Death Before The Fall: Biblical Literalism and The Problem of Animal Suffering

May 20, 2014 — 4 Comments


Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before The Fall: Biblical Literalism and The Problem of Animal Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, February 2014. 197 pp. Paperback, $25.00.

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Ronald Osborn has published articles in numerous journals and magazines and was a Bannerman Fellow at the University of Southern California (where he also received his Ph.D). He is not a biblical scholar, but he is a Seventh-Day Adventist. The latter group is almost exclusively young-earth creationists, and as he portrays them, it would seem like Ken Ham could be their patron saint (if they were into that sort of thing).

Osborn grew up as a missionary kid in Zimbabwe where animal on animal violence was much more commonplace than here (squirrels in my backyard notwithstanding). This forms a backdrop to his reaction against young earth creationism.

As the subtitle suggests, Osborn is exploring the problem of animal suffering. The basic question is whether or not animal suffering is a result of the fall of man, or whether it is to a certain extent woven into the fabric of nature. Osborn thinks the latter, but rather than confront that head on, he begins with the hermeneutics of young earth creationism. Hence the first part of the subtitle “biblical literalism.”

After reading the book, I think the subtitle is a bit misleading. The book is actually an extended critique of a literalistic (not necessarily “literal” in the true sense) hermeneutic, with a follow up exploring the problem of animal suffering. The first part of the book is about 100 pages, the second is about 50. Nothing wrong with this of course. It just means you should realize most of the book is focused on deconstructing not only literalistic hermenuetics but also its philosophical underpinnings.

Now, I keep saying “literalistic” rather than “literal.” As Osborn sees it, “literalism” is a product of buying into Enlightenment categories of thought. To a certain extent, he is correct. Reading Genesis (or any other part of Scripture) in a woodenly literal way such that everything is interpreted in its “plainest sense,” is a kind of Enlightenment way of doing things. There isn’t much nuance, and in that sense it isn’t really “literal” in the truest sense of the word. Rather, it is “literalistic,” ignoring markers of genre and going with what makes the most straightforward sense to a modern rational reader. Osborn is attacking this latter approach, which is part of a general fundamentalistic ethos. As he notes in a later chapter in part 1, fundamentalism can fall prey to gnostic temptations, something no one would want to actively be apart of.

Still, he is to be commended for critiquing this wrongheaded way of reading Scripture. He even marshals support from historical figures who’ve grappled with Genesis (chapter 8), focusing on Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and Maimonides (chapter 8). Unfortunately, in Calvin’s case (and perhaps Augustine’s as well), they don’t necessarily say what he thinks they say. His treatment/interaction with Calvin was particularly disappointing, mainly because a misinterpretation of the Servetus affair was trotted into the conversation to make a point about Calvin’s personality.

Included in the critique of literalism is a critique of foundationalist epistemology. They do go together to a certain extent. I would imagine that most people who read Genesis in a literalistic way also hold to a correspondence theory of truth and believe foundationalism is the best account of the structure of knowledge. Osborn hopes that undermining the foundationalist epistemology literalism is founded on will be the death blow to the whole way of reading Scripture. However, he really only argues against strong foundationalism and neglects to offer a good argument against a modest foundationalist paradigm. Alvin Plantinga is referenced once in the book, and for a different issue entirely. I had hoped if he were going to really try to argue against foundationalism, he would have dealt with Plantinga’s re-booted model, but that didn’t happen.

All of this is a precursor to dealing with the second part of the subtitle, and what the title actually implies is the main subject of the book. Instead, Osborn deals mostly with issues of theodicy, which granted, do pertain to animal suffering before and/or after the fall. The book of Job gets a good treatment (chapter 12) and C. S. Lewis makes an extended appearance (chapter 11). In the end though, it didn’t seem to me much of an exploration of the nature and purpose of animals, and whether there was nature red in tooth and claw before the fall.

