Book Review: Death Before the Fall by Ronald Osborn
Author: Ronald Osborn
Reading Level: Moderate
Hardly any passage in the Christian Scriptures has stirred up more controversy than the first two chapters of Genesis. These opening chapters of the Bible have caused division on scientific and theological levels; spliting Christian views on science, Biblical genre and proper exegesis. It is within this debate that Death Before the Fall seeks to shed some light on the problem of animal suffering in creation and what it provides for interpretative keys to these chapters.
A new thought to some, the concept of animal death and suffering presents interesting thoughts and challenges for the modern tradition of literal interpretation. Death Before the Fall provides introductory reflections on the purpose of death in God’s creation and whether it occurred before the great fall described in Genesis 3.
With respect to presentation, Ronald Osborn writes both clearly and fluidly. There is rarely a point that is clouded or confused, muddled or messy. His choice in language is modern and practical, making Death Before the Fall extremely easy to read. Those unfamiliar with the theological, philosophical and scientific issues presented in the book will not be overwhelmed by their descriptions and application.
Osborn makes the claim that he writes from and for an “Orthodox” perspective (20). Given his less conservative approaches to the book of Genesis and evolution, many will be left to summarize that Osborn’s “Orthodoxy” pertains not to modern traditionalism but to the nature of Jesus Christ and authenticity of the Scriptures. However, the exegetical and hermeneutical difference he displays puts him at dissonance with conservative creationists. A large portion of the books is Osborn pointing out the flaws in fundamental, “scientific” creationism. While often enlightening (chapters 4, 5 & 7), these sections do not come off humbly.
Death Before the Fall is split into two major sections: “On Literalism” and “On Animal Suffering.” The majority of the book is spent against the practice of literalism and the culture of fundamentalism (~120 pages). In opposition to some literalistic paradigms, the earliest chapters from Osborn present arguments for the shared foundation of animals and humans (27-28), a lack of Divine curse about animals (35), how “good” does not imply perfection (21-31), the conflict of accounts in Genesis 1 & 2 (52) and a mild challenge to a global flood (47-48). These arguments intend to show that a strict literalism that demands the Genesis account be scientific are in fact departing from a sound exegesis and any type of historical fideism. Instead Osborn proposes that literalistic scientific creationism is ardently clinging to the post-enlightenment paradigm of empiricism. This is used to explain why the “new atheists” and scientific creationist both demand an approach to Genesis 1 & 2 that undergirds the entirety of the Scriptures (46).
After a successful start, Death Before the Fall sets aside looking at the Genesis account and turns curiously critical of literalism and fundamentalism. Though thought provoking and often valuable, much of this section seems to serve no purpose other than to bury literalism. The presentation of progressive/degenerative science (chapter 4), “enclave mentality” (chapter 5) and “gnostic syndrome” (chapter 7) reveal many dangerous and accurate tendencies in the culture of literalism and fundamentalism. But these personal, sociological attacks seem ill spent. Little to no exegetical work is done in these sections and the Genesis account itself is set aside. It is unclear how these chapters are edifying for believers seeking to understand the creation account and participate in this debate.
Almost as if on cue, Death Before the Fall returns to the exegetical opinions of some of the church’s brightest theologian (and one Jewish authority). The presentations of Karl Barth, John Calvin, Augustine and Maimonides are all incredibly fair (chapter 8). The modern scientific creationism is shown to be a post-enlightenment response to the prevailing Darwinian theory of evolution and not a necessary tradition of the church. Though the historical thoughts of these men are valuable to show the validity of non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1 and 2, Osborn falls short of providing the actual reasons why these men’s opinion should be accepted as best reflecting the Scriptural account.
In the second section of Death Before the Fall, the question of animal suffering is introduced to demonstrate the failure of “scientific” creationism and the inherent value of a theistic evolution view. Chapter 10 attempts to do this by presenting three dilemmas for literal creation: stasis, deceiver and divine curse. Presented as a strong point, this section seems too rushed, as if the rebuttals of the literalist are self-evidently incorrect or foolish. The stasis argument is based upon the premise of “spatial finite” conditions (128). But Osborn presents no scientific reasons to confirm the premise of a spatial limited universe. Instead Osborn resorts to playfully proposing “teleportation” as the only means of which the traditional literalist could escape the argument (129).
In the deceiver argument, it is deemed unfitting for God to require a denial of reason and scientific knowledge (131-134). Far from being a palatable argument, the full brunt of this objection could be wielded against many Orthodox views in the church (e.g. the Virgin Birth). Ultimately, God is not a deceiver if His revealed word is thought of as His revealed word. Creationists are said to be foolish when they expose a creation with the appearance of age (133) but if the literalist exegesis is correct is not this the only God-fearing view to hold? This argument isn’t a dilemma for the literalist in Genesis 1-2 any more than it is throughout the rest of the Scriptures. The final argument is concerned with the divine curse that is placed upon animals in the traditional view. Essentially, if death did not exist before the fall then human sin brought down the most vicious wrath of God upon innocent creation. In effect this amounts to little more than a “what kind of Creator” argument (138). This same line of reasoning is upheld later in the book against the Reformed view of providence (161) and does not render a serious dilemma to the exegesis of literalism.
In summary theistic evolution is the only explanation of animal suffering for Osborn. The necessary nature of predatory animals and death in animal procreation undergird this assumption. This is never demonstrated scientifically but instead occasionally alluded to as a given fact (primarily because the “divine curse” option has been discarded). Apart from the lack of scientific presentation, the best Biblical case is presented in chapter 12 (150-156). Here in this penultimate chapter (!), a valuable argument for animal suffering is provided via the book of Job’s closing chapters. However the value, the placement so near the end of the book demonstrates how little interaction and influence it has on the rest of the presented material. While Death Before the Fall presents its case for a non-literal interpretation early, it seems egregious to wait so long for a chapter on animal suffering in the Bible. The result is a conflicting mix of excellent challenges and wasted time.
Death Before the Fall is ultimately a flawed book. The greatest value comes when the topic of literalism and exegesis are at the forefront. However, too much time is spent pointing out the flaws of fundamentalism (much of which is not exegetical in nature but sociological). This may not be against the focus to the book but it does not help the debate and discussion over the Scriptures. The lack of any solid scientific presentation or in-depth exegetical work leaves the book toothless while relying primarily on others for its arguments.
As an entryway for new thinking on the Scriptures, many will find the book thought provoking and insightful. Osborn does faithfully show that certain theories of evolution need not be discarded while taking the Bible at its word (chapter 1). However Death Before the Fall does not deal sufficiently with the Bible to demonstrate to literalists that these theories need to be taken seriously.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”