Friday, 2 January 2015

Book Review: Beginnings by Dr Peter Bouteneff

Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives
By Dr Peter Bouteneff
Baker Academic (2008)
ISBN: 0801032334
Price: £10.48 (Amazon UK)

In Beginnings, Dr Peter Bouteneff takes on the unenvied task of putting together an analysis of the various patristic understandings of the Biblical creation narrative, or Hexameron for short. The subject was briefly raised by Dr Bouteneff in his book ‘sweeter than honey’ where he explains a quite spirited discussion he had with a monastic friend on this matter, leading him to produce this book on various takes on the narratives. The text produces gives a well guided analysis of the allusions made the text by various writers from the 1st to 4th Centuries, ending with the Cappadocian Fathers.

The structure of the book makes it easily readable, and the depth in which Bouteneff goes is a clear display of his dedication to solving this highly polemical issue of “which is the Orthodox view of creation” often relating to the various creationism/evolution debates in the wider Christian community. Bouteneff does this this in a scholarly and simple manner, beginning with the earliest Christian sources, namely St Paul, the Apostolic Fathers and continuing on with the fathers and writers that followed. Bouteneff also takes the opportunity to explore the anthropological impact of the text on the writings of these fathers, allowing for the reader to see how the Patristic approach to Genesis 1-3 influenced the Patristic understanding of man’s place in creation.

As a reference text for exegetical study, the book does well to explore how the fathers approached the Hexameron, referencing their works in the context in which they were written and not passing any judgement or working with an agenda. This provides the reader with a well surveyed analysis of the writers of these Early Christian thinkers on a topic which can be complicated at the least. The text is also full of key references and cross references to other thinkers whose work influenced these points, allowing for a growth in understand of any consensus points. 

The key strength of this work is that it does not presume that the reader has a knowledge of the fathers, allowing anyone to pick up and read up on these points without having to be an authority on the subject. It also does what many more expensive academic texts do, and for a fraction of the price, giving the reader an overview and well written analysis of a complex subject with clear reference to the text and without the risk of agenda or bias.
A weakness of the text comes from the very topic, in that there is little to no real conclusion to be had. Bouteneff admits this from the start and does not try to delude the reader into expecting to find out the ‘consensus of the fathers’ on the issue of the Evolution/Creationism debate or solving the matter of the ‘6 day creation,’ simply pointing out that there is an acceptance of allegory on the condition that it does not take away from the historicity of God as creator. This means that many of the old debates are still left open, though the more moderate of readers would appreciate the clarity given by Bouteneff in this synopsis.

Overall, Beginnings is a good outline text for someone who wishes to understand the approach of Patristic writers on the creation narrative, and a well written text which allows for any level of reader to approach the subject. The book does not offer anything more to the ongoing debate on the ‘Orthodox approach’ to the Hexameron, but aims to give a synopsis of how the fathers read Genesis 1-3 and its impact on their Theology. It does this in a way that makes the book both a fulfilling and worthwhile read, and is certainly (in my view) a must read text on the matter.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Book Review: Remember the Days of Old by Dr. Augustine Casiday

Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage (Foundations)
By Dr Augustine Casiday
Baker Books Academic (20 Aug 2014)
ISBN: 0881414913
Price: £11.39 (Amazon UK)

In the latest addition to SVS Press’ Foundation Series, Dr Augustine Casiday covered the multifaceted and sometimes controversial issue of the Orthodox approach to the Patristic Heritage. The book ‘Remembering the Days of Old’ covers this issue in a well meaning and scholarly fashion, looking into the various approaches to Patristics and the transmission of this heritage into the Church today.

The texts starts by outlining what we mean by a Patristic Heritage and questioning what it is and what it is not. A key part of this opening section also looks at modern approaches to Patristics, including that of the influential Russian thinker Fr. Georges Florovsky in his Neo-Patristic Synthesis and its profound impact on the study of the fathers. From here, Casiday uses examples from the fathers to look at how we should approach the reading of the fathers to help us understand how this heritage of transmission occurs. This later moves on to other ways of transmitting the Patristic heritage, such as through the Creed and Symbols, finishing off with an analysis of how we move forward from this.

The overall feel that this provides allows for the reader to become aquainted with the overall picture of the Orthodox approach to patristics before being submerged into these specific points. This helps with the flow of the texts and makes readable do a degree, regardless of it being a primarily academic piece of writing. As well as this flow, the book uses case studies to prove points. This helps to put the raised ideas in context. A good example of this is the various approaches of fathers of Origen, where Casiday intrododuces the reader to the issue of 'the consensus of the fathers' by displaying various views of Origen, doing the same later for Photius' treatment of the Filioque.

A weakness which i find in Casiday’s approach comes from the books primarily academic nature. The reason why this can be seen as a weakness is that it may throw some less academic readers off, especially when comparing this text to other parts of the foundation series. This means that some readers may struggle in the later sections of the book, especially those who are reading the book to understand the 'foundations' of the Orthodox understanding of the Patristic heritage. Though the book is not designed to be read as an introductory text, this is always an issue and does need to be mentioned.

Regardless of this challenge, Remember the Days of Old  is a good and firm text on the Orthodox approach to patristics, and dispels some common misconceptions which tend to emerge regarding the place of the fathers in the Church. Because of Casidays willingness to approach and discuss these common issues, the book is a worthwhile read for those who enjoy patristics and wish to understand how and why we read the fathers and I would certainly recommend it to those with an academic approach to their faith who have struggled to express this to others.