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.
This 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.