BOOK REVIEW – The Language of God, Francis Collins
“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”
– Proverbs 25:2
Francis Collins, Ph.D, and M.D, is both a geneticist and a physician and is known for his work in the discoveries of disease genes and work in the Human Genome Project. Collins writes a book, “The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.” In this book, Collins takes the position that science and faith are as opposed to each other as one’s index finger is to their thumb – that they are both useful, yet different ways of apprehending the same truth. Collins writes to encourage believers to consider science a valid form of epistemology, and to the science minded to consider the reasons for faith.
Collins, unabashedly, writes as a Theistic Evolutionist and gives reasons against Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design. Collins definitely recognizes the difference between primary and secondary causes, that God is a Prime Mover who normally operates through secondary causes, such as the big bang, the process of gravity, for forming planets, and ultimately through evolution to form life.
Collins buttresses his thesis with plenty of quotes by CS Lewis, particularly from Mere Christianity. He does not deny, in spite of his belief in evolution, that man is a special creation of God, but suggests that man is unique in that we evolved a moral capacity and this is because of the soulish capacity given to us by God. Those who have wrestled with Lewis’ work will find Collins’ ability to put it into context very useful in this book. I know it took me a few reads to really grasp the first few chapters of Mere Christianity, and having this book as prior reading would have helped a great deal.
Definitely a well written book, readable at most levels, although some readers may find some concepts in chapters 3-5 difficult, as Collins discusses origins and issues pertaining to the human genome. This is certainly nothing to be intimidated by, as long as one is up for slightly challenging themselves. If one finds this book too difficult, at first, I suggest reading “A Case for a Creator” by Lee Stroebel. This book should introduce those unfamiliar to issues of origins to the main ideas.
A great introduction to Theistic Evolution, in fact, it seems Collins’ is trying to make peace between the community of science and the community of faith by writing both an apologetic for evolution and theism. This is a great book for those who see the debate as being between Darwin and God, but the book is not without its problems.
In chapter 7 he gets well into how atheism and agnosticism are insufficient worldviews, by saying, alongside Alister McGrath, that while, “…evolution fully accounts for biological complexity and the origins of humankind, so there is no more need for God.” He then goes on to say this “…rightly relieves God of multiple acts of creation for each species on the planet, it certainly does not disprove the idea that God worked out His creative plan by means of evolution.”
I think most can agree that evolution is a mechanism and explaining life and origins strictly in terms of mechanism does not sweep away the need for agency. This is a good point, all too neglected by apologists who would rather endlessly try disproving evolution then establishing God as a default.
As mentioned on page 165, “The major and inescapable flaw of Dawkins’s claim that science demands atheism is that it goes beyond the evidence.”
In chapter 8 he discusses creationism, in the young earth sense. He deals with the YEC criticism that those who espouse Old Earth Creationism are giving into secular ideas to be popular, by pointing to St Augustine’s admission that not even he, in an age of pre-scientific enlightenment, held the age of the earth to be older and did not hold the Genesis account to be literal days of creation. On page 175 he notes that the creation days being literal was a reactive position to Darwinian evolution, but not necessitated by the Biblical text due to the nature of the Hebrew word “Yom.” This word being more likely pointing to epochs of time, not literal 24-hour days.
He points, again, to the Moral law, on page 177. Given a plain reading of nature we are given an old age of the Earth and universe, if the Earth and Universe really were young, this would contravene what we know about the nature of God, as this would imply God as being a trickster.
I want to pause here and mention an important concept, that will perhaps help with what Collins in driving at, with regard to knowing God by analogy, by reasoning from our moral capacity to God. There are moral attributes to God, which theologians call “God’s communicable attributes.” For instance, if God is good, could He have made us evil and declare creation to be very good? Can God give what He hasn’t got to give? To better understand this, it is important to understand the difference between the proper and improper possession of an adjective. When we say that vegetables are healthy we are referring to their effect on organisms which they react on. Vegetables are neither healthy or unhealthy, until they communicate their properties to an organism, making the organism properly healthy. What God is, He is necessarily and He has given us relational capacities, such as rationality and, as Collins emphasizes in this text, morality. So, here, Collins is suggesting that our moral capacity gives us a positive analogy to reason back to the nature of the God who gave it to us. Here, God is improperly (is) moral, while we are properly (have) moral.
On page 178, Collins rightly cautions that Christian battles cannot be won by attaching our position to a flawed foundation, in reference to YECism, and this is a good principle in general. When defending truth, there are no noble lies.
Chapter 9 focuses on the problems of Intelligent Design and its 3 propositions. He points out how Behe’s paradox of irreducible complexity is easily refuted by pointing to the eye. The eye needn’t be fully functional to detect light. He criticizes ID for making the mistake of confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable. While those in the ID camp are right to look for an intelligence behind the mechanism, they are incorrect in arguing from their ignorance.
So, with Young Earth Creationism being incompatible with the nature of God, and Intelligent Design being flawed in its methodology and inability to produce a testable model, and strict naturalism being insufficient, he defaults to evolution as being a secondary process employed by God. Surely in the absence of other models, this is the only way of explaining the fossil record and the progression of simplicity to complexity in life. He fails to mention how the environment adapts alongside the life inhabiting it, and with mass speciation events. Progressive Creationism is a stronger, more compatible with God’s nature, model which he fails to consider.
Evolution certainly is not an illogical idea, it is not proposing squared circles, or denying that effects have sufficient causes, but Collins fails to recognize the Biblical problems with the model. On pages 206-209, he seems to compromise on inerrancy, reducing characters, such as Adam&Eve, Job and Jonah, to being figurative and not historical characters in the Bible and cites CS Lewis, who was not an inerrantist, in support. Here, while both teachers are commendable, wise and orthodox, they fail to use God’s word as the corrective and make it the corrected. Setting aside the debate on inerrancy, there are problems relegating Adam&Eve to being figurative characters.
As Christians we hold Jesus to be a very historical Character, being God incarnate and the propitiation for our sins. The problem with reducing Adam and Eve to being mere figurative characters is 1 Corinthians 15:45 compares Christ to Adam in a literal, 1:1, way. Christ being a type of Adam, which undid the sin of the first. One taking the position of making Adam&Eve into allegorical figures may find it Biblically awkward not doing the same to Jesus.
In conclusion, this was a well written book. It helps understand evolution within a theistic framework. I do not ever advocate lying for Jesus, but when discussing matters of faith with an evolutionist, it is useful to show that naturalistic evolution is insufficient in dismissing God. I would use this to show that one may be a Christian while maintaining incorrect views on science and the false views on origins can be corrected later. One needn’t choose between Darwin and God and this book demonstrates that. I would caution against Theistic Evolution in light of Progressive Creationism providing more explanation and in light of obvious Biblical problems. I do not believe a faithful reading of Scripture allows for the strains Theistic Evolution puts on certain passages. I enjoyed this book and learned to further sympathize with a position I do not necessarily agree with.