Now this isn’t to say the subject isn’t touched on. Rather, actual discussion of the problem of animal suffering occupies about less than half of the book. His basic conclusion is that the biblical writers do not consider animal death and suffering an effect of the fall. I would in general agree with this. I think “death” in Romans 5 refers to human death, and even before Adam and Eve sinned, death was present at the cellular level (and seems woven into the seed cycle of Day 3). While I agree with Osborn on his main point, I would have liked more actual discussion of the issue rather than an extended deconstruction of a literalstic hermeneutics. It seems like this book would have benefited from being much longer. It’s not that the setup dealing with hermeneutics is misplaced, it just that it leaves the book imbalanced.

The biggest problem though is not the imbalance, which is forgivable, and may just reflect my personal preference. The biggest issue is one of audience. As I was reading the book, I was trying to figure out who the book was for. People who espouse the type of hermeneutics Osborn is arguing against (Seventh Day Adventist or otherwise) will probably not find his argument inviting. It could be much worse as far as the rhetoric goes, but it’s a strident critique that left me wondering who exactly the book would convince.

I more or less agree with Osborn’s point, but found his critique of literalistic readings unhelpful. This is especially true if I were going to recommend the book to someone who is trying to sort through the issues. The explanation of animal suffering would have worked better in a book that was aimed at people already on-board with a more nuanced reading of Genesis. Instead, Osborn tries to tackle a poor approach to reading Genesis, doesn’t offer a ton of nuance, and then is left with little space to actually cover what would appear to be the main topic of the book (given the title and cover). Given that he isn’t a biblical scholar, he might do a fair job of deconstructing a bad way of reading Scripture (and showing its antecedents), but he doesn’t offer much in terms of a useful constructive approach.

As a result, while I found parts beneficial, I’m not sure I’d recommend the book. I think if you’re interested in Genesis, you should probably pick up a copy. If you’re a young earth creationist, you’ll probably hate it, and I wouldn’t blame you. While Osborn is trying to move the conversation forward, the end result isn’t very successful, but it does have a pretty metal cover for a book on hermeneutics.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to Death Before The Fall: Biblical Literalism and The Problem of Animal Suffering

  1. Nate, thank you for taking the time to read my book, although there is a factually incorrect statement in your review that I think needs to be corrected for your readers. Contrary to what you have written, I do not directly equate creationism with Gnosticism, as Conor Cunningham does in his excellent book “Darwin’s Pious Idea”. Rather, I point out that SOME versions of creationism display decidedly Gnostic tendencies–those, for example, that appeal to esoteric knowledge and that see the creation/evolution debate in sharply Manichean terms as an epic struggle of good versus evil. This is not demonizing approaches I “don’t like”, as you assert. In fact, I argue in explicit opposition to Cunningham that claiming that all creationists are Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic is “too broad an indictment that does not correspond to the lives and thinking of many creationists I know.” I am surprised you didn’t share this fact with your readers. Charging someone with “demonizing” their opponents is a strong charge that should not be made lightly. I hope in the future that you will take more care with the words of those you are reviewing since what you have written is bound to give your readers a very misleading impression of the nature and scope of my critique in that section of the book. Again, thank you for taking the time to read Death Before the Fall. I am sorry that it did not resonate with you, although I take some heart from the fact that it has received strong positive reviews from others. I would also suggest from a number of your comments that you might find the book repays a second reading.

    • Ron,

      Thanks for taking time to read the review and correct me on the error. I re-worded the part in question, though I think you misread what I was actually saying. I attributed an “equating” of literalistic approaches to Scripture and a type of gnosticism (lower case “g”) to what you wrote in chapter 7. I realize “equating” is the wrong verb to use, so I’ve changed that. However, I didn’t originally state that you equate creationism (young earth or otherwise) with Gnosticism.

