Book Write-Up: Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, by Craig D. Allert

Craig D. Allert. Early Christian Readings of Genesis One. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Craig D. Allert has a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham, and he teaches religious studies at Trinity Western University.

This book is about patristic interpretations of Genesis 1. Allert largely focuses on Theophilus of Antioch, Ephrem the Syrian, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Who Are the Church Fathers, and Why Should I Care?” Allert criticizes Protestant Christians who dismiss the church fathers and believe that the apostolic age was a Golden Age, shortly supplanted by Catholic corruption. Allert argues that the church fathers were heroes of the faith, that Protestant founders respected them, and that reading them provides a sense of continuity with the past.

Chapter 2 essentially frames the discussion in the rest of the book. Allert critiques young-earth creationists who appeal to the church fathers to argue that the traditional position of Christianity is that God created the cosmos in six literal days. One version of their argument is to quote passages in which church fathers appear to interpret Genesis 1 as literal history. Another version is to differentiate between the “literalist” Antiochian school and the “allegorist” Alexandrian school, contending that there were fathers who adhered to the former, which young-earth creationists deem to be consistent with their own position (i.e., Genesis 1 is literal history).

Chapter 3 is entitled “What Does ‘Literal’ Mean? Patristic Exegesis in Context.” In this chapter, Allert critiques young-earth creationists’ argument regarding the Antiochian and the Alexandrian schools. But Allert also challenges how many scholars define the two schools, as he contends that the last fifty years of scholarship has undermined the conventional definitions. For one, the difference between the Antiochian and Alexandrian schools was not so much that the former valued history, whereas the latter did not. What motivated the Antiochian method of interpretation was a regard for rhetoric: the impact of a writing, particularly a narrative, in teaching an ethical lesson. Antiochians tended to focus on the narrative itself, whereas Alexandrians regarded texts as symbolic of spiritual or philosophical truths. And even here, both schools were not entirely consistent, for there are cases in which Origen (an Alexandrian) was more literalistic than some Antiochians. This chapter also argues that both the New Testament and also the church fathers did not practice the grammatical-historical method of biblical exegesis that young-earth creationists champion. Both interpret parts of Scripture in light of what they consider to be the larger Christian narrative rather than immediate context or authorial intent.

In Chapter 4, Allert attempts to refute a young-earth creationist’s argument that Basil of Caesarea rejected the allegorical in favor of the literal method of biblical interpretation. Allert highlights examples in which Basil strayed from the literal and approached allegory, and he attempts to contextualize the occasions in which Basil appears to criticize allegorical interpretation.

Chapter 5 is about creation ex nihilo. It discusses how pagans conceived of cosmic origins: Plato thought that the Demiurge formed already existing matter into an orderly cosmos, whereas others believed the universe simply was, which precludes design or intent behind it. Focusing on Theophilus of Antioch, Ephrem the Syrian, and Basil of Caesarea, Allert shows how a belief in creation ex nihilo was significant in their interpretation of Genesis 1, and what they believed was at stake. A goal of this chapter is to demonstrate that the church fathers had their own concerns, quite different from those of young-earth creationists.

Chapter 6 talks about the days of Genesis 1. This chapter, like the previous one, looks at Theophilus, Ephrem, and Basil. There was a tendency among some fathers to take the surface level of the text at face value: Basil, for instance, tries to account for the sequence of the creation order. A significant question in this chapter concerns what the light was that God created before God created the sun, moon, and stars. But there was also a patristic tendency to seek a deeper spiritual meaning in the days of Genesis 1, about the spiritual life, salvation history, or eschatology. Allert also refers to an example of Basil rejecting a literal interpretation of biblical cosmology.

Chapter 7 focuses on Augustine. Augustine seems to question a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. He thinks God created everything simultaneously. Yet, from what Allert presents, it does not seem as if Augustine thoroughly repudiates Genesis 1 as history, for he seemed to have thought that God’s simultaneous creation played itself out sequentially in time (or so I interpreted Allert), and he sought to explain how light could exist prior to the sun, moon, and stars. Allert also discusses Augustine’s attempt to explain God resting on the Sabbath. Does God need to rest, and how does one reconcile that with Jesus’s statement in John 5:17 that he and the Father work, even on the Sabbath? Augustine’s answer echoes Hebrews 4: that God created a spiritual rest in which people can partake.

Chapter 8 is about being like Moses. Moses was meek, but, according to Basil, Moses also contemplated creation when he was fleeing from Pharaoh. This enhanced Moses’s appreciation of God.

Some of my reactions:

A. Allert’s task was noble. The church fathers should not simply be quote-mined, but they should be appreciated on their own terms.

B. The spiritual and eschatological interpretations of Genesis 1 that Allert highlighted were intriguing and edifying.

C. Chapter 3, which is about the Antiochian and Alexandrian schools, is lengthy (around sixty pages), but it is important for people who want to enter scholarship on this field, or who desire a more nuanced understanding of the two schools. That said, Allert said more than once that the Antiochians did not conceive of historia as grammatical-critical interpreters conceive of history, and he was a little unclear about how this was the case. He said that they interpreted fiction (literature) as well. But the important question, I think, is this: Did they believe that the events of Genesis 1 happened as narrated?

D. It seemed to me that a lot of the church fathers Allert profiled believed that the events of Genesis 1 occurred as narrated. Why seek to explain the light that existed before the sun, moon, and stars, if it is all just symbolic, anyway? They may have believed there was a deeper spiritual meaning to the details of Genesis 1, but they seem to have accepted Genesis 1 as history: a narrative about what happened in the past. A question would then be whether there were fathers who rejected Genesis 1 as a narrative about what happened and solely saw it as allegorical. Allert perhaps could have addressed this question more directly, though he raised considerations that might be relevant: Basil’s criticism of over-literalizing, Basil’s repudiation of taking biblical cosmologies literally, Augustine’s reservations about seeing Genesis 1 as literal science, and Origen’s statement that there are cases in which the literal level of the text should be rejected as without value.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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