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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Readers’ comments

John S.
Intent of article (and Carson interview) aside, I have a concern with the 'tone' and content of some of the comments here, especially in light of the fact that these are the screened ones. I wonder if these folks would say these comments to Carson or Piper to their faces. And I also am concerned about the apparent lack of civility, and more importantly gentleness and respect. These men have labored for the Gospel for years, and based on one person's critique of a short interview (did you even listen to it?) have come down with you final, harsh verdict.
Robert P.
Duane & Lita, I do get tired of giving high profile big names the benefit of the doubt, when they are less than forthright about such a basic teaching. If one is truly desiring to preach the whole Gospel, then one should most definitely be teaching literal six day creation, 6000 years ago, loud and clear. To do so is right. Especially so, for someone with the public platform that Carson has. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. (James 4:17 KJV) Such a knowledgeable 'evangelical', surely must know what is right, especially in light of the comments from reader Richard P. of Canada.
Duane C.
Lita, Let me start out be saying I'm a fan of yours because you're usually right on the money. I've said so previously (see "Priest calls CMI heretical”) But in this particular case it appears you (and I assume CMI) are being a little over sensitive, or perhaps over defensive regarding the doctrine of creation and what is - or as in this case - isn't said. You accuse Carson of opening "with a statement against young earth creation."(YEC) - the problem being with his statement which begins: “Today when Christians talk about the doctrine of creation, …” I don't see this (or the rest of the article) as an attack on YEC; it appears to me to be a carefully worded statement to avoid the issues. Thus my critique of Carson would be not that he attacks YEC - but that he refused to comment on any of the issues - evolution/creation; young earth/old Earth; Adam & Eve or hominids; etc. For a scholar as renowned as you rightly point out that he is, it seems to me uncharacteristically cowardly to not make a statement here. Instead as you correctly point out, what he says is correct, but he never engages key issues. He's like a politician carefully placing his words, trying not to offend anyone. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I'm a graduate (M.Div.) of Trinity International University (TIU - TEDS at the time), and Carson taught there while I studied there, though I never studied under him. But my allegiance is with the word of God, not with a seminary, denomination or church. I too am truly troubled when people clearly and unequivocally state that evolution is true (and worse) that's it's compatible with the gospel. But I don't see Carson saying that. I see him being a politician and dancing around the issue. That's how I would call it.
Lita Cosner
A useful point (and good to hear from a fellow TEDS alum!).
Dean R.
Yes, the gospel isnt Piper said, or Carson said. The Bible tells us death came through Adam, he is our ancestor, not an ape or banana tree. Big names can equate to big mistakes, bigger again if people follow names.If a big name is pointing you away from Scripture or adding another ingredient then it is good to question why & challenge that notion according to Scripture. Chronology was important to Israel, Jesus & Matthew. It's what redemption is all about. God working in our time & our space. I have heard ministers elude to Gen 2 as a type of poetry as they weave a bit of secular science into a sermon but Romans 5 makes it clear & it is no small thing. God's Word states the death came through Adam. before that all was good & there was no curse.It really is a primary part of the equation.To play it down is to dilute the argument.
Robert P.
Another thought Lita, about this article. You refer to Carson as a "genuine evangelical ‘with feet of clay’", and then call his denial of the truth of Gods testimony in Genesis a 'blessed' inconsistency...... I beg to differ, there is nothing 'blessed' about distorting the Creation account and leading lambs astray, nothing at all. He is a wolf. Jesus said: "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." He also said, "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.' (Matthew 7:21-23 RSV) Someone in such a knowledgeable, gifted and prominent position, who then holds this compromise view, has already made their decision, to be a man-pleaser, rather than believing God. Your 'charm offensive' will have zero impact.
But of course I would say such things as I am 'apt to do (such things) with anyone who disagrees' with me?? (Perhaps, but what about disagreeing with God?) I hope CMI isn't going soft :-) .
Lita Cosner
I don't think of a critique like this as 'going soft'. Rather, it's realizing that some people are inconsistent but nevertheless have otherwise useful things to say in other areas. The 'charm offensive' (as you put it) is simply engaging fairly with their ideas without dismissing them out of hand simply because I think someone is wrong about a very important subject.
Richard P.
Hmm. Why is the age of the earth a less important emphasis in Genesis 1-11 than, say, the possibility that a certain expression "hints" at plurality within the Godhead? In 1974, while he was at Northwest Baptist Theological College, Vancouver, BC (where I studied), D. A. Carson published a booklet titled "Evolution and the Bible." In that booklet he argued very strongly against evolution and millions of years. The booklet contains statements like these: "Evolution reverses just about everything the Bible has to say about man." (p. 4)
"Now it is obvious that these extreme periods of time, espoused by modern geology, form a major part of evolution's defense; and the geological column is at the base of the evolutionists' time-scale. Therefore, we must consider some of its numerous weaknesses." (p. 11)
"In my opinion, the best answers [to questions about fossils] are given by a growing and scholarly group of Christian scientists who advance reasons for the view that most of earth's sedimentary rock was deposited during the deluge." (p. 12) "Of course dinosaurs existed. In my opinion, however, the most rational explanation for their disappearance is the marked change in meteorology and cosmology following the flood." (p. 18) At the end of the booklet, Carson offers a personal testimony of how he wrestled with evolutionary teaching while studying science at McGill University. The deciding factor in his struggle was this question: Who is Jesus Christ? "That was the turning point; for Christ repeatedly authenticated the Old Testament, including Genesis, as being the very Word of God." (p. 30) So now I'm wondering: Does Carson still hold to his earlier view of Genesis? Have you been able to have any interaction with him on this issue?
Phil K.
My response to theistic evolutionists and old-earth creationists are two simple questions: 1) so God lied when he said he created the heavens and the earth in 6 days, but you know better that he really took billions of years? and 2) what kind of God do you worship that requires billions of years of trial and error to finally get creation right? I don't understand worshipping a God that's not all-powerful.
Jeff W.
A critical doctrine for sound interpretation of Scripture is contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch1, VI. (see below) To honour Scripture as we ought, we must follow it not only in its explicit statements but also their implications. Just as the doctrine of the Trinity is in this way thoroughly confirmed, so are creation in six 24 hour days and young earth timescales. To act as if God's Word is being followed while ignoring these 'good and necessary consequences' is a grave error. Many of us have had to repent of such; may all God's people so do. And let those of us who have been saved by grace from these errors not sin against God and our brothers & sisters by failing to lovingly stand against such lies.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch1, VI. "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men."
David G.
Thanks, Lita, for your analysis. This Piper interview with Don Carson was in 2010 when Piper was embracing John Sailhammer's views of billions of years between Gen.1:2 & 3. In a March 2013 video statement, Piper seems much closer to normal days as he cannot embrace death before the entrance of sin. So we can hope for progress when these very public, otherwise solid theologians and speakers step outside the waterfall of long-earth, local-flood assumptions and actually read what the folks at Creation.com and others are writing. May God grant it more and more!
Joseph M.
Christ not only fulfills the prophets, but Christ puts the seal of truth on the timeline of creation. What makes the timeline irrefutable in scripture is the Ten Commandments. The writing "For in six days ..." (Exodus 20:11) was the writing of God (Exodus 32:16). It was the finger of God that wrote this down and gave to Moses (Exodus 31:18). In the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9) Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus before His death which confirms the link between the new testament and old with regards to the timeline.

