by Vern S. Poythress

[Review by Vern S. Poythress for the Westminster Theological Journal.]

C. John Collins, Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003. 448. $25.00, paper.

 

C. John Collins, drawing on his expertise in science, theology, and Old Testament studies, has produced an outstanding book for guiding ordinary Christians in their thinking about modern science. The last decades have produced any number of helpful books about various specialized topics: evolution, the age of earth, the interpretation of Genesis, and the philosophy of science. Collins addresses each of these specialized topics, but writes primarily for the person who wants instruction about an integrated Christian worldview, and how that worldview comes to bear on the individual topics.

The book has chapters covering each of the main areas. The first two chapters, on “philosophical issues,” commend the value of clear critical thinking, and remove misconceptions about “science” and “faith.” Then come chapters on the doctrines of creation and providence (chapter 4, 6, and 11), the days of Genesis 1 (chapter 5), the age of the earth (chapters 7 and 15), the creation of man (chapter 8), the Fall and its effects on nature (chapters 9 and 10), general revelation (chapter 12), care for the environment (chapter 13), Neo-Darwinism (chapter 14), intelligent design (chapters 15 and 16), the human sciences (chapter 17), disagreements and the public square (chapter 18), and a wrap-up chapter on the challenge of living life from a Christian worldview.

These topics offer a veritable minefield of dangers and traps where Christians may sometimes show poor judgment. In each case Collins takes account of differences already in play, gives clear arguments, and comes to reasonable conclusions. As a faculty member at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Collins holds to orthodox Reformed theology, and his chapters on the doctrines of creation, fall, providence, miracle, and redemption naturally harmonize with it. In this book, however, he endeavors to address a wide Christian public, and so argues for the most part on the basis of a broader doctrinal consensus such as comes to expression in the ancient creeds, the standpoint of “mere Christianity” as he puts it (p. 13). At the same time, he affirms his own Reformed commitments: “Don’t misunderstand me: I am a loyal member of my denomination, and think its distinctives matter a great deal; but presenting them is not my goal in this book” (p. 14).

As one might expect from an expert in the Old Testament, he particularly shines in his discussion of Genesis 1-3 and the days of creation, building on previously published articles where he has developed the “analogical day theory.” The days of God’s work, followed by one of rest, form a basis for man’s pattern of work and sabbath rest, but the comparison uses analogy, not a direct identity in time lengths. People will of course continue to differ about this and other matters that Collins addresses. But Collins has put forth a reasonable case for analogical days on exegetical grounds, which is important for those who fear that Bible interpreters are taking their start from modern science and imposing its conclusions on the Bible.

Collins, then, believes that the Bible does not anywhere give us a pronouncement about the length of the days of creation, or the age of the universe. This exegetical conclusion of course opens the way for thinking that the broad scientific evidence for an old earth and an old universe is not illusory or wildly off-base. Collins argues that the earth is old. But he rejects the Neo-Darwinian theory of purposeless evolution, and neither does he endorse a theistic version of purely gradual evolution. The reigning form of Neo-Darwinism in practice includes the (sometimes hidden) assumption that all physical processes on earth are fully naturalistic and purposeless; in this view, God is irrelevant. A Christian must reject the idea of purposelessness, which is a philosophical premise rather than an empirical result. And Collins remains suspicious of theistic evolution, because God can, when he wishes, work supernaturally, and he has in fact done so in the creation of Adam and Eve. Collins commends the movement advocating intelligent design, which he rightly points out has been unfairly vilified by its opponents. Collins closes the book with a practical exhortation to Christians to encourage their sons and daughters to develop love for science for the glory of God.

Though Collins is aware of technical detail and interacts with it in Appendix A (“Notes and Comments on the Chapters”), the main body of the book avoids jargon and addresses ordinary readers in clear, understandable language. In fact, the book dispenses with footnotes entirely by consigning references to the appendices. When necessary, Collins explains details about scientific issues and exegetical issues, but still does so as much as possible in ordinary language. So one can confidently put this book into the hands of people without any previous specialized knowledge. They must only be willing to think!

Because of its overall good judgment, and the combination of strengths in theology, exegesis, familiarity with science, and readability, I think this is the best book of its kind. Those who disagree with one or more of the main conclusions will of course downgrade the book accordingly; but even they should appreciate the book’s readability and clear commitment to orthodox Christianity.

Some subjects on which the book touches deserve much more development. But then one is asking for another book, or rather a series of books. For example, exegetes would like to see much more discussion of the details of Genesis 1. Collins is aware of the desire: in Appendix A he gives references to his own and others’ technical articles, as well as indicating his interest in writing a more technical book (p. 15).

Collins’s book addresses apologetic issues now and then, but many presuppositionalists will expect a fuller and deeper discussion than what Collins provides. Again, that would require another book, because the issues are deep but subtle. Early in the book, Collins has this to say:

Christians don’t all agree on what place these [rational] arguments should play in bringing someone to believe in God. Some say that no arguments are needed; some say that sound faith requires evidence; some say that you have to challenge the unbeliever’s worldview before he can even think rightly about God.

