I’ve noted before the challenge of determining the importance of doctrines. One issue often debated by current Christians is the significance of young earth creationism (YEC). Under the impression that advocates of YEC place too much weight on the issue, many evangelicals push back by minimizing the issue. A recent example comes from Justin Taylor (one of the better and more prolific Christian bloggers today). Using his post as a basis for discussion, I’d like to address four underlying arguments in Taylor’s post that relate to doctrinal significance.
Direct Statement of Scripture or Deduction
Taylor begins his post by arguing that “the Bible nowhere directly teaches the age of the earth,” contrary to what YEC proponents supposedly imply or claim. Instead, YEC “is a deduction from a combination of beliefs.” Taylor then offers 5 beliefs that supposedly are used to build the case for YEC. Without fully addressing the accuracy of his five points (e.g., the first is not held by many YEC adherents), I’d like to focus on Taylor’s purpose for mentioning this: “These five points may all be true, but I think it’s helpful to understand that the question ‘how old is the earth?’ is not something directly answered in Scripture but rather deduced from these and other points.” In other words, people should not hold too dogmatically to YEC since it is not a direct statement of Scripture but a matter of deduction.
At first we might be inclined to agree to this argument. After all, our logical deductions may be incorrect, whereas the direct statements of Scripture are never incorrect! But upon further reflection we can see the flaw in this argument. Many doctrines that we hold dogmatically are not directly stated in Scripture but are deductions from a combination of ideas. For example, John Frame points out the doctrine of the Trinity is the combination of these assertions: “(1) God is one. (2) God is three. (3) The three persons are each fully God. (4) Each of the persons is distinct from the others. (5) The three are related to one another eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Systematic Theology, Kindle location 11773). The hypostatic union (relationship of Christ’s two natures), sola scriptura, and other key doctrines are also the result of biblical deduction rather than direct statement, including another doctrine Taylor mentions several times in his post—the doctrine of inerrancy (e.g., the whole Bible is inspired/breathed-out by God, and God cannot speak falsely or make an error, therefore the whole Bible is without error). This does not mean that YEC is on the same level as the doctrines of Trinity or the person of Jesus Christ, but it does mean it’s not automatically excluded from that level of significance because it lacks a direct statement from Scripture. (If it were a series of deductions drawn from other deductions things would be different).
Taylor goes on to offer another “surprising” bit of information: “some of the great stalwarts of the faith were not convinced of this interpretation [literal days].” Ironically, after arguing against the idea that the idea of 6 literal days did not lose favor until after Darwin, Taylor supports his point by quoting from 4 of 5 theologians who came after Darwin (5 of 6, if you include his reference to Warfield who, despite what Taylor seems to believe, came after Darwin). Why mention what other Christians have believed? One reason is that the importance of a doctrine is connected to its historical position among Christians. If the church has historically recognized something as true and important we should be extremely careful with modifying or denying it, while if the church has historically been divided on an issue we should be careful about being overly dogmatic about it. Thus, Taylor’s argument is that the fact of biblical Christians denying or downplaying YEC shows it should not be overemphasized.
Yet two matters are worth noting. The first is that YEC is favored by history, especially among those who seek a literal understanding of the Bible. Apart from earlier Christians (and Jewish rabbis) who favored allegorical interpretations of the Bible, six-day creation and a young earth was the dominant position among early Christians and especially among the reformers until the 19th century. So the importance of YEC is actually strengthened by a proper understanding of its historical position.
Second, the matter of whether or not a Bible-believing Christian held a certain position may include the fallacy of begging the question—i.e., it assumes the doctrine is not important, so that a denial of the doctrine does not raise the question as to whether or not someone is a Bible-believing Christian. For example, opponents of YEC often cite Origen as not holding to YEC as evidence that Christians have differed on this matter. Yet Origen also denied orthodox positions on other matters, including denying the biblical doctrine of hell. Was Rob Bell right to point to Origen’s denial of hell to argue that his denial of hell was within the bounds of historic Christianity? Is Peter Enns a “stalwart of the faith” even though he denies inerrancy, making inerrancy not that significant? The fact that someone in history who claimed to be a Christian and was right on some areas of doctrine held a position does not in itself mean the position does not affect orthodoxy. (NOTE: I’m not trying to equate Machen, Henry, or the others Taylor mentioned with Origen and Enns. I’m simply pointing out the tension this line of argumentation raises.)