If someone is not comfortable with the only place in scriptures that God Himself, personally wrote the timeline i.e. the Ten Commandments then their walk in Christ won't be comfortable. They are effectively putting on their own shoes to walk. When we are comfortable in our shoes we will stray, so we must be comfortable in God's shoes.
Deon B.
Piper et al, fell off the wagon when he was on screen with Rick Warren and neglecting to state the correct stance of Evangelical Believers. I once admired his writings, but I don't feel the same right now. He produced many wonderful works before - but I now don't read him since hae became part of the apostasy.
Flavio C.
Many are not aware that Dr Carson was a vocal young earth creationist. He wrote a booklet affirming such in his younger years. He also has written a favourable review of the "The Genesis Flood" by Whitcomb and Morris.
Norman P.
Many thanks for a brilliant and beautifully balanced critique. It seems the evangelical establishment is compromising on every front these days - why? Is it the Solomon factor - much wealth of knowledge, and pandering to cultural influences (foreign wives) crowd out the simplicity which is in Christ; and we end-up with 'the number of a man' (666). Regrettably, another sign of the times.
graham P.
Good review, well done for going there. I might say though, that Genesis 1 is all about chronology...it has numbers all through it, day one, day two..so if it's not primarily about chronology, can somebody explain how it could be more about chronology than it is?
Robert P.
"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?"
Lita, I think you let him off lightly on this question.
Its a good question, but if it is honestly answered, then you cannot remove the plain (or literalist reading) chronology of Genesis 1-11, without making the Bible 'incoherent' and 'experientially untrue'. What do I mean? Well, with death before sin, the Gospel, and the Bible become incoherent. Not only that, but our Christian lives and their troubles no longer ring true, if God, who is supposed to be 'Good', has allowed all this death and suffering in our life, for no apparently 'good' (i.e. just) purpose. He instead becomes a somewhat arbitrary, seemingly callous & uncaring god, not the loving God found in the pages of the Bible.
In other words Carson's & Schaffer's theology is potentially deadly to Christians who are struggling to make sense of the world and the Gospel.
I'd call him out for what he is, a compromiser.

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