Christians often debate what the Bible teaches about the age of the universe. Inevitably, the way the church has read Genesis through the ages is invoked. Here the early church fathers make an appearance. If the church has read Genesis 1 as predominantly teaching that the days are 24 hours, then this should inform how we read Genesis 1. How did the early church read Genesis 1? Craig D. Allert answers this question in Early Christian Readings of Genesis One.
We will first highlight his discussion on why the church fathers are important. Next, we will highlight two goals that run through Allert’s book. These will then be fleshed out with specific examples. Finally, we will summarize how this book can help us in understanding Genesis 1 and modern debates.
Allert’s first chapter introduces who the church fathers are and why they are important. Although the phrase “church fathers” is used in various ways and the dates given vary too, Allert settles for 451 AD. Thus, only those who came before 451 AD can be church fathers. However, not every Christian writer before 451 AD is a church father. Instead, drawing on Vincent of Lerins’ classic discussion, the church fathers must fulfill four criteria:
(2) Orthodox in doctrine
(3) Holy in life
(4) Approved by the church
The following are church fathers: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, and Chrysostom. This (partial) list includes some of the greatest theologians that have ever blessed the church.
One major reason we should read the church fathers is because they help us remember who we are. Both our churches and Christians as a whole have a history. There were men, women, and movements that went before us that helped shape us into who we are now. If we are unaware of this history, we have a form of amnesia. We need to remember where we come from in order to know who we are. The fathers shape our lives in profound ways. They hammered out orthodox doctrine on the Triune God and the person of Jesus Christ. They gave us the early creeds and confessions. They preserved the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Since our identities are bound up in our narrative history, the church fathers have contributed to our Christian identities in more ways than we know. So if we fail to know and appreciate the fathers, we lose our history and thus part of our identity. Allert likens this to being like Jason Bourne.
In the introduction, Allert gives four propositions that highlight what a responsible appropriation of the fathers looks like. First, we will understand the importance of the church fathers for Christians today. This has been highlighted in the previous paragraph. Kevin Vanhoozer likens the authority of church tradition to testimony.  Thus, the church fathers give a form of testimony as to how to read the Bible rightly and live the Christian life in obedience to the Triune God. Second, responsible appropriation will honor patient study over simplistic conclusions. Often we simply want the church fathers on our side as a form of weight and authority. This can lead us to do violence to their actual beliefs. As Boniface Ramsay says, “The Fathers have always been prominent in the life of the Church, and they have constantly been invoked for every sort of thing. But they have suffered from their prominence; they are famous but not well known. Like so many famous people, they are cited and alluded to, but few go to the effort of exploring their thought.” 
Third, our expectations of the Bible will affect how we interpret it. We all approach the Bible with cultural lenses. An easy example is how we often read “you” in Scripture as singular instead of plural. This is because of our individualistic culture. In other ways, our cultural situation affects our reading too. The fathers can help us see our own lenses by allowing us to see through theirs. We will often find their differing views odd and probably without any ground, but we need to make sure that is not simply because we are assuming our cultural lenses. Finally, responsible appropriation will pay attention to the context of the church fathers. While this might seem obvious, the church fathers are often used as prooftexts. Given that we have now introduced the church fathers, highlighted why they are important, and discussed responsible appropriation of them, we will now turn to Allert’s two prominent goals.
Polemics and the Strange New World
One of the main goals of Allert’s book is to show us how not to read the church fathers (in fact, this is chapter two). So one of Allert’s goal is polemical. He highlights a number of authors who misuse the church fathers. These examples are predominantly young earth creationists. Allert’s second main goal is to introduce the strange new world of the church fathers. Thus, the book is not simply concerned with polemics against young earth creationists. Instead, he wants to constructively show how the church fathers read Genesis 1 and Scripture at large. As noted, this is a very strange new world that is deeply different from how evangelicals read Scripture. Let’s look at these goals in more detail.
Although this goal is found throughout the book, it is a prominent concern of chapter two, “How Not to Read the Fathers.” Part of this is due to generalizations. Thus, church fathers are often split into “literalists” and “allegorists.” This generalization is simplistic at best, as we will see below. Here one of the chief “allegorists” is seen as Origen. However, while Basil is often highlighted as a literalist, he was largely a follower of Origen’s interpretational methods in On the First Principles. 
