Are there side issues in Scripture?
And if so, should we be focusing on something more important?
Published: 15 March 2014 (GMT+10)
We often receive messages that claim that creation is a side issue, and we should be doing something more important like feeding the hungry. Or that we should not be divisive over something that isn’t a salvation issue. But I think before we answer this assertion, we have to ask, are there side issues in Scripture at all?
Part of the implication when something is called a side issue is that it really isn’t that important. But that seems too trivial a term to attach to something God inspired in Scripture. If God inspired a limited number of documents (the 66 we carry around in our Bibles), wouldn’t it seem odd for Him to fill up most of that precious space with unnecessary, extraneous information that is more or less optional for the believer?
That being said, we would agree that some doctrines are more important than others. Paul spoke of doctrines of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), and Christ spoke of the first and second greatest laws (Matthew 22:37–39), so there is scriptural precedent for saying that some things in Scripture are more important than others. But the point of the hierarchy was to point out how important and glorious the most important things were, not an excuse to throw out or trivialize whatever is deemed the least important. In fact, Jesus warned of severe judgment for those who threw out even the least of the commandments (Matthew 5:19).
So theoretically, one could make a hierarchy of doctrines, with the ones necessary for salvation at the top, then other important ones that are not salvation issues, then at the bottom the least important. But even the one at the bottom of the list is still important and inspired and preserved in Scripture. There is a saying, “How many times does God need to say something to make it true?” (Of course, the answer is none, since something can be true without it being enshrined in Scripture.) We could add, “How many times does God have to say something to make it important?”
Is creation a side issue?
So in the hierarchy proposed above, where would the historicity of Genesis creation fall? It isn’t at the top with the “doctrines of first importance”, but it is still high up on the hierarchy, because it is essential to understand the Gospel. Genesis 1–3 sets the stage for everything that follows in Scripture. And the authors of Scripture link Genesis creation to an entire theology of who God is and how He interacts with His creation. And in the New Testament, the authors even raise the stakes by making creation intensely christological—in other words, if you want to understand who Jesus is, what He came to do and why, and how it makes a difference in our lives, and even what we have to look forward to in salvation, Paul, Peter, and everyone else points us back to the Genesis creation account.
The global Flood is a picture of what Christ’s second coming will look like—a sudden, universal judgment with no hope of escape. Christ’s sacrifice applies to us in the same way that Adam’s sin condemned everyone descended from him. When John received a vision of the New Jerusalem, it was filled with Edenic imagery, suggesting that what we look forward to is, in a way, a restoration of what was lost when Adam sinned. But if Adam lived in a world full of death and suffering, is that what we look forward to in the new heavens and earth? Surely the Edenic imagery only makes sense if we accept a straightforward interpretation of Genesis.
So creation isn’t an essential issue for salvation, but it is a foundational issue, because if you misunderstand creation, it’s hard to ‘get it right’ when it comes to what the Gospel means and why we need that hope.
Reinterpretation or rejection?
Some people misinterpret creation through ignorance; they haven’t studied the issue, they don’t know completely what the Bible teaches. But there are others who know what the Bible teaches, and they believe something else. This sort of willful rejection, exemplified by BioLogos and similar organizations, is far more serious.
But many people who accept theistic evolution or various forms of ‘old-earth’ creation would claim they are not rejecting the Bible’s teaching on creation, but simply challenging the literal interpretation of the days of creation. However, there is much more at stake than merely the length of creation days. For example, any long-age interpretation has the problem of death (and violence and disease) before sin—making millions of years of death and suffering of animals and even sometimes ‘soulless pre-humans’ part of what God described as ‘very good’ at the end of Creation Week.
Also, these reinterpretations almost inevitably include a local, not global Flood in Noah’s day.1 But Jesus and Peter used the Flood to illustrate what the Second Coming would be like—universal and sudden, at a time that no one could predict.
Many evangelical scholars and apologists have understood the need to stand by the historical Adam as the literal ancestor of all human beings, even as they’ve vacillated on the age of the earth and the global Flood. But if Adam came into the world less than 10,000 years ago after billions of years of other species existing and going extinct, in what sense did God create mankind male and female “from the beginning of creation” as Jesus claims (Mark 10:6)?