One of the things that distinguishes these schools of thought is their answer to the question, “Where does belief in God come in?” Some say that belief in God is actually a datum–that is, you just know God directly, and what you need is to get in touch with that knowledge that you’ve been suppressing. Others say that belief in God is a premise–unless you take God’s existence for granted, you have no basis for sound reasoning of any sort. Still others say that belief in God is an inference–a conclusion from a chain of reasoning–which is why you need evidence and strong arguments.

As it turns out, each of these schools of thought has something to offer–rather than “either-or” I prefer the “both-and” approach. (p. 28)

Collins does not identify any of the representatives of the three schools of thought. But it seems clear that the “datum” school is supposed to represent Alvin Plantinga, the “premise” school the Van Tilian presuppositionalists, and the “inference” school the evidentialists or classical apologetics.

But this description oversimplifies. Among the presuppositionalists, anyone who understands Van Til well knows that Van Til includes all three aspects. His main point is closest to the “premise” idea, but he repeatedly goes back to the language of Romans 1:18-23, which affirms that the unbeliever knows God (“datum”). And he affirms the positive role of inference and evidence, when used within a framework that acknowledges the reality of “premise” and “datum.” By endorsing the idea of “premise,” Collins brings himself into line with the Van Tilian school. But he misdescribes that school by implying that it does not include the use of “datum” and “inference.”

Moreover, Collins’s advocacy of a “both-and” approach does not address the pointed disagreements between the schools. On the basis of its insight about God as “premise,” Van Tilian apologetics warns us not to compromise the absolute claims of God and the guilt of man when we conduct apologetic dialog. We compromise if we concede the idea of a religiously neutral reason, which the unbeliever could use autonomously to sit in judgment on the claims of Christianity. Collins’s book does not mention this concern.

Later on Collins writes favorably about William Paley’s apologetics (pp. 306-9), with no discussion of Van Til’s criticism of Paley (Christian-Theistic Evidences [Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1961], 37; “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word [3d rev. printing; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946], 294-95). Fortunately, Collins sets Paley in a larger context of Christian witness, and reminds us of the suppression of the truth mentioned in Romans 1:18-23 (pp. 309-311; see also pp. 411-14). Perhaps Collins means merely that Paley’s individual arguments about design could be reformulated within a framework that does not concede the neutrality of reason. But it could also mean that Collins is simply unaware of the problem.

Unfortunately, the history of Western thought produces a lot of pressure to misunderstand Christian apologetics as if it argued on the basis of a neutral reason. It would take another book to warn readers about the dangers.

In chapters 2 and 3 Collins discusses the importance of rational, critical assessment of arguments and conclusions. This emphasis on rationality is important in combating the impression that faith and spirituality are merely subjective preferences or irrational reactions. We are to love God with all our mind, within the framework of a Christian worldview that acknowledges the rationality of God as the source for human rationality. Later on, chapters 8 and 9, in setting out the doctrine of the creation of man and the Fall, provide the right theological context for understanding human rationality. But how well will readers understand this later context, given the pull of the Western tradition toward rational autonomy? Moreover, Collins does not address the concerns raised by Alisdair MacIntyre, and more broadly by postmodernism, about historical and cultural “situatedness” of rationality (though Appendix A does provide for readings concerning postmodernism, p. 417). People with different historical backgrounds have had differing conceptions of rationality, so that a simple, straightforward appeal, though adequate for many “common-sense” people, needs supplementation for a full-blown apologetics.

Are Christian and non-Christian versions of science distinct? Collins quotes approvingly from B. B. Warfield’s statement about science:

Sin clearly has not destroyed or altered in its essential nature any one of man’s faculties, although … it has affected the operation of them all…. No new faculties have been inserted into him by regeneration; and the old faculties common to man in all his states have been only measurably restored to their proper functioning. He is in no position therefore to produce a science different in kind from that produced by sinful man. (p. 146)

What do we say about Warfield’s reasoning? A lot depends on what sort of alterations or restorations of faculties he has in view. True, regeneration does not impart superhuman intelligence any more than it gives us Superman’s X-ray vision. But no one is saying otherwise. Scientific reflection can nevertheless give birth to a difference in “kind,” when autonomous human assumptions have radically affected the foundations of a science. Collins illustrates the effect later in the book when he shows the difference between intelligent design on the one hand, and dogmatic naturalism defending purposeless evolution on the other. Here we have a radical difference between two approaches to the science of historical biology. Presumably this striking difference is not what Collins or Warfield meant by “different in kind.” But then clarification is needed, lest Christians uncritically accept the current configurations of science. When should Christians pursue a radical change in the configuration of science? When would a more subtle change in the understanding of the meaning of science be more appropriate? It is not easy to say, because the noetic effects of sin are deep but subtle. Again this problem asks for another book.

Collins briefly tackles the human sciences in one chapter (“The Human and Social Sciences,” chapter 19). He rightly judges that we need a Christian critical approach to these areas. We should neither reject totally the work of non-Christians, nor swallow it whole. But the chapter is all too short–many people could have used more detailed guidance.

