What Am I Reading? Ronald Osborn on “Death Before the Fall”

I recently read through Ronald Osborn’s engagingly written volume.* Those who follow me on twitter (if you don’t, feel free to make use of the link at the end of this post…) were able to join in the experience a bit as I tweeted out some of Osborn’s many pithy and memorable lines. One that has stuck with me, for instance, is his definition of theistic evolution: “Theistic evolution is, we might say, leisurely creationism” (p. 74)! Osborn’s obvious skills as a communicator are employed in this volume to make two points: first, “literal” readings of the creation narratives in the Christian tradition collapse if one starts asking questions; second, that the suffering of animals (especially but not only in theistic evolutionary accounts) creates an interestingly modulated theodicy problem for Christian theology, a problem that Osborn makes some gestures toward constructively addressing.

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.



Alexander said…
By way of illustration: I found an interesting little detail on this 14th century altar painting:
Matthew Frost said…
Distinctions like he makes depend very much on reading the creation narratives without Hebrew context. I don't see how a distinction between "very good" and "perfect" functions in the original text, as though God's declaration of goodness were in some way just "good enough for now." "Imperfect but improvable." "Close enough for government work." Instead, an absolute term is amplified from "good" in its parts to "abundantly good" in its completed totality.

Animal life, following the declaration of its goodness, is blessed to increase—not improve. The humans—not "Adam"—are given a similar task, but modified as befits their being made in the image and likeness of God. Humanity is not merely to fill the land in abundance, but also to conquer/bind/trample/dominate it, prevailing over other animal life. Is this improvement? Is this the task Osborn sees as perfecting creation? Does God pronounce "tov me'od" too early, since we haven't completed our mission? Is the text wrong, because the heavens and the earth and all their host were not actually finished?

This is an even bigger problem if he does what he seems to do, which is carry out the harmonization of the two distinct narratives into one story in which the garden was made in Genesis 1.
Matthew Frost said…
Put in punchier form: we are not commanded to do better than God in did in creating. And the rest of Genesis ought to puncture any notions of progress from creation. Progress is what the text shows us trying to do, in our sin of hubris! The world is not complete, because it is not as we would make it, and we are not as God. Our discontent with being as we have been made is expended in producing orders that are not God's design, whether we call them good or bad. But they aren't improvements on the garden. At best they are improvements on the wilderness, aping the garden.
Matthew Frost said…
I do like the notion of not idealizing the world as we find it, but the notion that "nature" or the world as we find it simply is creation, if it pushes into ideas of ordered structures, remains within the problem of idealization. The world as we find it should cause far more problems for natural theology and natural law than it does, and it won't cause enough problems if it remains read through the lens of our action continuing God's creative work. Omitting the end of the Genesis 1 narrative in order to make creation an act bounded only by the eschaton is deeply problematic!
Hi Matt,

First off, you and I are not the intended audience of this volume. Osborn is working at a different hermeneutical level. It isn't about the sort of more scientific / academic exegesis that you or I might do.

Second, his introduction of this "gap" between good and perfect is not to imply that humans have to do better than God. Rather, the implication is that God wants humans to function as God's covenant partners in the continued progress of creation. Humans do this rather imperfectly, of course. In any case, it seems to me that the burden of the text's pronouncement of "good" and "abundantly good" is not "this cannot be improved upon" but rather "everything is how God wants it" . . . with perhaps a "for now" implied?

Matthew Frost said…
Travis, I'll grant that I'm not the intended audience, but I won't grant that attention to distinctions that can be had from the surface level of the text and a lexicon, without even bothering to look at the cutting edge of research, are only for scientists and academics. Exegetical tactics have theological consequences, and those consequences work themselves out in ethics more often than not. That's not a matter to be restricted to elites, and I'm not about to exempt an almost-200-page book out of an academic press from doing basic exegetical work.

Besides which: "Perfect" really is the enemy of the word "good" here, casting aspersions of imperfection that find no root in Genesis 1. Gen 2:1-3 does in fact call this act of creation "perfect": igitur perfecti sunt caeli et terra et omnis ornatus eorum conplevitque Deus die septimo opus suum quod fecerat et requievit die septimo ab universo opere quod patrarat et benedixit diei septimo et sanctificavit illum quia in ipso cessaverat ab omni opere suo quod creavit Deus ut faceret. Creation is finished at the end of this story, which is its perfection as an act. The perfection of the creature may stretch to the eschaton, but that is not in any way an extension of the act of God, or a basis for our participation in it as though the act were an ongoing reality. Nor is it in any way a judgment on quality! That the creature in its parts and in whole is good is not a judgment on the state of its completion, or whether there is meaningful work yet for creatures to do within the world that results.

