I’ve spent most of this year getting better acquainted with the Church Fathers, so I was happy to come upon a copy of Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter Bouteneff. Bouteneff, a professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, combines contemporary reflection and historical examination in this surprisingly easy read. The book begins with a preface addressing methodological issues, detours into a historical-critical examination of the creation narratives, continues with a chronological examination of the material from the Septuagint through the Cappadocians, and concludes with some theological reflection.
Beginnings contains far more than regurgitated line-by-line commentary on Genesis 1-3. The Fathers’ readings are related to the broad contours of their theologies and hermeneutical methods. The genealogies of recurring themes are traced so that the reader apprehends the process of exegetical maturation. Bouteneff’s theological reflections occur mostly in the introduction and conclusion so that they do not crowd the body text.
Although it contains a wealth of useful information, several noticeable flaws mar the work. After finishing the book, I wondered if it had been mistitled. Bouteneff’s ironically modern historical-critical reading of Genesis 1-3 is entirely unnecessary. How does his post-Enlightenment opinion about the text illuminate the ancient Christian readings? The survey of the Septuagint and Philo are not Christian either, and even though I recognize that they (the Septuagint more than Philo) provide the background for much Christian reflection, Bouteneff does not refer back to the material in that chapter often enough to warrant its inclusion.
The chapter on Paul is particularly disappointing. Why choose Paul rather than John or the whole of the New Testament? Revelation 21-22 is chock full of creation imagery, but is ignored. Bouteneff’s most prominent conclusion is that Paul does not offer an Augustinian account of original sin; his argumentation is dubious. He insists that Paul does not subordinate women to men in any way, committing him to an implausible exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:7-12. At the end of this chapter, we are one-third of the way through the book but have yet to move beyond the New Testament.
The chapters on the Fathers are better than the previous ones, but still frustrating. For one thing, the only Western theologian mentioned is Tertullian, who merits slightly less than five pages. Augustine is not mentioned at all; this is possibly because he is slightly later than the Cappadocians, but I suspect that Bouteneff’s strongly anti-Augustinian theological leanings encouraged the omission. In addition, the chapters are not optimally composed. Bouteneff spends much more ink than necessary developing each theologian’s overall theological vision. For example, of the 25 pages devoted to Origen, only about 10 deal directly with his reading of Genesis. Bouteneff moves from the general to the particular in such a way that the discussion of the creation narratives does not drive the book forward. Rather, it seems tacked on at the end of each chapter as an illustration of the theologian’s hermeneutical method. The overall effect of this presentation (besides the tediousness) is that the book becomes more about the theology and hermeneutics of the Greek Fathers than about readings of the creation narratives.
With only slightly more than 100 body pages dealing with the Fathers, some of which is squandered on irrelevant details, Beginnings makes a mediocre start at explicating the ancient Christian readings of the creation narratives. I doubt this book will be of great help to many students, and I strongly encourage those who do pick it up to read selectively. Likewise, Bouteneff’s theological reflections are of small use to evangelicals, who share little of his doctrinal outlook.