On Literalism & Meeting Other Christians

I’m enjoying Ronald Osborn‘s excellent new book, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic). Its title explains the book’s basic thrust.


Before exploring the possibility of animal suffering and death before the fall in the last third of his work, Osborn critiques a reading of Genesis 1-2 that demands that the text speak in modern scientific terms. In addition to a number of other problems, this view of Genesis is often accompanied by rhetoric that demonizes those with other views.

Perhaps the most widely deployed auxiliary theory in the protective belt that encircles strict literalism on Genesis is the claim that only young earth or young life creationists take seriously the authority of Scripture. Yet if the lives and witnesses of actual believers matter at all to our thinking, this claim is demonstrably false. Numerous believers with unimpeachable credentials as scientists, as theologians and as biblical scholars, hold very high views of the Bible’s authority while embracing nonliteralistic readings of Genesis. What they have challenged is not the inspiration or authority of Scripture but the appropriateness of rigid hermeneutical approaches to the Bible that treat the creation narratives as a scientific-historical record. There is always, of course, the possibility that these individuals are mistaken in their readings. No one’s ideas should be treated as being beyond thoughtful criticism. But the fundamentalist insistence that these committed Christians can only be one of three things – mentally feeble, morally suspect or spiritually deficient – is perhaps the most depressing illustration of how degenerating the linear equation of literalism on Genesis with belief in biblical authority has become in much creationist discourse. This hypothesis can only be sustained if we cloister ourselves behind very high walls lest we encounter the actual lives and thinking of others. (A fundamentalist can never be too careful what she reads or whom she befriends!) (p. 73).

Indeed, I have witnessed the redemptive dynamics God generates by his Spirit when we encounter well-meaning Christians who hold opposing views.

I was part of one such encounter last summer hosted by The Colossian Forum. Their mission is to provide a “safe place for the riskiest questions.”

They brought together two scholars who held divergent views on human origins for several days of prayer and vigorous dialogue. The result was not universal agreement, but it certainly removed the factor to which Osborn refers in the paragraph quoted above — the demonization of a fellow Christian.

I’ll never forget the reflective words spoken by one of the participants at the conclusion of the forum. He said that he was completely unprepared for his conversation partner to be someone who loved God’s word, who loved Jesus and the church, and who prayed passionately. To that point, he could only imagine that someone would hold another view because he was either misguided or committed to undermining Scripture.

The existence of groups like The Colossian Forum is a hopeful sign. But it remains a tragedy that professing Christians maintain group loyalty and ideological purity by demonizing other Christians.

7 thoughts on “On Literalism & Meeting Other Christians

    1. timgombis

      That’s the question, isn’t it? I’m not there yet, but there’s a sense that with much of his ground-clearing in the first part of the book, he levels the field so that it’s possibly an imposition to assume the presence or absence of death before the fall.

      1. Jonathan Demers

        Interesting. I’ll have to get some more thoughts from you in a few weeks! It’s a fascinating subject.

      2. timgombis

        It is fascinating. His focus is on animal suffering, not necessarily human suffering and death. But John Walton has noted that “from the dust of the ground” indicates that Adam was created mortal. He was sustained by the tree of life, to which humanity will have access in the new creation. Humanity wasn’t created to be immortal. Also, Osborn points out that God said about his world that it was “good” and “very good,” not “perfect,” which I think many modern, Western Bible readers assume, wrongly. Not that it was “imperfect,” mind you, but that’s just a notion that isn’t in the text.

  1. Pingback: not a literalist « Jesus community

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