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Review of: belief, readings on the reason for faith (Francis S. Collins)

Francis S. Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and one of the world’s leading geneticists, chose these 32 selections on various aspects of faith. The book is divided into eleven sections from Classic Arguments for Faith and Reason to the Problem of Evil to The Harmony of Science and Faith to The Irrationality of Atheism (with some other sections thrown in for good measure).

Not being a theologian or philosopher, he had some assistance with these selections (and I personally didn’t take to all of them), but nonetheless, he has chosen works from antiquity to the present day that anyone will find stimulating reading.

Those familiar with the genre will find the familiar selections from Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, G.K. Chesterton and Alvin Plantinga. What is new are pieces from N.T.Wright, Os Guinness, John Stott, David Elton Trueblood, Keith Ward, Tim Keller, John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath and Anthony Flew. And to keep it interesting are works from outside the traditional camp: Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl, Mahatma Gandhi, and The Dalai Lama. Notably absent are some classic apologetic works from authors such as William Paley (Natural Theology) and some of the modern philosophers like William Lane Craig, Cornelius Van Til, and Peter Kreeft. Nonetheless, much good material lies between the covers of this book.

Rather than slavishly recount much of the book (you can read it yourself) I’d like to highlight the parts that gave me an “aha” moment at my first reading. So here we go:

A selection from Aquinas’ Summa Theologica contained his thoughts on the Simplicity of God. Contrary to Richard Dawkins, who insists that God must be at least more complex than his creation, Aquinas argues that God is, in essence, quite a simple Being. Hear him:

“God is, therefore, wholly Simple, for in Him there is no composition nor quantitative parts, neither is His Nature distinct from His Subject. He is wholly Simple likewise because what is composite comes after its component parts, and depends upon them; whereas God is the First Being. Moreover, a thing composite has a cause for its unity; but God has no cause, being Himself the First Efficient Cause. Also, in everything which is composite there is potentiality and actuality, which have no place in God. Finally, everything which is composite is a whole separate from its parts, whether like or unlike, which can in no way be said of God, Who His own Form, or rather His own Being, and, therefore, is wholly Simple.”

Next, an article by British novelist Dorothy L. Sayers voices an interesting opionion on matters that have usually belonged to the experts of New Testatment textual criticism. I will quote her at length since it is worth repeating:

“Bible critics in particular appear to be persons of very leisurely mental growth. Take, for example, the notorious dispute about the Gospel according to St. John.

Into the details of that dispute I do not propose togo. I only want to point out that the arguments used are such as no critic would ever dream of applying to a modern book of memoirs written by one real person about another. The defects imputed to St. John would be virtues in Mr. Jones, and the value and authenticity of Mr. Jone’s contribution to literature wouldbe proved by the same arguments that are used to undermine the authenticity of St. John.

Suppose, for example, Mr. Bernard Shaw were now to publish a volume of reminescences about Mr. William Archer: would anybody object that the account must be received with suspicion because most of Archer’s other contempraries were dead, or because the style of G.B.S. was very unlike that of a Times obituary notice, or because the book contained a great many intimate conversations not recorded in previous memoirs, and left out a number of facts that could easily be ascertained by reference to the Dictionary of National Biography? Of if Mr. Shaw (being a less vigorous octogenarian than he happily is) had dictated part of his material to a respectable clergyman, who had himself added a special note to say that Shaw was the real author and that readers might rely on the accuracy of the memoirs since, after all, Shaw as a close friend of Archer and ought to know-should we feel that these two worthy men were thereby revealed as self-confessed liars, and dismiss their joint work as valueless fabrication? Probably not, but then Mr. Shaw is a real person, and lives, not in the Bible, but in Westminster. The time has not come to doubt him. He is already a legend, but not yet a myth; two thousand years hence, perhaps–”

It is rather unfortunate that the “Higher Criticism” was first undertaken at a time when all textual criticism tended to be destructive-when the body of Homer was being torn into fragments, the Arthurian romance reduced to its Celtic elements, and the “authority” of manuscripts established by a mechanical system of verbal agreements…When it came to the Bible, the spirit of destruction was the more gleefully iconoclastic because of the conservative extravagances of the “verbal inspiration” theory. But the root of the trouble is to be found, I suspect (as usual), in the collapse of dogma. Christ, even for Christians, is not quite “really” real – not altogether human-and the taint of unreality has spread to His disciples and friends and to His biographers: they are not “real” writers, but just “Bible” writers. John and Matthew and Luke and Mark, some or all of them, disagree about the occasion on which a parable was told or an epigram uttered. One or all must be a liar or untrustworthy, because Christ (not being quite real) must have made every remark once and once only. He could not, of course, like a real teacher, have used the same illustration twice, or found it necessary to hammer the same point home twenty times over, as one does when addressing audiences of real people and not of “Bible characters.”

