Early Christian Readings of Genesis One: Patristic Exegesis and Literal Interpretation

Written by Craig Allert Reviewed By Gavin Ortlund

This book is a call for responsible and accurate usage of the church fathers in contemporary engagement with the doctrine of creation. Allert notes how easy it is for modern readers to engage in superficial readings of the church fathers, driven by the concerns and needs of the contemporary debate. As he puts it, “we cannot simply parachute into the context of the Fathers and disregard it by plucking out quotations that appear to support our conclusion” (p. 158). Allert is particularly burdened by what he argues are misrepresentative appeals to the church fathers among creation science advocates. This concern frames the book (pp. 3–4). He draws particular attention to the dangers of proof-texting, selective quotation, eisegesis, and overgeneralization. In contrast to these approaches, Allert argues that we must seek to understand the church fathers in their own context and in relation to their own concerns, which he recognizes is a challenging and consuming task. But, as he emphasizes as well, it is a rewarding one.

Chapter 1 provides a broad introduction to the church fathers, and a case for their importance, drawing from others who have made this case, like Bryan Litfin, D. H. Williams, Robert Webber, and Christopher Hall. This is a helpful overview that readers may benefit from even if they have no interest in the creation debate specifically. In this chapter Allert is especially helpful on the usage of the rule of faith in the early church, the slow development of the canon during the patristic age, and our indebtedness to the fathers in our understanding of Scripture.

Chapter 2 describes how creationist groups misuse the church fathers. Allert’s language against this practice is sharp: he is “appalled” (p. 4); it is “shameful” (p. 109); one example is “glaring” (p. 55). Although at times it is perhaps debatable whether the strength of the argument justifies the strength of the language (e.g., the survey of young-earth and old-earth argumentation on pp. 55–59), Allert has identified a real problem and is right to push back against it.

Moreover, Allert’s own engagement with the church fathers is detailed and informative. This is particularly seen in chapters 3–4, where he explores what the church fathers meant by the “literal” meaning of Scripture (focusing on Basil’s Hexaemeron specifically in ch. 4). Here Allert demonstrates that the fathers’ understanding of “literal” meaning is far more complicated than what contemporary young-earth creationists mean by this term. He rightly opposes the neat opposition of the church fathers into the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of thought (e.g., pp. 123–24), as well as the overly simple breakdown of “literal” and “allegorical” hermeneutical approaches among the fathers. Essential to this point is the observation that the fathers’ conception of the Bible’s “literal” meaning was flexible enough to frequently embrace various “spiritual” and “allegorical” levels of meaning within it. Allert documents this well, with reference to Diodore of Tarsus’s understanding of historia and theoria in the Psalms (pp. 137–38); or Eustathius of Antioch’s criticism of Origen on the meaning of 1 Samuel 28:5–18 (pp. 142–52); or Basil’s Hexaemeron (pp. 174–202). Noteworthy also is Allert’s defense of allegorical interpretation, against some contemporary critiques, on the basis of the New Testament (pp. 115–23).

The latter half of the book (chs. 5–8) consists of commentary on various issues in the church fathers’ views of creation, such as creation from nothing, or the creation days. Although it is not always clear how to correlate each chapter’s contribution to the larger argument of the book (perhaps, for instance, some kind of summary at the start or conclusion of the chapters would have helped), readers will doubtless expand their understanding of the fathers on the issues they address.

Allert’s book is especially informative about Basil’s Hexaemeron, which is a key text for grasping the fathers’ understanding of Genesis 1. Allert maintains that Basil was not opposed to allegory as such, but a particular kind of allegory; and that his opponent was not Origen but more excessive allegorists like the Manichaeans, who disregarded Scripture’s spiritual interests (e.g., p. 197). He establishes this claim by exploring the context of Basil’s appeal to the “common meaning,” as well as Basil’s own employment of allegorical interpretation in both the Hexaemeron and in other writings. Allert draws attention to how Basil’s concern was the intended purpose of Scripture, not the “literalistic” meaning in the modern sense: “the exhortation by Basil to let Scripture ‘be understood as it has been written’ is not a call to attend a literalistic attachment to the text but rather a call to attend to the purpose of Scripture wherein God ‘has ordained that all things be written for the edification and guidance of our souls’” (p. 198). Appeals to Basil by modern day creationist groups should display sensitivity to the danger of equivocation on the meaning of the word “literal” with reference to Genesis 1.

A strength of Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is the detail and sensitivity of its engagement with patristic sources. Readers will greatly enhance their knowledge of the fathers, especially Augustine and Basil. There are a few eccentricities of footnoting such as not locating an article (p. 56) or citing Wikipedia (p. 62); but these are minor points within an overall solid work of scholarship.

On the whole, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is a welcome and needed call for more careful, rigorous use of the church fathers’ views on creation. It is not intended so much as a work of fresh discovery or breakthrough—Allert draws from the work of other patristic scholars such as Paul Blowers (e.g., p. 94), Charles Hill (e.g., p. 88), Frances Young (e.g., pp. 127–37), and John McGuckin (e.g., pp. 194–98). The value of Allert’s work is that he brings such scholarship into explicit and forceful opposition to contemporary young-earth creationist advocates. In this role, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One helpfully draws attention to the complexity of patristic exegesis of Genesis, and calls us out into deeper waters than most of us have yet waded.

Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California.

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