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!
Since it was only 2 days ago, you might remember my first post on Death Before The Fall. My review was critical, but I did not do a good job of giving you a thorough summary before getting to those criticisms. Also, the author pushed back a good bit in the comments, suggesting in part that I needed to give the book a second reading. He also felt that readers needed to know the scope of his argument better. As a result, I decided I’ve give a more blow by blow account of the book here.
Chapter 1 starts with the creation accounts. Osborn provides his initial reading, raising the reader’s awareness that creation is nowhere described as “perfect” (29). Part of this is because creation is not entirely God’s work, but rather a collaborative effort between God and man (31). There is then a wildness to creation that in Osborn’s account, does not conflict with it being “very good.” (32) Neither is everything said in these accounts that we might wonder about. There are many “lacunae and unanswerable riddles that should prevent careful readers from making very many dogmatic statements of any kind” (35). Osborn points out that Adam must have known what death was in order for the prohibition and warning to not eat from the tree to be intelligible (36). This reading then provides an opening for understanding wildness and potentially death in nature to preceded the fall of man.
Chapter 2 begins with Osborn telling us “my reading of Genesis has taken the form it has because I have been writing from the start with questions of modern science and evolutionary biology very much in mind” (39). Though his goal is not reconciliation between Darwin and Moses, he does want to clear a space for questions about how the two relate. In order to do this, he must deconstruct a way of approaching the text of Scripture that cuts off questions from the start (and is also a bad hermeneutical practice). This approach, called “literalism” is the way young-earth creationists read Genesis. I would call it “wooden” literalism, or better “literalistic” since it is not an authentic and “literate” form of literal reading. Nevertheless, Osborn rightly notices how problematic it is, and he ties this way of reading Scripture to the epistemological approach of foundationalism (as his analysis unfolds, he is clearly thinking of strong foundationalism).
In chapter 3, Osborn compares this literalistic hermeneutic to scientism. Literalism, as he notes, is “scientism’s reactionary doppelganger and pale mimetic rival, enraptured by the very thing it seeks to resist” (58) This is why as he noted earlier, creationists are able to cite authors like “Dawkins and Dennett with approval to support their claim that we are faced with only two live options: fundamentalist-style creationism [young-earth creationism] or atheistic Darwinism” (46). In reality, there is a broad spectrum of positions that are neither militant young-earth creationism (what Osborn has in mind) nor full blown atheistic evolution.
Chapters 4 takes a side road into the nature of science. Kuhn features prominently and his work on paradigms in scientific thought. After summarizing Kuhn, Osborn points out that the question for young-earth creationist is whether or not theirs is the most “richly theory-generating scientific research program available,” to which is the answer is “resoundingly clear” (64). Osborn then says that “virtually all qualified scientists” agree that scientific creationism just can’t keep up with other, better paradigms (65).
Chapter 5 poses further problems to the literalist(ic) hermeneutic. Osborn also briefly discusses what kind of theological beliefs should animate scientific pursuits. He then summarizes the literalist position, seeing it as essentially a method rather than a doctrine (74-75). Joining up with others committed to this method creates a movement, and that movement can develop an enclave mentality which is the focus of chapter 6. That particular movement is fundamentalism, though Osborn points out not all literalists are fundamentalists and vice versa (76). Still, there is a lot of overlap, and rather than a doctrine of creation, they are trying to advance a dogma of creationism (78). This leads not only to a way of reading texts, but to political action as well (80). The end result is an understanding of hermeneutics and biblical authority that leaves no room for interpretive differences about passages like Genesis 1 (85).
