Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins




(Mildly Recommended)




Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






The credentials of Francis Collins led me to his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Collins is a pioneering geneticist who once led the Human Genome Project. He has spent his life practicing the scientific method. He is also a fundamentalist Christian who believes in God. Given the fundamentalist aversion to science, especially when it comes to areas like evolution, it was the fact that Collins has feet planted in both camps that makes this an interesting book. On these pages, Collins tells his personal story of faith, and explains science in terms that all readers can understand. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 6, “Genesis, Galileo and Darwin,” pp. 150-158:




If you have not recently read this Biblical account, find a Bible right now and read Genesis 1:1 through Genesis 2:7. There is no substitute for looking at the actual text if one is trying to under­stand its meaning. And if you are concerned that the words in this text have been seriously compromised by centuries of copying and recopying, do not worry very much about this—the evidence in favor of the authenticity of the Hebrew is in fact quite strong.

There is no question that this is a powerful and poetic nar­rative recounting the story of God’s creative actions. “In the be­ginning God created the heavens and the earth” implies that God always existed. This description is certainly compatible with scientific knowledge of the Big Bang. The remainder of Genesis 1 describes a series of creative acts, from “Let there be light” on day one, to the waters and the sky on day two, to the appearance of land and vegetation on day three, the sun, moon, and stars on day four, fish and birds on day five, and finally on a very busy sixth day, the appearance of land animals and male and female humans.

Genesis 2 then begins with a description of God resting on the seventh day. After this appears a second description of the creation of humans, this time explicitly referring to Adam. The second creation description is not entirely compatible with the first; in Genesis 1 vegetation appears three days before hu­mans are created, whereas in Genesis 2 it seems that God cre­ates Adam from the dust of the earth before any shrub or plant had yet appeared. In Genesis 2:7, it is interesting to note, the Hebrew phrase that we translate “living being” is applied to Adam in exactly the same way it was previously applied to fish, birds, and land animals in Genesis 1:20 and 1:24.

What are we to make of these descriptions? Did the writer intend for this to be a literal depiction of precise chronological steps, including days of twenty-four-hour duration (though the sun was not created until day three, leaving open the question of how long a day would have been before that)? If a literal de­scription was intended, why then are there two stories that do not entirely mesh with each other? Is this a poetic and even al­legorical description, or a literal history?

These questions have been debated for centuries. Nonliteral interpretations since Darwin are somewhat suspect in some cir­cles, since they could be accused of “caving in” to evolutionary theory, and perhaps thereby compromising the truth of the sa­cred text. So it is useful to discover how learned theologians in­terpreted Genesis 1 and 2 long before Darwin appeared on the scene, or even before geologic evidence of the extreme age of the earth began to accumulate.

In that regard, the writings of Saint Augustine, a converted skeptic and brilliant theologian who lived around 400 A.D., are of particular interest. Augustine was fascinated by the first two chapters of Genesis, and wrote no less than five extensive analyses of these texts. Put down more than sixteen hundred years ago, his thoughts are still illuminating today. Reading through those intensely analytical musings, especially as recorded in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, the Confessions, and The City of God, it is clear that Augustine is posing more ques­tions than he is providing answers for. He repeatedly returns to the question of the meaning of time, concluding that God is outside of time and not bounded by it (2 Peter 3:8 states this ex­plicitly: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day”). This in turn causes Augustine to question the duration of the seven days of biblical creation.

The Hebrew word used in Genesis I for day (yom) can be used both to describe a twenty-four-hour day and to describe a more symbolic representation. There are multiple places in the Bible where yom is utilized in a nonliteral context, such as “the day of the Lord”—just as we might say “in my grandfather’s day” without implying that Grandpa had lived only twenty-four hours.

Ultimately, Augustine writes: “What kind of days these were, it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive.” He admits there are probably many valid interpreta­tions of the book of Genesis: “With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the book of Gene­sis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in inter­preting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not brashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better.”2

Diverse interpretations continue to be promoted about the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2. Some, particularly from the evan­gelical Christian church, insist upon a completely literal inter­pretation, including twenty-four-hour days. Coupled with subsequent genealogical information in the Old Testament, this leads to Bishop Ussher’s famous conclusion that God created heaven and earth in 4004 B.C. Other equally sincere believers do not accept the requirement that the days of creation need be twenty-four hours in length, though they otherwise accept the narrative as a literal and sequential depiction of God’s creative acts. Still other believers see the language of Genesis 1 and 2 as intended to instruct readers of Moses’ time about God’s charac­ter, and not to attempt to teach scientific facts about the specifics of creation that would have been utterly confusing at the time.

Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be. We should continue to explore that! But the idea that scientific revelations would represent an enemy in that pursuit is ill conceived. If God created the universe, and the laws that govern it, and if He endowed human beings with intellectual abilities to discern its work­ings, would He want us to disregard those abilities? Would He be diminished or threatened by what we are discovering about His creation?





