- Creation and Contingency in Early Patristic Thought: The Beginning of All Things by Joseph Torchia
Creation and Contingency in Early Patristic Thought: The Beginning of All Things
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019
Pp. 264. $95.00.
Is the world created ex nihilo or is it eternal? Or, in Plato's words, "it has existed always, having no beginning of generation, or [. . .] it has come into existence, having begun from some beginning" (Timaeus 28b, trans. W. R. M. Lamb). Theology—and science even—affirm that the world has a beginning, i.e., it is not eternal, and its beginning comes from nothing. But the simplicity of this statement should by no means deceive us, as it conceals centuries of disputes and refutations. The question of the eternity of the world consumed Greek philosophy, dividing it into those who argued for a world without beginning (e.g., Aristotle) and those who contemplated its generation (e.g., Plato, at least according to Aristotle, or, to name a twentieth-century exegete, Gregory Vlastos). Christian philosophers inherited the dispute and when they weren't resorting to deus ex machina arguments, they were developing sophisticated and substantial arguments against the philosophical claim of the world's eternity—up to the condemnation of the Aristotelian teaching in 1270 by the Bishop of Paris.
Joseph Torchia's book deals with the intricate problem of creation ex nihilo that challenged early patristic thought. Torchia convincingly reasons that the aim of the early fathers was not so much to emphasize the metaphysical formula of the creation ex nihilo, as to affirm the absolute contingency of the world in its relation to God. For the early fathers, Torchia points out, "an appreciation of true creatureliness was the great legacy of an understanding of the act of creation as ex nihilo" (xxvi).
The book is chronologically projected and follows a threefold division. The first part, "In the Beginning: Scriptural and Platonic Perspectives," provides an excursus on the fundamental texts of early Christian theologians, such as the Scriptures (as a "point of departure," especially Gen 1.1–2 and 2 Macc 7.28), Plato's Timaeus, and Middle Platonist interpretations of the Timaeus. [End Page 296] Torchia insists on the nuances and dissimilarities between the account on the creation of the world in the Timaeus and the literal readings of Plato by some of the Middle Platonists (Plutarch or Atticus).
The second part, "The Shape of Things to Come," provides an overview on one of the first encounters between the Timaeus and the book of Genesis. The first chapter develops on the consonance that Philo recognizes between Judaism and Platonism, to the point that it is difficult to tell whether Philo reads Genesis in a platonic key or the Timaeus in a Judaic manner. The second chapter deals with first-century fathers of the church. The first epistle of Clement receives particular attention, as Torchia challenges W. C. van Unnik's paper ("Is 1 Clement 20 Purely Stoic?," Vigiliae Christianae 4.3 : 181–89) regarding its thesis that the cosmology of the epistle does not replicate Stoic natural theology, as it was previously believed. Torchia argues that "the terminology, imagery and overall spirit of the epistle" (102) do indeed echo elements of the Stoic teaching.
The third part, "Forging the Doctrine," points towards early Christian writers up to the third century and their cosmogonies. The main authors that are discussed—who anchored their teachings not only in the Scriptures, but also on the platonic legacy—are Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Tatian the Syrian, and Theophilus of Antioch. A special chapter is dedicated to the Alexandrian School. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, Torchia points out, fathomed that God created everything by a "single instantaneous act" (183, 197). One of the main questions the author follows is how these Christian thinkers accommodate the book of Genesis with Plato's Timaeus (especially the account from 28b), without venturing too far from the Judaic teaching. Although they agree that the world is not eternal, their views on creation are sometimes contrasting. The whole section stresses well the idea of total contingency that emerged in early Christian thinking.