There is no reason why covenant partnership in the ongoing life of the world requires a framework in which creation, the verbal action and not the creature that is its result, doesn't end until the eschaton. Covenant partnership with God is not a feature of the creative act unless one insists that what we do is part of God's action. There's cooperation with God in relationship, which doesn't require this, and then there is horning in on divine prerogatives.

And again: the completion of creation in the Genesis 1 account is not in any way provisional. It is not "done creating for now, back to it after the Sabbath." Nor is there any ground for the creature as agent of the act of creation in that story, much less the one that follows it! Ordering and arrangement are not creative acts, nor is reproduction. The aspect that must be emphasized in speaking of where creation goes from there is not whether it can get better, but the conflict of free agents over who determines the path. To suggest that there is a path from creation upwards is to attempt a flying leap right over the rest of Genesis. It is to make the Fall a little thing, with no fiery sword, no wilderness, no rest of the prehistory, and no picking back up from scratch with Abram in a world gone utterly to seed after bottoming out hard.

Much as I might pat Osborn on the back for fighting inerrantism and the distortion of the creation narratives among Evangelicals, I'm not about to hold him to a lower standard for it.
Matthew Frost said…
It is entirely possible that I'm overdoing it, that I am myself making the perfect an enemy of the good here. Much that Osborn says fits in my framework—but not the second part of this bit:

"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”."

The minutia are important. It is necessary to note with the text that the creation, as an act, is finished—the completion or perfection which is the foundation for the sabbath rest—even as we note that the world goes on. That the creature, which as been created, lives now forward into the future with God. And to note what that life looks like in its history, if we're really going to provide any threat to natural theology and natural law. Hope is not in our actions. Ethics is not an extension of creation, not a perfection of the good, but a pursuit from within the depths.
Did you just quote the Vulgate to make your point?!?!?! ;-P

You write: "Covenant partnership with God is not a feature of the creative act unless one insists that what we do is part of God's action. There's cooperation with God in relationship, which doesn't require this, and then there is horning in on divine prerogatives." This seems to be the heart of your concern in your most recent comments. But it seems to me like you are collapsing creating into the initial act, and Osborn is not. In doing so, Osborn is keeping with the various theological traditions (including the Reformed) who have ways of talking about "continuing creation" and such.

"It is entirely possible that I'm overdoing it"

That is indeed possible. :-)

Also, I can't shake the feeling here that you are being a bit biblicist in your method. I'm all for understanding exactly what Genesis says, but I'm not entirely sure that the theological task is just an extension of that in a simplistic sense.
Matthew Frost said…
Yes, I quoted the Vulgate; I didn't have an Old Latin version to hand, and the term in question is Latin!

And yes, I am throwing my hat in against creatio continua, precisely because we have a historically reinforced tendency to wedge the act of creation open at this end in order to shoehorn our agendas into it. I may not be doing it the way Barth does, but I'm doing it for much the same reason. I see no reason for it except to baptize our agency, selectively, as in some way divine. It's the gateway to orders theologies, and I'd just as soon see it shut. Everything that needs done in ethics can be done more responsibly without it.

And as to being biblicist, you'd better believe I'm a biblicist when the question is what we can say on the basis of the text. And if we don't want to say what the text says, let's disagree with it—but honestly, not by glossing over points that disagree with our constructive work. If Osborn is going to exposit Genesis to his audience, and tell them what it means on the basis of what it says, the game is already biblicist. Even bringing in the tradition, he hasn't left the biblicist field.
Dogmatically speaking, I think you may be overreacting. I think the idea of a completely finished and closed-off creation is more likely to morph into an "orders" theology than is the idea of continuing creation.

As for Osborn, his primary goal is to problematize other literalist readings of the text. And he does so precisely by getting in there and generating wiggle-room through a creative (see what I did there?) theological re-reading. In any case, I think it problematic to foreclose on the meaning of the text as you do in tying "what it means" to closely to "what it says" (and by the latter of which I understand you to mean something like "what it seems to have meant in its original Sitz im Leben).
Matthew Frost said…
Do I think there can be a doctrine of creation not bound to these two Genesis stories? Yes. Besides which, plenty of scriptural creation discussion gets ignored because of our obsession with these two stories and how the second one continues.

Do I think there can be a doctrine of creation not bound to scripture? Only if it does what scripture did in its own contexts, and what scripture continues to do today.

