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Reviews of books, old and new that relate to Christian apologetics.

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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.