Another failure to read the church fathers rightly is seen in ignoring the literary context. Allert gives the example of James Mook painting Victorinus of Pettau as a literalist who affirmed a 24-hour view of the days of Genesis.  However, immediately after the citations from Mook, Victorinus “connect[s] numbers as symbols that express a reality not explicitly connected in Scripture.”  He is not quite the young earth creationist literalist.
A final example involves failing to read the church fathers in their larger context. This is seen primarily by the fact that Basil is read as a literalist. Basil, however, also held to simultaneous creation, a view classified under “allegorists.”  Moreover, Allert writes about Basil’s views,
As Patristics scholar Andrew Louth writes about Basil,
Let us now fill out the details of the strange world of the fathers.
The Strange New World
As mentioned above, the church fathers are often categorized as either literalists or allegorists. This is usually played out in the Antioch school seen as literalists and the Alexandrian school seen as allegorists. These terms themselves are problematic. Setting that aside, this view is a myth. While one can point to certain statements by people like Basil that are against allegory, these must be taken in context. The point is not against allegory outright, but a certain form. One sees this by attending to Basil’s larger thought. Allert highlights three features. First, Basil’s reading of natural phenomena with humanity’s situation. Thus, the creation of the sun and moon is highlighted such that the moon shows our own instability. Second, Basil often calls for a deeper reading. Finally, Basil engages.in explicit allegorization/spiritualization/figural reading. An example includes Basil going from the greater light being for illumination to discussing Jesus as the true light of the world that Christians participate in.
So what was the debate between these two schools of thought? It really stemmed from how the text should be read allegorically. Along what lines does the allegorical sense of Scripture arise. Here Frances Young is helpful, “Perhaps we should conclude that there was allegory and then there was allegory–reading texts symbolically and mystically was philosophical whereas reading texts to tease out a moral was rhetorical.”  The philosophical reading was focused on metaphysical readings while the rhetorical was focused on moral readings. As we can see above, Basil was from Antioch and influenced by the rhetorical school, so his readings are often moral in nature.
While there were differences, these is no “literal” school in the sense creationists mean. This is an anachronistic reading that fails to read the corpus and understand the context of the church fathers. We should not prooftext some of their indictments against allegory. In many ways, this was an intramural debate. Overall, then, “[t]o speak of any sort of grammatical-historical exegesis in antiquity is actually anachronistic.”  Allert even highlights a case study where Eustathius of Antioch faults Origen of Alexandria for focusing on the literal!
To bring the reader into the strange new world of the church fathers, Allert also looks at other topics besides Basil and literalism. Thus, he talks about how some of the church fathers read Genesis 1 as teaching creation out of nothing (ch. 5). He emphasizes that many of the church fathers saw the days of Genesis as simultaneous (ch. 6). Here he also talks about interesting readings from the church fathers that link the first day as being called day “one” with the Lord’s day. This day “one” thus serves as a figure for eternity and the world to come. He looks at how thinking about time and eternity profoundly influenced Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1 (ch. 7). Finally, he mentions Basil’s discussion of Moses as spiritual type for the Christian life (ch. 8). One simply cannot read these chapters and come away with the impression that the church fathers read the Bible the same way modern young earth creationists do. So where does this leave us?
This book should teach us that prooftexting the church fathers simply will not do. We must attend to all of their eccentricities. They read the Bible very differently than we do. If we want to move forward with the church fathers, we must deeply engage their thought. Maybe we will learn something.
With this in mind, using the church fathers as testimony to the young earth creationist interpretation of Genesis 1 is faulty. Their reading of the biblical text is so different from ours. While many of them saw the days as simultaneous, this does not entail that they are on the young earth creationist side. We must refuse to make the church fathers in our own image.
This is not to say what view the church fathers would take today. To speak on that subject goes beyond my purview because I simply have not engaged deeply with their thought. This is an area I am trying to grow, as we all should be. Allert’s study is invaluable in showing the ways we misuse and abuse the church fathers. He also helps us enter into their strange new world. In doing so, we are able to better enter into the strange new world of the Triune God’s word in the Bible. Ad fontes.