[K:NWTS 24/2 (Sep 2009) 51-60]

Book Review

Peter C. Bouteneff, Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008. 240 pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-0-8010-3233-2. $22.99.

Peter C. Bouteneff is an associate professor of theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. His “Eastern” bias is immediately apparent in his choice of subjects: mostly Greek-speaking theologians prior to Augustine. In the preface, Bouteneff especially thanks John McGuckin (a fellow Orthodox scholar) for reviewing a draft of the book before publication. Those familiar with McGuckin’s name will be initially encouraged, as he has published a number of helpful books on patristic subjects, particularly his very handy The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology (2004).[1] McGuckin’s penchant for primary sources is shared by Bouteneff and is evident throughout this work.

Bouteneff begins his study with Genesis 1-3. This is followed by a brief survey of other Biblical references to the account, as well as later interpretations in the Jewish apocrypha. Chapter 2, which focuses on the New Testament, is devoted solely the apostle Paul, with no references to the Gospels, General Epistles, or Revelation. Again, Bouteneff’s Eastern bias is immediately apparent in his choice of post-canonical subjects—Tertullian is the only Western author included in his treatment. As he covers only the first four centuries, the important views of Augustine (a Western theologian!) on this matter are left outside of his scope. This shortcoming is balanced by the fact that although he is aware of contemporary scholars (following Walter Bauer) who attempt to blur the line between “orthodoxy” and “heresy” in the early fathers, he himself tends to resist this temptation.

In his initial treatment of Genesis 1-3, Bouteneff clearly embraces some form of the classic documentary hypothesis, attributing the “two creation narratives” to separate authors, brought together in a redaction which allegedly “took place quite late”—perhaps as late as the “first and second centuries BCE” (2). His later argument that “Genesis 1 reflects the priestly interest in (cultic) order, in placement, and in distinction…” (3), confirms this suspicion. Bouteneff had previously informed us that the project of his book was to “listen to what the early Christian tradition has to say about Genesis 1-3” and to “take the writers on their own terms” (xiv). Well said. But it would have been good for him to have extended this courtesy to Moses as well.

Because of this critical bias, Reformed readers will find little fruitful biblical theology in Bouteneff’s initial treatment of the “creation narratives.”  Bouteneff seems entirely concerned in this chapter with amputating Genesis 1-3 from the rest of the organically unfolding divine self-disclosure—something the fathers he discusses in the later chapters never did. This leads him to theological conclusions that would find happy reception only among the likes of Pelagius and Socinus.[2] However, in these pages Bouteneff openly lays most of his theological cards on the table, and gives the reader a clue as to what he will be looking for in his treatment of the early fathers.

Because his interest is in the Greek-speaking theologians, it is no surprise that he devotes several pages to a discussion of the LXX versions of Genesis 1-3. But this is largely devoted to some of the translational difficulties that arise whenever one language is rendered into another. His treatment of the later OT references to the creation account are largely an exercise in explaining them away, as Bouteneff refers to only a few of them as “rare cases of explicit reference to the paradise story outside the Pentateuch and before the second century BCE” (14). It is as if the creation theme is systematically dissected from God’s progressively and organically unfolding self-revelation. This only serves to confirm the fact that no real biblical theology can be formulated upon critical lines. As Geerhardus Vos so insightfully noted over 100 years ago:

These [destructive critical views] however much may be asserted to the contrary, disorganize the Scriptures. Their chief danger lies, not in affirmations concerning matters of minor importance, concerning errors in historical details, but in the most radical claims upsetting the inner organization of the whole body of truth.[3]

Again, Bouteneff’s critical bias comes out when he argues that “it has long been shown that Babylonian and Canaanite creation myths had considerable influence on the resurgent interest in, and the content of, the biblical creation narratives” (16).

Bouteneff’s treatment of Paul is characterized by the same critical emphases. For him, Paul is ultimately controlled by the paradigms of his contemporary Judaism, though introducing several new elements within it. His analysis focuses primarily on Romans 1 and 5, as well as 1 Corinthians 15 as these texts relate to the themes of “sin” and “death.”  Incidentally, statements that Augustinians would find objectionable in this section are too numerous for us to count.[4]