      The correct comparison, as you point out, is “gnostic tendencies” than certain strains can fall prey to. In the theological literature I’m familiar with, “gnosticism” is not something you want your position to be compared to, and frequently, it is used as a way to undermine someone’s position. Because I would consider Gnosticism (capital “G”) a full-blown false teaching, saying someone’s position has gnostic tendencies (or can have gnostic tendencies) is to me, demonizing that position. This is a mostly figurative statement (in this kind of usage), though in thinking about it, I realize can be taken in other ways. I’ve changed that part as well.

      Just curious, why do you think I would find benefit in giving the book a second reading? I’m not a young earth creationist and I don’t read Scripture in the ways you are arguing against in the first part of the book. I’m comfortable with the idea of animal death preceding the fall of man, and the book is pretty marked up from my first time through it. I didn’t go into a detailed chapter by chapter account, so I’m guessing (and you can correct me if I’m wrong), by “from a number of your comments” you mean that I missed the point(s) in several places. Is that correct?


      • Nate, your distinction between upper and lower case gnosticism itself demonstrates the need for a second careful reading. In my book I did not speak of gnosticism. I wrote about what I called a “Gnostic Syndrome”, which I said only occurs when 12 different psychological traits are found in conjunction: anxiety; alienation and suspicion; nostalgia; millenarianism; dualism; permanent revivalism; elitism; salvation by knowledge; surrealism; authoritarianism and absolutism; isolationism; and laceration. I believe this accurately describes not a majority but a significant minority of creationist individuals and groups I know very well. Creationists who do not exhibit these traits do not fall under the critique. Your readers should know this. It was made very clear in the book. I have spoken of the Gnostic Syndrome as a danger for creationists using a family resemblances approach and building on the work of Luciano Pellicani and Eric Voegelin, who apply the term to ultra-orthodox versions of Marxism. Whether one agrees with Pellicani and Voegelin that the term is a helpful one to illuminate Marxian groups, it would clearly not do to casually dismiss them or to label their work “demonizing” of Marxists. Careful reviewers always provide readers with an accurate sense of what an author is attempting, whether or not the reviewer finds the attempt successful.

        I don’t want to engage in a long back and forth with you about your review but since you asked I will point out just one other statement that I found puzzling. You wrote that “in Calvin’s case (and perhaps Augustine’s as well), they don’t necessarily say what he thinks they say.” Unfortunately, “perhaps” and “don’t necessarily” are rather vague ways of engaging with an argument. My discussion of Augustine consisted of two parts: a very lengthy quotation from Augustine himself and a summary of what Alister McGrath says about Augustine in his Gifford Lectures. Perhaps McGrath’s reading of Augustine, which I find persuasive, is in some way flawed. Perhaps. But if you are not prepared to explain why, your review will strike some as simply intellectual posturing. It gives the impression you are in possession of additional knowledge and/or a superior reading, without even a hint at where specifically McGrath’s reading (or my reading of McGrath’s reading of Augustine’s reading of Genesis!) goes wrong.

        The same as regards Calvin. I am only as good as my sources (in this case Calvin biographer Bernard Cottret) and so am certainly open to correction if you can point out a factually incorrect statement in my book. But I fail to see why a minor cautionary note about the reformer’s complicity in the trial and execution of Servetus should completely overshadow the much longer and central discussion in my book of what Calvin had to say about Genesis, cosmology, and science. Alas, you do not explain or even hint at how your reading of Calvin on questions of origins differs from mine. You imply glaring problems…and then simply leave readers in suspense. I find this disappointing, and I imagine some of your other readers will as well, not because I mind critical reviews but because I want to read criticisms that actually help me to learn things I did not know. I realize, of course, that the same can be said of book authors and that individuals who read widely might not find any particularly pathbreaking concepts in my reflections. Thankfully, since the book’s publication in March I have received letters and even phone calls from complete strangers that leave me with some hope that book is making a meaningful contribution to the discussion and is connecting with individuals raised in literalist traditions who are open to exploring other approaches.

        This will be my final note since other pressing matters demand my time, and I’m sure yours as well.


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