By Lydia McGrew
Having been raised as a conservative Baptist, I’m surprised that I only just last week ran across the following saying:
If we can’t trust God about Genesis 1, how can we trust him about John 3:16?
A moment’s googling shows that this question (or some version of it) is used by Answers in Genesis, the young-earth creationist organization, and specifically by Ken Ham of that organization. The concept was not new to me, but that wording was something I hadn’t heard before.
To lay my cards on the table, I’m pretty sure the earth and the cosmos are very old. I would call myself an old-earth progressive creationist–a category not very well-known in YEC camps, where everyone who is not young-earth is generally thought of as an evolutionist. Actually, as readers of this blog know, I’m an outspoken advocate of intelligent design theory, and I’m also quite willing to come out and say (more so than some authors in the ID camp) that I think this evidence supports repeated intelligent interventions in the making of various species and animals, not merely in the origin of life or some other major transition. I don’t have enough expertise to state precisely how often God probably created new species, but I’d be willing to lay bets that mammals didn’t evolve by purely natural processes from reptiles, for example. I’m also an extremely strong supporter of the historical Adam, though I think he lived a lot longer ago than 6,000 years. (And no, I don’t know exactly how long ago. And that’s actually okay.) By “the historical Adam” I mean a real man, the one and only male progenitor of the human race, from whom, with Eve his wife, all of us are biologically descended, without interbreeding with non-human animals. I think that God made him by miraculous means and that there was strong physical as well as spiritual and mental discontinuity with all animal species. I’ve argued for the theological and even ethical importance of this view,here. I’ve also strongly opposed the recent work of John H. Walton in proposing a radically different view which he calls “an historical Adam” but which is not “the historical Adam” in the strong sense I have just defined. See my posts contra Walton here, here, here, and here. And I’ve argued that the scientific claims that it is impossible for one couple to be the progenitors of the whole human race are shaky, here. So I don’t at all shrink from the creationist label, and I’ll admit to being more than a little impatient with John H. Walton, and even more so with Peter Enns, whom I find annoying.
All of that, I admit, may not be enough to establish my creationist “creds” with a real hard-liner on the age of the earth, but I’d like to think it would be a start.
With all that out of the way, let me go back to the saying at the beginning of this post and say this: It’s wrong.
Why is it wrong? After all, on its face it almost sounds like a tautology. Either we do or don’t worship a deity who is, by his very nature, not a deceiver. If we do, then we can trust him about everything, right? Including various parts of the Bible. And if we worship a being who might deceive us, then how can we trust him about anything?
But the saying is still wrong. It’s wrong, to begin with, because it confuses God with man. What Ham is doing there is identifying his interpretation of Genesis 1 with “God’s word” and insisting that, if Ken Ham is not infallible in his interpretation of Genesis 1, then God is a liar.
Mind you, I can well imagine that Ken Ham and I would have a lot more in common than I would have with his critics. To me, the comments by the Gungors (some musicians), to whom Ham is responding in that particular blog post, sound over-wrought and snobbish. They give the distinct impression that anyone who isn’t an evolutionist is a contemptible knuckle-dragger. I have no patience with that kind of thing.
But the fact remains that it is a perilous and a misguided matter to identify your interpretation of one passage of Scripture with what God says, with no questions or differences of opinion allowed. All the more so when the question at issue is one where scientific evidence also comes into play. We absolutely must be willing to admit to our young people that there is such a thing as biblicalinterpretation, that controversy about biblical interpretation isn’t per se a bad thing, that human interpretations are fallible, and that our interpretation of Genesis 1 is notequivalent to “God’s word.” Yes, that means admitting that you could be wrong about it. I think you should be willing to tell kids that this is what you think, but that you could be wrong. You can even be a young-earth creationist and tell them that.
This issue of varying interpretation comes up in many places in Scripture. You aren’t turning into a Christianity-denying liberal if you think the story of the rich man and Lazarus was a parable that Jesus was telling and that Jesus wasn’t actually affirming that it happened. Jesus often told parables. This looks like one of them. Another example: It is a completely viable possibility that the flames of hell in various biblical passages are a metaphor for the horror of eternal separation from God rather than describing a physical state of the damned. There can be legitimatedifference of opinion on that point among those who take the Bible very seriously indeed as God’s Word.
There are also textual areas where we as Christians need to be able to keep our heads and handle some uncertainty. It is not an abandonment of the Bible to recognize that the long ending of Mark may not have been there in the original text that Mark wrote; in fact, there is solid textual reason to doubt that it was. There is even reason to believe that the original ending of the Gospel of Mark may have been lost.That’s okay.
Our faith shouldn’t be shaken by such points. There is room for both human error and difference of opinion among solid Christians on all of these matters and more. These issues should not be presented to congregations or to young people as “trusting God’s Word” vs. “not trusting God’s Word.”
