Review: Commentaries on Genesis 1-3 (Ancient Christian Texts)

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IVP-Academic has done it again. In seeking to provide to the wider Christian community an ancient connection – something more ancient than Calvin, although their works on the Reformation are equally important – which is as relevant to today’s theological situation as they were when they were first written, they have opened up hidden commentaries which are now for the first time translated into English. The late Dr. Robert C. Hill and ]] provide a clear translation of two different writers and their use of Genesis. And their use of Genesis is, in fact, different.

The editor, ]], introduces the volume but calling attention to the importance of this section of Genesis,

The importance of the first three chapters of Genesis to early Christian theological reflection is profound and must not be underestimated…. The exegetes translated in this volume derive from very different contexts.

He goes on to relate the history of both exegetes. Not only do these contexts play an important point in the history of these texts, but also in the way they were formed. Severian of Gabala, while a political enemy of Chrysostom, was an extreme literalist when it came to interpreting the text and thus considered in the same exegetical camp as the Golden Mouth (which explains why these works were attributed to him). Bede relied heavily on allegory. As Glerup points out, their differences weren’t merely in style, but in foundational aspects as well. Severian used the Septuagint while Bede used the Latin Vulgate translated from the Hebrew Scriptures. Other differences separated the them, and yet, both were accepted and preserved. And in doing so, we see today some of the absurdity of Severian’s claims, namely that of the flat earth model – however, his view is supported by Scripture and provides for him a connection to the Tabernacle of Moses. We also see Bede’s geocentrism. What we see on top of that is the evolving nature of Christian interpretation of Genesis based on an interaction with science. All of this is neatly, and plainly, stated in the introduction by Glerup.

Reading Severian’s commentary shows a connection to earlier writers, as most note, but I would also go so far as to say that either the Bishop had read Philo or he had read and used someone who had read Philo, especially in noting Moses’ purpose in writing the first account of Creation as found in Genesis. (See Homily 1, p24-25 regarding the use of Creation as a shadow of the Law to come.) Equally interesting is Severian’s rage against pagan influences at the time, and his constant rant against heretics, but his search for the creation of the ‘scientific’ (i.e., Greek) elements of the time – earth, fire, wind, and water – is based in pagan science. There is too much to be said of Severian which is not fitting for a review; however, his commentary is important today to both those who take Genesis 1 as scientifically literal and those who seek to take it literal within the context of the original author(s). The translators have provided an ample commentary to Severian which only adds to the worth of having these homilies translated for the first time into English.

]] provides the introduction and the translation to Bede’s work, as well as providing the quintessential statement for this series of books:

Bede’s word…is but a microcosm of our world. The need to penetrate our culture with the gospel is as urgent and compelling our day as it was for Acca and Bede in theirs. Bede had inherited from the Fathers a Christian theology of history. Human history, he believed, is the working out of God’s plan of salvation…. The Christian’s task is no less today. (p109)

For Hardin, Bede’s study of Genesis, for his audience and for ours, is an essential tool in reaching the culture for Christ. So, with great care, the translator presents Bede’s work for those who seek to show the theological depth of the Genesis account.

What is the value of a book such as this, and indeed this entire series? In my opinion, it is to reconnect Protestants and even Catholics to a long and deep history of Christian theological expression so that we can find our way again. As our Christian-influenced (I use this term lightly and broadly) culture collapses, we must understand that Christians of the past have seen the same epochal events coming their way, and in a time of intense cultural pressure, turned to the Scriptures and to the writers before them to secure to themselves an anchor in the storm. This series, and others like it by Intervarsity Press, shows us that ‘the history of humanity’s present failure and future deliverance derive from a serious study… (109 – Hardin supplies Genesis in relation to Bede’s work)’ the Scriptures and how Christians of the past have used them to build up the Church. There is immense value in this serious, and the more so in this book showcasing two different commentaries on the Book of Genesis. Both of these views on Creation were preserved by the same Church as invaluable to itself although they started and ended at different points. The lesson which we have as Christians is that we must learn that there is a generous allowance of orthodoxy on these matters and while we must interact with the culture around us, which includes science and the like, we may develop different methods of understanding Scripture. Even with these differences, we must not let them so easily separate us as those who hold to varying view of Creation do today. The value of these books is to show the remarkable strength of Christianity.

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