Dorothy Sayers’ has the kind of common sense realism about the New Testament text that needs to take hold in the textual critical community. One can only hope.

Plato’s Timaeus

The Timaeus has been characterized as Plato’s case for Intelligent Design. And this is not far off the mark. It represents his mature thought and was among his last works published during his 50 years or so of literary output. The Barnes & Noble edition version which I recommend (Benjamin Jowett translation) is only 85 pages and can be read in half a day if you are serious and not-distracted.

As a Christian I could not help but constantly compare Plato’s cosmogony with that of Genesis – and you will do the same, with much pleasure. Man’s fascination with the creation of the universe is not a modern idea. It is a subject as old as recorded history and Plato takes his turn in the history of ideas. It is yet another reminder to us that Western philosophy is simply a series of footnotes to Plato.

After a short dialogue among Timaeus, Socrates, Critias and Hermocrates, Timaeus sets out an extended monologue of his account of the creation of the universe and man. He begins by posing this significant question:

“Was the heaven then or the world, whether called by this or any other more appropriate name – the question which I am going to ask has to be asked about the beginning of everything – was the world, I say, in existence and without beginning? Or created and having a beginning?” (section 28)

Plato’s answer: “Created, I reply”. It is a matter of common sense to Plato that created things have a cause. This not only applies to individual instantiations of things but to our world as a whole. However, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Plato’s world was not created ex-nihilo. There existed first a primordial chaos, from which the Creator fashioned an orderly world. The origin of this chaos is not explained, just assumed. And Plato’s Creator is thus referred to as the Demiurge (a transliteration of the greek ‘demiourgos’ – best translated as “Craftsman”). The Craftsman fashions his world after the pattern of a perfect form – in the manner an architect would refer to a blueprint.

Another interesting question Plato addresses is one that anticipates modern theories of the universe/multiverse. Timaeus asks:

“Are we right in saying that there is one heaven, or shall we rather say that they are many and infinite? There is one, if the created heaven is to accord with the pattern.” (section 31)

Christian theology throughout the early and medieval period settled on a universe – Giordano Bruno notwithstanding. But it is a subject in the forefront of apologetics because the modern proponents of the multiverse have found, so it seems to them, a convenient way out of creatio ex-nihilo which is the logical outcome of the Big Bang theory. Of course, a multiverse simply pushes the question of origins further back, but that is another story.

Another conclusion that Plato reaches is that time was created with the Universe – a conclusion also reached by Augustine and consonant with the modern Big Bang theory, where all matter and energy was focused into a singularity that exploded and became our universe. Timaeus says:

“Time then, was created with the heaven, in order that being produced together they may be dissolved together…” (section 38).

Timaeus provides some considerable detail on the creation of the heavenly bodies, animals and man in Sections 38-42, passages which can be read with great interest with its obvious comparisons of the creation account in Genesis. Plato’s Creator creates the world but he left it up to the various lesser gods to create man. And what of the creation of woman? Well, if you thought being created from man’s rib was a setback, Plato can beat that. According to Plato, woman was created when man, having lived an unrighteous life, would pass into another, lesser life and return as a woman. Maybe Genesis wasn’t so backwards after all?

There is much more to his story. He tells of the creation of our body parts, the elemental forces of the universe (fire, air, earth and water), and the perfect forms of the universe (the five perfect solids – an inspiration to Kepler a thousand years later). But as you can see, there is much in his account that Christians in later years would come to appreciate and accommodate. A fascinating read that carried great weight with the ancient world.

Now go, read, and learn.

Hitler’s “Christianity” ?

To begin, I’d like to make you aware of a weekly UK Christian radio program devoted to hosting discussions between Christians and non-Christians. You can stream the shows at any time or download the podcast for further review. Evolution, Intelligent Design, DNA, Science and Christianity, the historicity of the New Testament, the Resurrection and the Existence of God have been featured discussions. The quality of guests is refreshing. The likes of Richard Swinburne, Bart Ehrman, John Lennox, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Alvin Plantinga, Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins have graced the show.

