I teach history. Every term, in the first session, I talk to my students about sources. I tell them that there are primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources.
Primary sources come from witnesses, people who were there when history was being made. They might be autobiographies and memoirs, diaries, letters, oral histories, or any other record of what people saw and heard and felt. Artifacts can also be primary sources—ruins of buildings, tools, artwork, even garbage. Garbage is a great source of information about the way people live.
Secondary sources come from scholars who interpret the primary sources. They gather as much information as they can, and they explain what happened, and why it happened, and what resulted from its happening. Secondary sources can be very narrow and deep investigations into a topic, or they can be broad evaluations of an entire culture or time period.
Journalism produces a mix of primary and secondary source material. The journalist explains and interprets, but often the journalist quotes a witness directly. The quote from the witness is a primary source, even as the article as a whole is a secondary source. This is true of newspaper accounts, magazine articles, radio and television broadcasts, and internet news services.
Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia entries, whether printed in books or distributed online, are tertiary sources. Textbooks are tertiary sources. Papers written by students are tertiary sources. Such sources are useful summaries and can be a good starting place for research. However, a student who writes a paper based only on tertiary sources has produced a quaternary source which has no academic value. Beyond the junior high school level, teachers generally do not approve of student papers that are based only on encyclopedias and on the textbook.
After explaining sources to the students, I ask them whether a larger number of primary sources guarantees that historians will understand what happened. That seems like a reasonable proposition, but my test case shows the opposite. On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was shot and killed. Hundreds of people were present at the time. Many of them had cameras, even moving pictures. Along with the human witnesses, there are numerous artifacts: the injuries to the bodies of the President and Governor Connelly, the gun, the bullets, the clothing of the President and of the Governor, the car, the pavement—all these are primary sources. Yet the secondary sources disagree about what happened. Most witnesses heard either two or three shots; hardly any witness reports hearing more than three shots. Yet many secondary sources insist that the damage was caused by at least four and sometimes up to twelve gunshots. Some secondary sources conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot the President. Others say he was part of a conspiracy. A few say he was investigating a conspiracy to shoot the President but was unable to prevent its success. Many others say that Harvey was innocent of any crime but was framed for the shooting.
If historians are confused about an event that happened just a few decades ago in front of many witnesses, how can people today investigate the origin of the world? There are primary sources—some written documents that describe creation, and many oral traditions about creation—but they do not all agree. Other primary sources exist as artifacts: fossils, geographic patterns, radioactive decay, and astronomic observations, among others. Can investigation of these primary sources be trusted when the conclusions of those investigations match none of the other primary sources that claim to have inside knowledge about creation?
Americans are fond of easy choices between two extremes. One approves of the President’s actions, or one disapproves. One votes Republican, or one votes Democratic. Creation is true, or evolution is true. In fact, there are more than two opinions about the origin of the world. Some Hindus believe that the world goes through lengthy cycles of development, culminating in a catastrophic destruction that is followed by a new beginning. Some ancient Greek philosophers thought that the physical universe is eternal, without beginning or end. Muslims are as divided as Christians about whether the world was created by direct miracle a few thousand years ago or whether it evolved over many millions of years. Some Christians hold to a young earth opinion, while others believe that God worked through the powers he created, planning and developing the world over many millions of years. Some say that God is eternal and unchanging but chose this slow method to create the world, while others say that God himself developed and evolved over the course of creation. Yet another view says that God created the world as it is now in an instant, but that he described creation to Moses over the course of six days.
What did Jesus say? He treated the account of creation written in Genesis as an accurate primary source. Trusting his authority, my opinion is that the earth and the universe are less than ten thousand years old. I view the act of creation as a singularity, as some physicists would say. God spoke, and the world appeared according to his design. He did not plant acorns and wait for them to sprout and grow; he created mature oak trees bearing acorns. He did not wait tens of thousands of years for coral reefs to grow from a single coral creature; he created mature coral reefs containing thousands of coral creatures. Adam and Eve were created with mature adult bodies; they did not grow from babies. Distant objects in the universe are visible from Earth because God created beams of light that extend to the Earth, even though the sources of those beams are more than ten thousand light years away.
I admit that I may be wrong. As I have written before, when I meet Jesus face to face in the new creation, he might tell me that I took the first chapters of Genesis far too literally. If so, the two of us will have a good laugh about my mistake. On the other hand, those who reject Jesus because they refuse to believe in a literal creation by an all-powerful God will not be laughing on that Day.
The primary job of the Christian Church is to warn sinners of the consequences of their sins and to introduce those sinners to the Savior who rescues them from evil and death and promises everlasting life. When our conversation disintegrates into arguments over creation versus evolution—or arguments over abortion, or homosexuality, or other matters that are important but not vital—only the devil wins. We have time to debate important matters, but we must be careful not to neglect the vital matters. At times, like Paul, we must know nothing aside from Christ and Him crucified. That matters most of all. J.