of “saints” is an illegitimate undertaking. In that yardstick of Christianity, all believers are “saints,” set apart for God and declared holy by virtue of union with Christ. A number of these “saints” were, of course, remarkable Christians. Though not worthy of the elite status accorded by the medieval Church, they are still men and women with whom we should be acquainted. Take Patrick of Ireland, for example. A visit to New York City this past winter involved, as it often does when I go to Manhattan, a brief visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Christian after whom this imposing neo-Gothic edifice is named would be amazed at a lot of what goes on in this church: the Mariolatry, the votive candles for the dead, the statues (his own among them!)—how far removed from the Nicene Trinitarianism that Patrick took to Ireland.

While history has been enormously generous to Patrick—a patron saint celebrated by millions every March 17, for instance—it has also obscured the real man, who is found in one place: his two genuine writings, his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In these texts we see a man overwhelmed by the grace of his calling to be a minister of the gospel and a missionary to the Irish at the very edge of all the world that Patrick, a Romano-Brit, knew.

Get hold of those texts. Read them and be changed by his passions and his convictions.

Four fourth-century Christians in Roman Britain

Last fall, during a visit with Steve Weaver to the British Museum on September 14, I headed to one of my favorite places in the Museum, the room housing the exhibits of Roman Britain. While there, I was drawn especially to the Water Newton Treasure, a hoard of silver vessels, found in 1974 in the English county of Cambridgeshire. In the fourth century, the locale was known as Durobrivae, a fortified Roman garrison town. A number of the pieces were stamped with the familiar Christian chi-rho symbol, and the names of some of those who associated with the hoard were listed: Publianus, Amcilla, Innocentia and Viventia. I love finding lists like this: Who were these fourth-century believers? How had they come to Christ? What was their witness?

The Cappadocians and creating culture

Recently, my family and I had a tremendous vacation in Sarasota. Among the things I did, this one with my daughter Victoria, was to go downtown Sarasota, where I found in a fabulous bookstore, Parkers, on Main Street, a cloth copy of the gem by Jaroslav Pelikan: Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Yale University Press, 1993), in which he powerfully dissects the way the Cappadocians created a Christian culture for their day. I had a paper copy: it was great to get a cloth copy. For this book is a gem—and not simply because I am into the Cappadocians. It is extremely instructive. Wherever Christians gather over the course of time, they create a culture. This is inevitable since we are culture-creating creatures. And if we are not alert and vigilant, we will adopt the regnant culture of our society. Either we Christians are about transforming culture or it will transform us.

Case in point: the substitution of Mothers Day and Fathers Day for Pentecost and Trinity Sunday à la my recent post.

Reading Alexander Maclaren and how not to do history

We Evangelicals have a real problem in the way we do history and remember our own past. We highlight certain figures--the "great men" and the "great women"--in our past and the result is that we fail to understand often what God was doing in the given era which we are studying. For God never acts solely through one individual in the history of the church. We talk about Athanasius contra mundum, for instance, but what about Serapion of Thmuis, and Hilary of Poitiers, and Ossius of Cordoba, and Lucifer of Cagliari and Eustathius of Antioch and Meletius of Antioch and Epiphanius of Salamis. Tell me, why is only Athanasius remembered? Something is very odd here. I could mulitply numerous examples here. To be sure, one reason, for remembering Athanasius is all that he wrote. The other men just listed, apart from Hilary and Epiphanius, wrote little. But church history is not only about books, even though that is the medium by which we have access to it. Our path to the past we have confused with the past itself. Church history is not simply the story of great theologians talking to each other.

My recent excursion down this way of thinking happened recently when reading some of the sermons of Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910). I suddenly realized that the sermonic ability and achievements of CH Spurgeon overshadowed everyone else of that era, including Maclaren. But Maclaren is good, very good. Pick him up and read him.

Learning from St Patrick

Lest anyone think I forgot St Patrick's Day, I did wear green on the day (some friends urged me to wear orange, and one even black!!). But I wore green, which was also Jonathan Edwards' favourite colour and, Edwards was convinced, was God's favourite colour. No comment on that! I did offer some St Patrick's Day ideas before the day, like praying for the Irish. But also here is an excellent word on Patrick from my Dean, Dr. Moore: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Saint Patrick . A lot to learn here!