There are more problems with the statement about Genesis 1 and John 3:16: It strongly implies that there are no levels of importance amongst doctrinal statements. It gives the impression that either all the views that Ken Ham (or your particular church) holds about God and theology are right or they are all wrong, dubious, or up for grabs. It certainly implies that a young-earth position is right up there in importance with, say, the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins, taught in John 3:16.
That’s not true. Nowhere in the Bible does anyone say to anyone else, “Believe that the earth is 4,000 years old [or whatever it would have been at the time], and thou shalt be saved.” But people are told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. When the Apostle Paul gives a creed in I Corinthians 15, he doesn’t include anything about the age of the earth, but he does talk a lot about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandments are, he lists loving the Lord God with all your heart and soul.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. This isn’t meant to encourage a facile argument of the sort one hears from social liberals nowadays, “Jesus never condemned homosexuality, so why are you Christians getting so het up about it?” Jesus explicitly taught that God made male and female and created marriage between them. The Apostle Paul again and again condemns homosexual practice. And then there is the natural law, which is another topic altogether.
My point is that biblical authorities do have priorities, and there is not the slightest indication whatsoever that the age of the earth is one of the high priorities. The existence of Adam, I’ll grant, is given prominence in several important Biblical teachings, such as Paul’s teaching about the origin of sin and death. But not the age of the earth, nor the creation within six twenty-four hour days.
Some doctrines are more important than others. You can still be a Christian and even get some things wrong. Most of us probably do have some things wrong, though we should do our conscientious best to interpret Scripture accurately.
Another, related problem with the statement is this: It teaches that all literal biblical interpretations stand or fall together. It strongly implies that, if the most natural, literal, on-the-face-of-it interpretation of Genesis 1 is called into question, it becomes impossible to know what any other part of the Bible means. But that’s not true. I might be wrong about whether the days in Genesis 1 are ages or 24-hour days, but I can say with much greater confidence that the Gospels are asserting that Jesus really lived, really walked on this earth, really said various things, really died on the cross, and really rose again. The genre of the gospels is different. The sources of information are different. The nature of the claims is more tied into known history. (He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, etc.) We should not think or teach that a wide-ranging skepticism about all Biblical meaning is the only alternative to a 24-hour-day interpretation of Genesis 1. That’s incorrect.
And finally, perhaps my most controversial claim: That slogan communicates to young people that, if they are not young-earth creationists, they might as well be atheists, because they have “stopped trusting God.” It teaches an inflexible theology that presents apostasy as the stark alternative to an acceptance of precisely this interpretation of this passage.
As I’ve indicated above, I think it’s deeply and importantly misguided to believe that Adam was just the head of a clan of hominids and that man came into existence by natural, evolutionary processes from non-human animals. I think it creates all kinds of problems for one’s theology of the fall and sin and for one’s view of the image of God. I’ve put lots of energy into arguing against it. But if someone comes to hold that seriously mistaken view about Adam, he can still be going to heaven. Would I argue with a daughter of mine who was influenced by people who teach that? Sure, of course I would. I’m an argumentative person anyway, and I think this is important. Would I be concerned about possible other sociological “domino effects,” causing someone to fall into theological and/or moral liberalism? Yes, I would. If you run with a certain crowd that sneers at special creation, you may pick up other things from them. But despite all of that, I would rather that someone I love were wrong about Adam and still believed that Jesus Christ is God the Son who came to this earth to die for our sins and to rise for our justification than that he decided he might as well go whole hog and become an agnostic or an atheist because of an all-or-nothing theological system! All the more so should we take such an attitude concerning the age of the earth all by itself.
Some years ago I knew of a man who lost his faith in Christ. His Christian parents were deeply distressed, of course. They were strong young-earth creationists and said that their son (then in his twenties) had begun sneering about “not believing all of that” and then had made it clear that he didn’t believe Christianity at all, that he no longer regarded himself as a Christian. They were asked this question: Would you rather that your son believed in an old earth and were still a Christian, still a follower of Jesus Christ, still believed in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost and in Jesus’ death and resurrection for sin? They said yes, of course! But by then it was too late. Their son never gave anyone a chance to present that alternative to him, to show him the direct, powerful evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the other truths of Christianity, quite independent of one’s views on the interpretation of Genesis 1. He was an adult by then, and a highly intelligent adult. He was responsible, because he could have figured out for himself that it didn’t all have to stand or fall together. He could have asked more questions, sought for more light, looked into the evidences of Christianity. He chose to apostasize instead. I would not for the world heap blame upon the heads of his heart-broken parents.
But let’s get this issue clearer–in our own minds, in our churches, and in our families. If you, dear parents, think that Ken Ham is right about the saying at the top of this post, and all that it implies, I most earnestly urge you, in Christ, to reconsider.