Book Review: Craig D. Allert, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One

Allert, Craig D. Early Christian Readings of Genesis One: Patristic Exegesis and Literal Interpretation. BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 338 pp. Pb. $36.99   Link to IVP Academic  

Craig Allert is a professor of religious studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia and an expert on early Christianity and the development of Christian doctrine. His 2002 monograph Revelation, Truth, Canon and Interpretation: Studies in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 64; Leiden: E.J. Brill) discussed how the second century writer Justin understood Scripture.

Craig Allert book on Genesis One, Church FathersThis new book is the fourth in the BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity series published by IVP Academic. Allert addresses the use and abuse of early church writers to support certain views of Genesis 1. The main purpose of the book is to correct common misconceptions about what the church fathers meant by literal interpretation and “creation out of nothing.” Throughout the book Allert draws on material produced by Answers in Genesis (AiG), Institute for Creation Research (ICR), and Creation Ministries International (CMI). Some of this material appears in popular formats, including blog posts. These organizations generally reject any higher critical approaches to exegesis and “appropriate the church fathers as advocates of a nascent creation science position” (107).

After a preliminary chapter outlining what he means by the church fathers, Allert offers several examples of “how not to read the fathers.” He provides several examples of popular writers on the issue of creation who claim the church fathers read Genesis one as referring to literal days, usually alongside the claim the Church considered the days in Genesis 1 to be literal, 24-hour days until the Enlightenment, Darwinism, and theological liberalism. For Allert, there are several problems with the use of the fathers by most Creationists. First, they proof-text and overgeneralize. For example, Creationists cite Basil as an example of young-earth creationism in the church fathers, then assume he represents the whole of the “church fathers” (without citing any other examples). Second, among conservative Christianity, there is a general lack of knowledge about the church fathers so it is almost impossible to quote them with any helpful context. As a result, writers who claim Basil was a literal six-day creationist are pulling proof-texts out of context and not taking into consideration everything else Basil said about reading Genesis 1.

In the third chapter of the book Allert discusses what the “literal interpretation” meant in Patristic exegesis. There is a popular misconception that a Patristic writer was either literal or allegorical (or spiritual) in their exegesis of Scripture. But as Allert demonstrates, the situation is more complicated than this strict dichotomy. Patristic writers often took notice of the plain meaning of a text, but then went on to create spiritual readings in order to challenge their listeners.

The main test case Allert uses in the book is Basil of Caesarea (329-379), specifically his book Hexameron (“six days”). Written around 370, the book is a series of sermons delivered during Lent on Genesis 1. The ninth sermon in the book is often cited by creationists as proof Basil interpreted the days of Genesis 1 as six literal days. But as Allert argues in this book, Basil is not attacking allegorical readings of Scripture, but “excessive allegorization” by the Manicheans (197). On closer examination, Basil uses the same method of reading Scripture as Origen (a church father usually vilified for his allegorical method!)

In the following two chapters of the book Allert examines two doctrines often cited as foundational by creationists; creation out of nothing (creation ex nihilo) and the literal day in Genesis 1. Creation out of nothing has been challenged as a theology not drawn from the Old Testament but rather constructed to respond to the eternal universe in Greek philosophy. For the literalness of the six days, Allert examines several oft-quoted church fathers and finds some support for reading the days as literal, 24-hour days. But there is nothing in Basil (for example) which indicates he thought Genesis 1 was giving a scientific (literal) description of creation (246).

Throughout the book Allert deals with the nature of creation and time. As the church accepted creation out of nothing as doctrine, Christian theologians and philosophers began to ask what God was doing before he created the universe. A possible answer to this question is my favorite line in this book: “he was getting hell ready for people who inquisitively peer into deep matters” (269). Allert examines Augustine’s view of time and eternity more closely in chapter seven. Most Christians have a sense “God is outside of time,” although likely drawn from C. S. Lewis rather than Augustine. Augustine argued God is eternal and created the world “with time” (273), and the days of creation are no more literal than God’s “rest” on the seventh day. Augustine cited John 5:17, “my father is working until now” as evidence God’s rest on the seventh day is not a literal time of rest (278). For Augustine, creation did not happen in “a time measured way” (287).

