The Church Fathers Belong in Creation Debates. But Handle Them with Care.

On September 11, 2020, I found myself under a large tent, where 51 ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church had assembled for a COVID-era presbytery. They gathered to receive charges against me, initiating an ecclesiastical trial. I had published a book that affirmed the possibility of theistic evolution—a view regarded by some as dangerous.

Through that process, I became personally (and painfully) aware of how heated Genesis 1 controversies continue to be. My trial was ultimately dropped, but I was compelled to resign my pastorate and leave that denomination.

I still love the Reformed Presbyterian Church and am grateful for my decades as a student and minister among its people. But I grieve that such passions for certain interpretations of Genesis 1 lead to damaged relationships and truncated ministries. It should not be so.

There are already plenty of Genesis 1 studies on offer (including my own, called The Liturgy of Creation). But what the church really needs are more resources to help us engage these discussions more responsibly. Andrew J. Brown’s latest book, Recruiting the Ancients for the Creation Debate, is just such a resource.

Brown, an Old Testament lecturer at Melbourne School of Theology, takes no sides on the question of whether the six days of creation are literal or figurative days. Recruiting the Ancients is not an attempt to solve creation controversies. Instead, it surveys what historic church authorities had to say on the subject, arguing that they shouldn’t be enlisted as straightforward allies of this or that contemporary position.

The book is based on Brown’s earlier book on the same topic (The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3), which itself draws upon his PhD dissertation. In other words, the present volume is a highly developed, mature project.

Entering intellectual worlds

There are many facets to Genesis 1 controversies: theology, science, exegesis, and history, to name a few. Brown offers important guidance to improve our engagement with one of those areas: the witness of the early church fathers.

As he interacts with their ideas, Brown introduces readers to concepts like the world-week approach to Genesis 1, instantaneous creation, and double creation (where the creation of ideals precedes the creation of physical things), among other alternatives to a literal six-day model. Along the way, he describes different views on the relationship of God to time and Christological interpretations of the creation week, illustrating how Genesis 1 was interpreted to address the philosophical and pastoral needs of ages past.

The book’s 22-page introduction, while necessarily a bit dry in parts, outlines important points of methodology and the scope of the project. Most readers won’t be concerned with the finer points of a shift from the “history of ideas” movement to the “intellectual history” movement. But it is important that the author understands his field and transparently welcomes us into it.

Once the work is introduced, the rest of the book unfolds chronologically—and winsomely. Occasional dashes of humor remind us that theology does not have to be tense: “Origen sought to lead his ecclesiastical horse to exegetical water, but in the long run might only have brought the head”; “Augustine is the patristic equivalent of that athletic schoolmate who was always picked first for any sports team”; Aquinas’s use of “the phrase ‘twenty-four hours’ causes a little flutter of joy in some readers’ hearts.”

The book covers prominent early church figures like Clement, Origen, and Augustine; medieval theologians like Aquinas; and Protestant torchbearers like Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and the Westminster Divines.

Brown’s opening chapter on Origen is representative of his process. Origen famously espoused a non-literal view of the creation days. But all sides tend to paint him on cardboard. Cherry-picking quotes flattens Origen into a poster boy to champion or disparage. Instead, Brown helps us enter into Origen’s intellectual world. “At the center of Origen’s thought,” Brown explains, “was his ontology, that is, his concept of ultimate reality, a concept framed under the influence of his early immersion in the incipient Neoplatonism of the Alexandrian intellectual scene.”

That’s some pretty heady stuff! But understanding the ancients requires stepping into another world. Brown shows us Origen’s world at a level within reach for nonspecialists. Overall, his approach helps us replace the cardboard cutout with a three-dimensional, thinking human being.

Brown asks the question, “Can the fan of nonliteral interpretation safely rally Origen to his cause?” He answers, “Origen does offer a serious precedent for a figurative interpretation of the creation days, with the proviso that we should study his interpretive stance and decide how closely we identify with it.” Two pages of analysis follow, exploring Origen’s figurative views and the pastoral and philosophical aims influencing those conclusions. In other words, we cannot offer pat answers to “recruit” a complex thinker like Origin.

Readers seeking to pigeonhole historical Christian leaders will be disappointed. Brown does not shy away from pointing out instances where their views roughly align with a literal, six-day framework, or other views debated today. But he does much more than that, and we are better served learning what thinkers like Origen sought to accomplish within their own times so we might genuinely learn from them , rather than merely quoting (“recruiting”) them.

Responsible dialogue

Brown’s book is rich, insightful, and an example of historical responsibility. The past is not a mine where we dig for gems that suit our own settings and agendas; it is a different world to step into and learn from. “Until we experience the shock of the unfamiliar in any source more than about a century old and have scratched our heads [over it],” Brown writes, “we have probably not read it carefully enough.”

The book does have some shortcomings. Brown focuses on how church fathers viewed the creation days, whether literal or nonliteral, which is a fairly narrow topic. That limited focus certainly makes his project more manageable. But creation controversies today focus as much, if not more, on the nature of Adam. Given the aim of Brown’s project, it could have been strengthened by greater attention to the church’s historic views on this subject, even if including them might have proven overly ambitious.

It is also striking that the book features so many church fathers but no church mothers. Historically, of course, women have not had much voice in theological discourse. Furthermore, Brown’s stated focus is on those church leaders who are prominently cited in modern creation debates, and men like Augustine and Luther are cited most. So it is understandable that this book focuses exclusively on the voices of church men. But it would be edifying to hear from historic church women on creation as well.

These shortcomings are not really flaws in the book as Brown has framed it, and he can’t be faulted for not writing the book one might have preferred. But they do indicate the need for further inquiry into historic church views on Scripture’s account of creation.

All told, Brown has provided an important gift to the church in this volume. Perhaps most importantly, he has modeled the possibility of charitable, responsible creation dialogue. In my own work on creation, I consulted church fathers like Augustine, Origen, Luther, and Calvin (while my opponents drew heavily on the Westminster Standards). I am inspired by Brown’s work to go back and revisit my own use of the church fathers.

And Brown’s sensitivity to the need for fruitful conversation leaves me encouraged that, despite the contentiousness marking too much creation debate (including in my own case), a better path is possible.

Michael LeFebvre is a Presbyterian minister and a fellow with the Center for Pastor Theologians.

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