Are there side issues in Scripture?
Published: 15 March 2014 (GMT+10)
And if so, should we be focusing on something more important?
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.