Following a great Christian tradition going back to the early apologists themselves, Richard Swinburne, in Was Jesus God? (Oxford University Press, 2008), takes up the noble and praiseworthy enterprise of providing rational arguments for accepting not only the truth that Jesus is truly God but also other central doctrines of the Christian faith. In so doing, he wishes to clarify and enunciate these doctrines so that the faith that accepts them is more reasonably founded.
The reader quickly perceivesand I know also from my own personal acquaintance with himthat Swinburne ardently desires to give a convincing rationale for why traditional Christian doctrines are true and thus why they should be believed. Was Jesus God? is, nonetheless, an essentially flawed book.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part Swinburne, former Nolloth Professor of Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford, provides a number of rational arguments that “there is a moderate probability that there is a God of the kind worshiped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims.” Having set in place the probable existence of God and the type of God he is, he offers “a priori reasons” for why the central doctrines of Christianity should be accepted as true. By “a priori reasons,” he means “reasons arising from the very nature of God and from the general condition of the human race.”
While these reasons for belief in the Christian doctrines offer only “moderate probability” of their truth, Swinburne offers in part two “a posteriori reasons,” that is, historical evidence from the life of Jesus and from subsequent Church teaching that “makes it very probable that these doctrines are true.” In this review I will highlight a few of Swinburne’s a priori arguments, since his a posteriori arguments, for the most part, merely corroborate them.
Swinburne wants to argue for what he considers to be the traditional understanding of God. Here, however, major problems arise, because his understanding of these divine attributes is hardly traditional.
God is said to be omniscient, for example, even though “it is not logically possible for God to know infallibly beforehand what a free agent [a human being] will do.” Likewise, because God is omnipotent, good, and free, he will normally freely choose to do the best possible action, but God may have to choose arbitrarily between two equally good actions or, given adverse circumstances, may be unable to perform the best possible action. Following this pattern, Swinburne argues that God is eternal not in the sense of being timeless, but rather in the sense of being everlasting. God must live within time so that he can care for human beings who live within time. God, for example, “hears the prayers of humans at the same time as they utter them.”
It is impossible to address fully the erroneous presuppositions and ensuing false conclusions contained in this argument. Swinburne has no clear understanding of the analogy of being when applied to God, and thus he employs concepts and language about God univocally. For him, God’s personal manner of existence does not differ in kind from that of human beings, but only in degree. Thus, God’s manner of knowing, the mode of his power, the exercise of his freedom, the process by which he makes choices, the extent of his goodness, and the longevity of his life differs from that of human beings only because he possesses more (even if infinitely more) knowledge, power, goodness, and life than we do.
It is this conception of God that forces Swinburne to reconceive the traditional understanding of God and his divine attributes. The biblical Christian tradition conceives God as existing in a uniquely transcendent and so different kind of way from all else and therefore conceives the manner and exercise of his knowledge, power, goodness, and freedom in a different way. Swinburne has not written an apology on behalf of the Christian God, but an apology for a god of his own rational making.
When Swinburne makes his a priori arguments for belief in the Trinity, he begins on firm ground, though one wonders if such arguments could be made if one does not previously know through revelation that there is a Trinity. He argues that if God is a God of love, then God must always be the Father who eternally begets the Son, and together they love one another in the Spirit.
Even here, however, Swinburne’s univocal use of concepts gives rise to false presuppositions which leads to erroneous conclusions. For example, since he conceives the three divine persons as like human persons, he wrongly postulates that conflict could arise between them just as it does between individual human persons. Having created a bogus quandary, he is now forced to offer an answer. “Persons caused to exist by another person have obligations to the person who caused them. So the Father, being perfectly good, will seek to avoid any conflict by laying down for each divine person his sphere of activity; and the others, being perfectly good, will recognize an obligation to conform to his rule. So there will be no possibility of conflict.”
In Swinburne’s conception, the Trinity consists of three independent individuals who must lovingly collaborate with one another in a properly regulated and ordered manner, but who could come into conflict. In contrast, traditional theology understands the Trinity as three subjectsdistinct but not identical personswho are the one God and so possess equally divine omniscience, goodness, freedom, etc., and who thus could never come into conflict. His conception is very close to, if not identical with, a social understanding of the Trinity, a collaborating society of equally divine individuals, an understanding not in accord with the divine persons being of one and the same nature.
When Swinburne makes his a priori argument for belief that the divine Son of God did become man, the manner in which he conceives the Incarnation bears little resemblance to the traditional Christian doctrine. He begins by arguing that it would seem that God has an obligation “to share in a human life of suffering” and so become man, and that “to be human is to have a human way of thinking and acting and (at least normally) a human body through which to act.” This is what took place within the Incarnation.
But how is this achieved? Swinburne turns to Freud for the answer. Freud showed that a person can have “two systems of belief to some extent independent of each other.” A mother may, on a conscious level, deny that her son is dead and unconsciously act as if he is dead. Similarly, within the Incarnation, the omniscient Son of God takes on a human mind with limited consciousness and knowledge.
“We thus," writes Swinburne, "get a picture of a divine consciousness and a human consciousness of God Incarnate, the divine consciousness including the human consciousness, but the human consciousness not including the divine consciousness.” The incarnate Son of God has a “divided mind,” similar to the mother of the dead son. Thus, it might be that “God Incarnate was not always conscious of his own divinity; but he would clearly need to be conscious of it some of the time in order to show his followers that he believed himself to be divine.”
While it is incredible that he would employ a human mental pathology as the basic paradigm for conceiving the Incarnation, his articulation itself is not in accord with authentic Christian doctrine. In the Incarnation the Son of God actually came to be man and so exists as man, and in a human manner the Son of God came to know, and not merely to believe, that he was the eternal Son of the Father. Swinburne’s view allows no ontological oneness between the Son of God and his humanity. His conception is merely a form of adoptionism.
The heart of the problem may reside in Swinburne’s Platonic understanding of what it means to be humana mind dwelling in and employing a body, a body that is ultimately not essential to being a human person. Because he thinks of the Incarnation as the Son adopting the mind of a man, he speculates that Jesus could fall to temptation and so fail to live a perfect life. If this happened, the Son would have to become incarnate again, and maybe even again. “Sooner or later he could likely have provided for us the perfect life which ones [sic] serve as our reparation.” Such a peculiar and unnecessary speculation, arising as it does from a false understanding of the Incarnation, does nothing to encourage the faith of unbelievers.
In this review I have only touched on a few of the most blatantly false or misconceived presuppositions that in Was Jesus God? give rise to spurious issues and erroneous conclusions. There are many more. To write an apology for the faith, one has to know the faiththe faith as it has been traditionally proclaimed and understood through the centuries. Only then is one adequately equipped to give rational arguments for why one should believe it.
Swinburne wants ardently to promote the faith, but the faith that he ultimately promotes is one that he has already predetermined, having previously configured it to conform to what he considers to be rationally believable.
Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap., has taught theology for many years at the University of Oxford. He is presently the Executive Director for the Secretariat for Doctrine at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington DC. He is also the author of numerous books including, most recently, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction.
Was Jesus God?, Richard Swinburne (Oxford University Press, 2008)