We believe in the Holy Spirit

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is the capstone of the doctrinal development of the Ancient Church as it relates to the Trinity. From a creedal standpoint what is unique about this text is the elaboration of the article about the Holy Spirit, which confesses the full deity of the Spirit by focusing on who he is—he is “Lord” and the One who proceeds from the Father—and what he does—he is “the Giver of life,” physical and especially spiritual, and the inspirer of those who wrote the Holy Scriptures. He is thus worthy of our heart’s adoration and worship along with the Father and the Son. And as such he must be fully God. The roots that gave rise to this confession are fully biblical ones, found first in passages that implicitly affirm him as God for he does what only God can do (e.g. Luke 1:35; Acts 10:38; Matthew 12:28; Hebrews 9:14; Romans 8:10–11; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2:10­–12; 2 Corinthians 3:6, 17–18) and then in Scripture texts that rank him alongside the Father and the Son, so again implying his deity (Titus 3:4–7; 1 Corinthians 12:4–6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Revelation 1:4–5; Matthew 28:19). The later expansion of this article of the Creed in the early Middle Ages by Latin-speaking theologians and churchmen, namely the assertion that proceeds “from the Father and the Son”—what is called the “Filioque”—is a biblically motivated assertion for it seeks to affirm the central truth of the New Testament that the Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of Christ (see Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 3:17).

John Gill and Basil of Caesarea

Ove the past few weeks I have been sourcing patristic citations from Basil of Caesarea mostly (but today also Gregory of Nazianzus) in John Gill's The Cause of God and Truth, and I cannot find any of them! It has been an extremely frustrating experience. Gill is citing these Fathers to defend the perspective that the so-called five points of Calvinism have a much earlier heritage than the Reformation and post-Refomation theologians. Methdological concerns aside, it appears that Gill at times made paraphrases from the writings of Basil. I have been combing through the Greek and am so frustrated with coming up with not one quote that I can confirm in Basil's corpus.

Thankfully, one of my PhD students, Steven Godet, is working on this very matter, and will provide answers!

Addendum (added Feb 26/2010): Have actually found three or four citations in the past three hours. Generally ok, but some of the quotes are paraphrases.

The Ancient Church Fathers: senior partners in a conversation

I vividly remember a conversation in the early 1990s I had with a person transitioning from Fundamentalism to something further to the left theologically. It was, for me, a defining moment. The topic of the Nicene Creed had been raised and this individual stated that such a document was of no authority in his life since it was written by men and had no divine input. Such a statement then and now strikes me as both arrogant and false. It fails to understand the profound biblical import of the document concerned. Also at one fell swoop, the entire cast of characters in the history of the Church is disposed of and all that matters is the individual’s own mind and his or her Bible. Of course, I know where this person was coming from: nuda Scriptura, which is essentially an exaltation of autonomy at the expense of all tradition that ultimately leads to a radical individualism well-nigh indistinguishable from a Paine or Emerson—well, the individual would have given this caveat, a commitment to biblical authority. Essentially, though, his view was crafted in the same crucible that saw the rise of the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons and the entire nineteenth-century reaction against a learned ministry.

The inimitable Victorian Baptist Charles H. Spurgeon, though, well answered this errant position: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” [Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1].

And, if I were to have that discussion today, I would ask the person to ponder these wise words of J.I. Packer: “Tradition--is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it. I am bold to say that evangelicals, even those of Anabaptist polity, should be turned by their own belief in the Spirit as the Church’s teacher into men of tradition, and that if we all dialogued with Christian tradition more we should all end up wiser than we are. [“Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 25 (1982), 414].

How then to read the Ancient Church Fathers in whose era the Nicene Creed was framed? As Evangelicals who adhere to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (something quite different from nuda Scriptura), we cannot read them as authorities alongside Holy Scripture. But we cannot utterly discard them either. Rather, just as the Bible admonishes us to honour the aged among us, so we need to consider the Fathers as senior conversation partners in our theological task—as Packer says, “not infallible, but neither…negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard” them.