by Ervin Taylor
Reviewed by Ervin Taylor, February 28, 2014
Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and Problem of Animal Suffering, Ronald E. Osborn. Downers Grove: IVP Academic 2014
This important volume is now available for purchase through your local book retailer or from various online sources such as Amazon.com. Two reviews of Death Before the Fall will appear in a future issue of Adventist Today, written by individuals with contrasting points of view concerning the positive contribution that this book will make in facilitating meaningful dialogue within the Adventist faith community with respect to this controversial and thus polarizing topic. To maximize the degree to which readers will be able to appreciate what lies at the center of the controversy that this book addresses, interested individuals may wish to purchase and read this book ahead of reading the reviews.
This volume considers the principal theological objections that Fundamentalist Adventists and individuals belonging to other Conservative and Fundamentalist Christian traditions most often cite as the basis for their opposition to what generally is referred to as Darwinian evolution. The centerpiece of the understandings of the English naturalist, Charles Darwin, of the natural forces that drive the development and extinction of species of plants and animals, i.e., biological evolution, is the concept of natural selection. Such a process assumed that physical death had always been a natural part of the world in which we live and that different rates of reproduction and death were a function of species better adapted to their environments, and this accounted for a significant part of the progressive changes in the physical characteristics in populations of plants and animals over long periods of "deep time" on earth.
The basis for natural selection was first stated in great detail and with many examples in the middle of the 19th century by Darwin. It was also described by a contemporary of Darwin's, the English biologist, Alfred Russell Wallace. As with any scientific concept since their time, as new discoveries (such as a more detailed understanding of the role of genetic mutations and the development of molecular genetics) have accumulated, a number of important aspects of some of the Darwin-Wallace original insights concerning natural selectionand other processes involved in biological evolution have been continuously updated. As a result, Darwin and Wallace’s great contribution has become a central, unifying theme in contemporary life sciences.
However, the scientific basis of contemporary evolutionary biology is not the topic of this book. Its focus is on an examination of a series of theological concepts and assumptions about how different individuals and certain contemporary faith traditions view and evaluate biblical statements that currently lie at the heart of thetheologically-based rejection of modern biological evolution.
As befitting the title, the volume is divided into two major parts, with the first and longer section considering topics addressing various aspects of the hermeneutic of biblical literalism and the second part addressing what the author terms “the central riddle” of his book, animal suffering. The author reviews the issues that are dividing many Christians, including Adventist scholars and laity, over what has been a contentious issue within many Christian faith communities ever since Darwin published his seminal work,Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859.
With few exceptions, until the early 1960s, traditional Adventism generally followed a theological paradigm which required a reading of the Genesis creation narratives as describing a set of literal historical events which occurred only a few thousand years ago. This approach to biblical interpretation excluded any accommodation to the reality established by almost two centuries of research studies in a number of scientific fields which established that there had been a progression of life forms which had evolved over billions of years on our planet.
In addition to its largely Fundamentalist legacy, Adventism has had to deal with real historical issues arising from having a 19th century prophetic figure, Ellen G. White, who, in some quarters of Adventism has been accorded, for all practical purposes, canonical authority. Although there were constant official protestations that this was not the case, effectively her views on a number of issues, including her largely devotional commentaries on Genesis, have been traditionally viewed as imparting both theological and scientific knowledge. On the subject of Genesis, her statements were unequivocal: There was a creation in seven literal days of life forms about 6,000 years ago and a worldwide flood about 4,000 years ago.
However, within the last half century, and particularly within the last few decades, increasing numbers of Adventist scientists and theologians have been pointing out what serious theological and scientific problems are created when simplistic, literalistic interpretations of Genesis are imposed on the biblical texts. In the view of a number of these scholars, this rigid interpretative or hermeneutical framework results in the creation of both bad science and bad theology.
Hopefully, this volume will provide a stimulus for the beginning of a new strand of dialogue within Adventism on what currently is a highly polarizing topic.