I have several comments about Allert’s book. First, I am convinced an allegorical method is not good exegesis when the text under examination is clearly not an allegory. For example, obviously Jotham’s fable in Judges 9 is some kind of an allegory, and there are figurative elements of Jesus’s parables, especially the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. Allert addresses this concern with an anecdote from John MacArthur who looked back on an early sermon he wrote as a “horrible” example of allegorizing a text (p. 108). I have to agree with MacArthur, that sort of exegesis is bad. Of course this opens up the question to what an ancient writer was trying to do with a text, but that is a topic for another book.

Second, Allert proves his case the ancient church fathers were not proto-creationists and current creationists ought to stop misinterpreting them. Selective citations in order to proof-text one’s view is dangerous, since there is plenty in Basil or Augustine which would not at all be acceptable to a modern conservative creation. But there is nothing in this book (or the church fathers) which anticipates other responses to Darwinism, such as progressive creationism (old earth creationism) or theistic evolution. Ancient writers read Genesis within their own worldview, a worldview which did not contend with modern science.

Third, Allert is correct to raise awareness the real problem is the nature of time and eternity. His discussion of Augustine’s view is important, but more theological and philosophical work needs to be done on God’s nature and his relationship with this universe. That creationists who hold to literal days in Genesis 1 do not worry too much about this issue is evident from the lack of citation of creationists in chapters 5-7 in this book.

This book is a necessary contribution to the ongoing discussion of Genesis 1. Allert corrects some serious misconceptions and offers a more contextual reading of Basil, Augustine and others who commented on Genesis 1 in antiquity.


NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth

Hill, Carol, Gregg Davidson, Tim Helble, and Wayne Ranney, eds. The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2016. 468 pp. Pb; $39.   Link to Kregel

I will confess my knowledge of “Karst hydrology of Grand Canyon” is limited, but I have quite extensive experience with various forms of creationism over the years. I grew up reading Institute for Creation Research publications, such as Henry Morris and Duane Gish. I have good friends who have fed me a steady diet of Hugh Ross books over the years, and in college I read Howard Van Till’s The Fourth Day, a book which was quite scandalous at the time since it advocated for an ancient universe yet was written by a Christian.

grand-canyone-noahs-floodI have also been perplexed by the rise of Ken Ham as the chief spokesperson for Young Earth Creationism in recent years. He has become a kind of prophet for many conservative Christians, so much so that his word is not to be doubted if you want to maintain your standing among conservative Christians. Even to suggest the earth is slightly more than 6,000 years old is to invite anger from people with Creation Museum season passes. Other Young Earth creationists who accepted perhaps a creation some 20,000 years, or progressive creationists like Hugh Ross are heading down a slippery slope toward liberalism. See, for example, my review of Keathley and Rooker, 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution.

All this leads me to a new book from Kregel Academic on what the Grand Canyon teaches about the age of the earth. As the authors point out in their foreword, “to deny an old age for the Earth, while embracing other aspects of science, is essentially a statement that science only works when we agree with the outcome” (11). The same science that developed the medicine and technology we rely on today also understands the geological record of our planet as implying at least a 4.5 billion year history.

The intent of The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth is clear from the title, but the authors are clear they are not arguing against the fact God created the Earth (23), but they are equally clear the Young Earth explanation of the formation of the Grand Canyon is wrong and unscientific.

The contributors to this book are all scientists with earned doctorates in their fields from serious universities. Most are also Christians, some with undergraduate degrees from schools like Wheaton or Calvin College. Several are associated with BioLogos (Gregg Davidson and Ralph Stearley), an organization committed to “harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.”

There is a somewhat paranoid assumption by some conservative Christians that scientists are all atheists trying to cover up the truth in order to destroy the accuracy of the word of God. Some Young Earth Creationists consider an old earth to be a required step in supporting biological evolution, and if one accepts biological evolution in any form, there is no Adam and the Gospel collapses. In fact, secular media tends to run to the most extreme form of young earth creationist they can find in order to create the impression all Christians believe the same anti-science propaganda.

This assumption absolutely false, and this book gives evidence that Christians can do good science and be a faithful Christian. For example, Carol Hill co-published an article with Victor Polyakto on “Age and Evolution of the Grand Canyon Revealed by U-Pb Dating of Water-Table Type Speteothems” in Science in 2008. The article argues a western part of the Grand Canyon preceded the Colorado River and dated to 17.6 million years ago.

