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Timescale and theology

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Published: 28 June 2016 (GMT+10)
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D.A. Carson has authored dozens of highly-regarded books (including one of the best evangelical commentaries on John). He is a well-respected professor and scholar, president of the Gospel Coalition (US), and is a powerful critic of theological liberalism. So it was with disappointment that I read an interview with him published on John Piper’s Desiring God website in which he is sadly inconsistent, as is Piper, when it comes to the doctrine of creation.1

What should our response be as biblical creationists? What we should not do is brand Carson ‘compromiser’ and burn him in effigy with his books, as some are apt to do with anyone who disagrees. Most of us, including many CMI specialists, did not always hold the biblical creation view that we now have, and for many people it’s a view we came to over time as we saw the implications for the Gospel and the clear teaching of Scripture on the subject. But we also can’t give a ‘pass’ to such a visible teacher just because of his excellent work elsewhere. In order to be consistent, we have to address compromise even (perhaps especially) when it occurs with people we like.

Is chronology important?

Piper asked Carson about “the implications of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis.” Notice this was an open-ended question, so Carson could have gone in many different directions. So it is significant that he opened with a statement against young-earth creation:

“Today when Christians talk about the doctrine of creation, a lot of the discussion immediately turns to when creation took place, how it relates to the claims of evolutionists, old earth, young earth, and things of that order. And certainly such questions are important, but it is not the place where the Bible itself lays the primary emphasis.”

Now, in a sense, Carson is right in his statement here. The Bible’s primary emphasis in Genesis is not chronology, but that does not mean that we can then disregard the clear implications of the chronogenealogies and the other chronological data in Scripture that gives us a clear timescale of thousands, not billions, of years. To give a New Testament analogy, the primary intent of the Gospel authors is not to give a geography of first-century Israel, but when they place Jesus in Capernaum, Bethsaida, or Bethany they are nonetheless implying that these are actual places that existed there.

So we must affirm that Scripture is true in all that it directly implies, not only in its primary emphases. As Point 4 in “A Short Statement” in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy states:

“Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”

And as the denial in Article XII of the Statement says:

“We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

So simply put, the primary focus of Genesis is not chronology. However, Genesis includes enough chronological detail to allow us to create a timeline from Adam to Joseph with no apparent gaps. While this chronology is not the main point of the text, it serves to place the events of Genesis in time, just as placing Abraham at Shiloh, etc, places the events in space. Thus Scripture claims to be historical, unlike ancient mythological writings which would tend to lack these details.

Least common denominator theology?

Carson moves on to cite Francis Schaffer to ask the question:

“What is the least, he asks, that we must make of Genesis 1–11 in order for the rest of the Bible to be coherent and true? Now he is not asking what is the most that you can draw from Genesis 1–11 and Genesis 1–3 in particular, but: What is the least that we must be certain about, clear about, for the rest of the Bible to be coherent and true. That is a very shrewd question, because that is a way of saying: Those are the things that we must most emphasize and that are least negotiable.”

This seems reasonable at first. In a certain sense, we all emphasize certain doctrines more than others. CMI would not exist if as a group we did not put certain theological differences aside (which we by definition judge to be secondary) to focus on our mandate on the doctrine of creation. Putting them aside does not mean that they are not important, but just that we are focusing on more important issues. But I struggle to think of anywhere else where Carson has advocated for this “least common denominator” interpretation. I have a hard time thinking he would say, “What is the least that we must make of Jesus in order for the Gospel to be coherent and true?”

“In the beginning, God”

Carson goes on to discuss a number of points, all of which are true in a sense, but incomplete in another. And when someone’s statements are consistently incomplete in a certain direction, that is cause for concern. So Carson says:

“God comes first. … And that is teased out in other Scripture to show that God in eternity past was not dependent on us. It is not that God needed the universe so he wouldn’t be lonely. Eventually, the Bible fleshes out the notion of God in all kinds of ways to show that in the past the Father loved the Son and the Son loved the Father. So there was a perfection of love in the past.”

He contrasts this view of God with the god of Islam, who cannot be called a god of love in the same way.

He goes on to explain his second point:

“God speaks. He is a talking God. The first thing that he does is speaks and by his powerful word calls the universe into existence. Now that becomes paradigmatic of God disclosing himself in word. Right through the whole Bible God is a talking God, and he dares to speak in words that human beings can understand.”

Again this is true, and we can enthusiastically affirm Carson’s statement. But it is incomplete. Just as Carson’s first point lent itself to speaking against Islam’s false conception of God, the fact that God spoke creation into existence suggests intimate involvement and control over the creation process. God didn’t wind up the initial singularity and let the universe take its predetermined course. God said, “Let there be light”, and it happened. Every orderly step only happened in response to God’s command.

What kind of Creator?

Carson draws many conclusions from the fact that God is the Creator:

“God made everything. That is against pantheism, in which everything in the universe is God. That is against panentheism, in which everything in the universe is God, but God is not everything in the universe. But here there is a distinction between God, who exists before everything in the universe, and the created order. It is against any sort of ontological dualism, that is, a kind of dualism in which there is a good force and a bad force, or one force with a good side and a bad side. It is not Star Wars.”

The problem with this answer is that a lot more evolutionists will read Carson’s answer than pantheists, panentheists, and Jedis put together. As faithful interpreters of God’s Word, we have a responsibility to speak against the interpretive errors most prominent in our own day and among our own people. And the sort of deism that says that God left the universe to develop on its own is more common among people who call themselves evangelical than dualism.

