Paul Tyson

Andrew J. Brown: “Recruiting the Ancients for the Creation Debate”

Book reviewed by Paul Tyson, April 2024

Recruiting the Ancients for the Creation Debate 
by Andrew J. Brown
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2023; 366 pages.
ISBN 9780802874597, 1st edition, hardcover.

This is both a scholarly and delightfully accessible text in historical reception. In this book, Brown throws a very helpful light on how the six days (hexaemeron) of creation have been interpreted at key points in the past two thousand years.

Brown is largely writing for a modern and Western audience, yet he gives carefully explained attention to some key Eastern theologians who are very important in the first flowering of hexaemeron theology in the Patristic era. Contemporary scientific thinking has distinctly Western and post-nineteenth-century signatures, and thus our understanding of past voices is situated within a predominantly Western and very recent scientific mindset. This makes it incredibly easy for us to misappropriate Patristic, Medieval, Reformed, and even early-modern theologians when it comes to science and creation. Brown’s book is designed to make us aware of such misappropriation and to also enlighten us about the riches of our faith’s long and vigorous heritage in theological reflection on Genesis 1.

Given our contemporary scientific mindset, one might think that readers are going to have very little interest in pre-scientific interpretations of Genesis 1, particularly when Brown’s book focuses on the “figurative” versus “literal” axis of hexaemeron interpretation. But such disinterest would be a mistake. Brown’s very accessible descriptions of great historical theologians on this highly important theology of creation passage of Scripture has much to teach anyone interested in science and creation today. In my experience, Christian lovers of science can be uninformed about sophisticated non-modern creation theology developments in the distant past, so Brown’s book is a very helpful corrective of that lack. Readers who have come to love history-of-science-and-religion scholars like Peter Harrison will recognise a very similar style of inquiry in this book. Indeed, Harrison blurbs the back cover in justly glowing terms and was one of Brown’s doctoral supervisors.

The organising aim of this exercise in historical reception is to explore how high-profile pre- and early-modern theologians have recently been “recruited”—typically in a cavalier and anachronistic manner—by both literalist and figurative contemporary interpreters of Genesis 1. These recruitments are then used as putative authorised grips in the mud-wrestling pit of contemporary Christian science and creation disagreements. Brown thinks contemporary outlooks on the meaning of Genesis 1 can be greatly enriched by engagements with our pre-nineteenth century theological giants, but that they cannot be directly recruited for the particular set of “science and religion” problems that our current historical situation puts us in. In effect, pre-modern authorities allow us to see the peculiarities of how we interpret Genesis 1, by virtue of them not sharing our interpretive assumptions, and not sharing our natural philosophy and “religious” lifeworld.

The take-home message of Brown’s book is that no contemporary treatment of scientific questions as interfaced with the hexaemeron, has any directly translatable relation to the interpretive outlook of hexaemeron theologies that predate Darwin. The ancients cannot be meaningfully “proof texted” as obvious allies in contemporary disputes.

For example, unpacking patristic thinkers, Brown points out that the nuanced “figurative” leanings of thinkers like Basil and Augustine are not grounded in a contest between age-long natural developmental processes and young-earth creationism. Rather, sophisticated ancients were drawn to an instantaneous theorising of creation entirely outside of time (as favoured by Origen, and as ambivalently attractive to Basil and Augustine) which then makes the six days in some sense figurative. It is also the case that the gnostic and Platonist outlooks of the early Christian world were richly mythopoetic, super figurative, creatively numerological, and spectacularly hermeneutically flexible in ways that made a more literalist outlook almost necessary to preserve basic theological truths about the relation of God as Creator to the natural world. Modern natural history was not imaginable in these contexts, there were strongly competing natural philosophies (different sciences) among non-Christian intellectuals to start with (which Basil mocks), and modern notions of the autonomy of science from theology and philosophy were simply not imaginable. For these reasons, none of our “literal” and “figurative” concerns were remotely in view for patristic theologians. Brown goes on to show how the relation between scriptural theology and natural philosophy continually evolves in the Middle Ages through to pre-nineteenth-century modernity. But again, the concerns of theologians prior to our times have nothing to directly say to our difficulty in trying to reconcile any reading of Genesis 1 with modern (functionally materialist) secular naturalism and contemporary (methodologically atheist) accounts of natural history. And let us be disturbingly honest for a moment: perhaps there is no satisfactory deep reconciliation possible here.

There are reasons why both theistic evolutionists and young-earth creationists are likely to roll their eyes over a book on hexaemeron reception. Contemporary “figurativists” are certain that the literalists have an impossible understanding of Genesis 1 as literature, and a preposterous disregard for demonstrated scientific truth. Further, young-earth creationists are seen by theistic evolutionists as the chief Christian villains in the entirely unproductive and historically fabricated war of science against religion. On the other hand, contemporary literalists are certain that the figurativists have interpreted the straightforward revelation in the Scriptures to fit in with an interpretive outlook on nature defined by the Godless spirit of secular materialism and will do anything it takes to interpretively fit Scripture around contemporary scientific orthodoxy. It is likely that there is some degree of truth to both of these concerns. However, what we are still not doing is wondering—with the assistance of historical perspective—how the world we live in is shaping the way both “sides” understand the meaning of figurative and literal.

Brown’s book is carefully descriptive. The manner in which the meaning of figurative and literal interpretations of Genesis 1 has experienced profound shifts in meaning and emphasis over the past two millennia is his only point of concern. Whilst he points out the contemporary misappropriation of past theological authorities on all sides, he himself takes no side. Personally—as a philosophical theologian—I always find historians a bit annoying in how they sit so primly on the fence as regards the major interpretive bunfights of our times. I am more than happy to actively leap into the mêlée. But it is a complex mess, and I can see things I am prepared to fight about on both contemporary figurative and contemporary literalist sides, but I can’t sign up to either side in toto. This typically means no true team player for either side trusts me. But, if Brown is correct, both sides are almost certainly wrong about at least something, and interpretive frames are always shifting around and are usually (respecting the frailty of human knowledge) a matter of “make do” better or worse rather than a clean and decisive right or wrong. A bit more mutual regard for opponents, and a bit more nuance and recognition of genuinely hard problems, on all sides, would be beneficial.

When it comes to contemporary hexaemeron interpretation, I think this is much more complex than a choice between a scientifically sensible figurativism and a scripturally authoritative literalism. This complexity cannot be neatly side-stepped, as the significance of the hexaemeron to any serious Christian theology of creation is never going to go away. So, we still have some serious problems to identify (let alone solve) as we try and love God with all our minds when it comes to science and Christian theology, in our times. I think Brown’s book is very helpful in understanding how hard our interpretive challenge is, and I recommend it highly.