Book Review: Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

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.Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

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.

Literally Literal?

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.craig-allert

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Advertisements

Hans Boersma and the Church Fathers on Scripture

1920px-Sanzio_01

Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church by Hans Boersma  Baker Academic Press 336 pp. March 2017

Several years ago, before the Lord blessed us with ridiculously time consuming and needy children, my wife and I got the chance to visit Italy and see some of the great art of the West. After a very strenuous day of exploring Rome and Vatican City, as we were finishing up our Vatican Museum tour, our guide asked if any of us wanted to walk a bit farther to go to the Papal chambers where Raphael’s School of Athens was painted. It was a bit of a walk though, she said, and so we could skip it if we wanted. All I wanted to do was sit down and eat some gelato, but I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance again and prayed to the good Lord to give my legs one more mile. He did and I saw Raphael’s painting, which, as any lover of the humanities knows, is a real treasure. It’s also a great way to envision Hans Boersma’s thesis in his new book: we have all fallen far too hard for Aristotle as moderns, and to recover a proper biblical hermeneutic, we need to turn back to Plato.

Boersma- Scripture as Real PresnceThough this comparison is somewhat crude, I don’t think it’s too far off. The focus of Raphael’s painting, as you know, is the competing metaphysic between Plato and Aristotle: between Plato’s mysticism—he’s the one on the left pointing up to the mysteries of the heavens— and Aristotle’s embodied realism—Aristotle holds his hand down to the earth embodying his focus on concrete scientia. Like Raphael’s painting, Boersma’s book also revolves around this dualistic metaphysic; he believes that Plato and Aristotle represent the two competing methods of Scriptural interpretation. Scripture as Real Presence is an exercise in patristic exegesis because we need to get back to the way the fathers read Scripture. In short, the fathers read Scripture better than we do because they had the right metaphysics. As pre-moderns, the church fathers were Platonists, combing the Scriptures sacramentally (Boersma’s term), looking for Christ in every sentence and every verse.

As moderns, we have forfeited our deep reading of Scripture for a historical, scientific hermeneutic—a hermeneutic in line with Aristotle’s metaphysic—content to stay on the surface of things, content to squalor in the mud and the bugs—when we could reach to the heavens with Plato. That is the thesis of the book. Let me now fill out—and question—that picture.

Boersma’s book is driven by two main contentions: first, to get us to see that we must have a sacramental metaphysic in order to properly read Scripture. Second, and inseparably related with the first, to convince the reader to reclaim the Church Father’s sacramental reading of Scripture. Let’s take both in turn, beginning with the second claim:

xHans-Boersma.jpg,q1414793825.pagespeed.ic.SLlJFSpMYm
Boersma’s faculty photo at Regent College in Vancouver, a fantastic institution.

As anyone familiar with Hans Boersma’s thought will know, he is a sacramental theologian. It will be no surprise, then, to find the thesis that we must read Scripture sacramentally at the heart of his new book. As for his understanding of all creation as sacrament—that all things point to the goodness and reality of God— absolutely: understanding Thomas’ analogia entis—that we are all gifted being at every moment of our existence—was a defining moment in my intellectual life and spiritual understanding. Unfortunately, Boersma’s usage of the term “sacrament” is confusing in this book. When he turns to a “sacramental hermeneutic”, or the reading of Scripture he believes the Church Fathers employed, the term suddenly transitions from seeing all things as revealing God to seeing all Scriptures as revealing Christ. The usage is imprecise and leads to misunderstandings. Why not call it a “Christocentric” understanding of Scripture, for example? The reason I bring it up here is because I am not convinced of everything that he believes a “sacramental hermeneutic” entails and yet I would very much want to affirm Boersma’s sacramental theology. Let me draw this out by going to Boersma’s second driving theme.

The most fascinating, though controversial, motif of Scripture as Real Presence is Boersma’s thesis that we read Scripture only as well as our background metaphysics allows us to. Drawing from Origen, Boersma says that, “good metaphysics leads to good hermeneutics” (5). What that means more concretely is, “The way we think about the relationship between God and the world is immediately tied up with the way we read Scripture” (ibid). As moderns, we look at Scripture much too mechanistically, which, Boersma believes, has led to reductionism—the stripping away of profound truths and formation from Scripture. Instead of reading as moderns, we must get back to the pre-modern (read Platonic) “sacramental hermeneutic” of patristic interpretation. Boersma explains: “the reason the church fathers practice typology, allegory, and so on is that they were convinced that the reality of the Christ event was already present (sacramentally) within the history described within the Old Testament narrative. To speak of a sacramental hermeneutic, therefore, is to allude to the recognition of the real presence of the new Christ-reality hidden within the outward sacrament of the biblical text” (12).

origen
Origen, the third-century Alexandrian theologian plays a large role in Boersma’s book.

His usage of sacramental is unclear to me here—is it because Christ is the Logos through which all of creation and reason is informed that He is present in all parts of the Old Testament narrative, for example? What’s concerning to me is how Boersma next marries a “sacramental hermeneutic” to Christian Platonisim: “To speak, therefore, of a ‘sacramental hermeneutic’ is not to reject other, perhaps more common labels [like allegory, anagogy] but rather to allude to the shared metaphysical grounding of these various exegetical approaches” (13). So, wait…. Does that mean I can’t read Scripture Christo-centrically if I’m not a Platonist? It often seems like it. Consider this:

“My Christian Platonist convictions imply that I will happily go back to the church fathers (or the Middle Ages or anywhere else) to look for insights that can contribute to the practice of a sacramental reading today. After all, the question of whether a ressourcement of the exegesis of the church fathers is possible and worthwhile is, ultimately, a question of the truth or false of its metaphysical and hermeneutical presuppositions (276).”