View of the Grand Canyon from Moran Point. (Photo by Mike Koopsen)

View of the Grand Canyon from Moran Point. (Photo by Mike Koopsen)

The book consists of a series of short, richly illustrated essays by various experts in their fields. The introductory four chapters define flood geology and describe some of the problems with the view that Noah’s flood created the Grand Canyon in the recent past. The flood is typically dated some 4500 years ago or about 2304 B.C. This date requires a revision of world history, since Egyptian chronology is fairly certain back to about 3000 B.C. There is nothing polemic in the author’s presentations of Young Earth views, they simply list the main elements of Young Earth views widely available in their literature.

The rest of the book is a mini-textbook on geology as it relates to the Grand Canyon. The second part, “How Geology Works,” includes three chapters are devoted to the formation and dating of sedimentary rocks, three chapters on dating the geological column, and two chapters on plate tectonics. Throughout the section the authors deal with the alternative views of Young Earth creationists, such as their suspicion of radiometric dating and their reliance on Mount St. Helens as an analogy for the flood.

The third section consists of three chapters on fossils. The Grand Canyon is a sort of textbook on dating fossils, since the lower levels have no fossils and the fossils progress in complexity as they appear higher in the geological column. The same observations can be made for fossils of flora and fauna in the Grand Canyon.

Part four of the book covers the carving of the Grand Canyon in three chapters. Although this is usually presented as either a long slow process of a fast result of a global disaster (the Flood), but Helble and Hill show that it too both a long time and a great deal of water to carve the canyon. Analogies to Mount St. Helens are inadequate. In fact, not the canyons produced by rapid flooding are not really the same as the Grand Canyon because the layers which were carved there were already rock when the Canyon was formed. Mount St. Helens carved a canyon through loose debris below the mountain, not solid rock.

In the two conclusion chapters, the authors point out that flood geology advocates begin with a particular view of the Bible and force geology into that view. This results in a convoluted explanation of physical evidence which is both unscientific and unbiblical (208). According to Romans 1, the Creator’s divine nature is clear from what has been made; for the authors of this book, the standard geological view does in fact point to a Creator.

Conclusion. Undoubtedly Young Earth Creationists are not going to like the conclusions this book draws. This is a popular level introduction to the geology of the Grand Canyon and is exactly the sort of popular science book one might find in a gift shop near the Grand Canyon. There are, however, occasional paragraphs and sidebars engaging the claims of Young Earth creationists. Usually the authors point out the Young Earth advocates are only telling “part of the story.” For example, the sidebar on page 143 or the chapter on radiometric dating.

This book is beautiful, the photography is excellent and the charts provide clear explanations of extremely complicated topics. The Bible is honored and accepted as true, yet there is respect for real science in this book. The geology of the Grand Canyon is taken seriously, leading to the conclusion that the canyon was carved through millions of years of geological layers, the standard scientific view of the Grand Canyon.

One constructive criticism, however. Since one of the goals of the book is to show that Young Earth Creationism is not supported by a straightforward reading of Genesis, I would have appreciated a biblical scholar (or several) used to write sections on the Bible.

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Keathley and Rooker, 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution

Keathley, Kenneth and Mark F. Rooker, eds. 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution. 40 Questions and Answers Series. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2015. 432 pp. Pb; $23.99. Link to Kregel.

Kenneth D. Keathley (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Mark F. Rooker (Ph.D., Brandeis University) are both professors at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rooker describes himself as a young-earth creationist, while Keathley holds to an old-earth view. Together they have produced an irenic and fair book on the often controversial topics of creation and evolution. The book also includes several chapters on other issues in Genesis related to creationism, such as the age of the earth, the historical Adam, and the extent of the flood.

When the opportunity to review this book came up, I almost passed since I find most books on creation to be argumentative, producing a great deal of heat and very little light. I have read many conservative books on creationism that seemed to be aimed and scaring the faithful away from thinking about what the Bible might actually say. But this is not the case for 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution. Keathley and Rooker usually present several sides to the issue and rarely present issues as either/or litmus tests for a “real Christian.” While neither author identifies themselves as a theistic evolutionist or an advocate of intelligent design, they present these views fairly.Forty Questions Creation and EvolutionWhat is more, this is a genuinely scholarly book, interacting with the original language of Genesis and a broad range of scholarship. By scanning through the notes, I recognize many familiar evangelical scholars, but they are not from the most conservative side of evangelicalism. In addition, all of the major Genesis commentaries are represented when discussing and exegetical issue.