On March 7th, 2009, Tim Keller, author of the recently released book, The Reason for God, and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, debated Norman Bacrac, editor of “The Ethical Review,” a humanist publication. The discussion focused on the exclusive claims of Christianity and the basis for morality. Click here for the link to the audio:

Keller-Bacrac Debate

The debate proper begins at 21:30 into the audio (download the podcast to be able to navigate through the discussion). At one point in the discussion Tim says that we can either choose to live by a standard, the Bible, or by our own preferences and values. Hitler had values, says Keller, and who is to say that his values were wrong? Norman then responded, and I quote,

When Hitler came to power he closed down all the atheist societies and believed that Christianity should be taught in schools. So I don’t know that using Hitler gets us very far…” (1:02:47 in the audio).

Tim soon came back to bat and basically ignored Norman’s comment – a comment that leaves us with the impression that Hitler hated atheism and actively promoted Christianity. The idea that Hitler was a Christian is absolutely false and no serious historian of Hitler believes it. Atheist websites such as promote the same story. For an example see:

Hitler was a Christian

The truth is that Hitler was neither a Christian nor is it entirely clear that he was an avowed atheist. He was a Nazi. Nazism was a ideology based on a mistaken belief in the racial purity of Aryianism and its privileged place in history. It was a decidedly irreligious and specifically anti-Christian philosophy. So, what is the point of trying to identify Hitler as a Christian? To discredit Christianity, of course. Christianity cannot be true since it includes among its adherents the likes of a fundamentalist Christian Adolf Hitler. This conclusion we deny, of course, since we don’t agree with the premise. Well, was Hitler baptized? Yes, as an infant – and he had no choice in the matter. Did he renounce Christianity? Yes, privately, but not publicly. Furthermore, you needn’t renounce what you don’t believe. Hitler used “God language” and “Christian” language when it was politically expedient. But he was by no means a Christian by any serious definition of the word. I am a big Tim Keller fan, but he missed an opportunity to set the record straight, in my humble opinion.

Before we take a closer look at Hitler and religion, my gut reaction to the assertion: I simply want to laugh at the idea that Adolph Hitler was a Christian. Think about it:  does it stand to reason that the man who sought to actually destroy an entire race, invaded numerous countries and started the most destructive war in the history of the planet actually was led by the teachings of Jesus Christ, who himself gave up his life for the sake of others and taught his followers to do the same? Does it make sense to you that Hitler would worship a teacher who taught his disciples to “turn the other cheek”, “go the second mile” and “love your enemies”? The answer is a blatant, “No.” Nonetheless, some atheists have claimed that Hitler was a Christian and that this further tarnishes its already weak reputation.

The basic argument that Hitler was a Christian goes like this:

1. Hitler was baptized into the Catholic church and never renounced his Christianity.

2. Hitler’s own words testify to his Christianity.

Before our response, it is always wise to define the terms under discussion. When atheists claim that Hitler was a Christian they must necessarily underdefine (I would further say, misdefine) the term “Christian.” At best they must assume a minimalist definition such as one of the following:

  • Hitler believed in that Jesus was a real person in history and that he claimed to be the Son of God.


  • Hitler believed the basic story of the Bible.

As we have noted above, no right thinking person who knows anything about the teachings of Jesus Christ and his expectations of his disciples would honestly claim that Hitler was a practicing disciple of Jesus. One may certainly claim that Hitler believed in the historical Jesus, yet continued in his despicable actions – with this we have no issue. One may even say that Hitler actually believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Again, no issue with this (although we deny it). People can believe all sorts of things and yet live in direct contradiction to them.

What you cannot say, however, is that Adolf Hitler was a practicing, conscientious Christian whose decisions were informed and guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is the only definition of “Christian” of which we know. This is not “special pleading.” It is simply taking our terms seriously and not re-defining them to fit a certain point of view.

When Christians refer to the change of mind that Anthony Flew had in the past few years (forget the controversy about his state of mind at the moment) – no one on the Christian side of the fence said he became a Christian. We are quick to point out the nuance of his change was simply from an atheist to a deist, at best. He did not undergo a change such as that of the apostle Paul. It would be appreciated if those who made claims about Hitler studied the record just as closely and considered the total picture of the history – his written and spoken record, his actions and the testimony of others who knew him. Were these things considered dispassionately, no one could in good conscience say that Hitler was a Christian, at any point in his life.

Now, the rebuttal.

To the first claim – that Hitler was baptized and never renounced his Christianity. I have seen some contradictory information whether or not he was baptized and would like to have confirmation. I will grant it, however, at this time for sake of argument. This was done to him as an infant without his consent. He did not request or even assent to this baptism. He most certainly did not live up to the promise of his baptism as one who would faithfully follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

To the charge of Hitler never renouncing his Christianity: One need not renounce what he does not espouse. However, I am quite aware that Hitler made statements using “God talk” and “Christian language.” He used terms like “God”, “Lord” and “Saviour”. Keep in mind that when referring to what Hitler said in his public speeches that we are talking about a man who knew he had gifts of rhetoric and who had written some very revealing things about how powerful oratory is among the masses. Basically, you are dealing with a politician here. If that’s not clear enough, let me spell it out. Politicians are known to say things that do not believe in order to gain support for a policy decision, a program or change in national direction. Hitler, ever the studied rhetorician, is a textbook example. Read Mein Kampf and you will understand that Hitler knew very well the power of rhetoric and his own abilities to move the masses.

