As a boy Ronald Osborn took camping trips to the Mana Pools, in Zimbabwe, with his missionary parents. There he saw the splendor of untamed nature, which included the sight of lions gorging on their bloody prey. In Death Before the Fall, he writes: "All around us was a world that was deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good, waiting to be explored. And the danger was part of its goodness and beauty.... Mana Pools was very good—its lions, jackals, leopards, fish eagles and cobras included." (pg.13)
This intuitive understanding of creation is quite at odds with the understanding of Genesis that Osborn learned in his young-earth-creationist Seventh Day Adventist church. There he was told that no death existed in the Garden of Eden; death and predation resulted from Adam's sin. Not only were death and predation not intrinsic to the creation, they were evil, reflecting God's curse.
In an evolutionary scenario, death and predation are intrinsic to creation—there could be no development of new species without them. Osborn quotes one Adventist official as saying that those following evolutionary thinking, "don't worship the God of the Bible, for that God didn't use a long, protracted, and vicious dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest paradigm—one that goes against everything He has taught us about love and self-sacrifice...." (17)
With this conflict in view as to the nature of nature, Osborn launches into a full-bore, unflinching assault on literalism in biblical interpretation, particularly in regard to the first chapters in Genesis. His is not a liberal critique, but an orthodox, Bible-centered one. Osborn contends that fundamentalist, young-earth creationists fail to honor the Bible, in their insistence that it fit into their pre-existing, unbiblical philosophy. He makes this case mainly and most effectively by a careful reading of biblical texts. He does not major on the incompatibility of young-earth creationism with scientific findings—though this does come up. Nor does Osborn say much about more figurative understandings of Genesis, such as John Walton's. Instead he tries to show that literalistic readings of the text are not actually true to Scripture, creating as many theological and interpretational problems as they claim to solve. What they impose on the text, he argues, is a view closely associated with the same Enlightenment paradigm of scientism that animates God's most impassioned critics.
Though his childhood experiences at Mana Pools make no scriptural critique, his raising them does make a related point. Must a certain reading of Scripture compel us to read nature in a way that is unnatural? Must the lion's fierceness, so close to its essential being, be understood as a curse? Is this really what the Bible teaches, or is it actually a forced interpretation trying to cram the facts into a closely guarded framework?
Osborn returns to this theme when he takes up the book of Job. God's answer to Job's question about his suffering "is nothing other than the creation itself in all of its stupendous, intricate, frightening, free and often incomprehensible forms. In one sense this is not an answer to the problem of suffering at all—certainly not Job's personal sufferings. But in another it is the only answer possible. The creation, with its suffering and death included, is very good because it is God's creation.... The God of Job is not a God who glories in defanged lions, which is to say, unlions." (152, 154)
Against the Literalists
Osborn begins with the first chapters of Genesis, in an acute, reverent reading that yields some surprising insights. He offers a long list of verbs for God's creation in Genesis 1 and 2—verbs as varied as "breathe," "form," "call," and "fashion." "The creation of light is.... ex nihilo, instantaneously and strictly by divine fiat. The Lord spoke and it was so. However, when we arrive at Genesis 1:11, we find that God ... recruits and involves what he has already created in the next acts of the unfolding drama. 'Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself,' God says.... The earth itself therefore participates as an obedient servant to God in the creation process/event..... The earth is charged with a task. The earth brings forth." (25-26)
Later, he states: "The key refrain Let—'Let there be,' 'Let the waters,' 'Let the earth'—should serve as 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." (27)
Regarding the six "days" of creation, Osborn agrees with literalists that the Hebrew word yom means "day" "in the sense of a literal twenty-four-hour period rather than a symbolic eon or age as in allegorical readings." But, "Few literalists would conclude, however, from the numerous references in Scripture to the 'hand' of God—an equally literal word—that the Creator of the universe possesses a physical body." (49) He points out that "very good" and "good" are nowhere else interpreted as "perfect"—and that there are other words in Hebrew that communicate perfection, such as a word commanding that animal sacrifice be "without defect." Osborn suggests that "very good" means just that—as a school, or family, or church may be "very good," while still in process.
