Death Before The Fall Revisited and Expanded

May 22, 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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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.


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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 Revisited and Expanded

  1. Nate, thank you for your continued engagement with my book. I would now offer the following for your consideration (and I apologize in advance for any terseness in the tone of these further remarks; my intention is not be combative but simply to be candid and direct):

    1) While I appreciate your willingness to retract a factually incorrect statement in your original article, what you wrote in the review was far more inaccurate and dismissive than your words in this “revisiting” suggest. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to read the original sentence. Responsible practice when making corrections is not simply to remove mistakes but to include a footnote at the bottom of the article or a parenthetical statement within the text itself with the correction clearly indicated so that there is a permanent record of the incorrect claim and the precise language you were challenged on.

    2) I see no reason to retreat from my description of a significant minority of creationists as succumbing to a Gnostic Syndrome or for that matter to gnostic tendencies. In “Darwin’s Pious Idea” (Eerdmans, 2010), Conor Cunningham argues even more forcefully that all young earth or young life creationism is essentially Gnostic at its core, pitting the material against the spiritual. I do not make this stronger claim but instead point out that whenever we find creationism being linked with conspiracy theories, Manichean moral dualism, and appeals to esoteric or hidden knowledge, as well as being marked by a set of distinctive mental traits, we are entering into Gnostic territory. Whether or not the word “gnostic” is “theologically charged” matters less to me than the question of whether my description is accurate. It now seems that you accept that it is.

    3) You have completely (I trust not willfully) distorted my words about Calvin. You write, “As for Calvin, Osborn asserts that Calvin’s approach to reading Genesis was to not take it literally”. You cite page 102 of my book in support of this claim. Yet the full sentence you seem to be referring to reads as follows: “Calvin’s approach to the problem is simple: the words of Genesis are not to be taken literally.” But what is “the problem” I am referring to in this sentence? The problem I am discussing is the very specific problem Calvin was wrestling with of how to interpret the language of greater and lesser lights in Genesis 1:16, which was being challenged in Calvin’s day by new astronomical discoveries. It is on this point and this point alone that I wrote that Calvin explicitly opposed a literal reading. He did so on the basis of new scientific evidence, elaborating a number of valuable principles on the relationship between Genesis and science in the process. But in other ways, I made abundantly clear, Calvin was uncontroversially committed to a “literal” reading of Genesis, which did not conflict with the other known scientific facts of his time. I wrote: “John Calvin’s name is especially dear to many creationists, since he believed in a six-day creation occurring in the recent past.” It is disheartening to see the way you have, once more, whether intentionally or not, presented a misleading picure of my argument to your readers. I nowhere claim or imply that Calvin did not take Genesis literally. What I do show is that he did not take it literally tout court (in the modern, creationist sense).

    4) From here you move into an apologetic defense of Calvin’s role in the trial and execution of Servetus, who was burned not simply for holding non-trinitarian views, I must point out, but also for rejecting infant baptism. You do not identify any factual errors in what I wrote about the case (which I commented on in a cautionary note amounting to less than a page in length). Instead, your objection seems to boil down to two frankly embarrassing suggestions: a) you apparently think that Servetus somehow deserved to be killed for openly “Denying a fundamental confession of the faith” (talk about blaming the victim!); and b) you think that Calvin’s role in urging the death penalty for “heretics” in Geneva could not have been “an indication of close-mindedness” since “heresy was a capital crime at that point in history, and the penalty was death.” In candor, I don’t think these statements dignify argument, but if you are puzzled why, I would simply encourage you to imagine the following analogy: A great Muslim theologian advocates the death penalty for someone deemed heretical and obnoxious to the faith in a cultural and historical context in which capital punishment for heresy is a norm (although by no means the only possibility or without its dissenters). The accused is paid pastoral visits by the theologian and urged to “repent” while awaiting her execution. She refuses and dies an excruciating death for her beliefs. Later followers of the theologian then refuse to allow that the great man’s actions were anything less than fully tolerant, open, and respecting of freedom of conscience within the community of believers because, after all, it was the prescribed penalty and the heretic really did have it coming.

    5) Regarding my discussion of sabbath ethics you write, “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).” This is, once more, an sadly inaccurate assertion that fails to convey any of the actual nuances of what I wrote. My exact words were these: “The theological and moral meanings, textures and resonances of the sabbath day have unfortunately been almost entirely forgotten by most Christians. I do not say this as a polemic against the tradition of worshiping on the Lord’s Day in commemoration of Easter Sunday. The best historical evidence suggests that from a very early period Christians simultaneously kept the sabbath or Holy Saturday and remembered Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week.” I am certainly committed to the view that sabbath keeping has a different theological meaning than Sunday worship and I think that the particularity of both days cannot be arbitrary transferred to any day we might please without completely changing the meanings of sacramental and liturgical time. By analogy, I trust you would never be so glib as to say, “Have yourself a season of Lent whenever you feel like it but the particular time doesn’t matter.” Lenten practices are embedded in communal and historical, not simply individual, commitments so that to intentionally have yourself a Lent apart from or outside of the sacramental and liturgical space of the Christian calendar and the wider Body of Christ is not to enter into Lent at all. Similarly, I would suggest that the sabbath has an ancient and ongoing history and practice that matters for its theological meanings. But such a sabbath sensibility and concern for recovering the lost meanings of the day is by no means unique to Adventists (who often don’t have a well-developed theology of their own day of worship at all). Consider, for example, of Alan E. Lewis’s book “Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday” (Eerdmans, 2003).

    Again, thank you for taking to read and respond to my book at some length, not once but twice. I appreciate your seemingly sincere attempt to correct and clarify your original review, despite the new confusions this “revisiting” creates.