Watching the current fireworks between certain branches of the church and certain outspoken scientists, an observer with a sense of history might ask, “Haven’t we been to this movie be­fore?” Conflicts between interpretation of scripture and scien­tific observations are not exactly new. In particular, the conflicts that arose in the seventeenth century between the Christian Church and the science of astronomy provide some instructive Context for the evolutionary debates of today.

Galileo Galilei was a brilliant scientist and mathematician, born in Italy in 1564. Not satisfied to carry out mathematical analyses of other people’s data, or to follow the Aristotelian tra­dition of posing theories without requiring experimental sup­port, Galileo was involved in both experimental measurements and using mathematics to interpret them. In 1608, inspired by information he had heard about the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands, Galileo made his own instrument and quickly made a number of astronomical observations of pro­found significance. He observed four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter. That simple observation, which we take for granted today, presented significant problems for the traditional Ptole­maic system, where all heavenly bodies were supposed to ro­tate around the earth. Galileo also observed sunspots, which represented a possible affront to the idea that all heavenly bod­ies were created perfect.

Galileo ultimately came to the conclusion that his observa­tions could make sense only if the earth revolved around the sun. That placed him in direct conflict with the Catholic Church.

While much of the traditional lore about Galileo’s persecu­tions by the church is overblown, there is no question that his conclusions were received with alarm in many theological quarters. This was not entirely based on religious arguments, however. In fact, his observations were accepted by many Jesuit astronomers, but resented by rival academics, who urged the church to intervene. The Dominican Father Caccini obliged. In a sermon directly targeting Galileo, the friar insisted that “geome­try is of the devil” and that “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies.”3

Another Catholic priest claimed that Galileo’s conclusions were not only heretical but atheistic. Other attacks included a claim that “his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation” and that “it casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation.” While much of the criticism came from the Catholic Church, it was not limited to that. John Calvin and Mar­tin Luther also objected.

In retrospect, modern observers must wonder why the church was so utterly threatened by the idea of the earth re­volving around the sun. To be sure, certain verses from scrip­ture seemed to support the church’s position, such as Psalm 93:l— “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved”— and Psalm 104:5: “He set the earth on its foundation; it can never be moved.” Also cited was Ecclesiastes 1:5: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” Today, few believers argue that the authors of these verses were intending to teach science. Nonetheless, passionate claims were made to that effect, implying that a heliocentric system would somehow undermine the Christian faith.

Despite having upset the religious establishment, Galileo got by with a warning not to teach or defend his views. Sub­sequently, a new pope, who was friendly to Galileo, gave him vague permission to write a book about his opinions, so long as it provided a balanced view. Galileo’s masterwork, Dia­logue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, presented a fanciful dialogue between a geocentric and a heliocentric enthusiast, moderated by a neutral but interested layman. The narrative frame fooled nobody. Galileo’s preference for the heliocentric point of view was obvious by the end of the book, and despite its approval by Catholic censors, it caused an uproar.

Galileo was subsequently tried before the Roman Inquisi­tion in 1633, and ultimately forced to “abjure, curse, and detest” his own work. He remained under house arrest for the remain­der of his life, and his publications were banned. Only in 1992— 359 years after the trial—was an apology issued by Pope John Paul II: “Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions.”4

So in this example, the scientific correctness of the helio­centric view ultimately won out, despite strong theological ob­jections. Today all faiths except perhaps a few primitive ones seem completely at home with this conclusion. The claims that heliocentricity contradicted the Bible are now seen to have been overstated, and the insistence on a literal interpretation of those particular scripture verses seems wholly unwarranted.

Could this same harmonious outcome be realized for the current conflict between faith and the theory of evolution? On the positive side, the Galileo affair demonstrates that a con­tentious chapter did eventually get resolved on the basis of overwhelming scientific evidence. But along the way, consider­able damage was done—and more to faith than to science. In his commentary on Genesis, Augustine provides an exhortation that might well have been heeded by the seventeenth-century church:


Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other ele­ments of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to pre­vent such an embarrassing situation, in which peo­ple show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant in­dividual is derided, but the people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concern­ing the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?5


Unfortunately, however, in many ways the controversy be­tween evolution and faith is proving to be much more difficult than an argument about whether the earth goes around the sun. After all, the evolution controversy reaches into the very heart of both faith and science. This is not about rocky heavenly bodies, but about ourselves and our relation to a Creator. Per­haps the centrality of those issues explains the fact that, despite the modern rate of progress and dissemination of information, we still have not resolved the public controversy about evolu­tion, nearly 150 years after Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species.

Galileo remained a strong believer to the end. He continued to argue that scientific exploration was not only an acceptable but a noble course of action for a believer. In a famous remark that could be the motto today of all scientist-believers, he said: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has en­dowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”6

Keeping that exhortation in mind, let us now explore the possible responses to the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God. Each of us must come to some conclusion here, and choose one of the following posi­tions. When it comes to the meaning of life, fence sitting is an inappropriate posture for both scientists and believers.


Collins is no Saint Augustine, and there’s much on the pages of The Language of God that may cause readers to groan. His credentials provide an adequate reason to read this book, and at the least, come away with new thoughts about science and religion.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



Buy The Language of God

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2007 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2007 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2007 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Language of God.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com