Chapter 7 is where Osborn introduces his theory on the Gnostic Syndrome. It is also where he took the most offense to my summarization. Originally I said he “equates” people holding to a “literalistic” hermeneutic with a type of gnosticism (lower case “g”). I recanted the “equating” part, but here’s the rub. What Osborn is actually arguing is that when creationists (or fundamentalists) exhibit 12 different psychological traits in conjunction they have fallen prey to what he calls “Gnostic Syndrome,” which is not the same as “Gnosticism” (capital “G”). There is more to Osborn’s analysis (like what those 12 traits are), but I don’t think he realizes how rhetorically charged “gnostic” and “gnosticism” are in theological discourse. The illocutionary force of his locutionary claims about Gnostic Syndrome is that fundamentalists have potentially gnostic tendencies. This is not the same as saying they are “Gnostics” or that they are secretly propagating old school capital G “Gnosticism.” But if the 12 psychological traits in conjunction are full blown Gnostic Syndrome, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that exhibiting some of the traits within your movement is having gnostic tendencies, or “could fall prey to gnostic temptations” which is the way I reworded it in Tuesday’s post. I removed the part about “demonizing approaches he doesn’t like,” since a) “demonizing” was the wrong word, and b) the doesn’t like part is suggestive on my part and so inappropriate.
Chapter 8 is also a place Osborn pushed back on my brief comments. For space, I’ll focus on my problem with his treatment of Calvin. For both Calvin and Augustine, they are being used to support reading Genesis in a non-scientific way (which they did). But at the same time, they were both essentially young-earth creationists, but maybe not in the problematic way Osborn is addressing (but they still read the Bible literally).
As for Calvin, Osborn asserts that Calvin’s approach to reading Genesis was to not take it literally (102). He then quotes at length from Calvin’s Genesis commentary to support this point. But, Calvin doesn’t say not to take Genesis literally. I can see how Osborn could take it that way, but it is conflating the meaning of “literalistic” and “literal.” Calvin practiced authentically “literal” interpretation, meaning you read a passage according to its intended sense. “Literalistic” reading takes everything in a literal fashion whether the intended sense points in a more poetic direction or not. It is also obsessed with precision, and can try to force ancient texts to conform to a modern mindset. Calvin was rightly against this, but he wasn’t against literal reading in the proper sense. Not differentiating a sound literal interpretation from the unsound version practiced by fundamentalists and militant young earth creationists creates problems in Osborn’s analysis.
After the analysis, Osborn unfortunately brings up the Servetus affair. Osborn feels that Calvin failed “to consistently exemplify virtues of intellectual openness, toleration and respect for freedom of conscience within the body of Christ” (103). This is a simplistic and naive understanding of what was at stake (no pun intended) with what Servetus was teaching. Servetus was actively going to church to church with his denial of the deity of Christ and trying to shake things up. He had a reputation before even showing up in Geneva. It is not an issue of “intellectual openness, toleration and respect for freedom of conscience,” on an issue like that. Other things, certainly. Denying a fundamental confession of the faith, not so much.
He next discusses how Calvin was complicit in Servetus’ trial and execution, but it is presented as if Calvin was somehow the exception to the 16th century climate and relationship of church and state. It was not an ecclesiatical council that condemned Servetus but a civil one, meaning Calvin really had no say in the matter. He approved of the execution, which is unfortunate, but he did not stand responsible for it. In fact, he visited Servetus almost daily to urge him to repent. He wanted to see Servetus repent and be welcomed into full fellowship. But if he would not, heresy was a capital crime at that point in history, and the penalty was death. Calvin approving of the death penalty is not an indication of his close-mindedness. Hence my originally terse comment that it is unfortunate the Servetus affair was brought into the discussion. It doesn’t make the point Osborn wants it to make and so is irrelevant to the overall discussion.
