Review of @ivpacademic’s “Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering”

There is something to be said about a person who continues to be an active part of a denomination in which they are at odds, especially when the topic is interpretation of Scripture. It must present something of an identity crisis, where you identify as one thing, but your denomination identifies as other and in doing so,identifies you as another. Your goals are not always the same and it will present problems. It will cause you to sometimes drift away from your stated purpose as part of that denomination and perhaps engage in snipe hunts that, while charitable, is not always profitable. Such is the case with Ronald E. Osborn and his latest, Death Before the Fall, Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering.

Osborn identifies with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a denomination largely rooted in Young Earth Creationism and other forms of biblical literalism, and yet he does not hold to many of the views considered orthodox by the SDA. Because of this, the book takes a meandering path to his ultimate goal, arguing for animal ethics and how this may play into our vision of both the Fall and subsequent theological drama. Often times, Osborn argues more against biblical literalism than for any position. He accepts, it seems Augustinian approaches to original sin, but at the same time follows the Waltonian response to the six-days creation account. It is confusing and perhaps betraying something of an identity crisis of the author.

Osborn Caribou

Osborn Caribou (Photo credit: IslesPunkFan)

This is not to say the book is not worth reading. Indeed, it is a book directed towards biblical literalists argued the way a biblical literalist would make their case. He even favors the King James Version. Except, the author shows just how theological inconsistent literalism really is — not only with the Holy Text itself, but so too with Tradition and God’s other book, science. It is important to note that while Osborn does employ some modern scholarship (it cannot be missed that John Walton wrote the foreword), he makes his case in easy to follow analogies and examples with an appeal, always, to faith.  And, he is not afraid to mix it up and call out the modern day gnostics and deists that make up too much of the biblical literalism community (even if they are unaware of their identification with those ancient heresies).

I cannot fully describe this book as gracious (something Joel Green has in his endorsement). Osborne, by his existence, is polemical. (Any ex-fundamentalist/biblical literalist will understand this). However, he does take some time to try to write measurably and without personal attacks. He is not always successful; however, I could and will argue that sometimes, it is necessary to rough it up a bit.

The book is divided into 14 chapters, between two unequal parts. The first part (9 chapters) deals with biblical literalism while the second (5 chapters) attempts to turn to animal suffering. Each chapter is a nicely contained essay — almost as if each chapter was written as a stand alone portion with a brief segway paragraph added at the end (as an afterthought). In the first part, he takes to task biblical literalists and their own self-imposed, and extra-biblical, hermeneutics. In one important chapter, however, Osborn really lays out the argument against biblical literalism. Chapter 7, “The Gnostic Syndrome, When Literalism Becomes a Heresy” is perhaps one of the most important chapters written in this book, if not the entirety of the apologetic enterprise. My only quibble here is that it is not long enough. It would not take a gigantic editorial imagination to see Osborn taking this chapter and turning it into a rather welcomed work.

The book does suffer from something of an identity crisis, but perhaps so does the author. He is writing more against himself than he is for others, something he has admitted. While this is the definitive weakness of this work (his reasoning, his insights, this theology — they are not lacking in this volume), it does not seriously undermine the thesis of the book. Biblical literalism is a problem. It creates heresies, anxious believers, and mutes the faith of the sincere. Further, literalism does nothing to help us in understanding how we are to treat creation (something, unfortunately, given little attention to in the book and thus sliding in at the end of my review). However, if we take the Scriptures seriously, which is Osborn’s ultimate goal, we can begin to see Creation for what it is.

Post By Joel Watts (10,113 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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10 thoughts on “Review of @ivpacademic’s “Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering”

  1. Biblical literalists tend to cherry-pick their literalism. For example, of the almost dozen biblical sins worthy of death, literalists tend to center their wrath on Number 1 – homosexual sex. In fact, they seem to have a preoccupation with homosexual sex!!!

    Meanwhile, I wonder if walking down the aisle in a white dress – supposedly a symbol of purity – constitutes lying about a young bride’s virginity? Wonder how Christians stoning urban rape victims would go over these days? Then, there’s adultery and remarriage as defined by Jesus!

    1) Male homosexuality (women get a pass?) (Leviticus 18:22)

    2) Heterosexual adultery (man and woman) (Leviticus 20:10-12)

    3) Marrying both a mother and her daughter (Leviticus 20:14)

    4) Bestiality (Leviticus 20:15 [men] and Leviticus 20:16 [women])

    5) Incest with sister (Leviticus 20:17)

    6) Copulation with father’s wife (not mother of the accused) (Leviticus 20:20)

    7) Copulation with daughter-in-law (Leviticus 20:30)

    8) Prostitution practiced by daughter of priest (Leviticus 21:9)

    9) Young women lying about virginity (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)

    10) Rape of a virgin engaged to be married to another (Deuteronomy 22:25)

    11) Rape victim in a city (Deuteronomy 22:23-27)

  2. Statement, “Chapter 7, “The Gnostic Syndrome, When Literalism Becomes a Heresy” is perhaps one of the most important chapters written in this book”.
    How about a sentence describing what this is about?
    The reviews don’t describe it.

  3. Makes me wonder if there is any mention of Ebionites. 7th Day Adventists and Ebionites might make for a good potluck.

  4. This book is comprised of two halves — in the first half (which is slightly longer than the second half in length), the author emits a grade A rant on fundamentalism and biblical literalism. As someone who grew up a 7th day adventist, and then tackled all the science-y stuff in order to rebut it, he now turns his ire toward that and similar fundamentalist factions — and he does an excellent job, one of the better missives on how fundamentalists arguing for biblical literalism do so in the vein of modernity, in the post-Enlightenment realm where science and reason bear strength over authoritarian edicts. But fundamentalists peering into scripture, twist this like a pretzel, and subordinate that very reason they enlist to a narrow dogmatic prism.

    In the latter half, the author explores the question of the fall and the nature of animal predation. That animals seem to be “made” for barbarous treatment of each other — was this God’s intention or a result of the Fall and human sin? Oddly, the author points out, it is only in post-Darwinian age that we (in the collective aggregate sense) come to object to inhumane treatment of animals — that in the previous age(s), we hardly bat an eye to animal abuse. In writings of the ancients, animals are seen almost as unfeeling automatons, devoid of anything remotely resembling human consciousness and/or completely lacking ability to feel pain. It’s only after Darwin we view animals as kindred organisms.

    I really enjoyed reading this and it was hard to put down.

    • There is some evidence that Darwin may not be wholly responsible for the shift in attitude. Oddly enough, the seeds of attitudinal change may have been sown in art rather than through science.

      Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859. However, between 1843 and 1860, John Ruskin churned out his five volumes on Modern Painters. In those works, Ruskin first used the term “pathetic fallacy” as a label for assigning human behavior and feelings to natural phenomenon.

      Now, while attributing human qualities to plants is not synonymous with viewing “animals as kindred organisms,” it nevertheless suggests a recognition that humans might not be all that exclusive may have predated Darwinian philosophy.

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