Chapter 3 brings us out of this critical-liberal wilderness and into the refreshing land of the second century apologists. He begins with the great Justin Martyr. Here Bouteneff rightly characterizes Justin’s exegetical approach as both typological and Christocentric: “[he sees] Christ as the key to reading the OT, and the OT as the key to reading Christ” (61). However, since Justin’s (extant) discussion of Genesis is very brief, it only receives a few pages of treatment. The next to receive treatment is Melito of Sardis. As with Justin, his discussion of Melito’s Christocentric typology is accurate, but his extant writings leave little material to develop his doctrine of creation. In contrast to Justin and Melito, Bouteneff’s next subject, Theophilus of Antioch, says next to nothing about the person of Christ. Bouteneff’s discussion of myth and history in Theophilus accurately reveals the latter’s concern for the concrete historicity of the biblical narrative (72-73), but his accusation that Theophilus engaged in allegory does not seem well-founded.[5] The final figure to receive discussion in this chapter is Irenaeus of Lyons. All the main points of Irenaean theology are highlighted: the unity of the testaments, Christological reading of Scripture, the rule of faith, and the Trinity. This is followed by a more extensive discussion of Irenaean “recapitulation,” specifically as it applies to his understanding of Genesis 1-3. However, Bouteneff’s reading of Irenaeus is tainted at several points. He seems to resist the idea that for Irenaeus, Adam’s historicity is essential[6]:

Adam…has a primarily symbolic function for Irenaeus. Adam’s creation and predicament represent those of the human person generally and reflect the logic of the divine economy. Adam’s historic existence, seemingly taken for granted, is not a factor in the discussion (84).

To us, this seems to reflect Karl Barth’s reading of Genesis 1-3 much more than Irenaeus’s.[7] So much for reading the fathers “on their own terms.”

Chapter 4 contains a discussion of Tertullian (about 5 pages) and Origen (about 35 pages). His treatment of the latter reflects a growing scholarly consensus on a re-reading of Origen’s understanding of allegory and history in Origen’s exegesis, namely, that Origen’s “spiritual” (or allegorical) sense of Scripture was not intended to supplant the literal. However, here Barth’s specter raises its head again in his discussion of Origen’s view of the historicity of Adam and Eve. Bouteneff argues that “…Origen’s ambivalent treatment of paradise leaves ambiguous their status as historical persons” (110). Later he concludes that “…even if Origen had no particular reason to doubt Adam’s historicity, it is of no consequence as such to his theological vision” (112). Once again, it seems the unwitting college or seminary student is being prepared to accept a broad Neo-Orthodox paradigm through a study of the church fathers. On this point, Bouteneff seems more concerned about how Origen fits with modern theological paradigms than with his stated goal of reading the fathers “on their own terms.”[8] Aware of this flaw, the reader can still benefit from his helpful discussion of Origen’s thoroughly Christocentric exegesis (115-16).

Chapter 5 is an extended discussion of the Cappadocian Fathers, prefaced by a very short discussion of Cyril and Athanasius. Bouteneff’s brief discussion (2 pages) of the latter is simply a continuation of his apparent Neo-Orthodox apology. He alleges that for each of these fathers Adam is simply a “timeless element in an ongoing story” (122) and “something of a mythical figure” (123). His treatment of the Cappadocians is more detailed, and focuses a great deal on their relationship to Origen. While other aspects of their interpretation of the creation narrative are not neglected, special attention is given to their understanding of the historicity of Adam. As before, his importance is viewed largely in Pelagian or semi-Pelagian terms, sifted through a modern “Barthian” grid (138-39, 150-51, 166, 173-75). Bouteneff never seems to deal with the burning question: if it is not necessary to believe in the historicity of the first Adam, why believe in the historicity of the second Adam? The book concludes with a collective summary of the father’s views on the Hexaemeron in general, Paradise, and Adam, as well as a concluding analysis of their understanding of the hermeneutical issues related to allegory, type, myth, and history.

We do not have the space in this review to engage all of Bouteneff’s arguments regarding the early Patristic views on the creation narratives. We will have to limit our critical interaction to his exposition of Irenaeus’s view of the historicity of Adam. As noted above, Bouteneff claims that “Adam…has a primarily symbolic function for Irenaeus” and that his historic existence “is not a factor in the discussion” (84). In other words, Bouteneff maintains that the historicity of Adam is non-essential in Irenaean theology. He may have affirmed it, but it is simply not important in his theology.