I would simply say that you must interpret a man’s public statements in view of his actions – and his actions do not conform to a belief in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as revealed in the New Testament. This may explain why a “Nazi Bible” was produced in 1939 meant to replace the traditional Bible. It was basically a Nazified version of the Scriptures intended to indoctrinate readers in Nazi ideology and combine it with religious authority. For more on this interesting discovery see:

Nazi Bible

In addition, if you read Mein Kampf you will see references to the Catholic Church and religion but it is done so in a decidedly detached manner and not as an “insider.” His remarks on the Church show that he admired it only as an example of what his own movement should aspire to be: a movement of such staunch dogma that it would not yield its convictions under pressure.

For example, take this quotation from p. 459 of Mein Kampf, Ralph Manheim translation. Note the distant tone toward the Church:

“Here, too, we can learn by the example of the Catholic Church. Though its doctrinal edifice, and in part quite superfluously, comes into collision with exact science and research, it is none the less unwilling to sacrifice so much as one little syllable of its dogmas. It has recognized quite correctly that its power of resistance does not lie in its lesser or greater adaptation to the scientific findings of the moment, which in reality are always fluctuating, but rather in rigidly holding to dogmas once established, for it is only such dogmas which lend to the whole body the character of a faith. And so today it stands more firmly than ever.”

And now on to the second claim, namely, that Hitler’s own words testify to the fact that he was a Christian.

Some Questions to Answer if Hitler was a Christian…

1. If Hitler was a Christian, why did he not attend mass? or go to confession? (Lord knows he could have spent some time in there).

2. If Hitler was a Christian, why was he married in a civil ceremony by a Nazi officer and not by a priest? He had the means to have had anyone brought into the bunker he wished, but he did not invite a priest to officiate the ceremony.

3. If Hitler was a Christian, how to you explain the explicit anti-Christian statements made in private that are recorded in Table Talk? Let’s just quote a few (from the Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens translation):

“In the long run, National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together…The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegtimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity.” (page  8)

“Being weighed down by a superstitious past, men are afraid of things that can’t, or can’t yet, be explained – that is to say, of the unknown. If anyone has needs of a metaphysical nature, I can’t satisfy them with the Party’s program. Time will go by until the moment when science can answer all the questions.

So it’s not opportune to hurl ourselves now into a struggle with the Churches. The best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death. A slow death has something comforting about it. The dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble. …When understanding of the universe has become widespread…then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity.” (page 48)

“The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges:  the pox and Christianity.” (page 60)

“It’s striking to observe that Christian ideas, despite all St. Paul’s efforts, had no success in Athens. The philosophy of the Greeks was so much superior to this poverty-stricken rubbish that the Athenians burst out laughing when they listened to the apostle’s teaching.” (page 62)

“While we’re on this subject, let’s add that, even amongst those who claim to be good Catholics, very few really believe in this humbug. Only old women, who have given up everything because life has already withdrawn from them, go to church. All that’s dead wood – and one shouldn’t waste one’s time in concerning oneself with such brains.” (page 258)

“I realize that man, in his imperfection, can commit innumerable errors – but to devote myself deliberately to error, that is something I cannot do. I shall never come personally to terms with the Christian lie.” (page 259)

“Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity. It will another hundred years, two hundred years perhaps. My regrest will have been that I couldn’t, like whoever the prophet was, behold the promised land from afar.” (page 260)

In conclusion, it is indefensible to claim that Hitler was a Christian. If you believe otherwise, then you have to explain his decidedly un-Christian beliefs and actions and the statements recorded in Table Talk. At a minimum he was the “leader of a decidedly non-religious regime” comprised in part of atheists and some neo-pagans holding high positions within his administration. He contrived to create a new “state religion” that would supplant the traditional Christianity of Germany.

For information on Hitler, Nazism and religion, consult these sources as a starting point:

Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich In Power. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005.

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translated by Ralph Manheim, Houghton and Mifflin, New York, 1999 edition.

Hitler’s Table Talk, translated by Norman Cameron and R.H. Stevens, Enigma Books, New York, 2008.

William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1960.