Of course, all these points and many others are worthy of discussion. Osborn's objection is not so much to literal interpretations per se, as to the literalists' insistence that their way of reading Scripture is the only way to read Scripture—that they alone honor God and revere the authority of the Bible. What they revere, he tries to show, is philosophical "foundationalism": the belief that everything, whether in matters of science or literary interpretation, depends on one clearly marked foundation, which cannot be critiqued. Biblical literalists assert that their understanding of Genesis as a document yielding scientific knowledge is the only foundation for all truth. Even if Scripture must be subjected to elaborate special pleading and intellectual gymnastics in order to fit this understanding, the underlying theory cannot be questioned. Osborn's tour through the first two chapters of Genesis tries to show that the harmonizing approach of most literalists, trying to make the two accounts fit into one, actually ends up twisting the Bible in order to make it "indubitably, infallibly and incorrigibly scientific." (70)
"We must somehow," he writes, "make Genesis 2 say something other than what the text very plainly appears to say, not because we are really concerned with listening to the story on its own terms as a theological narrative but because we have a prior commitment to an uncompromising and thorough modernist understanding of what counts as 'truth,' so that all other textual questions must now be subordinated to the task of producing absolute scientific and chronological harmony—no matter what the texts say." (65)
Osborn goes further. "What we witness in fundamentalist communities and individuals is the move from total confidence in one's ability to understand the 'literal' truth of Scripture to relentless suspicion and even demonization of those who read the sacred text in other ways.... Authentic dialogue, in the sense of an open-ended, mutually risky and non-dogmatic search for greater understanding, cannot be permitted, since this would imply that there are legitimate questions to be asked....The spirit of censure and craving for communal purification is ultimately what makes fundamentalist readings of Genesis.... fundamentalist as opposed to merely literal." (78-79)
What About Animal Suffering?
It seems obvious that Osborn bears the wounds of some intense battles. Some evangelicals may be surprised to learn that the Seventh Day Adventist church is actually the fountain from which young-earth creationism and its biblical interpretations spring, and that Adventism still claims some of its most formidable champions. In the small and sometimes ingrown world of Adventism, these issues may be even more contentious than in broader evangelicalism.
These battles over biblical interpretation are not the whole book; Osborn is extremely concerned about animal suffering. If animal death and suffering are not part of God's good creation, but came through Adam's sin, that hardly solves the question of how a good God could permit such suffering. In fact, it makes the problem worse. "The Creator is conceived of as a divinity who consigns countless morally innocent creatures from a state of natural bliss to one of suffering and death without any ability to comprehend the meaning of their transformation and for no redemptive purpose as far as the animals themselves are concerned." (135) Why would he hurt so many trillions of animals for something humanity did?
Osborn does not claim to have solved this problem. He merely claims it is at least as great a problem for literalists as it is for all others who believe in a good Creator. Osborn probes this problem in several ways. He meditates on Job. He takes up C. S. Lewis's speculations about animal suffering as part of a primordial Satanic oppression. He considers how reading the creation story through the life of a self-limiting, suffering Christ—reading backwards, as it were—affects our understanding. As to what humans should do about animal suffering, he ends with a meditation on the Sabbath. In all this he is thoughtful and provocative.
The teeth of his argument, however, is against the literalistic readings of Genesis. He does not indulge in character assassination, but I could wish that he were more generous in his approach. For example, while pointing out how little literalists have done to defend animals from suffering, he might have pointed out that they have done more than most to defend babies from premature death.
That said, he meets young-earth creationists on their strongest ground, that of the Bible. He writes well, he loves the Bible and reads it insightfully, and he appears to be as orthodox as they—more so, he would claim, given his readings from Calvin and Augustine. It will be interesting to see whether they feel a need to answer. A simple assertion that anybody who believes as Osborn does cannot believe in the Bible will not do. He is too obviously a man of Scripture for that assertion to stick.
Tim Stafford, CT editor at large, is the author of The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Who Held on to a Strong Faith While Wrestling with the Mystery of Human Origins (Thomas Nelson).