We do not have the space to engage in a full-fledged defense of an Augustinian reading of texts like Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. Our point here lies with Bouteneff’s reading of Irenaeus: is Adam’s historicity theologically essential for him?  Let us listen to Irenaeus’s own words. In Against Heresies, 5.16.3, Irenaeus speaks of the God

…whom indeed we had offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform His commandment. In the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death.[9] 

Note the parallel: we offended God “in the first Adam (en men tw prwtw Adam), when he did not perform His commandment.” His sin was our sin; his offense, our offense; his disobedience, our disobedience. Likewise, “in the second Adam (en de deuterw Adam) …we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death.” For Irenaeus, the first Adam’s historical disobedience is as theologically important as the second Adam’s historical obedience: the latter is recapitulatory of the former. There is an actual, historical-temporal solidarity that binds Adam to his descendants—a solidarity that cannot be reduced to exemplaristic categories. For Irenaeus, we “offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform (mh poihsanteV) his commandment.” The aorist active participle “poihsanteV” is accurately translated with the word “when” or “after,” and indicates a past completed action.[10] In other words, it throws the emphasis on the time in which we are reckoned to have “offended in the first Adam.” His thought is not that we are presently offending God when we imitate Adam’s bad example, but that we had offended (prosekoyamen - note the aorist) God when (poihsanteV) Adam did not perform his commandment. The aorist tense serves to underscore not merely the mythical-symbolical, but rather the temporal-historical solidarity between Adam and his descendents (they are “en...tw prwtw Adam”). They sin not only as he sinned or after the pattern of his sin, but they sinned when he sinned (cf. Rom. 5:14).[11]

Another passage from Against Heresies (5.14.1) indicates that Irenaeus not only affirmed, but also attributed fundamental theological significance to Adam’s historicity:

[Christ] had Himself been made flesh and blood after the way of the original formation [of man], saving in his own person at the end that which had in the beginning perished in Adam.[12]

For Irenaeus, the creation of the first historical Adam provides the pattern for Christ’s incarnation. The same nature of the first man which had been corrupted was purified through a true incarnation. Christ, the second Adam, had to be made flesh and blood in the same way as the first Adam. This is not merely a theologically indifferent affirmation of Adam’s historical existence, but an attribution of fundamental theological (recapitulatory) significance to such historicity.

This point is further underscored by Irenaeus’s earlier comments in Against Heresies, 3.21.10. Though lengthy, it is necessary to have Irenaeus’s own words before us so we can read him “on his own terms”: 

For as by one man’s disobedience sin entered, and death obtained [a place] through sin; so also by the obedience of one man, righteousness having been introduced, shall cause life to fructify in those persons who in times past were dead. And as the protoplast himself Adam, had his substance from untilled and as yet virgin soil (“for God had not yet sent rain, and man had not tilled the ground”), and was formed by the hand of God, that is, by the Word of God, for “all things were made by Him,” and the Lord took dust from the earth and formed man; so did He who is the Word, recapitulating Adam in Himself, rightly receive a birth, enabling Him to gather up Adam [into Himself], from Mary, who was as yet a virgin. If, then, the first Adam had a man for his father, and was born of human seed, it were reasonable to say that the second Adam was begotten of Joseph. But if the former was taken from the dust, and God was his Maker, it was incumbent that the latter also, making a recapitulation in Himself, should be formed as man by God, to have an analogy with the former as respects His origin. Why, then, did not God again take dust, but wrought so that the formation should be made of Mary? It was that there might not be another formation called into being, nor any other which should [require to] be saved, but that the very same formation should be summed up [in Christ as had existed in Adam], the analogy having been preserved.[13]

Here Irenaeus draws attention to the recapitulatory analogy (anakefalawqhomoiothtoV) between the formation of the first and second Adam. As it was (quemadmodum) with the first Adam, so also (sic et) it is with the second. Even as the first Adam was formed by the Word of God without a father and from the “virgin soil,” so also the second Adam was formed by God through the Virgin Mary. Like Adam, he is born without a Father, but in such a way that he truly assumes the substance (substantiam) of man so as to “gather up Adam [into himself], from Mary.” 

In this passage, Irenaeus not only affirms Adam’s historical existence, but attributes to it profound theological (yea, incarnational!) significance. Indeed, we would go so far as to say that for Irenaeus, a denial of the historicity of Adam is as inimical to Christianity as a denial of the true manhood and incarnation of Christ. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, if there was no creation of an historical Adam then Christ became incarnate in vain. It was necessary (edei / oportebat) that the “very same formation” (autoV ekeinoV / eadem ipsa) that is characteristic of the first Adam be summed up in the second. Therefore, we can hardly conclude (with Bouteneff) that in Irenaeus’s theology Adam’s historic existence is “not a factor in the discussion” (84). Nor can we say that “Adam’s creation and predicament represent those of the human person generally” (ibid.). On the contrary, Irenaeus attributes significance to Adam’s formation and disobedience that finds it’s only parallel in the formation and obedience of the second Adam, and not in any other human individual or humanity in general.

