When reading, it is easy to approach the text from our own context and presuppositions. This is not always a bad thing, but it can make a mess of what the author meant, especially when we take someone else’s work and try to make it say something completely foreign to the original context. This is true of the way many people attempt to appropriate the early church fathers as ammunition in modern debate. Some among the evangelical protestant tradition tend to sift through the church fathers with a lens, mining them for quotes to use to defend preconceived ideas, instead of letting the passages speak on their own terms, in their own context. The controversy over Genesis chapter one and the creation account is no exception.
In the introduction to “Early Christian Readings of Genesis One: Patristitc Exegesis and Literal Interpretation,” author Craig D. Allert explains the necessity of patience and deliberation when studying the church fathers. We ought to read them for what they mean, not assert meaning that isn’t there. The book is split into two portions, Understanding the Context and Reading the Church Fathers. The former involves a chapter on who the church fathers were and why they matter at all, which serves as a proper basis for the rest of the book.
The first part of the book, I believe, is the most important. In it, Allert demonstrates both the proper and improper ways to read the fathers. In speaking of how not to read them we see a much-needed critique of certain readings of the aforementioned fathers. The latter portion of the book, which is over half, focuses on actually reading them and giving us their context.
The primary focus of the book seems to be on the six days of creation. There is a chapter on creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, which is actually one of my favourite chapters. I appreciate it for its subject matter, clarity, and comparison and contrast of philosophers with the church fathers. However, creatio ex nihilo is one of the less controversial topics of Genesis one; hotly debated among Christians today is whether they are literal or allegorical, and what, precisely, does “literal” actually mean. The latter debate seems to be the main concern within the book.
While I am no scholar, I still very much enjoyed reading this book, despite its academic tone. Being from IVP Academic, it comes as no surprise that it doesn’t make for easy or light reading. Somewhere around forty to fifty pages in a chapter, this book requires attentive reading. Heavily philosophical and theological, the layman may have trouble understanding some of the concepts presented, but it is never beyond grasp for the determined reader.
I would recommend “Early Christian Readings of Genesis One” for anyone studying Genesis one. Whether one is an allegorist, literalist, or other, I think all will benefit by reading this book. Aside from providing valuable information on the church fathers’ views on Genesis one, It will serve as both a reminder to be cautious when reading other people’s appropriation of the church fathers, and an explanation of how to properly read them yourself.
Many thanks to IVP for a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.