Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering.
Ronald E. Osborn's Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering is an interesting and, one hopes, a helpful addition to the ongoing conversation about the question of human and cosmic origins in Christian circles. Osborn's particular contribution to the conversation involves his exploration of the moral problem of animal predation and suffering in light of what he calls "literalistic" readings of Genesis 1 (pp. 17-19). Another interesting angle here is the author's background in the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. Osborn quite consciously presents this work as an "open letter" to fellow Adventists struggling with questions of the tensions between Genesis and evolutionary science (p. 18). One consequence of this is that Osborn's conversation partners are often very conservative voices from within the Adventist church, and yet readers from other conservative, evangelical traditions will still find most of this book to be accessible and applicable.
Osborn himself admits that he is not a trained biblical scholar or theologian, but refers to himself as a "lay theologian" wrestling with the issues at hand (p. 39). That said, the author holds the PhD from the University of Southern California, with a particular specialization in the thought of Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin. He is, consequently, a trained philosopher and an excellent thinker, both of which are obvious throughout the book.
There are certainly moments where Osborn's lack of biblical training is obvious to the specialist, particularly in his reading of Genesis 1 in chapter 2 of Death Before the Fall. There is nothing really objectionable about Osborn's reading of Genesis, but he spends what seems to be an inordinate amount of time establishing concepts which are taken for granted by biblical scholars (e.g., the meaning of tob, or "day"), and he occasionally imposes foreign categories upon the biblical text (e.g., a distinction between "very good" and "perfect"). Still, he does depend on excellent work by others (e.g., Stott and Walton) and his overall reading is quite acceptable.
The book is laid out in two major parts. Part 1 deals with what Osborn refers to as "biblical literalism." He uses this phrase in distinction from "literal" reading. The former indicates an approach that demands the "scientific and historical harmony (or 'concord') of the primeval stories (Genesis 1-11) as defined by contemporary notions of scientific and historical objectivity, regardless of the actual weight of scientific and historical evidence" (p. 40). The latter refers to a "plain sense" reading of a given text, and may include symbolic or metaphorical interpretations (p. 25). Chapters 2-9 deal extensively with the problem of literalism, where Osborn argues that this type of approach to the Bible is not intrinsically Christian so much as it is intrinsically Modernist. He suggests that literalism is simply a form of philosophical foundationalism, and is thus little more than the mirror image to ideologies like radical atheisms (pp. 46, 58).
This portion of Osborn's work covers no truly new ground, but it is a very helpful overview of the epistemological questions at hand in a discussion of the relationship between the Bible and human origins. An element of particular note is the time, care, and attention Osborn gives to presenting accurate representations of various versions of literalism or creation "science" (e.g., his attempt to find the original source for a famous James Barr quote, pp. 50-1). This is, in fact, one of the most laudable elements of the work as a whole. There is a great deal of invective and vitriol on both sides of this particular debate, and Osborn tries very hard (with mostly good results) to give an honest examination to even ideas he clearly finds absurd. Others writing in this field would do well to note and emulate Osborn's irenic spirit.
This first section includes the aforementioned equation of literalism with foundationalism (chaps. 2-3); a helpful overview of certain elements of the philosophy of science, with a particular emphasis on the work of Kuhn and Lakatos that identifies creation "science" as a degenerating line of inquiry (chap. 4); an extended theological argument against literalism (chap. 5); a sociological and psychological exploration of the "enclave mentality" of literalism, focusing especially on its exclusivism and on its dismissal of all competing theories or readings a priori (chap. 6); an argument that creationism is a kind of Gnosticism (chap. 7); an overview of four historic scholars/ theologians whose interpretations of Genesis 1 do not fit the literalistic mould, including Barth, Calvin, Maimonides, and Augustine (chap. 8); and, finally, a positive epistemological argument in favor of a critical realism over and against the naive realism of foundationalist epistemologies (chap. 9).
Part 2 moves into Osborn's more novel argument, which is an exploration of animal predation and suffering as a moral and theological problem. The basic problem involves the question of how, apart from evolutionary processes, the violence and predation of the animal world came about, and what moral implications the conclusions on this issue might have. In chapter 10, Osborn explores three theories that he has encountered from biblical literalists, all of which begin with the initial presupposition that predation and violence were not features of creation, but were consequences of the Fall into sin. In each case predation is a negative outcome of human sin. But, Osborn argues, this creates an intractable moral problem as it implies that by condemning all of creation along with human beings, God is responsible for causing the suffering of an entire world full of morally innocent creatures.
Osborn himself suggests instead that violence and predation are design-features of creation, constructing his argument especially from Job 38-40 (pp. 15-26). By bringing the book of Job into the argument, Osborn takes the larger canonical witness seriously, and provides a helpful counterpoint to naive readings of Genesis 1-2. But Osborn does not want to leave the conversation with a simple acceptance of predation and violence as intrinsic to God's creative purposes. He still confesses discomfort with the notion of much of the suffering and death that is "natural" to the created order (p. 157). He also wishes to take seriously the New Testament teaching that "death is the final enemy" (p. 158).
Osborn's solution? "The destiny of humankind is not simply a recapitulation or recurrence, paradise lost, paradise restored. Rather, the end is greater than the beginning--and was always meant to be so through the mystery of the incarnation" (p. 159). Thus the incarnation of Christ brings about the beginnings of the radical redemption of all of creation, and is consistent with its eternal telos. Osborn suggests that predation and animal suffering are elements of original creative design, but that "creation was never a static golden age but [is] always an unfolding story with an eschatological horizon" (p. 159). That is to say, creation is process, and always was. This also necessarily involves what he calls "a high premium on creaturely freedom," and is thus consistent with free-will theisms, but may be very difficult to fit into the mould of classical theisms. As an aside, I see here an unacknowledged tension between Osborn's key biblical text, the book of Job, and his focus on creaturely freedom, given that the book of Job focuses heavily on divine sovereignty.
Osborn's final chapter explores the ethical outworkings of his preceding theology. This involves taking seriously the human responsibility to care for creation, and to behave ethically toward animals. Osborn also argues strongly for the rediscovery of the vital practice of Sabbath, in all its sacramental richness (here he shows his Adventist roots again). Both human beings and the land are to be offered Sabbath, which suggests an ethic of care and rest for the human person, as well as care and generosity toward the rest of God's creation (land, animals). Here again Osborn's work takes the form not only of a critique of "scientific" creationism per se, but of modernism more generally, equating the indifference toward the earth and the animal world that is all too common among Christians to Nietzsche's reprehensible ethic of the Ubermenschen.
The book as a whole is a valuable resource. It is well argued throughout, generous in spirit, and, at times, interestingly eclectic in the voices it engages. Osborn's tone is perhaps somewhat uneven. At times, he writes in a highly accessible way, which appears to be consistent with his chosen audience. At other times, however, his arguments presume a relatively high degree of familiarity with philosophical discourse--perhaps enough so that some lay readers may find certain chapters difficult to access. That said, Osborn tackles a difficult topic with kindness and respect, and provides yet another compelling case for the consideration of theistic evolution as a legitimate possibility for conservative Christians. I would happily recommend this book to interested laypeople, to academics working in the social or natural sciences who are looking for a theological engagement with the question of human origins, and to theologians and Christian ethicists engaging the question of animal death and suffering.
Reviewed by Colin M. Toffelmire, PhD, Ambrose University College, Calgary, AB T3H 0L5.
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|Author:||Toffelmire, Colin M.|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2014|
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