Mini Book Review – Gary Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection

Anderson book image

 

This is a reception-historical work by Anderson, who is Professor of Old Testament and Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.  Or at least he was at the time of publication, 2001.

The subject matter is the understandings of Adam and Eve in Christian and Jewish traditions up until early modern times, with Milton’s Paradise Lost functioning as something of an end-point.  Anderson arranges his book by allocating a chapter to a series of issues, in the sequence in which they arise in the Eden narrative (Gen. 2:4-3:24), that have proved theological touchstones in Jewish and Christian tradition.  And this narrative does act as the anchor point for some ongoing and important theological discussions:

  • Is there an angelic drama that precedes the events affecting the human characters in the Garden?
  • What was the nature of the sin in the Garden?
  • Was that sin sexual or not, and was marriage intended for within the Garden or not?
  • Who is more culpable, Adam or Eve?
  • How did the first transgression impact those to come?
  • How do Adam and Eve function as types of those to come, e.g. Christ and Mary respectively?

The last point is a good example of how a book like this can alert the reader to a line of thought of which s/he has not been very aware.  I did not appreciate how prominent Eve/Mary typological understanding has been in the history of Christian thought, partly thanks to a Protestant background.  Eve introduces death to the world, but her redemptress counterpart, Mary, introduces life to the world by bearing the chosen Son.  Anderson demonstrates not only through texts but the use of artworks such as Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling how such ideas are expounded, hinted at or sometimes undercut through visual symbolism as well as direct commentary.

Such is the task of reception-historical study – to notice the way biblical (and other, hopefully important) themes play out in human discourse, art and culture.  When the topics under discussion are as significant for Christian theology as many that appear in this book, the relevance of reading such a book soon becomes clear, as long as we are willing to step outside of our own little traditional stream and take time to understand the broader complexity of Christian theological and interpretive tradition as a whole, and even the history of ideas generally.  It is like having a three-way conversation about what is true; rather than simply reading the Bible for myself and coming to private opinions about what it means, I enter conversation with ancient and classical texts and thinkers who have exercised great influence over time, and the quest for truth becomes a three-way enterprise.  We are always richer for this kind of engagement.

Anderson, Gary A. The Genesis of Perfection. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.

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