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TORCHIA, Joseph. Creation and Contingency in Early Patristic Thought: The Beginning of All Things.

TORCHIA, Joseph. Creation and Contingency in Early Patristic Thought: The Beginning of All Things. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2019. xxxiv + 228 pp. Cloth, $95.00--A sentence like "Greek philosophers held that the world existed eternally, while Jews and Christians held that God created the world out of nothing" has surely been spoken in countless undergraduate classes in philosophy or theology. Joseph Torchia, in his book on creation in early patristic thought, shows that the matter was far more complex on both the Greek and the Christian sides.

A few classic passages, cited over and over, form the basis for the discussion. On the Greek side, Plato, in the Timaeus, wrote of a Demiurge who was the "Maker and Father" of the whole, a passage that was sometimes interpreted (even by pagans) as implying a creation of sorts. In the same work, Plato wrote of the Receptacle, the "Nurse of all Becoming," which is some kind of primal stuff. These passages were discussed endlessly by later philosophers.

On the biblical side, two texts were key. The obvious one was Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The other was 2 Maccabees 7:28, words that the mother of the seven sons spoke to her last son after the other six had been killed at the order of King Antiochus for refusing to eat pork: "I beseech you, my son, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed"--or, in another possible translation, "God made them out of things that did not exist" (RSV). This text contains the phrase that was crucial to Christian teaching on creation, "out of what was not"--in the Greek of the Septuagint, ouk ex onton (later expressed as ex ouk onton). Torchia's book is a search for the point in the development of early Christian thought at which "creation out of nothing" was clearly and unequivocally understood and affirmed.

Few of the terms employed by ancient authors on this topic can be understood univocally. Torchia rightly supplies Greek terms freely in the course of his exposition. For example, Greek nouns of agency like poietes, ktistes, or demiourgos recur over and over. To translate these words as if their meaning were obvious begs the question. Surely, "Father" has different senses in the Timaeus and in the New Testament. As Torchia shows, it is a mistake even to assume that these terms had the same clarity of meaning in pre-Nicene Christian writers--even in Origen--dial they (supposedly) have in fourth-century creeds and in expositions of the creeds.

Torchia's book is clearly and carefully structured. In the first part of the book, he engages the two poles of the subsequent development: the scriptural point of departure and Plato's teaching on cosmic origins. Then, in an extended treatment, he passes through the complex and shadowy world of Middle Platonism.

The second part of Torchia's book deals with the first and early second centuries--that is, with Philo Judaeus and the Apostolic Fathers. Philo assumed the consonance of the creation narratives in Genesis with the Timaeus, an assumption that had profound consequences, positive and negative, for later Christian development.

In the third and most important part of the book, Torchia traces the evolution and elaboration of the doctrine of creation in several pre-Nicene Christian writers: the apologists Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Tatian the Syrian, and Theophilus of Antioch, and the Alexandrian theologians Clement and Origen. Inevitably, this history is seen as the move to a predetermined goal, namely, a clear understanding and formulation of creation "out of nothing," exnihilo or ex ouk onton. The path was a complex one. One sticking point was inevitably the haunting suspicion of some substrate, some preexisting chaos or primal matter that God might shape or give intelligibility to. These authors were making tentative steps toward clarifying their thought on these terms. The Christian Platonist Justin Martyr flirted with the concept of "out of formless matter" (ex amorphou hyles) in his interpretation of Genesis. Athenagoras, by contrast, affirmed that matter is created without clearly affirming ex nihilo. Tatian affirmed the causal dependence of all things, beginning with matter, on God, but did not invoke the formula ex ouk onton. The development reached a point of completion when Theophilus of Antioch proposed a clearly defined theory of creation ex nihilo and "placed the Christian theology of creation on a new trajectory." Theophilus famously asked, "What would be remarkable, if God made the world out of preexistent matter?"

In this meticulously crafted book, Torchia carefully portrays the earliest Christians' use of Greek philosophy (especially the Timaeus) to interpret biblical texts, and then the gradual separation from, and growth beyond, pagan philosophy to craft a unique and clearly formulated Christian doctrine of creation. Torchia has made a useful contribution to the understanding of this crucial development.--Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., Fordham University
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Author:Lienhard, Joseph T.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2020
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