When professing Christians deny biblical creation, we often point them to the words of Jesus and the New Testament authors which clearly affirm belief in biblical creation. Because Christians are, by definition, people who believe what Jesus believed, this should be the end of the discussion, right?
Not quite. While they may concede that Jesus and Paul et al. referred to Genesis, they often come back arguing that they did not do so in certain contexts; such as evangelism, or that certain details aren't mentioned. And this is somehow taken as an argument against taking a historical view of Genesis as important for the Gospel and the Christian worldview.
So is what the New Testament doesn’t say a problem for biblical creation?
Of course there are details in Genesis 1–11 that aren’t referenced in the New Testament. If you only stuck to the first-century revelation of God’s Word, you wouldn’t know that there were animals on Noah’s Ark or that God confused the world’s language at Babel. The NT authors were entirely silent about most of the names and all of the numbers in the genealogies. So does that mean that these ‘omitted’ details are unimportant for the Christian’s faith?
To give an answer to this, first we have to look at what sort of documents the New Testament is made up of, and whether we would expect to find these sorts of details. And then we have to look at how the New Testament uses the details of Genesis it does specifically cite.
The New Testament documents are occasional—meaning, they were written for a specific audience and a specific purpose. The Gospels are each in their own way arguing that Jesus is the Messiah. The Acts of the Apostles is recording the spread of the Gospel after Jesus’ ascension, and the epistles of Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude are addressed to specific people or congregations answering specific problems. All of great benefit to all readers throughout time, of course.
Considering the nature of these writings, we wouldn’t expect to find a lot of long treatises about Genesis—particularly if the audience was already presumed to have that as part of their background (but more on that below). What we would expect to find (and do find) are references to events in Genesis which establish the precedents the authors need for the particular arguments they’re trying to make. For instance, when Paul wants to tell the Roman Church how salvation ‘works’ (Romans 5:12–21), he essentially points back to Adam and says: “You know how sin spread to everyone when Adam sinned? Well, it’s sort of like that, but a lot better (because Adam’s sin spreading to everyone was bad, but Christ’s righteousness spreading to us is good!)!” When Jesus wants to tell His followers what His return is going to be like (Matthew 24:36ff), He points back to the global Flood and basically says, “You know how people were going about everyday life with no clue that anything was coming, until the moment that they were swept away? That’s what it will be like!”
When Jesus is talking to the Jews of His day, there’s obviously no need for Him to tell them all about Adam, the Fall, and the rest of the history leading up to Abraham, because they had a common foundation of belief that Genesis is an accurate historical record. So, no wonder we don’t see specific references to Genesis. That He is able to cite Genesis in debates with His detractors (Matthew 19:3ff) as absolutely authoritative without having to demonstrate that it’s authoritative shows not only that He took it as authoritative, but that they did, too.
In a similar way, when the apostles converted Jews, they would already have this pre-existing belief in Genesis and the rest of the Scriptures. So in many ways, creation was a ‘non-issue’ in this environment, because everyone accepted it. To somehow claim that an absence of details is support for now saying Genesis doesn’t mean what is says, is to really clutch at straws.
When the Gospel began to spread to Gentiles, however, this wasn’t the case—they may have been raised to believe in the Greek pantheon, or various schools of pagan philosophy. This doesn’t stop Paul from going back to Genesis for his foundation when he gives his speech at the Areopagus (or Mars Hill):
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god’. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth … . (Acts 17:22b–26a).
This is a fascinating use of Genesis by Paul, because he’s simultaneously establishing a common ground via the ‘unknown god’ inscription and correcting their errors about the nature of God (He does not live in their temples, He does not need their offerings) while proclaiming the truth about Him.
Of course, the goal of evangelism was to make Christians out of both Jews and Greeks. And all of the letters in the New Testament were written to Christians, both individuals and congregations. Once a person was converted, the apostles weren’t content to leave them there, but they proceeded to teach the convert an entirely new worldview and way of thinking. They would have been taught to believe in the entirety of God’s Word including the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:16). And we see evidence of this in the New Testament letters.
For instance, the Corinthian church was largely Gentile—most of the church probably had very little exposure if any to Genesis before conversion. Yet in his letters to the Corinthians, Paul cites Genesis no fewer than 8 times! This indicates that at least a basic knowledge of the Old Testament history was part of the instruction of the new believer—otherwise Paul would have to go into detailed explanations about what all this means. This was especially important in establishing Christian doctrines, many of which were founded on this historicity of Genesis.
The entire Old Testament is considered to be inspired by the New Testament authors, and they frequently cite it, with the obvious expectation that their audience will know what they’re talking about. This means that especially Gentiles would have needed instruction in what they were supposed to believe in order to even begin to find Paul’s letters, for instance, intelligible. Of course, if we abandon Genesis then increasingly we also have to doubt the authority of the New Testament.
That so many of the references to Genesis are able to be ‘passing’ references or references without much context given beyond what’s necessary for the argument is actually evidence that the early church taught believers about Genesis, and to take it as authoritative. So Paul doesn’t argue with the Corinthians about whether they should believe Genesis—he assumes that they do. For him, that’s just part of being a Christian. So in a sense, what the New Testament doesn’t say is powerful affirmation of the importance of Genesis in the earliest church. As we’ve said before, if believing Genesis was good enough for Jesus and the Apostles then it should be good enough for us.