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.


  1. Wow! This looks phenomenal! I've come across a rather unsettling number of individuals who consider the Genesis account of Adam and Eve allegorical, so I'm very curious to know what is written in this book. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Thanks for the response John. The Book is certainly a good study and shows the variety of responses taken by Patristic scholars.

    I see no issue with a partically allegorical interpretation as the text was never meant as a Scientific account (Some such as Blessed Augustine and St Gregory of Nyssa take issue with absolute literalism), though the issue with allegory comes with the taking of away of the 'historicity' of the act of creation (not just the interpretation of details like how long a day is) and taking God out of the equation.

    Allegory is a dangerous route to take on the text, though claiming it as scientific fact can also lead to some quite tragic flaws, as demonstrated by the 18th Century 'dating method' which puts the world as younger than many of its trees. The fathers had no consensus on the date of the Earth and saw it as of no consequence to faith, as the message of the text and its Theological points were more important, though again this is disputed by others. I see this as an important lesson to Christians today, who spend more time arguing this than understanding the meaning of the text in our Spiritual lives.

    Overall, the variety of approaches in the fathers demonstrates how broad the understandings of the creation is, which makes it a fascinating subject and worthy of far more study than the usual 1 sided writings give it.