Early Christian Readings of Genesis One: Patristic Exegesis and Literal Interpretation, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018; author Craig Allert
WN: Full disclosure is, that thanks to Ron, I have been a member of a catholic Anglican/ecumenical contemplative order called “Sons of the Holy Cross”. I’ve had a longstanding interest in Patristics as well, again thanks to Ron. Hence, posting this Review is its own endorsement of this approach to reading Scripture.
Book Review by Ron Dart
There has been, gratefully so, in the last few decades, a questioning of the reformed, evangelical and charismatic approach to how the Bible should be read, interpreted and applied. This larger question transcends the protestant tendencies and ethos, but it is a bugaboo of sorts for those whose approach to the Bible tends to be excessively focused on a more literal, grammatical, historic and linguistic approach to the text (with usually some moral and devotional application to rescue the book from an excessive scholarly attitude or simply museum culture). The turn to a more catholic exegetical (catholic in the Patristic sense) approach to Scripture has been growing in momentum and commitment the last few years, and such an approach is being applied to various and varied content issues within the Bible.
The sheer bounty of Allert’s recent book, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, is the way he applies Patristic reads of early chapters of Genesis to the creation accounts. Needless to say, this is a heated topic (often more heat than light) for those who tend to read the creation accounts in both a literal and young earth way and manner. Such an approach needlessly collides with many reads of science and alternate ways of reading Genesis that are classical, hence cannot be easily dismissed as liberal. The careful and historic turn by Allert to the layered exegetical means by which the Fathers of the Church read the early chapters of Genesis illuminates for the curious and honest faith seeker that there is more to the Bible than has often revealed by a more reductionistic and one dimensional approach by many within the evangelical and evangelical-reformed tribes.
Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is divided into 2 Parts: “Understanding the Context” and “Reading the Fathers”. Part 1 is unpacked in three ways: 1) “Who Are the Church Fathers, and Why Should I Care?”, 2) “How Not to Read the Fathers: A Survey of Creation Science Appropriation of the Fathers” and 3) “What does Literal Mean? Patristic Exegesis in Context”. Part 2 is discussed in five areas: 1) “Basil the Literalist”, 2) “Creation Out of Nothing”, 3) “The Days of Genesis”, 4) “Augustine on ‘In the Beginning’ and 5) “On Being like Moses”. Each of these compact and succinct parts and sections walk the extra mile to clarify and explain how a high view of the Bible can be held while recognizing there are different ways of interpreting the text (in this case early chapters of Genesis).
There are books for different people at various stages and seasons of their faith journey, and I’d suggest that Early Christian Readings of Genesis One is, at a primary and basic level, addressed to those who have a too literal read of the creation account. There has been an unfortunate tendency within the protestant clan to slip into a rather simplistic fundamentalist-conservative (variations of reformed and evangelical)-liberal way of approaching faith, church tradition and the Bible. The growing interest in Patrology deepens and broadens the range of discussion and, to Allert’s credit, he writes from such a perspective. There are others who have already made the move to an interest and commitment to a more classical, catholic and patristic way- this tome will enrich and make abundantly clear why the Fathers (and I might the Mothers) of the Church have both a high view of Scripture but differ with many reformers on how the text might be interpreted on a variety of hot button issues (including, I might add, violence in the Old Testament, penal theory of the atonement and eternal punishment for those who have not accepted Christ in their short and all too human journey)—these three issues are front and centre for many these days, the early chapters of Genesis not their issue in quite the same practical and applied way.
Needless to say, the turn by many raised in various types of Protestantism to a more catholic approach to the Bible has its detractors, the most recent assault on such a catholic turn exemplified by Iain Provan’s The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (2017). Provan has, in many ways, his sights set on both Craig Allert and Hans Boersma (such are some of the Canadian West Coast exegetical culture wars). There is, in short, yet another chasm appearing on the faith horizon—-a more historic, grounded, rooted and catholic delving deeper into ways of reading Scripture —such is Allert, Boersma and others—-and, the emergence of a form of Neo-Calvinism and the centrality of reformed exegesis which, as Provan assumes, is the “Right Reading of Scripture”.
There is no doubt Allert’s recent beauty of a book opens up a much more layered way of approaching and interpreting Scriptures as applied to the creation account. If such an approach is heeded and inwardly digested, many an unnecessary battle for the interpretation of the Bible is simply fini, over and done. If such a heeding of the wisdom of the past is ignored, much good and creative faith energy will be wasted in fighting battles that need not be fought. We are at a significant crossroads in how Scripture is to be heard, read and interpreted—the future hinges on which path will be taken and the sights seen from such destinations reached.
Amor vicit omnia.