Anytime someone broaches the subject of the age of the earth or the length of days in Genesis 1, eyebrows rise and suspicions heighten. Dissenters from our position concern us—especially when that dissent is labeled a “theological trajectory.” Evangelicals have learned to charitably disagree on a number of issues, but we tend to take the gloves off fairly quickly when it comes to creation.
Reading the situation charitably, I can understand the concerns, even suspicions, of old-earth and young-earth creationists when challenged by their opponents. In the early 20th century, the creation-versus-evolution debates served as a dividing line in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. This is partly why issues like the age of the earth or the length of days in Genesis 1 have come to us with a good deal more baggage than issues like the extent of the atonement or even continuationism versus cessationism.
As a result, many American evangelicals can get a bit touchy when it comes to creation. Speaking generally (and therefore running the risk of alienating just about everybody), young earthers look at old-earth cosmogonies as a little too flirtatious with Darwinism—a sure path to the complete embrace of liberalism. Old earthers, in turn, see young-earth arguments as driven more by fear of evolution than genre-sensitive exegesis and thus as intellectually shallow—a sure path to the shackles of fundamentalism.
Drawing the Lines
Part of the problem is our failure to engage in some theological triage with the doctrine of creation. Theological triage evaluates the importance of doctrines with respect to their effect on the Christian worldview and relationship to the gospel. First-order doctrines are the non-negotiables of the Christian faith. Without these doctrines we either give up the gospel or put ourselves at risk of losing the gospel. Second-order doctrines are important, influential issues that separate denominations and churches from one another. These doctrines do not separate believers from unbelievers, only Baptists from Presbyterians, Calvinists from Arminians, covenantalists from dispensationalists. Third-order doctrines are matters that have even less effect on the gospel or the Christian worldview. Here Christians can tolerate disagreements even within a local congregation. This three-tier system isn’t the only way to think about theological triage, but the point is that everyone recognizes that our theological convictions rest on a sliding scale from essential to less essential. First-order doctrines draw the boundaries of the circle of theological faithfulness. Second- and third-order doctrines are the safe space within the circle, the wiggle room that tolerates disagreements among brothers and sisters—though the practical outworking of that tolerance will look different in each situation.
Theological triage is not a way of minimizing doctrine but of being able to say all doctrine is important, though some doctrines are more important than others. Lose the Trinity and you lose the gospel. Lose your favored millennial position and, while you may need a little reshuffling of some exegetical commitments, most of the rest of your theological system remains safely intact. To be clear, I’m not saying the earth’s age or the length of the days in Genesis 1 is unimportant or that we shouldn’t have convictions on these matters (just to prove it, I’ll tip my hand and reveal I’m a fairly committed literal six-day, young earther). I am saying we need to separate first-order issues in the doctrine of creation from second- and third-order issues, mitigating our suspicions of the other side and hopefully reminding those with teaching ministries what to prioritize about creation as we disciple others. In other words, this isn’t just about learning where we can disagree; it’s also about shoring up our defenses on the non-negotiables.
I should note that evangelicals have been in a similar situation before with regard to eschatology—and have happily made great strides along the lines I’m proposing here. For many “fundamentalists” in the early 20th century, a denial of premillennialism was tantamount to a denial of inerrancy. Yet over the last few decades we’ve learned to do some triage when it comes to eschatology. We all recognize that the bodily return of Jesus Christ, the resurrection from the dead, the final judgment, and the creation of a new heaven and new earth are all first-order issues. Within these boundaries, however, we have room for disagreement on the millennium, the rapture, or our take on the antichrist.
As we look at triaging the doctrine of creation it’s worth noting some historical precedent for this project. In Genesis in Space and Time, for example, Francis Schaeffer did something similar by showing what Genesis 1–11 must be affirming in order for the rest of Scripture to be coherent and true. I’m proposing the following seven points as first-order issues based on their centrality to the Christian worldview, inseparable relationship to the gospel, or on account of the fact that other Scriptures instruct us to read the creation narrative in a certain way.
- God created the world ex nihilo.
- God is distinct from his creation (Creator/creature distinction).
- God created the world good.
- God created the world for his glory.
- God specially created Adam and Eve who both bear God’s image.
- Adam and Eve are humanity’s first parents.
- Adam and Eve are historical figures who really did disobey God in time and space history in the Garden of Eden.
Scripture witnesses to points 1 and 2 in a number of places (Rom. 4:17; 1 Cor. 1:28; 2 Cor. 4:6; Heb. 11:3) as well as in the creation narrative. These points preserve God’s aseity—he alone is self-existent and eternal. Point 3 is well-attested in Genesis 1 no matter what approach readers take on its genre and interpretation. Further, the goodness of creation is part of the warp and woof of the biblical worldview and is fundamental to Christianity’s apologetic against all forms of Gnosticism—both ancient and modern. Scripture confirms point 4, God creating for his own glory, on almost every page—keeping the rest of our theology orbiting around the right gravitational center.
Points 5 to 7 all deal with the historicity of Adam and Eve. In short, I’m positing that while evangelicals may charitably disagree on the chronology of Genesis 1, the historicity of Genesis 2–3 should never be up for discussion. The record of God specially creating his own image, giving him dominion, bringing him a spouse, and then exiling that couple from his presence upon their rebellion must be an accurate account of real, historical events. Without the special creation of humanity as God’s image-bearers (Point 5) we lose our sense of worth and identity, not to mention the foundation of theological anthropology. Without the doctrine of humanity’s shared parentage (Point 6) we lose the notion that every human, regardless of race, ethnicity, or social rank, is a fellow image-bearer (Acts 17:26)—a brother or sister in the human community. Without the historical fall of Adam (Point 7) we lose the doctrine of original sin and we also lose the most essential building block of biblical theology—the Adam-Christ typology (Rom. 5:12–21).
Sparring with Open Arms
Within these boundaries, evangelicals—holding a full-throated affirmation of inerrancy—can and should theologically spar with one another while also embracing one another without suspicion. The length of the Genesis 1 days, the age of the earth, and animal death and predation before the fall are all secondary or tertiary matters which must be worked out in ways consistent with our first-order commitments. Again the point is not whether we ought to debate these matters, but how we go about it.
This isn’t meant to close down the creation conversation or be the last word on the subject. By all means, let’s spill some ink in rigorous defense of each side of the debate, but let’s not spill one another’s blood while we’re at it. My hope is that others refine and clarify these points in a way that further contributes to our collective understanding of first-, second-, and third-order issues in the doctrine of creation.