And even then, there can be no doctrine of creation that deserves the name Christian if it is not willing to be compared with what the many relevant texts of scripture say, and deal fairly with that history of witness.

So I think we're always going to be arguing about scripture when we do theology based on what it has told us, no matter how we depart from it. We don't have any reason to treat the locus except scripture. The game is to do so as well as possible, and we're also always going to be arguing about what that means.
Matthew Frost said…
You're missing the grammatical thrust here. I see no way in which permitting God's act of creation to be finished, in the sense of past perfect verbal action the effects of which continue indefinitely into the present and future, is the same as "a completely finished and closed-off creation." Again, separate the verb from the noun! I will as steadfastly refuse the concept that God established a perfect order, a perfect creature, because the text continues. The creature continues, through history. And that order does not, as the history tells us. The order was fleeting, and we were banished from it, but the creature, the effect of the act of creation, endures.

The action is finished, and new actions begun and finished and begun again each in their time, and the effects remain. And the creature is in no way a divine agent, and must be responsible for its own actions, its own choices, its own effects. If further acts of creation continue in history, in moments in which God makes there to be that which there was not, this is nothing against the past-perfect completion of the first creation of all things. But the text does not show us a God constantly making.

We are told the act of creation was a finite, limited act, and we are told to rely on its past-perfect-ness within a limited time as a reality of the divine power for us, and to embrace thereby our own limitation. We cannot do, as God did, all things in only a finite span.

God's actions go on, and ours begin from the end of God's finished act of creating, and history starts in that moment, but I don't see how that is enhanced by saying that God did not finish, that God's seventh day was only like our sabbath imitations, a rest in the middle of action left unfinished.

I'm all about wiggle room, but not at the expense of the text. Ultimately we have no recourse to what the text means without what it says. Leverage against literalism is not had by short-changing the text, but by insistence upon interpreting it. What it says is productive of much meaning, but it doesn't say everything we might say. It doesn't even say everything we have said that it says. It only says what it says, and it does that most particularly. The text itself is the best possible tool for creating wiggle room in the arena of interpretation.
On my reading, the Genesis stories seem to work on the basis of what is later called an infralapsarian logic. I tend to think that christology works on the basis of a supralapsarian logic. This means that the Genesis stories must be subjected to sache-critisism.
Matthew Frost said…
Subjecting Genesis to Sachkritik cannot make it say what other texts say. If you prefer other texts to Genesis, that's fine, but own it. The canon (each canon, produced throughout history, for that matter) may have its own Sache, but that is a product of the collector and not the authors of the individual works.

Genesis is not either infra- or supra-lapsarian. If you are importing those concepts into your reading of these text, chances are very good you're not doing Sachkritik of Genesis properly, or of the stories it has collected in their own rights.

Long story short, don't try to wedge Jesus into Genesis, because he won't fit! It's like that Simpsons episode in which Stan Lee demonstrates that a figure of The Thing fits perfectly in the Batmobile. Jesus may survive, but the structural integrity of the Batmobile is severely compromised.
Matt, this conversation is a bit farcical. The whole time you have been saying: "Genesis must be read on its own terms in its Sitz im Leben." And I have been saying, "Yes, but there are also other ways of reading it, and they are fair game." What more must be said?
I'm lost and confused here -- granted, not a novel thing to happen.

I neither have read the book, nor do I read Latin.

But if I read the review correctly, I didn't get the sense the author was proposing a total systematic doctrine of creation. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) Nor would I think it wise to base an entire doctrine of creation simply on an exegesis of Gen. 1-2.

My sense from the quotations is that the author is using the term "creation" in a more commonsense way than the more technical and narrow way it's often used in systematic theology.

His basic axiom, as highlighted in the review, is that the Genesis narratives should not be taken literally. He has taken seriously the relatively well-worn observation that the observable universe, from a contemporary perspective, is in a process of becoming. And that includes human beings and their role in creation (= the finite, contingent, created realm). If one concedes that the Genesis narratives aren't literal history or cosmology, it seems reasonable to go the next step and assume they function best evocatively rather than proscriptively. What's the problem, then, with saying both that created entities are, in some sense, both "complete" as they are, yet also "incomplete" (in process of becoming)?
Matthew Frost said…
Travis, it's not farcical while you keep not hearing what I'm saying. This isn't about whether multiple interpretations are possible; this is about the validity of one particular interpretation relative to the words of the text. If this isn't a legitimate avenue of critique, nothing is!

I haven't even touched Sitz im Leben. Not once. No historical critical exercise, no insistence that the text be read in light of the world of its origin, nothing. It wasn't raised by Osborn, or you, or me. Totally a world-inside-the-text discussion all the way down.

