Early Christian Readings of Genesis One
Craig D. Allert
IVP Academic, 2018. 330pp.
In recent years, there has been quite a resurgence in evangelical circles of “returning to the Church Fathers.” Reformed Christians champion St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, while those allured toward Eastern Orthodoxy quote at length the prodigious contemplations of the Cappadocian Fathers, and everyone, Christian or not, loves to share the meme of the real St. Nicholas, “bringing gifts and punching heretics.”
It is not surprising, in the midst of such a resurgence, to encounter a wide variety of adaptations of the Church Fathers for a wide variety of ends. Augustine is particularly famous for this: one could take his Confessions as a mark of approval for all existentialist philosophy, or for Platonism, or for Calvinism, or for credobaptism, or for just war theory, or what-have-you. Even those mired in the “Creation-vs.-Evolution” debate have leaned into the Church Fathers for inspiration, resulting in a rigid six-day, thoroughly historical interpretation of Genesis 1, as per, these debaters assert, St. Basil’s or Efrem the Syrian’s literalism.
To the Fathers’ rescue comes Craig D. Allert, with this useful entry on the Ancient Church’s hermeneutics. Those from Ken Hamm’s sector who would adapt the Fathers for the sake of rigid Creationism, Allert asserts, succeed only in misrepresenting the views of the Church Fathers and only further muddy the waters. Concerned for the Fathers’ late-modern reception, Allert proposes a close look at various cross-sections of the Genesis 1 debate and divulges their true usefulness in a book that I am sure will allow the patristic novice new access to the works of the Fathers.
Background: Hermeneutical Considerations
From the beginning, Allert finds he needs to clarify some hermeneutical terms and conditions first and foremost. For the reader familiar with philosophical hermeneutics (see: James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, for instance), this section can be skipped over; but for the student unfamiliar with some of the complexities regarding hermeneutics and interpretation, this section serves as an invaluable introduction to some of the issues at stake in the “literalist” debate.
Here Allert has really put his thumb on what is undoubtedly one of the most significant issues in modern hermeneutics today, rightly discerning that when someone like Ken Hamm says “literal” or “as it is read” that they are, in reality, imputing foreign information into their text, as though it were truly as obvious as they say it is. Without needing to rely on too many heady philosophical terms, Allert deftly upturns some of the claims of the “Grammatical-Historical” school of interpretation, interrogates the doctrine of the “perspicuity” of the Scriptures, and reminds the reader, constantly, that the world of the Ancient Church is, simply put, worlds away from our experience.
Creating distance between the hermeneutical frames of the Church Fathers and that of Grammatical-Historical interpreters, Allert establishes a solid foundation for re-engaging with the words of the Fathers themselves, allowing them to speak in their own defense regarding the conversation on Genesis 1.
The premiere father to be cast into claims of literalism is St. Basil the Great, one particularly noted for his homilies on the Creation, The Hexaemeron. In this famous collection of sermons, Basil says explicitly: “let [the text] be understood as it is written.” (Hex. 9.1) He refutes those who would read “grass” as anything other than “grass,” or who would read “waters” as anything besides “waters.” Surely, suggest some, Basil understands Genesis to be a literally literal description of all the details of God’s creative activity, right?
And, yet, aside from this proof text, as Allert shows his readers, it would appear that Basil himself, as opposed to the claims made on his behalf, participates in what some might call an “allegorical,” rather than “literal,” method for interpreting the days of Genesis. In Homily 6, Basil discusses God’s creation of the sun, moon, and stars, and he begins contemplating the difference between the sun and the moon to discuss the difference between God and mankind. One is unchanging and constant, the other changeable and dynamic.
In short, as Allert demonstrates adequately, it would seem that Basil is not the “literalist” he’s cracked up to be. Rather, when he speaks of the “plain text” of the word, he’s in particular opposing a group of allegorizers who have a particular (and heretical) aim in mind. Basil, for one, demonstrates that the option of reading Genesis 1 allegorically or symbolically ought to still be a live option.
This kind of approach continues as Allert engages with the more tricky question of how the ancient Fathers, and Basil in particular, deal with the topic of the seven days of Creation, the topic of time, the origins of light, and other sub-topics in the broader scheme of the Creation story.
The Beginning of the Beginning
One of the highlights of this book is the chapter dedicated to St. Augustine’s views on Creation. In all honesty, one of the few critiques I have of Allert’s book is that it feels like he’s set too grand a task for himself: a survey of the claims of all the Church Fathers? In reality, it feels like he barely has room to cover the two he highlights, Basil and Augustine! It would be worthwhile, I think, for Allert to take the groundwork he’s laid here with this general overview book and write two focused monographs on just Basil and Augustine’s views.
That being said, the chapter on Augustine gives a really interesting angle into the whole debate. For one, as most readers familiar with Augustine know, his On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis is perhaps the biggest opponent of any modern-day “literal” interpretation. Allert does a fantastic job of summarizing two of Augustine’s more sublime and philosophically nuanced bits of writing, his discussion on the nature of time from The Confessions and his discussion on the creation of light from City of God.
Augustine is a very different kind of writer than Basil, so the compare-contrast between the two and how they both engage in a variety of hermeneutical interventions is fascinating to see. One of Allert’s stronger accomplishments in this book is to allow these Church Fathers to speak in dialogue with one another, simply by giving their words space to breathe.
Altogether, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is a worthwhile read, especially for those unfamiliar with either patristic exegesis or with ancient cosmological assumptions. Allert could have done with less jabs at AiG (and other young earth creationists); as is often true, an argument framed against an interlocutor can sometimes be less persuasive than one that is more positive (it is better to promote an idea than to fight its opposite). Fortunately, after his introductory sections, Allert dispenses with referring back to his originating battle and focuses on the texts at-hand, which are far more interesting.
The sheer bibliographic value of this book for the sake of those new to reading Basil and Augustine, in particular, is immense. Those who read the Fathers are often overwhelmed by how dense their writings can be, and how hard it is to find one’s place. Allert has here collected a solid chunk of primary source materials that can be returned to by the reader time and again.
In the end, Allert’s thesis is rock-solid. We simply cannot assume that the Fathers mean “literal” the same way we do, and Allert has done a good job of demonstrating the cracks in such “literalist” claims by letting the Fathers talk. This is a suitable introductory book for beginners interested in either the Church Fathers or the historic interpretation of the Book of Genesis.