Published on July 20, 2015 by Todd Scacewater

IVP, 2014 | 197 pages

A Summary-Review by Ardel Caneday

Death before the Fall grew out of a series of articles published in the online progressive Seventh-Day Adventist Spectrum Magazine (2010-2011). The further readers proceed into the book, the more apparent it becomes that it originated as many independently written units. Prior to becoming a 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College and a 2015 Fulbright scholar to Myanmar Ronald E. Osborn filled an adjunct faculty role in the Department of International Relations at the University of Southern California where he completed his PhD in 2012 in the area of politics and international relations.

Four blurbs on the back cover highly praise the book for promoting ways of accepting evolution as an alternative to the devastating spiritual effects of Fundamentalism’s biblical literalism that grounds various beliefs and denies evolutionary science but advocates for a young earth, creation science, and intelligent design. Readers are told to expect that Ronald Osborn addresses the issue of death before the fall with insightful exegetical and theological reasoning as he discusses controversial topics with respect, humility, and graciousness.

John Walton’s foreword to Osborn’s book offers the same commendations for demonstrating (1) that narrow literalists, who are selective in what they read as literal, have fallen prey to the demands of post-Enlightenment scientism even as they fail to provide a warranted reading of Scripture but instead do positive injury to the text; and (2) that those who embrace literalism and creationism have no better explanation for animal suffering and predation than advocates of evolution do. According to Walton, Osborn destroys the notion that animal suffering is a leading argument against accepting evolution. Walton also endorses Osborn as an outstanding conversation partner on this controversial topic who leads us down the pathway “toward finding peace from the animosity and angst” that envelope these issues.

The book also received promotion when it won a 2014 Top Shelf Book Cover Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Do the book’s contents match the award winning cover?

Given such praise, I was eager to read Osborn’s book. After all, my own teaching and writing has compelled me to ponder deeply issues concerning the biblical account of creation and death’s intrusion, including animal death and predation. Upon receiving a copy of the book in exchange for offering to write a review, I promptly read it, flagging numerous pages with post-it tabs lest I mar its pristine pages. I readily confess that, despite punctually devouring the book, I have delayed writing this review for as long as possible for two primary reasons. First, it is difficult to know what to exclude because so much of the content invites response. Second, I procrastinated in hope that when I returned to write the critique I might view the book’s contents more favorably. Avoidance became preferable to candor, lest my review seem disproportionately out of character with such high praise the blurbs deliver. But, alas, duty calls for a forthright review of a book whose contents measures up to all the accolades only for readers who already identify vicariously with the author’s advocacy of evolution against creationism and with his assault upon Fundamentalism, biblical literalism, and Christians in general who reject theistic evolution.

Survey Summary & Interaction

The book consists of two large segments. Throughout Part 1 Osborn’s principal concern is how we ought to read Genesis 1-2. He begins by offering his “plain reading” of Genesis 1-2. He provides little exegesis of the text, but he does make theological assertions concerning how adaptable the creation account is with his belief in evolution. Yes, God “does not only create ex nihilo,” but he also “recruits and involves what he has already created in the next acts of the unfolding drama” (p. 25). Thus, Osborn discovers room for evolutionary processes when God says, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding see, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is it itself” (pp. 25-26). Because, when God commands the creatures, “Be fruitful, and multiply,” the “text does not restrict the multiplication . . . to quantitative multiplication alone,” we are “entirely free to think that the Creator might be delighted to see his creation multiply . . . also in kind” (p. 26). So, Osborn reasons, “The God of Genesis recruits the creation as a co-participant in his work as it unfolds, so that not all of the earth is out of nothing or by unmediated speech acts” (p. 26). This is so because “God desires a world that will in some sense be free from his direct control, and the creation is in certain ways marked from the very first moment by the presence of freedom” (p. 27). Osborn finds creation’s freedom in the “key refrain Let—‘Let there be,’ ‘Let the waters,’ ‘Let the earth,’” which is “a clarion signal that God’s way of bringing order out of chaos involves not only directly fashioning or controlling but also granting, permitting and delegating” (p. 27). So, “Rather than simply dominating the world, in the very act of bringing the world into existence God is in a certain sense already withdrawing himself from it—or perhaps better, limiting himself within it—in order for it to be free” (p. 27). Oh, to be sure, “God is the sustaining ground of all being so nothing exists apart from God, yet the very fact that things exist that are ontologically other than God implies a simultaneously present/absent Creator from the very start” (p. 27). Though he does not explicitly affirm his embrace of Open Theism, the coinage of fellow Adventist Richard Rice, it is evident that Osborn finds Open Theism useful for his blending of divine creation (divine fiat creation) and evolution (creation’s generative processes).

Because he seems to think that his literalist sparring partners believe that God created everything ex nihilo, with alacrity Osborn points out that Darwin and evolutionists could hardly say it more forcefully than does Genesis 2:19, that God “‘formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air’ from ‘out of the ground’” (p. 27). “Adam and the other animals” are made of “the same essential ‘stuff’” (p. 28). Though Genesis 2:7 anthropomorphically portrays the Lord by saying,  “God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” Osborn announces, “It would be a fatal mistake to imagine the Creator of the universe in anthropomorphic terms as forming with physical hands” (p. 28). Again, as if biblical literalists do not realize that God forms animals and Adam from the dust of the ground, not ex nihilo, he emphasizes that God’s “creating through the gathering and shaping of already existing elements—must be read as something very different from God’s speaking things into existence” (p. 28).

The point to which Osborn pushes his observations is that “The creation cannot be perfect because, in an important sense, it is not entirely God’s work” (p. 31). Why? It is because there are “principles of freedom at work in the creation, and animals, and humans and the earth itself has a God-given role to play as his coworkers” (p. 31). That God gives every green plant as food for the animals (Genesis 1:30) is the most potent claim biblical literalists can make that animal predation was not original to God’s good creation. Though Osborn acknowledges this, he cautions that even though the verse “hints against predation being willed by God, it does not resolve the question of whether the ‘great sea monsters’ or other wild and creeping creatures might not at their first appearing in fact be predatory” (p. 33). The question remains open “whether very good creatures lacking in moral awareness but possessing creaturely freedom or agency might not take that which they have not been given” and become predatory (p. 33). So, Osborn concludes that his “plain reading” of Genesis “clearly opens the door to the possibility of ‘theistic evolution’ — or better, process creation — which believers seeing evidences of redeeming purpose at work in a universe that is neither wholly determined nor wholly contingent” (p. 37).

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Death Before The Fall: Biblical Literalism And The Problem Of Animal Suffering

IVP, 2014 | 197 pages

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