What I have done is insist that when the text says something, in the very particular words it uses, and we want to say something that differs, we acknowledge that. That's not a question of multiple meanings, or colorable interpretation. The text of Genesis 1:1-2:3 does not say that creation continues, as a verbal act of God, beyond the seventh day. It says exactly the opposite, and it says it plainly. And you may know that it does because native-speakers throughout the rest of the canon, not just its immediate textual situation, rely on the completion of that verbal action. That there is a second story doesn't change what the first one says, or that it ends. They are manifestly different versions of the same nominal action, and yet in both cases God finishes creating at some point. Things go on from there, having been created and given agency of their own. This isn't anything against God doing more creating later, but all the acts are discrete and finite acts, and the language of completion is quite explicit. It takes work to fudge that the way Osborn has, work that comes from outside the text and must be judged against it.

I have also insisted that linguistic context be respected, and that when we make linguistic distinctions that depend on Modern colloquial English, there's not only the possibility of imprecision, but outright mistake. And comparing "good" in Genesis 1 to "perfect" in colloquial English is an outright mistake, because it leads to interpretations that are not based in the text of Genesis 1. Find me a comparative in this context! Find me a relative grade of quality or moral value. It's not there.

This is the game. It isn't a theological game, though it has theological and ethical implications. Please play it, or at least stop yelling at me for doing so. The tradition doesn't count unless you can validate them against the text. And man, are there some deep problems there!
You keep talking about context and the meaning of words, but you also want to distinguish that from Sitz im Leben - that makes no sense to me. :-/
Matthew Frost said…
Scott, with you I agree.

Nearly all of my problems here stem from Osborn taking the word "creation" in a colloquial sense that contains ambiguity, and allowing that ambiguity to run rampant. As it has throughout the tradition, because a gerund is a kind of verbal noun and we like the ability to use one word for both the act and its product.

I'm not trying to lock down a coherent and total doctrine of creation here, or trying to make Osborn a systematic theologian. I do in fact like a lot that he says. But that ambiguity is a real problem when it overrides what the text says, and is presented as though the text said something more or less definite, or flatly other, than it does.

The creature is done being made, in that God is done with that action, but it is not done acting or being or becoming, any more than God is done. But there are ways to say that that involve fewer problems with the words of the text.
Matthew Frost said…
Travis, from a lexicographical standpoint I understand you even less. Have you been trying to argue that the meaning of a word in a text can be something that developed centuries after it was composed? That the meaning of an approximate gloss in an entirely different language from centuries and even millennia later conveys a valid ability to shift the semantic domain of the usage in a given ancient text?

If you want to talk historical usage and corpus linguistics in Hebrew, fine. There's loads of room in that field. But a text uses language in definite ways, and in fact preserves usage from the period in which it was composed. (And an edited text may preserve shifts in usage from the periods in which it was modified, of course.) It's like a crystallized solid of the fluid it came from. Like stones in geology. We have samples from many neighboring such fluids, crystallized in various forms. We may not know exactly when that was, but there are good and serviceable models that continue to be tweaked for better results. And yet Sitz im Leben is still not the right term, unless you want to dig behind both the text and the lexicons.

Translation is a different question, but translation must always be beholden to the best we can figure out of the language the text came from. Heck, I quoted the Vulgate in part to demonstrate that "perfect" as an inexact gloss of a different word is not related to the semantic domain of "good" used here, and that we know that because they don't appear for each other in this context. And that more original Latin usage of perfecit for completion is not in the same semantic domain as Osborn's use, to describe a higher grade of quality of something. The word "good" is ambiguous here, belonging to multiple overlapping semantic domains. But the text is a determining context all by itself. The text is usage. And the usage of the word tov, for example, and of me'od as an emphatic modifier, don't belong to relative grades of quality in this text, stated this way.

Only when we ask an alien question do we incline ourselves to an alien answer, as though God were not actually as satisfied as God says. The question doesn't come from the text, and it can be answered by the fact that the text does not say things it could have if that were the case, better than by manufacturing voids to fill.
How can use of language be separated from life context?

In any case, I'm done with this conversation. It seems to me as though you are unnecessarily picking nits. For your own part, you seem committed to defending a very particular (and, in my view, somewhat rigid) reading of the texts in question. I tend to think the exercise of interpretation allows for a bit more fluidity. There's nothing more to be said.

Is it the case that you have a bit of Yale in your blood, what with this talk of questions alien to the world of the text?


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