Carson continues:

“There is only one God who is good, and he made everything good. And so the origin of evil is not intrinsically a good principle and a bad principle that are in competition. Even when the serpent is introduced, he is introduced as the most subtle of the creatures that God made. And thus, there is never any hint of dualism or anything of that sorts. There is one sovereign God over the whole.”

However, only biblical creation can strongly affirm that death and suffering were not part of God’s original creation. That is because in the evolutionary timescale, there was death, suffering, carnivory, and disease for millions of years before there ever could have been an Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. In fact, in an evolutionary view, death and suffering is the creative mechanism for change. Bugs eat a certain plant, so the plant evolves toxins to kill the bugs, but the bugs develop immunity to the toxin, and so on. Creation is ultimately reduced to an arms race where everyone loses, because everyone, on an individual and species level, is doomed to die.

Why do we need to be forgiven?

Carson continues:

“So already the beginning of the necessity for the doctrine of grace is established by the storyline in the doctrine of creation. God made everything good. And that means, in the fifth place, that human beings are accountable to God. The grounding of our accountability to God is the doctrine of creation. It becomes the source of believer’s praise (Psalm 33; Revelation 4). Repeatedly it is built into the story line.”

Of course, we need grace from God because we are sinners, and that is traced back to Adam’s historical Fall, an event that theistic evolutionists downplay or outright deny, and an event which old-earth creationists can’t consistently interpret because their view has death and suffering preceding sin.

“Then in the sixth place there are hints—not more than that—there are hints of God’s complexity in an expression like, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Some people have tried to understand that to be a royal “we,” but there is no hint of that in the context. I think that in the book of Genesis 1–3, there are many, many themes that are introduced without making them clear. That is, they are pregnant expressions. They are expressions that are fleshed out. It would be wrong to read into it: “Let us make an entire doctrine of the Trinity. It is not there. The components are not there. But there is a hint of it.”

There is really very little to disagree with in this comment; it’s pretty much exactly what we would say. But of course, to say something true about God, Genesis has to reflect historical reality.

What is humanity’s place?

“Then in the seventh place human beings are introduced as made in the image of God. That becomes a major theme that runs right through the entire Scripture. God makes human beings in his own image and likeness so that in some ways they are very much like the rest of creation—made by God out of the dust. And in other ways they are unique and it would be well worth our while to tease out some of the things that are bound up with this notion of the image of God.”

This is all very true. So what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Would it mean something different if the biological reality was that we evolved from an ape-like ancestor and ultimately share a single ancestor with every living being?

“Then in the eighth place there is stewardship over creation.”

Carson’s very brief eighth point, quoted in full here, also requires a biblical creation foundation to be properly understood. Because humans were made to have creation in subjection to us, but creation is obviously not in subjection to us, as encounters with wild animals quickly show. How did creation become disordered? The answer is in the Fall account, but only if it is understood historically. This also applies to Carson’s 9th point about ordering and structure in creation—yes, there is structure, but it is structure in rebellion at every point.

Restoration, rest, and the glory of God

Carson says tenthly:

“Then there is eschatology that is anticipated by all of this. It is not for nothing that the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century BC anticipates that what God will do at the end for his people is provide a new heaven and a new earth. And that language is full of anticipation and glory of what is yet to be revealed. And finally it shows up in Revelation 21.”

Carson correctly says that “The whole created order is subjected to death and decay by God’s decree, because of sin and rebellion.” But that requires the biblical timescale to be true.

Eleventhly, Carson points out:

“The beginning of the Sabbath is bound up with God’s rest. The text does not say that Sabbath is imposed at this point. It says that God rests on the seventh day. But when the Sabbath is instituted legally in the Decalogue, the text self-consciously looks back to creation. You are to remember the seventh day and keep it holy, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and so on and so on and so on (see especially Exodus 20:8–11). That is picked up, even in Revelation 4 to build a whole theology of rest that we can’t tease out at this juncture. But it begins in the opening chapters of Genesis.”

And again, Carson is absolutely correct, but he doesn’t take the obvious next step and acknowledge the implications for timescale. If God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, it didn’t develop over a timescale of billions of years.

Lastly, Carson closes with a statement about creation’s testimony to its Creator:

“There is a huge emphasis in the rest of the Bible on the greatness of God testified by his creation. You think of passages like Psalm 8 or Psalm 19 worth reading at this juncture and meditating quietly on them, or some of the spectacular texts in Isaiah 40–45. Reading through those chapters reminds us that God is sovereign over creation, knows the end from the beginning, and everything is accountable to him.”

Again, yes, absolutely, God receives glory from creation. But the implications of a God who created over six days thousands of years ago are quite different from the god of theistic evolution, or even of old-earth creation. Timescale matters far more than most evangelical ‘big names’ are willing to admit.

Responding with love, not compromise

Carson was correct in just about everything he said in his twelve main points in the interview, and it was a short interview, so perhaps some grace is needed regarding the time in which he packed a lot of theological insight. However, when his very first comment dismissed a major part of the theological debate over timescale, it is relevant to point out how that debate affects the very biblical themes he brought out of the creation account.

So while we would distinguish between genuine evangelicals ‘with feet of clay’ and outright wolves like BioLogos, we do feel the need to respond when ‘big names’ get it wrong on creation and call them to account for the ‘blessed’ inconsistencies.

References and notes

  1. A Theology of Creation in 12 points; 11 March 2016, desiringgod.org/interviews/a-theology-of-creation-in-12-points. All quotes are from this interview unless otherwise cited. Return to text

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