The point is, sometimes there are different interpretations of Scripture. But to be a valid interpretation of Scripture, it has to fit with all of what Scripture says on a certain topic. And long-age or local flood interpretations invariably ignore much of what the rest of Scripture has to say about their significance in the rest of Scripture.
Nothing God says is a side issue
We believe that God is incomprehensible to us unless He reveals Himself to us. We’re so far below Him that unless He stoops to our level, we have no hope of understanding even the most trivial things about God. His self-revelation in Scripture, and in Jesus, meant that God had to stoop down ‘to our level’ in a sense for us to understand what He wanted us to know about Him. We can’t see Jesus today (though we look forward to His coming again), but we do have His Word preserved in Scripture.
If we understand how utterly precious Scripture is, we should want to understand and believe all of it, because we love the God who inspired it, and that should become a joyful lifelong pursuit.
References and notes
- This is because the key exhibit for long ages is the belief that the fossil-bearing layers of sedimentary rock are a tape-recording of a long, slow history of life. A recent global Flood, by definition, would drastically rework and effectively eliminate such evidence, laying down its own record of catastrophic burial. In short, unless one adopts a ‘tranquil Flood’ theory (requiring greater miracles than a tranquil hydrogen bomb explosion) a global Flood and long geological ages are mutually exclusive. Return to text.
When I first started to read CMI I thought that this was just a side issue. However I did some pondering and concluded that you CMI mob are doing what Jesus commanded. You stop silly arguments against God and you are a witness to the works of God. Well done and thanks.
I would be surprised if someone thought that the doctrine of creation was a less important one. Is it not important to salvation that we know who God is? He establishes his identity by his being creator, and not some creator that is melded with the creation, that various process theories (e.g. theistic evolution) would require, but one who is sovereign over creation, sub-contracting none of it to mediating factors. But the Bible is not finally about salvation, this is just a way station to God's kingdom coming, and the creation sets the scene meaningfully for the great arc of scripture from creation, through fall to resurrection and the new creation. The setting fragments into meaninglessness if God's authoriship of creation is other than he sets out, because then we have no idea what it is or who God is.
I'm currently mulling over my response to a pastor friend who, recently in the aftermath of the Ham/Nye debate, preached a sermon calling for a less polarizing-more inclusive view of the creation account. In his message, he referred to having one view vs another as an "inessential" issue to be focusing on. Since his focus isn't the life transforming power of having Jesus as Lord either, I'm torn.
What makes people like Hugh Ross, John Walton, John Lennox etc tick? Are we dealing with brethren or people that have slipped in under the radar so to speak?
One thing that occurred to me pondering my response to my friend:
While belief in a recent creation isn't "essential" to be a child of God, belief in a billions of year old Earth is "essential" to be an atheist.
The old agers may be facilitating people's loss of faith more than helping them find God.
Very well said, Lita. This will be a great article to recommend to people regarding this issue.
Very nicely written. I've always had people tell me during a polite debate over creationism "I've already accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, it doesn't really matter how the earth was made or how long it took". This will really help people understand the importance and significance of the correct understanding of Genesis. Thank you again for another great article.
If Genesis 1-11 is not true, then Jesus did not know what he was talking about. The same can be said about John, Paul, and Peter. Have you heard this? "If Genesis is not true, I would not be a Christian, because Jesus then spoke from ignorance and error!" The issue of the veracity of Genesis is HUGE, but many churches treat it as a troublesome issue that, by policy, is not to be mentioned from the pulpit. The pastoral staff may give their views if asked in one-on-one conversations.
A very good brief relation to each point that comes to heart and mind when one wants to further research or investigate in detail the true scientific fact which is a young 6000 yr Earth history as described in Genesis. I have forgotten of the numerous flood stories from many cultures on each corner of the Earth, not just the Great Flood described in the Bible. Thank you for this. I have more to read up on. Great article!
Just want to support the position you have taken in your response. It is true that creation per se is not a salvation issue and it is also true that in leading people to Christ it has not often been the dominant issue (My wife and I have led many people to the Lord over the years). However the issue is important and the work of Creation minisitries instills a great confidence in the reliability of God's word for those times when the issue is raised. I recently had a young man come to our house to install a tv and sound system. We spoke of God and he said that his main problem was that evolution was true. I was easily able to counter his objections with information from your ministry. He did not become a Christian (yet) but I was able to see how fragile and fact free is the world view that accepts evolution and billions of years. Keep up the great work.