The final chapter of part one is where Osborn makes a push for a postfoundationalist epistemology as a way of navigating between modernist style foundationalism and postmodernist style antifoundationalism (119). This is a much bigger issue that can be reasonably discussed in a 9 page chapter, so that probably feeds into why I found it less than convincing. But I’ve read longer treatments elsewhere and didn’t find those convincing either. It was a necessary step for his overall argument, but that supports my earlier contention that this book should have been longer. It is true that strong foundationalism and literalistic readings of Scripture go hand in hand, so if you can undermine the philosophical basis, the Jenga tower falls (an image Osborn uses earlier in the book to describe the theology of the literalists, 45)
The second part of the book is much shorter (as noted earlier). The first chapter presents three literalist dilemmas. The first is the stasis dilemma arising from the problem of living creatures procreating and filling the earth. In a deathless world, a stasis would eventually be achieved and then no new births would happen (128). The second is the deceiver dilemma, resulting from the belief God might have created a universe with only apparent age. The third is the divine curse dilemma, which asks what we are to do with animals that are irreducibly predatory (134). For readers who attribute all death to the curse after Adam’s fall, there are three possibilities for explaining these animals, and Osborn examines all and find them wanting.
This leads to a discussion of C. S. Lewis’ theodicy in The Problem of Pain (chapter 11). He sees Lewis’ cosmic conflict idea as recovering a form of biblical interpretation from Jewish faith, namely, the Midrash (147). It provides room for ambiguity, mystery and even poetry in a worldview account (148). Osborn in the end doesn’t find it entirely convincing, but continues on to examine the book of Job for insights into the created order (chapter 12). He notes that it is hard to find evidence that the biblical writers conceived of animal suffering as a mark of sin (150). He then briefly (5 pages) explores wisdom from Job on living in a world of suffering. Rather than criticizing his exegesis here (he is mostly relying on commentators), I’ll just say I think this chapter would have been much better had it been longer and more commentators on the purpose and meaning of Job had been brought into the discussion.
The next chapter uses kenosis to provide an explanation for how God self-limits in creation so that creatures can have freedom, even if that freedom results in evil. As he puts it, “in the same way we speak of moral evil as resulting from human free will, we should now somewhat analogously speak of natural evil and animal suffering as emerging from free or indeterminate processes, which God does not override and which are inherent possibilities in a creation in which the Creator allows the other to be truly other” (161-162). He notes that this might be hard for “believers in conservative wings of the Reformed tradition to accept” (161), and I suppose it would if it were the correct account of God’s providence. That’s a different discussion entirely, and I’ve got 2 books to review that cover it, so I won’t go there here.
The final chapter connects animal ethics and Sabbath rest, and is probably the one part of the book where Osborn’s Seventh Day Adventism comes to the forefront. I found his reflections on Sabbath keeping interesting. Personally, I take a weekly Sabbath, and it happens to be on Saturday at the moment, but it has also been on Friday and Monday. Sometime it’s on Sunday. The point is to take a weekly day of rest and worship, but the particular day doesn’t matter (Osborn would disagree, hence Seventh Day Adventism). The chapter then ends with an environmentalist plea, which is not entirely misplaced, but because of the constraints of space, is not as convincing as it might have been had it been more fully developed.
I think the bottom line is that this book tries to do too much in too little space. There is a broad range of issues covered in roughly 175 pages. Ideally, Osborn’s case could have been better made in either a 300 page book, or two separate books under 150 pages. I think the compacted space hurts Osborn’s analysis. Nuance is needed in the midst of careful analysis. Osborn provides that in some places, but it isn’t evenly distributed across the book. Because there is such a broad range of topics more space is needed to really make the case Osborn wants to make. I’m sure that in some places he could have said more and made the case better and I realize that sometimes editors make choices for you in terms of space. If that’s what happened, I think it made the final product weaker than it could have been.
With issues relating to origins and reading Genesis, there is a lot of rhetorical and emotional energy. If nothing else, my first take at a review revealed that problem. When you say things too concisely, even if you have good reasons supporting your point, it doesn’t go over so well. I thought it best to go back and expand in another post and make Osborn’s argument clearer and nuance my critical comments. Part of me wishes I had just done this to begin with, but I usually don’t like to make reviews over 1000 words. At least now you can compare this blow by blow overview to my original comments and decide for yourself whether I initially summarized well or not. I definitely lacked nuance here and there, but my main criticism still stands. Hopefully in the future we can see a revised and expanded edition of this book, in which case, most of my criticisms might be eliminated.