Another reason Taylor mentions that “the great stalwarts of the faith were not convinced of this interpretation [literal days]” is because he wants to emphasize that their failure to embrace a literal 6-day interpretation did not lead them to heresy. “In some segments of the church, I fear that we’ve built an exegetical ‘fence around the Torah,’ fearful that if we question any aspect of young-earth dogmatics we have opened the gate to liberalism. The defenders of inerrancy above show that this is not the case.” Taylor highlights this fact because one way of determining the significance of a doctrine is to determine what impact its denial has on other key doctrines. As I’ve pointed out before, denying the bodily resurrection of believers effectively denies the bodily resurrection of Christ, which demonstrates the significance of the bodily resurrection of believers. If one can deny YEC without undermining inerrancy then perhaps YEC is not that significant.
Again, however, the matter is more complex than Taylor implies. We don’t always recognize the implications of our beliefs, which leads us to be inconsistent in the positions we hold. It is possible for someone to deny A and hold to B, even if denying A logically denies B (e.g., the above example where the Corinthians denied the bodily resurrection while affirming Christ’s bodily resurrection). So those who deny YEC and affirm inerrancy may actually be inconsistent—perhaps they don’t see how their denial of YEC undermines inerrancy.
I’m not (right now) arguing that denying YEC undermines inerrancy (see Mohler address that concern here), nor am I questioning the allegiance to inerrancy of the men Taylor mentions (as a general rule, it’s best not to condemn people for the implications of their position if they explicitly deny those implications). I’m simply pointing out that the fact that someone holds to inerrancy while not affirming YEC does not in itself demonstrate that YEC is therefore not significant (anymore than the fact that someone holds to inerrancy while not affirming complementarianism means it is not significant).
Opposing “Biblical Reasons”
The bulk of Taylor’s post offers 5 “biblical reasons to doubt young-earth exegesis.” I won’t address the arguments themselves (the first, as I already briefly noted, is irrelevant, and the rest more or less follow the framework theory ably critiqued by McCabe here and here). Rather I want to consider the underlying argument: because there are biblical reasons to doubt this position, we should not be too dogmatic about it. This raises the question of clarity in considering doctrinal significance. Whenever we are deliberating about doctrinal matters, we must keep ourselves rooted in the text, as Taylor notes: “[our] passion for sola Scriptura provides us with the humility and willingness to go back to the text again to see if these things are so.” That means we have to evaluate appeals to the Bible that are offered in opposition to our position.
But the presence of opposing “biblical” arguments does not necessitate doctrinal indifference. Most heresies have some sort of “biblical” argument supporting them—including appeals to Matt 16:18 to support the papacy or to John 10:16 to support the Book of Mormon. In other words, not every biblical argument is sound.
For example, I remember a discussion I had with some folks about a prominent evangelical theologian (who affirmed inerrancy) who defended his support of a speaker who denied inerrancy by appealing to the speaker’s interpretation of 2 Tim 3:16 as meaning “every Scripture that is inspired by God is also profitable”—a possible exegesis of the passage. Since the speaker came to his position in light of his exegesis we should not fault him. In the discussion of how to respond to this argument, one of the better responses given was this: the speaker may claim that is what 2 Tim 3:16 means, but he is wrong. The proper exegesis of the passage recognizes that Paul is claiming that all Scripture is inspired by God, so the speaker should be held to account for his flawed understanding of Scripture. We should not minimize inerrancy because of other people’s wrong exegesis.
I’m not saying that Taylor’s arguments are as bad as the ones I used for examples, but if his arguments are not as exegetically and theologically sound as those for YEC (as I think McCabe’s articles above demonstrate) then they should not lead Christians to be less dogmatic about their position.
To summarize: when considering doctrinal significance, we should take into account the four issues Taylor raises. While none of them are sufficient in themselves to determine how important a doctrine is, in combination they can help us work towards an answer. As you’ve probably picked up through my discussion, after considering YEC in light of these four areas, I feel no impetus to doubt the creation days were 24 hour periods. Though there is no direct statement of Scripture, there are direct logical/theological deductions from Scripture that support it. It was the historic position of believers, especially of those more committed to a normal (as opposed to allegorical) hermeneutic. There are some significant implications for denying YEC, and it matches with the best exegesis of the relevant passages. So, while I don’t think denying YEC means a person is not a believer (and, despite accusations to the contrary, I am not aware of any serious YEC proponent who does), I do think it is a significant doctrine that merits bold and firm affirmation and propagation.