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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Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!
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.