Part one is four chapters concerning the doctrine of creation. Here Keathley and Rooker deal with the place of the creation narrative in systematic and biblical theology. Since creation is the beginning of the “grand narrative of the Bible,” the creation story reappears frequently throughout the whole Bible, culminating in a “new creation” in Revelation.

Part two contains six chapters on creation in Genesis 1-2. In this section, the authors deal with some of the literary problems of relating the two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 as well as the various options for understanding the function of Genesis 1:1 to the rest of the chapter. Two chapters are devoted to more theological issues. Question 9 concerns “The Meaning of the Sabbath.” Question 10 focuses on the purpose of mankind based on the creation narrative.

Part three presents six different views on the days of creation. A short chapter describes the Gap Theory, then Keathley and Rooker present a chapter on several other more popular theories for understanding the days in Genesis 1: The Day-Age (Hugh Ross), Framework (Mark Ross), Temple Inauguration (Levenson, Walton, Beale), Historical Creationism (John Sailhammer), and Twenty-four Hour Day (Edward Young). These could be seen as moving from “more open” to evolution to “less open,” but in all five cases, these are legitimate interpretations of the days in Genesis 1 and are all compatible with inspiration and inerrancy.

Perhaps the most controversial section of the book is part four on the age of the Earth. Two chapters deal with evidence for old and young earth theories, and there are four sections on some of the problems with a very young earth. For example, gaps in the biblical genealogies may permit a much older earth than some of the most vocal young-earth creationists would accept (ch. 17), and light from stars implies an old creation (ch. 21) or a “mature creation” model (ch. 22).

Part five deals with a series of implications of a biblical view of creation. Among these nine chapters, Keathley and Rooker deal with several views on the Image of God (ch. 23) and the effect of the fall (chs. 25-27). Three chapters are on Noah’s flood (chs. 29-30) since young-earth creationists often use the flood as an argument for the appearance of age. Only one chapter deals with the currently hot topic of the Historical Adam (ch. 24). Here, the authors interact with Peter Ens (The Evolution of Adam, Brazos, 2012) and Denis Lamoureux (I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution, Wipf & Stock, 2009). In this case, they conclude, “an affirmation of the historicity of Adam and Eve must be maintained.” They cite C. John Collins, Did Adam and Even Really Exist (Crossway, 2011) and conclude an affirmation of a real Adam and Eve is required for a proper understanding of the Fall.

The final part of the book contains questions about evolution and intelligent design. These include brief descriptions of the theory of evolution itself, Darwinism, and whether Darwinism is an ideology. They fairly summarize arguments for and against evolution, although they reject them in the end. The final two chapters of the book concern Intelligent Design and the “Fine Tuning Argument.” Perhaps the most interesting chapter 38, “Can a Christian Hold to Theistic Evolution, ” is a somewhat controversial topic since many Christians assume Christian beliefs are completely incompatible. Keathley and Rooker do not doubt the salvation of theistic evolutionists, but they clearly conclude it is very difficult to embrace both evolution and an evangelical form of Christianity fully. They cite Wayne Grudem’s eight objections and conclude the chapter that “evolutionary creationism is a theory in search of theological justification” (385). While the book’s format does not allow for a response, Enns and Lamoureux might disagree or agree and leave evangelicalism behind.

Conclusion. When I first received an invitation to review this book, I almost passed because I assumed this would be a very conservative book arguing entirely for Young Earth Creationism.  For question 19, “What are the Evidences for the Universe Being Young,” there are few Answers in Genesis references and nothing from Ken Ham directly. Keathley and Rooker observe the problems with the evidence often offered by young-earth creationists and cite young-earthers Nelson and Reynolds’s admission that “recent creationists should humbly agree that there is, at the moment, implausible purely on scientific grounds” (199). This is certainly not an “absolute young-earth creationist” book!

I found several chapters unusual for a book strictly on creationism—part five concerns the Fall and the Flood, which go beyond creation and evolution. I doubt “forty questions” could be developed on just historical Adam issues, so it makes some sense they appear in this collection, although the book could be fairly titled Forty Questions about Genesis 1-11.


Reviews of other books in this series:

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.