    • Ron,

      I think there might be some presuppositional tension in the way we are looking at things, leading to misinterpretations. I may have missed your point on Calvin, but you seem to miss my point elsewhere. Not sure why that is, but here are some brief responses:

      1) I’ll keep that in mind next time, although you quote the sentence in your first response. I am used to dealing with mistakes in grammar and see no need to footnote those. I thought of perserving the original after I had already saved the edit.

      2) I don’t think I ever questioned the accuracy of the description, I just don’t think it’s useful in moving the discussion forward. I misrepresented your intent in the original, behind it, but certainly (some) fundamentalist-style creationists can exhibit some (or all) of the 12 psychological traits. Pointing that out may be valid, but I don’t think it’s helpful if that is the audience you are trying to convince.

      3) I apologize for not following more closely and being more precise in nailing down your argument about Calvin’s reading of Genesis. I will leave the original in tact in the review, and readers can see your response and now my retraction.

      4) I think you’ve misread me on the defense of Calvin. My point is simply that the Servetus case doesn’t demonstrated closemindedness of Calvin’s part. I don’t think Calvin was justified in approving of the death penalty for a heretic, but I do think heretics should be excommunicated from the the community of believers. They shouldn’t be put to death, but they shouldn’t be tolerated in Christian community if they deny fundamentals of the Christian faith and encourage others to do so as well. You don’t let wolves roam around inside the same fence as the sheep you are shepherding. The means by which Servetus was removed is not commendable.

      I think we may have different understanding of what open-minded entails, or probably more likely, different understanding of where the limit is between being open and closeminded about an issue.

      5) When I said “The point is to take…” That is my statement and not a summary of yours in any way. Since you even quoted the part were I parenthetically note you think differently, I’m not sure why you thought what I was saying was trying to convey nuances of what you wrote (or in this case refusing to nuance). Is the problem, “hence Seventh Day Adventism”? I could have elaborated your actual argument, now it’s here in the comments. I didn’t think it was necessary to reproduce and I don’t think I’ve misrepresented you in any way in that paragraph. Readers can now decide for themselves if that is the case.

      If I do cross-post on Amazon (I usually do at a later date), I will be sure to remove the part misrepresenting you on Calvin. It will be an edited down version of both posts together as a single review.


      • Nate, I hope it isn’t terribly unseemly and quarrelsome for an author to continue to engage in back and forth dialogue with a reviewer in this way. This will be my final note out of respect for your time and your readers’ patience.

        You now write, “I am used to dealing with mistakes in grammar and see no need to footnote those”. You go on to say, “I don’t think I ever questioned the accuracy of the description, I just don’t think it’s useful in moving the discussion forward.” But what you are now saying illustrates precisely why it is vital to preserve language for the record since in your initial posting you were clearly challenging the accuracy of what I wrote, not merely the chapter’s utility. Your initial review contained not a grammatical mistake but rather a false assertion. You wrote something to the effect of, “He even goes so far as to claim that creationists are gnostics–nothing like demonizing those you disagree with”. This is a grammatically correct sentence but a factually incorrect one.

        On the question of the Sabbath, I may have misunderstood what you were trying to say in emphasizing my Adventist heritage as a point of disagreement with me. My book is ecumenical rather than sectarian in spirit and was by no means an attempt to defend a particularly Adventist doctrine of the sabbath or to suggest that Christians cannot worship on other days of the week. All time is surely God’s time after all. Worshiping on other days simply does not have the same sacramental, liturgical, and historical meanings or ethical resonances as participating in the particularity of the sabbath in continuity with the Jewish tradition and in memory of Christ’s rest in the tomb before Easter Sunday.

        On the question of Calvin and “wolves” roving among the sheep, I quite agree with you that the shepherds have a responsibility to protect the flock. Yet I would encourage you to ponder which is the greater wolf: one who argues from Scripture that infants should not be baptized or that Scripture is not fully trinitarian in the sense decided by church councils hundreds of years after the New Testament, or one who argues that the church should kill anyone who openly says such things. My own beliefs about what can be tolerated within the Body of Christ leave no room for physical or mental violence and coercion against those deemed heretics. In the Servetus affair I thus see Calvin as having been the far greater “heretic”. Yet even though Calvin’s complicity in a case of appalling violence in violation of an individual’s freedom of conscience for the sake of a deeply flawed theocratic political project that finds no support in the life and example of Christ in the New Testament is a matter of historical record, I would never deny that even Calvin remains for all of his flaws a member of the Body of Christ. I think we will agree that if there is room in the church even for the likes of an inquisitor such as Calvin, there is room for people who read Genesis non-literalistically as well.

        Pax vobiscum,

        • Ron,

          I never said that you said creationists were gnostics, directly or indirectly. You misread my initial posting. I did say you equated fundamentalism with a type of gnosticism, which as you pointed out was inaccurate. “Equate” was the wrong verb and I was imprecise in exactly how you related fundamentalism to, not gnosticism, but the Gnostic Syndrome as you explain it. The issue always was of the utility of the analysis, not the validity of it.

          Also, I think you misread what I was saying about grammar in point 1) in my last response. I *normally* deal with grammar and so I don’t footnote changes. I never suggested this was a grammar issue.

          Point noted on the Adventism as not necessary to your overall argument.

          I think I have a higher view of the early church councils than you do, and so see Servetus, in denying the Trinity, as the greater heretic. That doesn’t justify the violence (nothing really does), but it is hardly historically accurate to characterize Calvin as an “inquisitor” since he was neither actively looking for heretics, nor clamoring for Servetus’ execution. I think you’re overestimating Calvin’s role in the execution and his civic power in Geneva. I would suggest reading a better biography, like that of Bruce Gordon, rather than the one you used.



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