There are almost countless debates among Christians about how to interpret and apply the Bible. Many are important and can affect our core beliefs, such as debates on free will, divine sovereignty, and foreknowledge. On the other end of the spectrum are debates that seem to have almost no relevance or importance, such as whether Adam had a belly button or whether angels have halos. As silly as some of these debates are, there are people who devote serious time and energy to arguing about them. A friend of mine, Jim Wallace, recently blogged about “the Genesis debate.” I agree with Jim that there is more than one reasonable model for interpreting Genesis and that should lead us to humility in our convictions regarding it.
The doctrine of creation is important and relevant. The belief that the holy and personal God of the Bible created the universe out of nothing forms the first bookend of systematic theology. It is a doctrine so important that we learn of it “in the beginning.” It conveys to us God’s creative power, intimate sovereignty, and magnificent majesty. God’s creation of man further displays these qualities as well as his loving kindness, patient forbearance, and holy justice (since he foreknew the fall).
However, the debate over the age of the earth is generally not important or relevant to basic Christianity. Certainly, many believers have ferociously argued over genealogies, science, and the nuances of ancient Hebrew. But passion does not equal importance. The age of the earth and the duration of the creation “days” have no bearing on any other Christian doctrine. Therefore, where one stands on the issue is completely irrelevant to one’s salvation or the quality of their theology.
This is not to say that every position in this debate is equally unimportant. My claim is that the debate is “generally unimportant and irrelevant.” There are at least three critical elements of creation doctrine that can lead to dangerous theological territory if denied:
1) God created the universe out of nothing.
2) God specially created a literal Adam apart from the rest of creation and humanity alone bears God’s image.
3) Adam and Eve sinned against God in a literal fall.
Denial of any of these doctrines can lead to lower views of God, Jesus, humanity, the cross, and the Bible. My point here is that most of those who debate the age of the earth do not deny any of these important doctrines. Whether God created the universe billions of years ago or six thousand years ago, most people on both sides of the debate are well within the bounds of orthodoxy and are earnestly seeking to fully understand and affirm all that God has revealed to us without compromising any of the essential truths of Christianity.
As Christians, we seem to have a tendency to divide and be against one another (1 Cor 3:4-9). Some divisions are practically necessary due to differences in ecclesiology and some help clarify and draw attention to the gospel. The debate over the age of the earth is neither of these. Rather, it often distracts from the gospel and causes unnecessary anxiety among believers. This it is not to say we shouldn’t study, discuss, or preach the issue. But our tone and intensity in disagreement should reflect the low importance of the doctrine. For the joy and unity of the church, can we agree on the essentials and save divisiveness more important debates?