Collins gives a definition of the natural and the supernatural that endeavors to do justice both to miracle and to providence. Created things have “natural properties,” and God sustains both these properties and the causal interactions among created things (the level of the “natural”). But God is also free to “cause events directly” and to bring about effects that natural properties would never have made possible (p. 168). By this means Collins avoids extremes: “occasionalism,” which rejects the reality of secondary causes, and “providentialism,” which maintains that there are no real exceptions to secondary causation (pp. 170-74; he also rejects “open theism,” but this focuses on the quite different issue of the nature of human freedom).

But some questions remain, because the limits of these “natural properties” remain vague, and our knowledge is partial. Suppose that one looks at a particular event like the drying up of the Jordan River in the time of Joshua (Josh 3). The Bible obviously presents this event as a wonder that demonstrates God’s might, the trustworthiness of his word, and his care for the Israelites. The drying up of the Jordan at just the right time, for just this purpose, would encourage the Israelites and throw the inhabitants of Jericho into panic.

But how did God bring it about? Was it a purely supernatural event, in which the water stood up in a vertical wall in a totally unaccountable way? Or was there a blockage of the water due to an avalanche of earth falling into the river bed and stopping up the channel at “Adam,” a city near Zarethan farther up the Jordan? Some commentators have suggested the latter possibility because historians record two later incidents (in 1267 and 1927) in which a similar blockage occurred. Does it matter to the Scriptural account whether there is some causal explanation? Surely the answer is no. God brought the event about, whether through means or apart from means.

To apply Collins’s categories of “natural” and “supernatural” to a particular incident, we have to know a lot about the means; and sometimes the Bible simply does not supply the information. Collins is using categories different from the biblical account in Joshua 3 (though not incompatible with it).

Collins criticizes the New Bible Dictionary article on “Miracles” for saying at one point that Scripture “does not sharply distinguish between God’s constant sovereign providence and his particular acts,” and that “all events … [are] caused by God’s sovereign power” (p. 173). To Collins, this sounds “occasionalist.” But it may mean little more than that God is the primary cause in any case, that sometimes we cannot easily find out all about the means, and that often the Bible does not lay stress on whether or not God used means.

But then in the very next paragraph the New Bible Dictionary article talks about the possibility of discovering “causal connections,” which to Collins sounds “providentialist” (p. 174). But it may mean only that on some occasions God used secondary causes in bringing about a striking result. Collins is clearly frustrated by what looks like confusion in the article. But the problem is his. He misconstrues the statements in the article by trying to adjust them to the framework of his categories.

Collins’s distinction between natural and supernatural comes up again at a later point, when he evaluates theories for the origin of life. Collins argues that life could not have come about by natural processes. “And a natural process can’t do that [impose information on the DNA], because a natural process just works by the properties of the things involved, and information transcends these properties” (pp. 276-77; see also p. 403). Maybe Collins is just trying to condense into a few sentences elaborate information-theoretic arguments. But as it stands, his condensed statement has problems. It depends on the assumption that we know very clearly and thoroughly just what are “the properties” of the things involved.

I myself think that Collins and others are correct in claiming that there are insuperable difficulties in the way of building a completely naturalistic, “purposeless” account of the origin of the first proto-cell. But it is a complicated argument, and Collins appears to short-circuit it by a simple claim about “properties.” It sounds as if he is saying that physical and chemical properties cannot lead to information because information is categorically different. But leading proponents of intelligent design are not arguing that it would be impossible in principle to imagine an apparently “random” sequence of events that would introduce a minimum amount of information in DNA (say three base-pairs, coding for one amino acid). What boggles the mind is the quantity of information that has to be supplied for a single proto-cell to be able to sustain its own internal integrity and reproduce. But if so, one should go in and look at the problem in quantitative detail. Only in this way does one weigh what sort of difficulty one confronts.

Collins goes on to say that “Nature–even Nature under God–is not enough to get the ball of life rolling” (p. 277). That is, Collins rejects the possibility of a providentially controlled but nonsupernatural appearance of the first cell, because it is literally impossible. This claim falls hard on the heels of the earlier observation about “properties,” and makes one think that Collins knows something about “properties” that some of the rest of us do not know. For example, I can imagine God bringing about the creation of the first cell by a process in which a large number atoms of the right kind come together in just the right configuration at just the right time. This event would come about through God as primary cause, but might also take place by the constant operation of the “secondary causes” of physical forces and chemical interaction. If one replies that this is highly improbable, the answer is yes, but a lesser degree of improbability belongs to “coincidences” that God brings about in people’s lives to this day, coincidences that, to a skeptical observer, do not in any obvious way go beyond “the properties” of created things.Does the creation of the first cell belong to a metaphysically distinct category just because it is less probable? Or for some other reason? The discussion needs further clarification.

These questions trace back to the initial vague distinction between natural and supernatural, which generates difficulties because it is not very clear and not always easy to apply to particular cases.

In short, Collins’s book asks for supplementation and further explanation at a number of points. But such a situation is virtually inevitable for a book that undertakes to address ordinary people and to cover a large amount of intellectual territory. The book succeeds well in what it intends to do in helping the ordinary person grow in a Christian understanding of science.

 

Vern Sheridan Poythress

Westminster Theological Seminary

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania