What Am I Reading? Ronald Osborn on “Death Before the Fall”
Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
Osborn’s book is certainly not groundbreaking. He is not a systematic theologian, and much of the argumentative core of the book can be found elsewhere. Indeed, and for instance, there were a few places where I found myself wishing that Osborn had drawn support from Ken Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God and other places. The more constructively-oriented second part of the book (on animal suffering and theodicy) also struck me as frustratingly suggestive although promising. But none of these minor criticisms undermine what Osborn has accomplished, viz., the provision of an eminently accessible theological reflection on the problems of “literalist” interpretations of the Christian creation narratives. This is a book intended for the evangelical laity—indeed, Osborn writes as a member of and especially for the Seventh Day Adventist church—and I hope that it finds the audience among them that it deserves.
I’ll be posting about this book a few times in the coming weeks. For now I want to leave you with two pieces to further whet your appetites. This first passage is from early in the volume when Osborn is exploring the positive theological payoff of alternative readings of the creation narratives:
If the reading I have offered so far is at all correct and God recruits the creation at each stage to play an active, participatory role in what follows, with Adam being charged with an especially vital task of “subduing” other parts of the earth, then there is a very good theological reason why God declares the creation to be “very good” rather than “perfect.” The creation cannot be perfect because, in an important sense, it is not entirely God’s work. There are principles of freedom at work in the creation, and animals, humans and the earth itself have a God-given role to play as his coworkers. There is also a strong sense that while the creation is in one sense “complete” at the end of the narrative, it is not yet finished. . . . When God tells Adam to cultivate the Garden it is thus entirely consistent with the language and narrative arc of the story to see this cultivation as including the idea of expansion or development—God wants Adam to increase the Garden, and there is a tension between the world inside the Garden and the world outside it. “To be a creature is necessarily to be incomplete, unfinished, imperfect,” writes Andrew Linzey in Animal Theology. “From this standpoint the very nature of creation is always ambiguous; it points both ways; it affirms and denies God at one and the same time. Affirms God because God loves and cares for it but it also necessarily denies God because it is not divine.” Hence, “the state of nature can in no way be an unambiguous referent to what God wills or plans for creation.” The fact that God “rested” or “ceased” from his work on the seventh day may therefore represent not a termination point but a deeply pregnant pause. There is more to come, and we must wait to hear God say the words “It is finished” (31–32).I like this way of reading the narratives for a number of reasons, even if I would conceptually tighten a few points. Adapting such a reading among those who hold to more “literalistic” interpretations would have widespread intellectual consequences. This creates interesting problems for natural theology and natural law traditions, has consequences for environmental ethics, coordinates creation and redemption through a nice christological twist, etc.
Part of what it requires is taking creation seriously as we find it, rather than thinking or speaking of creation or “the natural world” in an idealized way. This idealistic reflex is another aspect of more “literalistic” readings of the creation narratives, and Osborn very interestingly ties this to what he calls the “Gnostic Syndrome.” So here is another passage elucidating some of what that means:
Knowledge of the course that history must run from beginning to end is what transforms the gnostic from a person of “mere” faith into a revolutionary [ed.: or, perhaps, reactionary?] filled with the missionary zeal of fanatical certainty. Whether formally acknowledged or not, one is saved in gnostic soteriology not by pistis (faith) but by gnosis (knowledge) that serves as a “liberating science” or “diagnosis-therapy” of the human condition and counter-explanation of material realities. The “liberating science” of Gnosticism is not the disciplined practice of empirical inquiry in openness to the world of material facts as they often stubbornly confront us, holding us accountable to reality in at times discomforting ways. It is instead a revolutionary [ed.: again, perhaps, reactionary?] “science” that frees the true believer from “false consciousness” associated with ordinary science, fallen human senses and rationality. Only those armed with the special hidden knowledge are able to correctly “read” material reality (91–92).For an expansion on this latter passage, you might consult this previous DET post. But, of course, you ought also to consult the rest of Osborn’s treatment. I hope that you’ll give the volume a close look. More to come soon!
* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy which, in keeping with academic practice, does not predispose me to providing a positive review.