The way this works out in practice is that Boersma takes on the popularity of N.T. Wright whom he has stand in for the “redemptive historical” method of biblical interpretation and the new perspective on Paul.

The redemptive historical method Boersma sees as too confined by a modern hermeneutic. He says, “One of the greatest pastoral drawbacks of both the historical method and the new perspective on Paul is that it’s hard to see how, with these approaches, readers of the Old Testament are able to relate the historical narrative to their own lives” (xiv).

Additionally, “The weakness of historical exegesis…is that it doesn’t treat the Old Testament as a sacrament that already contains the New Testament reality of Christ” (xv).

In other words, without a Platonic metaphysic that allows for allegorical readings, the reader of the biblical text is unable to see how all of Scripture points to Christ and the Old Testament stands relevant only inasmuch as we can leave it behind and relate it to today. I found this an odd claim given how much I have benefited from seeing both the Old and New Testament scriptures in their historical context as a grand narrative with Jesus at their center and as their climax: in other words, in the redemptive-historical method that Boersma wants us to reconsider. In fact, I see Boersma’s dichotomy between historical and sacramental exegesis to be the biggest weakness with this work. I don’t think that he would advocate abandoning historical exegesis but in certain places he certainly discounts its importance and its relevance. In the conclusion, for instance, after ringing an optimistic tune about whether a return to pre-modern patristic exegesis is possible, Boersma says, “Thankfully, it is possible to point to a growing conviction, not only among dogmatic theologians but also among biblical scholars, that exegesis is not primarily a historical endeavor and that it first of all asks about the subject of the text—that is to say, about God and our relationship to Him” (277, emphasis added).

plato
Plato from Raphael’s School of Athens. Detail.

Now, Boersma would simply accuse me of being too wedded to my modern metaphysic but a statement like that makes me profoundly nervous. Chrysostom, Boersma says, expressed his concern that an allegorical reading of the Scriptures could lead to the text saying whatever the reader wanted them to. But we should not fear, Boersma says, because the “rule of faith” disallows any reading of Scripture that would conflict with orthodoxy. But what of the myriad of conflicting interpretations that lead daily to denominational splits, all “read in the Spirit”? Chrysostom’s worry becomes my fear when I read a sentence that states that exegesis isn’t really about history. Does this not imply that we should simply throw the author’s original intent out the window? Indeed, scriptural interpretation is not only history but it is certainly not less. I understand that we stay wedded only to the literal sense of Scripture at our peril and spiritual impoverishment, but to imply that we do not begin with the history and context of Scripture—that Scripture is not primarily about what the author’s intended to convey—invites, unfortunately, not a pre-modern sacramental reading contained within the Church’s rule of faith, but only encourages the continual splintering of the tens of thousands of denominations that we see today.

Boersma, as a self identified Christian Platonist, has written an important book in which he challenges the dominance of modern historical exegesis in favor of a pre-modern “sacramental hermeneutic” which follows in the footsteps of the Church fathers. We should stand and applaud Boersma’s sacramental theology and his desire to read Scripture more richly. All of creation and Scripture is a sacrament in that it points to the presence and glory of God and Boersma is one of our finest Protestant voices in reminding us of that fact. But I question the wisdom of downplaying historical exegesis for a Platonic and allegorizing hermeneutic. (In fact, I quite like Aristotle.) In my experience, 21st century Protestant readers of Scripture are already far too uprooted from the important details of, say, second-temple Judaism, in order to make their reading of Scripture more meaningful and fruitful. Surely we can see Christ in all of Scripture without being Christian Platonists. I’m tired of being asked, “What is this Scripture saying to you?” What I want to know is: what did the writers intend to say to their original historical audience? Then, and only then, may I ask and answer the subjective question with conviction.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

Advent with the Church Fathers

An advent reading with Maximus of Turin born in 380 A.D.
An advent reading with Maximus of Turin born in 380 A.D.

For 2000 years the Church has waited expectantly for the coming of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, the Prince of Peace. This singular hope has sustained the Church’s witness and nurtured its life since Jesus was first raised from the dead. Since that glorious event, Christians of every generation have sought to remind themselves, and the world, of the hope of his immanent return.

These reminders have often taken the form of sermons and hymns, written mostly by great men (and women!) of the Church, commonly and affectionately known as the Church Fathers. To thicken the texture of your Advent season, The Theologian’s Library would like to share brief excerpts of some of these marvelous sermons with you. We will post a new sermon excerpt daily through Advent so you may add it to your devotional reading. We hope your theological imagination will be quickened and your soul richly blessed by the timely, wise, and enduring words of these heroes of the faith.

Maximus of Turin, Homily 60, 3-4

     Thus, dear brothers, may we who await the birth of the Lord cleanse ourselves of all the remnants of sin! Let us fill his treasuries with many gifts, so that upon the arrival of that holy day we may welcome the strangers, support the widows, and clothe the poor!

“Indeed, what would happen if, in the house of the servants under the same master, one were to proudly don silk garments while another was covered with rags; if one were stuffed with food while another suffered hunger and cold; if one were tormented by indigestion from yesterday’s gormandizing while another could hardly stave off yesterday’s hunger? Or what should the purpose of our prayers be?

May we who are not generous toward our brothers ask to be liberated from the enemy. Let us imitate our Lord! Indeed, if he desires that the poor partake of heavenly grace with us, why should they not partake of earthly goods with us? May those who are our brothers in the sacraments lack no earthly sustenance, even if only so they may give testimony before God on our behalf: may we sustain them and may they give thanks to him. The more a poor man blesses the Lord, the more it will help the one who gives him cause to bless the Lord.”

Blessings this Advent as we prepare for the birth of our Lord!