Drama of the Divine Economy: Creator and Creation in Early Christian Theology

Written by Paul Blowers Reviewed By Jonathan Bailes

Although there are numerous studies that analyze various aspects of early Christian theologies of creation—such as cosmological models of the God-world relation, the development of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and early Christian interpretations of Genesis 1–2—what Paul Blowers achieves in this recent book is unique. Instead of restricting himself to a specific aspect or expression of early Christian theology on creation, Blowers widens the scope of his study and provides a panoramic view of what he refers to as the “early Christian vision of creation” (p. 5). Patristic theological reflection on this vision, as he argues throughout the book, cannot be isolated from further reflection on the identity and action of the Creator, the drama and experience of salvation, and the “performance” of Christian faith in liturgical, sacramental, ethical, and ascetical practices. The comprehensive approach that Blowers pursues, then, is meant to illustrate the interconnected nature of these various themes in early Christianity and their “pastoral function” in shaping Christian identity and practice (p. 5).

Following a very thorough outline of the book’s contents in the introduction, chapters two and three analyze both Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish approaches to cosmology and cosmogony as important backdrops for early Christian theology. Blowers dismisses any attempt to analyze early Christian thought according to a strict Hellenic/Hebraic distinction, and argues that both streams provided both inspiration and material for critique. The Greco-Roman cosmological tradition, for instance, not only offered a philosophical sparring partner for early Christians, but also served as an inspirational stimulus for Christian theological reflection through themes such as teleology, creationism, and the “first principles” of the universe. Similarly, while Hellenistic-Jewish cosmology ultimately fell short of the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, it also bequeathed important exegetical insights to later Christian theology, such as the mediatorial role of wisdom and the “double creation” interpretation of Gen 1–2.

In chapter four, Blowers examines the “narrative framework” that typified the theology of creation in the New Testament and how that framework was appropriated in the second and third century as theologians began to appeal to a “Rule of Faith” in establishing normative doctrinal positions against the competing worldviews of Marcion and the Gnostic traditions. Importantly, what was at stake in these competing understandings of Creator and creation was more than a doctrine of creation. In the same way that early Christian cosmology was embedded within the larger drama of salvation and informed Christian practice, so too the cosmological schemes of Marcion and the Gnostics were intertwined with alternative narratives of salvation and competing liturgical, sacramental, and ethical practices (p .96).

Chapters five and seven, the “dual centers of gravity” (p. 8) for the book, offer a survey of patristic interpretations of important scriptural texts—chapter five focuses on patristic readings of Gen 1–3 and chapter seven on the Psalms, wisdom literature, Isaiah, and the New Testament. In his analysis of Christian interpretation of Genesis, Blowers argues that the common distinction between “literal” and “spiritual” senses proves unhelpful and, in its place, makes a genre distinction between “analytical” and “doxological” literature. Even in the more precise “analytical” commentaries, however, Christians did not hesitate to interpret the Genesis account of creation in light of a Trinitarian understanding of God and the broader scriptural narrative of salvation, nor was their engagement with Genesis divorced from Isaiah’s prophecy of new creation or the New Testament’s testimony to the role of Christ in creation, thus contributing to what Blowers describes as a theologically literal interpretation. While the illustrations given show interpretive disagreements, they also reinforce Blowers’s central claim: early Christian theology of creation was not a “tidy intellectual or exegetical evolution driven by questions of cosmogony or philosophical cosmology,” but emerged rather as Christians perceived that “Scripture was in an extensive conversation with itself, as it were, about the relation of Creator and creation” (p. 241).

Chapters six and eight each deal with specific theological themes in the doctrine of creation. In chapter six, Blowers analyzes the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and various Christian attempts to reconcile the eternal Creator with a temporal creation through the framework of a “simultaneous” and “double” creation, focusing especially on Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor. Chapter eight, meanwhile, makes a compelling argument that early Christian theology not only affirmed the mediatorial roles of Christ and the Holy Spirit in creation, but also shaped its understanding of creation through the various aspects of the Son’s salvific work: his birth, baptism, miracles, death, descent into hell, resurrection, and ascension. This chapter does an excellent job at reinforcing one of the book’s main themes, that the doctrine of creation was not simply a doctrine about “beginnings” or “ends”, but about “the triune Creator’s whole strategy . . . in the great ‘middle’ or ‘history’ of creation” (p. 307).

Until this point in the book, Blowers has been primarily focused on analyzing the place of creation in the exegetical and theological framework of early Christianity, but in chapter nine, entitled “Performing the Faith,” he returns to its place in Christian practice. Once again, this chapter does not offer a comprehensive account of its subject, but does provide a very helpful overview of the “pastoral function” of a theology of creation in the discipline of contemplation, liturgical and sacramental practice, and the formation of Christian ethics. Following this, Blowers ends the book with a short epilogue that brings the patristic reflection on creation into conversation with modern advocates of a “dramatic” approach to theology, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Kevin Vanhoozer.

The broad scope of the book, which is probably its most important contribution, brings with it certain methodological limitations and weaknesses. For example, other than his brief surveys of Nyssen, Augustine, and Maximus, Blowers never gives sustained attention to the particular “vision” of an individual theologian, nor does he provide prolonged engagement with specific texts. Further, while Blowers is certainly correct in arguing that the doctrine of creation was not a “tidy intellectual development,” the doctrine did develop, often in response to specific polemical situations. For the most part, the book does not situate the theology of early Christianity in the context of such intellectual debates, chapter four being an exception.

These limitations notwithstanding (no book can accomplish everything a reader wishes), Blowers’s excellent study will undoubtedly become a standard reference on the theology of creation in early Christianity. Despite its broad scope, this book is not just a survey, but also makes a compelling argument that patristic theologians developed their understanding of creation through sustained engagement with Scripture and within the broader framework of their doctrine of God, salvation, and a life of worshipful and obedient response to the Creator. This theme makes the book particularly important for contemporary (and especially evangelical) theology, which, in its debates over “origins,” runs the risk of isolating the doctrine of creation from this broader theological framework. While the steep price of the publisher will unfortunately keep this book out of most private libraries, it is to be highly recommended for advanced students and scholars of early Christianity and theology alike.

Jonathan Bailes

Jonathan Bailes
Boston College
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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