The greatest strength of this book is how it points to the Christocentric exegesis of nearly all of these early Greek fathers. This book is just as much about Biblical interpretation as it is about early readings of Genesis 1-3. Readers of this journal will be happy to find so many kindred spirits in the early church. Furthermore, the book is also very well-written in smooth academic prose. The major weakness of this book is that it fails to live up to its stated goal of reading the fathers “on their own terms.” At many crucial theological points, this book reads much more like a Patristic primer for a Barthian reading of the Genesis narrative. In our opinion, those truly interested in reading the fathers “on their own terms” will have to turn elsewhere.[14] The best place to go, of course, will be to the primary documents. At the very least, those interested in the patristic understanding of Genesis 1-3 will find this book helpful in locating the relevant passages scattered throughout the writings of these fathers. If one follows the citations and utilizes Bouteneff’s commentary critically, this book can serve a very useful purpose in exploring the early church’s understanding of these marvelous chapters of sacred Scripture. This book does have its strengths. The author has clearly read his sources, and will expose the reader to the Christocentric richness of much Patristic exegesis. Bruised and broken sons of Adam will find their exegesis and proclamation of the second Adam sweet balm for their helpless souls. But because of the major interpretive and theological weaknesses outlined above, we must regrettably say that most (Augustinian) readers of this journal will find that one of the best things about Bouteneff’s Beginnings is that it eventually came to an end.

—Benji Swinburnson

[1]  Previously reviewed in Kerux (19/3 [December 2004]: 38-40) by James T. Dennison, Jr. 

[2]  “The transgression, too, is an ongoing reality or activity; Scripture does not present the fall of man as an event but as humanity gone awry…it is not because Adam sinned that everything is askew; it is because everyone is sinning” (8). A rejection of the historicity of Adam and Pelagian soteriology go hand in hand. If the former is rejected, Adam’s only soteriological function can be to serve as a symbolical-mythical example which humans imitate. 

[3]  Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (2001) 22.

[4]  For example: “The idea of ‘original sin’ as a causal factor lies not with Paul but with Jerome and, on the basis of Jerome’s translation, with Augustine. Neither in Paul nor in the rest of the Bible is there a doctrine of original guilt, wherein all are proleptically guilty in Adam” (41-42). 

[5]  In his Letter to Autolycus (2.14), Theophilus compares the movement of the growth of a tree to the resurrection from the dead. His words are: “Consider, further, their variety, and diverse beauty, and multitude, and how through them resurrection is exhibited, for a pattern of the resurrection of all men which is to be. For who that considers it will not marvel that a fig-tree is produced from a fig-seed, or that very huge trees grow from the other very little seeds?” Must this be classified as allegory? In our mind, it is no different from the apostle Paul’s use of agricultural imagery to describe the resurrection of the dead in 1 Cor. 15:35-38. Christ himself, in John 12:23-26, spoke in a similar manner. Theophilus’s hermeneutic seems in keeping with that of the NT (and especially Jesus) on this point, where the natural world everywhere contains, as it were, a parable of the supernatural.

[6]  As we shall see, this is a theme that will recur throughout the book.

[7]  This is no mere conjecture on our part. On pages 45-46, Bouteneff actually cites (approvingly) Barth’s famous take on the fall narrative in Genesis 2-3.

[8]  In private correspondence with this reviewer, Bouteneff denied that his goal was to show how the fathers’ views on creation harmonize with the teachings of modern theology and science. However, we cannot help but feel that he has to some degree read the concerns of modern theologians regarding biblical history and science back onto the early fathers.

[9]ANF, 1:544

[10]  “…when a Greek present participle is translated by a temporal clause in English, the English word that introduces the temporal clause it naturally while, and when it is an aorist participle that is to be translated into English, the English word introducing the temporal clause is naturally when or after.”  J. Gresham Machen, New Testament Greek for Beginners (1923) 117.

[11]  This is not to deny that Irenaeus (and the NT writers) refers to Christ and the saints as an example for believers (cf. AH, 2.22.4, 4.27.3, 4.5.5, 4.31.1). It is to affirm, however, that the significance of the obedience of Christ and the disobedience of Adam cannot be reduced to mere exemplarism, as Boutenheff seems to maintain (8).

[12]ANF, 1:541

[13]ANF, 1:454

[14]  In fairness to Bouteneff, he does provide a mild disclaimer on page xiv when he tells us that the book “does not pretend to be an entirely disinterested study. Rather it seeks a purposeful discussion that highlights writers selected for their seminal importance in Christian theology and life, in particular within traditions such as my own.” However, at crucial points, we believe that these contemporary concerns have kept Boutenheff from an accurate portrayal of these fathers’s theology.