Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past


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Though I don't necessarily agree with the author's conclusions on Basil of Caesarea, Augustine, and others, nevertheless as long as he stayed with the patristic material it was highly informative. Allert works through the two ancient schools of biblical interpretation in Antioch and Alexandria and nicely explains the differences and how they worked. He spent quality and quantity time unpacking the ways Basil read Genesis One in the "Hexaemeron" and Augustine in his two main writings on the subject. The author's broadly stated intention for the book is "to give a window into the strange new world of the church fathers and how they understood creation themes in Genesis 1" 3 , and as long as he stayed on that task, he was successful.

Towards the beginning of the book "Early Christian Readings of Genesis One" twists it's ankle and hobbles through most of the material, sometimes regaining its pace, and at other times unable to do more than hop along. If you can filter out the squabbles and static, you will find it a useful read.


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This book would make a great addition to seminary level church history class. And it would be a valuable edition to a University library.


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  • It's a book worth getting. My thanks to IVP Academic for sending me a copy of this book used for the review. It was sent at my request, and without any strings or obligations attached.

    History Summarized: Spread of Christianity

    This review is therefore freely given. Format: Kindle Edition. Allert has a Ph. This book is about patristic interpretations of Genesis 1. Allert argues that the church fathers were heroes of the faith, that Protestant founders respected them, and that reading them provides a sense of continuity with the past. Chapter 2 essentially frames the discussion in the rest of the book. Allert critiques young-earth creationists who appeal to the church fathers to argue that the traditional position of Christianity is that God created the cosmos in six literal days.

    One version of their argument is to quote passages in which church fathers appear to interpret Genesis 1 as literal history. Patristic Exegesis in Context. But Allert also challenges how many scholars define the two schools, as he contends that the last fifty years of scholarship has undermined the conventional definitions. For one, the difference between the Antiochian and Alexandrian schools was not so much that the former valued history, whereas the latter did not.

    What motivated the Antiochian method of interpretation was a regard for rhetoric: the impact of a writing, particularly a narrative, in teaching an ethical lesson. Antiochians tended to focus on the narrative itself, whereas Alexandrians regarded texts as symbolic of spiritual or philosophical truths. And even here, both schools were not entirely consistent, for there are cases in which Origen an Alexandrian was more literalistic than some Antiochians. This chapter also argues that both the New Testament and also the church fathers did not practice the grammatical-historical method of biblical exegesis that young-earth creationists champion.

    Both interpret parts of Scripture in light of what they consider to be the larger Christian narrative rather than immediate context or authorial intent. Allert highlights examples in which Basil strayed from the literal and approached allegory, and he attempts to contextualize the occasions in which Basil appears to criticize allegorical interpretation. Chapter 5 is about creation ex nihilo. It discusses how pagans conceived of cosmic origins: Plato thought that the Demiurge formed already existing matter into an orderly cosmos, whereas others believed the universe simply was, which precludes design or intent behind it.

    Focusing on Theophilus of Antioch, Ephrem the Syrian, and Basil of Caesarea, Allert shows how a belief in creation ex nihilo was significant in their interpretation of Genesis 1, and what they believed was at stake. A goal of this chapter is to demonstrate that the church fathers had their own concerns, quite different from those of young-earth creationists. Chapter 6 talks about the days of Genesis 1.

    Bible Interpretation: 4 Challenges and How to Overcome Them

    This chapter, like the previous one, looks at Theophilus, Ephrem, and Basil. There was a tendency among some fathers to take the surface level of the text at face value: Basil, for instance, tries to account for the sequence of the creation order. A significant question in this chapter concerns what the light was that God created before God created the sun, moon, and stars. But there was also a patristic tendency to seek a deeper spiritual meaning in the days of Genesis 1, about the spiritual life, salvation history, or eschatology.

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    Allert also refers to an example of Basil rejecting a literal interpretation of biblical cosmology. Chapter 7 focuses on Augustine. Augustine seems to question a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. He thinks God created everything simultaneously. Chapter 8 is about being like Moses. Moses was meek, but, according to Basil, Moses also contemplated creation when he was fleeing from Pharaoh. Some of my reactions: A. The church fathers should not simply be quote-mined, but they should be appreciated on their own terms.

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    The spiritual and eschatological interpretations of Genesis 1 that Allert highlighted were intriguing and edifying. Chapter 3, which is about the Antiochian and Alexandrian schools, is lengthy around sixty pages , but it is important for people who want to enter scholarship on this field, or who desire a more nuanced understanding of the two schools. That said, Allert said more than once that the Antiochians did not conceive of historia as grammatical-critical interpreters conceive of history, and he was a little unclear about how this was the case.

    He said that they interpreted fiction literature as well. But the important question, I think, is this: Did they believe that the events of Genesis 1 happened as narrated? It seemed to me that a lot of the church fathers Allert profiled believed that the events of Genesis 1 occurred as narrated.

    Ockham theorized on three possibilities of the relation of Scripture and the Church. First there was Sola Scriptura , that one could obtain salvation by following Scripture alone; second, that God does reveal truths to the universal Church, an ecclesiastical revelation supplemental to apostolic revelation; and third, the concept of orally transmitted apostolic revelation parallel to written Scripture. Ockham believed that one could reach God only through faith and not by reason. He wrote that universals, such as truth, beauty, and goodness, were concepts of the mind and did not exist, a philosophy known as Nominalism.

    Thus began the division of the realm of faith from the secular world of reason. The rise of Nationalism led to the end of Christendom, for countries resented any effort to support Rome, especially in its dismal state. Dissemination of new ideas followed the invention of the movable type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany; his very first printing was the Latin Vulgate Bible in The stage was set for the reform-minded Martin Luther , the Augustinian monk of Wittenberg, Germany.

    He received his doctorate in theology in , and then taught biblical studies at the University of Wittenberg.


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    His study of Scripture, particularly St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, led him to believe that salvation was obtained through justification by faith alone.

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    At first, his only interest was one of reform when he posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church October 31, But the intransigence of the Church and poor handling of the situation by the Pope and Curia only worsened matters, such that a break was inevitable. In a July debate with the Catholic theologian Johann Eck, Luther stated that Sola Scriptura - Scripture alone - was the supreme authority in religion. He could no longer accept the authority of the Pope or the Councils, such as Constance.

    In Luther published three documents which laid down the fundamental principles of the Reformation. In Address To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation , Luther attacked the corruptions of the Church and the abuses of its authority, and asserted the right of the layman to spiritual independence. In the Babylonian Captivity of the Church , he defended the sacraments of Baptism, Eucharist, and Penance, but criticized the sacramental system of Rome, and set up the Scriptures as the supreme authority in religion.

    In The Freedom of the Christian Man , he expounded the doctrine of salvation through justification by faith alone.

    Interpreting Christian History

    The Augsburg Confession of , written by Philip Melanchthon and approved by Martin Luther, was the most widely accepted Lutheran confession of faith. Once Sola Scriptura became the norm, it became a matter of personal interpretation. Huldrich Zwingli of Zurich, Switzerland was next, and he broke with Luther over the Eucharist, but his sect died out. The Anabaptists separated from Zwingli as they denied the validity of infant baptism; they survived as the Mennonites.

    While he agreed with Luther on the basic Protestant tenets of sola scriptura, salvation by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers, he went even further on such issues as predestination and the sacraments.

    Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past
    Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past
    Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past
    Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past
    Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches Past

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